Monday, October 11, 2010

8-R.I.P. (Rest in Pieces)

© 2010 David’s Harp and Pen

I spoke earlier about bullies and helplessness. It seemed to me the worst thing about bullies, whether they be literally or figurative, was that, at least in my experience, they always seemed to attack out of nowhere and when I would least expect them. A big part of my feeling helpless as much as I did was the notion that I could never really be prepared for whenever human or circumstantial harriers would strike. I had to come to grips with the fact that, despite what my Charismatic sensibilities dictated, I was not able to control anywhere near as much of my circumstances as I’d liked. In fact, the only thing I could really say I could fully control was myself. Therefore, I needed to work not so much on how to avoid the real and allegorical Roccos of life, but how to respond to them when they crossed my path.

When I got home from Wednesday’s after defeating that drunk with my awesome tickle- and ice-fu, I went to the dojo’s website to watch a video lecture of Sensei’s. He discussed three stages students go through in training in order to reach proficiency. The first was learned response. In martial arts, through practice and time, we force our brains to react physically to specific stimuli. For example, the first defense and counter-strike Sensei taught me, I had to train myself when I would see a punch or shove coming to immediately block with one hand and strike my attacker with other. The second was muscle memory. This is the stage when certain maneuvers have been practiced to the point that, although I may still have to think about them, it is automatic for my body. Then there’s the third and final stage, which is reflex, when those fighting and defense techniques become second nature. It is the goal of every fighter to get to that third stage, when the training and discipline has become so ingrained in him that, at the slightest hint of danger, he is ready to go on the counter-attack without a second thought. In other words, fight is to him no longer a verb but a noun. It’s no longer something he does but the essence of who he is.

When danger, bullies, pain, anything unpleasant had come my way, my reflex was always to feel afraid and ineffectual. I wanted to get to that place when my first reactions would not be fear but faith and action. The time would come when that would be my first response. Of course, it came sooner than I thought, and as usual, not in the way I had planned.

I can’t properly describe the atmosphere at church when I arrived that Sunday. Everyone looked so somber and dejected. Some of the women in the lobby were crying. I was running late, so I didn’t take the time to ask anyone what the problem was. I took a seat way in the back, and when I looked at the platform, I was surprised not to see Pastor Hadley. Pastor Jackson, the associate pastor, took the pulpit to do the morning announcements. It was then I learned the source of everyone’s sorrow. He told the congregation, choking back tears, that Hannah Wagner’s baby had died! He then related the details of the funeral service, which would take place on Tuesday.

I was anxious for the church service to be over so I could get more details. As soon as Pastor Jackson dismissed everyone, I made a bee line for Rhonda Mitchell.

“Rhonda!” I exclaimed. “Hannah’s baby! Oh my gosh! What happened?”

“Oh, it was terrible, Dear! The umbilical cord became wrapped around the baby’s neck and strangled him during delivery! It was terrible. The doctor and that hospital dropped the ball in a big way. If I were Joey and Hannah, I would sue them for every penny they’ve got!” Rhonda said with increasing wrath.

I found myself very upset and wanting nothing else than to go straight home after church. I couldn’t get Hannah out of my mind. She seemed like such a sweetheart, and the whole thing seemed so senseless and unfair. In my life, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more fearful or powerless than I have when someone I loved has died. There were several times in my life when friends and/or loved ones had died in rapid succession, and I remember well the dread I felt. For a while, I was afraid to answer my phone or read my email for fear of news that someone else I cared about had been taken from me. Grief is perhaps the worst of all feelings of helplessness, and poor Hannah and her husband Joey were now feeling it in spades.

The funeral service on Tuesday was packed. I had never seen the church so full. The Wagners and the Hadleys had a good reputation with all the other pastors in Nashville, so the church had wall-to-wall people to show their support. Because it was such an emotional time not only for the Hadleys but all of the pastoral team at my church, the pastor of another church would be officiating at the service. As I scanned the sanctuary, I caught a glimpse of Hannah in the front row. Oh, the look on her face! I couldn’t even imagine what she was feeling at that moment. I’d been told over the years that losing a child is a parent’s worst nightmare, but to lose one like she did, when she never even got a chance to get to know her baby…it got me so upset to even think about it! I prayed as hard as I could that God would give her some special and unique comfort in the days to come.

The service was so sad, and although the guest pastor gave a comforting, although familiar, word about our hope in Heaven, the natural, human sense of hopelessness and helplessness continued to pervade and rest heavily on every person in that room. At the end of the service, Joey and Hannah stood at the front of the sanctuary by the little casket to form a receiving line. Scores of people lined up to offer their condolences to the grieving couple. I found a place in line next to Rhonda and we waited patiently to make our way to the front.

“Oh, the tragedy!” Rhonda lamented.

“I know. The baby shower seems so long ago now,” I commented.

“It was such a happy day! I just don’t understand. She’s such a sweetheart. And her uterus was so perfect!”

I looked at Rhonda, trying hard to comprehend her thought process at that moment, but decided, to my credit, to keep my mouth shut. I then turned to look at Hannah up at the front. She looked like she was trying to be so brave. I hated every second of that ordeal for her. I felt so helpless, like most of us do when we see someone we care about it pain and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Oh, God, I prayed silently, please, please, please, give me something, anything! Some word, Bible verse, something that will give her any kind of comfort or relief.

It’s in situations like that when I worry most about saying or doing something stupid. As we got closer to the front, however, I was freshly reminded that at funerals, the majority of people come down with Grief-Induced Brain Freeze (GIBF). The first words of “comfort” offered to Hannah that I was close enough to hear started the very short process of setting my blood to boil.

“Well, Hannah, I guess God needed another baby in Heaven,” said a well-intentioned but completely clueless middle-aged woman as she hugged Hannah.

“God needed another baby in Heaven?!” I repeated as a question, and more loudly than I thought.

“What are you talking about?” Rhonda asked.

“That’s a terrible thing to say to a woman who just lost her baby! ‘God needed another baby in Heaven!’ Well, why the hell did He have to take Hannah’s?!”

“Margaret! Language! We’re in church! And we’re grieving! We’re grieving in church!”

“Sorry,” I said repentantly.

An elderly couple was the next to approach Joey and Hannah. The husband took Hannah’s hand and said to her in an aristocratic tone, “Don’t cry, Hannah. God has a plan!”

“Oh, I hate that!” I exclaimed to Rhonda. “Why do people say stuff like that to when someone’s lost a loved one? ‘God has a plan!’ It’s like they’re saying God willed her baby to die!”

“Will you keep your voice down?” Rhonda snapped. “What are you getting so riled up for, anyway?”

“I’m sorry, Rhonda. It’s just that I’ve lost so many people in my life, and I can still remember all the stupid things people would say to me to try to make me feel better. I mean, yeah, I know God has a plan in all that happens to us, but to tell someone when they’re baby just died not to cry because God has a plan is just…well…cruel!”

“I think you’re reading too much into this. Calm down! Besides, Hannah’s strong like her mother. She knows that you have to take what some people say with a grain of salt.”

Trying to calm down, I replied, “Okay. If you say so.”

After the elderly couple walked off, a man dressed in a pastor’s frock gave Joey and Hannah a huge hug. Clutching his Bible tightly to his chest with his right hand and raising his left hand, he said to Hannah, “Heaven and Earth will pass away, but God’s Word will never pass away. That’s why we must learn from this that we should never love anything or anyone too much, because God wants us to put Him first.”

If looks could kill, that pastor would’ve been dead instantly from the figurative steel core armor piercing bullets I shot at him with my eyes!

“Oh no he didn’t!” I growled, finding it harder and harder to contain my displeasure.

“What now?” Rhonda snapped.

“Rhonda, please tell me you didn’t hear that! So, now it’s Hannah’s fault her baby died? Because she loved the kid too much? I really don’t understand why you’re not as upset about this as I am!”

“Margaret…Dear, sweet, naïve Margaret,” Rhonda condescended, “working in a church, especially one as large as this one, I average anywhere between 12-20 funerals a year. When someone dies, people feel that they have to say something, or at least quote Scripture, to the family in mourning. I haven’t heard anything today that’s any worse than anything I’ve heard at all those other funerals. You just smile politely, nod your heard, and let it roll off your back. That’s what Hannah’s doing. I suggest you do the same.”

I nodded my head in acquiescence. I certainly didn’t want to upset the natural order of things. I began to hum to myself so as not to have to hear any more words of (dis)comfort being offered to Hannah.

We finally got our turn at the head of the receiving line. I looked at Hannah’s face. Despite what Rhonda said, Hannah didn’t look strong. She didn’t look like anything was rolling off her back. In fact, she looked like she was carrying the world on her shoulders. Her eyes were cherry red from crying. I felt so helpless…for her and for me. I wanted just some little speck of consolation to offer her. I then looked at Rhonda: strong, experienced, never-at-a-loss-for-words Rhonda, and to my shock, I saw, for the first time, the helplessness I felt written all over Rhonda’s face. She looked uncomfortable and uneasy. Then I wondered, given all the funerals she’d been to, what words of wisdom she would bestow.

After several awkward moments of hesitation, Rhonda put her hands on Hannah’s shoulders and asked her, “So, Dear, when do you think Joey and you are going to try for another one?”

If the funeral had been part of a cartoon, my reaction to Rhonda’s question would’ve been shown with my eyeballs popping out about 12 feet ahead of me, still attached to my eyeball sockets with steel springs. I had heard some awful things said at that funeral, but the words proceeding from Rhonda’s mouth took the (edible ultrasound photo) cake! As if it wasn’t bad enough, Rhonda just kept talking, telling Joey and Hannah to try again right away, because the best thing to do is jump right back in the saddle, blah, blah, blah!

My brain and my patience had reached critical mass. I was absolutely furious for Hannah. I’d heard stories from other former wimps like me about the moment in time when they first fully got in touch with their anger. The stories all differed, of course, but the common denominator in each one was the person getting angry had, how shall I say this, a little bit of an out-of-body experience?

I don’t remember any of the sixty seconds that followed Rhonda’s equestrian analogy. That was probably a good thing, the not remembering, because if the matter went to court, it would greatly help my insanity plea. My brain reconnected with the rest of me when I heard Rhonda scream. Apparently I had closed my eyes during that minute, and when I opened them, I saw Rhonda face down on the floor, her left arm twisted and cranked into her back, held down by…me! Several ushers were making their way to us when I quickly let go of Rhonda’s arm and jumped to my feet. One of the ushers helped Rhonda to her feet as she moaned and groaned. With all the fury of the Earth’s molten core and the indignation of Godzilla right before he incinerated Tokyo, Rhonda hissed to me, “You! You! You Bride of Satan, You!”

I wanted to apologize, but I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even formulate any words in my brain. I felt all eyes on me, and I wondered, if Rhonda had her way, if I would be having a funeral of my own in the very near future. I sprinted to the back of the sanctuary, grabbed my purse, and bolted out the door.

When I arrived home, to my dismay, Bruno was waiting for me. I’d given him spare keys to my house and car, and someone at church had called him to tell him what happened. When I walked into my living room and found him sitting on my couch, he shot me a scowl that would’ve made Charles Manson recoil in terror.

“So! Margaret! Is there something you’d like to tell me?” he asked. Even I knew that was a trick question.

“Eh,” I stalled, “honestly, I don’t exactly remember what happened.”

“Well, let’s recap!” He opened my laptop and went to I felt my pulse spike into the triple digits as he played a video of me at the funeral. My jaw dropped as he looped the portion during which I threw Rhonda down and attempted to amputate her arm with my bare hands.

“Somebody taped that? Somebody taped that and posted it on the Internet?” I asked in horror.

“Oh, you’re a celebrity now! In the 20 minutes since it was posted, you’ve gotten half a million hits! Gotta love the caption, too! ‘Margaret Sims, attending the funeral of an infant, apparently did not feel the condolences being offered the bereaved were up to snuff, so she decided to exercise some quality control.’ Margaret, what were you thinking?” Bruno accused.

“I…I…someone really posted that on the Internet?!” I asked again, still in shock.

“Hey, you think the caption’s bad, get a load of some of these viewer comments! Here’s one… ‘what kind of woman assaults someone in the receiving line of a funeral? Margaret, whoever you are, you’re as bad as those nutty church groups who picket funerals of dead soldiers. There’s a special place in Hell reserved for people like you!”

I fell back on the couch, in shock and unable to close my mouth.

“Oh, wait, they get better! ‘Wow! That Sims chick looks a lot like that lady serial killer down in Florida. I can’t remember her name, but they gave her the Oscar right after she went to the electric chair,’” Bruno continued mockingly.

“The whole world thinks I’m a crazy person,” I muttered.

“Not the whole world,” Bruno said facetiously. “Sensei wrote on here. He said he doesn’t know what was going on but wanted you to know your kimura was flawless!”

I smacked my forehead with my hand.

“You’ll like this one, Mags! They said, ‘Margaret Sims, you’re my hero! I want to be like you in every way, shape, and form,’” Bruno continued.

“Who said that?” I asked.

“Let’s see. Sally Long, founder and president of The Center for Grief and Loss Recovery.”

I lowered my head to my knees and buried my face.

“I knew this was gonna backfire somehow,” Bruno ranted. “I knew letting you take martial arts classes was going to be a bad idea. Lucky for you, I got everything taken care of.”

I felt that anger again, and so I rose to my feet and looked at Bruno.

“What do you mean, ‘I knew this was gonna backfire’? What do you mean you ‘let’ me take the classes? And what did you take care of?” I inquired.

“C’mon, Mags! You’re more of a menace than that dog of yours, and now that you know a few judo moves, you’re even more a menace! Good thing for you, when Rhonda called me about pressing charges, I reminded her that if she did, all those speeding tickets of hers that I magically made disappear might reappear again, and so she backed down. You could show some gratitude.”

