a new preface for old stories

villaIn a dusty box in the storage closet of the HUD Housing complex behind the Burger King on McHenry Avenue, you’ll find my file, three inches thick and spanning my nine year residency. The last time I saw the file was the summer of 1999.

I’m standing in The Villa’s tiny office, where the clatter of the air conditioner nearly drowns out the children splashing about in the pool just outside. From behind the desk, Terry thumbs through the folder and then shoves it towards me.

“You should really have a peek.” His tone is serious, but his eyes are warm.

“I’d rather not.” I glare at the thing and it glares back.

I don’t have to open this catalogue of sins to remember the myriad of noise complaints, repair requests for two windows and a door, the landscaping bill for a light-saber-battered shrub, a letter of apology for crashing a Big Wheel into the pool at 3 a.m. or the string of warning notices about my unauthorized cat.

“I’m not trying to be a hardass, Jules, but –“

Terry sighs like a disappointed dad, then gets up and gestures for me to take his chair. He slips out the door to the pool area as I slump into his chair. On the far side of the deck, he lingers near the chaise lounges of Maura and Shell. Fully aware of their cyclical retaliatory boyfriend-thievery, he bravely drags a chair up between them.

I am nearly thirty.

I have spent most of my adult life in this place, among these people.

My “I don’t really belong here” shtick is wearing thin and the ugly reality lay out before me is that I haven’t been the bad-luck good girl for a very long time.

While I contemplate liberating my file, a small gathering of children begin to make blow-fish faces against the window beside me. I look at their baby teeth and tonsils, their waggling tongues.

In the end, there is no absolution, so Villa Bitch through and through, I lean toward Jory and Jellybean and press my open mouth to the glass in a silent scream.

 

[The Villa Stories is a work in progress, every now and then, since for what feels like forever but is more like thirteen years. Wow. That IS a long time to NOT finish something without abandoning it altogether. Regardless, this is a new bit. With any luck, others will follow.]

Another Cigarette – Snapshot circa 2005

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[It’s been nearly two years since I smoked my last cigarette, but I found this bit tucked away in a pocket just now and it made me smile.]

The kid is maybe sixteen, slouched on a stone bench outside the bus station. His hair is unkempt and hangs in his face. He wears perpetual boredom like a heavy mask. There’s a pencil poking out of his back pocket, visible only when he leans forward to tie the too-long laces of his left sneaker. She recognizes him right off, knows he rides the 69West into town and up to the High School every morning. Occasionally early, usually late.

They don’t take much interest in one another, the woman and the boy, until she withdraws a pack of Winstons from her pocket and lights that first, morning cigarette. Slowly, shyly, he comes to life.

She pretends not to notice, as he stands up, hooks his thumbs in his belt-loops and shuffles across the space between his bench and hers. “Do you have another cigarette?” He asks, not quite looking at her, his eyes mostly obscured by a mop of dark hair.

She laughs, right off, one of those you-are-so-foolish-to-even-think-it laughs, and then says, “Dude, I SO can’t give you a cigarette.” It’s the laugh she’ll regret moments later, as he stares at his shoes and rubs the toe of the left one over a pebble on the pavement and then shuffles back to his bench.

For the woman, the seven minutes, which pass, between her laugh and the arrival of their bus, are thick with internal mumblings. Of course you did the right thing. First off, it’s illegal; contributing to the delinquency of minors and such, and secondly, you’d kick the ass of anyone who handed your own kid a cigarette. Hell, you should march right over there and let him have it for even asking, tell him how bad cigarettes are, how stupid you were to pick that first one up and how gutless you feel about not putting them down. You should ask him if he’s ever sat with someone who’s dying of cancer or even worse, ‘cause you know full well that it’s worse, sucking on a breathing tube for the last eight years of their life; having fucked up their lungs to the point of emphysema. You should call the school, tell his mother, shake your finger; smack him silly so he has half a chance of not ending up like you.

Still, she regrets the laugh, the way he hung his head and slunk back to his bench. I’m not trying to be an asshole, kid. I’m just doing the right thing.

 As she stands to board the bus, as she waits for the kid and an old woman on crutches to board first, she realizes that she’s rolling the smoke she didn’t give him between her fingers and thumb. Dude, I SO can’t give you a cigarette. If, however, one falls from my pack, into your lap as I jostle past, headed for the seat nearest the back exit, well it’s your luck, not mine.

