Thursday, February 10, 2005

You’re sitting in the airport, an hour and a half before your flight takes off. The iTunes is cranked in your headphones in an attempt to block out the p.a. system, a cell phone ringing with the William Tell Overture, and a loud curly-headed kid who’s bouncing around and spinning luggage carts thru the seating area. As you finish typing that sentence, Bebel Gilberto comes on and soothes you instantly. Thank God.

It was just a few hours ago that you walked away from your 3rd funeral in as many days. This one was in Pasadena, the working-class, oil refinery suburb of Houston, in a cemetery where the ground was soft and some grave markers were submerged from the recent rains. Afterwards, you look for your uncle’s grave; he was cremated and his ashes buried there 12 years earlier. Before the service, an employee gave you a map marking his gravesite. She’s directed you to an empty plot. Idiot. Your mother calls her sister who directs her to the correct spot. It’s a not-so-bad spot in a not-so-great cemetery. You linger, wishing there was more to this moment, but there isn’t. So it’s back in the car where you wonder if you’ll come back to this place again, if this will be the last time that you lay your eyes upon the marker of this person with whom you share a name.

Later, you’re in the car again (fucking Houston) going to eat at what would be a crappy Chinese buffet (it rumbles in your stomach now). Your grandmother is telling you about her neighbor, a nurse who got laid off because she had to take time off for an operation. This woman has a daughter who’s spent time in a mental hospital or some such place. They were visiting your grandmother when you walked in the door. You could tell there was something about the girl because she was quiet in a shy way, though she was of an age that you’d think would be after that shy period. You remember the shy period because you had one yourself. The daughter is living at home now though your grandma says she shouldn’t be. Your mom interjects with what you hope is an exaggeration, that the girl tries to kill herself every weekend. As you’re just beginning to think about her mother’s hardship, your mother and her mother say she should tell the girl to go on and do it, to kill herself. You tell them you’re going to ignore that statement. They pass it off as a form of tough love and try to explain it. Another uncle used to hold his breath when he was a kid, apparently as some kind of protest or cry for attention. Finally, your grandmother told him if he wanted to hold his breath until he died, that would be fine with her. And that was the last time he did it.

Well, great for him.

But how does that have anything to do with this girl? How the fuck do they know exactly what’s going on in this girl’s mind? Nobody’s ever said anything to you about your uncle having mental problems that would cause him to hold his breath like he did. So you just don’t see the correlation. The lack of understanding that sometimes rears its ugly head in this world can be staggering. And sometimes because it’s your family and you know them better than others, you know it would be futile to go further in the conversation, so you drop it. You are, however, surprised at your mom’s lack of sensitivity, as she knows that the first funeral you attended this week was for someone who had some problems and took her own life, someone your age. Who’s to say that if things had gone differently, that it could have been you in a casket?

Grandma is a smoker so you sit in the smoking section of the restaurant. Smoking contributed to the death of the woman whose funeral you just left, and led to the deaths of your two deceased grandparents, including your grandma’s husband. It was just a few years ago that you were with them outside the VA hospital in Little Rock, watching him smoke thru the tube in his neck. Cancer had taken his vocal cords and his life would soon follow. She tried to quit a couple of years ago, taking some pills, but it didn’t work. So it’s kind of painful for you to see that three out of four of the other parties in the smoking section all have babies sitting in high chairs.

Then, the MSG in the crappy food causes your mom’s girlfriend’s heart to seize up. At first you think it’s a little indigestion and will pass, but it doesn’t. Her face gets flushed and her breathing is labored as she digs in her purse for her pills. She can’t find them and the situation is getting worse. Your mom gets up and begins to search the flotsam and jetsam inside the purse. Finally, as the moment reaches its crescendo, she finds the pills and puts a couple on her friend’s tongue. As her breathing returns to normal, you overhear the redneck smoking in his grandbaby’s face say that this place is a regular three-ring circus.

At the smoking table without a baby, an obese woman returns to the table with a plate that is not her first, piled high with food. A man at the table who might be her husband takes the opportunity to humiliate her with an exasperated, “Goddamn.” At another table, the twentysomething mom sits down with a plate consisting only of batter-fried foods. You ache to leave this hell, wondering if this is the majority of America, hoping it isn’t.


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