Thursday, August 18, 2005

"But I haven't seen Barbados, so I must get out of this..."

Paris, 20 years ago...

It was that time of the month, and once again I was bedridden. It always seemed to happen at the most inopportune times too. Like when it happened the last day of band camp and I was so ill I could not participate in the final night’s shenanigans with the other members. I lay curled up on a cot in the dorm room while the flag corps advisor fussed and fretted over me with hot water bottles and cold wash cloths. My temperature was in triple digits and I couldn’t even keep water down. The bus ride home the following morning was grueling, and I was so violently ill that I was shunned as a leper by everyone, including my boyfriend.

You’d think I would have gotten used to it after so many years, but I hadn’t, and the pain relievers wouldn’t stay down long enough to work their magic.

And so it was that I lay fetuslike on a bed in a Parisian youth hostel, on a sweltering summer night, while everyone else in the world was out having a good time. My hostel roommates, mildly concerned for my comfort, had procured a sick bucket for the side of the bed, and had opened our second floor window to air out the room before setting off for a Saturday night of clubbing.

I lay sweating in the dark, cursing my fate and begging sleep to take pity and carry me away. It must have done, because some time later I was startled awake by a noise in the room. I foggily thought it was the roommates returning quietly as so not to wake me, but when I raised my head in the direction of the noise I saw a man, crouched low, rifling through one of the suitcases littering the room. My heart began to pound and I was sure he would hear it, so loud it sounded in my ears. I was terrified to move and my mind raced as to what to do. Should I scream? Should I try to get up and run? Should I continue to lay there and pretend I was asleep? I had no idea.

My mouth dried so rapidly that my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I realized I was holding my breath, and I wasn’t even sure I could scream if I wanted. Who would hear me? Everyone in the hostel seemed to be gone for the evening; the corridors outside my room were silent. My world shrank to the blood thumping in my ears and the soft zip of a duffel bag being opened on the other side of the room. He was muttering softly to himself as he combed the contents of the bag, and I watched as he stood up and shoved something into his jeans pocket. Was he stealing money? Jewelry? I couldn’t tell. Stunned, I watched him move on to the next bag, which was only a few feet away from where I lay, paralyzed with fear.

He saw me. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t move. I was absolutely terrified and helpless, and he must have sensed it. He uttered something in French and started toward me, unzipping his jeans as he advanced. It was then that I realized I had been dozing on top of the covers wearing only a thin tank top and panties. “Oh God,” my mind raced, “he’s going to rape me and I can’t even move.” I could feel bile rising in my throat.

In the short time it took to think that phrase, he was on me, tugging at my underwear and muttering rapidly in French. My paralysis suddenly broke and I struggled beneath him. I still could not scream, my mouth a desert, but I fought mightily with him. He grabbed my arms to hold them down, but somehow I managed to wrench one free and latch hold of a small lamp on the bedside table. I slammed it into his face as hard as I could.

He fell off of me then, bloodied and panting. I dove from the bed and swung the lamp again, breaking it on contact with the side of his head. He stumbled toward the open window, hiking up his jeans as he went. I began to sob, and realized my voice had returned. He was already scrambling out the window as the screams escaped me, and I continued to wail for help as I watched him disappear down the fire escape and into the dark Paris night.

Bloodied and shaking, I felt my legs carry me out into the corridor, where they gave out and I collapsed, sobbing in my torn underwear. Was there anyone at all inside the hostel? Did anyone even hear my pleas for help? Would he come back when he realized no one else was there? Trembling, I tried to stand up and ended up vomiting all over myself.

But someone HAD heard. Someone on the lower floor came rushing from the stairwell to my aid. He took one look and immediately ran to the communal bathroom for towels and water. I choked out the words “attacked,” “thief,” and “window,” then crumpled into a convulsing heap. I guess I went into shock, because I don’t remember how I came to be wrapped in a robe (whose robe was it?), cleaned up (whose blood was it? Mine? His? Who washed it away?), nor how the police were summoned.

The man who came to my aid was a French Canadian named Norm. He translated my story to the hostel manageress and the French police. He argued with the police when they shrugged off the story as “a lover’s quarrel” and he raged against the hostel manageress when she demanded money for the broken lamp. He sat up with me in the commons area half the night, because I was terrified to go back into my room.

I’m ashamed to say that I cannot remember whether or not I ever thanked him.

Monday, August 15, 2005

"Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition..."

Heavily laden with camping equipment, we continued east on Route 66, using a map acquired from the impish old lady at the Route 66 memorabilia shop in Oklahoma City. Unlike other states in which the endless grey ribbon runs, the Mother Road is perhaps easiest to travel in Oklahoma because it is signposted with historical markers.

We rescued an upturned turtle from the roadway around Edmond, and saw the famous Round Barn at Arcadia. Spying a small general store with two old pumps outside, we decided to fuel up, lest we run out of gas before Tulsa. Brad filled the tank while I sat in the car reading the map and plotting our journey.

