Comedy and Tragedy

It was about as funny as it wasn’t…

… which describes most of my experiences as a medical examiner.  It also describes most of my experiences as a human, but I always had kind of a twisted sense of humor. Just ask all of those agents who refuse to publish me because my writing is “too irreverent” or “disrespectful of people’s tragedies”.

Whatever

Sometimes you have to laugh because it’s the only option.  And I totally respect other people’s tragedies because I’ve had plenty of my own… I’ve laughed at all of them… right after I cried so much I thought my chest was going to split open as brands of fire spilled out.

catastrophe

a picture of me, having a meltdown from outer space

I’d had a day full of coagulated deaths; deaths so logistically and physically sticky that it took hours to thread through all of the bureaucratic knot-work involved, even as I did my best to wipe the residue of mortality off my metaphysical shoes.  We, in America, make death so complicated that it’s about as funny as it’s not.

Anyway, I was sitting at my desk, having finally cleared from two separate death scenes that had both been particularly tedious. I don’t remember any specifics now… namely because of what was about to happen. I was just sitting down to the tidal wave of resulting paperwork when my pager went off.  I called the number and found myself on the phone with state police dispatch.

“Hey, we’re wondering if you have an ETA for the accident on Highway 30”

“Ummmm, what accident on Highway 30?” I responded.

“Well I paged the officer’s number out to you almost 2 hours ago…”

I glanced at my pager, I HAD gotten a page two hours earlier, but when I called the number, it had gone straight to voicemail.  The outgoing message had stated that, “-the person’s voicemail box has not been set up yet.” I had dismissed it, figuring that if it was important, the person would call back. Which, I suppose, now they were.

I explained this problem to dispatch trying to keep my irritation under control.  It is a faux pas of epic proportion to miss a scene call, and the sinking feeling I experience when I find out that this has happened roughly resembles the legendary, black-out drop on the Space Mountain roller coaster at Disney World.  It’s the kind of situation I get called into my supervisor’s office to explain after any number of dispatchers and officers call to gripe about our shitty professionalism.  Write-ups and warnings abound… and rightly so.  It’s my fucking job to be available for these things.

angry boss

“You guys… You KNOW that if we don’t respond to a call within 15 minutes of a page, you’re supposed to call BACK.”

I was pissed. No way in hell was I taking the heat for this one.

The dispatcher stuttered and fumbled, then transferred me to her supervisor.  I explained the situation over again and the supervisor put me on hold for a few minutes before coming back on the line and telling me that the motor vehicle accident on highway 30 was in such a remote area that there was no cell phone coverage.

“We’ve got a new trooper out there and I think he’s feeling a little overwhelmed. He didn’t know to call back when he didn’t hear from you. we’ll explain it to him.”

I re-packed my freshly un-packed scene-bag and mounted up for a drive into the remote foothills of my county… for a head-on semi-truck-vs-panel-truck motor vehicle accident that was two hours old and getting older. I was preparing the little come-to-Jesus talk I was going to have with this noob state trooper when I got there: stern, but not too salty. After all, this was probably the first time he’d seen a catastrophic death and it made sense he might be a little squirrly.

However, when I got to the scene…. now 3 hours after that initial page… I was approached by none other than state trooper Nicholson- who is one of my favorite people.  Trooper Nicholson and I rescued a dog together who had been locked in a garage alone for a month after his owner died in the house.  It was a miracle the dog was still alive and both Nicholson and I had almost burst into tears when the beautiful Rottweiler had huddled his gaunt frame up to us, grateful for his first contact with other living beings in 33 days.

Nicholson is not only one of my favorite people, he’s also 7 months away from retirement.

“Uh… HEY!” I cheered as he approached. “Um, dude, sorry it took me so long to respond. When I tried to call the number back I couldn’t get through.  I guess there’s no reception up here and I only got that one page two hours ago. You know you can call me back if you don’t hear from me after 15 minutes, right?”

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” he chuckled. “We had plenty to keep us busy here.  And I did ask dispatch to call you back.  I wonder what happened.”

“Well, um… Dispatch told ME that the trooper onscene was a newbie and didn’t know to call back…”

Trooper Nicholson stared at me in disbelief.  I squirmed under his gaze like a freshly salted slug… shrugging and chuckling awkwardly… because it was funny.. about as funny as it wasn’t.  And I reflected to myself that I wasn’t sure if that burning smell was from the scorched out semi truck on the side of the road, or from Nicholson’s hair, curling up and smoking as his face turned a wrathful garnet-red.

“They… said… what?”

I smiled weakly and made some inane comment about, “what’s the sound of a buck being passed”.

“Uh, yeah, anyway… tell me what’s going on here.” I turned to survey the damage which was… profound.  There was the burned up semi-truck on the shoulder, as I mentioned before.  But that wasn’t my focus.  Reportedly THAT driver had been airlifted to the downtown hospital and was doing just swimmingly.

My date was with the panel truck that sat in the center of the two-lane highway, split open like a busted melon.  The debris field was… substantial, easily covering nearly one hundred yards of pavement before me: shattered glass, broken plastic fragments and hunks of unidentifiable machinery. It all speckled the asphalt like a Jackson Pollack painting.  In the middle of it all, there was a yellow tarp.

Nicholson explained as I gingerly tip-toed through the hodgepodge: “So… witnesses say the panel truck veered into the oncoming lane.  The truck was going about 50.  The semi was coming down the hill in the opposite lane, going maybe 60?  The panel truck crossed into the oncoming lane… there’s that steep grade on the side of the road there and the semi didn’t have anywhere to go… so… OOP,” he hiccuped as I stepped over the yellow tarp. “Yeah, one of the guy’s arms is under there.  Anyway, most of the rest of him is still in the cab… what’s left of it.”

“Most of the rest of…” I stuttered. And then I saw it.

There was carnage scattered around in the mess. Chunks of flesh were sprinkled here and there amongst the wreckage.  There was so much… meat on the highway it boggled the mind.  It looked as if the guy had exploded.  There was a pile of muscle to my right, another scrap of sinew to my left.  And over there was… a… plastic bag, split open… with a few hunks of carrion spilling out the side? And I realized…

The panel truck had been a food delivery truck.

Upon impact, dozens of boxes of raw chicken and pork had burst out the yawning tear in the truck.  The boxes had detonated when they hit the ground and literally bestrew the debris field with… well… debris. We were surrounded by errant breast fillets and stray tenderloins… It had all tumbled and scuffed along the ground, getting covered in dirt and leaves, until each species of gore was virtually indistinguishable from the other.  The only thing that could be definitively identified as belonging to our driver, was the severed arm underneath the tarp.

And I burst out laughing…

…because it was funny

…about as funny as it wasn’t.

Nicholson, next to me, wrestled back his wide grin, momentarily forgetting how he’d been done dirty by dispatch.  “I know, right?” He chortled, “you can’t make this stuff up.”

“Oh my GOD,” I gasped. “This is so fucking wrong.”

I took a couple deep breaths and stepped over a tangle of snarled noodles that were hemorrhaging out of a box nearby as I moved to survey the truck driver still in the cab.  That’s where the laughter drifted away.  The guy had died on impact… thankfully.  He never felt a thing.  He had lost a leg as well, it was tangled in the seat mechanism beneath him.  And he lay sideways across the seat… eyes closed… almost peaceful. It was tragic, deeply tragic. He was young… tattooed… bearded.  He looked like so many of my friends…

I looked up the road to make out the skid marks that would communicate the lines of travel that the semi had made as he swerved, hoping to avoid the truck.  Up the road I saw the police tape stretched across the road and a legion of curious drivers, all, trapped by the accident, stuck waiting for us to move it out of their path.  Necks were craned and eyes were alert. All of them were angling to catch a glimpse of the deceased driver as he lay, barely shielded by the crooked-hanging passenger-side door.

The rage blossomed through my mind like a mushroom cloud.

“Somebody fucking do something about those goddamnned lookie-loos,” I snapped, gesturing violently toward the crowd.  They were far enough away that they couldn’t hear me, but I have no doubt they could see the flailing motions of my arms as I cursed their curiosity.  One of the department of transportation guys nearby began ambling up the hill towards the onlookers.  I could see him hollering at the people and their lukewarm response to his commands.  They each took a couple of steps back, but remained well within eye-shot of the scene, having no intention of missing the “main event” when we pulled the broken driver out of the truck.  I became even more incensed and began stomping my way up the hill, intent on delivering a scalding diatribe as soon as I reached them… a diatribe that included the phrase: “THIS MAN DID NOT DIE FOR YOUR ENTERTAINMENT!”

It appeared they caught sight of me bearing down on them because the whole sordid lot scrambled back to their cars as though they were being set upon by a swarm of killer bees.  I slowed my pace and stood, hands on hips, between the crowd and the accident, shouting at the slow-movers “KEEP WALKING!!!” as they meandered out of sight. Turning back to the accident, I noted another state trooper nearby.  One I had worked with before, but didn’t know personally.  Our eyes met and his mouth twisted in a barely contained smile.

“I was going to tell them to bug out, but I kinda wanted to see you mad.”

Funny guy.

We had to call the fire department back to the scene to get the driver out.  It was a long process. I ended up helping and received a massive splash of blood on my leg that soaked through and wet my skin.  Then we had to do a shoulder-to-shoulder-walk of the debris field, playing a gruesome game of “Chicken, Pork or Human”… I was the referee.

I know… funny… not funny.

Attempts to get an address for his Next of Kin was impossible.  He had just started working for the truck company and his supervisor barely knew him… when asked if there was emergency contact listed on his hiring paperwork, he told us the office was closed until Monday… then shrugged with indifference.  As I was finally leaving, with the truck driver on his way to the morgue and his cell-phone tucked into my pocket in the hopes I might manage to find his family, one of the DOT guys stopped me.

“Hey, aren’t you going to take a fortune cookie?” He asked, pointing at the ground.  The truck had apparently been making a delivery to an Asian restaurant, because hundreds of fortune cookies lay at my feet… some crushed, some intact. “We’re all taking one…” he coaxed.

I shrugged, picked up a fortune cookie, cracked it open and glanced at the words from the hereafter.

“Cool man, I’ll catch you later,” I said to him. I hugged Nicholson goodbye and reminded him to invite me to his retirement party… seeing as how he was a newbie and all.  Climbing into my county truck, I headed back into civilization, hoping to finally start my paperwork and maybe go home to eat.

I didn’t sleep that night.

When I did manage to sit down, I spent the next hour combing through the truck driver’s phone, trying to disseminate which numbers were his family or friends. The names were all nick-names and there weren’t any text messages.  Finally, desperate to notify someone before midnight, I called the most frequently dialed number in his phone and ended up speaking to his fiancee.  It was a horrific notification.  When I told her, she screamed, choked, cried.  Her heart-crushing sobs floated through my apartment even though she wasn’t on speaker-phone. My roommates in the living-room stared wide-eyed through the kitchen door, clearly able to hear the wrenching sounds of her devastation.