I couldn’t contain it any longer. I looked at Bruno and declared, “I don’t need you to do anything for me, not if you think it gives you the right to insult me! Let Rhonda have me arrested! I don’t care! I stood up for what was right at that funeral! Yeah, maybe I should’ve just told Rhonda to be quiet instead of submitting her, but you weren’t there, Bruno! You didn’t hear all the nutty things people were saying to Hannah. You didn’t see the look of death all over her face when Rhonda told her she should just start making a new baby right away, like she was replacing a broken dishwasher or something!”

“Mags, people have been saying stupid things at funerals ever since Cain killed Abel, and everyone and their brother accepts that this is an unavoidable part of life, like death and taxes and hail right after getting your car washed. Nobody makes a big deal out of it. Nobody except you! Listen, at my Uncle Giuseppe’s funeral, the priest walked up to my Aunt Concetta as she was bawling her eyes out and said, ‘Don’t cry, Connie! Gio’s in a better place. Life is fleeting. We’re here for a moment, and then we’re gone. Dry your eyes, because you’re going to be with him any day now.’ She was so distraught she had an aneurysm and dropped dead right there on the spot!”

I stared at Bruno a second, then asked, because I was confused, “Eh, okay. So….what was the point of that story?”

Bruno thought for a moment, then answered in a frustrated tone, “I don’t know. It seemed relevant at the time. I’m so ticked at you right now I can’t think straight! I just don’t understand why you have to be an idiot about everything!”

I couldn’t take it any more. I got up and walked right to him. After a few seconds, he stood up and looked straight at me. I looked straight back at him and gave him a good hard shove, which pushed him back into his chair.

“Did you just push me?” he asked, irate.

“Yes, I did!” I answered coolly.

He stood up and got right in my face and said, “You do realize assaulting a police officer is a crime.”

I shoved him back into his chair and said, “Right now, you’re not a cop! You’re just big mean old bully!”

“What are you gonna do now, Mags? Are you gonna hit me? Are you gonna knock me out? Inquiring minds want to know!”

I wanted an outlet for my anger, but he did have a point about the cop thing. To the right of his chair, I noticed Bernie’s basket of chew toys. I went for the basket and began to throw them at Bruno fast and furiously.

“Margaret Ann Sims! Forget about getting arrested. At this rate, I’m just going to have you committed,” he yelled.

“You are so mean to me, Bruno Spallone! You never give me credit for anything! One of these days, you’ll see that I was right about something and have to say you’re sorry!”

Holding his hands over his head to block the squeaky toys, he answered, “Aw, that’ll be a cold day in Hell!”

Seeing that I had run out of chew toys, I screamed, picked up the basket itself and lunged to put it over Bruno’s head. Right before I did, I felt myself being pulled backwards by two very strong arms. Then I felt a hand move the hair away from my left ear. Finally, I felt the warm breath of the man to whom those hands and arms were attached as he whispered in my ear, “Let it go, Margaret. He’s not worth the jail time.”

I turned around to see it was Ryan. All my anger evaporated and I became a Raggedy Ann. Bruno jumped to his feet, looked at us, and grimaced.

“How the hell do you do that, O?! She’s been carrying on with me like raving lunatic for the last thirty minutes! Then you come in, say two words to her, and she turns into…she turns into freakin’ Bambi!”

“It’s the accent, Bru. The women fall for it every time,” Ryan answered suavely. I nodded my head in agreement.

Bruno almost looked hurt. After a short pause, he said, “But…but I’ve got a cool Brooklyn accent.”

“It’s not the same,” Ryan replied. Bruno looked at me and I shook my head to concur.

“Well, maybe you can talk some sense into her with that Irish accent of yours. I’m going to the bathroom,” Bruno grunted as he headed to the bathroom.

As soon as Bruno was out of the room, Ryan let go of me and I turned to face him. He had that unreadable look on his face again.

“So, the funeral,” he said.

“You heard?” I asked.

“I was there running sound. I heard AND I saw,” he answered.

My anger rushed back instantaneously. I began to rant, “Oh, so you know, and I guess you thought you’d come down here and give me a good talking to just like Bruno! Well, save your breath! I know what you’re going to say and I don’t want to hear it!”

“And what exactly am I going to say?” he asked.

“You’re going to say it was uncalled for, that I was being stupid, that I’ll probably be ex-communicated, and I should’ve let sleeping dogs lie. Well, you weren’t up there! You didn’t hear all the idiotic things people were saying to Hannah and how she looked like she was dying a little more with each comment. When Jesus went to Lazarus’ funeral, He cried and then He raised him from the dead, so unless they’re gonna cry or resurrect the corpse, people should just keep their mouths shut! Yeah, I’m sorry I hurt Rhonda, but I’d be sorrier if I didn’t do or say anything. It was like Rhonda was Rocco and Hannah was me, and I couldn’t stand by and do nothing while she got verbally assaulted, so you can just keep your opinion of the matter to yourself!”

“Well, actually, I wasn’t going to say any of that.”

As I stared at Ryan, I heard a sound in my head equivalent to the air being let out of a balloon at an abnormally high speed.

Slightly embarrassed, I stuttered, “Oh. Wh…wh…what were you going to say, then?”

As Bruno walked back into the living room, Ryan got down on his knees in front of me, bowed his head low, raised his arms up and down, and said, “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!” Then Ryan grabbed my right hand in his hands, looked up at my face, and said, “Oh, Great and Powerful Ninja Goddess, please, let me just touch the hem of your garment, because I know if I do, I can be a real man!”

Bruno became enraged and yelled, “O, what the hell are you doing? For God’s sakes, don’t encourage her!”

“Shut up, Bru! She’s made major progress here!” Ryan shot back.

“Progress, O? Progress?! She’s on video pile driving a semi-elderly woman into the ground at a baby’s funeral for the whole world to see! This is regress! I know you feel protective and responsible for her and all that crap, like she’s your pet basset hound or something, but this is bad! This is very bad! It may seem cute to you now, but I’ve been dealing with this for the last five years I’ve known her, and by the end of the first year, let me tell you, the charm wears off!”

“I think she feels bad enough already!”

“No, I don’t think so! She always feels bad, and yet she continues to do stupid crap like this again and again!”

“Yeah, and I can see clearly that five years of you yelling and ripping her head off every time she screws up has made things so much better!”

Bruno and Ryan continued to bicker, getting closer to each other as they argued. I really thought they might come to blows. Although I felt awful about it, I couldn’t help but be a little happy. For the first time in my life, someone had stepped up to defend my honor. The argument was interrupted, however, by the ringing of Bruno’s cell phone.

“We’ll finish this discussion later,” Bruno snarled at Ryan. He then opened his phone and answered, “Officer Bruno Spallone…oh, hello!” He seemed to be surprised. “Look, I talked to Rhonda. She’s not going to press charges. As for the church, Margaret feels really bad and will do anything to…Really?...Well, I can do one better. I’m at her house right now. She’s standing right next to me…Sure. Would you hold on a second, please?” Bruno put his cell phone on mute, then looked at me and said, “It’s Hannah Wagner. She wants to talk to you.”

“Me?” I asked, in shock. “What does she want?”

“Your cannoli recipe!” Bruno snarled. “What do you think?! She wants to talk to you about the funeral! Listen, before you talk to her, you’re gonna put the phone on speaker so all of us can hear.” He then handed me his cell phone.

“Why do I have to put in on speaker?” I asked.

“I wanna hear what’s going on, because even though you don’t deserve it, I’m going to try to save you from yourself.”

I made a face like a scolded child as I unmuted the phone and then put it on speaker.

“Hello, Hannah,” I said as nonchalantly as I possibly could.

“Hello, Margaret. The graveside service just ended, and I wanted to call you before it got too late in the day,” Hannah said, her voice cracking a little.

“Hannah, I feel so awful about everything. I mean, what happened at the shower was bad enough, but my behavior today was, well, there was just no excuse for it! I am so sorry! I just have no words for how bad I…”

“Listen, Margaret, you don’t have to go through all this. The reason I called was to say thank you.”

“Thank you?”

“Thank you?!” Bruno mouthed silently.

Hannah continued, “I absolutely dreaded today. I told Joey yesterday I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the funeral. I mean, my baby died, and I told God that I wished that I had died, too. Of course, Mom and Dad have so many friends that have called and visited, and I know they’ve all meant well, but, the thing is, at funerals, people think they have to say something, anything, and well, more often than not, what they say is more hurtful than helpful. Lots of people told me I shouldn’t cry because my baby’s in Heaven, or that it was all God’s Will. One person at the funeral said to me before it started that it was better that he died, because if he’d have survived, what with being choked by the umbilical cord, he’d probably be special needs, and all…” She got all choked up. “Like I would’ve cared whether my child had been born with learning problems!”

I felt myself getting choked up as she talked.

She went on, “Like I said, I know people mean well, but some of the things people said to me just came off as so cruel. And contrary to what people think, I’m not tough like my mom. She loves a good insult. She never backs down from fight. Not that anyone there was trying to insult me, but you know what I mean, right? I almost felt like I was being ganged up on, understand?”

“Yeah, I do,” I answered.

“So, anyway, halfway through the receiving line, I told God and Joey that I wasn’t going to make it. Then when Rhonda came and said I should just jump right into having another baby, just replace one kid with another, like that’s even possible, I thought I would die right then and there! Well, you come along, and, well, you put Rhonda in her place in short order! After I was done with the receiving line, I excused myself to my dad’s study, and I laughed my head! The most horrible day of my life and, as crazy as it sounds, I found one glimmer of joy, and it was because of you! So all that to say…thank you!”

I looked at Ryan, who had a big smile on his face. I then looked at Bruno, who scowled so hard I thought his face would freeze that way.

I said to Hannah, “Ah, you’re welcome! I mean…yeah, you’re welcome! So, you’re really not mad?”

Hannah answered, “Margaret, I’ll tell you a secret, and you can never tell Rhonda I told you this, okay? I love Rhonda, but she’s so pushy, and what you did to her today is what the rest of us have only dreamed about doing!” Bruno slapped his face and dragged his hand across it.

“I won’t say anything,” I answered, relieved.

“Listen, Margaret, the next few weeks are going to be crazy for me, but maybe we could get together after that? I’d love to get to know you better,” Hannah asked.

“Really?” I asked excitedly.

“Yeah, I would. Is my number showing up on the phone?”


“Okay. This is my cell. Send me a text from your cell so I have it. We’ll connect in a few weeks, okay?”

“Yeah! I would totally love that!”

“Me, too! Well, I have to go, but thanks again, Margaret. You’re a good woman to have around! Have a good rest of the day.”

“Yeah, you too! I’m praying for you.” I hung up the phone and handed it back to Bruno who looked so angry I probably could’ve fried an egg on his face.

“We will never speak of this again,” he grunted as he headed to the door.

“Ah, Bru,” Ryan asked, “isn’t there something you want to say to Margaret?”

Bruno’s eyes shot back and forth between Ryan and me, and with an angry grin on his face, he bowed slightly and quickly to me and said, “I’m not worthy.” Then he bolted out the front door.

I turned to Ryan and said, “I did it! I did it! I stood up to the bullies! I stood up for what was right, and I did it my own way, and now I might have a girlfriend out of it!”

“That’s me girl!” Ryan chuckled.

“By the way, how did you get in here?” I asked.

“I can walk through walls.”

I stared at him with my jaw dropped for a minute. He laughed.

“I’m just screwing with ya! Shane told me where you hide the spare key! I just love that look on your face!” He chuckled.

I remembered I had left Bernie in the garage and walked to the door to let him into the living room. As I opened the door, I said to Ryan, “You better not tease me like that anymore, because now I’m rough and tough and can stand up for myself.”

When I opened the door, Bernie charged in, jumped on me, and knocked me straight to the floor. Ryan bust out laughing as he picked me up off the floor.

“Baby steps, Margaret! Baby steps!” he said with a light in his eyes. I felt a little deflated again. Ryan then backed up to the front door, bowing to me and saying, “I’m not worthy! I’m not worthy!” as he headed out.

As I closed the front door behind him, I pondered yet another huge stride made in such a short period of time. I was no longer the victim. I was the victor, and I would never feel powerless again…except until maybe the next time.

Friday, September 24, 2010

7-Daniel(le) LaRusso

© 2010 David’s Harp and Pen

Most of my life, I have had, besides rampant insecurity, a terrible, looming feeling of helplessness. The two go hand in hand, I suppose. I still remember vividly when that awful sense of powerlessness became my life-long companion.

It was the first day of first grade. Rocco Campizi, the school bully, saw me in the schoolyard. When he walked up to me, he knocked my lunch box on the ground, looked deep into my eyes, and said, “I knew from the moment I saw you, that I wanted to kill you.” (He always knew how to talk to the ladies.) That afternoon, we had gym class. Our gym teacher, Mr. Patillo, always on the lookout to enhance the elementary school physical education experience, got the brilliant idea to let us play dodge ball using a brand new volleyball. That thing was hard as a rock and must have been filled with lead. For reasons I don’t remember, I was picked to be “it.” I was placed in the center of an imaginary circle, not unlike gladiators in the Roman coliseums on their way to be slaughtered, while my fellow classmates threw the volleyball at me. Rocco decided I had not suffered enough, so he grabbed the volleyball, ran up to me, and slammed the volleyball into the right side of my head over my ear. For the next month, I alternated between hearing a terrible ringing nonstop to not being able to hear anything at all. The ringing eventually went away, but I never got all my hearing back. Of course, Mr. Patillo wasn’t paying attention, and all the other kids thought it was funny, so when I told the principal, it was Rocco’s word against mine. In other words, nothing happened.