Back on the road, Brad asked what towns and historic sights lay ahead. The next town listed on the map was Luther, but there was not a single sentence about the town in the handy Route 66 book we had been talked into buying from the tiny whirlwind at the memorabilia shop. On a whim, we detoured into the small hamlet of Luther and made a circle through the deserted, dusty downtown. I wondered aloud as to why Luther was so dismal, when most of the other Oklahoma towns we’d visited along Route 66 had been vibrant and cheerful. More homes in Luther were abandoned than occupied, which I thought was a shame because we saw gorgeous old gingerbread-trimmed Victorian homes that sat rotting by the roadside, waiting for owners who were never going to return. Since I love photographing abandoned buildings, I asked Brad to pull over so I could grab the camera from behind my seat.

“There’s a cop following us,” Brad said slowly, and eyed the rearview again. “He’s been following us since we left that general store. I’m not pulling over until he tells us to pull over.”

I laughed and rolled my eyes at him. “Why would he pull us over? We haven’t done anything wrong.”

Brad gave a derisive snort and shot an “I-told-you-so” look my way. I could see flashing lights reflecting in the wing mirror as Brad pulled the car onto the side of the road. The cop walked up to the window and asked to see Brad’s license and insurance.

“Is there a problem, officer?” Brad asked as he pulled the required documents out of his wallet and handed to the officer. “I’ll ask the questions,” the Luther cop snipped tartly, and walked back to his car with Brad’s license and insurance card. We sat there trying to figure out why we had been pulled over when the cop came back to the car and stated that we were driving a stolen vehicle and told Brad to get out of the car. Brad protested that the car was definitely NOT stolen, and I leaned across Brad and told the cop that the car was mine and I had the registration to prove it. The cop drew his pistol, tapped the barrel against the door and repeated his request. Brad scrambled from the car and was marched AT GUNPOINT to the squad car, where he was put into the back seat.

Needless to say, we were both freaking out. I knew the car wasn’t stolen—it was MY CAR! I’d just finished paying the damned thing off four months prior. Ten minutes turned into twenty, then thirty. I rummaged through the console, hunting for the little black leather wallet that held my registration and insurance to prove my case. I glanced up to see a second cop, with lights flashing, pull in front of my car.

“Looks like the entire Luther police force is making an appearance,” I muttered darkly as the second cop walked up to the driver side window and looked in.

It was the stereotypical good cop/bad cop scenario. The second cop was friendly to me, and asked what brought us so far from Ohio. I told him we were following Route 66, and pointed at the maps and book lying on my lap. I also told him that there was no way my car was stolen, and I that I could prove it, waving the black registration wallet his way. He fired off a few questions at me, asking our route thus far and how long we’d been away etc. I answered each question, and reiterated that I could prove my car was not stolen. He carried my answers back to the bad cop, who still had Brad locked away in the back seat of his squad car.

Another thirty minutes passed as the cops took turns grilling us individually. The bad cop radioed the license plate number to the Luther dispatcher. The good cop ran a check on the VIN. They referred to me as “hon,” “darlin’” and “little missy,” and ignored my offers of license, registration and proof of insurance. It was really starting to piss me off, and I struggled to hold my smartass tongue.

They both seemed very interested, however, in the fact that the car was loaded down with camping supplies. Several times it was brought up that they could get a search warrant if we didn’t give our consent to a search. I finally blew up. “I don’t give a damn if you tear the entire car apart! But by God you will REPACK the entire contents when you find nothing illegal! It took us two hours to get the gear packed up in Utah, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to repack it all again!”

In the end, I guess the thought of repacking enough camping gear to outfit an army of Boy Scouts wasn’t their idea of a fun way to spend the evening, because the two bumpkin cops let us go. No ticket; no written warning; nothing.

They’d gotten their kicks.

Friday, August 12, 2005

"Get your kicks on Route 66..."

We had been following Route 66 since New Mexico. We’d left Utah's Arches National Park two days previous, and after hitting snow in the Rockies, detoured out of Colorado to locate the famed Route 66.

After spending a very sleepless night in a dodgy motel in Amarillo, Texas, we beat a hasty retreat from the Lone Star State. Somehow the Texans knew we were vegetarians in the Land of Cattle. Maybe it was our tie-dyed t-shirts in a swarm of red plaid that gave us away, but we certainly stood out amongst the locals, who glared at us with contempt in diners, at petrol stations and from inside their big, gun-rack toting, dually diesels.

It was with great fanfare, then, that we entered Oklahoma. We were so relieved to be out of the Texas panhandle that kissing the Okie tarmac seemed like a fine idea. A fine idea, that is, until we slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a gigantic spider, who happened to be meandering across Route 66 in an orange sun dress. Never in my life have I seen a spider large enough to require its own zip code!

Brad was fascinated. He leapt out of the car to photograph the bastard. I pleaded with him to get back in the car, for fear the thing would attack and drain his blood before my very eyes. There are three things in life that send my phobia-meter pegging the red: One is spiders, and the other is blood. Put them both on a metal –truss bridge and call the morgue, because I’m done for.

