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My Lover, LA

chicken

My Lover, LA
by Laura A. Munson

I love my children. I love my husband. I love my mother and deceased father. Sister and brother. Every person on my Christmas card list. Two dogs, two horses, cat, and pet rat—love ‘em all. I love Montana too—my twenty acres and the hills around our house, the miles I log in them on my trusty horse, the tracks I make on my cross-country skis, the birds and trees and insects and frogs and wildflowers and mushrooms I recognize as they do their seasonal dances. I love the peaks of Glacier National Park, and I’ve even grown to love the fact that here, I’m on the food chain; grizzly bear sushi. It builds character. But what I love a lot more than perhaps I should or would dare to openly admit in a small Montana town where it’s popular to hate all things urban, and Californians as well…what I yearn for, especially in mid-January, is what I can’t get here and that’s excellence in the following: art, dining, shopping, sunshine, surf. So every so often, I sneak off to LA.
prada
I have two great friends there. Best friends. God-mothers to my children. They don’t know each other, and maybe it’s better that way because I can divide my four-day get-away between them, and basically act as gluttonous and selfish as possible. And they forgive me for it every time. Gluttony and selfishness are forgivable in two-day stints/binges, turns out—especially if you’re from Montana.
So I am picked up at LAX in a Mercedes station wagon, by one dear friend, and delivered back four days later in a Volvo station wagon, by the other– my suitcase doubled in bulk, my intestinal tract processing things it hasn’t known in a long while like foie gras and uni and cassoulet, my face a little tanned, my skin a little bare, my toes feeling sad covered in shoes again, but my hands happily around a new, fabulous purse. I take my seat on the plane wearing even huger sunglasses than last time, with a smug movie-star feeling inside—like I’ve had an affair. The flight attendants notice it. I might be famous. I’m glowing. I’ve bloomed.
Friendship is an interesting creature, especially when it’s long distance. It’s alive, but it doesn’t necessarily need your tending. It goes about life without you changing its diapers or helping it with its homework, or remembering its birthday. But then it suddenly shows up and you feel like, without it, you can’t live– you’ll have no oxygen. And then it goes, and you’re breathing along again just fine. You’ve heard people say, it’s like we just pick up from where we left off every time. That’s the kind of friends these two women are to me.
They listen to me sob and bitch about the impossible rejections of the writing life and how my husband likes skiing more than he does me, and that my kids are ungrateful, how I should have gone to Yale, should have stayed in Seattle, or Boston, or Chicago, or New York, and whenever will I get back to Firenze… These are two women who’ve loved me, combined, for longer than I have lived and probably will live. And I love them. They show up at weddings and funerals and they answer my calls; granted each of them spends a lot of time bored on the freeway.
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Here’s what we usually do when we’re together—and this extends past LA, to all the afore-mentioned cities, including Firenze and Paris too: We go directly to the best restaurant we can think of, order wine, and eat a long, multi-course meal. Then we go walk around somewhere edgy or gritty or shiny, but with lots of people to look at. In LA, we go to Venice Beach and mix with the Carnies, or to Rodeo Drive and try on dresses at Prada in the best dressing rooms ever (you can watch yourself in a Prada dress on a virtual runway video), or to Montana Ave. in Santa Monica (so far away from my Montana), or to Abbot Kinney or Melrose, or just simply to Mecca: Fred Segal. Once, on Venice Beach, we saw a two-headed turtle and a two-headed raccoon at the same time, and once, we saw Glen Close (who looks like George Washington in person) and Rick Ocasek (who looks like Ichabod Crane in person)—not at the same time and not on Venice Beach.
Then we go back to their houses and lie around on their outdoor futons and read Vogue or do The LA Times crossword puzzle together— because even though we’ve been New York Times crossword puzzle snobs all our east coast spawned lives—hey—we’re in Cali. This crossword puzzle is way more fun. Then we make a pitcher of mojitos and get into the hot tub nude, and talk about mutual friends—their divorces and dalliances or suburban woes. We feel pretty good about ourselves then. So we get dressed up and go out and flirt. Maybe go to a bar cantilevered over Malibu Beach (Moonshadows) or to a museum cantilevered over the hills of Brentwood (The Getty). The last trip, I went to Moonshadows and The Getty twice—once with each friend. The last time I visited LA, both of them had coi ponds.
Well this most recent trip to LA, let’s just say, there were no coi ponds. No Moonshadows and no Getty and no flirting. Why? Because these women are mothers, just like me, in their Januarys, with their kids’ science fairs looming, their constant state of chauffeur-dom, and too much goddamn sun sun sun all the time…and besides, LA is so ridiculously expensive and with the way the economy is going, who can afford a place with a coi pond. In particular, one of them is a new mother—eight weeks. And for the other, this was her weekend with her kids. Which was great. I love these kids. But I had huge sunglasses to buy!
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Somewhere between gathering water samples from eight beaches and NOT getting to put my toe in the water due to impending traffic constraints, and wiping up that old familiar French’s mustard-colored diaper goo, I realized that this trip was not going to be about buying sunglasses. At all. Here’s how it went down, present tense so you can feel my pain (keep in mind that in my valley in Montana, we get on average, seventy-five days of sunshine a year, and you can’t get a New York Times—except the Sunday—on Wednesday), and you can’t get an LA Times at all:

Part I
I awake to bamboo and the sounds of exotic birds. It’s pitch black and twenty-two below in Montana, but blue sky winks at me through the blinds and I think I’m at the Hotel Bel-Air—my fantasy hotel, with my non-existent but very real to me, Italian lover, Giovanni.
I burrow into my pillows and dream about my lox and bagels and my crossword puzzle. And the amore Giovanni and I will make… More important, it’s Monday—the easiest day for the crossword puzzle; like David Sedaris, I base my personal worth on the completion of major urban crossword puzzles, and today I won’t have to do it online—just good old fashioned ball point pen (yep) to newsprint!
I sit up and stretch, anticipating the walk I’m going to take later on the beach, alone, because I will be done with Giovanni by then and he’ll be off shopping for me on Rodeo Drive. Then I hear the cries of a newborn and remember that I’m in a child’s cot, in an office in Long Beach, and that I’m staying in the home of exhausted people who “miss the seasons.”
That’s okay—this is their little miracle bundle of joy and I’ve come here to visit it. Help them. Give them their much-needed break. Yeah, right.
I put on my Nike Frees, instead of my lug-soled Sorels, and try to sneak out for a walk to the beach just three blocks away—terra firma. No snow. But they see me. And I am so helpful. I am so good and kind. And loving. What a friend am I. Watch me hold this baby so “you can get some rest.”
I forget why I needed so much chiropractic during my children’s infant years. Four hours later, we go out. We’re walking to the beach. I am ecstatic. Baby starts to cry. We decide to drive. My friend has to do some banking. No, of course I don’t mind sitting in the car with the baby. I end up standing in the parking lot for a half an hour, the baby asleep, leaning against the car, face in the sun. This isn’t so bad. I’m in LA! There’s a tree with flowers on it…right here in this…parking lot…where I’m so lucky to be…standing…in the sun! A deliveryman makes fun of me. I flirt with him, but he’s unimpressed.
We get to the beach. I forget that my friend has moved from Santa Monica, and let me just say this about the Long Beach beach: It’s got a great view of some of the largest oil refineries in the world.
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Part II
I meet my next friend in Santa Monica, and I’m thrilled because I love Santa Monica—barefoot, wet-suit clad surfers jaywalking with their boards, the Farmer’s Market, Shutters on the Beach… We experience a movie-star sighting—a movie star I can’t stand—fingers on the chalkboard. Why do they have to wear those stupid baseball hats that say, I’m a movie star—look at me so that I can say, ‘no thanks—I’m not giving out autographs right now.’
We wait in line a half an hour to order a panini, and slowly…I begin to realize that there’s no wine list. But we’re close to my friend’s kids’ school, plus we have a parking place, so this is it. Slowly too, I begin to realize that it’s a vegetarian restaurant. So there’ll be no fancy meat in my panini. Ah….Firenze. For a quick moment, I think of Giovanni—wonder how he’s doing on Rodeo Drive.
We spend the afternoon taking water samples from beaches that we don’t walk on more than to get to the water and walk back to the car. Then we get stuck in traffic. It’s sunny, but it’s sixty-four degrees, and in LA this is freezing. It’s parka weather. My friend’s actually wearing a parka. And huge Prada sunglasses. I’m sweating in a tank top with the windows down, sporting the knock-off Gucci sunglasses I bought the last time I was in LA. At least I get to see the Malibu fire damage. In Montana when we have fire damage, it doesn’t look like you could make it go away if only you had a crane, a really good landscape architect, and a truckload of Mexicans.
That night, we have an early dinner because the water samples need to incubate.
We spend a lot of time cutting holes in a Styrofoam cooler—again, nails on chalkboard, and go to bed early.
Phone rings at 8:00 am. It’s a professor friend from UCLA who’s a famous writer/friend of my friend’s (I would be her non-famous writer/friend) and what I hear from my end is something like this: Oh, hi. Yes, my son would LOVE to accompany your son to the pre-party for David Sedaris tonight. Yep. Uh-huh. Back stage passes? Great. We’ll just drop him off at your house, and then my friend who’s visiting from Montana (that would be not Montana Ave. See: hick) and I are going to take my daughter to a pizza party in Beverly Hills. We’ll just drum up all his David Sedaris books so David can write charming meaningful notes of inspiration in them, and we’ll see you tonight.
It is everything I can do to remain cool and not brown-nose my friend’s thirteen-year-old son. I’ll probably meet David Sedaris in Whitefish, Montana—right? Isn’t he, like, really into skiing?
I can’t go into the rest of this aspect of my trip because it’s just too heartbreaking. Suffice it to say that I met the writer/friend of my friend’s on the front porch of her home in Pacific Palisades, and said something really mature like: “Hi. I’m the un-published novelist friend.”
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Then we dropped off the girl at a pizza party which was behind big gates that I didn’t attempt to penetrate as the un-published-novelist-friend-from-not-Montana-Avenue, and went to Shutters and had a drink or ten and the rest of the night, to tell the honest truth, was kind of a blur. Fine, base your entire self-worth on the completion of a daily crossword puzzle. Jerk. Loser. You missed out. I’m so friggin fabulous. You could water-ski behind my fabulous career someday if I’d let ya. Sedaris. Did I tell you I coulda gotten into Yale! That’s a different story. But I coulda. Just didn’t wanta.