Thus began a pattern that repeated itself throughout my entire school career. Each year, some new kid would be elected student body bully, proceed to torture me, I would report him or her, and for whatever reason, nothing would be done about it. As I endured this, I would, from time to time, seek the advice of some adult I trusted, hoping for an intervention, but what I always heard in response was something like this: “Kids wouldn’t bother you if you just (fill in the blank). Speak your mind, don’t speak your mind, stand up to them, ignore them, show them you’re the bigger person. Those bullies wouldn’t treat you like that if you didn’t invite it.” I don’t remember saying to any of those little thugs in elementary school, “Oh, please, please, beat the snot out of me and tease me as harshly and often as you like. I do so love a good flagellation!” I would’ve liked it if, just once, instead of an adult telling me the proper way to react to being ritualistically sacrificed, they would rather have gone to the mass-murderers-in-the-making like Rocco and said, firmly yet lovingly, “You better leave Margaret Ann alone or I’ll push you in front of the school bus and make it look like an accident.” No one ever stood up for me but me, and as it can already be gathered, I did a terrible job of it.

I tried a few times to tell the members of the power trio about the bullying as a kid, but it always fell on deaf ears. Bruno would say, “No one respects a door mat. You should’ve fought back. You have to learn to stick up for yourself.” Of course, that didn’t apply if the person with whom I had to stick up for myself WAS Bruno. Shane said it was because I am shy, and to un-shy people, shyness is seen as snobbery, which according to Shane is a capital offense. My favorite explanation, however, came from Larry, who said it was God’s good pleasure that I endured hardship so that God’s character could be perfected in me. As I’ve said before, I know Larry always means the best, but the way he said it, I might have taken it better if he had merely said God enjoys seeing me suffer, because when He squashes me like a grape, it makes me a better person.

I started out in life being pushed around by bullies. That constant fear made it hard to focus, which probably explains my propensity for accidents. Although I’m sure the people in my life only meant to encourage me, I took their encouragement to mean that somehow, all that torture from the other kids was somehow my fault. As I grew older, the bullies I faced changed from mean classmates to life itself. I know that a good part of what we face in life is out of our control, but I always felt I was getting the message that not only was it in my control, but when painful stuff happened, I somehow brought it on myself. I didn’t want to be a klutz any more. I didn’t want to be fearful. I didn’t want to feel powerless. Like I said before about fighting temptation, sometimes it’s not about trying the same ineffective things harder but trying something different.

It didn’t dawn on me until well into my early 30s that growing up, I was always one of the biggest kids in my class. However, I always saw myself as the smallest and weakest. I desperately wanted that perspective to change, to really know deep down that I was the head and not the tail, above and not beneath, seated in Heavenly places with Christ, and all that other stuff we Charismatics quote when we’re afraid or when we’re vying against some random Baptist for that last parking space at the mall. I didn’t want to feel victimized and helpless any longer. It turned out, like so many other things in my relationship with God, that I needed a major paradigm shift to change the perspective.

The Monday after the infamous baby shower, I drove to a martial arts school where Bruno had been taking lessons for a long time. That night was his promotion to purple belt, and he had invited all of us to watch. While my experience with martial arts was limited to poorly dubbed movies I watched as a kid, I was always impressed with martial artists’ physical discipline and what seemed to be their total lack of fear. When I pulled into the parking lot, I got an itch on the scar I’d received from the bear trap. I looked at that scar as I scratched it and started to feel that awful helpless feeling again. Three trips to the emergency room in six weeks was a record, even by my standards. It was terribly embarrassing. The staff at the Davidson County Memorial emergency room had such a hard time believing me when I said I was really that clumsy that I had to make up a story about an abusive boyfriend just to save face!

I gingerly peaked my head into the classroom where Bruno said he would be. I was immediately taken aback by what I saw. There were guys wall to wall, dressed in gis (martial arts uniforms), all impressive physical specimens, executing their respective maneuvers with expediency, precision, and all-around awesomeness, like well-oiled machines. I was so absorbed in watching the martial artists I didn’t notice Ryan standing to the right of me.

“Are you okay?” He asked, concerned.

“Yeah. Why?” I answered.

“I said hello to you a few times, and you didn’t respond.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t hear very well out of my right ear.”

“Really? Is that why you’re always screaming at me?”

“Eh, come again?”

“Are you jealous because I have perfect hearing, or is it more of a ‘misery loves company’ thing?”

Before I could answer him, Bruno walked up to us, soaked in sweat.

“What are you two doing here so early?” Bruno asked.

“You said to be here at 8,” I answered.

“No, I didn’t. I said 9,” Bruno replied.

“No, Bru. You said 8,” Ryan interjected.

“Oh, wait a minute! You’re right,” Bruno said. “I told Shane to be here at eight instead of nine so he’d really be here by nine. I must’ve told you two eight, too. Why don’t you come in and watch the class?”

I started to say, “Oh, that’s alright. I’ll just come back la…”

“Sure, we’d love to stay,” Ryan interrupted. He then grabbed my wrist and pulled me in behind him as we walked. As we made our way to a row of chairs at the side of the classroom, my eyes scoped the room back and forth and back again. Everyone there looked so in shape, so confident, so in control. I didn’t remember a time, even at the baby shower, when I felt more out of place. I sat down, my gaze still locked on all the martial artistry in front of me. Ryan sat in the seat to the left of me.

“So, what happened to your hearing in your right ear? Were you born that way?” Ryan asked.

“No,” I answered. “It was Rocco Campizi.”

“What’s a Rocco Campizi?”

“He was the school bully. He slammed a volleyball into my ear because he thought it was funny and I lost part of my hearing.”

“Omeegosh! That’s horrible! What happened to him?”


“Nothing? Nothing at all? He cost you your hearing!”

“It was his word against mine. It’s no big deal, really. He did a lot worse to me through elementary school. Nothing ever happened to him.”

“What about your parents? Your teachers? They all just stood by and didn’t do anything?”

“It’s really nothing. I mean, I shouldn’t have been such a wimp. Maybe if I had tried a little harder to be friendlier, or something, the other kids wouldn’t have bothered me like they did.”

I turned and looked at Ryan. His face had turned dark red. He looked at me, then got up, walked away, walked back to me, walked away, and walked back, pacing like a madman. Most of the time, when I told people about Rocco, which wasn’t very often, they usually responded by saying something like God had a plan, or Rocco was just being a typical boy at that age, or I should’ve tried harder to make friends with the kids in school when I was younger. No one had ever reacted like Ryan did at that moment. It really threw me for a loop, and I didn’t know how to respond to him. I became very nervous, and as I normally do when I think someone might be even minutely angry with me, I stood and went to Ryan to apologize.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you,” I said nervously.

“What are you apologizing for?” Ryan asked angrily.

“I don’t know. You just seemed to get really upset all of a sudden. You probably didn’t want to hear that whole sob story about my ear. I should just be a man about the whole thing and…”

Ryan shushed me as he put his index finger over my lips and said, “Don’t ever let me hear you talk about being a man about anything! Like you had any control over what that little monster did to you?”

As he moved his finger away from my mouth, I looked deep into his eyes. I couldn’t think of anything to say to him, and I felt a few isolated tears run down my face.

“If you had been my daughter, my sister…no, if you had just been some girl in my class, and I saw you get tortured day in and day out, and no one did anything, I would’ve taken Rocco out into the woods, ripped his still-beating heart from his chest, and then eaten it, just like Magua did to Colonel Munro in The Last of the Mohicans.”

I was so taken aback by not only what he said but also how he said it. The only way I can describe the look in his eyes at that moment was undefiled rage. I was afraid. I was very afraid.

“Hey O,” Bruno called to him from the other side of the room. “Come check this out.”

Ryan turned and walked away to Bruno, not saying a word to me. When he got to Bruno, Bruno showed him something called a crab throw. The two of them started to work on it together. I stood by my seat, thinking and staring. Who was this guy I had been crushing on for weeks? I didn’t think I’d ever seen anyone that angry, not even Bruno! I turned away and looked at the wall for a moment.

Holy… I thought. What if he’s criminally insane? What if he’s one of those guys who turns out to be really jealous and possessive? What if one day I come home and find Bernie boiling in my bathtub because Ryan thought I liked my dog more than him? Oh, no! I think I’ve done it again and gone and fallen for a lunatic!

I turned back just in time to see Ryan triumphantly throw Bruno flat on his back. As Bruno got back to his feet, Ryan turned to look at me, winked, clicked his tongue, and flashed that million-dollar smile I had grown to love.

Well, God, I prayed silently, he may be a lunatic, but he’s a handsome, godly, charming, protective, and attentive lunatic!

“You come to try class?” Said a voice from behind me in broken English and a heavy Oriental accent. I turned to see a Chinese man in his 60s about five feet, ten inches tall, with short, spiky jet black hair, slightly gray around the temples, clothed in a black gi with a black belt. His name was Chi Wai Kwong. He had a black belt in several different martial arts. He had been a missionary all over the Orient in his younger days, and he often went on expeditions to smuggle Bibles into China. He came to America 15 years ago to avoid capture by the Communist government in China and opened his own dojo. I was pretty sure he never had a nervous or fearful day in his life.

“Oh, no. I’m just here to see Bruno get his purple belt,” I answered, a little in awe of the man who stood next to me.

“I show you few basic things. All women should know how to defend self.”

“Ah, you don’t understand, though. I’m a career klutz! Besides, centrifugal force and I have been at odds for so long, if we started to cooperate, I’d lose my whole identity!” I joked nervously.

Sensei Chi looked at me oddly, then said, “No idea what you say, but I repeat: all women should know how to defend self. I show you basic defense and counter strike. Try and punch my face.”

I slowly made a fist with my right hand and aimed it at his nose. He leaned slightly to his left, pushed my wrist away with his left hand, made what’s called an “iron palm” with his right hand, and lunged it towards my face.

“See?” He asked. “Is very easy. Now you try.”

He aimed his right fist straight at me, and I proceeded to freeze, like I normally do when I feel under attack.

“What is wrong?” Sensei Chi inquired.

“I’m sorry. I…ah…try it again,” I answered apologetically.

He aimed his fist at me again, and again I froze. I realized at that moment that I was conditioned to react to confrontation with fear and helplessness, and I didn’t see any way of breaking it.

“Your eyes say fear is your master,” Sensei Chi commented matter-of-factly. Tell me something I didn’t know.

“I…you know what? I’ll just sit this out. I appreciate the effort, but, I just don’t have it in me, nor do I have the coordination.”

Sensei Chi pointed to my head and said, “If can change here,” then pointed to my heart and said, “and here,” then made circles with his index finger in front of my body, “can change here.”

I looked at him and shuddered in shame as I heard myself say out loud to him, “I can’t change.”

“No, she means she won’t change,” said Ryan, who had snuck up beside me with Bruno, as was his usual fashion.

Surprised, I turned to look at him and asked, “What do you mean?”

“You like being a klutz. You like people feeling sorry for ya. You like the attention.”

“That’s not true!” I shot back nervously. Ryan once again got in my face and moved forward, causing me to have to move backwards. Then he raised his hand to me and gave me a good hard shove, which caused me to almost fall backwards.

“Yes it is. You love being surrounded by drama and everyone looking at you saying, ‘Poor little Mags! Can’t win for losin’!’” he said mockingly, still moving forward as he shoved me harder a second time. I grew increasingly scared, but I felt a new sensation, too, as he tooled me around the mat: anger.

So he’s one of those, I thought. He acts really sweet in the beginning, but then he turns out to be a demon.

Bruno began to move towards us and said, “O, knock it off!” but Sensei, sensing something big and important was going on, held Bruno back.

“No,” Ryan said defiantly. “I’m just calling this spineless little Yankee like I see her.” He shoved me yet again and increasingly harder.

“How dare you say that when you know so little about me!” I said, trembling with a mixture of fear, disappointment, and growing ire.

“I know enough to know I don’t want to know any more,” he said so coldly, in a manner reminiscent to me of so many of the bullies I’d cowered under in school. I was hurt, I was disappointed, and I was angry. Somehow in the short time we had been at the dojo that night, Ryan’s respect for me had completely tanked and now he thought he could bully me, too. We were almost to the wall when he raised that massive right hand of his, which was attached to his colossally strong right arm, to shove me again. I was certain at that moment that he would succeed in shoving me clear through the wall. Although I’m sure it all happened quickly, everything seemed to pass in triple slow motion. As his right hand approached my left shoulder to knock me down, I tilted to my left, knocked his hand away with my left hand, and iron-palmed him square in the nose with my right hand. The force of my actions were so strong that he fell straight backwards and landed on his back on the mat with a bloody nose. I gasped when I realized what I did. Sensei and Bruno ran up to us as I kneeled on the mat next to Ryan.

“Great, Margaret! You killed him! We’ll have to send him back to Ireland in a body bag!” Bruno chided.

“Oh, I am so sorry! I…oh crap!” I cried as I helped him Ryan sit up. I thought for sure he would then try to kill me, but as he turned his face to me, he wiped the blood away and flashed his famous, mischievous grin.

“That’s me girl! I knew you had it in ya!” he said, chuckling. Bruno helped Ryan to his feet while one of the other students handed Ryan a roll of paper towels.

“You can do it,” Sensei said to me. “You come here and I train you.”

“Eh, I don’t mean to throw cold water on your enthusiasm, Sensei,” Bruno interjected, “but Margaret here doesn’t…I mean, she has trouble walking and breathing at the same time without falling down.”

I looked at Bruno with disappointment and asked, “You don’t think I can do this, do you?”

Bruno hesitated for a second, then without looking at me, answered, “No, I don’t.”