Even after that call, it wasn’t over.  I had three more calls that night.  I don’t really remember them, I only remember that at 5 a.m., with three hours left of my shift, it hardly seemed worth it to go back home. Instead, I staggered back into my office and finally began hacking away at the jungle of documentation that has been amassing for the last 48 hours.  I sent my counselor an email stating that I wouldn’t be at group therapy that morning, even though I probably needed it more than ever. but I wouldn’t have time to go home and change beforehand and I didn’t think the others would be so keen to see me walk into a group therapy with blood all over me… even if I assured them it wasn’t mine.  At one point I logged into Facebook and happily saw that my boyfriend of three months was online.  “Hi!” I typed to Darkhorse (as he shall forever be known to you) “How was your night?” (He’s a bartender at a local watering hole and eatery)

“It was incredibly stressful…” he typed back.  Launching into a story about how busy he had been. A customer complained about him and his passive aggressive co-worker refused to bring him fresh silverware when he asked for it because the co-worker thought that Darkhorse’s tone was rude.

“Wow,” I typed back… “that sounds… rough…”

I know… funny… because it was… and wasn’t…

He didn’t say much more. He was grumpy and didn’t sound particularly interested in how my shift had been.  He told me he thought he was getting sick and logged out.

I had no idea that I wasn’t ever going to see him again, at least not in any way that I expected.

Darkhorse’s sickness extended through the next few days.  We cancelled plans to go out of town on an overnight trip upstate. I was exhausted and his sickness had taken pretty serious hold.  He told me that he just wanted to rest and “cough up his lungs”.  I offered to make him soup and show him movies if he came over. He declined.  I was okay with it… I had to go out of town for a family thing and didn’t particularly want to catch anything.  But then a few days stretched into a week.  Darkhorse’s messages thinned out to a trickle.  A sentence here and there, a greeting, a video of some cats.  Then one day went by… then two… with no contact whatsoever.

I reached out to him a couple of times… jokingly asking if he was still alive- because in my world, when people stop calling it’s because they’re dead.  I asked him if everything was okay, was there anything I needed to know.  No, he said, he was just tired and sick. He loved me, he missed me, everything was fine.

Then five days went by. The unease was starting to gnaw at me.  The two of us had been inseparable right up until that night of that awful shift. We had been happily bashing around the city for weeks. He had taken me to my doctor’s appointments, we had played card games, binge-watched TV shows on Netflix.  He had seemed delighted to regularly crash at my place for four days at a time. And now, it felt as though a light had suddenly burned out. I was groping around in the dark, trying to find the hand I had just been holding.  I was trying to be patient and give him space, knowing that he was a bit introverted. Also, I was out of state with my family and maybe he was just giving me time away.  We had been spending an awful lot of time together, maybe we just needed to recharge our batteries and pay more attention to our own lives, after all… you can’t live in the honeymoon phase forever.

At the end of those five days, I messaged him on facebook again, I would be coming home from my brother’s place the next day and I just wanted to check in.  “What’s going on?” I had said.

“I’m terrified,” he responded… a number of hours later. “I don’t know how strong I am for this.”

I was confused and hurt… telling him that his distance and silence had compelled me to believe that our relationship was over… much like that shift, I don’t remember a lot of what was said… but the gist…

“I’m afraid you’re going to die.  I’m not strong enough for this”

“You’re breaking up with me because I have cancer?”

He was breaking up with me because I have cancer…

I do… have cancer.  If you’re just joining the story now, the fact is I have cancer… a rare variant of a rare form of cancer.  It manifests as an intermittent rash on my face and neck.  I’ve had two rounds of radiation therapy and the rash still comes back, itchy and demanding as a backwoods cousin on meth.  It’s not systemic right now, but that’s all we really know.  Doctors tell me that they can’t say with any reliability what’s going to happen, but as far as they can tell it’s just going to be an aggravation that has to be managed and there’s no reason to think that I won’t live a normal life span… still you never know.

You never know…

Just like you never know if you’re going to be run over by a car… or you never know if you have a malformed vessel in your brain that could rupture at any time… you never know when you’re going to distractedly veer into an oncoming lane and get hit, head-on, by a semi… but I can tell you how it feels when you do.

It feels like that conversation.

This isn’t the first time.

I was married when I first got diagnosed.  My husband was an introvert, too.  He was so introverted that he completely ignored my disease until, finally, I asked him one day how he felt about it. What did he think? What should we do? Again, I was groping around in the dark, trying to find the hand I had just been holding.  My husband stared at his feet for a second, looked up without meeting my gaze and said, “I’m not comfortable with that question.” And even though he was physically present, I never saw him again, at least not in any way that I expected.

Our marriage never recovered from that conversation.

The very next relationship, I was breaking it off because we lived in different states and straddling the two locations was making me crazy and exhausted.  I was sorry but I just couldn’t maintain the connection.

“You know, Grace,” he had barked at me petulantly, “You don’t look that good on paper… you’re divorced… you have CANCER…”  pointing out that I should be grateful that he was willing to take me on with all my… flaws.

Then there’s my last relationship, the one with the verbally abusive bipolar who, during his particularly bad spin-outs, would wield my disease like a mace, brutally bashing me back and forth, telling me that he didn’t know what I was so upset about. HE was the one taking on all the risk in this relationship… seeing as how I had cancer.

Now… someone just couldn’t bear to watch me die of cancer, he just wasn’t strong enough for it.  “I do love you…” he typed.

What followed was a jumbled onslaught of messages from me… dazed… crushed… flailingly trying to make sense of what I had just been told. I’m not sure what I said, but I know I’m not proud of it.  When I finally got my wits about me, I told him that I was sorry for not being more compassionate towards his fears… it makes sense, it’s scary to lose someone.  I feared the same thing… He never responded

He did this over facebook.

and I apologized for my lack of compassion…

Funny, right?

I’ve laughed as much as I’ve cried.  I’ve laughed when my friends have threatened to stuff him in a crematory.  I’ve laughed at myself for being so messed up over anyone who could do something like that. I’ve laughed at the sheer absurdity and likely falsity of his argument… I love you, I can’t stand to watch you die… even though I’m not dying.  Chances are he’ll die long before I do. I should know, I’m a medical examiner for fuck sake.  It’s what I do.

And I think about it… that last shift that I thought I was okay, that I was loved… that I belonged somewhere and with someone. It’s funny how I feel like both of them at the same time… the driver… torn to pieces by a sudden impact that he never saw coming.  But I’m also his fiancee, somehow still breathing, left alone in the desolate aftermath… my roommates, staring wide-eyed through the kitchen door.

wreck

And I still have that fortune, the one I picked up at the scene, tangled up in the wreckage. I stuck it to the refrigerator and I see it several times a day… and it’s funny…

… about as funny as it isn’t.

“A found penny will bring you good luck!”

A penny…

…well… that’s something to look forward to…

I haven’t found it yet.

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Confessions of a shop-a-phobe

I hate shopping, I really do.

Malls fill me with anxiety and rage. The modern take on multi-dimensional shopping: “promanades” leave me feeling crazy and exhausted. Boutiques are pretentious and cluttered. Even grocery stores kind of torque my lug-nuts ever since they’ve turned into multi-department megaplexes.

Seriously, they’re out-of-control.  Just today my roommate and I went to get dish-soap and baking ingredients and as we approached the “grocery store” we both marveled at how this arena-sized monstrosity had managed to appear in the middle of a city where real-estate is at such a premium.  The structure easily took up two city blocks and looked as if the Millennium Falcon had crash-landed in the middle of town and someone decided to slap a few overhangs on it and call it a business.  Inside was as multifaceted and confusing as quantum physics.  The two of us staggered from aisle to aisle, and found ourselves utterly flabbergasted at the display of no less than 326 incarnations of dish-soap that lined the shelves like glossy, vibrant elixirs of magic… each promising a virtually transcendent dish-washing experience.

We decided on the purple one… because… purple… and then scurried out as fast as we could… pausing only to take advantage of the discount Easter candy.  Because discount Easter candy is the best thing since the resurrection and if Jesus taught me anything, he taught me to believe in second chances.

yolojesus

Anyway, I’m not sure how my aversion to shopping got started. I suspect it had something to do with clothes shopping with my mother… whose brain was like a hive full of angry bees when it came to sensory overload.  She couldn’t last for more than an hour in any given store, didn’t tolerate arguments and refused to pay for anything that she, herself wouldn’t wear.  I was an 8-year-old kid dressed like an LL Bean housewife.  Shopping was an excruciating process that came to be a source of dread and disappointment as childhood rolled into adolescence.  My inner goth began to seep through the placid, preppy exterior, yet I was still expected to reflect someone else’s style preferences and taste. I was forcibly dressed like Pollyanna, but had the inner roilings of Wednesday Addams.

wednesday

By the time I was old enough to purchase my own anything, my attitude approaching virtually ANY shopping experience was profound exasperation before I even got out of the car. I have EVER only wanted to get it over with.

So, even now, it should come as no surprise that I rarely enter a store and I tend to wear my clothes until they are literally falling off of me. And although I’m required to dress in business casual while on duty… my general stance is to acquire all my work clothes from Goodwill since there’s every likelihood that I will end up covered in blood, soot, mud, brain matter, motor-oil, tree sap or any other number of substances.  My fashion philosophy reads like a spoiler for Game of Thrones… “Don’t get too attached.”

Still, I I suppose I get attached to my clothes, but only because I don’t want to buy new ones… even when they’ve reached a ridiculous degree of “worn out”.  I recently had to admit to myself that my work boots had achieved that state.  In fact, they did so quite a while ago.  For the last couple of months, I’ve noticed that when it rains… my socks get wet.  I tried to convince myself of any number of explanations… for example… the water… like… seeps through or something.  The seams aren’t sealed… or whatever. But the other day, I actually examined the bottom of my work shoes and confirmed the soles had split, probably some time ago, and there were holes in my boots.

Even knowing this, I managed to squeeze a couple more weeks out of wearing them. And when I finally decided to go shopping, I was on shift. I figured that since I had worn out my boots by stomping around the county in the service of dead citizens and their families, the county could damn-well pay me while I went out to buy new ones.

(Let me explain. Because I work on-call… technically, I’m get paid to be available for the dead citizens and their families.  If no one needs me and my paperwork all is caught up, technically… I’m essentially getting paid to hang out and wait for someone to die… and while I’m waiting, I can do what I want. Which means technically the county has, at times, paid me to play video games, walk my dogs, go to trapeze class, write this blog.  And on a couple occasions,   the county has paid me to have sex… high-five!)

thumbs

Anyway, I started out heading to a Ross Dress for Less, figuring that I had bought my last pair of boots there and it had been a relatively painless experience.  Their selection is pretty limited, everything is relatively cheap, their store-layout is boring and predictable, the lighting is good and there will be absolutely NO store employees bugging to “help” you.  (It’s basically, everything that most stores try NOT to be)

Well, as I am woefully under-informed when it comes to all things trendy, it came as something of a surprise to discover that April is the advent of spring fashion.  Walking purposefully into Ross, I was confounded to discover that the entire women’s shoe section was inhabited by nothing but sandals and lap-dance-worthy-stilettos.

“…” said our illustrious heroine.

I needed something with adequate traction, a low heel and a thick enough sole that I would be comfortable walking through puddles of… stuff. They needed to be durable enough to handle trekking through foliage, or burned out buildings, or climbing on top of over-turned cars and/or machinery.  I should be able to scale a tree in them in order to cut down hanging bodies.  I also needed them to be roughly knee-height in case any dogs decided to run up and bite me as I entered a house (It happens). But I needed them to look at least half-way professional in order to go with my requisite “business casual”.  In a perfect world, I would have just gone to all of my calls in jeans and combat boots.  But this isn’t a perfect world… this is a world where women’s’ shoe departments are full of ornamental foot-wear that isn’t supposed to serve any other function beyond looking cute, sexy, or whimsical.