So, it’s my last chance for huge sunglasses, and I wake up hung-over, with an airplane to catch and the little girl, who is my god-daughter, (and exceptional I may add), climbs in bed with me– not as much to cuddle, but to get to the laptop I’ve smuggled away in a drunken stupor to watch re-runs of Brothers and Sisters. She wants to do Webkinz together. I don’t even stay in the same room with my kids when they’re doing Webkinz. I feel about Webkinz the way I felt about Teletubbies and Cabbage Patch Dolls. But I lounge around with her and help her choose furniture for her weird consumerist Webkinz world. Hey, I figure, I’m shopping in LA. The tambourine table actually feels like something you might be able to pick up on Abbot Kinney.
I decide then to make a varsity decision: I’m not leaving. I’m going to have my Hotel Bel-Air fantasy. Damnit.
So I book it—change my ticket and book a room at the Hotel Bel-Air. Spend an extra hundred dollars for a room with a courtyard. Book a dinner reservation and everything. My friend is thrilled. We’re all going to be sprawled poolside for the day, sucking on lavender Popsicles, our faces spritzed with Evian water by guys in pink polo shirts and white shorts. We’ll eat dinner in their fabulous vine-covered outdoor dining room with a fire going. We’ll eat foie gras! And what’s more, her kids will love me forever—maybe even enough to introduce me to Davis Sedaris!
But the incubator was too hot and the bacteria fried, and she and her thirteen-year-old have to go back to All Eight Beaches and take NEW samples.
Uh-uh.
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So I spend my day at the Bel-Air, with my adorable but still EIGHT-year-old, god-daughter. She’s wearing a scarf, Jackie-O style, and her mother’s yes, HUGE, (real) Gucci sunglasses, a dress she got in yes, Paris, and Uggs (I’m wearing flip-flops because I wear Uggs every day of my life—for function!)…and we sit by the pool while she eats a nine dollar hot dog and tells me about her trip on safari in the Serengeti. Wait ‘til I tell my own kids about my trip to LA. Absolutely no elephants. Or famous authors. Or even my dear dear friend, Fred Segal. But at the Hotel Bel-Air, they do have pads of butter in the shape of swans. I have a photograph of one.
I eat dinner alone, and have drinks at the bar afterward and hang out with the piano player and request Laura, which is one of my all time most disgusting personal habits. In fact, I have a vague memory of doing the same thing the night before at Shutters.
This story ends like this: I wake up. Five hours to spend in LA, alone, on my one hundred dollar terrace. Five lovely, languishing hours on my sunny terazza…and it’s fucking raining. So I lie in my bed, surf between the Today show, Good Morning America, and the Food Network, get bored, and decide, for the first time in my life, to order porn—see what all the fuss is about. That’s right, porn, at the Hotel Bel-Air. Maybe I can find one with an Italian guy in it.
The whole experience is so utterly tacky that I turn off the television after about five seconds and decide to add porn to the Webkinz, Teletubbies, Cabbage Patch Doll list. Then I pay twenty-five dollars for it at check out, where they give me a look which I’m not going to base my entire self-worth on, but I’m not going to not either. I tip them about as much as I would have dropped on huge, non-knock-off, sunglasses because I want to be invited back.
Sometimes I wish my friends lived in Montana. And I lived in LA. And I could complain about sun sun sun. And then maybe I’d take graceful joy in dirty diapers and fried science projects in a dark, culturally barren, January place, thickly coated in snow—far away from traffic and the horrible torpor of sun and shopping and surf and fine dining. Maybe I wouldn’t be so selfish and gluttonous…and horny.
prada
When I board the plane, I do not look like I’ve seen my lover. I look like I need a vacation. Maybe in a ski town.
As we’re hovering over our white valley, the square claims of farmland, feminine S-ing rivers, masculine mountains, I have a very real attack of not wanting to return to this place. Not because of anything to do with sunglasses; not really. But because of how hard Montana is. How tough you have to be. How brave and humble and honest.
As the wheels hit the runway, the flight attendant announces, “Welcome to the beautiful Flathead Valley, Montana. If you’re here on business or pleasure, we do hope you enjoy your stay. If you live here, welcome home.” And I join the part of me that never went to LA, and never wanted to in the first place.
When it comes down to it, there’s really not much room for the silliness of the “excellent.” Not when it comes to towing your neighbor’s truck out of a snow bank, or feeding your shivering herd in twenty-two below temperatures, digging your buddy out from an avalanche, saying a friendly, “Hey, Bear” as you come around a switchback on a mountain trail, or finding Mountain Lion scat in your back yard where your children play. Whatever Bacchanalian indulgence I might crave, is just that. A craving. And when it’s met, it doesn’t last very long. And I can’t say I’m really better for it. Not really.
What I am better for, I realize, as I turn the key in the ignition and wait while the engine moans and squeaks and finally turns over, is the good coffee I had with my friend at six am, her baby at her breast; the way my god-daughter’s hair smelled as we cuddled in bed, and the way her eyes looked when she told me about the wildebeests, the way my friend leaned down at the water’s edge with her son and collected water samples. For the indulgence of friendship that picks up where it lets off every time.
And it occurs to me as I pull out to the white stark highway, with the logging trucks whizzing by, and the dilapidated old barns and abandoned businesses with permanent Closed signs, that there is power in displacement. Everyone should try living just where they least expect to find themselves. Because it reminds you where home is.
When I get to my house, I am greeted by four feet of new snow, my two dogs, and the neighbor’s dead, frozen, and half-eaten, chicken placed, sacrificial, on my front stoop.
Do you feel sorry for me? Probably not. Either way, please don’t tell anyone in the City of Angels…that way down deep, it is precisely in this mangled but beautiful offering of this exact chicken, that I find my self-worth.

