Catching Up

So much happens in life that is worth writing down that it’s impossible to record it all. Something always slips through the cracks. Stories I’ve never told come to me in the moments before I fall asleep, as I sit in hour-long meetings that I barely understand, and when I’m trapped anywhere with no escape, (over-packed vehicles of public transportation or birthday parties that last a minimum of twelve hours, to name a few). But lately, I have had a plethora of time in which to think and write. Theoretically, I’ve had two full days with no classes, no social events, and no athletic activities. The problem is I’ve also scarcely been able to move.

Somewhere along my plan to run every day in September, day 22 to be exact, the plan backfired in the form of a slipped disc. I winced in pain on the last lap of my daily regime as I felt my lower back tighten up. I didn’t think it was a real “injury,” just some unexplained tension working itself out. I slowed my jog, stretched, did a few cool-down exercises and walked home. As I attempted to go through the normal evening motions of my life, helping my neighbor with his English homework, watering plants, cooking dinner, and ironing my clothes for tomorrow, I kept taking little stretch breaks, which consisted of me writhing around on the floor in increasing discomfort. I broke down and broke out an ice-pack, took some Advil, and went to bed. The next morning when I rolled over to switch off my alarm, I gasped at the pain in my lower back. After catching my breath, I tried to stand and pain radiated down my back into my left hamstring and my calf began to cramp. Yelping this time I rolled back into bed and onto my side.

A call to the Peace Corps Medical Office felt a bit like talking to a psychic. As I went into my story about the daily jogs and the back tension, the questions were all on target. “Does the pain get worse after you’ve been sitting or laying down for awhile?” “Does the pain also go into one or both of your legs, into your hamstring and calf?” “Does it hurt when you cough or sneeze?” Yes, Yes, and oh heck Yes, I answered. “Sounds like you slipped a disc,” he said.

I was unconvinced, despite the mound of evidence. I’m too young for this, I thought, which was confirmed by Internet research denoting the average age of slipped discs as 30 to 40. Well, that proves it, I said to myself. It must only be a pulled muscle. “Now I’ll just walk over to the kitchen and put some ice on it while I make breakfast,” I decided with confidence. If I had actually been able to get out of bed, this would have been a noble plan for my morning. Instead I floundered around until I submitted to the fact that at the ripe old age of 24, I was temporarily out of commission.

The past two days have consisted of a lot of lounging. My neighbors keep a steady stream of food and other treats flowing across the hall every couple of hours. My favorite of which is a tube of cream that is supposed to soothe sore muscles. It’s sticky and smells like Fruity Pebbles. I wanted to say Fruit Loops. It’s a more universally known reference, but alas as a connoisseur of sugary breakfast foods I must admit it is the pebble and not the loop that best fits this aroma. In between scent-testing mystery creams, I wrote about seventeen articles and proposals in my head. Too bad I couldn’t get into a position where I could hold a pencil or type on a laptop. Instead I was on one side, legs bent, arms spread out, eyes staring at the ceiling or walls. Fortunately I have no shortage of entertainment on these brightly painted, stained walls. I had never noticed the line of lime-green that runs spottily about two feet above the baseboards on every wall in my bedroom. Somehow in the midst of light blue and brown flecks, columns of white diamonds trimmed in brown swirls, I missed the green sideshow.

The ceiling has its own problems, with three sunken rows presumably from water damage on the next floor, and then there are the spots. Dark red spots, in the upper right corner of the ceiling (as viewed from a prostrate position on my bed) that resemble blood. I came up with a whole story, lying there unable to wander into more exciting quadrants of my apartment. Maybe there was a flood upstairs, a man, diving through the rushing waters to save his children hits his head on an unseen kitchen stool, knocking him unconscious, thus the water/blood combo. OK, so they look more like watercolor spots, but then again the blood would be diluted from the floodwaters…

Now it’s Day 3, and I can finally, with the aid of two pillows, sit upright in an armchair and type. I know you’ve already been reading for a while, and I appreciate that, but I’ve been incapacitated for the last 48 hours just organizing all this in my head. Trust me, there’s still a bit to go. Get a cup of coffee, take a 7th inning stretch, and park yourself back here, because below are three of the best stories I’ve never told.

There’s no cake in prison

I know I haven’t exactly had a difficult life, growing up in the suburbs with my nuclear family, getting a car on my sixteenth birthday, wrecking it a year later, then it was off to college, and so on and so forth. But the hardest thing I’ve done thus far in my sheltered little life isn’t pumping water from a well or hiking to school in the snow (uphill both ways!) in Ukraine, it was picking out a birthday card at Hobby Lobby. For a man in prison.

