I’m in the mood for love… simply because you’re breathing… FOR MEL

It’s Valentine’s Day!

Or, at least it will be very soon… 5 hours and 45 minutes to be exact.  I’m pretty sure that means it’s way too late for you slackers to call FTD. Face it, you’re going to have to get creative with whatever you can find at 7-11.  But chin-up! All is not lost! A Hershey bar and a handful of International Delight coffee-creamers is almost like a box of  assorted chocolates. And if you presented your lady-love with this thoughtful, though unconventional gift, you’d still be doing better than a long lost boyfriend did for me one year when he gave a greeting card which contained a 5-dollar-bill.

Not joking.

It’s okay, he was from Iowa. (Speaking of… I just spontaneously looked him up on Facebook.  He’s married with children so I can only assume his game has improved.)

Honestly, I figure most people would assume that I despise Valentine’s Day.  But I don’t.  Valentine’s Day is one of my favorite holidays.  I have many happy childhood memories of elementary school classroom parties during which we forsook our afternoon academia in favor of eating VAST amounts of sugar and exchanging dopey little cards that featured our favorite cartoon characters.  Naturally, as I grew into a surly, semi-goth teenager who was utterly disenchanted with EVERYTHING, I sneered heavily at the holiday and pretended to have nothing but salty disdain for such contrived sentiment.  All the while, I secretly hoped anyone ANYWHERE liked me enough to mark the day as important and bestow upon me ANY TOKEN OF AFFECTION AT ALL.

youll do

My standards weren’t great.  It became a problem later in life. But hey’ that’s what psychiatry is for.

STILL I like Valentine’s Day.  It can be a lot of fun if you keep an open mind.  Like this year, for example…. I would like to bestow a special gift.  One of my friends was recently dumped by her deplorably tactless boyfriend who flailingly bumbled off an excuse he probably found online. Meanwhile, the truth of the matter is almost certainly that he wanted to fuck other people.  It’s okay, He’s from Vegas… there isn’t much else to do there.  But in a show of solidarity, I would like to offer some of my more horrific medical-examiner-dating stories in the hopes she will draw comfort from the fact that she isn’t even remotely as hopeless as I am…

So Mel, this one’s for you.

You may wonder, first of all, why I’m writing this little blurb and not spending time with the hapless victim whom I am currently dating… well, to kick-off these stories of gross misfortune, I must confess that I recently had an abnormal PAP-SMEAR. My gyno scheduled my colposcopy for yesterday and the two of us spent a very intimate afternoon together as she lopped off parts of my cervix.  After this moment of togetherness, she informed me that sex was a no-no for at least a week… which puts something of a damper on the holiday, but it’s cool.  Even if she had told me that I was good to go for a  donkey ride post-procedure, I can’t imagine it would have gone well.  I picture my paramour flinging me down on the bed… romance novel style, and just as he’s about to put the banana in the fruit salad I would say something like,

“Mind the biopsy scabs, lover… these are new sheets you know…”

bloody sheets

Because that’s the kind of thing I would say… It’s the kind of thing I always say.

Don’t believe me?

-INCIDENT #1-

Once, I was really into this dude.

And he was really into me.

We were making out.

Sounds promising, right? But for the fact that I was an intrinsic part of this scenario and my capacity to completely fuck up virtually any situation is unlimited.

So we were kissing, and I must have had some kind of odd expression on my face, because in the midst of our heated breathing and unbridled pawing, he breathlessly asked me,

“Is it weird that I hold your face in my hands when I’m kissing you?”

I thought about it for a second and blurted out this little gem:

“Holding my face in your hands when you kiss me is only weird if the rest of my body isn’t attached when you do it.”

head.jpg

… which I think is a perfectly valid response.

Anyway, we’re not together anymore.

-INCIDENT #2-

So, as a medical examiner, I end up at a lot of really nasty scenes.  And the nastiest are always the scenes when the person has been dead for a while and, for whatever reason, no one noticed… until they started to smell.  These scenes are called “decomps” and they stick with you, literally.  There’s nothing quite like the stench of a rotting human corpse.  And once you smell it, you smell it for hours, sometimes DAYS.

Moreover, when you’ve recently been on a decomp, you become acutely aware of the scent of generalized decomposition everywhere around you.  Subliminally, everything smells like death… because EVERYTHING is in some state of decay… all the time.  It’s a fact of nature.