prada

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Mother Bear at the Plaza

Plaza silver
Mother Bear at the Plaza
by Laura A. Munson

I was reared for walking in and out of places like New York’s Plaza Hotel. But I live in Montana now and sometimes I forget how to be that girl. That girl having her first tea at the Palm Court in low riding white tights and a scratchy wool coat, standing three feet and agape below the Eloise portrait, thinking, “Now that’s the life. Living in a fancy hotel, pouring water down the mail chute, dragging chalk along the corridor walls, no mommy telling you what to do. Eloise is my hero.” And later, in Chinaman pajamas, I do both and feel huge.
Much later, I am waiting in the lobby for my first boyfriend, a meeting place between airport and brownstone, with my dead grandmother’s Hartman luggage all around me, considering losing my virginity while the ladies in minks and high stiff hairdos go by. And I still feel huge.
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But today, in jeans and steel-toed boots, a suede thrift shop jacket, a sloppy scrunchy bun flopping at the nape of my neck, a baby in a front pack like a kangaroo, I am the only one who recognizes my footprints in this red rug. The doorman, the concierge, the maitre d’ at the Palm Court, even Eloise, even the little girl in white tights standing agape—they all step aside as if I might be dangerous. I wink at Eloise and stroll by, holding my neck as tall as it has ever stretched and find the Powder Room, for I am here today not to pay homage to my first hero, nor for tea, nor to meet my old beaux. I am here to breastfeed. I am in the safest place I know in New York City, crummy old boots or no crummy old boots. I look down and see what is very possibly dried manure on the sides of the Vibrum soles and think, It’s good for this rug to know a little of God’s country. And I open the white door with the gold gilt. And I still feel huge.
Inside, there is a woman in a black dress and white apron staring at me with an expression that sighs, Oh dear, you must be lost.
“I need a place to breastfeed my baby,” I say, looking for a place to sit. Realizing there is none. Realizing women don’t breast-feed in public, not even in the bathroom, at the Plaza Hotel. I start to lose confidence. Maybe I am a stranger here now. Maybe the little girl who ran in here, tinkled on toilet-paper-lined seats, dilly-dallied at the vanity, transferred pettifores from napkin to coat pocket chatting with the nice maid lady like in a Frances Hodgson Burnett book, remembering to tip a little something, never was. And I am a rancher’s daughter, and I am scared of places like this, and rich people are strangers to me.
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The woman speaks in broken English, which feels like my language now– something like, “I know good place. Come with me. I have daughter.” In silence, I follow her down the hall, into an elevator, up a few floors, through a grand lobby with twenty foot French doors all in a row, and the girl who knew debut parties and benefit fashion shows knows there is a ballroom through those doors.
The Powder Room attendant looks down the hallway toward a row of small well-lit rooms full of mumbled voices and whispers, “No let them see you. Here. In here.” With case-the-joint eyes, she ushers me through tall gold doors.
We are in some sort of V.I.P. Ladies’ Lounge. The kind of place where Madonna hides from paparazzi and society younglings sneak lines of cocaine. We are surrounded by mirrors and high gold and white ceilings, garish escutcheons holding up huge Baroque-looking chandeliers, red damask fainting couches.
“When you finish with baby, come back same way. Don’t talk to nobody.” She leaves.
I sit.
My knees poof up to my nose and I see myself in the mirrors. I see what they
have all seen: This me does not belong. Whatever possessed me to dress like some sort of cross between Salvation Army and Rodeo Queen? The thrift-shop-look hasn’t been in since the early Eighties. Have I lost all sense of taste? All sense of now? I could have at least put on a pair of Nikes and sweats and posed as a stay-at-home mom going to the gym.
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My baby starts to fuss. She is unimpressed with the spectrum of me’s unless they include my lactating breasts. I take her out of the front pack and unbutton my shirt. In the mirrors, I see through maitre d’ eyes: I have too much of my breast showing. Not enough make-up. Ridiculous hair. And then I notice the bruisy-colored haystack– the Monet above me. And I start to sweat. I’m all alone in a room with a Monet. Our next door neighbor growing up had Monets. I’ve been in a room alone with Monets before. But this me, this Montana me, she’s got to touch that thing. Maybe it’ll make her real in this old world of hers. Gotta touch that thing. What if there’re cameras? What if there’re alarms? I reach up, eyeing my aim from the mirror across the room as if I am watching a movie of me. Baby gasping for more suction. A few more inches. Yep. Oil paint. Thick fat brush strokes. Either that’s a damn good reproduction or the real Mackoy. And why not? This is a room for people who own Monets. Who don’t have to touch a Monet to prove they belong. My finger returns to my baby. I guess I don’t know either me.
I consider the thing that brought me back to New York for this visit: to plug into my old scene. Museums. Art galleries. Take in a few shows. Drink ten-dollar-a-pop martinis and not bat an eyelash. Maybe buy a pair of absolutely fabulous leather pants from a gaunt Madison Ave. saleswoman who will greet me with a low-toned: welcome. To see how my old gaggle of friends are handling this next stage of motherhood. To compare gear notes where we used to compare hair stylists. To see if million dollar apartments with doormen and live-in nannies can make one exempt from stretch marks and saddle bags. To just for one night, sit in a trendy new restaurant with city friends and over foie gras hear the one in the self-important glasses say, That’s some of Venturi’s worst work. It’s exhausting looking at mountains all the time…dishing out that kind of awe all the time. I want a bit of what people have done. I want the Chrysler Building. I want—just for a few days– to not be on the food chain!
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I look at myself in the mirror and see that I am instead in some sort of social purgatory. How do I plug into this scene when I’ve lived so long in a place where there is no scene? How can I care about leather pants for the sake of leather pants and not think: Do they repel water? Do they breathe? Do they come in poly-propalene? Good God! Where is my sense of humor? My sense of power? I am giving the light fixtures in this place more importance than myself. Than perhaps even my baby.
And then it occurs to me. It’s the city—it’s stealing my soul. I am feeding my child, for crying out loud. This is a pure moment where nothing should matter but nutrition– the arc between mother and child– let no man put asunder. I stare at my baby and try to keep from thinking about the dress I’ve packed for dinner tonight. The one that looked so chic on the mannequin in Whitefish, MT, that now strikes me as something a Phys Ed teacher would wear to the end-of the-season sports banquet. Whistle and all. Maybe I’ll dress down. I’ll wear jeans. What about all those movie stars that have homes in Montana? I bet they wear jeans when they’re in New York. I’ll pretend I’m one of them. Like I’m above all this…all this…ephemera.
eloise

