…..or What It’s Like to Be Me.
The writing prompt from The Writer’s Book of Days was “Write about the expectation of something.” Here’s where I went with it – it becomes a Christmas story if you can hang in there long enough (it gets off to a bit of a slow start):
Regarding the expectation of pleasure: it has come to be my belief that the greater the anticipation, the larger the disappointment. Anticipation, at least for me, involves visualization. When I was younger I would replay an anticipated event over and over in my mind so many times that it eventually became for me as real as if it had actually already happened. My body would set in to rehearse the expected physical reactions: the adrenaline rush, the eye brightening, the smiles, and the sighs of pleasure. By the time the event actually arrived I would be epinephrine depleted and my facial muscles cramped and fatigued. And of course, being completely lacking in prophetic ability (well, not completely but that’s another story) the scene I had conjured up in my mind would rarely live up to the actual playing out of the real event.
In trying to think of an example of this I took my thoughts back to my childhood and tried to recall an event that I had anticipated. I suddenly felt a Pavlovian anxiety. I am almost at a loss for words to describe what my brain used to do when I was expecting something pleasurable or otherwise. My head would fill with questions: who, what, where etc. and the questions would all tumble over each other and the harder I tried to visualize the event on that little projection screen on the backs of my eyelids, the more discombobulated I became. At this point I would sometimes go mute; unable to assemble words into a coherent sentence, for they too were tumbling about in my head, tumbling in the jumbling. It was easier just not to speak.
I came to see life as an endless series of disappointments, for, like I said, when anticipated events arrived, they were rarely the same as what I had already imagined. Now why was that? Books were partly to blame. I was an early reader and devoured every story I could find, including my older sisters’ chapter books once I was able. I studied the illustrations in my picture books so well that for years my imagination coloured its images in the pixilated muted shades of blue, red, and yellow of comic books or of Dick, Jane and Sally. All the children found in books were plump-cheeked and rosy. Their yards were cloaked in bright green grass and protected by pure white picket fences. Cities were all cafés, bedazzled movie marquees, and pristine alabaster sidewalks. There was no snot in children’s books. The closest you come to dirt was soot but it was always confined to the clothing of a small chimney sweep. No one parked the family car on the the gravel patch in front of their house or had swing sets with no swings because someone stole the rope. There was no rank effluent running across the sidewalks from out of the alleys beside restaurants, or scruffy homeless fellows playing two-stringed guitars. My later expectations of real life were sourced from the pages of The Bobbsey Twins, Trixie Beldon, or The Hardy Boys where the young boys were always decked out in clean short-sleeved shirts with collars or horizontally striped t-shirts and blue shorts. The girls wore clean pedal-pushers which fit perfectly without benefit of safety pins, and jaunty bandannas knotted around their necks, not over their hair and knotted under their chins like our mothers wore them. Their hair was never in their mouths or tangled, the backs of their shoes not tramped flat and their knee socks stayed up by their knees where they were supposed to. Where was I going with this? Oh yes. In summary, the fodder for my over-active imagination was highly inaccurate and sanitized to the extreme. Is this the case for all children?
The second thing I blame for associating anticipation with disappointment is not a thing but a person. I blame my sister June. Sorry, June, I know your heart was in the right place but you were just so darned excitable and such a planner, and I was not your average kid. Once June had a mission her eyes would spark and she would become animated. Chin up, arms swinging, spouting such encouragement that she made any event rival a coronation or a second coming or a rain-shower of lollipops and Double Bubble. I would get caught up in the spin, excited with anticipation although I was often unsure of just what I was anticipating. I was too wound up by her buzz to flesh out details in my imagination and exhausted by keeping up her physical pace as she led me the arm, half walking-half skipping, to some unfamiliar adventure. I was unable to make space in my mind for wonder because of all the questions tumbling around like sheets in a dryer.
June was a fixture in many of my childhood memories. I can see her clearly now in her long shorts with the cuff above the knee, a kerchief tied at the nape of her neck under a thick dark ponytail. She would bend over to my height with her hands on her knees to coach me “Look Judy, iddn’ dat just _____ (funny, cute, wonderful etc.) and I would be trying so hard to see what she saw, to feel like she felt, that I missed the point of the whole event. It happened a lot. My siblings or my mother would point at something “Look, Judy….” and I would fiercely scour the landscape, looking everywhere at once so that all I could see was a blur; so desperately trying to fix on what they were looking at (“What? Where? Whaddar ya lookin’ at?”) that all I enjoyed was a state of panic followed by disappointment. Their hype told me that I was supposed to be enjoying myself but the anxiety of not keeping up prevailed over enjoyment. Here’s an example, though I suppose this could have happened to anyone.