When I was a student at Baylor, I was also a mentor for at-risk youth in Waco. The program was specifically for kids of incarcerated parents. My childhood fascination with Alcatraz spilled over to my adult life in the form of a passion for prison and prisoners. Tanya* was my mentee, and we didn’t exactly get along swimmingly in the beginning. But, two years after we first met, we had fallen into a sort of rhythm; the kind where I asked questions, prodded, let the silence hang, and she did her best to humor me by answering half the time. She didn’t have parents to rebel against so I was the next best thing. I tried to keep up my end of the bargain and I hassled her about her homework, who she was hanging out with, and what she did after school. I’d even ask her friends what they wanted to be when they grew up and what their favorite subject was in school, to Tanya’s infinite embarrassment. And pride. I knew, like any 20-year-old surrogate parent of a teenager, that she secretly liked when I asked all those annoying questions. She needed to know that someone cared. So as a grand finale of sorts, for Tanya’s 14th birthday I asked her what she wanted. I said, “What would you like for your birthday if it could be anything?” She thought about it for a whole minute (as she liked to say), and then came up with this gem. “You know, I want one a dos parties, like in da movies, with balloons and sh–, stuff, and evrabody will come and we’ll eat cake. I never had one a dos parties befo’.” Now I got really excited about this idea, not just because Tanya had actually thought about and answered one of my questions, but because she had a good, feasible idea that we could do together.

So one day after class I picked her up in my Honda with the list of supplies we had made last time and our estimated budget. I was teaching her economics, event planning, catering, and best of all, she was really excited about it. We headed into Hobby Lobby visibly giddy and grabbed a cart. She popped a wheelie on it and disappeared down one of the aisles. I chased after her; shooting stern looks to assure the clerks I was in control of the situation. But who was I to ruin this moment? She was literally a kid in a candy store. On her almost birthday. I found her pouring over birthday cards. “Hey, Tanya, you don’t need to buy a card for yourself,” I said half-jokingly, half-wondering if this was one of those things having your dad in prison confuses you about. “I know, dummy,” she said. “It’s for my Dad. His birthday’s next week. So’s my grandmas. We was all born in June. We cool like that.” I tried to play it off, “Oh, great, well let’s just pick one out then,” I said nonchalantly.

Thumbing through the brightly colored envelopes and glittery cards, we searched for the perfect one. May all your dreams come true! said one card with a beach sunrise in the background. “Nope, dat ain’t gonna work,” Tanya said matter-of-factly, “He locked up, how his dreams gonna come true?” She grabbed another one with a picture of a father and daughter on the cover, inside it read Number 1 Dad! “Pshhh, he know dat aint true, shooooot, been behind bars since I was two,” she said to no one in particular, but the after-work crowd in pleated khakis and loafers took notice. I smiled to the alarmed strangers and patted her on the back, “Let’s just keep looking, OK? Something’s bound to work out.” The next card read, It’s your birthday, do whatever makes you happy! “Ha,” she said. “Yeah right, can’t even get a piece a cake on his birthday. There ain’t no cake in prison, ya know?” We went through every card in the humor section, and were halfway through the father-daughter section when we found it: a birthday card you can give someone in prison. With balloons on the cover and an outline of a dad and child holding hands, the inside read, No matter what, you’ll always be my Dad. Happy Birthday. Statement of biological fact. We have a winner.

I wonder if the author of this card had prison birthdays in mind. Clearly there was an acknowledgment of a complicated relationship involved, but it got the point across with a little birthday flair thrown in. I think a tacit goal of the greeting card industry is not to apply to prison, I mean really, it’s not a hallmark moment. But even inmates have birthdays, and families, and kids, and don’t they deserve a bit of cheer, albeit tempered? I’m glad one of those cards fit the occasion, even if it meant somewhere a greeting card writer was a realist with a dad in prison. After that, the rest of our shopping trip was a piece of cake.

Wash me white as snow

Since picking out a birthday card for a prison was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, this next story is about the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t want to ruin the bleak picture I’m painting here in between the four stained walls of my Soviet-Era Apartment.

In Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine there is practically everything you could ever want for sale. There are big box stores with two-ply toilet paper, sushi, mangoes, post-it notes, and so much more. There are electronic stores with laptops, desktops, toasters, blenders, DVD players, and the greatest invention of all, washing machines. The sad thing about these stores is that everyone is dying to get in them, but no one can afford to buy anything. It’s like a museum from the future. Teenagers walk around, ogling the flat screen TVs and touching all the buttons on the stereo systems. Couples walk hand-in-hand, a lover’s stroll down row after row of amazing inventions from the 21st century.

