105. A Road Not Taken

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Photo by Carl Raw on Unsplash

This was probably the twentieth taxi we’d been in on this trip, so we’d experienced a fairly mixed range of drivers, but this was by far the most enjoyable. It’s not often that the driver wants me to sit upfront, and I wouldn’t do it if I was on my own, but I guess it’s an easier audience. Saves my husband having to pretend to laugh at some potentially cheesy gags. He kept his Stetson on and drove quickly and smoothly. Automatic movements over and over down those same streets, leaning back in his seat, one arm straight, the other hand chucking printed laminated paper in my lap for me to read. His well-rehearsed speech about his comedy career, who he’d met and how surprised he was that we hadn’t seen him on TV. “Look at the pictures!”

When we got to the diner, which was one of the few places left in Vegas still with a parking lot in front of the building, he told me to wait while he got out and opened my door. Taking my hand, he swung me round and we danced for a few seconds. Then he kissed my hand and took a bow. I was giggling. My husband appeared bemused but never said anything. A few seconds later the driver was juggling. Actual juggling. This guy sure loves living his life. Joy comes easily to me, which, coupled with my baby-face, is often mistaken for sycophantic anxiety, but I’m no fool. He earned every penny of that tip.

When you’re spending over a hundred dollars on slot machines every day, and more than two hundred a day on food, a few twenty-dollar taxi rides won’t break the bank. it might sound extravagant, but doesn’t even touch what some people get through here in a week. People can spend their money on whatever they like. This took me a year to save up for, so I’m going to enjoy this week. A year of packed lunches and taking the last bus home to save the taxi fare. This week is not for skimping. We’re on holiday after all.

Even though the resort we want is less than half a mile away, we would still ask a doorman to hail us a cab. Who wants to spend an hour trying to cross the road, avoiding the attention-grabbing, persistent slap slap of the soft porn trading cards being handed out in the street? Sometimes they try to hand a card to him, when I’m right there. Holding out a prostitute’s card to my husband. In front of me. There’s no point saying anything. They’re just doing their job. The pavement is littered. The cards must work, or why would they keep doing it?

I saw a young woman walking quickly through the sauntering crowd. Long raincoat. Full make-up. Glitter and huge eyelashes. Hair tight in a headscarf. Possibly late for work. No time for any nonsense. Some young men, you know, those who sip all day from the big plastic, oddly shaped promotional glasses, wouldn’t let her pass. One said “How much do you charge?” to back slapping whoops from his friends. Quick as a flash, she replied, “Ask your mom. She’s my best customer,” then managed to hurry away whilst the youths laughed and high-fived their buddy’s backfired everyday sexism. If it’s funny, who cares which person is the butt of the joke?

Our first driver at the airport, told me that this was her last trip of the day. She chatted about her kids and how she had to go home and pick them up from daycare then study for her exams. That she’d never even stepped foot in most of these hotels, but one day she would take a vacation here. I’ve never hugged a taxi driver before or since.

Whenever they ask me what I do for a job, I find it’s easier to say I work in the DA’s office, but that’s just to get a conversation started. They usually like talking about themselves more. Like waitresses, this isn’t how they want to be remembered. It’s a side hustle, a way to make money. It fits in around their real lives.

The ex-marine with a red MAGA sticker on his dashboard, who wants to build the wall. The man who never showers. The one with the facial tic. Lots of students or men sending money back home. The woman with a faint London accent, who supported Chelsea, and talked only of “soccer” for the whole trip. The woman who told us that people still try to pay their fare in poker chips. She declines, saying her religion prevents her from gambling. Makes more sense that implying that those chips might be fake. The man who told us “you gotta take a tour” whenever you visit a new city. We still say that to each other.

The cabs here are way better than the yellow taxis in New York. Roomier, with a telly that shows adverts all day long. I think they all buy their air freshener from the same place. As if I’m going to know whether taking ‘Frank Sinatra’ is going to be quicker than Boulevard or we’re being taken for a long-haul ride. It’s a scam for a couple of bucks, not my soul. We certainly saw a different side of life just one street away from all the action. Those hot, tired, chefs and kitchen porters resting in the shade, with Gatorade and cigarettes. Admittedly I was a little scared when one driver took a service road as a shortcut. Then I saw a black limo, and realised that VIPs do these dimly lit side-roads all the time.