June ran into the house and announced:
“There’s puppies down to ______’s house. Come and see the puppies!”
Oooh, puppies. Immediately the projection screen rolled down over my eyeballs and a conveyor belt of puppies replaced our kitchen in my visual field. There were the little shaggy eared spaniels like those on the covers of biscuit tins with blue satin ribbons around their necks, or calendar puppies; small brown spaniels licking the rosy cheeks of happy girls with golden ringlets who wore blue skirts with shoulder straps and big bows on their headbands. I saw baskets full of fluffy black and white puppies go by (no, not the spaniels again, were all puppy illustrations spaniels? Where were the Labs and the lowly Beagles?) This is going to be brilliant I thought as I raced breathlessly down the hill behind June to the old falling down shed in _____’s backyard. I was not to find a wicker basket full of fun.
We had to bend over to half crawl though an opening, past an unpainted door which was stuck half open and falling off its top hinges. It was dark inside which always made me anxious, and it smelled like a goat-shed or chicken coop only more woody. I tried not to breath as my eyes adjusted well enough to see that the items around the walls were not friendly ; everything was connected by cobwebs and was rusty and broken with a thick overlay of dirt. I was relieved when I got sight of June where she was squat beside a couple of other kids
“Where’s da puppies to?” I asked, and June pointed to a large patchy mongrel dog lying on its side on a pile of old stained blankets. Nuzzling up to the dog’s belly was a litter of five or six tiny whimpering beige creatures that looked no more like puppies that a budgie bird did. They looked more like hairy stuffed squids. They were shapeless and faceless, their little limbs flailing as they rooted at their mother’s side. One pulled away and I was horrified by the sight of a pointy pink teat. Besides that, they smelled bad.
“Aren’t they cute? They haven’t even got their eyes open yet” said June with a downright motherly look on her face. A big fist took a tighter squeeze on the knot of anxiety in my belly as I tried, really hard, to find any cuteness in the puppies. I was mute. I found the whole tableau revolting.
“Here, want to hold onto one?” and suddenly a puppy was thrust into my reluctant hands.
I can do this I thought, trying to be brave so as not to disappoint June. Others were holding puppies too and they looked like they were enjoying it. As I drew the little critter to my chest I was surprised by its warmth and the softness of its fur which looked to me like the scratchy backing of the worn velvet upholstery on Grammy’s chesterfield. It was about to take on a vestige of cuteness when unexpectedly, it moved. I immediately dropped the puppy. It hit the packed dirt floor by my red jelly sandaled feet with an almost indistinguishable thud.
“Be careful!” I heard as, horrified, I escaped through the crooked portal into the bright summer sunlight and ran until I was breathless up the hill towards home. Switching to more of a scurry (I got winded just walking that hill) with the tumbler in my brain going full tilt : Did I hurt it? What if it dies? Why were they so ugly? Why were they sucking on their mother? With the barn/shed stink still in my nose, I retreated to the safety of my bed where I clutched may pals Claudoil, Barney and Teddy to my chest. Puppies. Yuck.
Thinking of dogs brings forth an earlier example of unrequited anticipation. It also started with June rushing into the kitchen:
“Mom, can we take Judy to see Santa Claus up to the Terminal stores? (The Terminal store was not where you went to die or buy things associated with terminal illnesses, it was name thus because it was located by the railway terminal)
“I s’pose” Mom replied and there was a great scravel of winter coats and boots and within short order I was out the door and rushing down the hill flanked by June and Mary. The hood on my parka dragged it down in the back causing the top teeth of the zipper to chafe the skin on my chin but I dared not slow down to make adjustments as, with gators flapping, I did my best to keep up. June offered encouragement
“Come on, we don’t want to be da last ones.”
Santa Claus. The eye-screen lowered and the slide show progressed, as I imagined the Santa Claus from my mother’s Christmas cards (he garnered too much respect to be called just Santa) He was a rosy cheeked, red-nosed, pipe-smoking friendly fat icon in a snuggly red suit with pristine white fur trim. Oh, the shine of that belt buckle, how black his boots, his sack a marvel with its painted toy soldiers, plastic fire-trucks and dollies. My thoughts began their gymnastics. How did he get here? I thought you wouldn’t allowed to see him. Would we see his elves too? How about reindeer? Would he single me out to talk to me? And with that thought I could feel the stomach knots cinching and I began to go mute.
How opposite the fruits of my anticipation were to the reality of that day. We joined the line in a hot, noisy room. The light was that dull diffuse haze of old department stores. I was boiling hot inside my winter coat but I saw that there was no pile of coats on which to put it, like at parties or concerts. And where was Santa?