Sensei declared, “I train man born blind and deaf. Man I teach get black belt with no arms and one leg six inch shorter than other. If can train them, can train puffy American woman.”

I got a little miffed and asked, “Did you just call me ‘puffy’?”

Bruno leaned into my left ear and whispered, “Don’t talk back to him, Mags. He’s a grand master in seven different fighting disciplines and can kill you just by thinking about you.”

Sensei continued, “We work together and I turn puff into power. I give first month lesson free.”

My first month free definitely appealed to my coupon-clipping sensibilities. I wondered what would be left of me after that first month, if I survived it. I had a flashback of every accident I ever had, every confrontation from kindergarten to the present when terror came to call, and I would cower, petrified, and sit back helplessly. I wondered if there was anything that could break that 35-year-old cycle, but then I remembered that sometimes, desperate times called for desperate measures. Maybe something this radical and so far out of my comfort zone was just what God wanted to do the job. I didn’t understand, either, why Sensei, this total stranger, had such confidence I could do it, while someone who had been my friend for five years was so quick to pooh-pooh the whole idea. I then remembered all the previous times I tried to toughen up and stick up for myself, and how I failed each time, and how so very tired I was of being the only one to stick up for me. As my brain churned to decide what to tell Sensei, I felt an arm around my shoulder. I looked up to see it was Ryan’s.

“First month free for both of us, or she walks,” Ryan said with all the swagger of one of those high-powered sports agents. I turned to look at him and wondered if he had any idea what he was getting himself into.

“Very well. Free month for puffy American woman and her boyfriend,” Sensei conceded.

“Oh, she’s not my girlfriend,” Ryan exclaimed. That dose of reality stung me more painfully than all the devil bugs in the world, but before I could read into it any further, Ryan turned to me, winked, squeezed my shoulders really hard, and continued, “she’s my inspiration.”

Knowing the proper way to react to gorgeous men when they spoke to me was always a struggle, and I was always self-conscious about appearing too goofy, but when he said that, I lost all self-control and lit up like the giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.

“Very good. Class Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday 7:30 to 9. On table information for get uniform. Must return to other students,” Sensei remarked. He then bowed to Ryan and me and walked away. Bruno stared at the two of us, scratched his head, and walked back to the rest of the class.

Ryan, with one hand on my shoulder and the other holding paper towels to his nose, looked in my eyes and said, “What happened to you in school wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t stop it, but you’re not that helpless little girl any more.”

I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at him as I bit down hard my lower lip. I had, for the first time, gotten a taste of power, and I really, really liked it!

When I got home that night, my brain was overloaded with the magnitude of what just happened and the revelations about how I’d lived my life and why I reacted to things the way I did. As I processed all of it, I got on my computer Bible to do my “Bible-in-a-Year” reading. The passage for that day included 1 Corinthians 9:25-27, which says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

I wondered at what point I had decided that my life was a pass/fail course instead of a letter grade event, and why I had settled for merely completing the race instead of winning? Perhaps I had always seen my life as something merely to be passed instead of something that could truly be excellent, praiseworthy, or A+. All I knew at that point was I didn’t want to beat the air any longer. Ryan was right. I wasn’t a defenseless kid any longer, and maybe with a little help, I could overcome all that helplessness and klutziness and attain greatness.

I went to the dojo every time the doors opened over the following two weeks, and Ryan was right there with me. Although I felt empowered by new resolve and outlook, the reality of 35 years of walking with two left feet began to dampen my enthusiasm. I racked up so many bruises and cuts that I named them all and made them my pets.

The Thursday night of my second week of training, I decided to go to the dojo early to talk to Sensei. I’d told my editor Brian about him, and Brian thought his story might make an interesting article in Worship and Warfare. As we sat down to talk, I found him very charming and engaging. He had so many stories of smuggling Bibles into closed sections of the Orient, and as hard and fast as the various Communist regimes would pursue him, he always remained one step ahead of them. With each successive tale of heroism and courage under fire, I found myself increasingly awestruck and jealous. I couldn’t take it any more, and so I finally asked him the obvious.

“So, how do you do it? How do you live your life and do what you did with no fear whatsoever?” I asked him, trying so very hard not to gush all over him.

He looked at me with a slight grin and answered, “No fear is myth. Trick is keep fear always at respectable distance, and make to miss God’s promise greatest fear.”

He then got up to meet some students as they began to arrive to class. While he spoke with them, my eyes wandered to the various banners and signs that graced the walls of the main room inside of the dojo. One banner in particular caught my eye. It was white with red lettering. There was a caricature drawing of a small man scaling a very high wall, along with writing in what I found out later was Traditional Chinese.

When Sensei returned with the visitors, I asked him what the writing was, and he said it was Hebrews 4:1. He left again briefly with the visitors, and I looked up the passage on my Smartphone, and the verse said, “THEREFORE, WHILE the promise of entering His rest still holds and is offered [today], let us be afraid [to distrust it], lest any of you should think he has come too late and has come short of [reaching] it.”

By the time Sensei had finished with the visitors, the rest of the class had arrived, and so I couldn’t finish my conversation with him. I watched silently as all those brave and athletic-looking guys filed into room. I decided then and there that there was no reason I couldn’t do what they were doing.

Fast forward to the end of the first 60 minutes of class. I had collected a new colony of contusions so purple they almost appeared regal. The last two classes we had been working on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and ground fighting, and I was having an awful time keeping all the moves straight in my head. Bruno and Ryan were as patient as they could be; well, Ryan was patient, but each grappling session concluded with me getting beaten, usually within about 30 seconds.

“Ugh!” I moaned as I once again picked myself up from the mat and headed for my sports drink. “I’m never going to get this!”

Ryan walked after me as I chugged what must’ve been my tenth bottle of super sweet electrolyte replacement juice.

“It’ll come to you eventually. You just have to keep at it,” Ryan said in an encouraging fashion.

“Are you finally ready to call it quits? I’ll admit, I didn’t think you’d last one class, let alone six,” Bruno said condescendingly as he walked up to the two of us.

I stared at Bruno angrily, wanting to tell him just what I thought, but I soon realized that, as much as I hated to admit it, maybe Bruno was right. Maybe I just didn’t have what it took. Maybe I would always be a wimp and powerless to stop the literal and figurative bullies that had plagued me for so long. I let out a big sigh, shrugged my shoulders, and headed with my drink to the chairs on the side of the mats. Ryan followed me.

“Don’t listen to him. He’s a cop. It’s his job to always look for the worst case scenario,” he said with a bit of a chuckle in his voice.

“What if he’s not?” I shot back. “Nothing’s clicking! I’ve learned all these different maneuvers and techniques, but when it comes to using them, they all melt together in my brain, and I’m no better off than when I started. Maybe he’s right. Maybe once a klutz, always a klutz! This is more than me just trying to learn some moves and get in shape. Maybe I don’t have what it takes even mentally. I mean, everyone here is so sure of themselves, and physically in control, and I never, ever feel in control…except…”

“Except?” Ryan inquired. At this point, Bruno had joined us on the sidelines.

“Oh, you’ll think I’m nuts when I tell you this,” I answered, dejected.

“You say that an awful lot, Margaret. You should get that on a button or a tattoo. It would save you a lot of time,” he said mischievously. I looked at him intently as I bit my lower lip.

Continuing his inquest, he asked, “You were saying? You only feel in control when…?”

“When I’m shopping! I go into the store, armed with my coupons and store circulars, and I’m out for the killer bargains, and no cashier or sales person is going to trick me into paying full retail, because the money I save is going to support all the world’s missionaries, so no matter how they protest, or try to convince me the coupons or specials are expired when they’re not, I never back down, because I’m on a mission from God!”

Ryan got very quiet, and a deeply pensive look appeared on his face.

“I’ve got to hand it to her there, O. She is the Coupon Queen,” Bruno interjected. “You think what she does when we got out to eat is impressive! You should see her when she goes grocery shopping. I’ve seen times when the store’s paid her, instead of the other way around. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was illegal.”

All of a sudden, Ryan got an inspired look on his face. He jumped to his feet, pulled me up with him, and said excitedly, “That’s it! Margaret, you have to look at grappling like you do shopping!”

“I don’t follow,” both Bruno and I managed to say simultaneously.

“What did you tell me were the three pillars of shopping? Store sales, manufacturer’s coupons, and mail-in rebates. And what did you say the trick was to unlock all the savings? Only buy things that are on sale at the store that you also have a manufacturer’s coupon for.”

“So? How does that relate to this?” I asked, dying of curiosity.

“Okay. When you’re grappling, the first thing you want to do is get your opponent off balance. Your sweeps are your store sales. Once you’ve got him on the ground and unsettled, depending on how he lands, you then go for mount or some kind of guard to subdue him. That’s your manufacturer coupon. And finally, depending on the advantage you have, you go for a lock or a bar: arm, knee, whatever, and you submit him. That’s your mail-in rebate, when you go in for the kill!”

I stared at Ryan for a second, and then turned my head to stare straight into the wall. I tried in a very short period of time to take the vastness of what Ryan just said and chop it up into bite size morsels I could easily digest. Because my brain was working so hard, I temporarily lost my powers of speech.

“O, I think you may be on to something,” Bruno said, obviously impressed, which doesn’t happen with him very often.

“What do you think, Margaret? Want to give it another go?” Ryan asked excitedly.

I turned to look at him and nodded my head. Although everything he said made sense, I still wondered if, in the heat of battle, I could remember all that and pull it off successfully. As we walked back to the mat, I had another revelation, and I turned to Ryan for confirmation.

“Wait a minute,” I said to Ryan timidly. “You mean, you actually paid attention when I explained my coupon thing to you?”

With a gleam in his eyes, Ryan answered, “Oh, Darlin’, don’t you know I hang on your every word?”

With all the goofiness of a love-struck school girl, I looked at him with a goofy smile and asked, “Really?!”

“No, not really!” he answered, unable to say it without laughing. Bruno walked up to Ryan and gave him two high fives.

“That was brutal, O! I knew I liked you for some reason,” Bruno chuckled.

I stopped in my tracks on the mat, bit my lower lip again, and stared at the floor.

“Whatcha starin’ at down there?” Ryan asked, obviously quite amused with himself.

“Tha-, tha-, that was mean,” I mustered the courage to say.

Ryan walked up to me, stuck the index finger of his right hand under my chin, lifted my face up, and said, “Look at a man when you talk to him, Woman!”

Still embarrassed, but getting slightly miffed, I shot back, “Th-that was mean!”

He then got right in my face and said forcefully, although almost in a whisper, “You’re right! It was mean, it was rotten, and it was dastardly. Now make me pay!”

Then he took his great, big hands, which were attached to his powerful, ripped arms, which were attached to his muscular, military-grade chest, and once again, he gave me a good, hard shove, which knocked me flat on my butt. Something inside me snapped, and when I looked up at him, I didn’t see the cute Irishman who carried me up a flight of a thousand stairs when my foot was busted or through mile-high foliage when I got stung by the devil bugs. I saw Rocco. I saw every bully that had owned me or made me look foolish. Not only that, I saw every store cashier who had ever told me I had too many coupons, even though the store had no printed policy that restricted me to a set number. I was incensed. I was determined. And for a brief, fleeting moment, I was fearless. I got up, let out a primal scream, rushed for Ryan, and knocked him down. As we both fell, he turned slightly so that he landed on his side. I got him in triangle hold for a split second, then I rolled his left arm into an arm bar. He tapped on the mat with his right hand, which signaled defeat. He then turned towards me, pain written all over his face as he clutched his left arm to his chest. Once again, I found myself feeling guilty.

“Are you okay? Oh, I’m so sorry!” I cried out as I leaned towards him. The look of anguish on his face turned to anger. He pulled me down, put me in mount, and braced my wrists to the mat with his hands.

“For Pete’s sake, will you stop apologizing, already?” he screamed angrily. “Are you going to apologize to a man for beating him up after he’s broken into your house, shot your dog, and tried to rape, pillage, and murder you?”

I broke loose of his grip, knocked his legs out from under him, rolled him, put him in mount, braced his wrists to the mat with my hands, then looked in his eyes and answered sheepishly, “Uh…yeah! Probably!”

I looked to my left to see Sensei as he watched us from the side of the mat. He raised his head slightly and rubbed the tip of his chin with his index finger. Then, with a slight smile, he said, “Look here! Puffy American Woman not so puffy anymore.”

I leapt to my feet, and my gaze immediately turned to the white and red banner with Hebrews 4:1. This was a major milestone I would not soon forget. I turned back around to find Bruno as he shook Ryan’s hand ferociously.

“Brilliant! Absolutely brilliant! O, I can’t tell you the debt all the law enforcement, fire, and medical personnel of Metro Nashville owe you! I’m going to call the mayor tomorrow morning and demand you be given a key to the city!” Bruno said enthusiastically.

I looked at Ryan and realized, for the first time, what he had done for me since I first stepped inside the dojo. I ran towards him and wrapped my arms around his neck. He curled his arms around my waist, picked me up, and twirled me around several times.

“This is cause for celebration,” Ryan exclaimed. “Let’s go to Wednesday’s! My treat!”

Lots of other people in the class came up to me to shake my hand and tell me what a good job I did. It was some long overdue validation. While I went through the motions of showering and changing into my street clothes, I pondered the significance of the events of the last two weeks and wondered how what I’d gained would translate into the rest of my life. As usual, it wouldn’t take me long to find out.