And just when I am hit with the whiplash of my total-unenlightenment, the door opens. It’s a tall woman in a pink Chanel suit. Her hair is Ivana Trump high and I think, I’d rather talk to Ivana herself– she’s a foreigner. She might understand.
“What are you doing in here?”
This is my payback for all those years of ‘belonging,’ I think. I deserve this. I try to sit up straight in the poof of the couch but only manage a few inches of height. I thrust my chin in the air so I am at least staring at her kneecaps. I put every amount of Mayflower descent, Anglophile, Junior-Year-Abroad, boarding-school-procured nasal and lock jaw into these words: “I am breastfeeding my child.”
She raises a singular, well-plucked eyebrow. “Well, you will have to leave immediately.”
I imagine the guards. I imagine the I told you so on the doorman’s face. “Look, I was led up here–” and then I stop. I don’t want to get that sweet sample of humanity in trouble.
“Who? Who brought you here?”
Do you always talk in Soap Opera-eze? “I don’t feel at liberty to say.” Did I just say ‘at liberty?’ I tuck my boots under the sofa and eye the Monet. And then it happens. I feel this mother bear claw-sharpened edge raise its hackles down my spine and I look up even higher, to her pink Channel un-lactating breasts and say, “I will leave when my child is finished eating.”
“You will leave now.”
And whether I end up being hauled out of here by the scruff of my hickish laurels, I suddenly cannot hold back: “What do you think? Just because I’ve got a little shit on my shoes, I’m going to run outta here with the goddamn Monet?”
She lets out a giant Huffffffffff, blows through the door, and leaves a blinding trail of hairspray and Joy de Patou in her wake.
eloise
Bring on the guards– I’ll call the mayor. I’ll get on the front page of the ‘New York Times’– ‘Plaza Hotel– No Safe Place for Mother and Child.’ Ivana herself will give me a golden key to the front door. I’ll have an open tab at the Palm Court. I’ll be given a check for a million dollars and I’ll put that bathroom attendant’s children through college. I’ll buy a new pair of shoes. Maybe some leather pants?
The door opens. It’s the woman from the Powder Room. For some reason I can look her straight in the eye and it’s not because she’s no inch shy of five feet. “I thought you get lost.”
“No. We’re just finishing up. There was a lady who came in here and got mad at us and I didn’t tell her you brought us up here, but she might–”
“Lady? Lady with…” she holds one hand a foot over her hair and the other a foot in front of her chest.
“Yeah.”
“Uh-oh. You come with me, please.”
Baby back in kangaroo position, boots ready for any terrain, we go from hallway to hallway, looking around the corner before we go like James Bond babes. We skeeter down servant’s stairways thick with grey paint and the smell of rotting room service. One more door and we are back by the Powder Room and I am Eloise. No…better: I am at the intersection of all me’s. I am my own society.
I want to give this saint of a woman a hug. She has put her job on the line for me and my little girl, but maybe for more. The girl reared for tea at the Palm Court says, you owe her a fat tip. But that is an insult, the Montana me says. There is no financial compensation for human kindness. I give her a hug and she holds me hard and then sneaks back to her post taking quarters for hand towels.
eloise