“Where’s he to?” I asked, and June pointed up the long line of impatient winterized children with their weary chaperones whose crankiness needles were heading for the red zone of their gauges. There at the front was Santa Claus. It seemed that the jolly old fellow from the Christmas cards had been down on his luck for some time. I had plenty of time to examine him. His red hat was limp and the oversized pom-pom, like the fur trim on his suit, was as tired and matted as the fur on a stuffed toy which has been loved a little too much by the family dog. He had a straggly white beard which was crooked on his face and oddly didn’t move when his lips did. His cheeks were rosy but his eyes were far from merry and he was fat only in his mid-section. The vinyl of his black belt was cracked with little stray grey threads hanging off it. The sack by his chair contained, not brightly coloured toys for girls and boys, but a pile of partly filled paper bags with their tops folded over. Most astonishing of all was the sight children climbing on and off his lap. I have to sit on his lap!! The line was moving very slowly and that only gave me more time to nourish the dread of sitting on the red flannelled bony thighs of this imposter, for I knew he was not the real guy but a mere puppet created for our entertainment – like Rusty the Rooster was not a real rooster. I had to pee and I was hot under my winter coat and so I pulled it off. I was so tired from standing that I considered lying on it on the floor.
Like an octogenarian centipede, the queue progressed two feet at a time and then there we were. I looked up into the expectant face of Santa Claus and froze.
“Dere’s Santa Claus Judy. Climb up on his lap” June instructed and I was only just beginning to think of ways to reverse my temporary paralysis when two strong hands gripped me by the ribs and I was momentarily airborne before they plunked me down on those two peeled wharf sticks Santa Claus called legs. I don’t remember his breath, or his teeth, or how he smelled but I clearly recall his voice:
“Ho, ho, ho!” It wasn’t so much a laugh as it was an opener. “And what does the little girl want Santa to bring her for Christmas?”
Panic. What little girl? Was it me? Was I supposed to know the answer? I stared at his over-sized pompom and tried to think.
“Ho, ho. What does the little girl want for Christmas:” and now the tumblers in my brain went into the spin cycle. What girl? How would I know? Why was I not briefed on this? What if I get it wrong? Weren’t Christmas requests supposed to be put in writing and processed by the elves?
June, as always, came to my rescue; scooching down beside us she asked “What do you want for Christmas, Judy?” Ah, now I knew how this worked and I fixated on a stray piece of crinkly tinsel in Santa Claus’s beard and muttered shyly
“I wants a set o’ dishes and a dog.”
“Ho. A set of dishes and a doll – Santa will see what he can do for you”.
“No!!” I shrieked as I found my voice “A dog. I wants a dog!”
Santa was all out of Ho’s and I could see him debating the merits of ruining some poor parent’s Christmas by promising a real dog. However, if he refused he would be disappointing the child. In the end he refused to commit.
“Well, sometimes Santa doesn’t always have everything in his workshop but he will talk with the elves.” I was now both delighted and disgusted with this Mr. Claus. On the one hand, he had spoken of Santa in the third person, confirming that he was just an agent. On the other hand I knew he still had it all wrong about the dog. The dog I wanted was not a real dog but a fluffy stuffed toy dog with a zipper in its belly where I would stow my pajamas. My request required further explanation; I was terrified of dogs. I opened my mouth to correct this urgent matter but before I could speak I was back on the floor holding a brown paper bag of candy and another child was climbing onto Santa Claus’s lap. This one was not mute which was evident by his resounding wails.
We walked home in the golden glow of the fading afternoon light, my sisters on ahead chatting and I plodding along behind reviewing what I should have said to Santa Claus and nursing my fears of what my mother would say when she found a real dog under our tree; she was terrified of dogs too. I was assuaged by the strong sweet peppermint flavour of the candy cane from my loot bag which I was slowly sharpening to a point with my tongue. No need to hurry to keep up now, I knew my own way home.
I was further validated in my knowledge that the Terminal Store Santa Claus was just a puppet when on Christmas morning I found my true wishes answered. There, unwrapped under the tree, was a fluffy golden pajama-bag canine, whose only teeth I would have to fear were those of his zipper. I immediately named him Claudoil. Sadly, like everything I greatly anticipated, this turned out to be another disappointment. The zippered pocket was so small it held either the jacket of my flannel pajamas or the pants, but not both, no matter how hard I stuffed. By the time I was into my summer baby-dolls I had long dismissed Claudoil’s storage function and I was dragging him up and down Beaumont Street on a string, wishing I had a real dog to walk but no expectation that I would ever get one.
Ah June, my childhood would have been so much less colourful without you – I had the best big sisters ever.
© Judy Parsons 2016
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