Friday, December 24, 2010

Gods and Monsters

I’d bought Aero-beds for each of the kids, and set them out around the living room and dining room in my downtown apartment.  Miniature, white, Christmas tree lights sparkled and outlined the huge bay windows, and reflected off the watery glass.  I tucked the soft, white, flannel sheets tightly around the scattered mattresses on the floor, and shook out the down-filled pillows before setting them at the head of each bed.

“Mommy, can we have popcorn during the movie?”

Faith padded into the living room in her Blue’s Clues slippers and Cinderella pajamas.  Claire was washing her face in the bathroom, and Jackson was lying on the couch, programming the VCR, so we could watch the original Clash of the Titans.

“Sure, Honey.  Do you remember how to make a napkin bowl?”

Faith smiled.  It was Friday night, “movie night,” and all three children had just been dropped off after spending the week with their dad and Linda in Salem.  Before the Big Bang, when we lived in Hillsburg, Friday nights always meant take-and-bake pizza and a rental movie.  A lot had changed since then, but we stuck to this ritual.

I went into the kitchen with Faith, and we carefully twisted the corners of open paper napkins to fashion them into thin paper napkin bowls for our popcorn - a trick my own mother had taught me when I was young.

It was almost Christmas.  This was the second year in a row I had found myself unable to open the box of ornaments I’d amassed over what seemed to be another lifetime.  I’d bought ornaments for each of the children - Ryan, Claire, Jackson, and Faith, and even Mike, every Christmas for the past 17 years.  Each one was significant and sentimental.  On Jackson’s first Christmas, he received a pastel frame filled with a picture of him as a one-month old.  A flying Superman ornament was added the next year, then an upside-down Spiderman the year after that.  Claire’s collection had been filling with fairies – clear, glass, glittering sprites were usually the ones I bought for her.  Faith’s only two were a baby in a stocking, and a pink, glass ballet slipper.  Tightly wrapped in tissue and out of sight remained the glossy ceramic basketballs, the Hallmark rocking horses with each year painted on them that Barbara and I had collected for the kids over the years.  Santas with fishing poles and golf bags and tiny hanging Santas dressed in hunting gear were Mike’s ornaments, now nothing more than stinging reminders of my illusions of our happy family from Christmases past.  Instead of subjecting myself to the awkwardness and discomfort of going through these holiday archives, I left the boxes of decorations tightly sealed, and instead bought a modest four-foot tree at the Fred Meyer’s grocery store a few blocks from the apartment.  I coated it with strings of white lights.  Snowflakes, cut out of blank sheets of paper by the children, were taped to the windows.  The apartment was cozy and festive with our makeshift décor, and the kids seemed happy and excited.

The four of us settled into the couch with our popcorn and steaming mugs of sweetened Chai tea.  I tucked the blanket around us as the opening music to the movie began.

I was still thinking about the phone call I had received an hour earlier.  Bill’s mother Barbara had called shortly before the kids arrived.  Her voice sounded strained with anger and frustration.

“Sophia, I gotta tell you, something is not right with that woman.  I couldn’t believe what I saw today.  After lunch at the restaurant, she made the kids go into the bathroom to change out of their clothes and into a set of clothes from your house!”

Barbara exaggerated sometimes to get her point across, but I knew from experience that she wasn’t making this up.  Not only would Linda not allow the kids to bring any stuffed animals, books, or toys to my house from their dad’s, but she refused to let them wear clothing, including shoes and winter coats, they had purchased, even though I had been paying child support to their dad each month.  Linda told the children that I didn’t do the laundry correctly, and that I would ruin the things that she and their dad bought for them.

“Well, I told Linda how ridiculous and disrespectful they were being towards you by doing this.  I told her that she didn’t know you, and that you were a good, loving mother, and that she had no right to butt in and make your children wonder and worry.  She has nothing good to say, EVER.  You should hear what she says about you!  It just breaks my heart, how she destroys you with words in front of your children…and my own son…”

Her voice cracked with emotion.

“My own son just sits there.  He doesn’t say anything!  He just lets that woman, that awful woman, call all the shots.  Well, I wasn’t just going to sit there.  I told them a thing or two!”

Barbara went on to recount the heated argument, the yelling and screaming that had gone on in the parking lot of the restaurant, after she had confronted Mike and Linda in her defense of me.  No one had done anything like that so far.  No one had defended me, or stood up to Mike, telling him what an ass he’d been.  Sure, I was able to deduce bits and pieces of what both of them had been saying about me just by the questions my children sometimes asked me, but I preferred to take the high road.  It wasn’t worth the hurt it would cause the children and me.  If I began to fight back regarding this kind of stuff, not only would I be more angry and exhausted than I already was, but the children would be even further exposed to the dirty laundry that belonged to us, their parents.  They didn’t deserve to be stretched thin, to be pulled between fighting adults.  They didn’t need to be more torn and confused than they already were.  Things were complicated enough.  I didn’t have it in me to argue with Mike and confront Linda.  I hadn’t ever pushed back when Linda was insulting and Mike was apathetic.  I was afraid to rock the boat.  I just wanted to move on, and get as far away from dealing with Mike as possible.  Instead of engaging in the kind of petty battles I knew they were waging, I put all my energy, when it came to the kids, into making sure they knew how much I loved and cherished them.  I hoped this would counteract any confusion and bad feelings caused by the climate their father and his partner were creating.