And the thing she’ll remember, years later, is how that mask of perpetual boredom dissipated, how he nearly lept up out of his seat, twisting to make eye contact in that instant after the cigarette rolled from her fingers into his lap. Like Christmas morning, like puppies and shiny new bikes, like Disneyland and pizza; caught off-guard the kid’s mask evaporated completely.

As she slipped into her seat, four rows back, the boy still staring over his shoulder, waiting to make eye contact, waiting to mouth an exaggerated “thank you”, she was amazed at how good the wrong thing felt.

 

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Publisher

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(Part 1 – How I Ended up Publishing Independently)

I didn’t intend to get all indie with this book, or maybe I did in the beginning, but when editors start nosing around one feels hopeful and when agents get involved it’s easy to dream of the big leagues. Who doesn’t want a posh NY Agent with international connections?

When I got one, I thought it was time to kick back and let her take over. Oh I wrote the proposal she asked for (with gritted teeth, mind you) but once I handed over the proposal, I ceased to be an active participant in the process.

It was up to her now.

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The Home Stretch: In Book News

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promopicWhen Alice first revealed herself to us, someone loaned me a book from the local PFLAG library. It was a skinny yellow volume titled “Mom, I Need to Be a Girl” written by a woman who called herself Just Evelyn. I must have read through that book twenty times in those first couple of months. When I felt alone, plunging headlong against the tide, she gave me strength.

It’s the reason I started writing about Alice and our journey.

The culmination of that work is The Complicated Geography of Alice, my memoir which will be available for Kindle and in paperback through Amazon this December. It is an intimate, portrayal of a family in crisis and a mother who believes that her daughter is going to blaze a brave new path if she can just keep her sober long enough to grow up.

Many of the stories in the book first appeared as blog posts here and at The Daily Kos and you can still find excerpts on the book page. If you would like to be notified upon publication, you can follow Laurustina.com on Facebook or send a blank e-mail to laurustina [at] gmail [dot] com with the words BOOK NEWS in the subject line. 

 

Humbled Parent of Delightful Transgender Teenager with Issues

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 I’ve been working with badass Bradley on revisions for The Complicated Geography of Alice and I just cut the following chapter from the manuscript. It’s always wrenching to tear stuff out, so I’m sharing it here to soothing my psyche. Honestly, it’s more about my general distaste for the carrot and stick method of providing services to needy people than it is about Alice. Still, there are little bits of her – of us – in here that still make me giggle. 

 

Grandma Jo has been trying. I’ll give her that. A couple of months ago, she let me drag her to a PFLAG meeting where Alice’s support group leader Elizabeth spoke on transgender awareness. It was basic stuff, and I’d hoped it would be enlightening. Mostly though, my mum sat and stewed about a man in the group who had been rude to her in some other venue. She is trying to change her language to appease us, but it’s becoming clear that she has no interest in changing her mind. This is just a phase that her grandson is going through and she’s going to wait it out patiently, pretending all along that it’s no big deal.

For this reason, I’m surprised when she invites Alice and I to join her for High Tea at a local homeless shelter. The event is a benefit for the women’s program at the shelter, which provides temporary housing, healthcare and education opportunities along with financial and spiritual advising. The thought of making food and shelter conditional upon the acceptance of spiritual advising makes me queasy, but I try to set that aside because Alice is excited to have been invited to such a gloriously girlie event. Especially by Grandma Jo.

When she arrives to pick us up, Alice has just finished applying her thirteenth layer of lipgloss and I’m still struggling to run a comb through my hair.

“You both look so nice,” Grandma Jo says as Alice dashes past her towards the car.

“SHOTGUN!” she shouts, diving into the passenger seat, leaving me to climb into the back. On the ride to the bad side of town, my mother explains everything as she is prone to do.

“Now there’s going to be tea, sandwiches and desserts, and then a fashion show. Do you remember the women in my bible study group? We’ve got a whole table to ourselves.”

We arrive at the mission, disembark and meet our little circle of ladies in the parking lot. My mother’s Bible Study Lady Friends are the kind of women who arrange casserole duty for grieving families, send encouraging little notes to one another with bible verses written in them, and structure the bulk of their gossip in the approved “prayer request” manner. They’re nice enough, some more so than others, but a generally congenial group.

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