The Meeting

There are days when it is not good to be me. Like Friday night when I was tasked with rolling the 4-ton, top-heavy, PTA popcorn machine 200 yards from the carnival site to the PTA closet. Twice the rubber stopper came off one leg and I had to backpedal and lean down to retrieve it without losing my grip or my balance. Twice the machine almost went over on its glass-doored head. The second time, it was a done deal. A lost battle. A gory defeat. It was past the halfway point and I wasn’t going to be able to prevent it. It careened forward in slow motion on its deceptively stable-looking wheels and I was already writing the reimbursement check in my head as I threw my body into stopping it from hitting the ground and shattering.

It didn’t hit the ground.
My knees are tender and the color of a a suitcase full of Muppets.
It wasn’t a good day to be me.

But Saturday everything changed.

On Saturday, I wouldn’t have traded with anyone on earth. Not a millionaire. Not a Size 4 skinny jeans model. Not a New York Times best-selling author. Not a New York Times best-selling author with a sweet apartment in Greenwich Village.

Nobody.

Because on Saturday, I was a mother. A mother with all 4 babies in one van, who drove 2 hours to meet another mother. This meeting had been coming for 17 years, 11 months, and 14 days. I had been waiting for this meeting for 6556 days.

On Saturday, we met with Andrew’s birth mother for the first time since he was 2 days old. We met her family for the first time ever.

When you adopt a child, this day is always in your mind. I managed to keep it toward the back of my mind most of the time. It wasn’t a thing of dread. It wasn’t a thing of joyful anticipation. It was simply a thing of mystery. I knew it was coming. I knew I wouldn’t fight it when it arrived. I didn’t know when or how the event would unfold and present itself.

Andrew has always known he was adopted. I believe he has never felt strange about it. It is part of his history. It is as much a part of him as his hair color or his gnarly toe-fingers. (Todd says they are finger toes, but we agreed to disagree.) He has never wondered if he was loved. But he has always wondered where exactly he came from. 

“I can look at Brady and see that he has neurotic tendencies of both you and Dad,” Andrew said to me 2 weeks ago. “I want to see why I’m NOT neurotic. I want to see why I’m this way.” He was half joking, but right about everything.

One afternoon in early April, he shut the back door behind him as he came home from school and walked through the family room on his way to his room. He usually keeps his message simple and nods and waves. I usually ask questions he doesn’t prefer to answer. This day, he paused.

“So when can I meet my birth family?” he asked. I looked up. This wasn’t a hypothetical or rhetorical question. It deserved my attention and an answer.

“Soon,” I replied. I didn’t have specifics. “I’ll see what I can do.”

That answer was enough for him for the moment and he moved on. I did, too. I might have been tempted to file my “soon” answer in the same place where this event has always been. But that evening of that same day, I checked my email and saw that his birth mother had written. Out of the blue. She didn’t ask about a meeting. She has never asked about a meeting. But she asked about him. About us. And the timing was a little too coincidental. Soon was sitting in my lap.

When I finally emailed her an update on us a few days later, I threw out a fat pitch. She hit it over the fence. May 4 was chosen as a day to get together.

It’s difficult to articulate everything that went into planning that one meeting. There was no catering to figure out. No outfits to coordinate. It seemed like a simple thing to set up. But it was one of the hardest, most-complicated things I’ve ever done.

By Monday of last week, I began to sleep fitfully and have vivid, inescapable nightmares. In almost every dream, I was looking for something crucial. In one dream, I spent the entire time searching for my cell phone. In another, I had a son named Seth that I let out on a highway and drove away from and could no longer find him when I went back to search. My fears were running rampant as I tried to sleep. I was afraid. I was afraid that if I opened this new door to let the birth family in, Andrew would walk out and not come back. And I would spend the rest of my life looking for him while I second-guessed everything I did for 17 years. I was afraid that he would meet her and no longer need me. And maybe I would know that wasn’t true. But would he think it was?

I knew those were irrational fears. But I couldn’t convince myself of that when I fell asleep at night.

As Saturday approached, the magnitude of what we were about to do occurred to all of us in some way. For me, it was sleeplessness and nightmares. For one or two of the other kids who hoard Saturdays like a winning lottery ticket, it was the realization that this was going to take the entire day. They asked for a pass to stay home. This isn’t our deal, they said. You and Dad just take Andrew and we’ll stay home. We denied that request without a moment’s consideration. We are Snapps. We are a unit. There would be no way to honor this event, or Andrew, without all of us present.  

With the popcorn machine near-catastrophe behind me and a jumble of thoughts in my head, I put on my jeans with the paint on the butt (because they’re my favorite) and began to herd people toward the garage to leave. Andrew came out wearing his New York Spider-man shirt and flip flops and did not want to shave or comb his hair. We made him shave, because he looked like I imagine Shaggy would look after Scooby Doo had been cancelled and he hadn’t seen daylight or a human for 6 months. We also made him wear actual shoes. Then we all piled into the minivan at 10 a.m.. We loaded up with snacks and drinks for a week. It would take an hour and 49 minutes to get there.