Tonight, though, Mike’s own mother, Barbara, was my unlikely hero.  She had stood up to them.  It would prove to damage her own relationship with her son – it kicked off a long spell during which Mike would not speak to her.  For the next two-and-a-half years, Linda and Mike blocked Barbara from their lives, and her grandchildren’s lives.  For a very long time, it was only through her relationship with me that she continued to have contact with the children.

I put my arms around Jackson and Faith and pulled them closer to me on the couch.  I patted Claire’s head and pulled the blanket up to her chin as she snuggled up to us.  Clash of the Titans was enthralling, even with the rudimentary special effects from the 1980s and the overly tanned and sculpted visage of Harry Hamlin.  The hero, against all odds, battling jealousy, evil demons, a spiteful woman with bad hair, and the towering rage of the massive, mindless Kracken, was an inspiration to me.  His purpose, fueled by love and righteousness in the face of overwhelming adversity, captivated me just as much as the kids.  When the buzzer rang, alerting us to a visitor at the front door, we were all shaken from our trance.

I buzzed him up, and within moments Noah knocked at the door.  Jackson paused the movie, and Faith ran over to hug Noah’s legs as he walked in.

“Hi guys!”

He handed out red licorice and Junior Mints.  Faith wasted no time in reenacting her favorite scene from the movie for him, pretending to be Medusa by contorting her innocent three-year old face into as horrifying of a mask as she could muster.  Noah feigned terror as he covered his face, pretending not to look.

“I-into-a-tone!” exclaimed three-year-old Faith.

Then she froze, just like one of the fated players condemned to eternity as a statue in the movie, after receiving Medusa’s paralyzing stare.  I was turned into a stone!  We quickly figured out her game, one she’d keep replaying for days to come.

Noah laughed.  He sat down on the floor in front of the couch, and we all settled back in to watch the end of the movie.  As the credits began to roll, someone noticed fat white flakes of snow floating to the ground outside.

“It’s snowing!”

The kids all scrambled from their pillowy cocoons on the couch to post themselves at the windows.

“It’s going to snow all night!”

Claire had been the quietest, most reserved of all the kids.  She was exhilarated by the sudden show of wintery weather, though, and was hoping for a white Christmas - at least a few days of snow during the winter break, anyway.

“Nah,” Noah playfully countered her.  “It’s just a fluke.  It won’t last… maybe for an hour, but it’s not even cold enough to stick.”

He and Claire debated the incoming weather and settled on a bet - if it did snow all night, as Claire predicted, Noah would have to dress up in full costume as Captain Hook the next day when we would go see the new Peter Pan movie.  If it didn’t snow, Claire would have to go in costume as Tinkerbell.

I reveled in the secure feeling I had from knowing we had the next few days off together with my children, all there in my little apartment.  Noah fit right in, and as I sat on the couch looking out the window at the snowflakes with the children, I began to relax.  And for the first time in a long while, I remembered what it felt like to be a family.

I awoke the next morning to a blanket of snow covering the sidewalks and streets of Northwest Portland.  The children were still asleep on their makeshift air mattresses, and layers of down-filled quilts draped over their little forms kept them warm.  Every morning, I woke to the clacking sound of the ancient radiator coming to life - a reassuring reminder the apartment would soon be warm, and the 90-year-old manager in the basement apartment, Anne, was awake and tending to her daily chores of caring for her tenants.

In the kitchen, I filled the tea kettle with cold water from the sink, ground the coffee beans, and set up the French press.  I filled a small pan with water, and dropped into it twelve cloves, a half-stick of cinnamon, a knob of dried ginger, and ten cardamom seeds I’d pressed with a spoon to slightly crush and reveal their warmly scented spice.  It was my morning ritual with the children.  Soon the smells of Chai and coffee drifted through the cozy apartment.

Faith was the first to wake up.  She wrapped herself in her quilt, and then joined me in my bedroom to watch the sunrise over the Fremont Bridge.  This had also quickly become our morning ritual.  Both of us just sat there, snuggled together, looking out the large window over the awakening city, while sipping our warm morning drinks.

Once Jackson and Claire started rustling to life, I turned on the stereo.  Almost every morning, the first CD to play would be Coldplay.  We would listen to it, and the kids would sing along in unison - “open up your eeeyeeeeesssss” - as we tackled the morning chores of putting away the bedding, deflating the mattresses, and storing them for another night in the closet.  This morning however, with the excitement of the snowfall, all bets were off as to our schedule.  The air mattresses remained on the floor, like cozy islands for the children to land on as they ran around the apartment enjoying a “snow day” in downtown Portland.