Never was this more in evidence to me than recently when I was on a date. Dude and I had been eating pizza and he’d had a couple of beers.  Afterwards he leaned in for a kiss and I almost re-introduced him to my dinner.  I shrank away from him as though he had dung beetles crawling out of his mouth. Why? Because I had recently been on a decomp at work, and this guy’s breath smelled … like death.

It just happens. We get bad breath because of the microscopic bits of food in our teeth.  Our breath is the smell of our body breaking down whatever we just ate… it’s the smell of decomposition.  Obviously it’s not the same as the scent of a rotting body… but it’s juuuuuuuuuuust similar enough.

Anyway, when this dude tried to kiss me, a knee-jerk, visceral chain-reaction occurred.  I squirmed away from him as my face wrinkled in disgust, Involuntarily, a whimper of revulsion wormed its way out of my mouth and I pushed Dude away with unmistakable finality.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, astonished.

I groped about for an explanation, even as I pulled him back to me for a hug in an attempt to deflect the awkwardness of my repugnance.

“Ummmm… it’s not you… it’s medical examiner problems.  I’m really sorry…”

Later that night, I sent him a lengthy text message and apology, exhaustively explaining the biological mechanics of what had happened.  And, believe it or not, he was actually cool with it.  Which means I can’t possibly go out with him again.  I mean what kind of person would be cool with that?

Weirdo.

-INCIDENT #3-

I could blame these personality glitches on my profession. But the fact is I’ve always been… not awesome… at this sort of thing.

Remember when I said that, even as a sullen teen I wanted the romantic gestures.  Well…

His name was Tom.  It was my freshman year of high school and he sat next to me in history. I don’t remember him showing any particular interest in me.  He didn’t ever strike up a conversation or register anything resembling a crush.  There was one incident in which the guy who sat on his other side in history made a huge show of telling me that Tom was into me… all the  while Tom swatted at him from his seat, in an attempt to shut him up.  When things settled down a bit, I told Tom, not to worry about it,  I didn’t believe that guy anyway.

crush

Tom didn’t look at me or offer any indication that he’d heard me.

That Valentine’s Day, I walked into history class in a huff. I was always in a huff. It was kind of my default setting as a teenager.  I used my huffs to poorly hide the fact that I was painfully insecure and being pissed off all the time felt slightly more powerful that just being pathetic.  I sat down at my desk briefly while the other students were milling about, and then got up for something, I don’t remember what. But when I came back, I found Tom was carefully placing a single Hershey’s kiss on my desk.

Our eyes met and he didn’t say anything, much like he hadn’t said anything to me for months.  A blush crept its crimson fingers across his face as he looked down. A pregnant pause followed.  I picked up the kiss and … a trilling purr of delight rumbled somewhere deep in my belly.  I looked at him, looked at the kiss, looked back at him… and… and…

“Did you find this on the floor?”

I asked him, matter-of-factly.  Because my teenaged huff was still in place and I didn’t know how to accept the idea that anyone could possibly like me… since I certainly didn’t like me.

Tom wordlessly shook his head.

“Thank you.” I said… my voice softening as I desperately tried to navigate how best to manage being liked.

I don’t think Tom and I spoke again.  The semester ended and he went on to date a cheerleader… meanwhile I retreated into the waiting, morose arms of the theater department.

But I remember him…

and I remember me…

…and it would appear not much has changed.

Except that now I’m a bit better at accepting that I’m likeable… I must be… after all

Mel, YOU like me…

and you’re one of the coolest people I’ve ever met.  So don’t worry about stupid-old-what’s-his-name in Las Vegas.  You will continue to kick all kinds of ass and he will almost certainly contract an STD.

So get back out there and embarrass yourself.

Make me proud.

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600 Pablos

I’m not sure where I first heard this story…

… probably church.

It has that greeting-card, anecdotal type of sentiment that pastors like to employ when they want to dandle your heart on their knee like a dim-witted toddler.

Of course,  I still remember the story… and now I’m telling it to you, which would indicate that whatever pastor it was who planted this tale in my brain… he knew his business.  He must have made an impression because I still remember.  It goes like this:

A father and son had a falling out- I don’t recall the details.  I don’t think they matter.  It’s an old story, told a million times over: A father and son had a falling out over something.  Maybe it was money, or someone didn’t approve of someone else’s choices.  How many ways are there for a family to fracture? Anyway, the son’s name was Pablo.  I remember that much.

