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Sweet Chloe and The Dog Bob

Sweet Chloe and her best bud Bob, who won every fight they ever fought.

Early this year, we lost our beloved Porch Cat after a slow decline that left her deaf, blind and somewhat demented. A fat rescued tortoiseshell named Fraidy joined our family at Jay’s insistence weeks later. Shortly thereafter, Ashlie’s dog Chloe was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease. Her deterioration happened faster than we anticipated and she died in March.

We did not grieve her as intensely as we did Fat Lola, perhaps because we have lost so much more in the interim. Still, sweet, mild-mannered Chloe is missed – perhaps by no one more than the Italian Greyhound Bob, to whom she was a surrogate litter mate and gigantic best friend.

We buried Chloe near the arbor and the crab grass had already begun to cover her grave by the time we welcomed a new beastie to fill the void she left behind.

Jay has long had his heart set on adopting a retired racing greyhound like the one he grew up with. My only requirement was that we find a female. By early April we were in contact with the Amazing Greys org out of Tracy. We were anticipating the arrival of a particularly lovely female greyhound out of Arizona when Susan from Amazing Greys called and suggested that we meet, as she put it, “a big silly boy with zero ego”.

My first thought upon seeing this 85 lb. greyhound bounding into the room was god, what a beast but moments later, when he flung himself down on a pile of pillows and rolled over with all four legs in the air, I thought dude, what a dork – which immediately won him a place in my heart and ultimately, our home.

Grinning Ollie

The Reverend Oliver Twinkletoes aka Olly Bolly aka Oliver Oily Pants aka Mr. Butts

It seems odd that Ollie has been with us less than six months – he is so much a part of our family. Bob has grown particularly fond of him, insisting on joining him in the Big Dog side of the dog park, trying to keep pace with him on walks and cheering him on from a safe vantage point by barking up a storm while Ollie courses through the yard, throwing clouds of dust behind him. And yes, it’s kind of amazing to watch him run, but mostly he’s a lazy, lovey lay-about – with Chloe’s tag-along habit and Fat Lola’s love of riding in cars with boys.

Three dogs is still too many, and as Iggy becomes more and more of a cranky old man, I steel myself against the inevitable loss while simultaneously looking forward to a manageable animal population in the Vilmur household. Meanwhile, Jay is probably sneaking peeks at that Saluki he’s always wanted.

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In the early weeks of Alice’s transition, I experience a series of “Ah Ha!” moments and, in each instance, I stop whatever I’m doing and rush to her for confirmation.

The skinny jeans!” I shout into the phone from my office.

What?” she asks, like she hasn’t even bothered to pause Hitman and is continuing to play the game while balancing the phone on her shoulder.

That shopping trip last month when you freaked out because I kept grabbing the usual baggy jeans instead of the skinny ones you actually wanted…”

Oh yeah. Makes sense now, huh?”

I had no idea, kiddo. I thought you were being difficult just to be difficult.”

Mom, I’ve got people to kill.”

And I’ve got people to make sure we don’t kill over here, but it just hit me that the skinny jeans were one of those signs I missed.”

Yep. Love you mom. Bye.”

I continue to be amazed and surprised at having been invited behind the curtain, that for the first time in so many years we are privy to the inner workings of her psyche. Not all of it, you understand, but little peeks that illuminate wide swaths of curious and sometimes infuriating behavior.

Some of my light-bulbs over-reach, like when I Ah Ha! her love of the “Wig In A Box” song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Not a girlie thing,” she corrects me. “That’s just a kick-ass song.” She dances off down the hall singing a list of antiquated ladies hairstyles at the top of her lungs.

Nothin’ girlie about that,” I mutter to an empty room.

Days later, I’m driving home from work when another little pop occurs. I resist the urge to call Alice while driving, but just barely. I swerve into the driveway, bolt through the front door and down the hall towards her room. Unfortunately, I’ve got too much momentum built up by the time I notice the vacuum cleaner loitering just outside her door and I rush headlong into it, tumbling through the doorway as I shout:

Ah Ha! Marvin K Redpost is a girl!”