And I walk tall back past Eloise, little girls in white tights, blue-haired dowagers sipping Earl Grey, suburban virgins in transit considering sex but for now a Marlborough Light, a doorman who doubles as a bouncer, but not to me, not today; I am looking at my sleeping baby, safe in my perfectly acceptable chest.
***
Back in Montana. Full of sushi and museums, sky-scrapers– the great stuff of Men. It is nighttime and my baby and I are driving back from a party. She has been fussy and I’m hoping she will fall asleep. I am watching the stars and keeping an eye out for deer, humming lightly to the country music station which I don’t normally like, but tonight it’s like what subway shoosh must be for a New Yorker– a hymn of Home Sweet Home. I look in the rear view mirror and see she is finally asleep and I feel tucked-in by the mountains around me; not awe necessarily. And then I see flashing red lights.
Immediately I get adrenaline in my chest cavity and a ringing in my ears and pull over, reaching for the glove compartment where I know the stuff cops want is kept. I unroll the window and wait, shaking. His boots on the gravel get louder and louder and by the time he is at my window I am no longer scared; I am mother bear. I am all hackles and sharpened nails and to his bellowing “Do you know how fast you were–” I raise my finger to my lips and hiss, “SHHH! I’ve got a sleeping baby in the back seat!”
“Oh!” His shoulders shirk and slump. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I know how that is.”
“Can we make this quick? I want to get her home.”
“Uh– sure, Ma’m. I’m sorry. You were going seventy-five and that’s too fast at night so uh–”
I look back at my baby. She’s stirring and she begins to cry. “Oh that’s okay darlin’. Go back to sleep.” I scowl at the police officer.
He looks in the back seat and whispers, “Tell you what. Let this be a warning. Now go get that baby to bed.” I see his teeth make a smile in the headlight.
“Thank you,” I barely say. I have no need to butter him up. There is a child who is teetering on the edge of sleep and I am her mother. Nothing can get in my way.

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The Pack Rat Ate My Patagonia

Fred
The Pack Rat Ate my Patagonia by Laura A. Munson

I have never wanted to kill something before. Trap it live, and then shoot it. Or drown it in a glacially chilled grave. That thing—with the pretty little well-appointed pink nest, with its self-important aroma and little be-jewelled leavings. You see, I am planning a surprise party for my mother’s 70th birthday at her suburban Chicago country club from my rural Montana post, and I really could give a pack-rat’s ass whether or not Mrs. Who’s-who will eat blue cheese. So flush—down she goes. Her and her kind. The kind that is currently camping in the engine of my Suburban. The pack rat that broke the good-daughter’s back.

How is one supposed to carry on sophisticated conversations with the club manager about roast suckling pig in a port demi glace with wild mushroom risotto when there is activity in the garage of architectural proportions? Thievery from diaper bags when I’m trying to sort out the soup course from the salad course? Pillage while trying to estimate how many martinis Mrs. Who’s-who is good for? I’m talking about what floral colors lend themselves to the Persian rugs in the Hunt Room with Roberto the botanical coordinator, and a rodent the size of a Corgi dog is scurrying past my toes with insulation from the garage to beat the ensuing night chill. He’s heard the temperature is supposed to drop to eighteen tonight. Probably because he’s been sitting on my couch with a Budweiser in one paw and the remote control in the other while I’ve been in my office ordering five dollar a piece balloons.
packrat
The phone rings: “Laura dear, I’m going in for a little nip and tuck if you know what I mean, and I’ll be tardy to your mother’s big surprise ta-doo. So if you can arrange to have someone just spoon me into a chair for the party, I’ll be a definite oui to your respondez vous.”
At this moment, I am actually cradling a cordless in my neck, picking out– thumb to index finger– pack rat shit from my children’s car seats before I pick them up from school.
“Why of course, Mrs. Who’s-who, and by the way, do you like blue cheese?”
“If it’s Stilton, Dear. If it’s Stilton.”
It is then that I realize that my car smells like blue cheese. Like blue cheese atop a skunk canapé, served with a musk coulis.
So I run back in the house and I grab a stick of incense and light it off the cigarette burner while I’m mocking 90 down the highway so as not to be, yet again, one of those mothers who gets scowled at by crossing guards as she whips into the school playground fifteen minutes late. It is patchuli incense sent to me by my forty-five year old Deadhead brother who lives in a car conceivably better-smelling than my own, and I realize that my car now smells like a Grateful Dead concert, and I open the windows to get that smell out too.