Pablo and his father went their separate ways… most likely after a torrent of angry words, accusations, resentments and so on… all stacking up like boxes of ugly memorabilia that no one wants, but can’t bring themselves to throw away.  Years go by and Pablo and his father soften, but don’t know how to go about reconciling.  They’ve lost touch. Phone numbers change, people move… and then move again… keep moving. The silvery-thin threads that connect them, disintegrate. Before they know it, Pablo and his father couldn’t reach one another even if they wanted to… and that’s the thing, they DO want to.  Each of them has, in turn, come to understand that the reasons for their rift are utterly unimportant.  Their aggravations and arguments are inconsequential when compared with the enormity of losing each other forever.

prodigal

a.k.a. “Pablo and his Dad

In desperation, one day, the father takes out a full-page ad in the newspaper.  “Pablo,” it reads. “All is forgiven.  Please come home.  Meet me in the town-square at noon on Sunday. -Papa”

That Sunday, the father goes to the town-square and he’s astonished to find no less than 600 men… all named Pablo, all looking for their fathers… all hoping to mend the schism.

Such is the human desire for reconciliation… for forgiveness… for connection.

600 Pablos.

Maybe that’s why I remember the story so well.  It occurred to me that if I should ever find myself in a band (again), I’d want to name it “600 Pablos”.

Anyway,

It’s the holidays.  At the medical examiner’s office, that usually only means one thing: every death we deal with is going to be worse than usual.  Every relationship we encounter is going to have its temperature set to “high”.  The pressure is on.  Thanksgiving is just disappearing in our rear-view, and soon comes Christmas and New Year’s and all the anger and desolation that is intrinsic to either having a family… or not having one.  I think the worst calls of my career have always happened on holidays, not necessarily because the calls themselves were so different or traumatic, but rather because during the calls, you realize that THIS holiday will forever be ruined for THIS family because it will always be tainted by THIS death.

deaths xmas

… he knows if you’ve been bad or good…

One time I had a dude commit suicide the day before Thanksgiving.  He shot himself in the head with a hunting rifle in his garage and his teen-aged son found him like that:  Skull fragments, brain matter and blood everywhere.  Obviously, the family was inconsolable.  The wife was particularly angry.  Her rage ballooned with every question I asked her during our regrettably mandatory interview.  She became so incensed that periodically during our discussion, she would pause to punch her dead husband’s driver’s license that lay on the kitchen table where the police had left it after retrieving it from his pocket.

“HOW could YOU do THIS to US?!” she hollered as she slammed her fist against his I.D. photo.

The hardest part was the teen-aged son, though. At one point he pulled me aside and asked if it was possible that someone else may have shot his father. I asked him why he would suspect such a thing and he told me that he saw small holes in the closed garage door when he found his dad.  Could those holes be bullet holes?  Is it possible that someone was firing a gun elsewhere and the bullets ripped through the garage door and killed his father?

I had to tell him that, no… those holes in the garage door were NOT stray bullet holes.  They were, in fact, made by his father’s skull fragments as his cranium was blown to smithereens by a self-inflicted, close-range, high-powered projectile.

Anyway… stuffing anyone?

thanksgiving.png

Another year I had a murder/suicide on Thanksgiving morning.  While the rest of the world was watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, this dude was shooting his ex-girlfriend as she moved out of their shared home… then he shot himself. This whole scenario would have been bad enough as it was, however, when police arrived at the scene following a panicked neighbor’s call, they had no way of knowing if the shooter was still alive in the home.  Subsequently, their remedy was to fumigate the residence with tear-gas in an attempt to smoke the guy out.  They must have fired at least 6 canisters into the 2-bedroom home… all completely useless because everyone in the residence was dead except for the dog- who was found hiding under the bed.  And even though the cops opened all the windows for ventilation after they gained access to the house, it was still impossible to walk into that place without having your eyes water-up, your nose start leaking like a sieve and your throat lock up tighter than an angry fist.

Yes, for Thanksgiving dinner that year, I got a face-full of tear-gas.