Briefly, there is silence as I fumble with the vacuum hose and right myself. When I look up, I realize that Alice and I are not alone. Standing a couple of feet from where I crash-landed is her friend Bret, whose perpetual deer-in-the-headlights expression is doubly so today. But what’s most striking is that instead of the basic uniform of rock t-shirt and ratty jeans, Bret is decked out in Alice’s best white oxford shirt and black slacks, which are slightly too short for the lanky limbs poking through them.

Both Alice and Bret are standing stock-still, clearly surprised by my graceless arrival, but also in that zone of children who’ve been caught doing things children do when grown-ups aren’t around.

My mom’s cataloging fifteen years of gender-bending in one week,” Alice says, rolling her eyes and holding out a hand to help me up.

I’m still staring at Bret, who’s looking over my shoulder for an escape route.

You look incredibly…” I almost don’t say it: “handsome.”

The smile that follows is so worth the chance taken.

Yeah?” Bret asks, turning towards the mirror above the dresser to examine the well-dressed boy staring back.

Alice gives Bret a shove with her shoulder to make room at the mirror so she can apply a fresh coat of bubble gum pink lip-gloss. Alice says as she paints, “I stole this book from the library ages ago…”

Fourth grade,” I say, watching them huddled together in the mirror.

…one of those Marvin K. Redpost books. He kisses his elbow one day and when he wakes up the next morning he’s a girl.”

I meant to make you take it back but I bet we still have it.”

Bret is quiet, but grins while fussing with the collar of the oxford shirt. Up. Down. Up. I move up behind them and flatten the collar.

Definitely down,” I say.

I stole that other book too,” Alice says, “the one about the girl who dressed up as a boy to fight in the Civil War.” Alice says rubs her lips together and then leans forward to make a kiss-print on the mirror.

The Secret Soldier?” Bret asks.

Yep.”

My little book thief.” I fluff the hair at the nape of her neck.

I learned it by watching you,” she says, swiping my hand away.

After Bret leaves, Alice comes into the kitchen where I’m chopping vegetables for Pasta Fagoli. She grabs a peeled carrot and chomps on it.

Bret’s gotta hide the clothes so his mom doesn’t freak, but I figured you wouldn’t care if I gave ‘em away.”

You’re right. I don’t. And by the way, can I just point out that I was right about Bret months ago?” In the midst of all these unraveling mysteries, I’m smug about this particular point.

And yet you totally didn’t see me,” she says quietly, pointing the half-chewed carrot at herself. “Seriously Mom, how did you not know?”

She will ask me this a hundred times. I will ask myself a hundred more. I never quite find a good answer.

They hand you a baby.

Someone announces Boy or Girl.

You never think to question it. 

 

(Behind The Curtain is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir “The Complicated Geography of Alice” due out December 2014.)

 

 

 

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As it turns out, I’m not so good at keeping things alive. Birds, hamsters, kittens and that garter snake I left in the sun; every one of my childhood pets met a tragic end. My backyard is filled with the bones of long-dead dogs and one beloved cat. The pots on the back porch boast the skeletal remains of various herbs and vegetables I planted with great expectation. I’m still surprised that my children survived early childhood – not an accidental electrocution or drowning in the bunch. Still, I felt a sense of apprehension when the 167 year-old sourdough starter arrived with carefully printed instructions for its revival and maintenance.