We stayed in our pajamas all morning.  Faith and Claire helped me make pancakes with sautéed apples, butter, and brown sugar.  Jackson lounged on the couch and watched cartoons for awhile, then disappeared into the bathroom for a long soak in the bathtub with his favorite Eucalyptus-scented bath bubbles.  The only thing we had on our agenda for the day was to go see the new Peter Pan movie at the Lloyd Center Mall with Noah, and I was curious to see if Claire had remembered her bet with him from the night before.

Noah telephoned around noon, and said he’d see us at 4:00 PM.  The snow was supposed to melt, and even if it didn’t, he felt comfortable driving the Explorer, since it had four-wheel-drive and chains.  He mentioned he had a few errands to run, but that he’d pick us up just before heading out to the show.

At 4:00 sharp, the apartment lobby buzzer rang, and I pushed the button to buzz Noah through the front door.  When he knocked, Faith ran to answer.

I heard the door open, but didn’t hear anything else.

I was in the kitchen cleaning up after a late lunch, and wondered why I hadn’t heard the usual warm greeting Faith bestowed on Noah whenever she saw him.


It was Claire’s voice.  I dried my hands on the dishtowel and went out to the living room to see if my hunch was right.

There he stood.  With my children surrounding him, like a silent audience in awe, was Noah.  Only, it wasn’t Noah - not exactly.  He was dressed in a full, classic, red tailcoat with gold braiding.  White ruffles from a thrift store pirate shirt peeked out beneath it, and he wore a black-and-silver plastic hook over his right hand.  His Doug Stellar mullet wig had been clipped and fashioned to resemble Captain Hook’s black, curly, aristocratic hair, and he was wearing shiny black-heeled boots.  The real shocker, and probably the one thing that threw Faith off more than anything else, was the sculpted, black moustache adorning his upper lip.

He bowed low as I came into the living room to witness the spectacle of my children surrounding a living, breathing, Disney villain standing in the middle of our apartment.

“Greetings!  Are you the fair lady of the household, Madame?  Captain Hook at your service!”

He rolled his R’s dramatically.

I laughed so hard I had to sit down on the floor.  With tears rolling down my cheeks, I watched the faces of my children change from looks of confusion and surprise to joy and wonderment.  They walked around him, taking in the details of his costume.  Jackson touched the hem of the red velvet coat, and Faith hesitantly pulled Noah’s plastic hook-hand down closer to her height for a better look.  Claire was shaking her head with a look of shock on her face.

“Are you really going to the movie theater, through the mall, like this, Noah?  You would go out in public dressed up like Captain Hook?  What about driving?  Everyone’s going to look at you!  Are you serious?  Aren’t you embarrassed?”

Now that she had her head wrapped around the whole thing, she was incredulous.

Noah didn’t break character.  In Captain Hook’s smooth, regal accent, he smiled wryly at my oldest daughter.

“Ah ha!  The groundlings at the indoor marketplace, or as you say, the mall, will see only Captain Hook.  But YOU, my dear, will just be you, walking arm-in-arm with the great Captain Hook!”

The children dissolved in laughter at Noah’s wildly grand gesture, and ran to get their coats.  I smiled at Noah, and he winked at me.  I’d always been partial to the character of Peter Pan, but seeing him dressed up like this, all for the pure joy and entertainment value it afforded my children, made me love Captain Hook more than any other fairy tale character.  Sometimes the villain poses as the hero, but today, Noah was a knight in shining armor, dressed as an outrageous red-velvet-swathed, swashbuckling buccaneer, and I couldn’t have appreciated it more.

He leaned over and whispered to me, “I look like a gay pirate.”

When we got to the mall, Noah, I mean Captain Hook, made sure Claire received as much of the spotlight as the pirate-parade as possible.  He looped his arms through hers as he strode triumphantly through the mall.

“Come, Wendy, my dear.  It’s time to see how those nincompoops in Hollywood have butchered our story.”

Claire’s laugh conveyed anxiousness and exhilaration.  For the other two, their expressions displayed only glee.

Christmas that year was lean, in terms of gifts for the kids.  I couldn’t afford much after paying child support, and my credit was wrecked from the short-sale on the house.  New pajamas and a few small trinkets from the dollar store would have been it, if it weren’t for Beth.  She told me she had purchased too much for her kids, and insisted I accept a few choice donations.  This certainly helped, as I knew the bounty of expensive, material items they’d receive at their dad’s house would seriously dwarf mine.  It didn’t seem to matter to the kids, though.  More than the gifts under the tree, they were excited about the story they had to tell family and friends about being escorted to see Peter Pan by none other than Captain Hook himself. 

My gay pirate.  My hero.

Exerpt from ILLUMINATION: How One Woman Made Light of Darkness available now as an ebook on Amazon