And while I might be a cute, sexy and whimsical medical examiner, the last thing I need to do is bust an ankle on a scene and fall face first into a decomposing corpse.  It really fucks up your street-cred with law-enforcement.

Now I love to feel the wind on my toes and slip my size tens into some sultry, slick-strapped, whip-wielding stripper platforms that will pump me up to over 6-feet tall and make my ass look great. AND I’ve been known to wear such shoes… briefly.

sexy

… but not at work.

And the shoe selection that I found at Ross Dress for Less suggested that most women don’t, in fact, work.  Ross seems to think that women spend their lives reclining in deck chairs on cruise ships…

cruise

James… tell the concierge to bring me another mimosa… I simply cannot be bothered…

…or taking long, leisurely walks on the beach, during which they hold their shoes in one hand after fancifully taking them off in order to experience the blithe, effervescent swirl of sea-water around their ankles…

beach walk

Ahhh… it’s lovely to be idly decorative

and if women DO work… they work on a pole. (Not to say there’s a damn thing wrong with working on a pole. but the rest of us need shoes too.)

stripper

They’re certainly one-up on me… I take my clothes off everyday for free…

But hey, I figured, “It’s a discount store… you get stuck with whatever is leftover from more legit stores.  I’ll try a different location and see if I do any better.”

So I went to a DIFFERENT Ross Dress for Less… sandals and heels.

So I went to a couple of random stores in the strip mall next to Ross… sandals and heels… and a few pairs of fringed, open-toed “ankle-booties”

So I went to a fucking Marshals I… I… can’t go on…

I was five stores deep and starting to feel a little… crazy.  I think all of the fluorescent lights were starting to fuck with my head, either that or it was the rat-trap layout of these establishments that’s specifically designed to disorient people once they’re inside. (Seriously, Google it… it’s a thing.) My breathing was inching closer and closer to hyperventilation as I frantically speed-walked laps around every shoe department… trying to find anything that might serve in the stead of my long-expired work boots. I came up dry on every front.

It was getting late: close to 3 p.m. on a Friday. I had been at it for almost two and a half hours… which is two hours and twenty minutes longer than I wanted to spend on this errand.  I was sweating in my leather jacket as I drove across town, and stress-ball squeezing the steering wheel as I watched the afternoon traffic coagulate into an un-moving clot around me.

“Fuck! Fuckitty Fuckaroo Fuckberries!” I muttered.  I was agitated beyond functioning levels. My brain was soaking in a soupy quagmire of latent childhood trauma, mixed with recent irritation at my wasted time as well as a low-grade panic as I contemplated the drive home.  I was just about to exit on to the highway (which was moving slower than a government employee) when I suddenly remembered there was a Kohl’s just around the corner: another low-priced department store that had an extensive shoe department, as I recalled.

moreshoes.jpg

I risked it.

I pulled the county truck into the parking lot and stomped toward the front door of the store with a renewed sense of determination.  Surely, it was just a matter of time before I found the right place. I believed! This was going to work out!

Except that I was already lost after having taken less than 10 steps inside the front door.  Kohl’s was a labyrinth of product and advertisements.  A kaleidoscope of shelves and lights… scarves, hats, jewelry, make-up, bras… My eyes were full and yet I couldn’t see anything.  Where the hell were the shoes? The last of my patience seeped out my voice as I snatched a nearby employee from her task.  “Where… Are… The… Women’s… SHOES” I growled.  Her eyes widened.

“F… F… Follow this aisle to the back, then turn left,” she stuttered, wide-eyed and fearful.

Without another word, I swiveled in the direction she had pointed and stomped back to the women’s shoe section… where I was greeted with endless aisles of…

…sandals and high-heels.

I scrambled from one display to the next… following a pathway that seemed to be populated by more respectable and practical flats and modest pumps… suitable for an office worker, but still far from appropriate for my grisly occupation.  Nothing… there was nothing I could wear… However, as I paralleled the endless stacks of offending shoes, I spied a store employee, squatting amongst a pile shoe boxes with a pricing gun in hand.

“WHERE… ARE… THE WOMEN’S… WORK SHOES?”

She looked up at me in confusion, undoubtedly wondering how I escaped the mental asylum. “What?” She gasped.

“THE WOMEN’S WORK SHOES! I NEED A PAIR OF WOMEN’S SHOES!”

She glanced around her, at the piles and piles of women’s shoes that would probably qualify as “work shoes” for any job other than mine.

“Ummmm…”

“LOOK!” I barked. “I am the county medical examiner and I need a pair of fucking SHOES.  I am frequently standing on the side of the road in the rain… often in a puddle of BLOOD or BRAIN MATTER and I need some goddamnned SHOES, OKAY? THESE ARE NOT SHOES!”

…and to demonstrate my point, I grabbed a black-velvet, 3-inch-heeled pump off the nearest shelf and brandished it in her face as though I was waving a murder weapon in front of my chief suspect.

She shrank back from me in a not-unreasonable show of self-preservation. “Uuuhhhh… ummm…” she mumbled helplessly.

Dissatisfied with her response, I continued with my tirade.

“I have been to five fucking stores in the last three hours… YOURS is the SIXTH and I have YET to find a decent pair of SHOES!”

“Wh.. where have you been so far?”

“What?” I scowled.

“Where have you tried so far?” she asked again, probably hoping to get a feel for what I found so unacceptable about these other places.  But I wasn’t having it.

“Look… do you have women’s WORK shoes or boots or whatever?”

“Ummmm… I think maybe you should try Big 5 Sports This is pretty much all we’ve got.”

It was a smart move on her part.  I think it was clear that I was not going to be satiated with a nice pair of penny loafers, and any attempts to up-sell me on a useless pair of shoes would have met with a swift beheading.  Instead I snarled a thank you at her and bull-dozed my way back out of the building.  Then proceeded to sit in traffic for an hour.

The day didn’t end there… The day didn’t, in fact, end until that night. Or technically, the day didn’t end until the next morning , at. 3 a.m. when I was called to a suicide. Some dude had managed to shoot himself in the head in a very small room… Which wouldn’t have been a problem, but for the fact that there was blood all over the floor, and I mean ALL over the floor of this tiny room… Where there was nowhere to stand… Other than in a big puddle of blood…. In my old boots… with the holes in the soles.

The detective, the patrol officer and I were on scene for almost 3 hours… Each of us staring at the skyline, willing the sun not to come up… Praying we might be able to stagger back home and crawl back into bed before dawn.  Of course,  my attention was split between the encroaching daylight and the fact that I could feel my socks getting wet as I stood in the swamp of this dead dude’s blood and cerebrospinal fluid.  But all things considered, I didn’t have it nearly as bad as the patrol officer, who had to kneel down in the slop to fingerprint the guy.  He sighed in dismal resignation as he squatted down and tried to wipe the dead guy’s hands off with a napkin we had purloined from the kitchen.

“You know,” he said as he did his best to roll a clear rendition of our decedent’s fingerprints, “today, my entire family left to go on vacation in Jamaica… And here I am…”

He looked so forlorn, and I was so sleep deprived at that point, that for reasons beyond logical description, I pulled out my phone, opened the YouTube app, and played the song “”Work From Home” by 5th Harmony.

harmony

Nice shoes!

“Come on guys!  Shake it out,” I hollered at them, as I commenced having a small-scale dance party, holey boots and all.

The detective stared at me like lobsters had just crawled out of my ears..

On the other hand, the patrol officer on the floor started head bobbing and singing along with me:  “You don’t gotta go to work… Work… Work…”

“Jesus, Grace,” barked the detective as I twirled around, waving the phone over my head.  “”What are you so goddamnned cheerful about?”

“Hey man, it could be worse… We could be shoe-shopping”
Epilogue: I ended up running something like 2 more calls that morning. I was tragically exhausted and couldn’t bring myself to forage for new shoes again.  On the upside, when I came home from my activities, there was a brand new pair of Doc Martens waiting for me, left by a certain dark horse who had been lurking in the wings waiting for his entrance.. But that’s another story… Stay tuned…

mystery

Jack the Who?

So…

I’m weird.

Being a medical examiner is weird… if you don’t start out that way… you certainly become that way pretty damnned quick.

But it’s a weird you don’t feel happening.  It’s subtle as opposed to acute. A smouldering heat as opposed to a sudden, scalding burn

It’s not like waking up one morning with a razor-cruel case of strep-throat… it’s more like the gradual growth of a cancer.  You certainly don’t notice the symptoms, or at least you can explain them away.  That soft, feather-like blurriness to your vision was simply the result of getting up too fast.  Maybe you’re a bit dehydrated.  You don’t quite remember where you left your keys or you’re searching for the correct word that dangles a whisper outside of your mind’s hearing.  You justify, you dismiss, you rationalize… and then one day a doctor tells you there’s a tumor nestled into your head like a dinosaur egg.  It’s some strange, petrified object with a dormant monster inside.  No telling what it might decide to do.  Probably nothing…

Being a medical examiner is something like that.

One day you realize that there’s a city of dead people in your head… and it’s much like any other population of people.  Some are addicts and criminals, some are children, some are kindly old folks who can’t find their glasses.  One day you realize that the concept of mortality isn’t so much of a struggle anymore and you understand that everyone around you could die at any time… of virtually anything.  And it’s not like you understand this on a existential, emo-music kind of level… I mean you KNOW it.  To the degree that every now and then you call to check on your friends and loved ones, just in case.

One day, you realize that carnage hardly bothers you anymore.  You might see a head split open by a car-wreck like a melon that fell off a picnic table… or a severed limb… or a guy who’s been decomposing in a bath-tub for a few days… and it doesn’t affect your appetite at all. In fact isn’t it time for lunch?  There’s a new pho place around the corner that’s supposed to be pretty good.

That one day came not too long ago… and I was on vacation when it happened… the one time that you’d think I WOULDN’T have to worry about mortality.

holiday2

I had never been to the UK before.

London had never been very high on my destination list.  Reportedly, every street stank of urine and you could expect to hear the word “cunt” used as often as any pronoun or preposition.

assholes

Neither of these reports really endeared this legendary city to me, however my friend and fellow medical examiner from another local county, Emily, and I were on a European adventure to Greece and figured we might as well toss London into our itinerary while enroute.  It was a nice little English-speaking stop-over on our way to the cradle of civilization… and since both of us were well-rounded international travelers, we figured that navigating this mighty metropolis was well within our skill set.