I was the first one to arrive at Wednesday’s Sports Grille. Bruno and Ryan had stayed behind at class to grapple some more and would be arriving in ten minutes. Larry and Shane had agreed to meet the three of us there, too. When I walked in the front door, the first thing I noticed was the frightened look on the hostess’s face. She was staring into the bar area, tapping her foot hastily as she let out a series of small whimpers. I turned to the bar and immediately saw the object of her concern: Kyle, one of the bartenders, was being suffocated in a rear naked choke by a drunken man much larger than Kyle. The drunk, dressed in ripped jeans and a white-with-yellow-stains wife beater repeatedly chuckled in a low, gravelly voice as he pulled Kyle around like he was a rag doll in that chokehold. Some of the patrons appeared concerned, while others laughed as if the whole thing were a big joke. I wanted to do something, but that old familiar fear and helplessness came over me again as they sought to erase all the progress I’d just made. As terror tried to master me another time, for a split second, I had a massive perspective change. When I looked at the drunk and Kyle, I suddenly saw Rocco and me. Although I remembered well the sense of powerlessness and futility of never being able to stand up to those schoolyard bullied, I recalled more vividly the embarrassment of being gawked at by the other kids and the desperate desire for someone, anyone to come to my aid. I knew what I needed to do.

I waited until the drunk had his back to me. I snuck behind him, ready to take action, but at that moment, all my recently acquired martial arts knowledge fled out of my brain and straight out the front door of the restaurant! There I stood behind the biggest, scariest, creepiest bully I’d seen since high school, and I couldn’t think of anything to do. As the drunk’s chokehold on Kyle tightened, however, I knew some kind of action, any kind of action, was better than nothing, so I did the only thing any sane person would do in my situation: I reached my hands under each of the drunk’s arms and I tickled him! His grasp on Kyle loosened immediately, which allowed Kyle to run behind the bar. The drunk turned around, stared straight into my soul, and began to move towards me. I tried not to look scared as I moved backwards along the side of the bar.

“This is no business for little girls!” the drunk said in a slurred fashion as he moved towards me and clenched his fists.

“I…I…I’m not afraid of you,” I sputtered back. I don’t think he heard me, because the level of fear I felt at that moment forced my voice to a decibel that could only be heard by dogs. He made his way closer to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pitcher of ice water sitting on the bar. Just as he raised his right arm to strike me, I grabbed the pitcher and threw all the ice water in his face. When he took his next step towards me, he slipped on the ice that had landed on the floor, fell backwards, and hit his head first on the top bar rail, then on a bar stool, followed by the bottom bar rail, and finally the hard wood floor. I ran up to him as he lay on the floor and discovered the hits on the head on his way down had left him completely unconscious.

“Whoa!” yelled Kyle as he leaned over the bar to assess the damage. I was in such shock and disbelief that the preceding events had actually happened, I didn’t notice the arrival of Ryan and the Power Trio. As soon as Bruno saw the drunken guy out cold on the floor, he immediately went into full cop mode, dropped to the floor next to the guy, and took his vitals.

“What happened?” Bruno asked authoritatively as he reached for his cell phone.

Kyle answered, “This dude was plastered, Man! I told him he was cut off, and he wasn’t cool with that. He started pushing and shoving me, and then starts choking me from the back. Margaret comes in, gets him off me, and lays him out flat! It was totally righteous!”

All eyes shot straight to me.

“Margaret?” Bruno said in doubt.

“Mags?” Shane exclaimed in shock.

“Jesus…” Larry said. Bruno, Ryan, Shane, and I all turned our heads to Larry at once.

“…is Lord,” Larry quickly—and awkwardly—added on. Although I couldn’t say where it says in the Bible, I was pretty sure Larry using God’s Name in vain was a precursor to Armageddon.

“How did you do it, Mags?” Shane asked with all the pride of a dad whose son’s team, against all odds, won the Little League World Series.

“Eh, well, I’d like to say I knocked him out using my newfound martial arts prowess, but the truth is…I tickled him,” I answered, slightly ashamed.

All the boys burst out laughing.

“You tickled him? Margaret, Sensei doesn’t even get into tickling techniques until you start training for your green belt,” Bruno chided, feeling very pleased with himself. “So you tickled him into unconsciousness, huh? Sensei will be happy to find out what you’ve done with your free lessons.”

A little annoyed, I protested, “Ha! Ha! Very funny! Okay, tickling him wasn’t the most sophisticated thing, and I guess it was just dumb luck that he tripped on the ice I threw at him. But the important thing is Kyle’s safe, I’m safe, everyone in the bar is safe, and…well…I did it my way! So there!”

Expressing a mixture of being perturbed and amused, Bruno looked at me and said, “Whatever you say, Danielle LaRusso. Well, if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna call this in.”

After Bruno got up and walked away, Kyle walked around the bar to where I stood, took my hand, shook my arm off, and said, “You the man, Mags! You the man!”

“Hey!” Ryan interrupted. He got between Kyle and me and said to him, “She’s a lady and don’t you forget it!”

Timidly, Kyle backed away from me towards the bar and said, “It’s just an expression, Dude!”

When Kyle got back behind the bar, Ryan looked at me and brushed the hair on the right side of my face behind my right ear.

My voice starting to break with emotion, I said to him, “I did it! You said I could do it and I did it! Omigosh! This is huge first milestone in my own personal evolution! Oh, if Rocco could see me now!”

I was so excited that I didn’t pay attention to where I was about to walk. I put my right foot down on a patch of ice next to the sleeping drunk, slipped, and began to fall backwards. I thought I was a goner for sure, but Ryan, with his cat-like reflexes, caught me before I had a chance to go completely horizontal. I stared at him in embarrassment, but he just smiled as usual, let out a quiet chuckle, and said, “Baby steps, Margaret! Baby steps!”

He then lifted me above the ice on the floor and set me back down on dry ground. We began to walk away when I turned to take one last look at the silent bully as he lay on the ground. One of many Goliaths had finally been felled, and when the next giant menace came out to the Valley of Elah to defy me, I would be ready…or at least I hoped.

Monday, May 31, 2010

6-Just One of the Girls

© 2010 David’s Harp and Pen

Up until now, I have talked a lot about my guy friends. In most romantic comedies, the heroine usually has the support of a large arsenal of female friends who help her navigate the ups and downs of romance and life in general. I haven’t talked about any of my female friends because, the truth is, I didn’t have any. It wasn’t a lack of desire or effort on my part, either. I’d tried most of my life to fit in with the girls and women around me, but something would always go horribly wrong, and in my experience, unlike guys, girls are much less forgiving.

It all started back in first grade. Even at that young age, I was really spacey and klutzy, so the other kids, especially the girls, teased me to no end. I guess if I were them, I would’ve teased me, too. I still remember the times I would come to school with my clothes on inside out, or have different shoes on each foot, and even the times I forgot to get dressed at all and showed up in my pajamas (how I managed all this will be a subject for later discussion). It didn’t help that I didn’t have the expensive name brands all the other little girls had, either. One day, Lisa Wakinstrapeski, the prettiest, most perfect girl in school, invited me to her birthday party. I was thrilled beyond words that she would even condescend to talk to me, much less invite me to her party. The word on the street was she wanted one of the new Patty Potty-training dollies, the kind that peed in their diapers, and the lucky little girls who owned one got to change the diapers and put Patty Potty-training Terrific Talc powder on the doll’s diaper rash. So, I broke open my piggy bank, got my life’s savings, and bought one for her birthday. I was so happy with myself, because I was sure no one else at the party would’ve paid as much for their gift as I did for hers.

A week before the party, Lisa started to bug me mercilessly as to what I was getting her for her birthday. I kept telling her it was a surprise, but she wouldn’t give up. Two days before her party, she cornered me on the playground and said, “Margaret Ann, if you don’t tell me what you got for me for my birthday, you won’t be my friend any more and I’ll tell everyone in class you’re a poopy head!”

Well, I couldn’t have that, so I told her. She didn’t say anything. She just walked away and didn’t even so much as look at me until the day of her party.

When the big day arrived, neither she nor any of the other little girls paid me any attention at the party. During the gift giving, she opened all the gifts except mine. Confused, I went up to her and asked, “Why won’t you open my gift?”

She answered snidely, “I already know what it is. You ruined the surprise.”

Almost in tears, I said, “But, you said if I didn’t tell you what it was, you wouldn’t be my friend and you’d tell everyone in class I was a poopy head.”

“You shouldn’t have listened to me. And I’ve already been telling everyone you’re a poopy head since the first day of kindergarten,” she said snidely.

As I aged, my success with same-sex friendships went from bad to worse. It seemed wherever I went, other women turned their noses up at me. I still have nightmares about the night Genie Jeffries, wife of the guitarist in my band, had me over her house for what was supposed to be “girl talk.” I was working two jobs at the time and had been going for 16 hours straight, but she insisted I come over that night. I had tried unsuccessfully up to that point to strike up a friendship with her, and when I went to her house that night, I thought maybe she had softened to me. Not so!

When I arrived, she was not alone. Roxanne, Genie’s best friend and the wife of my drummer, was there, too. I thought that was odd that someone else was there. I sat down and Roxanne handed me some snacks and a Dr. Pepper. When I looked at Genie, she was drilling holes into me with her eyes.

There was a painful silence for a while until I decided to break it. “So, Ladies, how are you tonight?”

“Well, you’re trying to steal my husband, so how do you think I am?” Genie replied with all the fury of a nuclear explosion.

“Excuse me? What did you say?” I felt like a sequoia tree had been rammed through my stomach.

“You heard me! What do you have to say for yourself?” she demanded.

“Eh…only that I’m not trying to steal your husband?” I answered sheepishly.

“You lie! I know it all! How could you do this to me?” she scowled.

“You know WHAT? There’s nothing to know.”

“Oh please. You asked him to come over and help you move, but when he got there, there was no furniture!” She accused.

“No, there wasn’t when he got there. The other guys had already moved it all, but I still had too much stuff to fit in my car. I still needed help transporting everything.”

“You wanted him over there so you could be alone with him!” she accused.

“No, that’s not true! And come to think of it, the whole time he was there we weren’t alone. There were three other guys there the whole time. In fact, I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever been alone with Bobby!”

“Yeah, you’re always surrounded by a group of guys. And then you wonder why I’m suspicious,” she said sarcastically.

“Well, if the moving thing is the only reason you’re upset, then, yeah, I am wondering why you’re suspicious!” I answered. I was starting to get mad at this point.

“That’s not the only reason! Our husbands told us you were crying at band practice on Tuesday. Why do you feel the need to cry on the shoulders of married men?”

“My cat died! I didn’t plan on crying! It just happened!” I shot back defensively.

“You have to know that guys can’t handle that, and when you make big emotional displays in front of men, it confuses their little brains and creates unhealthy emotional attachments!”

“Eh, no, I didn’t know that. Like I said, my cat just died! I wasn’t planning on crying about it at band practice, and I’m sorry if that upset you, but really, there was no harm intended! Next time I’m upset about something, I’ll call one of those psychologists on the radio,” I replied timidly, wondering if some mass memo had been sent out about crying etiquette and everyone in the world had gotten it except me.

“Why can’t you just admit what you’ve done and what you’re after?” Genie pressed angrily.

“I’m not admitting anything. If I did something inappropriate, I apologize, but I don’t want your husband in any way, shape, or form!” I yelled.

Genie’s face started to contort like an ant under a magnifying glass as it channels the rays of the sun. With a Hannibal Lecter look in her eyes, she asked me, “Why? What’s wrong with Bobby?”

At that point, I thought maybe I had been sucked into some bizarre parallel universe, or maybe I was trapped in the mind of one of those afternoon talk show hosts, the ones with shows that always end with the guests trying to beat the crap out of each other.

“Are you asking me why I don’t want your husband?”

“Yes! Is he not good enough for you?”

“Well, he’s MARRIED!!! And even if he wasn’t, he’s not my type. I mean, have you talked to him at length any recently?”

I had really set her off. Her face puffed out and turned orangish-red. Her head looked like a habañero pepper.

“You little Jezebel! First you try to steal my husband, then your storm your way into my house and insult me! Are you even a Christian?” she yelled.

All my desire for diplomacy went up in smoke.

“Wait a minute! First you were mad because you thought I was in love with your husband and now you’re mad because I’m not? And I didn’t storm my way into anyone’s house! You were the one that insisted I come over here tonight, even though I told you I was too tired!” I screamed back. I picked up my purse and coat and headed for the door. Genie followed me.

“I knew when I met you I wouldn’t like you. There’s something wrong with a grown woman who tries too hard to be one of the guys. Don’t walk away from me! I want to know. Why don’t you have any girl friends?” I turned around and stared at her incredulously.

With one hand on the doorknob, I answered, “Think about everything you’ve said and done to me tonight, and you’ll discover that you’ve already answered your own question!”

There it was in nutshell. My Lisa and Genie experiences entirely summed up my difficulties to build any lasting friendships with my own gender: mixed signals and my woeful inability to read minds. As confusing and frustrating as men were to me, women were much worse. Things began to change when Ryan started his internship, and I thought perhaps my losing streak with connecting with other women was over. Wrong again!!!

One Sunday, I headed out the door after church to meet with Rhonda Mitchell, the worship arts coordinator. She wanted to have lunch with me about something. I didn’t know much about her, except that she worked at the church, she was about 60 years old, and she seemed like the type that had been involved in church ever since Jesus started the first one. More about her later, though.

I got to my car in the church parking lot, but realized my keys weren’t in my hand. I started to dig through my purse furiously, not wanting to be late to my lunch date with Rhonda. I wasn’t expecting anyone to sneak up behind me as I looked for my keys, so when I heard the word “boo” whispered right in my ear, I jumped, screamed, and threw the contents of my purse all over the place. I turned around to look. There stood Ryan, once again rubbing his ears.

“Oh, I am so sorry!!! I didn’t mean to…” I started to say.

Ryan interrupted, “It doesn’t matter what you do. I’ve got perfect hearing and you’re not going to change that.”