About halfway there, I plugged my phone into the car and played the music from my Babies playlist. Feels like Home was playing.

“I’m afraid I’m going to do something silly when we see them, like cry or something,” I said to Todd.

“If you don’t want to cry, I’d stop listening to this song,” he said. He was right. I switched the song immediately to Rush – YYZ and stayed on classic or prog rock for the rest of the journey.

Saturday traffic on I-75 made us 15 minutes late. I hate being late to anything, but I especially hate being late to something big. April and her family were already in the restaurant. She was sitting at a table with her 3-year-old. Her husband and 8-year-old were at the counter ordering. We stood there. None of us knew exactly how to handle this moment. To look as us from across the restaurant, you might think we had chosen not to handle it at all. But soon enough, introductions were made and we were all sitting around a table catching up on a lifetime of two separate worlds.

We had some little things in common. Interests in books and music. A general dislike for school.

We had one big thing in common.

We all loved Andrew.

We were all there, around that table, because of our common love for one boy. A boy who started out skinny and had big red lips and long toes. A boy who sat at a table with two families almost 18 years later, still skinny with big red lips and long toes. A boy who was the oldest son in my family, navigating his way with 3 younger siblings. A boy who has 2 half siblings, the older of whom has longed to meet him since she first heard his name. The younger, a sweet little blonde with Down syndrome, is just learning to say his name.

The first 60 seconds of awkward melted into an immediate comfort level that pushed my nightmares of the last week out of my head forever. We talked and laughed and ate and compared notes for an hour. We were all happy. But no one more than Andrew.

From that meal, we drove down the road to a bowling alley where the rest of April’s family awaited us. We had gladly agreed to meet her parents, her sister, and her nephew and her niece. We had agreed on the basis that they were not league bowlers.
They assured us they were not.
They assured us they were bad bowlers.

Their pants caught fire right after the 7th strike.

I found out things on Saturday that I had never known. I learned things about their family and things about the week Andrew was born. I watched this family interact with each other and with Andrew. Toward the end, Amara took Andrew by the arm and asked him to go to the arcade with her. He was more than happy to run off and play video games. They followed that up with a visit to the laser tag room where Jenna and a cousin joined in. The four of them emerged 15 minutes later drenched in sweat and laughing like bad ventilation was the funniest thing on earth. And at that point, it was time to go.

We stood around in the parking lot for a few minutes and Andrew received two very special homemade gifts. He took a few pictures with different groups and gave everyone a hug. Then everyone piled back in their vehicles to return to the life from which they had come. We all returned to the same home we left. But none of us returned the same people.

It has been 3 days now and I’ve slept deeply and peacefully since. I’ve not had a single nightmare. I’ve put my fears in a drawer with my shorts that don’t fit and a new life goes on. We are barreling toward the last day of school at a speed that dries the whites of my eyes. I’ve thought about Saturday almost non-stop since pulling back into town. During those initial conversations around the lunch table with his birth mother, something happened. When Andrew wanted to tell April something about a memory he had or a trait he wanted to share, he turned to me for the validation. For the details. For the ending to a sentence that he had started.

She gave him life. But then she gave him to me.
I was his mother.
I am his mother.

For 6556 days, I dreamed about what might be. For 6556 days, I worried about what might lurk under this stone if and when we turned it over. I worried that if I opened this door, even a little, Andrew would use it to escape. But instead, he used it to come home.

Maybe every day is a good day to be me.

Boulders

A year ago, if I wrote every eleven days, I was sticking a gold star on my head and calling it a day. Under my new set of goals, which I have kept more than I have abandoned, writing every 11 days is grounds for a swift kick. Embarrassing. Yet, that’s where we are. Sadder still, this post is going to smell like the bottom of your shoe.

Not that you care, but here’s my problem. When I’m chewing on something big or heavy, whether positive or negative, that thing sits like a boulder between me and a well written paragraph. With the boulder(s) sitting there, I have two options: (1) Write my way over or around the boulder, which is how I process my life, or, (2) Hurdle it, pretend it isn’t there, and write something else. If the boulder is not something I’m ready to discuss or not something I’m even able to discuss, Option 1 is immediately eliminated. I’m finding out that I’m not very good at hurdling and writing about something else. I’ve been on the same paragraph of a story from 1985 for a week now. Clearly my hurdles need some work.

My oldest boy is always on my mind when May rolls around. I’ve been very open about our adoption story and I’ve probably said the same thing 10 different times, changing a few words here or there. This year he’s on my mind more than usual, because he turns 18 this month and has some big things on the horizon. I lay awake at night lately, re-raising my children and worrying that I haven’t done enough. Certainly I haven’t. Usually, as I re-raise them while they sleep, the end result is the same. I don’t think a mulligan would help this time. Even my fantasy self, who runs rampant at 3 a.m., doesn’t parent as well as I want her to.

Two nights ago, I fell asleep at 10:30 and was feeling pretty good about that. I had planned it so that I’d get 7.5 hours of sleep. Unfortunately, my eyes snapped open at 1:59 a.m. and I was immediately thrust into panic mode. It was as if I’d heard a prowler in the house. From that point on, I worried about things as big as saving my children’s souls and as small as having forgotten to thaw the roast for the next night’s dinner. I got up to thaw the roast. That was one thing off the list.

