Every once in awhile, Karma smiles down upon you and grants you the opportunity of a lifetime. In my case, her gift was two tickets for a taping of The Daily Show in Tampa, Florida during the Republican National Convention. Now, some of you may be snickering or rolling your eyes because
you’re complete and utter morons I think watching Jon Stewart doing his gig in person can only be surpassed by an event that involves me sipping Moët from the Holy Grail while David Sedaris reads aloud to me and Johnny Depp massages my feet. Sure, I realize his show shoots five days a week for most of the year up in Hell’s Kitchen, so you’re probably thinking that filming The Daily Show isn’t exactly rare like, say, a sober Amanda Bynes or a pale Donatella Versace.
But you would be wrong.
Shooting Comedy Central’s top–rated show in Tampa is extraordinarily unusual. And after Stewart and his team openly lambasted the city in which I reside with embarrassingly accurate observations about the heat and humidity (describing Tampa as the ideal environment for “a struggling strand of streptococcus”), the casual attire of the indigenous population (“the city where flip flops are considered evening wear”), and our fondness of clothing-optional gentlemen’s clubs (“Jon, I’m here in Tampa’s famous strip club district or as they call it here – Tampa.”), it’s unlikely that the program will ever be filmed in the Peninsula of Death again – unless a palmetto bug decides to run for President in 2016.
I am a tithing member of the Church of the Holy Crock Pot. Though I dutifully praise the Crock Pot’s glories on a regular basis, take it to all the best potlucks, and actively witness to others about how the power of the Crock Pot has changed my life, it occasionally lets me down. This was the case a few months ago when I was cooking a pot roast in the depths of my early 1990s era Crock Pot. The kind with three settings: Off, Low and Scorchingly Fucking Hot. It was a housewarming gift from my mother when I moved into my very first apartment – the one with mauve carpeting.
For readers under the age of 25, let me explain that mauve is a horrid color that infiltrated the décor of the late 1980s and early 1990s, much in the same way that a CIA mole recently infiltrated al Qaeda’s plot to detonate an underwear bomb during a US-bound flight. Except mauve didn’t have good intentions. Often accompanied by its evil cohorts, peach and sea foam green, it permanently damaged the retinal cones of senior citizens and Floridian condominium owners, forever impairing their vision and, thereby, reducing their decorating choices to creamy pastels, shell motifs and stucco.
Despite my devout Crock Pot cookbook study sessions every Wednesday night, one cannot expect the Holy Crock Pot to simply reveal the secrets of the universe to just anyone. Particularly when that universe involves pot roast. That evening, I’d clearly misinterpreted the scriptures in The Fix-It and Forget-It Cookbook concerning the preparation of the sacred, potted calf, letting it simmer on Low, when it should have been bubbling away on Scorchingly Fucking Hot. With dinner not in our immediate future, Matt and I headed to a local restaurant with a great bar for a few cocktails.
As we slid into a booth in the bar, we noticed that seated to our left was a well-dressed gentleman accompanied by a woman who’d likely been a blonde bombshell twenty years earlier, but was now just clinging to her svelte figure by a thread on her leopard print blouse. As we sipped our drinks and pondered the appetizer menu, Matt and I couldn’t help but overhear our neighbors discussing their new waterfront condo and raving about how much culture they’d discovered in our seaside town. Yes, it’s true. In our little city, you can’t throw a stone without hitting an art gallery specializing in oversized paintings of a beachy sunsets that will perfectly match your sea foam-colored sofa and table lamps with sea shell-filled glass bases.
And then I saw her. Megan.