My kids each have a friend coming over to play.
“What took you so long? Oh geez! This car stinks!” This four times.
“Get in,” I say, as a beer bottle actually rolls out from under a seat and clink clink clinkclinkclinks down the incline of the school parking lot. (I’m not sure I can blame this on the pack rat.)
A PTA mother looks at me, and ushers her perfectly clean child into her perfectly clean white mini-van.
“A pack rat is living in my car,” I say. Like that is an excuse.
It is at this point that I hear a sound– a pitter patter, coming from underneath my hood.
I get out, realize that I am not wearing a bra, open the hood with some odd posturing, and ploink– the damn thing evicts itself and slithers off into the soccer field, which is occupied by just about every kid in town, not to mention their myriad on-time type, non beer-drinking, non-pack-ratty parents.
I smile at them, hiding my pendulous post-breastfeeding chest behind my elbows, and pick out a pink nest of insulation from my car engine, replete with a few pieces of dog food, and one of my daughter’s barrettes. Then I cross the parking lot, and throw this vestige of Montana living, into the dumpster. It is here that my cell phone rings.
packrat
“Laura Dear, hi, this is Mr. Club Manager. Listen, we got your choices for hors d’oeuvres, and we think there might be a problem here.”
“Oh?” I say, slamming down the hood of my car.
“Yes, Dear. We noticed that you chose two Asian hors d’oeuvres. We think one is enough. Remember these people are WASPs. I don’t know how they do things out West, but in the Midwest, it’s still pretty much meat and potatoes, even at the Club. We would suggest the bacon and brown sugar.”
“Bacon and…what?”
“Brown sugar. Everyone in their crowd just begs for it.”
“What’s this black poo looking thing in my backpack?”
“Can we go—it stinks in here!” Times four.
“Laura, Dear? It’s your choice, really. I mean this is your party, after all—even if it is for your mother’s seventieth birthday. I mean everyone knows it’s a surprise party. So if you make a little mistake, they can blame it on you, if you know what I mean.”
“Huh?” I hear a squeal from the soccer field.
“It won’t be a reflection on your mother, is what I mean.”
“Oh. Okay. I guess you can exchange the Thai dumplings for the bacon and…brown sugar. Listen can I call you back?”
“Fine, Dear. But do call me back soonish. I still have to go over the color of the linens with you. The party is in a week. By the way, when do you arrive and what is your local number in case I need to contact you for any last minute details, like whether to serve during toasts or not?”
“Uh—I think my flight gets in mid-day on Monday. I’ll call you from the airport for any last minute details, because I’m…I’m going directly up to Wisconsin to visit a friend for a few days before the party. And she lives in a little cabin. And…and she doesn’t have a phone.” This is a lie.
“No phone? How about a cell phone number?”
“Uh—no cell phone service up there either. Kind of like most of Montana.” This is a lie as well.
packrat

“Mom! There’s that black poo-looking stuff in the baby’s diaper bag!”
Then the baby says, “Ewwww-ah.”
“And your fleece coat—it’s all—holey.”
“Hey—I’ve got a situation. I trust you guys. You do this all the time. I haven’t done it ever. And frankly, I think you know my mother’s taste better than I do. So– listen…you pick what you think is best. I’ll call to confirm…soon. Ish.”
I look into the back seat, and into the one nice thing I think I have left on this planet after two kids, two dogs, a cat and life in the country—it’s the Patagonia fleece my mother-in-law bought me last season. Just a little knock-about coat so you can look spiffy when you’re picking the kids up from school.
And I pick up my fleece, and hold it in the air, pack rat pellets falling off it as it lifts to the sun, and there is not just a little hole under the armpit, no– the whole thing is like a piece of polypropylene Swiss cheese.
That is when I open my mouth and these words come out: “This rat must die.” Then I spend five dollars of quarters at the car wash vacuuming out my car with a blaring Terminator-pitched hose so that all of the kids plus the baby say, “Whuuuht?” when I ask them afterward if they want to go for ice cream.
packrat

