For your reading pleasure - an excerpt from my novel, Cate in Flux, due for release December 10 via the amazing Rebel Ink Press!
If I had known the mannequins were inflatable, I would never have bought them in the first place, and my life today would be wonderfully dull.
The day I went to pick them up was a typical fall day, breezy, sunny, and cool. The peacocks that blocked the driveway when I drove up to receive the mannequins should have tipped me off. They darted manically, plumage wafting, back and forth, heads bobbing. Alarmed, I almost turned around. But Amelia needed her dress, and I needed the mannequins to make it, so I beeped the horn. The peacocks scattered, leaving me room to wind my way through the driveway to the cottage at the end.
I was surprised when an Asian woman opened the door. I assumed from the transaction e-mails through Craigslist that Simon would be a man, possibly a British one. But dressed in a short, red kimono with stiletto-heeled boots, Simon threw me for a moment. Nails done, hair high on the head like a Jersey girl from the 80s, I wasn‘t quite sure what to make of this person holding a door open wide for me, and gesturing that I should come forth. One diamond earring glinted in his right ear.
“Come in.” The voice was all cross-dresser.
“Hi, I’m Cate Jakubiak,” I said, shaking his hand. “Simon?”
“Yes. Simon Pham. The mannequins are this way.”
I followed Simon through the house, marveling at his balance as his hips sashayed in front of me. Each room had a theme. Dungeon, Care Bears, Disco. The voice in my head said to run away fast, but I needed the mannequins. Finally, we reached the sewing room.
“Here they are, Dolly and Sally,” said Simon, gesturing to two torsos with heads, on which he had drawn clownish faces. “I hope they’re to your liking.”
“Um, sure,” I said. Even though I was disappointed they were inflatable instead of solid, they would have to do.
“What are you making?” he asked.
“A dress for a friend, and maybe some Halloween costumes,” I answered. “Is that acceptable?”
Simon picked up a length of gold lame fabric from the table where Dolly and Sally were sitting. “Do you want this fabric? I was going to make some pants out of them, but won’t have time,” he said, winking.
“Sure,” I told him. You never know when some gold lame will come in handy.
“All right then. I’ll help you carry them to your car.”
We stuffed Dolly and Sally into the back of my Scion.
“It looks like a clown car, full of clowns,” laughed Simon, waving his hands around. “Oh my.”
“Right,” I said. “Here’s your check.” I handed the paper over quickly. I wanted to get out of there.
Simon leaned in kissed me on the lips, not just a peck but a lingering kiss. His lips were remarkably soft, and I felt it in my gut, which was shocking. “I’ll be seeing you soon, Cate,” he whispered softly before going back into the house. “Don’t let the peacocks bother you on your way out.”
The kiss had rooted me to ground, and it was a few minutes before I recovered sufficiently to move. Crap. Even though he was clearly creepy, I felt immediately attracted. I looked at the ground, and was simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by a dead giant slug, its entrails blooming out of its bloated body.
I am a boring person. I like the status quo. I enjoy working, cooking, exercising every day precisely at 5. I prefer men, strong men who want to take care of me. Okay, so some of them have been on the edge of crazy, but that’s not their fault. Well, maybe more than on the edge, really, if my friends are to be believed. Okay, the crazies follow me around like zombies on The Walking Dead. I have no idea why. Anyway, I also read bestsellers, love sewing, and adore having a nice apartment in a quiet Boston suburb. Simon the Asian Cross-Dresser was not a person I was prepared to find thrust into my life, and if I could change just one moment, I would have driven away at the first sight of the peacocks.
My mother died one year ago today. Cancer took her life, but not her spirit. On the day she died, surrounded by people who loved her most, it rained. Today, it's sunny, and all I can think about is how much she would've loved today, and about everything she missed in the last year. I picture her in her garden, making beautiful things grow, and with her family, making everyone crack up because she always said what everyone was thinking, no matter how inappropriate.
She was only 64 when she died, a sister of two, a mother of three, and grandmother of six. I wasn't always very nice to her, as daughters sometimes are not, but I always admired her. And we had so much fun - especially when we could get her away from her husband (who is still contesting her will in a bitter money-grab, but that's another story). She was quirky, loud, and hilarious, especially after a glass or two of wine.
