Let me start at the beginning. Stick with me through the prologue...
In 1970, a Washington University student named Howard Mechanic was accused of throwing a cherry bomb in a Vietnam war protest on campus. This cherry bomb started a fire and Howard was arrested. A bunch of people thought Howard was innocent, and one of them was my dad, who was a professor of English at Wash U. So, faculty and staff all went down to the courthouse to help post bail for Howard.
Now, why his family did not do this, I have no idea but Howard had a lot of support and quite a few people showed up for him. Lucky guy.
But the judge was kind of an ass, and wouldn't take bail from all these people- instead, he insisted one person or one family be on the hook for the whole thing, and unfortunately my parents were the people with the house to put up.
So, the judge made my parents, with four young children and a pretty new mortgage put up their house as collateral for this student they barely knew.
My mother said she made him look her in the eye and promise that he would show up.
This is a longer story, but feel free to google Howard Mechanic to get his story.
The end of this one is- the jerk did not show up. He jumped bail and disappeared for 28 years. My parents almost lost their house. Four children were almost made homeless. Luckily the community came together and saved our family from this awful fate, not that Howard Mechanic ever knew or cared about the consequences of his actions.
Well, one day, 28 years later, Howard Mechanic is caught doing something stupid (running for office in Arizona) and there is a media frenzy. My mother hears this on the news and just shakes her head. My father thinks this is nice and for some reason is all about being on board with Howard being pardoned. Really? What about what we know he did for sure? Like jump bail? Even if he is innocent of the cherry bomb crime, he still committed a crime, and put us in a terrible place. But no thank you to us. No apology for almost making four kids homeless.
But I digress. The media frenzy is happening. Howard is all over the news. The reporter that discovered him is all over the news. St. Louis and Washington U is all abuzz with the news. The marquis of the record store up the street says "Free Howard Mechanic" and I call them and ask them to please take it down, my parents live three blocks away.
Then, Dateline calls. They have discovered my parents are the ones who put up the bail. Immediately, my dad says yes to the interview. I was very excited. I wanted to watch all of it and I did. I took the kids to school and show up at my parent's house and watch the whole thing! I chatted with the camera guys... I was in film school at the time. My mother respectfully declines to be interviewed but Josh Mankiewicz smells blood in the water. My mother does not agree with my father. She's still pissed off with him about what he did. He realizes quickly that this will make a better interview with her.
So, the producers do what they do best. They flatter and convince my mother to get on camera. It doesn't take too much, and my father realizes that she is going to have her say. I am in the background silently cheering! Go Mom! Be the one person who says it is not the act of a HERO to run away! Stop making this guy out to be some kind of martyr for the cause. The justice system is still the bad guy but this is not how you deal with problems.
My mother famously says "I always tell my children, 'say what you mean and clean up your own mess' Howard Mechanic did neither."
This quote makes it on the air and I cheer. It was a good interview but they use just a clipping of my parents, which is fine. Story is not about them after all.
Now all in all, this is a pretty good story as is. The Howard Mechanic group sends my dad a plaque for his support. What the hell ever. There is still no apology from him. There is still no offer to pay us back the bail money. But that is all over and life goes on.
Until the phone rings... and there is a complete surprise on the other end.
Now, before I tell you this part, I'm going to back up a little bit.
All my life, my mother told me stories about her very best friend growing up, Elaine. My mother grew up in New York City in Queens and all I ever heard about was how much fun Elaine was. She was smart and beautiful and kind and she was the best friend ever. Honestly, Elaine was larger than life to me. I would get so excited when my mother would tell another Elaine story. She told me once that she had even considered naming me Elaine at one point. I knew right then and there that I wanted to name a daughter Elaine.
When my mother was pregnant with me, we had gone to California to live and I was born out there in Santa Monica. Around the same time, Elaine had moved to Florida and they had lost touch with one another. One of the saddest parts of the Elaine stories was my mother lamenting how much she missed her and how awful it was to have lost touch with her. It made my heart ache and I wanted more than anything to find Elaine for my mother.
The years went by and I did indeed have a daughter, and I named her Cassandra Elaine. I smiled and wished that just once, I could meet Elaine and tell her how much I had enjoyed hearing about her. But more than anything, I wanted my mother to be able to reunite with her best friend.
And who knew that Howard Mechanic and all of his misdeeds would lead us to that moment... for the voice on the other end of the phone indeed did belong to Elaine. She had been watching that episode of Dateline and there was my mother on her television set. She found her listed in the phone book and called her up the very next day.