Nothing out of the ordinary happened, really. Except surprisingly and contrary to my previous travel experiences , I discovered that this time around I had absolutely NO tolerance for jet-lag.  Consequently I spent the first 48 hours of our London adventure mired in a seemingly endless wasteland of foggy ennui, (or… now that I think about it, maybe that’s just London) During this time, Emily’s sadistic side came out and she convinced me that I really needed to sample a plate of eel pie and mash.  It’s hard to say which was more dismal, the early spring weather, the greasy, slop of pastry that made up this local delicacy… or my mood as I was subjected to both in one day.

eel

Cue projectile vomiting in 3… 2…

Fortunately, by day three I was back in the saddle, ready to fend off Emily’s other culinary suggestions and eager to immerse myself in some British culture.  And as luck would have it, my spirits lifted just in time for the two of us to seek out pretty much the only destinations we had planned out prior to actually getting on the airplane:

1)  First of all, we were off to visit the tower of London, the reputed last domicile of doomed queens, discarded royal advisors, heretics (of both the Catholic AND protestant pedigree) and anyone else who unwittingly stumbled into a king’s ill favor. Basically, I wanted to see where Anne Boleyn lost her head to her husband’s temper and an executioner’s blade.  If nothing else, I wanted to stand upon the ground where the psychotic, power-mad, sociopathic King Henry VIII had a truly remarkable woman murdered… and proclaim a victory for fiercely unrepentant females everywhere.

We’re like dandelions.  You may cut us down, but our roots run deep, our seeds fly far and we’re as stubborn as spring… stampeding into summer whether you like it or not.

anne-boleyn-1

Work it… Girl!

2)  We wanted to have a drink at the site of the “Winchester Tavern”: the haunt of the unwitting, bumbling anti-hero, Shaun in the classic zombie movie “Shaun of the Dead.”

How’s that for a slice of fried gold?

winchester

Unfortunately, it turns out the pub is closed and the building has been converted into “flats”… which is a fancy, British term for the far less sophisticated reality: “apartments”.

pub

How’s that for a slice of soggy disappointment?

Our last destination, and the one I was REALLY looking forward to, was the “Jack the Ripper Walking Tour” through the streets of the Whitechapel district.

It occurs to me now, that every single one of these events had something to do with murder and mayhem, and one may be compelled to ask why the hell two medical examiners would travel to the other side of the world, just to indulge in more of what they already do for a living.  I don’t really have an answer for you.  Death is death, more or less… but this was a chance to hear about it in a cool accent.

So, for those of you who don’t know, Jack the Ripper was a fearsome serial killer in Great Britain who committed his heinous crimes in 1888.  By today’s standards, what with horror movies, YouTube and all, Jack’s exploits were relatively tame.  But for his time, he was a figure of unspeakable depravity and violence.  You can read all about him here. Have fun!

jack

Anyway, despite the advent of far more brutal and sensationalized killers, Jack the Ripper is still a figure of mystery and conjecture, largely because he was undeniably sadistic, but also because he was never captured or identified. (Recently there have been some developments regarding Jack’s identity.  If you like, you can read about them here. Have fun!)

Anyway, it’s a big, fat tourist industry in London.  Every night there are local historians dragging groups of locals and foreigners, alike through the gruesome tracks of Jack’s heyday.  Our tour-guide was a lovely “bloke” who graciously described each of the victims and the circumstances of their bloody demise as we wandered from one crime scene to the next.  It was interesting, but not exactly chilling… seeing as how most of the murder sites are now, “flats” or parking lots in what appears to be a relatively clean and quiet neighborhood.  I’m not sure how it was for the others on our tour, I’m not even sure how it was for Emily.  But at one point, as the tour guide was describing the evisceration of a victim… it struck me that I actually HAVE eviscerated people… and technically, I’ve eviscerated more people than are credited to Jack the Ripper.  And I felt this gave me some insight into the theories about who Jack was and what inspired his activities.  Of course, I didn’t share my ideas with the tour because I figured I wasn’t the one getting paid to lead it and I was on vacation, after all.  But I will say that the theory that Jack had a working knowledge of anatomy is not terribly astute.  Just because Jack managed to remove some organs while in the throes of his blood-lust doesn’t imply that he was looking for them… nor does it imply that he actually knew what they were when he stumbled upon them.  So he found a kidney… So what? That’s not so hard.

Also, I disagree with the allegation that Jack was, undoubtedly, a man.  The senior pathology tech at the medical examiner’s office is a dainty little 60-year-old Asian woman named Barb.  And despite her diminutive size and sunny personality, Barb can dismantle a large human corpse faster than a Marine sniper can field strip an assault rifle. She’s terrifying.

dismantle

(If you’d like to know more about Barb, you can read about her here. Have fun!)

Anyway, all these thoughts were cascading through my head as our tour-guide unveiled his coup de gras.  He had been carrying a folder around with him all night and as the tour wound down, he decided it was time to march out the crime scene and autopsy photos.  But before he started passing around the pics, he warned everyone that they were gruesome and awful and if you’re of a weak constitution, you oughtn’t look and blah blah blah.

Well, the photos came to me and… I mean… they’re not anything I would show to my mom.  But I guess I’ve been ruined for the average murder.  They were gross, I guess.  I dunno, maybe it’s because they weren’t in color.  But in a now-characteristic lack of self-control, I leaned over to Emily and muttered, “Dude, I’ve got photos worse than this on my phone right now.”

It was true.  In the not-to-distant past one of my illustrious co-workers had dropped and broke our work camera, the one we used to take scene photos.  Our boss still hadn’t given us the funds to buy another one, stating that he had no intention of shelling out for a new camera until we could offer him a “good explanation” for what happened to the last one and prove that we could take care of our equipment.

We had been without a functioning camera for some time since the best explanation we could come up with for what happened to the last one was: “gravity”.  And the concept of “essential equipment” was apparently lost on administrators who hadn’t left their office-chairs in 20 years.  So, without another option provided by our employer, we had been taking scene photos with our cell phones… a solution that was far from ideal.  In fact, I’m pretty sure taking scene photos with cell phones is one of the biggest breaches of confidentiality you can commit as a medical examiner… since often, people’s cell-phone photos are uploaded to some”cloud” or something and end up on Facebook.  Fortunately that hadn’t happened to any of us so far.  But still, it’s a dicey business.  Especially when you forget to erase the pictures and you’re scrolling through your personal gallery, showing your buddies pics of your dog and suddenly everyone gets an eye-full of a fatal motorcycle accident… the kind of thing that would even make old Jack flinch.

I expected Emily to agree… or at least sympathize.  But it would seem she works in a county where they can afford to replace broken equipment, because she just gave me a weird look and passed the Ripper pics to the next tour participant.

And I felt weird.

I realized I was weird.

I am weird.

It’s weird to have human evisceration in your wheelhouse.  It’s weird to have pictures of dead bodies on your phone.  It’s weird to come to London and only want to see places where people either died… or where movies were filmed of people dying.

But you’re weirder… you’re the one reading about me.

Weirdo…

Wanna see some pictures of my dogs?

 

An Accident: for Ryan

I was lucky.

Of all the things that could have happened, an accidental shooting that was transported to the hospital and then pronounced dead in the ER made for a relatively easy night. Not too bad for my first shift back.  I wasn’t terribly on my game but, thankfully, I didn’t have to be.

It was an accident.

Of course, I was unlucky in that this accident took place right around midnight and I was, of course, dead asleep when the call came in.  And unfortunately the last month and a half has completely de-conditioned me for waking up in the the middle of the night to do anything complicated and/or important.

In case you didn’t pick up on that, I just came back from a month and a half off work, but more about that later.  And anyway, considering all the unluckiness going around that night, I really couldn’t complain.

I answered the phone with a blurry, half  mumbled greeting, haphazardly scrawled some notes down from dispatch and then immediately started processing how I could technically do my job and still put in as little effort as possible. Specifically, could I deal with this call without actually having to get out of bed?

It wasn’t until I was on the phone with the investigating detective that I came to grips with the fact that this was actually a pretty serious situation and I was going to have to suck it up and work.

“Hey Grace! It’s been a while since I’ve seen you! Where have you been? How are things?”

“Hey Bishop,” I responded wearily… already instantly back in the habit of calling everyone by their last name.  (Of course that doesn’t apply to me because no one can pronounce my last name) I really like Detective Bishop.  He’s an honest-to-goodness nice guy who has never put on any big-fat airs about being a detective.  The guy has absolutely NO swagger at all.  He started with the Oswald County Sheriff’s Department at the same time I got picked up as a medical examiner.  We shared our first call on the job here, so we’ve always had something of a kinship for each other.  Appropriately, we’re at roughly the same level of disenchantment and we’ve watched one another become less and less enthused with the whole medicolegal-DEATH process.  We’re buds. Still, that doesn’t mean that I was about to tell him where I’ve been or how things are…

Because I’ve been out on leave for PTSD and depression, and quite frankly… things are bad. I’m not sure I should be back at work but for the fact that I’m out of money.

I’d offer details, but I’m not sure how much time you have.

indigo

The last 6 years has been a devastating, twisted carnival of loss, heartbreak and trauma. And while I have been dealing with it the best I could, that should not suggest I’ve been dealing with it well.  As each new blow was landed; from the miscarriage to the divorce, from the cancer to the break-up and the subsequent suicidal ideation… I lost footing, I flailed. I fell…. and got back up, always telling myself I could go on. I was fine. I was managing. But I wasn’t… Just because I awoke every day and managed some semblance of consciousness and function does not mean I was in any way surviving…

Yes, it got that bad…

…or rather, I got that bad… because I think the abandoning of myself, the slow degeneration of my own spirit that has been what we, in medicine, refer to as a chronic condition… a “smouldering infection”. It hasn’t been any one, single ruinous event that suddenly crashed my planet, it’s the accumulation of sorrow along with my desperate and increasingly disorganized coping.  The state I was in really wasn’t evident until I was sitting in the front seat of my car… thinking about how I could just veer into oncoming traffic and be done with it all.

I’m not proud of how completely I departed from my own center… How thoroughly I was flung off my axis…

I’m not blaming anyone.  I was a perpetrator in these events as much as I was a victim. I still am.  I wish I’d been better, wiser, kinder with it all. I wish I knew what to do now…

…besides my job.

Speaking of…

Yeah… I wasn’t about to share any of this with Bishop, I couldn’t.  Despite what our human resource departments like to claim, no one ever ‘fesses up to being on the ragged edge of a nervous break-down. We’re not “welcome to express our feelings”. The fact is, pretty much all of us (police, paramedics, etc.) are a mess all the time and we all smooth over the cracks in our psyches.  It’s a shameful thing… not being able to “cut it”.  Especially as a woman, there’s always that added layer of misogyny… the weight of having to prove you can hang with the guys, not only for your own sake, but also for the sake of all women who have ever applied for and held a job in a male-dominated field.  The eyes of history are on you. Generations of women before you fought and suffered so you could collect that paycheck… so are you going to cry and reach for your smelling salts while someone loosens your corset for you?  Or are you gonna fucking galvanize and show these assholes what a pair of x chromosomes can do?

Answer:

“I’ve been around, Bishop.  You know me… I’m always around.  What’s the story?”

“Well, we’ve got an accidental shooting.  This kid’s from China.  He’s here for college or something.  He and his buddies were playing with some guns and one of them accidentally discharged.  There’s liquor all over the place.  At first we thought it might be gang related… but it’s not. The shooter shit himself… like actually shit himself when it happened.”

Bishop kept talking while I wrestled out of my pajamas and re-built myself into my business casual professional-wear.

So… it made sense… everything Bishop was telling me. Owning firearms is an incomparable novelty for these foreign kids who have never even seen a live weapon, let alone held or operated one. So naturally, when Chinese students come to America, one of the first things that they do is go out and buy guns.  The next thing that they do is invite all of their friends over to see their gun collection.  And after THAT, the next thing they do is drink a vast amount of alcohol and start passing around those pea-shooters… and guess what happens next?