After hours of tossing and turning, I fell back into a tortured sleep and had a dream. It was a stupid, non-sensical dream. In it, I was on a retreat by myself at a rustic campground. There were sections of tents, along with screened in cabins. There was also a strangely exotic shopping district right in the middle of everything. It was like having a sub-section of New York City dropped down into the middle of Cambodia. Of course I went shopping. I didn’t buy anything. And somewhere along the way, within 20 minutes of being on site, I lost my cell phone.

The rest of the dream is me wandering from site to site searching for my cell phone. I’m sure there is a messed up psychological component to this. I don’t want to know what it means. I wandered into the first cabin, which had dirt floors and rickety bunks lining the screen walls.

“Hey, I’m looking for an iPhone 7 plus with a white case,” I said. Only one girl looked up from what she was doing and she tossed a phone off her bunk at me. It landed on the dirt floor at my feet.

“Fine,” she said spitefully. “Just take it.” I picked it up and inspected it. The screen was shattered. My screen wasn’t shattered. Wait a minute. I don’t have a white case on my phone. This isn’t my phone. Some other schmo shattered his screen and left it to die in this cabin. I walked past the shopping district to the next cabin. It looked just like the one I had already searched. When I walked into this one, I took one step and sunk down to my waist in thick mud.

“What the heck?!” I shouted angrily. “Who is causing this mud?” Because that’s a normal question to ask. I tried to crane my neck around as I struggled to pull out of the mud and saw a man in his 40s running around with a garden hose, dousing the dirt floors until they were quick sand. “Stop making mud! I just want to find my phone. It’s an iPhone 7 with a pink and black case on it from Five Below!”

No one even looked at me in Cabin #2, which seemed surprising, given the fact that I was now covered 100% in mud and making a lot of noise about an iPhone. And the mud.

In cabin #3, I pulled back the covers on a stranger’s bunk and there sat my phone. Phew, I thought. I picked it up and took it with me, feeling relieved that the ordeal was over. I started back toward my own cabin to change clothes when I decided to make a call. I pulled the phone out of my front pocket only to discover it was an iPhone 6 with a purple and black case. Oh, good grief. What in the world.

At this point, I began to say to myself within the dream, “Wake up, Missy. Your phone is charging next to you on your nightstand.” But I couldn’t seem to wake myself out of this muddy, phoneless nightmare.

Then my alarm went off.

Stupid boulders.

Better posts coming soon. First I gotta step over a boulder.

The Easter that Wasn’t

Easter was a pretty big deal in my family growing up. It wasn’t always a new dress for me or a new leisure suit for my brother. But it was always an egg hunt. And it was always a basket full of things that were just slightly off beat—like bathing suits and beach towels and boxes of raisins and candy on clearance.

It was. Always.

Until Easter 1985, when I skipped down the stairs after pulling on my church dress, rounded the corner into the kitchen and gazed down into the family room at the hearth where my Easter basket…

wasn’t.

There was no Easter basket.

Where was my Easter basket?

“Mom, where’s my Easter basket?” I asked. “Today’s Easter, right?” My mother looked up from her breakfast, wearing a look of genuine surprise.

“Well, yes, but I didn’t do Easter baskets this year,” she answered. My mouth flopped open on its hinges.

“Why in the world not?” My mind began racing with the excuses she might have that were even marginally acceptable. She’d had a mild stroke. She’d been detained at the border trying to come across with deluxe Mexican chocolate. My grandmother was hospitalized suddenly and my mother had spent the night tending to her because the nurses were all on strike. My father was missing and she’d been posting flyers on every signpost in the city of Tallahassee.

“Because I just figured you were both too old now.”

That was not on my list of acceptable excuses. And what does “you were both too old now” mean unless you are a twin? I was not and am not a twin. My older brother got TWO MORE Easter baskets than I did, because he somehow skirted the Age Appropriate Police. Why was he not too old at 14 in 1983 when he was the age I am now?

I walked down the three stairs into our sunken family room and sat down on the couch like a girl who’d just been dumped. My mother was thinking through it.

“I’m sorry you are disappointed. I had no idea,” she said.

“It’s fine,” I replied, though it wasn’t fine.

I went about my morning with a dirge playing in my head and then climbed in the car to head to church. The church thing was not any different. This was our regular Sunday routine. Today had become a regular Sunday.

When we drove up the long church driveway, my dad dropped my mom at the door and then drove into the dirt parking lot to let the rest of us out. Our friend, Jean, had pulled into a spot moments before us and was standing at her car, with the passenger door open.

I got out and grabbed my bible.

“Hey!” She called. “Both of you come over here. I have something for you!” My eyes widened. What could this be? I walked over to her little gray Celica and she pulled two 12” solid chocolate bunnies out of her front passenger seat, one for me and one for my brother.

“Happy Easter!” she said, smiling. Happy Easter, indeed!