“It wasn’t intentional, I assure you. I have a lunch date I need to get to and I can’t find my keys.” I bent down and got on the ground to look under my car.

“Oh, you have a date?”

“No, no not that kind,” I said, my torso now completely underneath my car. I saw my keys under the center of my car and grabbed them.

“Well, I won’t keep you, then. I just wanted to ask you something.”

“Oh, okay. Give me a second,” I said as I tried to get back up. I couldn’t. I was stuck under the car. I tried pushing myself out, then sliding myself out by bracing my legs against the ground. No cigar.

“Do you need some help?” Ryan asked, trying not to laugh.

“Do you mind?” I whimpered.

“Now, if I minded, would I have offered?”

“Knowing you, I guess not,” I sighed. Ryan put one arm around my waist and grabbed my right hand with his other hand. With one swift yank, he had me out, but not before I scraped my face and the back of my head.

“Ow!” I moaned like a little girl, ashamed of myself.

“Poor thing! Is there anything I can do?” Ryan asked.

“No. No, there’s no hope,” I rambled. “I’ve been prayed for, anointed with oil, been to deliverance seminars, had every demon that could possibly be related to accident proneness cast out of me, gone to finishing school, and even taken special herbal supplements. Nothing works!”

“Ah. Well, I meant was there anything I could do for those scrapes, like get you bandages or ointment or something.”

I wanted to crawl back under my car and stay there forever.

“Look, I wanted to know if we could be buddies on All About Me?” Ryan asked, not skipping a beat. ( was the latest and greatest social networking website.)

“Ah, sure,” I answered, rubbing my sore, scraped face. “But wait, I just started using All about Me. I don’t remember what my username is.”

Ryan walked up to me, brushed some of the dirt off my face, and said, “Oh, don’t worry, Darlin’. I’ll find you.”

As he walked away, I couldn’t decide if he was making a promise or a threat. I didn’t have time to think about it, though. I gathered up the rest of the contents of my purse, hopped in the car, and headed to the restaurant for my meeting with Rhonda.

When I arrived at the restaurant, Rhonda was already seated on the patio. On the seat next to her was a stack of Worship and Warfare magazines.

“Margaret, thanks for meeting with…what happened to your face?” She asked, alarmed.

“Eh, I got stuck under my car and scraped my face trying to get out. I couldn’t get a hold of you and didn’t have time to get home and fix myself up,” I answered as I sat in my seat.

“Why did you get stuck under your car?” she asked in a slightly accusatory manner.

Why do people ask me questions like that? I thought. As if I got stuck under my car on purpose.

“Well, I dropped my keys under the car and then I got stuck and Ryan had to pull me out,” I answered.

A waiter approached our table and asked, “What can I get you ladies to drink?”

“Diet Coke, please,” Rhonda answered.

“An ice water with lime, thanks,” I replied.

“Alright. A Diet Coke and an ice water with lime. I’ll be right back with your drinks and to take your order,” the waiter said and walked away.

“And who is Ryan?” Rhonda asked me.

“Oh, Ryan O’Loughlin. He’s one of the new worship arts interns.”

“Oh, the Irish boy! Yes, well, he seems very nice. Very brave of him to come to America by himself, being so young.”

“So young? How old is he?”


Holy crap! He’s 12 years younger than I am? How is that possible? Oh, I could never get involved with him. And there’s no way he could be interested in me! A 12-year age difference? I think that’s illegal, even here in Tennessee, I thought.

The waiter returned with our drinks, took our food order, and quickly left again.

“How old are you?” Rhonda asked.

“35,” I answered, still mulling this revelation around in my head.

“Hmmm,” she said in a busybody type way. “Robbing the cradle, are we?”

“No, no we’re not dating. We’re just friends, if we’re even that,” I answered as my cell phone beeped. I looked at it to see a text message from

“Ryan O’Loughlin wants to be buddies on,” the message read. “Click on this link to accept his request.”

“Do you need to get that?” Rhonda asked.

“No, it’s okay. It’s just a buddy request from Ryan,” I answered.

“So, how long have you two been dating? I don’t know how it could ever work, what with the age difference, cultural differences, and all,” she said snidely.

“I told you, we’re not dating. We’re…we’re casual acquaintances, at the most,” I answered.

“Well, I was surprised as anyone to see you two together, what with all those other men I see flocking around you at church,” she continued, obviously not having paid attention to anything I had been saying.

“No. See, Ryan and all those guys are just my friends. I haven’t dated anyone in 13 years.”

“Well, if you want my two cents,” Rhonda started, and I knew she was going to give me her two cents whether I wanted them or not, “it’s no wonder nobody’s shown any interest. It’s not good for a woman to be surrounded by men all the time. Any decent man will look at you and think you’re either unavailable or a tramp.”

“Decent men think I’m a tramp?” I asked, startled at this revelation.

“Well, not that I know of, dear, but you have to be careful. You can’t be one of the guys, you know. If you’re serious about getting married one day, you better leave the boys at the playground. Getting too close to men not your husband creates artificial intimacy and unhealthy emotional attachments, and next thing you know, you’ve gotten involved with the wrong man, lost the friendship, and left alone and bitter. Remember what it says in the Song of Solomon. Don’t awaken love until it so desires.”

Wow! I went from being excited about meeting someone really nice to becoming a bitter, trampy old woman, I thought. Maybe I should have stayed under my car.

“Ah, well, thank you for the advice. I’ll think about it. Was that why you wanted to have lunch with me?” I asked.

“Oh, no, of course not. No, the reason for lunch is we in the Worship Arts Department have been reading your articles in Worship and Warfare magazine and have been very impressed!”

“Oh, well thank you!” I said.

“Yes. I find it amazing that someone with such great spiritual insight can have such poor judgement when it comes to interpersonal relationships,” Rhonda said.

“Thanks…I think,” I answered, not sure of what else to say that would be appropriate.

“So, we want to start a website just for the Worship Arts Department and wanted to know if you would consider doing our blogging?”

“Well, sure, yeah, absolutely! Thank you for thinking of me,” I answered, humbled at the thought.

“Wonderful. Now, you do realize this is purely volunteer.”

“Yes, that’s fine.”

“Good, good. I’ll send you an email with all the details.” My cell phone beeped again. This time it was a text from Shane, once again in the middle of a personal crisis. I furiously shot back an answer, not wanting to be rude to Rhonda.

“My, aren’t we popular?” she said.

“Eh, not really. That was just a friend. He’s having a personal crisis,” I replied.

He is having a personal crisis. I see,” she said in a tone I couldn’t quite decipher.

“You see what?” I asked, because I really wanted to know.

“That’s another part of your problem, dear. You shouldn’t make yourself so readily available to all these boys. They don’t respect you for it. They’re taking advantage of you.”

“They don’t respect me?”

“Don’t answer your phone for a few days. Let them know you’re not just there to serve them. That’ll whip them into shape!” She said authoritatively. For someone who didn’t know me, she certainly acted as if she did.

“So, Rhonda, I would love to connect with some of the women at church, but to be honest, I have trouble some times…”

“Oh, well,” she interrupted, which I saw she was good at, “you should come to Hannah’s baby shower on Saturday. As far as I know, all the women at the church are invited. Didn’t you hear the announcement at church last Sunday?”

“No, I wasn’t at church. That would be really cool!” I answered, getting really excited.

Hannah Wagner was my pastor’s daughter. I never really talked to her, but the thought of getting to bond with the girls had me ecstatic.

“Well, we’ll just count on you being there, then. It’s Saturday, 2:00 at the parsonage.”

“Wow! I’m just so thrilled! That’ll be so much fun!”

My cell phone beeped yet again. It was a text message from Bruno. Not answering his texts could result in a criminal warrant being issued for me.

“Another one of your boy friends?” Rhonda asked with a snooty look on her face.

“You don’t understand. Bruno’s a cop. If I don’t answer this, he’ll send the SWAT Team after me.”

“Remember what I said. It’s all about propriety, Dear. There’s no harm in making them wait every so often.”

I thought about what she said and thought, maybe, she was right. After all, she was older, and married, so maybe she knew what she was talking about. I put my cell phone down.

“Would you excuse me? I need to use the ladies’ room,” she asked.

“Uh, yeah, sure,” I answered. When I was sure she was out of sight, I picked up my cell phone again and went to All About Me to accept Ryan’s buddy request. After all, I didn’t want to be rude. Attached to his buddy request was a message.

“I told you I’d find you, Darlin’. My cell phone number is 011 (353) (087) 292-8584. Why don’t you send me a text message with your cell phone number so I have it if I need it? I don’t know yet if I’ll get an American cell phone while I’m here. Peace, O,” the message read.

I put his number into my phone and tried to text him, but the message was returned.

Hmmm… I wondered. I wonder if I have to do something special to text him since his cell phone is Irish?

Using my cell phone, I went to my cell phone provider’s website for instructions to send an international text message. It was all very confusing. If I understood it correctly, how to send a text message depended on the recipient’s cell phone provider, time zone, age, income, and position of the planets. I proceeded to a search engine to see if I could find any definitive information on the subject. The first hit was an Irish cell phone company.

The website said, “Prices for SMS are dependent upon subscriber’s pricing plan. A per message surcharge applies to SMS sent to all countries outside of Ireland.”

I didn’t know why, but that just sounded odd to me. So I went back to and, in what I thought was a private message that only Ryan would see, asked, “I got your buddy request, but I can’t figure out how to text you. I did a search on the Internet, and one website said something about sending texts to all the countries outside Ireland. That just sounds weird to me. I mean, how many countries are inside Ireland? I thought Ireland was its own country. Did it get upgraded to continent and I not find out? I know when Pluto got downgraded from planet to asteroid, I was the last one to hear.”

Rhonda returned, followed by our waiter with our food. We sat in silence and ate our food, and I was still mulling our previous conversation. I started to think perhaps I should heed Rhonda’s advice and quit guy friends cold turkey. As I thought of the possible ramifications of such action, I turned to survey the other tables on the patio. To my horror, I saw a couple with an infant two tables down. Out there in the open, plain as day, the mother had her top pulled all the way up, and her bra pulled all the way down. In full view of the world, she fed her baby with one breast while the other sat on top of the table like a place setting. I was so shocked at the sight I accidentally knocked my drink and my plate off the table.

“What in the world?” Rhonda exclaimed.

Attempting to be subtle, I gingerly pointed in the direction of the topless mom.

“What? Haven’t you ever seen a woman breast-feed her child before?” Rhonda asked me, like it was the most normal thing in the world.

“Well, no, to be honest. Surely you don’t approve of that, do you?” I asked nervously.

“It’s the most natural thing in the world, dear. Women do it all the time. When your baby’s hungry, there’s no time to be discriminate.”

“But, is that even legal?”

“Some woman not so long ago took one of those big department stores to court when they asked her to leave because she was breast-feeding her baby in the front lobby, and the court ruled in her favor!”

By then, I was really confused. How could it be that me having a bunch of male friends made me look like the church hooker, but this woman having her chest sitting on the table like it was part of the china was the height of virtue? Maybe it was one of those female things I had never understood.

After Rhonda and I parted ways, I drove home. As I walked into my front door, my cell phone began to go crazy. I looked at it, and it had filled with text alerts from All About Me. I walked over to my computer, put my phone and other things down, and pulled up All About Me to see what was happening. It turned out that private message I had sent to Ryan was not a private message, after all. I had posted the message on his bulletin board, where all his buddies, whom included Bruno, Larry, and Shane, could read it. I re-read my post and the comments that followed:

Margaret Sims: I got your buddy request, but I can’t figure out how to text you. I did a search on the Internet, and one website said something about sending texts to all the countries outside Ireland. That just sounds weird to me. I mean, how many countries are inside Ireland? I thought Ireland was its own country. Did it get upgraded to continent and I not find out? I know when Pluto got downgraded from planet to asteroid, I was the last one to hear.

Ryan O’Loughlin: LOLOLOL!!!!! No, Darlin’. Only one country in Ireland. Actually, Ireland is a world all its own! ;)

Shane Cooper: OMG! Mags, do not think out loud online! Lather, rinse, repeat.

Bruno Spallone: Yes, Mags. Ireland has been upgraded to continent. You should also know that Brooklyn has been upgraded to universe.

Shane Cooper: Remember, Margaret’s always been in her own little world.

Larry Mandusky: Very funny, Bruno and Shane…NOT! Take heart, Margaret. Remember, the Word says we’re strangers and aliens here on earth, looking for a country of our own.

Ugh, I thought. I will never live this one down.

I plopped down on my couch and Bernie curled up at my feet. Wanting to clear my head, I decided to give the Song of Solomon a read on my computer Bible. To be honest, it wasn’t a part of the Bible I read with any frequency. In fact, I had always wondered how it made its way into the Bible in the first place. Perhaps, though, reading it again at that particular point in my life gave me greater understanding. Boy, could I really relate now to the Shulamite. She was the odd ball, very unsure of herself, always saying and doing the wrong thing, surrounded by boys, criticized by the women around her, yet somehow, she had caught the eye and captured the heart of the one who was both shepherd and king. The world stopped for a moment when I came to chapter 4, verse 7: “O my love, how beautiful you are! There is no flaw in you!”

I had been terribly insecure most of my life, and although most people had said over the years that I would grow out of it, I felt like it was only getting worse. Not in every respect. I mean, I think I had gotten to the point where I truly believed in my heart of hearts that God loved me unconditionally, but I still didn’t believe that another human being could love me unconditionally. I wondered what it took for the Shulamite to finally get over that insecurity, to finally accept that she was indeed loved by King Solomon, and to understand that maybe the things she hated about herself were the very things he cherished about her? What if I had met my King Solomon?