Memories of gatherings filled with hippie types came crashing back like a teenager returning home in his father’s purloined car after a keg party. I’d eaten my first piece of sushi whilst swinging in Megan’s Sky Air chair. I’d cheered her on as she’d scaled the interior stone walls of the infamous Generic College hangout, Coblin House, in order to reach the second floor, where she’d proceeded to dance barefoot on a slim plank of wood that framed the opening to the loft – even though the fall could have killed her. My date to Megan’s wedding was our mutual best friend, Todd, who had handed me tissues throughout the reception held on a boat cruising up and down the bay. And as soon as all of Megan and Jarrod’s elderly relatives had returned to their hotel rooms, we had converged upon their rickety wooden house that squatted on the edge of an orange grove for the real reception – a blowout that extended until dawn and didn’t officially end until the last drunken guest had awakened from his supine position on the dining room floor, and mumbled “Congratu-fucking-lations!” before stumbling out the door – and into my car. As vodka and I hadn’t yet been introduced formally, I’d driven a lot of people home that day.
And here she was. I hadn’t seen Megan in close to a decade. She was sitting with a short-haired man dressed in linen who resembled Val Kilmer. Where was skinny, long-haired, goateed Jarrod? Had they divorced? Quickly, I glanced at her ring finger to find her sparkler still in place. Was she having an affair with this man? For a few moments, I studied her body language. Always a flirt, Megan was leaning forward, smiling, laughing that husky laugh. For chrissakes, her pupils were dilated. She was into this guy. For a minute, I was filled with a loyal rage. How could she do this to poor Jarrod? He’d always been the Ethel to her grape-stomping, Vitametavegamin-swilling, Harpo Marx-imitating Lucy. Not a Ricky. Ricky would have demanded some “splainin’,” but Jarrod had always gone along with Megan’s antics because she was a light that couldn’t be dimmed. A flame that couldn’t be ‘splained. Was it any surprise that her favorite color was yellow and her preferred blooms were sunflowers? Megan glowed…and we all basked in her radiance and felt the better for it.
The moment we locked eyes, her lips spread into a brilliant smile. Within seconds, I was up and we were embracing one another, jibber-jabbering about how long it had been. Clueless as to why I’d bounded over to hug a woman he’d never met, Matt stayed planted in his seat, until I loudly announced that I was married and urged him to rise and meet Megan. Still slim and casually elegant, she wrapped her arms around my husband, her long golden waves shimmering in the warm hue of the bar lights. My slender figure was petulantly hiding back in 2005, mocking my
chubba wubba voluptuous curves from the space time continuum. To make matters worse, I was growing out a pixie cut that was in desperate need of a trim and, instead of it drawing comparisons to Audrey Hepburn from the restaurant patrons, my hair was likely spurring sudden, subliminal desires to order the smoked mullet.
Once Megan released my husband, she gestured to Val Kilmer and chimed, “Matt, meet my husband, Jarrod.”
What? I gave the imposter-posing-as-Jarrod the once over, resisting the urge to blurt out, “ Look, Iceman…I loved you in Real Genius, but I can’t allow you to turn my Megan into a Jezebel.”
But as I studied his strong square jaw line and soft brown eyes, the Jarrod I remembered began to emerge – a hippie trapped in the body of a washed-up actor. Fortunately, it wasn’t the bloated Val Kilmer of late, but neither was it the shirtless, volleyball-playing fighter pilot whose photo had adorned many a dorm room wall. The worst part was that Jarrod didn’t recognize me either. Fuuuuuuuuuck!
“Jarrod, it’s me, Cristy.”
Without a flicker of recognition in his eyes, Jarrod nodded. “Umm. Yeah. Of course. You changed your hair, didn’t you?”
Yeah, but at least no one mistakes me for Molly Ringwald. “I was blonde the last time you saw me.”
“Oh yeah. That’s it,” he said, with a smile. That and the fat suit you’re wearing.
By then, the condo purchasers had become enraptured with our conversation…listening to every word while carefully staring off in the distance, but not so far away as to eclipse our presence in their peripheral vision. Once Megan returned her attention to me, she immediately asked about my writing. When I admitted that I had recently completed my first novel and was penning a humor blog, she broadcasted to the entire bar that I was a great writer, an introduction that could result in only one thing. Utter humiliation. The minute I revealed – to bar patrons who were complete strangers – that my novel wasn’t actually published and that I was looking for an agent, their interest level in me dropped faster than a toddler down a well. A dry well. I’m pretty sure I heard a thud as their enthusiasm hit the dirt like a skull.