We’d never have gone to this diner if we hadn’t seen it in that film. Pink, neon, squishy purple booths, flamingo light shades, palm trees. Old school glamour. The familiar dimmed lighting of 24 hour restaurant/lounge bars. Giant cocktails to last all day, waitresses with 100 denier, flesh-coloured, shiny tights, pretty ankle socks and trainers. Sticky-out short french maid dress. Pencil poked into hair-sprayed rigid dos. I doubt they could be any quicker if they wore roller skates. Everyone had take-out boxes as the portion sizes were way off –  one plate could feed three. Out waitress was sweet as pie until someone didn’t tip enough, then I heard her say, “Was there something wrong with the food, honey?”, at which point my husband told me to stop being so nosy. When I looked again, the man was searching in his wallet for the right note to give her.

If this was my first day here, I would have left most of my three pancake stack , six rashers of streaky applewood bacon and three fried eggs. The jug of maple syrup was bigger than the bottle we had back home. As we’d been here for nearly a week stuffing our faces, I could manage most of this meal. The holes in my belt are an inch apart and the buckle was already straining at a new hole. There was plenty of time to sort all that out when we get home. We thought we’d walk everywhere to build up an appetite or burn off those calories. Then my husband got a blister. Plus, we are on holiday after all.

Time could very easily have no meaning here. I didn’t dare to try or I’d be worried about not knowing which day it was and missing my flight. Arriving mid afternoon when it’s already past my bedtime. I’m too cold and wired to eat. It’s not late enough yet to sleep. Strange how winning seventy dollars in the first hour made me believe that there might be a chance of leaving here with more money than I brought with me. I’d never even consider putting a tenner in a slot machine back home. Penny arcades all the way. But we are on holiday after all.

 

104. Worn Out

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Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

This is the first time I have seen myself nuddy in a full-length mirror for twelve weeks. I’m physically stronger, more toned, with my arms and legs dipped in honey. It might be the fatigue and jet lag talking but I don’t know who I am anymore, or where I belong.

“Get a grip, woman. You’ve had five coffees, a bottle of wine and no sleep. This is a totally normal comedown for a cot case. You know this. You got this” I tell myself.

My friend said that every hour of flying adds a year to a face and I believe all of those tired 22 extra years. I now have the body and life I always thought I wanted.

How can my top drawer have better knickers in it than the ones I brought back with me, when I took the best ones away with me? He knew exactly what I would want to wear today, so had folded it neatly on the bed. I put on his trackie-daks, with the frayed drawstrings,  and my old University t-shirt.

“You smell nice.” he says, drawing me close for a damp embrace.

“I used your shower gel. I missed it.” I say.

A text to his mum to let her know I got back ok will have to do for now.

He makes me tea, beans on toast, and there’s a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and a box of jaffa cakes next to the breadbin. Celery and hummus in the fridge.

“Ooh, that’s a nice cup of tea. Thank you.” I do a Mr Wolf mug raise. Our eyes meet but I quickly look away. I really can’t do this now. I don’t want to. He knows.

He takes my picture, wet hair, mug poised.”

“Post it for me please? Then they’ll know I’m back. I can’t face anyone today. I’m too tired.” I say. At least I won’t be a travel bore. Everything is all there as it happened, on my blog and twitter. I’ll  never have to talk about it again if I don’t want to.

I have the house to myself for the rest of the day as he’s going into work. We’re having a chinese later.

Everything is so different but exactly the same; just muted with the colour turned down. I understand the language, but the money has changed. I don’t who these people are on TV and how can English newspapers can get away with what they print?

Utterly exhausted but totally wired, I try to lie down on the bed but it feels wrong. I can’t just put on my swimmers anymore, walk out there and take a dip. My aching bones sore from sitting still in limbo for too long. The sun on my legs would soften the ache, for sure. There’s never going to be a good time to unpack, so I may as well just get it over and done with. So much baggage.

Those Danish shoes I can’t get here are really popular in Australia. I even got mine resoled whilst I was there. Rebooted. The delicate rhythm of breaking in thick leather shoes. Gentle baby steps or they will bite back hard. With dubbin and time, they perfectly mould to my feet until they feel bespoke. I’d like to see the forensic results of how far I’ve gone in these.

My favourite cashmere, softer with every wash. Worn sparingly and stupidly saved for best. Then nibbles of tiny holes from invisible moths. Darned and patched. I did what I was supposed to do, and I refuse to let it go. What else could I have done to have looked after it better?