According to Bishop, the AR-15 discharged while pointed at our decedent’s abdomen

ar-15

When I saw him at the hospital, the wound was maybe half a centimeter in diameter… barely big enough to see.  But as anyone who knows anything about ballistics can tell you, the kid’s liver had essentially been put through a paper-shredder.  He was unconscious before the ambulance arrived.  He was pulse-less by the time they got him into the ER.

A split second.  A tiny hole. And here he was, 19 years old… less than half my age. Done.

Of course, the existential crisis I was due to have regarding this kid’s death was somewhat delayed by my more immediate logistical crisis: He was 6’2″ tall and weighed just shy of 300 lbs. I had to get him into the state office and on to an autopsy table all  by my itty-bitty self at almost 2 a.m…. prompting a less than boast-worthy hissy fit during which I uttered the reprehensibly racist comment that I thought Chinese people were supposed to be little…

trainer

Yeah, not proud of that one.  but hell, what do I have to hide anymore?

It took some fancy finagling on my part, but I managed to get the kid on a prep-table and into the cooler without dropping him on the floor or throwing my back out… because that’s what I do, right?  In the face of overwhelming tribulation, I carry the fuck on.

Still, after I had him on the table, I stood there and looked at him for what was probably an inordinate amount of time.

I never see these people alive, so seeing them dead isn’t as disturbing as one might think.  While their friends and family are devastated to see the inert flesh vehicle that once housed the soul of their loved one… it’s different for me.  He’s been dead the whole time I’ve known him. I don’t know a thing about him other than how damn heavy he is and what he looks like naked. In general I like it that way…  There’s just enough separation. It’s like handling mannequins. Sure, it might get a little creepy when you’re by yourself, but it’s not like they’re going to get up and start talking to you.

Maybe it’s because it was my first death, back in the saddle and my brain-condom wasn’t thoroughly in place…  But I did something I can only call ill-advised. I stepped out from behind the protective lead curtain of indifference. I looked at this kid and tried to imagine what his voice sounded like.  I tried to imagine him joking around with his friends.  I wondered what he was studying in America and what he figured his life was going to look like.  Was he going to go home to China?  Was he going to stay here?  Did he think America was just fucking awesome?  Did he realize what happened to him in those brief moments after the bullet tore through his body and before he exsanguinated into his abdominal cavity?

19 years old.

I remember being 19 years old, and I probably wasn’t too different from this kid.

It may be hard to imagine, but I was raised to be a conservative Christian.  I went to church 3 times per week. I sang songs, I lifted my hands up in worship.  I tried really hard to speak in tongues but couldn’t ever get the hang of it. I probably would have handled snakes if we had been into that sort of thing.  I was REALLY good at figuring out what people expected me to do, and then doing it.  By all accounts, I was set to have a safely obedient life of meek piety in the kingdom of God.  Everything was in place.  I was sheltered.

I left home to go to college, too.  I didn’t traverse continents in the name of higher education or anything, but I moved out and all of the rules that held me in check suddenly evaporated.  I could do what I wanted… for the most part.  Sure, I went to a Christian college (at first) that had a curfew, a chapel, an “honor-code” and all manner of rules governing our comings and goings.  But let’s be honest.  It was a barely contained free-for-all. Sex, drugs, rock-and-roll… and chapel services in between.

No one handed me an AR-15 or anything, but we had a wide variety of other lethal implements at our disposal… and not one of us had been trained, or even cautioned regarding their use.  Specifically, we all had barely developed brains, unbroken hearts and just-out-of-the-box,  freshly-oiled, fully-functioning reproductive systems.

And being sheltered from the use, care and maintenance of these items in no way sheltered us from the repercussions when we decided to start using them… and I imagine we were a lot like that slew of Chinese college kids.  Drunk on freedom, waving around our shiny new toys, feeling like hot shit… ignorant to the fact that you’re not supposed to put your finger on the trigger… be careful where you point that thing… it’s loaded you know…

BANG

I’m not young anymore.  There’s no excuse anymore. But if life is a battlefield and these are my weapons, I still can’t shake the feeling that I never really learned how to use them.  I imagine myself, staggering through no-man’s land, the demilitarized zones of human experience, dashing from one trench to the next, firing blindly over my shoulder. Taking another bullet in my thigh, one to the shoulder, throw on a bandage, tie on a tourniquet… keep running…accidentally firing on my friends, my lovers, my family… lost and confused…staring at a map that I never learned to read, wondering if that hap-hazard kaleidoscope of scoldings and sermons I received was supposed to pass for training…

I have to slow down. I have to figure out how to shoot this thing… and how to NOT shoot this thing.  I need to figure out who my allies are.  How do I recognize an enemy? And for god’s sake… where is safe? How did I get here?  How do I get home?

“I’m so sorry.”

…was all I said to the dead Chinese boy.  And I was.  I’m so sorry for all of the things he was counting on doing that won’t happen now.  I’m sorry for his mom who probably had nightmares about this very occurrence. I’m sorry for the friend who accidentally let off a round from his flashy new gun and whose future was now so terrifyingly uncertain.  And I’m sorry for all of us… the wizened old-timers who somehow survived our first rounds with the real world and have continued to get pummeled ever since.

Here’s to him.

Here’s to us.

We who are about to carry the fuck on… salute you.

50 Shades of Dysfunction

So, you may not believe me, but I actually saw this wretched movie…

Not the newly released sequel, mind you, but the first one: “50 Shades of Grey”

a.k.a.

“Dysfunctional Codependency 101”

50-shades

I’d hate to admit it, but I read the book, too.

I wasn’t so much interested in the whole bondage scene, so much as I was wondering what all the excitement was about.  Women everywhere were fawning over this smouldering anti-hero, Christian Grey.  The BDSM community was up-in-arms about the misrepresentation of their life-style and a bunch of my Christian friends and family members were clutching their blouses in horror and writing lengthy, self-righteous Facebook posts about how disgraceful it is to indulge in fantasies about men other than your husband.

I figured anything that garnered that kind of controversy and excitement deserved a look.

So I purchased the e-book on itunes and sat down for a little somethin’somethin’ with American literature’s most talked about sadist.

Long story short, it was drivel… I mean… high-school-creative-writing-class-bad. I honestly kept reading it out of sheer outrage that something so deplorably vapid could actually turn a profit.  That got me through the first chapter.  I spent the rest of the book fantasizing… not about kinky sex with a 27-year-old billionaire, but fantasizing about rewriting and editing the text to actually make it a halfway (in)decent read.

I remain flabbergasted by the notion that such inane garbage could actually get published while I’m struggling to get any agent to read my stories about the Mighty American Death Machine.

Anyway, after I read the book, I watched the movie… and you know what?

The movie wasn’t half bad.

It wasn’t “A Lion In Winter” or anything, but I actually enjoyed it to some degree, for a few reasons.  First off, Jamie Dornan is definitely not too hard on the eyes.  However he makes a much more convincing serial killer than romantic lead. ( If you don’t believe me, look up “The Fall” on Netflix) Secondly, Dakota Johnson actually has some talent for wandering through a scene looking bewildered and uncomfortable… which was exactly what her role called for. Nice work, casting director.

grey

Anyway, probably my favorite part of the movie was the ending.  And for those of you who haven’t seen this cinematic travesty, let me illuminate you:  After a weeks long campaign of stalking, intimidation and abuse that, really, should have resulted in a restraining order… Anastasia Steele decides that she simply cannot abide Christian Grey’s kink… and she walks out on him.

That’s it.

And while it may not seem terribly revolutionary to anyone else, I wanted to give our heroine a standing ovation… right there in my pajamas as I watched this literary swill play itself out on my ipad.

Of course, tragically, the series continues with the next installment in which the two of them get right back together before Anastasia even has the time to wash him out of her bed sheets… which is a damn shame but I can’t say I haven’t done the same… several times.  But that brings me to my point….

What the fuck are we doing?

I remember going to see “Phantom of the Opera” with my father when I was a tender 16 years old.  I was unbelievably enamored with the romance of it all; the phantom’s tragic genius, dancing inside his gloriously dark midnight-mind like the aurora borealis… the soul-ripping music that bled from his broken heart like a hemorrhage of magic falling from the stars… The love… The poetry… The allure of a magnificently tortured soul, as breathtaking as the crush of a fatal impact. I loved it. And when Christine decided to abandon the phantom to his dismal solitude beneath the Paris opera house, I cried my starry little teenaged eyes out.  How could she leave him?  He was soooo grotesquely beautiful.

I also remember when Beauty and the Beast came out in theaters… obviously not the live action one that was released just last week, but the animated one that, in it’s brilliance, received an Oscar nod as well as a subsequent stage adaptation that has been running for … well… I’m not sure, but probably decades.  I saw that damn movie nine times in the theater. NINE TIMES… IN THE THEATER.  That doesn’t even begin to touch the number of times I saw it after a friend bought it for  me on VHS. (Yes, VHS. I’m dating myself, I know.) I was obsessed with that story, too.  I strongly identified with the lead character who was a painfully misunderstood girl who read too much and couldn’t fit in.  And, of course, I LOOOOVED the LOVE story.  With her love Belle transformed the selfish, enraged, monstrous beast into a loving, tender prince and they lived happily ever after. Yay for love!

I could go on.  There are innumerable tales, loads of movies, countless books.  Hell, even the great classic “Pride and Prejudice” features a love affair between our spunky, whip-smart Elizabeth Bennett and the dashingly dour Mr. Darcy… a man who is, quite frankly, a judgemental, imperious prick who refuses to dance with Elizabeth in the first chapter, proclaiming derisively to his cronies that she, along with all the other women present, is “barely tolerable”.

I’m 40 now, and recently, I went to see “Phantom” again.  It was just as evocative and excruciating as ever.  But this time when Christine high-tailed it out of the opera house, leaving the Phantom to his dank isolation.  I wasn’t quite as heartbroken and maybe just a little exhilarated… a little vindicated… and a part of me wanted to get up and yell after her, “Run faster, girl! You can make it! That guy’s a complete psycho!”

Because he was.

phantom

Coming at it from the other side of 25 years later, I realize “Phantom of the Opera” wasn’t a love story.  It’s the story of a young woman who is being manipulated and slowly driven insane by a crazed (and brilliant) narcissistic sociopath who uses her childhood trauma to exploit and, ultimately, try to consume her. That’s not love.

“Beauty and the Beast” is a story of a young woman who, depending on the version you’re reading, is held captive by a vicious, maladjusted, shut-in who intends to steal her life away and make her fall in love with him so he can escape from his own twisted situation. That’s not love.

“50 Shades of Grey” is a story of a young woman who is completely inexperienced and naive.  She is seduced by a sadomasochistic nut-job (whose only real attribute is his fabulous wealth)  who is obsessed with the notion of owning and controlling her. One more time… louder for the folks in back… THAT’S NOT LOVE.

And we are doing ourselves and our children a massive disservice by telling them that it is.

My tirade isn’t only inspired by the recent release of many of these movies.  The other day I was working out at my gym and a song came on the sound system.  It’s a senselessly vapid little ditty, sung by some pouty-mouthed ding-bat in a leotard.  “When love huuurts… baby… yeah that’s how you know it’s REAL!” she croons through a synthetic swamp of over-produced auto-tune.

jojo

“when love hurts… baby, yeah that’s how you know it’s time to reassess your values and maybe think about getting some counseling.”