But while the stores are bustling, the checkout lines are not. Cashiers chat on their cell phones, fix their hair and play with the pricing gun. They should really start charging an entrance fee, selling tickets, giving guided tours, maybe even have a gift shop with miniature, non-functioning versions of the gadgets. But then, people probably wouldn’t come in droves, and it wouldn’t even have the semblance of a store anymore. People like her wouldn’t come in just to look if they had to pay. People like her would stay at home. I wish they’d started my capitalistic plan the day before I needed a birthday present and wandered into the electronic super store. Maybe then I wouldn’t have her image stuck in my head.

I hate going into this store. I see all the shiny appliances, their convenience shouting at me, “I could save you so much time! I am easy to clean!” I drown them out and head to the toaster aisle. My friend Molly lives in a dorm. She doesn’t have a kitchen so much as she has a hot plate and a refrigerator. The hot plate heats up painfully slow and renders the task of toast an affair to remember. I figured the least I could do was spring for a toaster on the day of her birth. Even inmates had properly toasted bread, right? So I looked down the long row of toasters, and picked the cheapest one. I meandered around the museum, wiped dust off the paper shredders, and headed for the deserted checkout line. The cashier was startled by my presence and began to ask questions, “You’re going to buy that?” she wanted to confirm before getting too committed. “Yep,” I said. “I need to get the manager,” she said and sprung forth from her swivel chair.

As I waited for her I surveyed the museum, expecting to find the usual suspects. Instead I saw a slight old woman with a hunched back. Her wool sweater, pantyhose and silk kerchief were about 2 months too early in the climate calendar, but she didn’t seem to notice. She clasped her wrinkled hands together and peered at the washing machines. Oh how she peered. Leaning over the edge, nearly touching the lid with her unsteady hand before drawing it back up to meet the other one against her chest. She dawdled from one model to the next, squinting to read the fine print, but mostly just admiring the machine. This magical machine that cleaned clothes and bed sheets, and curtains and had the power to turn a full day’s worth of work into a few short hours of painless, effortless waiting. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I tailed her from behind the row of microwaves, stealing glances at her earnest, hardworking face. And I ached. How many loads of laundry had this woman personally scrubbed and rinsed and rung out in her life? How many days, weeks, months would that time stack up to be? And there it was. Technology’s answer for hands chapped and cracked by the constant work of washing. Right there within her reach. And yet, not. She took one last glance at the shiny white boxes with silver dials, and walked out of the store. Despite how much change she had undoubtedly witnessed in her life, she was still stuck in the past, the 21st century just beyond her grasp.

With a fork jabbed in my eye

OK, enough with the depressing stuff. Nothing drives away the gloom like Baby Jesus and a pile of fake snow. I love a good Christmas party. The cheap tinsel, the decorated tree, the holiday cookies, it’s all so jolly and predictable. You know what you are getting when you are invited to a Christmas party. If you like that sort of thing, you go. If you don’t, well, it’s easy to avoid. The holidays are a busy time.

I personally try to attend as many Christmas parties as possible. I even organize a couple to keep my count up there. There are work parties and house parties, charity parties, and church parties. They all have their distinct and subtle codes of law, but an experienced holiday party-goer like myself needn’t be reminded of them. It’s common sense. Alcohol at the work and house parties, none at the church or charity ones, games at all, although of varying kinds suitable to the chosen crowd, and of course presents at all. Whether it’s a Secret Santa, a raffle give-away, or the sacred White Elephant bit, someone always gets a present. It’s Christmas. I usually have a pretty good handle on my party etiquette, but I also have this tendency to take things a little too far, for the sake of comedy of course.

To me, a good prank isn’t a shoe-polished car, it’s shoe-polishing your friend’s car that just starting dating a new girl with “Just Married!” and tying tin cans on the bumper, preferably while he picks her up for dinner and a movie. Don’t be too hard on me; they ended up tying the knot a year later. You’re welcome, Mr. and Mrs. Stewart. One of my life mottos besides “Always be prepared,” (those Boy Scouts know what they’re doing), is “All’s well that ends well,” if only that applied to this next story, I might have told it sooner.

It’s somewhere between December 24th and final exams, during my freshman year of college, a special time of discovery and merriment. I had been attending a Methodist Church off-campus since the first week of school with my sister Amber, a wise ol’ senior, and a finance major nonetheless. She knew people who already went there, and I had a crush on a guy in the college Sunday school class. It was a match made in Heaven. By the time Christmas rolled around we were regulars. The theme for our Christmas party was chosen democratically: White Elephant. The people had spoken.

I remember my first White Elephant party. It was for my high school journalism club. Yeah, I was that cool. I got a box of wheat thins, and gave a set of fake press-on nails. The problem was, my gift ended up in the hands of the effeminate male sponsor of the club. He told me to “Back off, sister!” This was my first miss-step at a White Elephant party, but certainly not my last.

