Thursday, April 10, 2014

This is a Farce

I'll admit to occasionally embellishing a story, but every word of this is 100% true. In fact, it has all been even more ridiculous than I am making it out to be. 

It all began a few weeks ago, when my family and I were watching the first episode of Cosmos. My 6-year-old son Jay was sitting on my lap, and he suddenly started scratching his head. "Strange," I thought. "I hope he doesn't have lice."

I didn't think he did. Not because I had any reason to think we were safe - in fact, I'd recently gotten a letter from his school portending exactly this. Nope, it was pure arrogance. An unshakable belief that defies all evidence to the contrary. When it comes to mishaps both large and small, Ima be just fine. No lice.

Over the next few minutes, my faith was shaken. He was scratching his head more furiously by the minute. I turned on the light and started to check, and there they were! Two, right on the back of his shirt. I ripped the shirt off his body and told my husband to take it to the laundry, while I got to work checking Jay's head.

I'd had lice once before, in my mid-20s, before I had kids. I had quite a nice nit comb to show for it, so I dug it up and started combing the lice out of my son's head.

My previous bout with lice had been brief, relatively painless, and successful. That, in addition to the bedbug epidemic, has cured me of any fear I ever had of them. They're weak, and surprisingly fragile. They can't survive long without a human host, and you don't even need to wash everything in hot water. It's the dryer that kills them. They've only survived the evolutionary process because they're so hard to see. Still, while I worked on Jay's head, my husband Jeremy ran around the house, stripping beds and starting laundry.

When I finished with Jay, I checked my daughter Bean, and later Jeremy. Only Jay seemed to have them. Even with my considerable faith in my own invincibility, I didn't think this would last long. Of course the rest of us would get them.

But we didn't, and after that night Jay appeared free of them, too. For a few days, I kept my guard up, checking all of us at least once a day. Something didn't feel right. I wondered what my problem was. Did I want a worse case of lice? I couldn't shake the feeling we were getting off too easy, that not finding lice or nits was proof of nothing but my inability to spot them. I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

When I found nothing, I began to relax, sometimes for 2 or 3 days at a time. But my suspicions always returned. Jay would scratch his head, and I would spring back into action. During this time I built up quite an arsenal of both knowledge and materials. A robotic comb that electrocuted live lice on contact, but did nothing for nits. A finer nit comb. Vinegar, olive oil, tea tree oil, coconut oil. In a moment of self-doubt, I even bought some useless lice-killing shampoo. In my spare time, I read about lice.

Maybe once a week, I would find 1-3 lice or nits on Jay's head. No more, and never both at the same time. I would take the opportunity to check everyone's head and do more laundry. Other than that, things went on as usual.

On the Saturday at the end of my kids' spring break, I attended my book club. Jay stayed home with Jeremy, and Bean went to a friend's house.

When I got into the car to leave book club, I saw a text I hadn't noticed before. It was Bean's friend's mother, asking if Bean's finger was okay. This was the first I'd heard of it, so I called Jeremy, who told me she had burnt her finger with a glue gun, but seemed fine. I relayed this message to the other mother and didn't give it another thought. I'd gotten mild burns from my glue gun before. No big deal.

But arriving home, it was clear that Bean was in pain. The burn looked unpleasant, but not serious. I encouraged her to soak it in cold water, gave her extra hugs and TV, and assumed it would be better the next day. This continued for several days, during which time Jeremy, who is also what Gray's Anatomy would call "my person," left town for work.

Every little thing seemed to go wrong. The cat knocked over the garbage. The kids fought, and they were more demanding than I felt they had any right to be at their ages (10 and 6, I thought! Hardly babies). Small stuff, but I am woefully terrible at handling small misfortunes. I can't say I'd prefer a large one, but I do seem to bear them better. I was terribly on edge, taking deep breaths constantly to avoid snapping at my poor, innocent children.

Bean continued to complain of the pain in her finger until I finally let her stay home from school and took her to the doctor. Second degree burn, beginning to get infected, might even require physical therapy to regain full range of motion. I was batting 1,000.

I struggled to suppress my own stress and sympathize with Bean. Of course it would be wrong to make it all about me. "Your severe burn is very stressful for me, so you'll have to excuse my meanness."

So instead of coming out and telling her that, I simply demonstrated it with my actions. I tried, but I wasn't fooling anyone, least of all Bean. After we picked Jay up from school, I decided that what I needed was to walk a labyrinth. Yes, that was all! I'd walk a labyrinth, and I'd be fine. I took the kids to a playground that had one, and and asked them to give me five or ten minutes.