Beautifully faded, thinning denim. I can almost see my hand through some parts of these jeans. I could easily get exactly the same pair again, wear them everywhere for a couple of years and never notice the imperceptible changes.

Fabric rubbed threadbare from friction under the arms of my silk shirt. I’ve grown so much that it’s no longer a good fit.

This wasn’t how I’d planned to spend my time. I’d ‘banked’ two weeks of my holiday every year for five years with my employer. They’d agreed I could have three months off paid, but not now, next year. They’d get a temp. I’d get my salary and keep my job. Mortgage and bills covered. I’d researched it all. I even knew the exact dates to fly, and when was the best time to get the cheapest ticket. Then Mum took crook just as he had his big work thing. This wasn’t even my Plan B but the big talk couldn’t have gone better, even with timing beyond our control. Money, perspective, trust, love.  All boxes ticked. Agreed. We called it ‘Operation Apple Pie’ and we did the best we could. I called it ‘Operation Terminal’ in my head.

We facetimed every day at first but the 11 hour time difference made it difficult, so we settled into a daily email routine and a 10 am early morning on Saturday for you, 9pm Saturday night for me and again on Sunday, with the occasional early morning alarm call from me. I’m so paranoid right now, that if I knew facetime would let me listen into his life without him knowing, I would have been tempted into crossing that line.

No matter what I did, it felt like I was running away from something. From my family, my work or us. I know your job was, is, stressful. I know she’s only a friend, a really good friend, and that nothing would ever happen. If it did, there was no way I could deal with it, not now. I didn’t want to be a part of it and I don’t ever want to know. I’m an orphan now and I can’t be on my own. But I know I’m not going to be alone. I need to trust myself.

I used to think we needed a thunderstorm, a grenade, a tragedy, clean break, and then we’d be sure. There was potential to be kintsugi or broken crocks for drainage in a plant pot. We would agree that if we were meant to be together, we would find a way to make it work. It’s the little things, the everyday moments that make a life together. And now I’m back. Clean slate. There’s so much to do and all the time in the world to do it.

I promised myself over and over that I would never, ever ask him, even though I want to, because I can’t be sure I would believe the truth. It shouldn’t even matter whether he’s making an effort because he loves me or because he feels guilty. I will have to find a way of learning to accept that I won’t get any answers to questions that don’t need to be asked.

It’s too soon, but then it will be too late, yet neither of us dare make a move. We swore we would not argue or drop any bombshells unless we were in the same room. Now we are. I’m holding my breath. This is landmine territory, with the awkward, deliberately faltering tension. Someone has to be brave. Take charge. One foot wrong and everything will always be my fault. I have two homes, with people who love me in both, so why am I so terrified of being abandoned? I keep telling myself that I officially have ‘indefinite leave to remain’ and if he was going to ditch me, why wait until I got back?

“Get a grip woman. This is not who you are. It’s all in your head. No worries, remember. Breathe, Just breathe. You’ll feel better once you’ve had some zees.”

80. Pick n Mix

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I’m helping my friend pack up her house. I said I didn’t want to help her on the day of the actual move, because it’s too stressful, and everyone ends up arguing because they’re bone tired. It’s the same reason I gave when I didn’t want to go to Ikea with her. Everyone knows someone whose had an argument in Ikea. Someone I know had a theory that they sell you the dream and slowly draw you in. That’s why it’s so cheap. Before you realise it, you’re in a giant warehouse queue wondering if all of these boxes will fit in the car, and there’s the dread of knowing you still have to build your own furniture.

However, I am expert packer, even if I do say so myself. I’ve done it dozens of times. I know what I’m doing, so she’s left me to it, whilst she packs up her books. I’m on kitchen duty. Bubblewrap. Check. Sellotape. Check. Boxes. Check. Parcel tape. Check. Marker pen. Check. Spray kitchen cleaner. Check. Kitchen roll. Check. May as well clean as I go.

Headphones on. 80s pop. Sleeves rolled up. A bag of chocolate eclairs. A bottle on the go, well, some gin in a small bottle of Pepsi max. It’s what Scroobius Pip drinks, so we call it a ‘Pepe Pip’.