“Happy Easter!” we replied, grinning as our dreams began to reinflate with color and hope.  I don’t think she had any idea how perfect her timing was. I don’t remember if we told her. She didn’t receive anything from us in return.

I took that bunny into the church building and sat it on the pew next to me during the assembly. Nobody was going to persuade me to do otherwise. I kept the bunny safe and alive until late that afternoon when my desire for sugar exceeded my desire for strange companionship. I ate the ears off. And then the head. I knew I really shouldn’t eat the entire thing in one sitting, but what a day it had been. And having only a chocolate torso looking at me seemed so deviant and tragic.

So I ate him. All of him.

And then I placed the empty box strategically outside my mom’s bedroom door as a reminder. Maybe next year I’d get lucky and she would shift the age requirements.

Happy Easter. You’re never too old for it.

Easter 1977

How the Savvy Travel

I am traveling.

Preparing to travel alone is the reason I haven’t written this week. I spent half the week catching up on family laundry and the other half of the week cursing myself that the kids don’t do their own laundry.

Now I’m making a plan.
Which means nothing will change except the volume of the voices inside my head.

I used to travel by myself a lot. I don’t mean the fancy kind of travel, where you go see exotic cities and book sightseeing tours. I mean the kind of travel where you get picked up in Dayton, OH and stay with a friend and eat out a couple of times. I did fly alone to Seattle once and go backpacking with a friend more insane than I am. And that trip would make QUITE a blog. But that blog would eliminate all chances that I’d ever be allowed outside Hillsborough county again. I can’t risk that. Sorry.

What happens on Poo Poo Point, stays on Poo Poo Point. That’s a real place. Look it up.

During the days of flying to normal places and seeing normal people, and even during the days of road-tripping to Texas with four small children by myself, I got pretty travel savvy. I figured a few things out. I figured out how to pre-board with babies slung to various body parts and how to break down a gate-check stroller with my toes. And I figured out how to safely get all four into a gas station bathroom during a quick stop somewhere in Mississippi. I figured out nothing related to Louisiana. Hate that place. Louisiana will always have the upper hand. Which is mostly why I hate it. That, and everything else.

Somewhere along the way, I lost the savvy. All of it. And since that time, I’ve been following Todd’s savvy around like a lost 3-legged puppy. But with this trip, I was determined to look like I knew what I was doing.

The flight was cheap, so the first thing I did was book Early Bird for myself. I mean, I can’t wait in line with all the other smelly passengers. And nothing says travel savvy like being already hunkered down in your front-of-the-plane seat when the Bs are walking on. So I booked Early Bird.

Except I didn’t.
And I can’t explain what happened, except to say that I’ve lost my edge.

So because I thought I had Early Bird check-in on Southwest, I didn’t bother to even see what my boarding number was until Wednesday night at midnight–a mere 12 hours before I flew and 12 hours AFTER all the non-early birders had checked in.

C13.

Sigh. I knew this meant that I would be getting on the plane after 132 people had already boarded. But you know, I decided I could play the game. I was going to wear C13 like a boss. When it was finally my turn to board, I was walking down the jetbridge behind C9, C10, and C11. They were a cute little family with mom, dad, and teen daughter. Teen daughter, C10, called over her shoulder to her dad, “Dad, I call window.”

Oh, sweetie. I wanted to say. You won’t even be sitting with C9 and C11. And you can forget the window, babydoll. We Cs don’t have these luxuries. I have no idea where they ended up sitting or if they managed to be together on the back of the plane. I couldn’t think about them once I rounded the corner. At that point, I had to go into full recon mode to locate my seat. Be strategic. Waste no time. The flight attendant was standing in the area before Row 1. There were seats open in the middle on both sides of the first row.

“How full is the flight?” I asked. I mean, I could see it was pretty full. But my question was, did these outstretched front rowers have a chance of staying in their chaise lounge without someone like me plopping down next to them.

“Completely booked,” he answered. So, no. No one would make it out alive. I started to veer left to sit down between two strangers and the flight attendant said, “You can’t have that with you,” pointing to my backpack. “There’s no place to store it under a seat. You can put it a few rows back in an overhead.” No way. You aren’t taking my backpack. It’s like a Mary Poppins purse. I wasn’t parting with it. So I allowed my front row dreams to die and kept moving. Row 2, no. Row 3, no. Looking for some skinny people. Row 4, no. Row 8, loud women talking. No women. No on the women. Row 7 had two dudes, one of them average build and one of them skinnier than my right leg. I scooted in and shoved my backpack under the seat in front of me.

I was feeling pretty good about my choice until I realized both men had claimed their armrests, which mean that my arms would be glued to my side in an almost concave fashion. And the guy to my left had his legs splayed like criss-cross applesauce. So I got to touch his elbow and his knee the entire flight. I was also thinking one of them smelled until I began to wonder if it was me.

It wasn’t me.

