We sat at our neighborhood breakfast joint. Next to us, a young mother scolded her crying son. He banged his tiny fist on her table, causing her plate to wobble then she marched him outside for a timeout. The timeout kid stood directly in front of us, outside the window, facing the wall. I made a secret pact with him, proud of him for standing there instead of running out into the middle of the street. His frazzled mother was back at her table with her girlfriend and hash browns.
I sipped my latte and felt a gravitational pull from the kid as if he were a star in a neighboring galaxy, scattering light through the dark matter of his punishment—both of us held captive in time’s prison; both of us vibrating with scorn.
My lover and I were fighting too. My scrambled eggs remained untouched. “I don’t have much time,” I insisted. Tears dropped into my latte. My cycles were erratic lately: Twenty-eight days to sixteen, then back to twenty-eight.
“But I’m not ready,” he said.
We met at forty, already selfish and driven. We talked about having a family, but what I’m actually doing has nothing to do with strollers or binkies. I do something resembling teaching writing to teenagers (which looks like board games, chocolate and bribery some days). I edit a literary journal and write like a motherfucker. I love showing my students which “there” is correct. I love helping them circle intransitive verbs, prepositional phrases and adjectives. I love reading stacks of poetry from an extra quiet boy who skips class but shows up to mine to journal. My students are young enough to see how words can transform their lives—the way they’ve transformed my life. I want to pass that tool on, but time is speeding up and the possibility of starting a family is drifting away from me.
For many years, I’ve felt like I’ve missed the boat. The fantasy looks like this: I’m waving from the island, sporting a plastic lei, with a fist full of dreams scribbled on post-it notes while onlookers wave from the dream yacht, sipping cocktails and enjoying their soaring success. It’ s feeling—not fact. But it’s convincing.
Gene stared at his bacon, and then frowned at my shaking hand.
“Let’s go,” I said, surprised by an impulse to sprint. The timeout kid was released from his mother with a swat on his arm. I wanted to slap her face, and then steal her boy.
“I’m not finished.” Gene spooned the remainder of his waffle into his mouth.
Today is also Mother’s day and I’ll never stop missing her. I’m scared that the mom boat is one that I’ll never board and I’m running out of time. Maybe it’s best that I not board that boat at all. I want to bend time and wrap it around me, not chase it down and choke it.
I was an anxious, worried kid who pulled my hair out from the root and bit my nails to bloody stumps. Later, I became a cheek biter, a lip chewer and a face picker. Prone to escapism, space always appealed to me. I sought the fastest way out of my skin which was gross sugar until later, when I found nose drugs. As a kid in the eighties, I made up corny dance routines to Blondie songs and waved my arms around like the girls I worshipped on “Fame.” I pranced after my haggard working mother around the house while she was getting ready for work. “Mom, watch this!” I danced for her, commanding attention. I jiggled and jumped and whipped my hair around wildly. My fists shot up in the air. “Look!” She watched with bored amusement as I spazzed-out and giggled to the rhythm. I grinned in the glow of her gaze—happy and frenzied. I was destined for laps across America, aching to be seen. I poured everything into it, danced for decades and used my body to race time. “Don’t ever feel like you have to have kids,” Mom told me. But I do.
In these rooms under yellow florescent lights and shitty coffee, I’m all lit up sober. I sit still in a metal chair that digs into my ass and stabs my shoulder blades. I’m content in this filthy Alano club where I watch the clock.
Next to me, a pudgy woman knits orange yarn; her gold needles do ballet with her fingers. Next to her are felons, winos, hookers, waitresses, electricians, writers, attorneys and nannies. We’re jittery, haunted and sad, picking away at our skins until we’re human again. The familiar smell of ashtrays and B.O. coats me in a familiar stench. I tuck my hands under my thighs to prevent from peeling my hangnails. A guy with a nose job stands erect at a podium. He talks about shooting millions of dollars worth of dope when he was a musician and even while he was rich and famous—ended up homeless and alone. On the outsides, we have nothing in common: He’s seventy with kids, ex-wives and cookie crumbs on the corners of his mouth. While he speaks, he seems timeless and worry-free. The minutes drag towards night, pulling me along.
There is no boat.
I don’t crave powders or pills anymore, but I still fight the tendency to flee, escape into another galaxy. I recall the taste of striped straws and white powders, the tick-tick of blade against mirror and the rush of yes. Similar to the numb excitement of being passed around a trailer park in Lancaster by Gulf War Vets, stripping long after I’d quit stripping. The scratchy edges of damp dollars stuffed into my garter. I was animated with sexual power, fuming with it. Empowered and degraded simultaneously. A sad clown wrapped in tacks. We have this in common.
I’ve quit lots of things: crystal meth and alcohol, white sugar and flour, men, cocaine, meat, coffee and carbs. I’ve left lovers when I had another tucked in my back pocket. Left my car in a tow yard because it had too many tickets. I tossed my Lucite shoes and a bag full of shimmery pink skins into garbage can outside a bar in the Mission with obstinate determination. I always returned to stripping whenever I was broke, mangy and hungry. The stage was the place I accessorized my pretty ache, made it shine for you. I wanted to start over.
“Let’s not try then. Let’s just see what happens,” he said. We left the restaurant.
I thought quitting stripping would be huge: Cymbals would crash the smoke machine would hiss as I crawled on the marble stage to L7 and The Black Keys. Glasses would shatter, balloons pop, spilling rainbow confetti onto my sweaty torso. I’d have one last high roller night, several G’s squirreled away in the bank. Or I’d just get fired and told I’m too old. That’s not what happened. After a mediocre Wednesday night with three hundred, fifty bucks in my purse, I carried my plastic pink stripper bag on my shoulder and walked away from Bourbon Street through mist and garbage. I dodged frat boys and club barkers. I peeled off my false lashes and through them on the ground. I waved down my favorite Armenian cab driver, Manny. He called me “Laura’s Friend” and knew my address by heart. The next night, my lower back ached. My neck was permanently fucked from too many upside-down pole tricks. I didn’t go to work the next night. Or the night after that. Time was a firm hand that nudged me gently towards the exit, pulling me home, where I met you, at forty, right on time.