As Megan and I swapped stories about the last decade, Matt began chit-chatting with our bar neighbors. Within moments, they were sharing inside jokes and laughing together as though they were frat buddies who’d hijacked the mascot of their school’s biggest competitor back in the day. Meanwhile, I began to get the impression that Megan’s life had not turned out the way she’d expected. A teacher for many years, she told me she’d quit her beloved profession and was answering phones part-time at a friend’s business. When I asked what precipitated her decision, Megan squirmed noticeably and offered a euphemism to the effect of, “Oh, I just needed a change.” She expressed an interest in writing. I encouraged her to keep at it and offered to read anything she was working on if she felt like sharing.
But then Megan began doing the things that Megan always eventually did. Compete. Complain. And charm the socks off everyone in the room…except for the people who know her.
“What happened to my glass of wine? It was right here. I wasn’t done,” Megan announced to the room in general. Waving the waitress over, she whined, “I had a full glass of wine sitting right here. Did you take it?” When our server denied responsibility, Megan refused to drop the issue – like a dog with a mouthful of stuffed, squeaking, faux dead duck. I swear she even shook her head from side to side vigorously – as if to break the waitress’ neck with the ferocity of her convictions. “Yes, you did. The glass was full. I’d only had a sip, ” she insisted, the alcohol on her breath strong enough to sanitize the road rash on the butt of a man whose scooter had collided with a fertilizer truck. “You need to bring me another one immediately.”
I was reminded that one of the reasons we basked in Megan’s glow so willingly was that the rest of the time in her presence could be like Juneau in the dead of winter. I wrapped my cardigan around me a little more tightly. Despite the fact that it was Megan and Jarrod’s wedding anniversary, our golden girl couldn’t resist an audience. So as she entertained our bar neighbors with a slew of stories I’d never heard about motherhood, dancing and cotillion, any hopes I may have had of sharing a meaningful conversation with her were dashed. Megan was driving this car, pedal to the metal, and we were passengers clinging to door handles just hoping she’d slow down before she ordered us to jump. Within minutes of meeting these people, Megan was throwing out invitations to Dexter-themed parties to come. And discussing country clubs. And yacht cleaners.
Country clubs? Yachts? What happened to the barefoot Megan who always had a daisy tucked into her hair?
And then Megan steered the conversation back to just the two of us. And Todd. Oh. Dear. God. We have a decade to catch up on and this is what she wants to talk about. “Whatever happened to Todd, Cristy? I haven’t heard from him in years.”
I know, I thought. If she had, she would know that Todd had gotten engaged. And married. She’d know that Todd had moved out to the West Coast and was working on his graduate degree. “You know, Todd,” I responded lightheartedly, not wanting to be the bearer of tidings that would likely piss her off. “He’s so bad about staying in touch.”
“Haven’t you heard from him?” she asked. I nodded weakly, admitting I had. “Oh. Well, I’ve left messages. I even called his mother and…nothing.” My smile was toothless and pained as if it had been painted on by an artist with Asperger Syndrome. Even I knew a call to Todd’s mother usually accomplished…well, nothing. In fact, for years, she called me for updates about her son. “Well? Where is he?” Megan demanded.
“Oregon. He’s in Oregon.”
“Why?” she persisted. “What’s he doing out there?”
Freezing his ass off. Carrying an umbrella. Gradually turning translucent. Getting all the really “in-jokes” on Portlandia. “He’s in school. He’s working on his graduate degree. He’s doing really well.” C’mon, just say you’re happy for him and drop the fucking duck.
But Megan’s competitive streak had reared it’s angel-faced head because I had the audacity to know something about Todd – a person she still considered her best friend despite the fact that they hadn’t spoken in a decade – that she didn’t know. “Why did he have to go to school out there?”