When I arrived, after a shorter flight than I anticipated, I found my way to the rental car counter and pulled up my confirmation number. I had rented an Economy Car. I was hoping for a bright green Chevy Spark, but ended up with a white Ford Fiesta. I’ll have to describe the fiesta sometime. The rental went fine and I headed out the sliding doors on the rather lengthy route to the car itself, in Hertz space 444. It was a long walk. Halfway there, not yet to the escalators, I was watching the guy in front of me maneuvering with all of his luggage. Poor guy. Look at all the luggage. Compared to him, I was agile. I felt free and easy. Until it hit me that the reason I was having a much easier time walking was because I had left my luggage sitting at the Hertz counter.

They don’t not call me savvy for nothing.

The woman was surprised to see me back, but was already helping another customer. I just awkwardly mouthed the word “luggage” and grabbed it out from its spot next to the new customer’s knees. No one had stolen my bag. If they had known there was a brand new pair of Vans in it, I bet they would have.

My goal for the rest of the weekend is to book a sightseeing tour of Glasgow, Kentucky, spend a little time in Hobby Lobby, and hang out with cherished friends.

And if you are looking for me, I’ll be zipping around in a Ford Fiesta, wearing a brand new pair of Vans.

Ain’t nothing middle aged about THAT.

That’s savvy.

Sinkhole Sadness

When I discovered the newspaper clipping of this story in my middle school yearbook, it had been at least 20 years since I had read it. My mother used to keep a framed clipping on the wall in an upstairs hallway of her house. But we always just pointed and chucked as we went by. I never stopped to read or remember.

Last night, not only did I read it, but I typed it into my laptop. I had to resist the urge to edit the entire time I was typing. I wanted to change this word or that word and constantly reprimanded my 14-year-old self for certain word choices or clichés.

It was more important to preserve what it was than to make it better.

I really don’t believe that.

At any rate, this morning, one of you asked me a question I’ve been asking myself for 34 YEARS. She said, “What would you have titled your story back in 1985? Would you choose a different title now?”

Oh, what a question that is.

I tried to blame the Tallahassee Democrat for their terrible alliterative title. And it IS a terrible title. But the fault lies with me. Because I sent it in without a title. I knew it didn’t have a title. Everything has to be titled.

I didn’t know what to call it. For 34 years, I’ve been asking myself what it should have been called and I still don’t know. I was lamenting this again to Todd last night and he said, “It doesn’t matter now. It’s Sinkhole Sadness. That’s its title.”

Sigh.

I need someone to give it a real one. Clearly, this is beyond me.

The other thing I will mention about the story is that near the end, the main character calls his friend a “stupid fool.” When I wrote the story, that was the only thing that seemed to fit the integrity of the desperate moment he was in. That was all well and good until I won. When I got word that I had won, I questioned the words, based on Matthew 5:22 stating that if “anyone who says ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. I remember calling the Democrat reporter in charge of the contest and discussing my concerns. We had a good discussion. Ultimately I kept the original phrase in, probably for the same reason it ended up with the title of Sinkhole Sadness. I couldn’t think of anything else.

So here it is. There are so many things wrong with it. Some of them go with 1985. Some of them go with the writer being a melodramatic 14-yr-old girl. It’s mostly bad, with a few good moments that peek through the Sinkhole Sadness clouds.

Sinkhole Sadness

I surfaced, gasping for air, and glanced nervously around for my pursuer. Impulsively, I scratched at a raw mosquito bite at the back of my neck. My eyes shifted and searched but all was still, almost as if the earth was holding its breath.

I went under but immediately resurfaced, coughing up a mouthful of dirty water.

“Charles?” The uncertainty in my voice skipped across the spans of the water. I weighed the possibilities of his unexplained exit and decided that he had given up to go home. The sinkhole had always been his least favorite place to play anyway.

“It figures,” I almost jumped at the loudness of my own voice. “I hate Charles sometimes.” Angrily, I swept up my blue towel from its spot next to Charles’ belongings. I wiped my face and began the trek home along the rough dirt path.

I unlatched the front gate and hopped quickly around the back of the house, the heat off the ground scorching my calloused feet.

“Mom, has Charles been by here?” She looked up at me from her crouched position next to the garden. She sigh, her blue eyes tired and glazed.

“No, honey, I haven’t seen him today.” My face twisted in confusion as I trudged up the steps and entered our house. Dazed, I reached for the phone and dialed Charles’ house automatically.

“Hello. May I please speak to Charles?” His mother had answered.

“He’s not here. I thought you and Charles were off swimming.” My mouth dropped open and my blood iced up.

“Oh no…the cave…” I left the phone dangling on the end of its cord. I leapt off the back steps and without slowing, I shouted, “Mom, call the police and meet me at the sinkhole. It’s Charles!”

Nausea swept over me like a huge tidal wave but I ran blindly, fleetingly. My throat drained dry and my tongue clung helplessly to the roof of my mouth. The water was ahead just as I had left it. I stopped at the edge of the water and looked down at Charles’ worn sneakers and yellow towel. I suddenly remembered seeing Charles’ possessions earlier. Only then, it hadn’t registered. The roar of engines filled my ears, drowning out my thoughts.

I turned slowly, trying hard to understand. I squinted, but the people climbing out of cars were blurred and unrecognizable.