I walked away from the computer and threw myself down on my bed and said to myself, “I will not read into anything. I am not the Shulamite. If Larry saw me misapplying Scripture in such a flagrant fashion he would rebuke me on the spot! I will not awaken love until it so desires, and step one to not awaken love at the wrong time is to NOT read the Song of Solomon!”

My cell phone beeped yet again. I walked back over to my computer where I had left my cell phone. There was a message from Ryan. He had texted me directly, wanting to make sure I had his number. While I thought about how to reply, my computer screen flashed. I looked to see even more alerts from All about Me. My post to Ryan was quite the sensation, apparently. There were comments from the boys, milking my little lapse in judgement for all it was worth, and also comments from Ryan’s Irish buddies, asking him if American women were really as nutty as they’d heard. A blunder of this magnitude, now an international incident, was surely worthy of granting me entrance into the witness protection program.

Saturday came before I’d realized it. The temperature was unusually high that day, so I was torn about what to wear. Most of my cooler tops were in the wash, so the only really comfortable top I had to wear was a clingy, sleeveless back silk sheath. I thought I looked really cute, to be honest. As I walked out the door, my cell phone began to beep like mad. Both my visual voice mailbox and text inbox were overflowing with messages from Ryan, the Power Trio, and All About Me. It then dawned on me that I had spent so much time deliberating about how to reply to the boys’ messages that I had neglected to reply to any of them at all. I thought I should at least let them all know I was alright, but when I looked at the time, I saw I was running late for the shower.

Oh, no, I thought. Well, when the shower’s over, I’ll text the boys and let them know I’m still alive.

The parsonage was bustling with activity and all things pink. The estrogen was so thick I could’ve cut it with a knife. All the women seemed to be heading to the back patio. I was very nervous, but my fears subsided slightly when I saw Rhonda. I walked up next to her and shook her hand.

“Hi, Rhonda, I’m here. Thanks so much for inviting me! I’m really excited!” I said, barely able to contain myself. Rhonda gave me the once over, grabbed my arm, and pulled me aside.

“I’m glad you made it, dear, but what’s with that top?” She asked right in my ear, keeping her voice down. I looked at my top, not sure what she was getting at.

“I don’t understand.”

“Well of course you don’t. Look at yourself. I can see all your business!”

“I still don’t understand.”

“Margaret, dear one, that top is entirely too tight. What were you thinking about wearing that to a church-related event?”

“But there’s nothing wrong with this, is there? I mean, it’s hot outside, and we’re all girls, right? It’s not that tight! Besides, at the restaurant, when that woman was milking her baby—or the other way around—you were perfectly fine with that!”

“Exactly! She was feeding her child! Surely you understand the difference!”

Pushing the issue more than I should have, I said, “Well, no, I don’t. First of all, I’m not trying to show off my chest, but if, for argument’s sake, I was, are you saying it’s only okay if it’s being useful at the time?”

Rhonda gave me the look, the look I’d first gotten from Lisa all those years back on the playground. She walked away from me and stepped out on the patio, leaving me to ponder the error of my ways. Suddenly, I saw the light! Not literal light, of course, but maybe, just maybe, all the things my guy friends had said about women all those years were actually true. Maybe we women really do have a weird list of rules longer than the length of the Great Wall of China, as well as a list of exceptions to all those rules, which was most likely the length of the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Maybe my problem with relating to women all this time was that I dared to question all these time-honored traditions passed down from mother to daughter (although somehow bypassing me). Maybe the fast track to acceptance with the XX chromosome crowd was to simply accept what I didn’t understand and keep my mouth shut. Well, it sounded like a good idea at the time.

I walked on to the patio, and all eyes were on me and, more specifically, my ring finger. Did I mention that in churches, it’s also very hard being the single woman? The married women are immediately suspicious, no matter how much heartfelt reassurance the new single woman offers that she is merely focusing on God and her career. The single women, most notably the over 30 die-hards, see the new single woman as a threat. I was preparing myself for the worst.

I sat down in a chair not too far from Hannah. She seemed really nice and sweet, although a bit overwhelmed by all the attention. I had decided I would say hello to her when I was intercepted by a large, scary group of women that, I can only guess, was Hannah’s security.

“Welcome to the party,” Woman One said.

“I’ve seen you at church a lot, but I don’t think we’ve ever met,” Woman Two exclaimed excitedly as she tried to shake my hand off.

“Oh, this is Madeleine. She writes for that magazine, you know? And she’s dating that British guy, Bryan, who’s interning in the worship arts department,” Woman Three happily told the other two.

Woman Two looked at me curiously and asked, “But I thought you were married to that guy on the worship team. What’s his name? The one who always has chocolate stains on his face and hands?”

Before I could answer, Woman Five cut in and said, “Oh no! They were over a long time ago. No, she started dating Bryan right after she and what’s-his-name broke up. What’s his name again?”

Woman Three answered, “Oh, ah…it’s right on the tip of my tongue...Gary! That’s his name, right? The waiter guy?” Then she turned to me and said, “Don’t worry Maddy, it’s his loss. Honestly, after what I heard he did to you, I don’t know how you still speak to him. I mean, the nerve of him. And now he goes around saying God’s given him the gift of singleness. Well, that’s a gift to all women everywhere, if you catch my drift!”

All five women, whose names I never got, all laughed amongst themselves. I couldn’t believe the elaborate stories that had circulated about me without my knowledge. I began to wonder if I had been living a double life all that time and everyone knew it but me. The only thing I was sure of was that I had just been steam-rolled, and I wanted to set all those women straight about my personal life, but I was interrupted.

“Ladies, Ladies! Gather ‘round now! We’re going to do the gift exchange now!” Came the booming, over-powering voice of Carole Hadley, the wife of my pastor and Hannah’s mother. I’ll be honest. This woman scared me at times. Maybe because she always seemed too…oh, I don’t know the word, but too something to be real. Absolutely everything she had, including her husband, was color coordinated. She was also the queen of frou-frou. Don’t get me wrong; it was some top-notch frou-frou, but frou-frou nonetheless. I doubted she’d ever had a bad hair day, skin day, or wardrobe malfunction in her entire life. I was sure she was a nice enough woman, but I found her extremely intimidating. It didn’t help that she liked to spice up the women’s conferences by randomly dropping the v-bomb, which to me, was more disturbing than the f-bomb.

As Hannah opened the various gifts, I intently watched everything going on around me. There was a lot of laughing, crying, and hugging. I could tell some of the women there had a long history together. It seemed every time Hannah opened something new, all the women would let out a long string of oohs and ahs, and then someone would put their arm around Hannah and give her a friendly squeeze. I was so jealous. It was such a special moment, until the women…well, until they started to really be women.

I’m going to share a little known secret about women, at least little known to the male population at large. Women accuse men of being crude, which they are. However, men evenly space out their crudeness so that, eventually, those around them can build up an immunity to it. Women, on the other hand, store up all their crudeness for very special events, such as baby showers and women’s retreats; when unleashed, their crudeness would make even the most hardened sailor, truck driver, or morning radio deejay blush and run for cover. I soon discovered that baby showers are not events for the faint of heart, or the weak of stomach, of which I was both.

Woman Four asked Hannah, “When are you due again?”

“Two weeks,” Hannah replied.

“Oh, how exciting!” Woman Three squealed.

“Yes, it’s going to be smooth sailing from here, I’m sure. Dr. Sanders says he really likes Hannah’s uterus,” Carole shared happily. My head turned so fast I thought I got whiplash.

“You’re really fortunate to have such a great uterus, Hannah,” Woman Two remarked. “Mine is tipped and doesn’t sit right in my pelvis. Let me tell you, conceiving in the first place was a nightmare.”

“Oh, but you’ll have no problems with yours, Hannah. I can tell just from the pictures,” Women Three reassured her.

I thought. Pictures of what?

Then I saw the pictures. Someone had made up a little commemorative program of the shower, and there on the front page was an ultrasound photo of Hannah’s womb. I stared at it for the longest time, unable to absorb the magnitude of what lay in front of me. I must have had an unusual look on my face, because Woman Four sat down next to me.

“Are you alright?” she asked sweetly. I should’ve followed my previously established rule and not said anything, because questioning these time-honored female traditions and codes of conduct only got me into trouble in the past. It was like looking at that fatal car wreck, though. I just couldn’t help myself.

“This is Hannah’s uterus, on the front page of the program,” I said nervously as I pointed to the picture.

“Yes, I know, isn’t it lovely? She’s going to make great babies.”

“But, is that normal? I mean, showing pictures of your internal organs like this?”

“Well, sure it is! It’s so everyone can see the baby!” I looked at the photo again, still confused.

“Eh, I don’t see the baby.”

“It’s right here, see?” She pointed to a gray speck in the middle of the photo.

“But that doesn’t look like a baby. It doesn’t look like anything.”

“Of course it wouldn’t! She wasn’t far enough along yet!” This only heightened my confusion.

“Okay. So, ah…I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I’ve never seen anything like this before. Ahm…so…what makes her uterus so perfect?”

“Oh, there’s a lot that factors into it: the size, where it sits in her pelvis, and look here. See nicely rounded the walls are, how it’s that nice V-shape…oh, and look at her Fallopian tubes. Notice how the arches are in just the right spot…are you sure you’re okay? You don’t look well at all!”

“I, ah, I don’t feel well, to be honest. I’m sorry. I’m not used to this.”

“Not used to what? This?” She pointed again to the ultrasound photo. My stomach started to churn at an unreal pace and I swallowed very hard, afraid I was going to throw up.

“I don’t know what you’re getting so worked up about,” she said. “This is a beautiful thing. It’s a natural thing. It’s a woman thing.” My mind pondered the preceding conversation, and I started to wonder if maybe I was somehow deficient as a woman. I began to feel really bad that I didn’t have a closer, more personal relationship with my own uterus, like all these women seemed to have. Perhaps a good way for me to develop friendships with other women was to get some ultrasound photos of myself and carry them around in my purse. Pictures of my womb, though, still seemed a little too intimate to me, so I contemplated instead getting shots of my liver, or something a little more exotic, like my spleen.

My stomach had gotten really upset, so I ventured over to the drink table for some ginger ale or clear soda to calm it down. Turned out that was also the wrong place to be.

Woman Five stood in front of the drink table in a lively conversation with more women whose names I never got.

“So, I thought, this is kid number three, so it’ll be a breeze, right? Wrong!” She said in an animated fashion. “Brandon was two and half weeks late. The doctor kept saying be patient, but he was a man, so what did he know? I was absolutely miserable! By the second week, I was ready to grab John’s hunting knife and just cut the kid out myself!” Maybe I would’ve found that funny at the time had I not been trying to keep my entire digestive system from nuclear implosion.

“When I hit week 42, everyone was getting worried, so the doctor said he had no choice but to start stripping the membrane,” she continued. She then noticed me standing there and asked, “Are you alright? You look awful!”

“Str…stri…stripping the membrane?” I stuttered. I know, I know. I shouldn’t have asked, and I have no one to blame but myself.

“Oh, that’s when they go in and peel back the membranes to separate the baby from the cervix,” she answered.

“And how do they do that, again?” Woman Three asked.

“Well, sometimes they use a clamp, but if it’s a midwife, she just uses her fingers.” At that point, my gag reflex kicked in and my face turned a lovely shade of pea green.

“You really look terrible. You better sit down,” said Woman Five. She pulled a chair up for me to sit on.

Weakly, I said, “I’m so sorry. I have a little bit of a weak stomach, and all this talk about…you know…” All of the women laughed, which only made me feel worse.

“I take it you don’t have any children?” Woman Two asked.

“No, no. Just a dog.”

“Well, you better toughen up. The life of women is blood and guts, and you know what they say. ‘No guts, no glory.’”

“Besides,” Woman Five chimed in, “human women have it easy as far as childbirth goes. Most animals, after giving birth, have to eat the umbilical cord and the placenta.” I thought I was going to pass out right then and there. Suddenly, a mad fit of uncontrollable dry heaves came over me, and I didn’t know how to make it stop.

“Well, great! Now look what you’ve done! Stop torturing the poor girl!” Woman Four commanded. She came around beside me and handed me a drink in a paper cup. When I looked at the cup, it had punch in it, the super red, homemade kind that had chunks of melon-colored sherbet floating around in it. For some strange reason, the mere sight of it made me feel much worse. I covered my mouth, jumped from my seat, and ran straight for the bathroom. After a few moments, I was able to regain my composure. I looked at myself in the mirror to assess the damage.

Courage, Margaret, courage! I said to myself. The world of female relationships is a minefield, but a navigable one. I splashed some water on face, took a deep breath, and headed back outside. As I surveyed the yard, I noticed Carole and Rhonda socializing in a corner with some women who looked like they were well past childbearing age. I thought maybe this would be a safer place to hang out. Again, my discernment that day was way off.

I walked in on the conversation in time to hear Carole say, “I tell you, Ladies, I thought it was going to be the end of our marriage.”

“Oh, I hear you. When I had mine, it was hell on earth. At one point, Ray thought he was going to have to have me committed,” Rhonda shot back.

Okay, Margaret, I thought to myself. Suck in your gut, put your game face on, and interact. These are your sisters in Christ. Fear and nausea, be gone!

“What happened?” I asked, trying to show genuine interest in whatever they were talking about.

“Oh, we were just talking about our hysterectomies,” Carole answered casually, as if they were talking about getting their nails done.

Oh please, God, no!
I prayed silently. How much more can one woman take?

“Oh, I’m so sorry. My condolences,” I said quietly, wondering if that was the proper thing to say.

“Nobody died, Dear,” Rhonda quipped.

“I might as well have!” Carole shot out. “I was absolutely miserable, and I don’t care what anyone says. The hormone replacement therapy is worse than the hysterectomy itself.”