And yes, of course, there was the most joyous of reunions. They connected like not a day had gone by as only best friends can, and shamelessly, I admit, even now I have tears in my eyes writing this because that happy ending could not have come for two better friends.
I met Elaine a few years later when I was driving down to Florida. She was a little surprised I wanted to meet her so much but I really did. I made a special trip to Winter Park, Florida. This woman was a part of a story in my head. When she opened the door to me, she lost her breath for a minute. I look a lot like my mother and apparently this really stunned her. Behind me was another daughter who looks just like me, and just like my mother when she was about eight or nine and that threw her even further.
Elaine was delightful and I wasn't at all put off by the staring. I understand that part. I'm going to end this story here in that, this is one of those really bizarre miracle things that happens. I don't want to be exactly grateful to Howard Mechanic but it makes it harder to completely dislike him. Instead, I'm happy that the Universe aligned in such a way that all those thoughts went out to connect two friends one more time.
Early on, when I was learning to tell stories, and sitting in my writing classes reading other people's stories, the idea that truth is not credible came up as a topic. And I find myself nodding vigorously.
I'm one of those people who, when watching a movie or reading a book, will say "Oh, come on, that would never happen! It's not credible, it's not possible, it's too much of a stretch!"
And in class, over and over I would hear...
"But that's the way it DID happen!"
When will you all realize- that doesn't matter? Truth will always be stranger than fiction. Unless you're doing a documentary, you cannot tell a story that way. Why? Because your audience has to believe you! Your truth is not a defense if we, the audience does not believe you. Yes, you have to be a skilled liar.
I don't spend a lot of time lying any more. I tried it out when I was around 9, 10, 11 and found out- making things up to make my life more interesting was getting me in trouble when I got caught out. It wasn't worth it. Instead, I made my life more interesting, so my true stories were more fun to tell. And when I had something I wanted to make up, I channeled my lies into my fiction and worked very hard at making them credible.
But I learned HOW to lie.
I think lies are important.
Sometimes, they are necessary and life saving.
You should be judicious with them and save them for only the most dire circumstances.
Casual lies will kill your credibility and destroy your friendships and ruin you.
If I tell a lie, which I don't very often, it's for a much greater good. I find casual lies stupid and pointless, and I have removed them from my life so that I can build positive and strong friendships, and of course, I am thankful that my bff weathered this period of my life with grace and love and taught me that she could catch me out every time, I am so grateful she was such a good detective. Life lessons from your friends are sometimes painful but when it is done with care, they are good! But I digress.
Here, I want to tell you a true story. A story I could never turn into fiction, as so much of my truth ends up in my fiction, and I tell lies around it. Here is a very true story, though.
I recently went to Florida with my husband and we decided to leave the car in long term parking. At this point in my life, I have a 16 year old daughter. This combination of things has led me to this particular memory.
When I was sixteen years old, I was pretty adventure seeking and engaged in some risky and exciting behavior. I freely admit I was a thrill seeker and I was a kid with a very active imagination. This is one of my stupider antics.
My parents already did not trust me for a number of reasons. One of which was that I had a history of "borrowing the car without permission". So, they had to take a weekend business trip and instead of just taking a cab to the airport or getting a ride, they decided to leave the car in long term parking. I was not going to be allowed to use it for the weekend. It was the first time they had ever left my brother and I alone for the weekend. I was 16, he was 14.
Naturally, I was dating a jerk who really brought out the worst in me.
I'm not saying this was his fault, but every time I would have a stupid idea, he encouraged me to go through with it.
I'm not sure I would have even listened to my best friend on this but she and several other friends with common sense would have at least attempted to talk me out of it. But no, I surrounded myself with people who would encourage the thrill seeking and foolish behavior.
I knew my mom pretty well and my mom, much to my chagrin, knew me pretty well. She assumed that I might be up to something and also thought that leaving that car in long term parking MIGHT keep it safe.
What I knew was that I could get by with using the "lost ticket story" and pay the maximum. I think it was something like $12 or $15. I cannot remember how but someone gave me and my idiot boyfriend a ride out to the airport and dropped us off. I immediately went to the cheapest lot, no way my mom was going to more when she didn't have to! And, miraculously, we found the car right away. Talking my way out of the lot was easy. I'm a girl. I looked innocent enough. They have a policy on lost tickets. We were soon on our way to freedom and a car for the weekend.