“Are you all right, sweetheart?” My mother reached for me but I backed away, shaking my head.

“Don’t touch me,” I said. “Find Charles.”

The policemen were already searching for him in the water. I turned my back on the blinding, golden rays of the sun that continued to shine despite the sickness traveling through me; despite all the confusion caused by a simple game.

I sat down, wrapping my arms around my knees, and tried to block out my fear. I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. I jumped up , startled, and stared into the sensitive face of a wet and shivering policeman.

“Son, we found your friend.” He glanced nervously over his shoulder. Following his gaze, I spotted a wet body lying still on the ground. I ran around the policeman, who turned to watch me, and knelt on the ground beside Charles. I took his hand and shook it. The coldness and stiffness of his hand stunned me, causing me to drop it in fright. His eyes were fixed on something in the sky. I looked up and then back at him. My eyes grew wide at the sudden realization. I stood up and clamped my jaw tight.

“Charles,” my voice cracked. “You stupid fool!” I turned and ran, my legs pedaled furiously by some unknown force. I stopped finally and sat down against a tree that shaded the edge of the dusty clay road.

Pictures of the scene at the sinkhole washed a wave of guilt over me. The guilt was a cement block on my head, weighting my small body to the ground. A single crystal tear rolled off the tip of my nose.

The past hour of tragedy was confused and scrambled and I was unable to piece it together. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes. I could not get up.

The Contest and the Frog

During the summer of 1985, my life was changed. Twice. The first time, when I was waylaid by a slimy gray frog. The second, when I entered a writing contest.

The two incidents were not entirely disconnected.

That summer had begun in typical Florida fashion. It was 8 weeks of 95-degree sunshine. It was daily thunderstorms. It was wandering from house to house along Marston Road looking for the latest adventure and adventurer. It was hoping for an invitation to swim in a backyard pool, because my house didn’t have one. It was frequent trips to the coast and time with my grandmother. It would not have been summer without those things. But my path took a sharp left turn the day my mom dropped the Tallahassee Democrat on the kitchen counter for me to see. It was early one weekday morning and I was standing up eating a bowl of instant grits. She had circled in pencil what she wanted me to see.

“Teenage Writing Contest: Enter now! Amazing prizes!”

There were guidelines and age categories in the fine print below. I skimmed the ad and looked up. My mom was waiting for me to finish reading.

“I think you should enter this,” she said. My mother was not in any way an artsy person, but she supported me in being one. They had me at ‘writing’ and sealed the deal with ‘amazing prizes.’

“Ok,” I replied. “I’ll give it a shot.”

The deadline was in 3 weeks. I would enter the Short Story category for middle school grades 6-8.

“Maybe you can write it at the beach,” she countered. “I need you packed by 2. We’re going to try to get to the Oaks for an early dinner. I looked down at my bowl of grits and no longer wanted them. My mouth was watering for a ceramic boat filled with triangular shaped Wheat Thins and garlic butter. The thought of an early dinner of fried flounder at the Oaks made my instant grits instantly subpar.

Two days later, after a full day of seafood and beachcombing, I picked up the legal pad I had brought with me for writing and sat down in a vinyl-cushioned lounge chair at the edge of the screened porch. Every afternoon we had rest time. It was a thing from my earliest memories until we sold that shanty in 1996. The times for resting shifted daily like a curfew, but we always rested. Sometimes I was told to lay down. Sometimes, I took a legal pad to the lounge chair.

Ballpoint pen and a yellow pad on my lap, I rested my head against the neck cushion and tried to channel my inner storyteller. With my eyes closed, the entire story unfolded in color behind my eyelids.  All I really had to do was obey and write it down. It took me two hours to finish. I wrote my opening line as rest time was beginning and wrote the final one as I was given my freedom to go wander the beach.  One neat rewrite later, I handed it to my mom and told her she could mail it in.

That was the last I expected to hear of that. I wasn’t going to win.

A month later, in the middle of July, I was housesitting for my friend, Kara, who was traveling with her family. My routine was to bike over, which was less than a mile, take the mail inside the house, and then care for her gerbils. The gerbils were a religion in that family. Their names were Jimbo and Homer and they were the family puppy. On my third day of doing that job, I pedaled up the hill toward her house until the heat began to push back against me like an unseen forcefield. When I couldn’t pedal through it anymore, I hopped off my bike and walked it the rest of the way. I dropped the bike at the edge of her driveway and gathered the mail to take inside. It was a bunch of dumb stuff like insurance and bank statements. I didn’t think it looked like much fun to be an adult. They always got bad mail.

The front door was 6 steps up from the front walk. I climbed them with effort, still out of breath from biking, and stood there for a minute thinking about the routine. Maybe the gerbils would be in plain sight and I wouldn’t have to spend 10 minutes digging around for them. You couldn’t assume they were in there. I tucked the mail under my arm and fished the spare key out of my jeans shorts. I was unsuspecting of anything more than little tomfoolery in the gerbil cage.