“Tell me about it. That Premarin made me a raving lunatic. The mood swings were so bad, I was ready to kill anyone that peed standing up!”

“What’s Premarin?” I asked innocently.

“You take it when you’ve had a hysterectomy. It replaces all the estrogen you’ve lost after they take out your ovaries,” Rhonda answered.

“I see. And how does it work?” I asked. Why did I have to ask? Why, why, why?

Carole answered, “I’m not exactly sure. Premarin is an abbreviation for pregnant mare urine.”

My poor stomach was about to collapse on the cellular level. I kept telling myself to be mature about the whole thing, that this was normal girl talk, and if I wanted to be one of the girls, I would have to get used to it.

“Really? Pregnant horse urine? That’s…uh…hmm…so, do you…eh…do you just drink it straight, or do you mix it with something?” I asked, hemming and hawing to get the question out, trying to look genuinely interested.

Carole gave me the strangest look and replied, “It’s in pill form!” I felt really dumb at that point, more so than usual.

“Of course, the worst part of it for Ray was my libido became nonexistent. I mean, the mere thought of him coming anywhere near made my skin crawl!” Rhonda shared. Carole and all the other women in the group nodded their heads in agreement.

Oh no! I thought. They’re talking about sex.

“Preach it, Sister! I was there, too. You know what an animal Norman is. The first few months after the operation, well, I wasn’t in the mood at all. He just walked around the house like a hurt puppy dog,” Carole added.

I had passed the point of no return. It was bad enough they were talking about sex, but to hear my pastor’s wife talk about her relationship with my pastor? That’s like thinking about my parents…ugh! I get the heebie jeebies just thinking about it! The ladies continued on a little longer about all their love lost until Carole noticed I was quickly headed into a catatonic state.

“Oh, Ladies, we better stop. I think we’re making Madeline here uncomfortable,” Carole giggled.

“It’s Margaret,” I somehow managed to get out.

“So, Madeline, how did you handle your hysterectomy?”

“Oh, I’ve never had one.” That was the second time in my life I had gotten the Hannibal Lecter look, and receiving it from seven women at once was downright terrifying. I felt like I was surrounded by a flock of carnivorous vultures that had just descended on fresh road kill.

Thinking that might have been a good time to lighten the mood, I asked, “What? Am I the only one here with a uterus?” I found out quickly that was NOT a good time, because the answer to my question was a resounding “yes.” I excused myself again to the bathroom and quickly scanned all available exits to the parsonage. I wondered if I would be able to escape with my dignity and reproductive system intact.

When I got out of the bathroom, I saw all the ladies congregating around the really long table outside. As I walked outside with the greatest of trepidation, I heard Carole announce, “Ladies, Ladies, it’s time to cut the cake. I just want to thank all of you who helped make this such a special day for Hannah and me. Let’s dig in!”

I got behind Rhonda in line for the cake. She turned to look at me and asked, “What is wrong with you? You look like death warmed over!”

“I…ah…it’s been a rough day,” I said, not in the mood to try to explain my female deficiencies.

“Well, the day’s almost over.” When we made our way to the front of the line and I looked at the cake, I realized my nightmare was just beginning. There, plastered across the sheet cake, was an edible image of Hannah’s aesthetically pleasing and architecturally perfect uterus. However, this picture must’ve been taken when Hannah was further along, because the baby clearly looked like a baby this time. If that didn’t send me into an epileptic seizure, I didn’t know what would. To add insult to injury, Rhonda handed me a piece that was a cut-around of the baby’s head. She tried to hand it to me as I started to shake.

“I’m sorry, Rhonda, I can’t. It’s too, too gross,” I muttered, not even wanting to acknowledge the presence of the dreaded piece of cake.

“What are you talking about? It’s just a piece of cake!”

“It’s what’s on the cake! That’s the baby’s head, for goodness sakes! It’s, it’s barbaric!”

“Well now you’re just being melodramatic!”

“I am not! It’s the principal of the thing! I am not a cannibal!”

“Just eat the cake and stop being ridiculous!” I couldn’t hold it in any more. As Rhonda shoved the piece of cake in my face, I turned away and threw up all over the sheet cake. A collective gasp rose up from every woman there, sucking all the oxygen from the yard at once. I looked at all the women there staring at me, including Hannah.

“I…I am so sorry,” I stammered and ran out of the house to my car.

The car drive home was interminable. The only comfort I felt on my arrival was when my dog Bernie jumped up to me and licked my hand as I patted his head.

“Well, Bernie, I’m not one of the guys, but it doesn’t look like I can be one of the girls, either, so I guess it’ll just be the two of us from now on,” I said to him, determined that I was not going to cry.

I walked in the back door, so preoccupied that I forgot to close or lock the door behind me. When I set my phone and keys down, I noticed that my cell phone was dead. I walked over to my charger, plugged in my phone, and turned it on. The phone made sounds I’d never heard before, so overloaded with voicemails and texts, most of them from the boys.

Oh, no! I thought to my dismay. I never got back to any of them! Oh, I am so dead!

As I began to play back the messages, I contemplated, in light of recent events, what I would need to do in order to fake my own death.

Voicemails from Shane:

# 1: “Mags, what is going on? I’ve texted you, I’ve called you; I’ve stalked you on All About Me, and nothing! Don’t you know I’m having a crisis and my chocolate supplies are depleted? This is unacceptable! Call me right away, as in immediately!”

# 2: “Okay, Mags, I give up. I guess you’re just too important now to talk to me, so I guess we need to discuss custody arrangements of our mutual friends. I’ll take custody of Bruno if you take Larry. I’m sure we can come to an amicable agreement about Ryan. Okay, then. Since you’re not talking to me anymore, I’m not talking to you. Well, so long!”

# 3: “It’s me again. I just remembered I’m going to Atlanta next week for that audition and you promised to dog-sit Hayley. So, feel free to keep that appointment, and when I get back, we can go back to not speaking to each other. Bye!”

Voicemails from Larry:

# 1: “Margaret, no one’s heard from you since Sunday morning. I’m not worried, because the Word says we’re to cast all our cares on the LORD. However, it would be helpful to continue to not worry if you called or texted one of us.”

# 2: “Hey there, Mags. I am still not worried, because the Word says we’re to be anxious for nothing. So, call or text soon, so I can continue to stand in faith for you.”

# 3: “Margaret, I still haven’t heard from you. Now I’m really…eh, really NOT worried. Anyway, please let me know something, because I love you…not like THAT, of course. I mean in the phileo, brotherly sense…and maybe in the agape sense, too, although definitely not in the eros sense in any way. So, anyway…I pray you’re alright. Call soon!”

Voicemail from Bruno:

“Alright, are you trying to get back at all of us because of the comments we left about on All About Me? You know we were all joking. Why do all you women have to be so touchy? You’ll be happy to know that not only have I not been able to get through to you, but I’m getting real-time updates from Larry, Ryan, and Shane about their inability to get through to you. If you don’t call or text soon, I’m calling out a search party. Of course, knowing you, it won’t be something as simple as getting lost or getting into an accident. So, I’ll be sure to keep my ears open for any alien abductions or local terrorist sleeper cell membership drives. Who knows? Maybe that dog of yours finally finished you off and buried you in the back yard, which would be tragic, because I’d have liked the honor of doing it myself…okay, in all seriousness, Mags, I’m worried. I hope you’re okay, because you know that I…I…Oh, if you make me say it, Mags, I swear to God I’ll…” Beep!!!!

I felt awful, a level of awfulness I had never experienced before. I had failed making contact with the girls, and I thought for sure the boys would never forgive me for dropping off the radar. Surely the Shulamite would never have been so foolish. I began to pace in front of my couch as I relived everything I said and did in the last seven days. I rehashed every conversation and situation to see what I could’ve done differently. It was a terrible feeling to think everyone but me had been given all the rules to interpersonal interaction, and halfway into my fourth decade of life, I was still trying unsuccessfully to play catch up. While I beat myself internally over and over again, I felt a presence in my living room. When I turned around, I saw Ryan standing in front of me. I was about to scream, but he put his hand over my mouth.

“Sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean any harm. I just knew you were going to scream and decided to save you the embarrassment.”

“How did you get in here?” I asked.

“You left your back door wide open.”

“Why didn’t Bernie bark?”

“He likes me, remember?”

“Yeah, right. How did you get here?”

“Someone at church is letting me use their car while I’m in the program.”

“How did you find my house?”

“MapQuest. Any more questions for me?”

“Eh…ah, what are you doing here?” I asked, afraid of the answer.

With a hint of sarcasm, Ryan answered, “Oh, I’m just looking for a corpse.” My poor brain was going to explode any second.

“Oh. Ah, who died?”

“My friend Margaret.”

“But, but I’m your friend Margaret.”

“Oh no you’re not. See, my friend Margaret would never purposely disappear without telling anyone, or not answer her phone or her text messages, so the only reason I can come up with is she’s dead. And I ain’t talking to you through a Ouija board, so you couldn’t possibly be her.” I held my head down because I couldn’t bring myself to look at him.

“Just be glad it was me and not Bruno or Shane that came by. Now, why don’t you tell me what’s going on?” he asked as he started to walk towards me. Again, I found myself backing away from him as I tried to think of a good answer. It appeared these Irishmen had no concept of personal space.

Think, Margaret, think,
I thought to myself. What would Rhonda say? What would the Shulamite say? Propriety, boundaries, don’t get attached, you’re not one of the guys!

“I’m waiting,” he said in a voice that seemed deceptively calm. I stopped backing up, and as he got in my face, I looked straight into his eyes.

“Well, um, you see, I had to go work in my vineyard, because I’m the only daughter of my mother, and my brothers were saying that I was slacking off, but I got really burned because I didn’t wear any sunscreen; and then, when I went back to my tent, all that burn cream put me to sleep, and so I didn’t hear when the shepherd knocked on my door. So, he thought I wasn’t interested, and then I had to chase him through the village, only to find out that not only was he a shepherd, but he was the King of Israel. So, ah, yeah, that’s where I’ve been.” Ryan looked at me, his eyes as big as Frisbees, and tilted his head to one side.

Slick, Mags, real slick. That was monumentally stupid, even for you, I said to myself.

After a minute, Ryan looked at me again and said, “Alright. I know that makes perfect sense to you, but I left my Margaret to English, English to Margaret Dictionary at home. So, could you tell me that again in English, using really tiny words?”

“I…I” I stuttered and stammered.

“I’m waiting.” I tried very hard to think of something to say that would be acceptable to Rhonda or Carole. Don’t say too much. Don’t say too little. Don’t be too accessible. Make the boys wait for answers. Do not act in any way that would even give the slightest inkling that I was mature, attractive, or sane.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I started to bawl uncontrollably and collapsed on to the couch in a big weepy mess. Ryan sat down next to me, then Bernie got on his hind legs and put his front left paw on my left leg and his front right paw on Ryan’s right leg. Bernie kept turning his head back and forth between Ryan and me, wanting desperately to know what was going on.

“What’s going on?” Ryan asked.

“I can’t tell you,” I replied.

“Why not?”

“Because, as soon as Genie Jeffries finds out I broke down in front of you, she’ll have a lynch mob on me faster than you can say, ‘Margaret, the church hooker!!!’” I buried my face in my knees. Bernie nuzzled his face into mine and licked the tears off my face as Ryan put his hand on my shoulder.

“Why don’t you just tell me what’s going on? I promise I won’t back you into any more trees, and we’ll have Bernie man stand guard at the door for any insects or lynch mobs.”

I laughed for the first time in a week, so against my better judgement, I told him the whole sordid story about my lunch with Rhonda, the lady breast-feeding her baby, and my weird venture into The Estrogen Zone. When I finished my tale of woe, I looked at him, fully expecting a recap of everything I had said and done wrong. Instead, he looked at me wide-eyed, bit his lower lip, and began to laugh hysterically.

“You’re laughing at me,” I said, then finding it hard not to laugh myself.

“No, no, Love, not at all. I’m laughing at all those scary women! Omeegosh! Edible embryos. Horse wee. I’m just thankful you made it out alive.”

“So, you don’t think I’m crazy?”

“Oh, I didn’t say that, Darlin’,” he answered. He then winked at me, and bust out laughing. At that moment, I was finally able to see the humor in it all and laughed ‘til it hurt.

“I think I met some of the women you described. Ever since I got here, they’ve been trying to fix me up with their daughters,” he said, chuckling.

“Run while you still can!” I urged him. We laughed for a little while longer, and then it was just silence.

Ryan looked at me and said, “I don’t know what to tell ya about the girl friend situation. Just…just don’t ever feel like you can’t be yourself with people. Let me pray for you about it.” Then he took my hand in his, we bowed our heads, and he prayed in such a way that it seemed like God couldn’t in a million years refuse him.

“Well, I better be getting back. Let Bruno, Larry, and Shane know you’re alright, and for God’s sakes, keep your cell phone on and charged, will you?” he said jokingly as he got up from the couch and headed for the back door. I didn’t know why, but I started to cry again.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come unglued on you,” I said penitently as I followed him to the door.

Ryan then got that unreadable look in his eyes again, turned around, and got in my face one last time to say, “Don’t you ever apologize for being real with me. Do you hear me?”

I thought for a moment that I had made him mad, but then he reached his hand up to my face and gently wiped away my tears as they streamed down my cheeks. As he did it, I remembered the part of the Bible that says that God will wipe all the tears from our eyes. No one had done that for me before, but it felt so good, it almost made all the crying seem worthwhile.

“Nice place you got here,” he said as he walked out the door.

“Thanks,” I answered.

“Definitely fit for a queen.” I stared in silence as he walked away.

Fit for a queen?
I thought. Oh no, Margaret, you’ve already done too much thinking for one day.