Amber and I arrived at the party, gifts in hand, fresh from a run to Wal-Mart. We giggled and placed them under the tree before heading to the kitchen to fill up our plates. We found a table with some of Amber’s friends and settled in. I’m pretty sure they were talking about boring business-people-in-training topics because I don’t remember much of the conversation, until one girl started talking about beauty pageants. “I’m just saying I’ve been in beauty pageants before, and I don’t think she could compete,” she said smugly as she forked a piece of apple pie.

She was a pretty girl, but so obviously career-driven and professional I was surprised she had a staked interest in such an activity. As the conversation evolved to new topics, investments, arm wrestling, Argentinean wines, I realized she was just extremely competitive about everything. I decided to have some fun. As I goaded her about her beauty pageant credentials, she had complete confidence in every answer. I kept pressing, in the spirit of Christmas, relentless Christmas, until finally she blurted out, “I could beat that girl with a fork jabbed in my eye!” I had successfully taken it too far, or perhaps she had, and we hadn’t even gotten to the presents yet.

We gathered around the tree and someone in a particularly festive sweater laid down the rules. “Take a number, we’ll start with number two. Pick a present, open it, then the next person can either steal a present already opened or choose another one. Presents can only be traded three times. You can’t take it back from the person who took it from you. Number one goes last.” Except for the last part, this didn’t seem very Biblical. But the man’s sweater lit up, and he had perfectly coifed hair. I didn’t argue. What’s great about White Elephant parties is that inevitably someone doesn’t understand the basic premise. They won’t admit it though, instead they go out and buy a legitimate present, wrap it up, and lay it unsuspectingly under the tree next to self-help books by professional wrestlers and furry lampshades. God help them. They don’t know any better. What happens next is that everyone wants that present, the real present, no matter their ability to use it or not. It’s new, almost always with tags, and it doesn’t belong in the dollar bin at Wal-Mart. An instant craze is born.

We went through a few presents of clip-on ties, giant, used candles in shapes of mythical creatures, and an inflatable toilet seat, before the infidel was revealed. A pair of warm, wool, Ug Boots. Size 6. Everyone oos and awws, as a 19-year-old man looks over his new shoes with pride. “Well done!” people shout, in spite of the fact he couldn’t get these boots past his ankles. When Ms. Congeniality is up, she steals the present, the first kill of the night. Her dainty feet would love to walk the runway all snug and warm in those hideous things. She proceeds to try them on and proclaim a perfect fit. “Of course, they don’t make much sense in this climate,” she kindly advises her fellow gift-grabbers. “But hey, they’re my size. I’ll take them off your hands.”

As the night goes on, she has successfully fended off all potential suitors with wisecracks about the impracticality of fur-lined boots in Waco, Texas. There she is, the champion of the night, and she didn’t even have to jab a fork in her eye. There’s a knock at the door and the head Pastor walks in, along with our Sunday school class teacher and his prepubescent daughter, Stacey. They smile, shake hands, and take a seat. The game continues, a snake beanie baby, an actual lump of coal, a pair of tube socks. Yawn. Next up is an older gentleman, the man of the house, he sweetly offers his number to Stacey. “Go ahead,” he says. She looks at all the already opened gifts, but the lure of what might be hidden in newspaper or tin foil beneath the tree is too strong. She goes for a small gold bag. I shoot Amber a glance. “That’s ours!” I tell her urgently with my eyes in our telepathic sister language, “and it’s highly inappropriate!” Just five minutes ago and it would’ve merely been funny, with no minors in the room or senior church staff, we would’ve had a good laugh and been done with it, but noooooo.

She pulls out the tissue paper and dumps the contents on the ground. Starkly, yet festively, contrasted against the green Christmas tree skirt, were red fishnet stockings, with a black silhouette of a busty woman in heels on the packaging. Amber and I continue our silent conversation across the room,” We should apologize,” she says. “Are you crazy?” I respond. “This room is full of college guys, we are in the clear here. Be cool.” The pastor scratches his head, and starts to laugh. Nervous tension released. Stacey smiles and holds them in her lap. Quick, who’s up? Somebody open a new present and distract us. An elderly man in the back raises his number in the air, “I think I’m next,” he says, “and I’d like to see those boots.” Subject officially changed, all eyes flew to the boots. “Sure,” she said smiling. “Try them on!” But they weren’t for him, a loophole. “I think they’ll fit my granddaughter just right,” he says. It’s always a crowd-pleaser to mention how you will give the gift to someone else, and anyone with “grand” in the title is a trump card. This was one night our fork-eyed contestant had to settle for first-runner-up.

About Claire St. Amant

Claire St. Amant, one of Editor & Publisher's Top 25 Under 35 in the newspaper industry, is a graduate of Baylor University. Claire was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine and has also lived in South America. She has written for a variety of publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the Houston Chronicle, and D Magazine.