They didn't. Bean in particular kept yelling for me, asking about all manner of things. I couldn't shake the feeling that she just couldn't stand to see me doing anything that wasn't about her. Finally, Jay had to go to the bathroom. The playground didn't have one, so I abandoned the labyrinth, and we left. Although he obviously wasn't kidding about needing a bathroom, he complained bitterly about leaving. My resent-o-meter was going off.

That evening, I thought we'd watch a movie and relax. But as the kids were setting it up, I knocked a dish off the kitchen counter. It hit the floor and shattered. As I went to clean it up, the phone rang.

I hate the phone. I have always hated the phone. After Bean was born, this hatred took on a life of it's own. It's unreasonable as hell, but the phone ringing makes me want to kill whoever is calling, regardless of the reason. I have to take a deep breath and steady my voice before answering. If things are going well, I think "God, you just couldn't let me have a moment's peace, could you?" If they're not, and at this moment they weren't, I can hardly contain my rage.

If I had been able to walk that labyrinth, I thought, I would have been able to handle this (I assure you, I was wrong). Suddenly, I found myself talking instead of thinking, and then yelling instead of talking.

"I wanted to walk that labyrinth, but you just could't give me five minutes," I started in. Belligerent. Nasty. My rant lasted maybe 30 seconds, but I swear it was just awful. Much worse than I'm making it out to be. Bean ran to her room and started sobbing.

I felt terrible. I got the impression that I'd been making her feel awful all day. Probably even longer than that. Maybe her entire life. My yelling at her was just the final straw. Her finger still hurt. Couldn't I have let go of a little obnoxious behavior from 3 hours ago?

I followed her, and we talked. I could barely keep from crying myself, but tried hard not to. Why should she have to try to make me feel better? I was the one who had hurt her.

We walked back downstairs, where I found more lice on Jay. Not many, but they were there. I didn't find any on Bean or I, and I might have been grateful for having a mild case. But I wasn't. I was truly losing it, and a part of me had begun to feel like these lice were actually conspiring to gaslight me.

That was it, I decided. We were dropping out of life for the rest of the week. I had looked into professional lice removal, but it seemed too expensive. Fuck it, I decided. We're going to Lice Knowing You tomorrow.

I posted a stressed-out status update on Facebook, and my mother-in-law texted - texted, thank God! - and offered to take the kids for dinner the following evening.

First thing the next morning, I made an appointment. The only available salon was 45 minutes away, but I didn't care. I fed the cats, noting to myself that I would need to get cat food on my way home. Anticipating it might take hours, I instructed the kids to fill their backpacks with toys, books, and colored pencils, and drove to an old apartment building that was now full of offices. Apparently, this was the place.

It was very discrete. It took me a moment to decipher that I wanted to dial the number for "LKY." It rang, and a voice asked, "Do you have an appointment?"

"Yes, for noon," I answered.

Without another word, she buzzed me in.

That was the tipping point. I suddenly felt like I was in an impossibly tame Quentin Tarantino movie, going to see a top secret fixer of problems I'd learned about through an underground source. We walked to the appropriate office, but it was locked. The hall was full of signs demanding silence, and stressing that cell phones were strictly forbidden. After knocking repeatedly, I didn't care anymore. I just didn't care. No more Ms. Goody-Goody-By-the-Rules-Rule-Follower. I pulled out my phone and called. Nothing.

Five minutes later, a woman in her 20s casually strolled over, explaining she'd been on her lunch break. She was tall and gamine, with short, dark hair and big, brown doe eyes. I'd been expecting a middle-aged woman in a long skirt, something like how I picture Old Mother Hubbard. My awful mood hadn't entirely abated. I hated this hipster lunch-eater. Lunch! Didn't she realize this was an emergency? Did she also have a solid gold easy chair at home (because de-lousing people is how the rich love to spend their days, am I right)? Or was I simply realizing I'd forgotten to give my children lunch?

The second we stepped into the room, my stress somehow dissolved. The hipster turned out to be a very friendly mother of two young daughters. She inspired my total confidence. Bean and I were fine, and she dealt with Jay's head in half an hour. She was fantastic. I paid and tipped her well, in part to make up for the mean things I'd thought about her. The kids and I headed to a popular nearby park.

At the park, everyone we encountered spoke excellent English, but with a faint accent. I pegged one man for Russian, another for Swedish, one woman for Dutch, and finally one more woman as possibly Kiwi.

We spotted Russian Guy first. He had the tiniest dog you ever did see. I guessed she was a chihuahua puppy. The kids bounded over to ask if they could pet her, interrupting Swedish Guy, who in retrospect was probably using the dog as an excuse to talk to Russian Guy.