And THAT ladies and gentlemen is the crux of the problem. We (both men and women) have been led to believe that intensity and emotional turmoil are love.  We enter and entertain relationships that are damaging and dangerous because we believe that the “high” we feel from a flooded limbic system is “ever after” calling us forward from our mauve, hum-drum lives to embrace a vibrant and passionately tumultuous existence.  It’s a crock of horse-shit and we need to stop… seriously, we need to stop.

Because my tirade is also inspired by something else…

Remember “Beauty and the Beast”? That movie I saw nine times in the theater? Well one of those times I saw that movie, I was with my best friend, Theresa. She loved it just as much as I did. We clung to each other in delighted sophomoric ecstasy. We laughed, we cried, we agreed it was the BEST MOVIE EVER!

Hers was the first dead body I ever saw.

A few months after we saw that movie together, Theresa took up with some guy whose name I don’t even remember. His name doesn’t matter. He was “that guy”. The one who shows up with the saucy smile and the cigarette between his teeth.  He also showed up with a blunt and a wandering eye. Theresa fell desperately in love with this little shit stain and when he cheated on her a few months later, she killed herself.

Sixteen years old… Just like that.

I remember her funeral… And all of us there, children. Stacked up in the church pews with our eyes as wide as a virgin moon. We were dazed, terrified, baffled. Had this really happened? Was this really happening? It was an open casket. Theresa had dyed her blonde hair jet black and her roots had been growing out. Her face was green. That’s what I remember.

And I wonder about it now. What if? What if she had called me before she took the pills? What if we had seen a different movie or listened to different music? What if someone, somewhere had definitively assured Theresa that this relationship was absolutely NOT the most important thing that would ever happen to her?

Maybe she’d be here with me… Laughing at long-lost what’s-his-name with his stupid smile and his even more stupid cigarette…

Intensity and chaos are not passion… they’re intensity and chaos.  Yet young women are being bombarded with this message from highly stylized pop-culture.  They’re being told to sacrifice their own well-being and sanity in the name of love… with the assurance and everything will turn out great… Furthermore, they’re being told that failing to sacrifice themselves means that they are some kind of a banal, inhibited coward.

wonder

The fact of the matter is, women die because of this message.  Not only do they end up beaten to death, shot, strangled… (I’ve seen all of these situations).  They die to their values when they abandon their own moral compass in order to keep the peace with a lover.  They die to their identities when they ignore their own life in order to fit into the twisted contortion that’s required to make an impossible relationship work.  They die to their hopes and dreams by becoming a satellite to another person’s ego.  They die to their friends and families when they slowly disappear from activities and events… either because they’re too tired, too stressed out, too pressured or too ashamed of what they’ve become

They die to themselves, when they capitulate to this madness and become a hollowed-out receptacle where a broken man stores all his self-loathing.

Leaving is brave.

Self-preservation is sexy.

Fighting for yourself is passion…

Relationships are difficult… relationships take work… and all that psycho-babble.  But if you’re with someone who regularly treats you like shit and you hate yourself as a result…

You’re not the heroine in a love-story for the ages…

You’ve been had.

It’s okay, we’ve all been had at one point or another.

So turn off the romantic tragedies. Ignore the wailing advice of insipid pop-stars on the radio. Don’t take advice from anyone you don’t want to emulate.  And anyone who calls you a fool or accuses you of giving up is an idiot.

Follow in the footsteps of Christine Daae. High-tail it out of that fucking swamp, and rest assured, you will have an audience of women like me… women who have been there, who’ve had to make that choice and fight that battle… women who have had to run for their lives.  We’ll all be standing up in our seats and cheering as you go…

“Run faster, girl! You can make it!”

run!

The Dating Zombie

hands

It’s happening again.

It’s time.

Its the creepy organ music.

It’s the rich, sugary burn of scorched pumpkin flesh.

Its the shelves of the grocery store adorned in cotton cobwebs and piled high with bags of “fun-size” candy (-something that never made sense to me… why is a ¼ sized candy bar considered fun?  What’s FUN about less candy?)

Anyway… caramel and apples are stacked in the same display case in the supermarket, Ouija boards are on sale and department stores are already setting out Christmas decorations.

No doubt about it… it’s October.

As Halloween closes in on us, we as a culture are once again drawn toward the macabre, the creepy and the downright gross. Not surprisingly, I love Halloween.  It feels almost like the medical examiner equivalent of Veterans’ Day or St. Patrick’s Day. Suddenly everyone is into the same things I’m into and I feel a little less like a morbid anomaly… but just a little…

I went to see a Halloween circus and acrobatics show this past weekend and it was utterly delightful.  From the spiders on the trapeze to the hand-balancing werewolf, every single performer was amazing to behold.

If I had to choose a favorite act I would be tempted to say it was the witch who pulled a rubber chicken out of her shirt, but in truth my favorite act was the contortion zombie. This girl was all done-up post-mortem-like…ragged and emaciated.  She staggered onto the stage, groaned at the audience and proceeded to pull off a wide array of freakish moves, including, but not limited to, sitting on her own head.

contortion

I howled in nauseated astonishment along with the rest of the audience, my stomach turning along with everyone else’s at the feats of flexibility this girl was performing… but that’s not to say I wasn’t still something of a freak myself… because while everyone else was being blithely traumatized by the performer’s exploits, I was trying to calculate exactly how decomposed your standard dead body would have to be in order for her tendons and ligaments to display that kind of mobility.  I mean, you’d have to wait for rigor-mortis to dissipate, and the rate at which THAT takes place is profoundly variable. Furthermore, most bodies would lose the epidermis, adipose and muscle long before the sturdier connective tissues gave out.  Even then, you’d have to account for ambient temperature, precipitation, insect activity, exposure, body mass index and on and on and…

(In case it wasn’t obvious, this morbid anomaly here was dateless for this function)

Anyway… zombies.

Zombies have really enjoyed quite the revival over the course of the last 10 years (get it?).  I like it.  It’s nice to see them getting some work again and broadening their horizons.

After George Romero’s whole, “Night of the Living Dead” heyday In the 70’s, there was something of a dead calm throughout the 80’s and on into the 90’s for the re-animated.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, popular culture was, as ever, enamored of the paranormal.  But for a good 20-years, all things trendy chose to bow at the feet of vampires (The Lost Boys, Interview With a Vampire) witches (The Craft, Practical Magic) and werewolves (The Howling, An American Werewolf in London)… probably because the old adage remains true… sex sells. And it’s hard to make a rotting corpse look sexy.  And how the hell can a putrefying cadaver ever hope to rival Brad Pitt done up as the romantically tortured Louis… ever suffering the foppish insults of an equally exquisite Tom Cruise a.k.a. Lestat.  So zombies took a back seat, and waited.  Why not? They had time.

I’m not sure which movie did it… Maybe “28 Days Later” or “Shawn of the Dead”.  But as we staggered our way into the 2000’s, sultry, pouting succubi failed to titillate and the ennui of another struggling half-human, anti-hero began to wane even as our Nine Inch Nails albums wore down and even Marilyn Manson began looking a bit too… pedestrian for our tastes.  We wanted entertainment, mindless, heartless, pulseless entertainment… and the zombies provided.

But unlike the previous zombie fevers, this time we no longer feared the zombie apocalypse… we hoped for it.  Hell, we invited it.  I counted myself amongst those who regarded a zombie apocalypse with giddy anticipation. I just knew I would own the unbridled anarchy that would certainly ensue when the dead rose again and we could finally put to use all the driving and shooting skills we had honed while playing “Grand Theft Auto.”

Such an event felt like my own natural habitat. I would be like a duck in water… a kid in a candy store… an arsonist at Burning Man… a cop in a race riot. Nothing would stop me.

My friends and I would frequently discuss where we would meet at the advent of this “disaster”, where we would go once we had assembled, which stores we would loot first, which vehicle we would steal, which weapons to employ…  It’s kind of shameful how much effort we put into zombie apocalypse preparation as compared to how little preparation and planning we put into disasters that could actually happen.

I was set to hole up in the local art museum with an arsenal of blunt objects and canned goods at the first sign of zombie-trouble, but I couldn’t tell you how to use a fire extinguisher or what to do in the event of a tornado… I mean the city would shut down a lane of traffic on my usual route to work and I would erupt like a shaken soda bottle.

Anyway… zombies.  During this zombie revival, I was dating a guy named Cahuncey (yes, Chauncey… whatever assumptions you’re making about him based on his name are probably right.)  Good Ol’ Chauncey was even more enthusiastic about the immanent zombie apocalypse than I was.  And he used to play off this character we called “The Dating Zombie”… it was one of those nauseating little inside jokes that couples share… kind of like when another  boyfriend and I used to pretend we were dinosaurs and chased each other around his apartment making weird noises that we fancied were dinosaur-ish… He was Veloci-Ian and I was Dilotho-Kate… anyway, Zombies.

Chauncey would lurch over to me with a vacant, twisted expression on his face (even more so than ususal) tongue out and silvery thread of drool oozing from a corner of his mouth. He would heave forward with his arms bent askew, randomly clawing at the air like he was conducting an orchestra of seizure activity… with hands curled up like dead spiders.  One leg would be dragging numbly behind him as he convulsed and grunted and groaned like a dying asthmatic buffalo.   Once within a hand’s reach of me, The Dating Zombie would start in with the sweet talk… “Yooouuu haaave reallyyyyyy nicssse HAIIIIRRRRRRR” as he pawed at me in a clumsy, flailing attempt at a caress.  “Dooo you wannnna come back to myyyyy plaaaaaaaaaaaace AAARGH?” And he would stumble forward, catching my hand in his then he would pretend to be overcome with bloodlust and start nibbling on my fingers… “Brrraaaaainnssss! I love a woommaaaan with BRAAAAAIINS!”  It was cute… in a quirky, hipster way.  The Dating Zombie… poor, awkward undead romantic.

lovezombies

I’m divorced… which is really weird to say.  It sounds so much older and serious than I feel.  “Divorced” is for older ladies who wear too much perfume and have lip-stick on their teeth.  They roll their eyes during lunch dates with their friends and talk about alimony and child support and their ex-husbands’ mid-life crises.

It’s not really how I imagine myself.  But then again, I’m not just divorced.  I’m a divorced medical examiner… with cancer… which means I’m a divorced morbid anomaly… with cancer.

Honestly, as I’ve struggled to re-enter the “dating scene” (if that’s what we’re calling it) my attempted interactions with the opposite sex haven’t been too different from the strangled gestures of the dating zombie… I’m almost alive again, after the heart-stopping trauma of separation and divorce.  I brushed off the dirt in which my past life was buried and pitched myself ever onward, fumbling and ungainly, half-syllables and drool falling from my lips in equal measure as I attempted to get my hands on something satisfying.  Brains are good… as any zombie will tell you, but so is a sense of humor, a nice face, a job and maybe a retirement plan. At the moment, however, I’ll settle for a pulse and a penis.  And I insist on both at once.  A girl’s gotta have standards.