Because his wife is a huge Pink Martini fan and wanted to live closer to the band. Because that’s what people do…they move away. Because he’s not your minion, Megan. “That’s where he and his girlfriend moved.” It was only a little lie. Not really one at all. After all, Todd and Raina were only engaged when they moved out there. I mean, technically, Raina was just a girlfriend with an uber nice ring on her left hand.
“He’s got a girlfriend?” Megan hissed. And that’s when I realized it. Her claim upon Todd was as real in her mind as a forty-niner’s staked claim to a vein of gold in California. This was jealousy, plain and simple. And suddenly, it occurred to me that this conversation was never meant to be about catching up on our lives. It was an intelligence gathering mission about Todd.
“Ummm. Nooooo. Not anymore.” Though the terms girlfriend and fiance could easily be considered interchangeable, this was not the case with the word wife.
Megan’s face suddenly brightened. “Oh. So he’s single, then?” I prayed that Val Kilmer wasn’t overhearing this bit of the conversation.
Erm. Fuck it. My thighs were aching from dancing around the truth for the past few minutes. She needed to know the facts. And I needed to order another martini. Hopefully, she’d then move on to less stressful topics like tsunamis and waterboarding. “No, Megan. He’s married. He got married a couple of years ago.”
Though the conversations around us continued unhindered, the silence in the eight inches or so between our heads was deafening. Finally, Megan asked, “Why didn’t he call me?”
“I don’t know.” I didn’t know. The disintegration of Megan and Todd’s friendship had never been discussed. And I hadn’t asked. It was none of my business. “Maybe he didn’t have your number?” I suggested weakly. Maybe he found out that you are a possessive psycho friend prone to interrogating the innocent.
Megan insisted that her number hadn’t changed. “We haven’t even moved. He knew how to find me,” she spit, as though I had assumed the role of Todd’s personal correspondence assistant and should share in the responsibility of this faux pas. “Well, did you go?” Megan’s halo of blonde hair suddenly began to singe my corneas like an interrogation spotlight.
Awkward. If I tell the truth, she’ll be hurt and I’ll feel like a bitch. If I lie, Megan will eventually find out, and then I’ll be a lying bitch. I can’t win. “Yes, Megan. I was one of his best men.” Her face fell. Then her nostrils flared as the realization hit her that I had been a member of the wedding party. Which meant I must have been in on the conspiracy to keep her off the guest list. And I probably knew who shot Kennedy and if astronauts really landed on the moon. “Look, I don’t know what happened between you two–“
“I know what happened,” she interrupted. Then, leaning in even closer, she whispered, “You know, Todd was always in love with me.”
Of course, he was, I wanted to say. Because it’s all about you, Megan. At that moment, I realized I couldn’t remember ever spending any time alone with Megan. Just the two of us. No lunch dates. No girls’ night out. In fact, every time we were together, we were usually surrounded by her friends – friends who were typically straight, single men. Men who basked in her glory. I hadn’t just told Megan that Todd’s life had changed drastically without her
permission input; I’d confirmed that he was no longer one of her back-up dancers. Someone else had captured his attention. Permanently. And he was happy. Really happy.
And who knows, maybe Todd had been in love with Megan eons ago. I was once a size 4 and strutted my stuff in a fashion show that aired on MTV. That and $14.50 will get you a mochaccino at Starbucks. “And now he’s in love with Raina,” I said firmly. “She’s his best friend now. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” And I meant that. I’d included those words in my best man’s speech that romantic evening in New York.
Megan abruptly ended our conversation and returned her attention to our condo-buying acquaintances. It turned out that the couple were from Atlanta and had firm views on the MARTA, Atlanta’s public transportation system. “You know what MARTA stands for, don’t you?” the aging bombshell asked us with a wink.
Oh. Dear. God. How did Matt and I meander into a bar that could provide not one, but two really uncomfortable moments in less than a half hour? Give her the benefit of the doubt, Cristy. Maybe they’ve come up with something that isn’t incredibly trite and racist. “No. What?” I asked, my eyebrow cocked in warning. Don’t fuck with the eyebrow.