Very carefully, I took note of three things, the gas gauge, the position of the driver's seat and the parking space the car had been in. I knew that I had to return the car with exactly the same gas, exactly the same seat position and put it back in the same place. Okay, so I know you all are thinking, how stupid was I? Someone else was going to park in that spot, right? In fact, I worried about that all weekend.
The first thing I told my idiot, asshole boyfriend was "Whatever you do, don't smoke in the car."
He promptly scoffed at that and told me he could roll down the window and it would air out in plenty of time. I'm ashamed to say I allowed him to do this without kicking up a fuss and when he mocked my driving and my gender, I also allowed him to drive. (Well, anyone that knows me now can clearly see how all that has changed) Back then, though, I was a real pleaser and desperate for him to love me and to make him happy. It's easy to see now how being raised by a controlling and punishing abusive father and a mother who would do anything to keep the peace resulted in this. Fortunately, I was able to carve out a better future for myself, but this asshole was only a version of my dad, a drunken version but a version of a controlling, abusive person nonetheless.
But I'm not blaming him for this. This was, shamefully, my idea. I let idiot boyfriend drive even though he didn't even have a driver's license! So, you know, we used the car all weekend and we didn't even do anything that exciting that we couldn't have done without a car. We picked up some people for Rocky Horror and drove them around. Big deal. They could always find other rides. On Sunday, I was starting to feel deep regret and deeper worry. You see, I could control the gas gauge and the seat position, but the parking space was another matter entirely. I started thinking to myself how pointless and stupid this whole thing had been. I was going to get myself in trouble for no reason at all other than my own stupidity and selfishness. It was partly an experiment in what I could get away with, I guess?
I don't know, I didn't usually do things like this. This was purely an exercise in foolishness and while I could certainly be foolish, usually the things I did had actual purpose, even if they didn't make sense to anyone but me. But this time, even as an impulsive sixteen year old, I was clear headed enough to see I had gone too far and the likelihood that I was going to get caught was increasing by the second.
Idiot boyfriend went with me to return the car. He insisted on driving again. My nerves became increasingly tight as we got nearer to the long term parking lot. Then, the worst happened. The lot was blocked off entirely. No one was allowed in. The sign at the front said the lot was full. I couldn't even return it to a nearby spot. Completely screwed!
We circled around to a place where he pulled over and Idiot boyfriend rolled down the window and lit a cigarette.
"What are you doing??" I yelled at him.
I mean, really, what did he care if I got caught. It was all on me, wasn't it? He couldn't even be bothered to get out of the car and smoke. I was so angry. But he just yelled back at me that it didn't make any difference now and he needed to think. Blah blah blah, the selfish prick continued on. Idiot boyfriend proceeded to curse and bang on the wheel and generally make an even bigger idiot out of himself.
Then, I did something. I told him to get out of the driver's seat and put out the cigarette and I was going to do the thing I knew how to do. Charm and convince.
Idiot boyfriend was never going to have that skill, and I have to tell you, it was something that was going to come in handy for me again and again. Make fun of my gender all you want, insult my driving because I am female and because you think you can, but YOU, idiot man with no couth and no charm, will never be able to convince a complete stranger to want to help you.
And that is what I did. I rolled up to the guy in the booth and I told him a sad story. I don't even fully remember what it was, but it was a lie so convincing and sympathetic that the gate opened. I told him I needed to get that car back in that lot and could I please, please just go in? And he let me. Because a smile and a kindness and honey in my words are something my idiot boyfriend will never recognize as a skill.
And this is the part where I could never fictionalize this story. This was the miracle. That same spot was open. The place I had taken the car from just appeared in front of me. And I pulled into that spot.
Joyfully, we celebrated, jumping up and down in excitement! I adjusted the seat back and exited the car and we ran to catch our ride home. I remember thinking to myself, the only thing that can get me caught now is the smokey smell. But who would believe it? How could my mother possibly believe that I could take the car, joy ride for the weekend and return it to the same spot? It was impossible, right? Never happen that way. No one in their right mind would believe it. I could never tell a fictional story and get you to believe that happened that way. But it did.
So, I went home and sat in the living room, feeling fairly confident that I would not be caught. I mean, I wanted to be an actress, so I just acted calm. I waited. My parents came through the door and everything seemed normal for about thirty seconds. I had gotten away with it. I mean... like most kids, I had gotten away with multiple things that my parents did not know about, so... this would be the next thing.