The problem is, everyone else has standards as well… standards that I suppose aren’t too stringent for most people. But if these standards are the equivalent of a metal detector, I don’t even make it past the front door. As I’m continually exposed to ever more death, I’ve sunk further and further into the quicksand of weird behaviors and habits that inevitably come with near-constant emotional crisis.  Some might call it post-traumatic-stress-syndrome… I just call it socially awkward. Either way…

I’ve retreated into the recesses of human interaction and lurk in the unmentionable shadows… a troll under humanity’s bridge… I see the underside of everything and it’s hard to find any common ground upon which to strike up a conversation.  I’m a classic bait and switch… I look like a normal woman, perhaps even an attractive one. I go normal places and appear to do normal things, but then I’m approached by a member of the opposite sex and I burst forth with some bizarre comment or question that’s so fucking disturbing that men turn tail and run as though I just sprayed them like a skunk.  I should just start farting the second I’m approached.  It might actually be less embarrassing.

For example:

I was working out at my gym and I’d seen this guy around.  He was something of a gorilla, big, hulking shoulders… thick, slab-like arms and hands like anvils.  He kind of had that dangling swagger to his upper torso where his biceps, triceps and lats were so overgrown that he couldn’t really put his arms down.  Head shaved and a wide, guileless grin… he had introduced himself at some point. I think his name was Joe and he was really impressed with my calves… and as I recall, I looked at him blankly, wondering why the hell this meathead was interrupting my interval.  But he seemed nice enough… and it didn’t occur to me until after I was already showered and at home in my own bed that he might have been flirting with me.

The next time I saw him, he approached as I was on the stair-machine and I was too sweaty and out of breath to really say anything… and my attempt at an inviting smile may have seemed more like a pained grimace. But I gave it my best shot and he stuck around long enough to tell me that he was a school bus driver for the local school district… a little fact that made him infinitely more attractive in my eyes. On first sight, I would have pegged him as a car mechanic or construction worker.  But hey… this dude worked with kids… which meant he had to be okay with a certain amount of gross talk… boogers and lugies and such. He was probably super patient and, on a more practical level, he had to have passed a pretty vigorous background check.  I had managed to gasp out that I was a medical examiner and he hadn’t run away screaming. He hadn’t even done the quiet moment of contemplation as he registered the depth of what that meant.  Maybe this could go somewhere… and by somewhere I meant… like to coffee… or to a movie… or somewhere other than to the rack for another set of curls.

The last time I saw him, I won’t say I was ready, but I wasn’t mid-exercise, so my lungs were full of air and I wasn’t sporting a big-soggy sweat-mark on my chest. He waved hello and I meandered over to try my hand at conversation.  We exchanged the requisite greetings and such and I asked him how the bus-driving gig was going. He shrugged and grinned then went into an extensive tale about a recent trip to the zoo in which 6th grade pandemonium ensued.

“Have you ever tried to wrangle a bus-load of 6th graders?”  He chuckled.

“Heh,” I said in an attempt to jovially identify a similarly complicated situation at my job. “Have you ever tried to wrangle the family of a dead infant?”

Even as the words charged past my lips I felt the choking horror set in… had I really just said that… like out loud and everything?

flaming

The question hung there for a moment, and Joe’s facial expression never changed… but there was a sudden shift of the light behind his eyes, like someone had just closed the venetian blinds.  Not so much the lights are on but nobody’s home… rather somebody’s home but they have no fucking desire to talk to you anymore.  I think a few parting words may have passed between us after that, but I sure don’t remember what they were. It’s hard to imagine which of us was more eager to pull the rip-cord and vacate that conversation.  Anyway, you’ll notice I said that was the last time I saw him…

A bit later on, I had managed to get past first base with this one guy who actually seemed pretty into me.  Which is to say he kept calling and seemed to have a decently strong stomach.  Right up until one day when I was working and he was feeling saucy, judging by the text message I received:

“-Hey pretty lady, thinking about you.  Tell me something dirty.”

Now I’m 40 years old, and I am one generation too far gone from this whole “sexting” phenomenon.  Which is not to say that I’m not game for it… I’m just no good at it.  Because, glancing at my surroundings, I shrugged and sent him the dirtiest thing I could think of…

“-Okay, right now I’m standing over the decomposed corpse of a woman who hasn’t been seen or heard from in a month and a half.  She’s covered in maggots and melting into the carpet.”

I’d give you his response, but  I’m not sure how to quote dead silence.   After an uncomfortable amount of empty air passed between us, I figured maybe I should … say something?

“-Ummmm, that’s probably not what you meant, was it? Damn… I suck at this.”

“-Yes… you do…”

Clearly we didn’t have enough in common and it’s hard to say who ghosted whom on that one.  But I wish him all the best in his ongoing quest for a girl who’s good at the “me-so-horny-talk” and a little bit more forthcoming with boob-shots.

selfie

I hope you two are very happy together

But joke’s on him because I can be sexy … I can totally be sexy… I just have to concentrate and watch my mouth.  I was sexy enough to get one rollicking stallion horizontal with me and I don’t mind telling you that I was a goddamnned singing siren sweeping him into my stormy shores… peeling his clothing off with deliberate, lingering sensuality… eyes locked in… caught breath gasping in every gesture… I was a necklace of golden, gleaming girl wrapped, fingers clenched around his neck like no one I was identity lost in the moment… right up until I began sliding his jeans down his hips and the purely analytical part of my brain… the one I had hog-tied in the corner … well she managed to wrestle her gag loose and piped up at the worst moment possible.

“Wow,” I heard myself say. “Taking a guy’s pants off is so much easier when they’re ALIVE!”

In my defense it’s totally true. You have no idea how difficult it is to pull the trousers off a 400lb dead guy in full rigor mortis until you’re all by yourself in the autopsy suite and it’s your job to prep the dude for his post mortem exam.  And fortunately, my paramour laughed it off even while I was choking on my own tragic timing.

I really liked him… Hell, in pretty short order I loved him… loved him like my body loved breathing… wanted him like a song wants to be sung.  And over the course of the following year many of my professional glitches faded, shriveled and crumbled away like a lost leaf in late autumn… but they shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have drowned out the ominous underscore of unease that set in like the subsonic hum of electricity right before you’re hit by lightning.

lightening

The first time he yelled at me, the lights of my heart went out like an overloaded circuit breaker, everything stopped right down to my cells as each nucleus stared in disbelief as the monster of his rage crawled out from the dark corners and roared… for coming home late because a movie was longer than I thought it would be.  Saying that he was complicated was like watching the nightly news sanitize a natural disaster that just blasted through your front door. I found myself rearranging my life to accommodate his “bipolar episodes” the way you rearrange your living room to fit your new roll-top desk in there- before you’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s just too damn unwieldy and it just doesn’t belong.

The manic, unparalleled joy coupled with the spirit crushing devastation of inexplicable, spinning conflict… left my instincts strangled with barbed wire… struggling to get free and run for help. Something was wrong… something was terribly wrong but defining it was like trying to put a leash on a forest fire.  His wrath was like a flash flood from the downpour in his head and though I never saw a drop, I was still in its path and utterly naked except for my breath, my blood and all my best intentions hanging off of me like the jewelry I’d be buried in.

I remember the first time I saw him do a line of cocaine like helping himself to the dish of mints on the coffee table, it’s no big deal… it was no… big … deal.  Then he told me about how our conflict drove him to try crack for the first time. I never saw him do heroin, but that didn’t stop him from saying it was because I was just so goddamnned difficult to be in love with…

I’m not saying I was blameless.  No one is. And my inadequacies, insecurities, selfishness and character flaws are always before me… but under his scrutiny, I became infected with blame and everything I touched turned to rot… because he said it did…

I began seeing myself at work… everyday… in the face of the woman who’d come home to find her husband had drank himself to death.  In the story I was told about how the dead woman laying in front of me had broken up with her boyfriend and was in the process of moving out when he walked up behind her and opened fire with his glock.

In the overdoses, the suicides.  I saw my almost undeniable destination played out before my eyes every day…devastated parents, destroyed spouses, anguished children…. All left to clean up the mess of a man who sounded eerily similar to the one sleeping next to me.  And I knew better… if anyone knew better, I did. I was my own Cassandra… so irrefutably certain of the outcome and still I didn’t believe the truth of my own experience. I investigate death every day, you’d think I could see it coming.

It happens slowly… it happened to me… slowly,  as slowly as a summer sunset and the next thing you know you’re completely in the dark… alone… except for him… there with you… with a gun in his hand and he’s holding it to his head saying, “Tell me again that you’re breaking up with me…”

He claims he pulled the trigger but the gun jammed.

Just like I pulled the trigger… several times, desperately trying to execute the shuffling corpse of a relationship that just wouldn’t die… like a zombie… I should have aimed for the head instead of the heart…

The last time I walked away from him I lay down in that grave, pulled the earth over me and wished for oblivion. I stared at the ragged remains of myself, bewildered and empty, waiting for the almighty nothing to overtake me…I lived years through each hour… eons through each day. I aged lifetimes with every fucking second of loss and sorrow…  But inexplicably I stirred, I squirmed, I writhed, I rose again.  My hands groped for the surface as I climbed the ladder of my own spine out of the quagmire.

zombie2

And I stagger ever onward, the dating zombie… now two deaths deep into the afterlife. Slower, quieter  dragging one foot after the other as my post-apocalyptic hereafter once again falls into place around me.  There’s no one to hear, and I don’t know if it’s practice or it’s habit… but every now and then, I’ll find myself veering off toward one distraction or another , I’ll catch a glimpse of myself in a broken window… I’ll drift a fleshless hand through my matted tendrils of hair…and grunt:

“I’ve always wanted to learn to play Mortal Kombat…”

“Your mother’s a much better cook than I am”

“Would you like to come upstairs for a night-cap?”

Nothing to fear… but rancid chlamydia



I admit it, I did it.

As much as I would like to say I’m above such things…I bowed to the peer pressure.

I fell for the hype.

I went to a haunted house this Halloween season.
I’m not sure what I was thinking. It seemed like a fine evening’s entertainment in theory, except for the part where I spend all my time around REAL dead bodies, so I’m not sure why I thought a warehouse full of fake ones would be even remotely interesting.

fright

just another day at the office

Ever since becoming a medical examiner, the American fascination with simmering, oozing, coagulating gore has paled on me a bit. It’s not because I find it distasteful or anything. I’m not “insulted” by it.  I don’t have a newfound respect for life and death… Quite the opposite. My respect for death has actually declined significantly since it became my job.  I reckon it to becoming the personal assistant or publicist for a mega-beautiful, billion-pixel-perfect movie-starlet.  Everyone else is clamoring to get closer and take a picture. Whereas you, as an insider, know how rancid her milk farts smell and how annoying her voice gets when she’s snapping at the help for serving her cold coffee.

When you’re elbow deep in anything, be it cocaine, music, strippers, show ponies, or dead bodies… The varnish tends to wear thin and every shiny surface goes dull sooner or later.