Yet more than gruesome calls and overly-enthusiastic SWAT tactics, what we deal with on holidays are unresolved issues.  People are mired in thought about their family… and they’re desperately missing their departed, which prompts lots of calls to our office to discuss… things. I’m not sure, but I think it makes people feel closer to their loved ones when they make contact with the investigator and re-hash all the circumstances regarding their death.  People want to hear the story again, make sure we didn’t miss anything… or make sure they didn’t miss anything… or make sure there haven’t been any new developments.  I once had a woman call me up on Christmas Day to ask me if I was absolutely certain that her son’s death was a suicide and he wasn’t actually murdered by the “Mexicans” who had been moving into town lately.  She actually asked me that, hissing the word, “Mexicans” the way some old-world gypsy woman would say “Trolls” or “Vampires.”  And while, realistically, I couldn’t address her blatant racism, I was able to assure her that her son’s death had been a suicide by hanging and he hadn’t been strung up by an angry mob of any particular ethnicity.

All of these episodes taken into account, though, I can’t help but feel that we’re in for something different this year, namely because 2017 is the year our office met Beatrice.

Realistically, only one of us has actually “met” Beatrice.  She showed up at the scene of a fatal motor-vehicle accident that my co-worker, Henry, was fielding.  But more about that later…

Beatrice is an elderly woman who started calling the medical examiner’s office roundabout early spring.  No one is really sure how she got our number or what originally started her on her campaign… but every time there is a deceased male anywhere in the county, Beatrice calls to see if it’s her son.

We don’t know much about Beatrice, but we’ve managed to figure out a few things. We know that Beatrice must have a police scanner, or she is connected to some kind of web-site or app that allows her to listen to dispatch because she’s always on point about calling whenever a male dead body is found. Furthermore, we also figure Beatrice is at least partially cognizant of how odd her calls are, because a little research on the part of our secretary uncovered that she was warned off calling the police or the fire department anymore… making the medical examiner’s office her only hope. The calls commenced like a flash flood. At first there was nothing- just your normal, everyday benign business at the office one day.  And the next day our phone was squawking like an angry crow… announcing an onslaught of voicemails, because Beatrice had found us.

Furthermore, when Beatrice calls, she doesn’t just call once, she’ll keep calling until someone calls her back.  Now, doing the math on that concept really quick:  Our county is scrambling towards a population of 700,000 souls. Assume that roughly half of those souls are men. Then take into account the fact that women live longer than men and as a rule, men are statistically more at risk for heart disease, alcoholism, auto-accidents and so on and so on. This means that most of the calls our office gets are to report the deaths of men… Well, nowadays, the rest of the calls our office gets are from Beatrice, wondering if any of those dead men are her son.  And dealing with Beatrice’s calls and voicemails is turning into a full-time job

Now, let’s also remember that there’s only one medical examiner on duty at a time.  If that medical examiner is busy… you know… doing their JOB.  They may not call Beatrice back for a few hours.  Consequently, her repeat calls come faster and faster, always with a building sense of irritation and urgency.

The messages always start out the same:

“Hello, this is Beatrice Peterson. Please call me back at **********.”

Sounds pretty unassuming, right?  Nothing to be worried about here.

Then comes:

“Hello, this is Beatrice Peterson. I called earlier. I need a call back.”

“Hello, Beatrice Peterson call me back.”

“Hello, I don’t know why no one is calling me back. I need to know who died today.”

Sometimes, she’ll catch on that we’re not prioritizing her call and she’ll start giving alternate names and numbers, hoping that we won’t recognize her voice.

“Hello, this is Betty Johnson.  Please call me back at *completely different number than the one she left in the previous 4 messages.*

Now, I know what you’re thinking, Why not just talk to her and get it over with? Well, we would, but for the fact that sometimes when she calls, we’re kind of in the middle of something.  We may be explaining to a young mother how her baby died.  We may be discussing details of a homicide with a detective.  We may be in the fucking bathroom.  Sometimes we just can’t answer the goddamnned phone.  And when we finally DO call her back, Beatrice suddenly becomes evasive and vague… demanding information, but refusing to give any in return.  It goes like this:

“Hello, this is the Oswald County Medical Examiner, returning your call.”

“Hello, I want to know the identity of the person who was found dead on Main street this morning.”

“Well ma’am, the medical examiner’s office never releases the identity of any of our decedents.  That information comes from the Police Department’s Public Information Officer.  And they won’t release a name until the next of kin has been notified.”