When you are most unsuspecting, that’s when you should suspect. That’s precisely when you need to be wearing a beekeeper’s suit and wielding a baseball bat. Standing there with their mail dampening into my armpit like an extension of myself, I reached for the doorknob and was hit in the forehead by a force powerful enough to be a point blank paintball. I had no idea what it was, since I couldn’t see my own forehead and I hadn’t seen it coming.

I knew that it had hurled itself from the door jam above the front door
I knew that its landing on my forehead sounded like a bar room slap.
I knew that it was slimy.
And I knew that I did not want it there.

I dropped my key and the mail and began whirling and flapping and swiping at my own face. It took too long, but my friend jumped off my forehead and onto the railing that bordered the square porch. At that point, as I allowed my heart rate to level out into a safer range, I got a look at him. He was one of those slimy, sticky, tree frogs, the color of my small intestine, and representative of everything appalling. If there’s any consolation in this story, it’s that I surely shocked him as much as he shocked me. We came at each other like a day of reckoning. I used a piece of mail to launch him off the porch rail and silently declared war on frogs for the rest of my life.

I have stayed true to my word.
There’s a reason God chose frogs as one of the ten plagues.

I shut the door behind me and went straight upstairs to check on and feed the gerbils. I was hanging the water bottle on the side of the cage when the phone rang downstairs. I skipped down the stairs and stood there at the kitchen table for a minute while I decided what to do. Do I answer it? Is this part of housesitting? What do I tell a person when they ask for the Pearsons?

I picked up the phone tentatively and said, “Hello? Pearson residence…”

“Missy, it’s me,” my mother said, breathlessly. I had only been gone 30 minutes. I had no idea why she would be calling me.

“Mom? Is everything ok?” I asked. Somebody was dead. They had to be dead.

“Yes, yes,” she said. “You got a letter and I wanted to tell you about it.”

“I got a letter? Who from?” Don’t even get me started on the grammar.

“It’s from the Tallahassee Democrat,” she answered.

The contest. I hadn’t thought about it since she mailed in the submission.

“Open it! Open it and read it to me!” I was practically shouting. And she was as excited as I was. She ripped into the letter and the phone went silent for a few seconds. Oh no.

“YOU WON!” She shouted. “You won FIRST PLACE!”

“What?! Are you kidding? I can’t believe it!” The frog was now long in my past. My future included ‘amazing prizes.’  “What did I win?” I asked. It was a fair question.

“Well, let’s read on here…they are going to print your story on the front page of the Lifestyle section of the paper.”

“OK, that’s cool…what else?” Where was the money? There had to be money.

“And you get to eat dinner one night at the Governor’s Club with all the other winners.”

What? Dinner at the Governor’s Club? With strangers?  My face fell and suddenly I could again feel the imprint of the frog as he’d suctioned to my skin. Dinner at a fancy restaurant. Did the prize patrol remember this was a contest for people under 60?

But still, I told myself, getting published would be cool.

Getting published, even if only in the local paper, was cool. But I had made an egregious, unrecoverable error that still haunts me to this day. It haunts me more than frogs.

I had neglected to title my story.

They did not call me to ask me what I wanted it called. They titled it for me.

Sinkhole Sadness. The world’s worst title for a short story in the history of the written word. The words were mine. The title was not. The title was so bone-chillingly bad that I couldn’t get past it. It lodged in my throat like boiled turnip greens.

I was pretty famous at church for about a week. People I didn’t want to talk to at all came out of the pews and the woodwork to tell me they had read my story. My story, Sinkhole Sadness. There were only about 2 of them I cared to hear from.

By the time the “prize” came due, the story and its printing was a black speck in my rearview mirror. I put on church clothes and ugly burgundy flats from Etienne Aigner and was dropped in front of the Governor’s Club for the most awkward dinner of my life. My prize turned out to be a steak so bloody I began to listen for mooing. We grilled our steaks until they bounced in my family. I didn’t know rich people and politicians ate them rare.

The only bright spot in that evening, and it wasn’t bright enough, was the man who served that steak to me. He was nice to look at. His name was Ben.

Other than that, it was all just a frog to the forehead to me.

Sinkhole Sadness to follow tomorrow.

Pi Trippa Dorka

There was never a question about my going to college. I was going. If I’d tried not to go, I’d have still gone. By my junior year of high school, I had grown serious about my grades. I was making As and only As. I was developing stars in my eyes in the shape of ivy league brick buildings. I wanted to go somewhere special and do something special. My parents wanted me to go to a small, private, Christian junior college.

I said UNC Chapel Hill, as if I would have been accepted.

They said Florida College, who accepts almost anyone.

They only required one semester there and said we could then discuss it. They said this knowing I’d stay longer than one semester. It was there that I met many of the lifelong friends I still have. It was there that I met Todd. I stayed until I’d earned every last credit they could hand me. And then I was off to Florida State for my junior year.

I was alone at Florida State. Alone with 14,000 other students just like me. I lived at home (highly UNrecommended, no offense, pops), parked my car at a friend’s home near campus and biked to all of my classes. Occasionally I would run into a friend from middle school. But most of the time, I walked into and out of my FSU classes by myself.