He paid me no mind as he fished into his jeans pocket and pulled out a quarter. “What the hell?” I thought to my hyperventilating self, “he’s paying the spider to ensure safe passage?”

Nope. Brad put the quarter on the roadway NEXT TO THE KILLING MACHINE and stepped back to take a picture.

The spider paused.

*snap* *snap* Brad circled the beast, taking shots at various angles.

The spider, which seriously was the size of my hand, commenced creeping, and paused again, this time on top of the quarter.


Now we were going to have to sit there until it decided to either eat the coin, or continue on its merry way, because there was no chance that Mr. Skinflint was going to leave a perfectly good quarter behind. My hysterical pleadings fell on deaf ears.

After an eternity, the massive arachnid moved on, and Brad scooped up his precious quarter and climbed back into the Camaro.

We were still talking about the Monster of Death when we rolled into the dusty jewel of the Mother Road, Oklahoma City, and stopped at a Route 66 memorabilia shop. The tiny, ancient lady working the counter welcomed us brightly and proceeded to regale us with stories of her childhood during the Great Depression, and the role the road took in her family’s lives.

When she finally stopped for breath, I wedged in a question about the gigantic spider, asking if seeing them was a normal occurrence in Oklahoma. She chuckled and patted my arm with a miniature, weathered, brown hand.

“Them’s tranchulers. Oklahoma Browns! They won’t hurt ya none.” She declared impishly, and launched into a tale of tales about how she and her little brother kept them as pets and played with them in the dirt cellar of the old homeplace, and how, during the height of the depression, her daddy would catch the “tranchulers,” spear them with a stick and roast them over an open flame, like marshmallows.

“Us kids loved the legs!” she sighed with a devilish gleam in her eyes, “deliciously crunchy!”

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

"All my troubles seemed so far away..."

Six years old and already I was labeled an outcast. I rode the bus home with a heavy heart and went right to my room, where I put Neil onto my little pink and white close’n’play and cried.

It wasn’t the first time I had wept over music, and as the salty tears slid quietly down my face, my mind drifted back to a few months prior, when my sister had come home from school bawling her eyes out. She didn’t even yell at me when I asked her what was wrong. She clutched a box of Kleenex to her chest and ran straight to her room, with me trotting along behind asking, "What's the matter Suzie? Why are you crying?"

I hesitated before following her into the Inner Sanctum, but she seemed unaware that I had crept in behind her. Flinging herself on the bed, she punched her fists into the pillows, wailing all the while. Unsure of what to do but unable to contain my curiousity, I finally poked a finger into her shin and then retreated to a safe distance, sure that she’d leap off the bed and toss me out into the hall.

But she didn’t.

She sat up, blew her nose loudly and announced to me that The Beatles had broken up.

A million images raced thorough my mind as I stared at her with gaping mouth. How could they break? Did they fall out of a window and smash? Did they get into a fight and somehow shatter? Every image my mind could muster spelled disaster and death for the four mop-topped boys who had given me such delight with their songs.

Thoughts awhirl, I eventually concluded that she must have meant that one of her Beatles records got broken, and I chewed my lower lip and eyed her suspiciously. My mind flashed to a copy of "I Saw Her Standing There" with a crack in it. I knew she had stepped on it one morning as she readied herself for school. It had lain beneath the scattered clothing that dotted her floor like a rummage sale gone awry. I had heard the crack clear in the next room, where I sat busily building a make-shift home for my Fisher-Price people out of a shoebox. Sue dashed out the bedroom door and down the stairs without even checking to see what record had cracked. I raced to the window and watched as she ran down the hill toward the schoolbus, then ventured into her room to find out what had broken.

“I didn’t do it!” I blurted out finally, and she rolled her redrimmed, watery green eyes and threw a pillow at me, halfheartedly.

“They split up, dummy. Paul left the band and now there will never be any more Beatles music.”

She stated it so matter-of-factly, and it slowly dawned on me that this was serious business. I wanted to ask why the band couldn’t go on without Paul but even at such a tender age I knew that Paul and John were the head guys in the band. It was their close harmonies I loved so dearly.

"Never?" I asked in a hushed tone.

Sue's lip began to quiver again. "Never." She patted the edge of the bed, inviting me to sit with her and look at their album jackets. I scampered onto the rumpled bed and we sat together, examining everything from Please Please Me, Help!, and Rubber Soul, to Sgt.Pepper, and Abbey Road. She told me all about the conspiracy surrounding the Abbey Road cover and how Paul was supposed to be dead, although she didn't believe it. I pointed out that George looked dreamy with both short and long hair.

We spent the remainer of the day listening to those albums, and as the shadows fell long across the bedroom floor, we put on those early singles and danced, my hands clasped in hers as she swung me around and sang, "Help me if you can I'm feeling down...Help me get my feet back on the ground!"

It was the only time I was ever, and ever would be, granted access to my sister’s room, music, and inner thoughts, and it meant the world to me.