“… But you know who it is?”

“Yes ma’am, I do.”

Well… I need to know.”

“And why is that?”

“Well, I just need to know.”

“I told you, no public information is released from this office.”

“Well, can you tell me if he’s white?”

“Ma’am…”

“What about his age? Can you tell me how old he is?”

“Ma’am, why do you need to know this?”

“I just want to know if it’s my son. I’m so worried about him.”

“Well, what’s your son’s name?”

And this is where it gets weird.  She refuses to give us her son’s name.  I’m a crack-shot when it comes to finding people.  I’ve found the biological parents of adopted children, I’ve found half-siblings who were completely unaware that they HAD any other family.  I’ve found estranged spouses who were living in foreign countries where no one spoke English.  I’m great at skip-tracing.  So at one point, it occurred to me that if I could find Beatrice’s son, maybe we could reunite them and then she’d stop calling us.

Problem is, Beatrice won’t give up the goods.

“I understand you’re wondering if the dead person is your son, can you tell me your son’s name?”

“Oh… uh, I just need to know the name of the dead person…”

“Yes, I know, because you’re worried it’s your son…”

“Yes.”

“Well what’s your son’s name?”

This is where she typically hangs up.  Or the story starts changing.  One time I told her I wanted to help her find her son, and she responded that she knew where he was, but just didn’t want to bother him.  Another time she told me he was homeless and could be anywhere.

Still another time, Henry was on the scene of a man’s death and as he describes it, some ragged-looking crazy woman showed up at the scene, wild-eyed, frantic and asking everyone who the dead person was.  At first Henry dismissed her until she got close enough for him to hear her voice.  Only then did he realize that Beatrice had taken her crusade to the streets.

“She looked exactly the way you’d imagine,” he told me later. “Her hair was all ratted out in every direction and I think she was wearing a night-gown.”

We needed to talk about Beatrice.

In our little office pow-wow, we decided something needed to be done… but no one was sure what COULD be done. She seemed to exhibit signs of dementia, yet she was aware enough to withhold information.  She wasn’t calling 911, just our office, so she wasn’t breaking any laws or rules… nor could we accuse her of abusing the emergency system. And while she’s undeniably inconvenient, she’s not threatening or even rude.  So we’ve more less realized there’s nothing we can do but wait for her to either turn her attention elsewhere or… well… die.

funny_granny

*not actually a photo of Beatrice

Thanksgiving is gone and Christmas is coming.  It’s the goddamnned holidays and I’m thinking about Beatrice. She’s on my mind because I have no doubt her usual call volume is going to increase exponentially with every passing day.  But she’s also on my mind because I fear I identify so closely with her right now.  The termites of loneliness are chewing on my foundation and I’m feeling a little… unstable.

I’ve been divorced for 2 years now, and 4 boyfriends have come and gone since then.  The latest guy was sweet, attentive, funny, intelligent… and a convicted felon… A small detail he conveniently forgot to reveal for about two months… right up until I started asking questions that didn’t have easy answers.  So I just ran his criminal history and 7 mug-shots later… that was the end of that (I’m a fucking investigator.  Did he think I wouldn’t find out?)

My father died a few years back.  My mom remarried.  My brother has his wife and kids. They’re all out-of-state and occupied with their suburban dream. I’ve got good friends, but everyone has their own thing going on… their own relationships to tend to.  I don’t have any kids- and I likely never will… but if I did, this is probably when I would start making calls to them, weird, frantic calls.  This is where I would start reaching out a hand to see if anyone’s there to take it. This is where I would start getting scared.

It’s weird how and where and when you find yourself alone…

empty

…Something like falling asleep on the subway and waking up to find everyone else got off 2 stops ago and it’s so quiet.  It’s so quiet that maybe you start calling out to see if anyone at all is with you.

Listen, do me a favor.  This holiday season, do something for me… as I sit in the office fielding phone calls from Beatrice and a host of other broken, remorseful people.

Bury the hatchet.

Mend the fences.

Bridge the gap.

Just call them- whoever is weighing on you- whoever it is you’ve been thinking about- whoever your pride has pushed away. Call them.

Do it for your local medical examiner.

Do it for Beatrice

Do it for 600 guys named Pablo… wandering around in some un-named town-square somewhere,

all searching for their fathers.

 

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.

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!