I thought Swedish Guy seemed to bristle, and guessed it was because he was jealous we were lavishing more attention on the small dog than his own. I made an effort to throw some compliments her way.  Only later did I realize the kids were cockblocking him. Although complimenting his dog had seemed to help, I know now that had less to do with my identifying and remedying the problem, and more to do with the the difficulty of being openly hostile toward someone who is complimenting your dog.

Russian Guy, on the other hand, didn't mind at all. He wasn't trying to get rid of Swedish Guy, but he was indifferent to him. He was used to the attention his dog attracted, and loved it. A fan was a fan. We were all the same to him.

"Her name is Nutella. She's a Russian Toy Terrier, and she was the runt of the litter, so she's about half the size of a normal one," he bragged.

Nutella was 3, and her owner pulled out his phone to show us all baby pictures. She looked exactly like a 6-inch-tall deer. Normally I'm not wild about dogs, and I'm awfully politically correct about pet-ownership. No fancy animals, and no animals that shouldn't be in captivity. As a general rule, I think they should come from the Humane Society. But I secretly long for an exotic pet. Specifically, I want a dik-dik. "Maybe..." I started to think.

When we parted, Russian Guy gave us Nutella's card, and urged us to follow her on Facebook or Twitter. I just might.

Jay, Bean and I continued on until we came to some climbable trees, where a few other children were playing. I sat down a few feet from Dutch Mom and Kiwi Mom. They didn't try to engage me in awkward small talk, and I was deeply grateful. They seemed relaxed, maybe even happy.

"None of this would be happening if I were Dutch or Kiwi, and even if it did, I'd just take it as it came. Like those amazing women I know nothing about," I thought. Oh, well. I took out a book, and was happy enough to read in the sun.

The kids began to bring us things they were finding. A high-heeled shoe. An earring. A small talisman. Dutch Mom summoned her kids and told us all in a faintly-accented deadpan, "I'm out. If your kids find anything else after this, it's your police report to file."

I went to find my own kids, and found that the treasures they were finding were coming from a cluster of homemade alters set up near the trees. But I only felt a little bad about the kids disturbing them, because they were in a public park where kids play.

It was time to get the kids to Grandma. I gathered them up, figuring with traffic, we'd just make it before she had to leave to pick up my father-in-law. But we hadn't gone more than a mile when I spotted it. The mystery soda machine I'd been promising to take my kids to for weeks. It was the furthest thing from my mind, but there it was, right on the sidewalk.

I pulled over abruptly, and started hunting for change so the kids and I could get sodas. I only had enough for two. Oh, well. I really only wanted water anyway.

The kids gleefully traipsed over to the machine, and when they came back, one of the sodas they'd gotten had three quarters taped on the bottom of it - a prize redeemable for one free soda. I have dodged some serious bullets in my life, but I've never wanted to credit a guardian angel. It seems narcissistic, considering all the people who didn't dodge bullets. This was the first and only time I've experienced divine intervention. True, I didn't really want soda, and I certainly didn't want the syrupy Hawaiian Punch I received (who knew they still made it?), but that wasn't the point. The ghost saw a struggling mama, and it did what it could. It's just a crappy old vending machine with the good fortune to be owned by a whimsical marketing genius, you say? That we happened to score the winning soda was just a coincidence? It being haunted is a social-media-fueled whispering campaign? Shut up and let me have this.

As we drove away, Jay called out, "I love you, haunted soda machine!"

It only took a few minutes, but it was a crucial few minutes that caused me to hit traffic, which made us miss grandma (it was worth it). We'd have to wait outside until she got home. Which would have been fine, but Jay had to go to the bathroom. Badly.

"Go by the tree!" I told him. He was visibly desperate, but he wouldn't do it. Nor would he try to get into their back yard and go there. Finally, it occurred to me. Once, long ago, I had been given a key. The memory was fuzzy, but I started testing my keys, and viola! We were in.

Except we weren't. Although he knows them well and has visited that house literally hundreds of times in his life, Jay didn't feel right about walking in when they weren't there. "They're your grandparents!" I implored. "They would not want you standing outside their open front door having to pee!"

"I'll go," Bean said, and sashayed past us. She sat down at the table and set to work on the comic book she'd started writing at Lice Knowing You.

It took some convincing, but I finally got Jay to go inside. He wouldn't allow us to turn on any lights or touch anything. He used the bathroom, and hurried back out to the front porch, where he was not too well-mannered to start repeatedly throwing himself against the glass screen door out of boredom. I lured him into the back yard, where we played until Grandma got home. In exchange for my children, my Mormon mother-in-law handed me two valium.

I was on my way. If I were exaggerating about any of this, I would say I forgot to pick up the cat food. But I didn't.

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