Tittering, the cougar whispered loudly enough for people in Georgia to hear, “Moving Africans Rapidly Through Atlanta.”
Oh, no she didn’t! Then I heard Megan giggling. Since when do hippies laugh at unimaginative racist acronyms? “Really?” I said through gritted teeth. “Funny, but the last time I rode the MARTA, I didn’t notice many black people on it. And the people I did notice looked like commuters and students. But then, Atlanta’s African Americans are some of the most educated and wealthiest people in the country. I’d imagine that most of them don’t need to take public transportation.”
The woman pursed her lips. “Well, the MARTA’s gotten really bad lately.”
“In the last five years?” I asked. Maybe they’d switched to really uncomfortable seats. Or worse, maybe they’d begun playing Muzak over the loud speakers.
“Oh, yes. It’s bad. Our friend won’t let his college student son ride on it.” I resisted the urge to ask her if their friend also believed in the Mayan calendar and had a basement stocked with automatic weapons, canned goods and bottled water in preparation for the end of the world. “In fact, we avoid the downtown area altogether.”
Stifling my laughter, I replied, “Heck, the last time I was in Atlanta, I used to power walk from my hotel downtown all the way to Olympic Park. It seemed perfectly safe to me.” My husband just sat there, stone-faced. He has little tolerance for racists, and even less for pussies.
Megan suddenly chimed in. “You’re brave. I can tell; you’re fearless.” Without a hint of irony.
Huh? Me? Walking around a city in broad daylight hardly constitutes brave. This was not the Megan I knew. For years, I’d admired her free spirit. Her willingness to dance on a strip of plywood ten feet above the ground without a care. Hell, a few minutes earlier, she was inviting absolute strangers to visit her home for a serial-killer themed party. But they were white. “Are you telling me you wouldn’t take the MARTA, Megan?”
“It’s not like New York, Cristy.”
Damn straight, it’s not. It’s a hell of a lot safer than New York. What was she trying to say? The population is, erm, darker in Atlanta than it is in New York City? “Okay, how about D.C.? You’d ride the Metro in D.C., right?” She couldn’t say no to that. Matt and I had just visited D.C. a year earlier. While my husband attended a conference, I’d ridden the Metro all over town and walked the streets alone…with only my lip gloss for protection.
All four of them – even Jarrod – just stared at me uncomfortably. Matt’s silence, however, was brought about by pure shock. He hadn’t been surrounded by so many pussies since he visited a strip club in college.
“You forget,” Megan said, viewing my furrowed brow and slack jaw, “that I was agoraphobic for two years. Jarrod and me – we got mugged in Tampa.”
“Really? I’m sorry to hear that, but I don’t think I knew you then.” Agoraphobic? Next thing, she’ll be telling me that she hoards newspapers, magazines and those little plastic round things that you pull off milk cartons.
“I think you did,” Megan insisted.
No, I’d remember knowing that someone is agoraphobic. I mean, how would I even meet that person? I’d have had to just go knocking on random doors and asking people, “Do you leave the house? No? Great, wanna hang out? I’ll bring Chinese take-out.”
The Atlanta couple was terrified of Tampa, hence their decision to buy a condo with 24-hour security in our safe little corner of Florida (which actually has a higher crime rate than Tampa…but let’s not allow silly things like facts and statistics to mar the absurdness of this story). They related a tale about driving to visit a particular business in Tampa. Supposedly, as they drove into the neighborhood where the business was located, white men wearing neon orange vests waved them on – away from their destination. Raising their eyebrows, the couple gave us all a meaningful stare. One that puzzled the fuck out of me.
“So who were they? Construction workers redirecting you towards a detour?” I asked hesitantly. The woman shook her head.
“No! They were telling us to move along because we didn’t belong there in the ghetto,” the woman declared. Her boyfriend nodded his head solemnly in agreement. Clearly, fear and stupidity are bedfellows. “And when we finally got to the right place, all the brothers were eyeing our hubcaps.”