But I didn't really think of her as a person with a whole history before she died. She was just my mom - my taxi, a shoulder to cry on, someone who paid for stuff. Then, I found her diary from ages 12-16. I have read it at least 50 times, and laugh until I cry. How did I live 44 years without knowing the strenuous and outspoken hatred she had for Kruschev and the Russians? That she had a crush on a boy named Tony? How she worried about pimples and her hair and her clothes, just like a regular teenage girl? That she worried about falling in love and if anyone would love her back? That diary is a gift from a woman who was the best writer I knew, and just the tip of the iceberg of the stories she left behind.
I also found evidence that her life was hard in ways I never knew, that nobody ever knew, and I wept. She was so very upbeat and never complained. Her second favorite motto, after "Be Comfortable," was "Everybody's Putting Up With Something." And she was putting up with more than anyone should ever have to, with a smile and a joke and a skip in her step. Her strength amazes me, but I wonder if she ever felt really known and understood by anyone.
I have vowed to not let another person I love die without really talking to them, and not just about the superficial, happy, social-media worthy things in their lives. The hard, harsh, terrible things are just as important. And I have vowed to share if I am going through something hard, harsh, and terrible because there is nothing lonelier than holding on to secrets or keeping up appearances.
My mom's death has left a big hole. I miss her every day - everything reminds me of her. I think about her whenever I see flowers or seashells or hear an inappropriate remark. I hear her voice, whispering advice and hilarious comments wherever I go. I'm devastated that my children didn't know her as well as they could have if she had lived longer, and that I didn't take the time to find out about her life before she was MOM. I thought I had more time; people always do. But time is fleeting, as is life. I will spend the rest of mine learning about, missing, and loving my mom.
I peaked socially in the second grade. That was the year I entered public school for the first time, after spending my early formative years in a private school so my mother could circumvent the cut-off date for Kindergarten and get me out of the house a year early. I was just six, and since it was 1977, I was allowed to walk to school unaccompanied.
I clutched my Trapper Keeper, full of three-hole-punched folders festooned with kittens, braved the wild streets of Zionsville, IN, and entered the halls of Eagle Elementary School. Wearing my smocked calico top that made me feel like Mary Ingalls, I took the desk that my smiling teacher pointed out to me and put my Trapper Keeper inside it. I lined up my pencils and plopped my pink eraser next to them.
The teacher assigned a beautiful girl with shiny honey hair to be my buddy and show me around the school. That girl went on to one day be a cheerleader and homecoming queen, and to this day is at the top of the A-List. She very importantly showed me the ropes of Eagle Elementary, and let me play with her friends at recess. This lasted for a couple of weeks, and it was glorious. I really thought I had made it! I was in! I jumped rope and played four-square and got chased in kissing tag by the cute boys. My future was clear to me at age 6. I would be POPULAR.
Of course, it was too good to last. Being smart often means being weird. The day things started to crumble was the day I was pulled out of class during reading time. I went off with a special teacher who specialized in advanced readers, as it had been determined that I was reading on about an 8th grade level and would certainly be bored stiff in a second-grade classroom offering color-coded SRA cards and phonics worksheets. I adored my time with this teacher, who sticks out to me to this day because she had Breck-girl hair and seemed to understand that words, to me, were like oxygen. I needed them, or I would die. When I related this sentiment to the girls at recess after a particularly exhilarating reading session, they crinkled their pretty noses at me, called me a dork, and ran off.
At the time, I didn’t understand nuance or how to recover from insult. Fat tears streamed down my face and plopped right onto my copy of The Hobbit. Thankfully, no one noticed and I slunk off to read under a huge tree for the remainder of recess. That became my norm at recess. Once in awhile, I ventured over to the swings, but my brush with popularity ended as soon as it began.
During the rest of my elementary career, I collected an assortment of equally strange and wonderful friends who also loved words, saw everything in a different way, had the words, “is smart, but daydreams too much,” slashed across their report cards, and had to replace their library cards every three months or so because they got worn out. The high water mark of one summer was, in fact, the day the library acquired a laminating machine. Indestructible library cards! Oh the technology!