After an hour or so of mildly repetitive and strangely satisfying packing of glassware, plates and saucepans, my friend finds me. She’s carrying a few hardback notebooks. “Check these out.” she says excitedly. “These,” she says, holding up the books, “are my teenage diaries.” She hands me one.

“Oh wow!” I exclaim. “Can I open it?” Everyone knows you don’t read someone else’s diary, no matter how tempting it is or entitled or jealous you feel.

“Sure. It’s probably all bullshit anyway. Angst about why doesn’t he like me or how my life would be totally perfect if I was thin or had a nosejob or better tits. Comparing myself to other girls. That it’s so unfair that I have to have a part-time job. That kind of self-obsessed crap.”

Over the next hour, we forget we are supposed to be packing up her new life, whilst we unpick her old one. We laugh at forgotten fashions, sympathise with emotional problems that meant everything, and remember how easy and carefree everything seemed back then.

“Oh my god.” She says “This is too real. This is what I wrote when I was nineteen.

My ideal man.

  • Cannot be bald, short or fat.
  • Has to have good teeth and be very clean.
  • Must have a sister, so I’m not the first girl he’s ever met.
  • Cannot have gone to an all-boys school, because they’re all weirdos.
  • Cannot be allergic to cats or snore.
  • Has to live near to me and have his own car. (Not share his mum’s)
  • Cannot be on the dole.Must have a full-time job or be studying for a degree in something worthy, like Medicine or something with prospects like Law or Engineering. (Not a Micky Mouse degree like Media Studies)
  • Cannot smoke.
  • Cannot have a criminal record.
  • Must love children, but cannot already have any children.
  • Must have already had a girlfriend but she can’t be a psycho stalker.
  • Cannot have been married or have lived with anyone.
  • Cannot have a female flatmate that he has already had sex with.
  • Must play an instrument or be able to cook.
  • Must love his family but not be a mummy’s boy.
  • Not be racist, sexist, homophobic or posh.
  • Must play sport or be in a band but cannot be a rugby lad, football meathead or have groupies.
  • Must be generous. People who are tight with money are also stingy in bed.

I must have passed up on so many men over the years, because they didn’t match everything on that list. Why am I so picky?” she sighs, and closes the diary.

I put my arm around her shoulder and squeeze it.

“God. If my mum had read this at the time, then I would have probably left home and never spoken to her again, god rest her soul. It would have been such a betrayal. I would have been totally mortified. And now it’s just a pile of crap. Wishful thinking about how life was going to be. I had no fucking clue did I? When did we get this old?”

“We’re not that old.” I say. We’re no spring chickens, but who wants all that aggro? Anyway, we’ve had our time. You only think you’re old because you could be the new bloke at work’s mum. Remember, he didn’t even know who Noel Gallagher was!”

“True”

“Do you think kids these days keep paper diaries any more?” I ask. “You know. I reckon they do it all online now, with private blogs. Selfies and pictures of them semi-pornstar posing naked under the pretence of being hashtag body positive, you know, that clean eating bollocks. I read that there is no market for paid porn for female pornstars aged between 22 and 30, because the market is flooded with so much amateur stuff. You’re a schoolgirl then milf”

“That’s really sad.” She says. “They’re obsessed but it’s all so fucking fake.”

“Except hipsters, obvs.” I say. “I bet they go to open mike nights where people read out their own teenage diary entries, to feel deliberately awkward. They probably type their journals on old typewriters or do that bullet journalling. Ha. I’m saying it like I even know what it is.”

“I’ve no idea.” She says. “Did I tell you about that time we were clearing out my nan’s house after she died, and we found some photographs of her posing in her big pants when she was young? I reckon that’s the equivalent of sexting these days.”

“I wouldn’t be young again now, you know. Too much choice. It’s all swiping right and hooking up. Yolo. Fomo. Whatever. I reckon most of them have never even risked asking someone out face to face without being pissed, and are too scared to put in the effort into getting to know someone in case they miss out on their perfect person who is just around the corner. I bet there’s loads of men out there who have never even seen public hair or unshaved legs on a woman. God, I sound bitter. Do I sound bitter?”

“Nah. You’ve not been deprived. You make sense. Someone should tell the young uns that the perfect person doesn’t exist and to enjoy what they’ve got while it lasts. It ain’t gonna be me though. No-one wants an al woman telling them not to have fun.”

Just then the doorbell rings.

“That’ll be the pizza.”