Did she really just refer to African American men as brothers? “What do you drive?”
“A Honda. It’s a hybrid.”
As a hybrid owner myself, I notice that a lot of people eye my car. Some of them happen to be black. And, yet, my hubcaps have never been stolen. “Did it occur to you that the brothers, as you call them, might have just been wondering what kind of mileage your hybrid gets and whether or not it’s worth it?” Or maybe they were thinking, “Check out the cougar! If you whistle in the vicinity of her cleavage, I bet you’ll hear an echo.”
The couple exchanged glances that said, “These poor people are so naive.” The look on Megan’s face made it clear that she thought that Matt and I were probably paying the brothers for protection – and that’s why we’d never been mugged.
I couldn’t take another minute of this conversation. Downing my martini, I racked my brain thinking of an excuse to leave…immediately. The Holy Crock Pot turned out to be my savior. “Oh, honey! We’ve gotta go,” I exclaimed, slapping my forehead with the heel of my palm. “I nearly forgot about the pot roast.”
That night, the Holy Crock Pot had shared its divine wisdom with me. It had removed me from the confines of my home and my comfortable friendships with people who share my values – and placed me in the presence of people who no longer did. As much as I sometimes long for those carefree days of staying up all night reading poetry, playing drums, and discussing philosophers I really didn’t understand with Megan and other friends, I realize that I can never go back to those days. Or to high-waisted jeans. Make that any jeans that don’t include the word stretch somewhere on the tag.
Why? Because I’ve changed. I understand those philosophers now. Okay, I might have thrown away the books by the ones who bored me – which would have been most of them. Regardless, I stopped searching for who I was to become and simply became that person. A person who will sit next to a Muslim on a plane just as comfortably as I would sit next to a white woman – unless that white woman has a screaming infant in her lap. I’ll take being sandwiched between an overweight Muslim dude using a seat belt extender and a loquacious Born Again from Branson, Missouri on a non-stop international flight – riding in coach – to avoid that particular form of torture.
I became a person who doesn’t make the following announcement to every Indian customer service rep I encounter on the phone: If this call is being recorded, I want it known that these jobs need to go to Americans. You don’t deserve these jobs. You hear me! (Yes, I once had a boss who instructed me to do this. I refused. She, in turn, refused to believe that most of the customer service reps in India actually have graduate degrees – which they do.) I’m a person who doesn’t tighten her grip on her purse strap because someone darker than a latte is walking behind her on the sidewalk. A person who doesn’t believe in gay and lesbian rights, but in human rights – for all people. Because gays and lesbians are humans, first. And Kathy Griffin fans, second. A person who rejects fearmongering disguised as patriotism. Yes, Wayne LaPierre of the NRA – I’m talking to you. Obama’s not going to take away your precious Second Amendment – or your storeroom filled with freeze-dried astronaut food and gold bullion.
I know. I know. How mighty white of me to establish what an open-minded, perfect human specimen I am. But this is how I roll, and it’s how I rolled 20 years ago. But being mugged – and the fear that came with that act of violence – apparently caused Megan to just roll over, pull the bedspread over her head and hide. She didn’t evolve into the person I’d expected. If anything, she’d devolved into a person with irrational fears, still clinging to her youth as it’s wretched from her grasp – man by man. And fear is the basis of racism. Fear fuels the hatred that inspires acts of bigotry. How do I know this? Because one of the most respected entities in the universe said so: Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. – Yoda, Grand Jedi Master and yoga aficionado. You don’t argue with the owner of a lightsaber. No, the one you bought at Comic-Con doesn’t count.
So as you go about your day, allowing your fears or your past to guide your decisions, consider the rhetorical question posed so succinctly by my sage Blogging Bestie, Stacie Chadwick in a recent post: “When did taking the road less traveled morph into plotting the easiest path?”
And then answer this question in your comments below: When did taking the road less traveled morph into hailing a cab because you’re too afraid to take the subway?
As always, names have been changed to protect the innocent and the assholes.