Throughout my school career, books grew in importance. Since we have established the rise and fall of my social status, one can well imagine how amazing it was to disappear into books, where any girl could captivate the popular boy. Or have secret mind powers that frighten the government. Or go through a wardrobe into a magical land. Or live in the shire. Nothing delighted me more than DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) time in class. When a teacher uttered those words, I gleefully took my book out from its hiding place, usually behind some 70-pound textbook, and relaxed as the words soaked through me, changing me and my perspectives on the world.
Middle school brought on young adult books with racy themes. I remember furtively tucking my copy of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret between my math and history books so no one would see it. The Outsiders had violence in it I had never imagined in my small town. Gone With the Wind had the word “damn” in it. I spent countless hours at the town library reading Young Harlequin Romance novels, which I never admitted to a soul due to the shame of it (which was replicated in adulthood as I devoured the entire Twilight series in about 48 hours).
In high school, I discovered Hemingway and Steinbeck and Eliot and Tennyson and Joyce and Cather. During lunch, I would often read as I ate, the stories more important than the food. Sadly, I often ate alone, as my weirdness had only increased through the years. I had my tribe; the ones who understood me, but we were all kind of loners. I somehow muddled through.
Now, I am an English teacher. I still get the thrill of going back to school each year, and the immensely satisfying work of getting kids to see the joy in a book. I see myself in many of the readers – the glazed look, the glasses (which we all need because we squint a lot trying to read under the covers after lights out as youngsters), the 48-pound backpack. I am still not a social dynamo, but I’m okay with that. They still make books.
I was thinking the other day about some biology I once tried to teach my kids back in the days of yore when I homeschooled them, after finding the book I used during a vain attempt to purge the garage.
Flipping through the book, I found a chapter about cells. I remember how hilarious it was to try to make my kids say "golgi apparatus" and "deoxyribonucleic acid." But during those lessons, they sat still, with rapt attention, as I talked about how the inner workings of our smallest parts are akin to a city, with a nucleus around which everything else revolves.
It got me thinking about DNA and why we are the way we are. For instance, do I have a messy gene that makes it nearly impossible to keep an orderly home without extreme effort, while orderliness seems to just click with others? Is it really my fault that I suffer from verbal incontinence?
I recently had a lively debate via Facebook messaging about inner circles of gal pals, and what makes an inner circle, how one qualifies, etc. I think it's all in the DNA. I am decidedly not an inner-circle girl. I seem to be wired to attract very interesting, but not mainstream, people. I do not drive the "right" car, and I do not care. My clothes are from Kohl's, and I only get my hair cut twice a year when I can work up the nerve to spend $40 (plus products) on myself.
The inner-circle girls are the ones with the "it" factor. They are lovely, secure, fashionable people who do have the "right" car and the "right" address. Their husbands adore them; their friends do not threaten to nominate them to the TLC show "What Not to Wear." Not one of them would ever think to invite me anywhere, except maybe to be the less-attractive friend who deflects potential suitors (I believe, in trendy terms, that is now called the DUFF). Is it in our DNA to be inner-circle types or not?
An acquaintance asked why people complain to her (she is an inner-circle type) about being left out. Are our egos still so fragile, even in middle age, that we are not happy with our social station in life?
For me, the answer is certainly no. From childhood, I have had a yearning to be in the "in" group; on the "A" list. I have accepted the fact that I am too quirky and opinionated, not to mention too short and with ungainly features, to be in the group. I am also afflicted with the people-pleasing gene, and will go to great lengths to be part of "it," even if just for a moment. In fact, my dear friend Amy and I referred to our desperation for acceptance in our youth as the "never-ending quest for popularity." We once humiliated ourselves by dancing to Kool and the Gang's "Celebration" in the fifth-grade talent show in order to up our social status. Instead, our stock decidedly plummeted and to this day has not recovered (for more details on this, see "BFF" blog post).
I do fear that somewhere in the nuclei of my children, the misfit gene is being replicated. My daughter is universally loved, so I think it may have skipped her. The boys are still too young; only time will tell.
The whole of who we are is endlessly fascinating to me. We may never know the answers to why some have the "it" factor and some don't, but I will never stop questioning and trying to learn. Perhaps that is one good thing that will be passed along to my kids. I can only hope.
Courtney is a most fabulous writer and teacher of gifted middle school students. She is the author of two novels - see the "Cate Books" page of this site for information! Watch for updates about future books that need to be part of your personal library. In the meanwhile, enjoy her pithy life observations.