CarlThe enclosed pamphlet details the starter’s impressive heritage and celebrates its champion Carl Griffith, whose sourdough culture has been passed on nearly 40,000 times. In his honor, I print CARL with a permanent marker on the side of the tub I’m intending to revive the starter in.
I’m skeptical as hell. It’s just a few flakes, off-white in color and crumbling to the touch. I mix it with flour, water and sugar, then leave it out on the counter overnight. Every day for the next two weeks, I feed it. First, just white flour and water. Then some rye flour, a little apple cider vinegar and a pinch or two of potato flakes. And the thing is, the crazy thing is, it is alive.
I make J and Mouse look it. I call my mother and tell her to come over. I’m so fucking proud of this smelly little science experiment that everyone who graces our doorstep for the first month has to peek into the Carl’s little plastic tub and get a whiff of what he’s got going on. I, who am lousy at keeping things alive has an ancient sourdough culture bubbling and growing on the counter in my kitchen and there is somehow something hopeful in that.

[For the price of a self-addressed stamped-envelope. you can get your own bit of Carl Griffith's 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter through the "Friends of Carl".]

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Even A Dead ChildI’m walking alone in an unfamiliar neighborhood, pulling a child’s bicycle along beside me. I find Ash along the way, playing with some little girls. I turn over the bike, like I came specifically to deliver it, but Ash shoves the bike away and it clatters to the ground. Clenched jaw and defiant eyes. Oh yes, I know that look.

Like every mother ever, I grab an arm and pull my child away from the others. I hunch down until my face is level with Ash’s and I growl. “Look kiddo, in my real life, you’re dead. So I come all the way down here to spend time with you and THIS is how you’re gonna act?”

The odd thing is, I can’t remember what happened after that – if Ash responded, if the mad mood broke or if I realized how funny and sad it was to say such a thing to a child. Even a dead child. Even in a dream.

 

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twitch

No mother expects to find herself sitting in the parking lot of a psychiatric hospital, digging the drawstring out of her child’s new pajama pants so they’ll pass a safety inspection. Then all of a sudden there you are, or at least, here I am, tearing at Jordan’s plaid pajamas with my teeth.

It’s the evening of his second day at Fremont Psychiatric Hospital, perched on the northeastern end of Silicon Valley, an hour from our Santa Cruz condo. Jay and Max will make the trip with me tomorrow night, but for this first visit, I’ve come alone.

Getting onto the locked ward is no simple task. There are guards, heavy doors and no less than three places where you have to show identification. I huddle with five other parents in the elevator until we are dumped out onto the third floor in front of the Adolescent Ward’s nurse’s station.

As the charge nurse checks and records each of the items I’ve brought, Jordan comes bouncing up to the final barrier that separates us. Still in his camo pants, but wearing an unfamiliar t-shirt emblazoned with Bob Marley’s face, he taps her fingertips on the sturdy mesh gate and singsongs, “Open, open, open.”

I want to laugh.

I am going to cry.

We don’t belong here. He’s surly, but he’s not sick. He’s experimenting with drugs, but he’s not crazy. He’s got an ugly temper and is intent on being as rebellious as possible, but some boys are just like that, right?

The adolescent wing doesn’t rate its own visiting room. Instead, families gather in the long hallway, flanked on either side by patient rooms. There are too few chairs by half, and those without collect in tight bunches on the floor along the wall.

As I come through the gate, Jory trips into me for a quick hug and then grabs the clothes in my hands. “What’dja bring me?” He’s in a surprisingly cheerful mood for someone on a 72-hour suicide watch. I don’t know what I expected, but not this. “Come on, I’ll show you my room.”

I follow him down the hall, passing a crying mother and daughter in plastic chairs, a family of five playing “Go Fish” in a circle on the floor, a father and son leaning against the wall, staring at their feet, and a whispering group of girls who pretend not to be watching us as we go past. We approach a burly nurse standing casually with a paperback novel in his hand. Jordan jerks his chin up in acknowledgment.

What’s up?” the nurse asks.

I’m gonna show my mom my room, k?”

He raises an eyebrow but also works to suppress a smile—another authority figure who doesn’t trust my child but still finds him disarming. It feels like that awkward Parents’ Day at summer camp: The kids and staff share an odd intimacy, while the parents, identifiable by the mix of exhaustion and wide-eyed terror on our faces, are merely day-tripping into their curious little world.