I remember way back when in my twenties, I used to make a point of going to every haunted house in the city. I loved them. I would scamper through countless warehouses and converted storefronts… Each one was sketchier than the last. Scorched burlap and newspaper would be draped over every available surface while grimy gauze tendrils hung from the ceiling, drifting gore smeared caresses through your hair. The fog machines belched out bottle after bottle of eerie ambiance as bargain-store strobe lights flashed themselves to smithereens. My friends and I would tear through each b-movie horror installation squealing like a Kardashian in a plastic surgery clinic (speaking of tiresome starlets).

kardash

Every time another community theater reject covered in ketchup and hack-job prosthetics would leap out from behind a wooden palette or trash-can… we would obediently shriek, flail, run…. Kind of like the morbid, gen-x version of eat, pray, love…

These days, going to a haunted house feels like I’m a Royal Shakespeare Academy trained actor that has been coerced into attending an 8th grade performance of “Romeo and Juliet.” The first few scenes might be cute… bordering on quaint.  But even before the pimply faced heroine can breathlessly gasp “Wherefore art thou…”, I’m going to be scanning for the fire exit or rooting through my purse for my flask.

Of course I still went… Reasoning with myself that haunted houses should be like medical procedures… in that they become more sleek, stylized and effective as the technology improves.  Surely, I would at least be entertained, maybe a little grossed out and at best, alarmed.  Besides, I was going with a delightful cadre of buddies and I believed that together, we were incapable of having a bad time unless we were really, really dead set on it.

Here, I should let you know that before we embarked on our adventure, we had a nice little dinner of cocktails and … More cocktails.  Which may explain why I almost got into a fist-fight before we even breached the front door of our holiday adventure.  I was feeling a bit ornery from the get-go, after having worked perhaps the most heinous scene of my career just a few days earlier.  But I don’t always recognize the forest for the trees, so to speak.  I never know that I’m bothered… bordering on traumatized…by something at work… until I’m screaming obscenities at a grocery store clerk, or choking back heaving sobs at a step-aerobics class. It isn’t until THAT moment that it occurs to me that … maybe… just maybe… my lug-nuts are tweaked just a liiiiiittle too tight.

breakdown

don’t mind me… nothing a clock-tower and an assault rifle won’t fix

The establishment we patronized wasn’t your typical haunted house, it was actually three separate haunted houses all set up in the basement of the local coliseum.  The idea was you bought a ticket for the whole shebang and spent your evening wandering between the three makeshift structures, each of which had a different theme. The first level of hell that we decided to visit was the “Zombie Apocalypse” experience. And it was here… In the entry line for this shit-show (yes, the ENTRY line) that our evening began to go off the rails.

The line for our zombie experience was relatively short, but the process by which people entered this experience was downright laborious.  I noted that at the front of the line, a haunted house employee was letting customers into the house in measured doses.  He was dressed up as a bedraggled SWAT officer who had allegedly been battling the undead hoards.  And having spent a pretty significant amount of time around every incarnation of law enforcement officer under the sun, I can attest that this dude’s costume wasn’t half bad.  He pulled off an air of exhausted authority as he would allow a group of two or three folks to enter the front gate… Then he would hold the next group in line for a couple of minutes before motioning them through as well.  I get it.  The idea is to enhance the horror ambiance and control your crowds.  But I didn’t want our stumbling-drunk little group to get separated since we needed each other so desperately in order to stay upright.  Consequently, as we approached the gate-keeper of the zombie apocalypse, I asked him, as sweetly as I could, if it was okay for the four of us to stay together as we entered.

Now either this dude was an undiscovered gem of an actor, or he was a complete cock-sucker.  I say this because he looked down his nose at me with an air of utter exasperation and held up his hand as though he was attempting to Jedi-mind-trick a yapping dog.
“Just chill out,” he snapped at me, “don’t worry about it.”

A completely irrational sense of indignation rose like bile in my throat.  I felt my face flush red with rage as the pseudo -cop launched into his spiel about the haunted house rules. My jaw jutted forward and my shoulders squared back. My right hand raised in an inquiring index-finger point that I was prepared to bury in this ass-hole’s sternum as I barked through my gritted teeth, “Exactly WHO the FUCK do you think you ARE?”….

Because the fact of the matter is… I’m the head bitch in charge.  As the county medical examiner, I outrank every uniformed officer on every scene… Without exception.  If there’s a dead body involved… I’M THE BOSS… And every officer in the county KNOWS it.  Nobody does a goddamnned THING without my permission. They know, balls-to-bone, that it’s “yes ma’am”, “no ma’am”, “can I help you with anything else, ma’am?” Or they will be relegated to a career of helping me with the gnarliest, smelliest, sloppiest tasks I can find for them… (Think head-wounds and decomps… Those bodies don’t roll themselves) Historically, any officer who’s copped an attitude with me (get it?) has lived to regret it.

I couldn’t remember the last time someone in a uniform had dared take that tone with me. In my vaguely inebriated mind, I failed to recognize that this douche was just a guy in a costume, and my professional knee-jerk reaction was to lay into this cum-stain like fucking Cujo on meth.

ill-get-you

“Look here, probie,”  i hissed at the guy, fully prepared to demand his badge number and the phone number of the staff sergeant on duty… When my rant screeched to a sudden halt. Though my conscious mind had failed to grasp the reality of the situation, my tactile mind was able to grab the steering wheel and stand on the proverbial brakes before I got myself and all of my friends kicked out of the evening’s festivities. “He’s not wearing body armor” my sensory neurons whispered across the synapses of my brain. “There’s no chest plate.”

It was true.

Everytime I’ve ever put my hands on a cop (it’s happened more frequently than you’d think,) I’ve always been conscious of the ceramic plate that tucks into the Kevlar pocket at the front of their bullet proof vests.  This plate, ideally serves to protect their heart and lungs from bullets and other projectiles… Such as my finger when I start poking them in the chest, fully prepared to serve up a frosty, sarcasm-laced piece of my mind.

vest

“Uhhhhh…” …. Was the only noise I could make as all my ire dissipated like steam escaping from a teapot.

The not-cop blinked at me as I took a step back and patted him on the chest. Right where his plate would have laid, had he been the real deal.

“You’re adorable.” I mumbled as my buddies grabbed my hand and dragged me into the zombie nest where we spent the next 20 minutes stumbling around in the dark while “Zombies” meandered hither and thither… making threatening gestures and moaning.

As we tumbled out the exit of the zombie phase of our evening, my friends were laughing and shrieking.  But I couldn’t join in. It wasn’t working.  I wasn’t scared… I wasn’t even really entertained and I was beginning to wonder why I had come along.  This experience was downright depressing, and not just because I had allowed some guy dressed as a cop to mouth off to me.  But because, just a week earlier, I had been at the scene of some REAL fucking horror…

My boss likes to tell me that I have the “black cloud” curse.  It happens to people in law enforcement and emergency medicine.  The “black cloud” is what they call it when you have an uncanny knack for being on shift when all of the most ghastly, soul-crushing, violent and chaotic incidents happen.  And not only do I have the black cloud… I also have the pediatric black cloud.  I’m on shift when kids die… All the shit-sucking time… And the week before this haunted house occurred, I had the great grand-daddy of all black clouds seep into my shift and rain the deepest of dark deaths down on my head.

This dude had snapped and killed both his 8 year old daughter, 6 year old son… and then himself… With a handgun… While his wife and the mother of his children took a shower in the next room.

That’s all I’ll say about it. So don’t ask for more.  Suffice to say that no one involved in that situation, personally or professionally, came away from that scene emotionally or mentally intact.

I had gone home in a daze, dragging myself in the front door in the convoluted soup of midnight minutes and hours between one night and the next morning… Lost in that weirdly ambiguous barbed-wire tangle of emotion and duty.  Do I take a few minutes to lose my shit or do I start my paperwork?

nervous

Just to be clear, I wasn’t comparing the haunted houses to the death of this family at the hands of one of their own.  A haunted house is a farce, whereas a death scene like that one… Is a nightmare of desolation and grotesque insanity.  To even attempt to weigh the two against each other communicates a lack of understanding so profound it defies language.

So what the hell was I doing there?

I don’t know. I guess there was part of me that wanted to feel like everyone else.  I wanted to join in the willing suspension of disbelief and dangle my toes over the edge of the proverbial abyss, giggling and nervous, like I used to…. Before that abyss became my job and I wasn’t dangling anything anymore… I was fully submerged and I’ve been swimming for the surface ever since… trying to gasp a breath of air before I dive back under and go about the business of black-clouding my way through another fucking shift.

I just wanted to be scared, like a normal person.

“I feel bad.” I told to my friends, trying to play off my flat affect as we got into line for the next portion of the haunted house. “I feel like such a disappointment to all these ‘actors’.  They’re all trying so hard to be creepy and it’s just not doing anything for me.

The line crept forward and I announced to my companions that for the rest of the night, I was going to scream like a kicked hooker whenever anyone jumped out at me….just so they’d feel like they were doing well.

To their credit, I think at least one of my friends, Gretchen, was picking up on my weird vibe.  She nodded her approval and squeezed my hand as my other friend, Josh, seized upon the idea.

“I think,” he declared imperiously, “that every time some one jumps out at you, you should scream, ‘FUCK ME IN THE FACE!’ As loud as you possibly can.”

I shrugged. “Okay.”

I’m not sure if he didn’t think I’d do it.

But the second we walked through the front door of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre-themed ramshackle facade, it was on like Donkey-Kong.

Some freaky-little mutant looking dude crept out of the shadows and I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with all the breath they could hold and taking a moment to mix the air with all the latent frustration, sorrow, and pain in which my heart had been marinating since that night… The night I had a lethal bullet fall out of a little boys cheek and into my hand… The night I had to sift my fingers through a little girl’s silky black hair in order to find an exit wound… The night I was again reminded of what really haunts us… each other…

“Aaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!” I screamed with all the blackness of this heaviest cloud… Vomiting out all the darkness… All the rage… I hollered as the slimmest hint of tears quivered beneath my closed eyes and I tilted my head back firing it all up toward heaven…

“FUCK ME IN THE FACE!!!!!!”

The little mutant looking dude stopped dead in his tracks and stared at me in astonishment as I opened my eyes and looked at him.  He hesitated for a second… Unsure as to whether or not to continue forward or retreat back into his corner, having elicited perhaps the most violently dramatic reaction any of them had witnessed this year.

Nearby, I heard Gretchen titter and snort, before finally bursting into peals of laughter, loud, clear and pure as a ringing bell.

“FUCK ME IN THE FACE!!!!!” She screeched, driving the little mutant dude back into his hidey-hole to wait for some people who were a little less…. Frightening.

creep

fucking armature, I’ll give you something to scream about…

I laughed… . I laughed like popcorn, I laughed like a downpour.  I laughed like it was shaking rust off my brain, like it was rattling the cage door of my brain open… I laughed like my life depended on it.

The next twenty minutes was a deafening festival of profanity as Gretchen and I bade every haunt and villain to fuck us in the face… Each time dissolving into a puddle of laughter so overwhelming that, just half-way through, we couldn’t even get the whole phrase out of our mouths before we drowned in the sheer ridiculousness of it.

We staggered out of that haunted house breathless and bouyant.  Josh and Will, who had charged on ahead of us, staring in amazement… Having heard us screaming the whole way through the maze of characters and scenarios. Telling each and every one of them… that they, too… could fuck us in the face.

“So….” I grinned at Josh as we lined up for the third and final installment of our evening.  “What are we doing this time?”

Josh thought about it for a second, then grinned back.

“Your mission, should you choose to accept it,is to yell “RANCID CHLAMYDIA!” Every time someone jumps out at you.”

“No problem.”