I have to tell you, from my sixteen year old perspective-- this was a victimless crime. No one got hurt. The car was in as perfect condition as when they left it. No harm, no foul, right? But that feeling of well being did not last long at all. In a few minutes after they put their luggage away, they started to question me. In a way that implied they knew I had taken the car. They told me that the attendant had ratted me out.
Really? That seemed kind of strange to me. I had that guy on my side, I was sure of it.
Eventually, though, I just confessed.
Yeah, I did it. I mean, what were they going to do now? It was over, the thing had happened, it was over. I had been caught after, not before. So... okay. I was in trouble. What else was new. I was always in trouble back then.
So, I had to know. What tipped them off?
The smell of smoke?
Turns out not so much.
It was the seat position. It was not exact. Now, I KNOW I put that seat back! I know I did.
Last week, I went to my mother and asked her what it was. I mean, all of the things were so minor, unless someone is paying a lot of attention, you would really not even notice them. How many little things do we let go of on a daily basis. You know, that mirror is not in exactly the right position... hmmm, maybe I bumped it? Both my parents drive that car and they both move the seat from time to time...
But here it was - what tipped my mother off (because my dad did not suspect a thing)
She said to me. "I knew you were going to do it."
I asked "Why is that, Ma?"
She said "Because I knew YOU."
And really, at the end of all of this, it was because my mother knew how I worked. She was paying attention to me. All this time, I thought she had no idea who I am (and now my own sixteen year old daughter thinks I have no idea who she is) but my mom knew who I was. She knew my favorite meals, my favorite color, my strengths, my weaknesses. She was paying attention to who I was. Not some version of me like my dad made up in his head. So, when she got into the car, she was already looking for the little signs that would tip her off, and so they were easy to find.
Ah, the fierce love of my mother. Last week, I told her I was sorry (again) that I did that. I took full responsibility for the stupid, reckless and idiot thing that I did. She shook her head and said this was probably her fault somehow. No, Ma, that will never be your fault. You definitely raised me better than that, it just took a while for me to stop being so foolish and to grow up.
Still, it is comforting to know that there is someone in the world who knows me, my strengths and my faults- and chooses to love me, anyway.
I welcome 2014. As someone with a silly ass fear of the number 13, I did not take many risks in 2013. I just tried to survive it. Silly, I know, but my life did not take any major leaps. I was just waiting it out like a bad storm.
This year a new moon fell on January 1st, the first time that has happened in 19 years. Coincidentally, it was 19 years ago on New Years Eve, as Blueberry Hill was closing that an impulsive 20 something guy surprised me by taking me gently by the shoulders and planting a kiss on my lips in the new falling snow as I bid him goodnight. Nineteen years later, that guy is my husband and he kisses me on New Year's eve under the new moon as we arrive home together.
On the way to attending a party, in the car, my husband says to me. "I'm really glad 2013 is over. It was a terrible year."
"Really?" I said "Name three things."
He thought for a minute and said "Well, my stupid car broke down like once a month, so I couldn't save any money."
He went on. "And we had to get the terrible news that our daughter has ADHD and dyslexia. Now we have to pay all that money to a really expensive school."
I said "Now, hang on a minute..."
I say, and prepare a really good answer for this...
"This is not a matter of bad things happening. This is a matter of your perspective on things."
"How do you mean?" He asks.
"Think about it," I said. "We had been wandering around in the dark not knowing what was going on with Isabella and she was steady struggling with a terrible teacher in a school that totally misdiagnosed her. By the time we got her to a real doctor and found out what was really wrong with her- even though it punched us in the gut, it was really good news. We finally had answers! We finally knew definitively what was wrong and we had a solid approach on how to treat her. So, if you think about it, that was actually good news."
"That's true." He said.
"And as for that expensive school, I am happy to spend the money at a school where our daughter can get the education she needs. I'm grateful for that place every day. And you love it as much as I do. But most importantly, Isabella is happy there, and she is learning to work with her disability. We found a really great doctor and the medication she is on is actually working. How are these things bad?"
John stops and thinks "You're right, you know? I guess those are good things."
"Now, as for your car..."
John said "just stop there, I'm feeling better. Quit while you're ahead."
Happy New Year everyone. I hope your perspective stays optimistic and your struggles have purpose.