And I gotta put these away,” Jory adds, holding forth the stack of clothes.

The nurse nods and returns to his book as we move on.

That’s Tyrone.” Jordan lowers his voice to a whisper. “He’s the guy they call when someone’s gonna get the Booty Juice.”

Booty Juice?” I ask.

He ducks into one of the rooms, and I follow. It’s larger than I expected, and uncomfortably tidy with a pair of twin beds, two desks, a large divided closet and a small bathroom.

When somebody goes psycho, Tyrone’ll hold ‘em down while another nurse gives ‘em a shot in the butt. It chills ‘em out.” Having dropped his clothes onto one of the chairs, he demonstrates the shot to his butt-cheek and then falls, splayed out, onto the bed.

No way,” I say.

Yes way. The prophet next door got the Booty Juice this morning just before group.”

There’s a prophet next door?”

Nah, he’s really just psychotic.”

He sits up and starts digging through the clothes, snatching up his favorite Guayabera shirt and the Vans I swiped from Max to bypass the shoelace restriction. He slips the Vans on over his hospital booties.

My roommate, Alan, loaned me this shirt.” He plucks at Bob Marley’s dreads. “He’s got tics. You know what those are?”

Like Tourette’s?”

Yeah, but without the cursing. Mostly he just clears his throat and winks a lot.”

He’s in here for that?”

Alan freaked out after drinking too much cough syrup, so his parents had him locked up. He’s cool. But mostly I hang out with the suicidal lesbians.”

I watch him slip into his favorite Cuban gangster shirt and swagger back out into the corridor to flirt with the darkly pretty girls gathered near the pay-phone. He’s been a gossipy child for as long as I can remember and has always gravitated towards groups of giggling girls, so this is no great surprise.

Scarface wore these, you know,” I hear him inform them in a sly, knowing way as he flicks the collar and shrugs his shoulder.

I spot two recently abandoned chairs and make a beeline for them. A minute later, Jordan breaks off from the girls and joins me.

He flips his chair around and straddles it with his arms over the back and his chin nestled into the spot where they cross. “The doctor thinks I might be bipolar.”

I’ve heard that’s popular.”

He smirks and then looks away.

I lean in with my elbows on my knees. “I’m sorry.”

We sit in silence and listen to the Go Fish family for a while.

I didn’t know you might be sick,” I say. “I just kinda thought you were being an ass.”
“That’s okay. So did I.”

We talk in hushed tones for the rest of the hour. He asks me to tell his teacher, Sarge, that he isn’t just ditching and to find out from the doctor when he can come home. As we chat, I notice that his left eye is twitching—not constantly, but every now and then. I find it unsettling.

What’s up with your eye?”

What do you mean?”

Is there an eyelash or something in it?” I reach over to poke at him, but he pulls back and brushes my hand away.

It’s fine.” He leans in close. “You see that girl behind me, the hot chick with the long braids?”

I glance over his shoulder and nod.

She’s schizophrenic and super cool. She gets the best meds.”

Despite all his bravado, when Tyrone announces that visiting hours are over, I see Jordan’s chin quiver for just a second. Then comes the stab of realization that I have to get up and walk out of here without him, that I cannot just march to the gate with my child in tow and demand that they let us leave. How helpless it feels to hug him and walk out the door, down two floors in an elevator stuffed with weeping strangers, and out into the cold darkness of night.

I cry most of the way home. Later that night, I read up on the medications they’ve prescribed for him to see if any of them would account for a muscle spasm or eye twitch. Nothing does, but the twitch remains, popping up every once in a while over the next year. Finally, when it seems to be gone forever, I casually mention it, and he lets out a great laugh.

That? It’s just something I picked up from my roommate back at Fremont. It’s a great distraction for grown-ups who’re just yammering on and on. You should try it some time.”

And just so you know, every once in a while, I do.

 

(Twitch is an excerpt from Jules Vilmur’s upcoming memoir “The Complicated Geography of Alice” due out in Dec 2014.)