It sounds like a sad story, but I loved my final two years of college. I hadn’t gotten my way on where I went to school, but I totally got my way on the classes I took. I was an English Major with emphasis in Creative Writing. I took workshops where all we did was write stories and critique each other’s work. I learned specific writing techniques from studying the likes of William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I couldn’t think of anything much better than this.

In the Maymester of 1991, I took Beginner’s Fiction Workshop: Art and Imitation taught by Ralph Berry. It met from 6-9 on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I had spent the day before lining up my texts for the class, one of which was At Swim, Two Birds by Flann O’Brien. The book cover was every bit as weird as the title. I was intrigued. Because the class started when I would normally be eating dinner with my parents, I had to wolf down a sandwich and head toward campus by 5:15. Parking was almost always a bad day in Vegas. I had my tricks, though. My best parking trick was the back 40 clay parking lot behind the Tri Delta sorority house.

These classes with Dr. Berry were the highlight of my summer. That makes me pathetic. I know it now and I knew it then. I loved sneaking through the Tri Delt property and walking up Park Avenue. The walk led me past Ruby Diamond Auditorium and to the Williams building, a grand old structure with brick and tile from 1926. Every class I took that summer was inside these ancient, ivy-covered walls. I entered the building through an arch. Every time I did, I felt I could hear whispered stories from 80 years before. That building was an audience and a cheerleader for every writer that stepped inside. In my second story classroom, the north-facing wall was entirely windows, overlooking the fountain in front of Ruby Diamond. As Dr. Berry laughed about the absurdities of Flann O’Brien, his face became a deep, neon pink. Some nights, when everything was flowing just right, his laughing face would flush pink as the sun was dropping across campus. For a brief few minutes, everything was the same shade of red.

One night, I had pushed my departure from home too late. I left at 5:30. Tennessee Street was snarled with traffic. I didn’t have time to even consider my other parking options. I had to drive the absolute shortest route to Delta Delta Delta, park quickly, and then sprint all the way to room 229. I whipped in the back entrance to the back lot and parked as far back as I possibly could. But instead of sitting in my car for a few minutes as an incognito sorority girl, I had to exit my car immediately and risk whomever might cross my path.

This would be okay. I mean, all I had to do was move with purpose, blend with girls that looked like Cameron Diaz, and not draw attention to myself. I did not need to worry about getting towed while I was sitting in a 3-hour class. I could totally pull off the Tri Delta look. I pulled into the parking lot at 5:53. That gave me 45 seconds to cross the Tri Delt property and 6:15 to make the rest of the trek. I gave myself a glance in the rearview mirror of my dad’s copper colored 1983 Datsun 280ZX. My hair was going to give me away before I cleared the sidewalk. It was wearing the humidity like a badge of honor and sticking off my head like a frayed rope. I patted it and wished it well and shoved the heavy metal car door shut with my hip. Then I tucked At Swim, Two Birds and my notebook under my right arm and took off.

Don’t make eye contact. Look ahead. Think like a Greek. Practice your bible Greek. Low profile. It was going pretty well on my speed walk from the clay back lot to the side yard of the fancy main house. I was within view of total freedom. The brick, colonial style house stood dignified, pressure washed, unblemished. It kept its stern and stoic face to Park Avenue like a member of the royal guard. The porch was dotted with Delta Delta Delta girls. I pictured them in my mind, but could not make eye contact. Maybe they’d think I was here to see someone. As if.

I took a deep breath. Focus. Be the Delta. Put a little swag in your step.

That last one was the game changer for me. Not only did I decide to make a last-minute change in my gait in hopes that I might blend better, but I sped up. To a run. Somewhere between the transition between normal stride, sorority girl stride, and sorority girl running, I kicked a rock. The rock was camouflaged by nothing. It was in plain view, but I had too much going on. Turns out it’s not easy to rush to class while pretending to be someone else and also trying to avoid detection.

When my foot encountered that rock in plain sight, my leg was already in some unsightly position. I was off balance. There was no recovering. I kicked the rock. Hard. My foot stayed back, as if being held by a defensive end. The rest of my body lurched forward. I threw my books like a forward lateral and went down on my face. Right there. Twenty short paces from the Tri Delt girls who had nothing but time for the show I put on. I hit ground with three different body parts. The one I felt the most was my right knee, which was bleeding pretty freely when I stood back up. Now I was going to have to add a 2-minute restroom visit to clean up my knee.

As I hobbled up the hill toward the Williams building, I never looked back at my audience. I heard my mother’s voice in my head saying, “Haste makes waste.” How could I argue with her now? I had wasted time. I had wasted my knee. And worst of all, I had wasted my chances to ever get in tight with the Tri Delta girls. I had also wasted a perfectly exceptional parking solution.

But I don’t worry. There are sororities for girls like me, too. They’re called Honor Societies. I started one of my own in my mind that accepts school-loving, old-car-driving, clumsy, fluffy-headed readers and writers. The parking lot is paved and smooth and the porch is screened with a swinging bed and Amish rocking chairs. There is a fountain out front with two birds at swim.

I’m a charter member of Pi Trippa Dorka.
And there’s something to be said for that.