I’m surprised I’m still alive. I should have died…I don’t know, at least a dozen times by now. I grew up with parents who taught me an important lesson, driven into the deepest recesses of my brain every single day during that crucial morning time when I struggled to hurriedly lace up my shoes and make it to school before the first bell. That lesson was: be afraid.
I don’t know why my parents chose to drill this particular motto into my psyche; they certainly did not grow up fearing anything. Heavens, I look at their photographs from decades ago and I think: fuck, I haven’t done a thing yet!
Oh, the lies they told me when I was growing up. But seriously, my people have the best imagination in the world. If imagination could be measured somehow using a ruler, say, or a scale, my tribe would win a medal every day of the year. Boy, were they good actors and storytellers. I remember the fervor with which my father told me tales of Santa Claus, a magical figure existing, apparently, solely for my pleasure. And the passion of each holiday season when my dad attempted, successfully, to make me believe such a fat jolly old man in a ridiculous red suit really did exist. Dad’s incredible imagination and dedication to the lie could only be matched by the plain speak of my grandmother, who, when I was five, blurted out the truth about the bearded fellow, though nobody asked her for it. She often spoke plainly, prompted by…nothing, really. “Yeah, kid, there’s no Santa. It’s your old dad making that noise outside in the snow.” Yep, the next day the truth was confirmed by a little investigative work; that is, by the simple use of my eyes. I discovered Santa’s footprints matched perfectly the pattern on the soles of dad’s shoes. I’m not sure that I’ve ever truly believed anyone since then. I certainly learned to hate people who, for no reason whatsoever, always feel invited to tell you what they think. Thank you, grandma.
My family deceived me, and then threw the cold hard truth in my face when I least expected it. Wham, take that, kid! The truth is just about as pleasant as a clump of wet mud with a jagged rock stuck in the middle of it. I like to be hit by it almost as much as I like having my wisdom teeth pulled by a car mechanic.
I remember being very small, maybe four or five, at the age filled with vague memories of faces and places, and a few events that shaped me forever (yep, true story, I am shaped by vague memories). Things only got clear for me when my brother was born. I don’t know why. Time, and I mean Time with a capital T, started for me when my brother was born. But before Time started, I remember being small enough to fit into my father’s lap. He’d hold me there, sheltered from the world, as he sipped his afternoon cup of coffee. There was nothing in the world I wanted more than to have a sip too. Coffee fascinated me more than the foamy, sparkly beer (which I learned to appreciate only much later in life). I remember once fetching a very large tea cup, something taken out of a rarely-used kitschy set (but made to last forever out of unbreakable material invented by NASA, no doubt) with a strange donkey wearing a red hat and smoking a pipe painted on one side (very Freudian). I ran to dad holding out this vessel and begged him to pour me out some of his coffee. Once or twice he did exactly that. To that drop of coffee he spared me I then added a bit of warm water and lots of sugar. Nasty stuff. Coffee colored, coffee flavored, sort of, water. But I remember drinking it with a relish. Ah, for just that instant, I was an adult too (another lie: things get better when you grow up). I tried to sip the brown liquid as slowly as he did, tracing the contours of the weird donkey on my cup and wondering where in the world such a bizarre animal had to be going, and how the hell did it fill that pipe with tobacco, donkeys having no fingers, of course.
My philosophical musings were interrupted once and for all by my grandmother, whose life’s mission, evidently, was to destroy every last bit of my childhood’s innocence. She was outraged by the sight of me drinking “coffee,” snatched the cup away from me and told me (perfect poker face, grandma, congratulations) little kids grew very long flee-infested tails if they drank coffee.
After that I didn’t sleep for a month. Each night I felt my butt changing shape to allow for a nasty tail. My ass itched, either from dirt (possibly, I didn’t like to wash) or from a genuine extension of my body taking form just below my tailbone.
I waited to grow a tail for many years. Luckily, instead of it eventually I grew out a pair of boobs. Turns out I’m a girl, not a squirrel.
As far as coffee goes, I didn’t start drinking it properly until I was well into adulthood. But even now I can feel my tailbone shape-shifting whenever I smell freshly brewed coffee.
Ah, the lies they told me.
When I was growing up it was unthinkable for a Serbian family to keep pets inside their home. Dogs and cats were kept outside. Dogs and cats were dirty disease-carriers. If ever they entered the living space of humans, the entire contents of the household had to be sterilized; or burned down. Touching a dog, for example, even with just a single finger and only for a split second, meant that hands had to be washed and clothes that may have come into animal contact had to be changed and immediately washed; or burned down. Cat hair was like plutonium back then. God forbid you should find a hair on the sleeve of your shirt. That shirt could never be worn again; best to just burn it down. Accidental swallowing of cat hair, I was told, led to hospitalization and very dangerous surgical procedures using robots and the Hubble Space Telescope. One woman in the neighborhood discovered she’d lived for months unsuspectedly carrying a tapeworm a mile long inside her belly. She only knew she had one when it poked out of her left ear, looked her straight in the eyes and said, “Hello, I’m running out of room down here.” Tapeworms, of course, jumped from cats and dogs straight into human mouths. I grew up hating cats and compulsively scrubbing my hands with sandpaper every time our little dog breathed in my direction.
I live with two cats now. I rescued them from certain uncertainty of a life on the streets last summer. They’ve been living with me for about nine months now and, to my shock, I haven’t died from their hair yet. They’ve spent the entire winter sleeping on every piece of furniture large enough to accommodate them. They’ve slept in my bed, even. My mother is stupefied by it all. How I’ve managed to survive this long is beyond her. She’s already mourned me a dozen times. If I randomly scratch a section of my sunburned skin, she says “There! It’s a disease, you’re starting to scratch.” She long ago started believing her own lies. The truth is that those cats are more likely to die of my dirt than I am of theirs. They clean themselves a hundred times a day; which is, sadly, more than can be said about my habits.
Santa, coffee, cat hair. In one way or another, these things have all tried to kill me. But I’m still standing, against all odds. Genetically superior to others, clearly, I’m a survivor. If ever I have a child (and please, God, don’t let it be a Honey Boo Boo) I’m going to lie to her too. Or, better yet, I’m going to teach her to lie unflinchingly.
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