That night I take dry wall screws and drill them into the bottom of a rat trap the size of a flip flop. Then I mount it on a two by four and actually say out loud, to myself, “Ain’t nothin’ dragging that trap nowhere.”
Then I slather peanut butter on it and turn off the lights in the garage. “Nighty night.”
The next day there is nothing in the trap, but the inside of my car is covered in pack rat shit, and now, my other last nice thing—my $250.00 Pierre Deux diaper bag given to me by my mother’s suburban Chicago bridge group so you don’t feel frumpy, Dear carrying around all those horrible diapers and things—has a hole in the side of it the size of a softball.
I drop off the kids at school in a drive so silent, that they are afraid of me. And I go to the car wash, forgoing my hair appointment designed to assuage my mother’s comment on her last visit to Montana: can’t we do something about that hair of yours?
I am interrupted by a guy standing at the hood of my car. “Better be careful,” he says. “I just spent five hundred dollars fixing the wiring in my truck from a rat.”
The cell phone rings, then, in-between quarter-feeding rounds. “Laura, Dear, hi this is your Aunt Who’s-who (for some reason every woman in my mother’s bridge group refers to herself as aunt somebody—usually when they want something) “I hate to bother you Dear, but I thought I should let you know, Mrs. So-and So has her nose bent out of shape that she’s not included in the surprise party for your mother at the club. For what it’s worth.”
And standing there, holding the power vac, I feel my oats, because I actually say: “I’ll tell you how much it’s worth: fifty frigging bucks a head!”
Flash: a call waiting from my Deadhead brother: “Laura, hey dude, listen, I’m still a Vegan so like…could you make sure there’s something for me to eat at Mom’s party. Maybe some raw organic carrots and hummus at the cocktail party and like…a smoothie, maybe. I still do garden burgers so that’d be cool for dinner. Hey—and like is this a surprise…or does she know. Because I might have said something to her about it.”
“First of all, YES it’s a surprise! Generally speaking, a surprise party is supposed to be a surprise! And second of all, I don’t think the Who’s-who Club would know a smoothie, never mind a garden burger if it slapped them across the face, and third of all…” I can feel my heart beating in my temples. And it is here that I have a vision of my brother welcoming a pack rat into his Volkwagon van—befriending it, adopting it as a pet, feeding it lentils one by one, fastening a little red bandanna around its neck and naming it Magnolia Blossom. “And third of all…third of all…you can take your flippin’garden burger, and shove it up your–”
“Whoah. Hostility. What’s that about?”
“There’s a pack rat living in my car, okay? The pack rat ate my Pierre Deux diaper bag, okay? The pack rat ate my Patagonia!”
“It’s just a creature. He’s probably just looking for a warm place to get in from the cold. You should–”
“What? I can’t hear you. You’re breaking up.”
I beseech myself: Why am I trying to be the good daughter? At what point do we stop paying proportionally for our adolescences, never mind our births?
packrat

Another five dollars in quarters later, with no epiphanies to speak of and two more phone calls from my brother who is now trying to convince me to pass around a hat at the surprise party to fund his return airfare, I am at the hardware store again, investing in a live trap. Maybe he’s right. I am hostile. Hostile that this pack rat is making it impossible for me to go back for my mother’s surprise seventieth birthday party and look presentable. Hostile that I have offered to co-ordinate this party in the first place. Hostile that people get their noses bent out of shape, especially when they’re just going to go get it nipped and tucked anyway. Hostile that my mother can’t just fly out here for her seventieth and have a good old fashioned pot luc under a rain tarp with a keg and a DJ like everybody else in this country.
I buy the trap, put it in my car this time, bait it with a piece of old pizza and turn off the garage lights.
My ex-boss calls me later that night from a Christian conference in the deep South to tell me she is on fire for the Lord. I tell her about my pack rat. She says, “Jesus says you reap what you sow.”
Next morning at seven-o’clock, I am staring a terrified and noticeably cute little critter in the eyes, striking a deal. “I take you out in the woods, see…and you go make a nest in a nice old stump, see. I save your life, and you save mine, see. It’s a Jesus thing. Capice?”
packrat
And we go, me and my little doppleganger buddy, out to the woods before anyone wakes up. And I lift up the door. And he doesn’t go.
“Go on! This isn’t a Lassie episode! Get out of here. Shoo. Go! I know they don’t have Patagonia or Pierre Deux in the woods, but moss works just fine! You’re a rat! I’m the one with the WASP lineage to uphold. Go on! Git!”
And he goes then. Slowly, with stealth, at a royal’s pace, a little hobo stick over his shoulder, looking back once, his nose a little bent out of shape—he wouldn’ta cared, you see, if I double-Asianed his hors d’oeuvre choice, wouldn’ta cared, see, if I’d spooned him into a chair or hung him from a chandelier, given him a GD gardenburger or one of his own turds.
Aw shucks, little guy. Write when ya get work. It’s a cruel world out there. Ain’t it.

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Inversion

inversion
Inversion
by Laura A. Munson

It’s lonely in February with just one woodpecker and a few chickadees against the grey. They call it inversion.
Our valley is flanked by the Whitefish Range—foothills to the Rockies– what in summer looks like a towering garden wall. Then winter rolls in from the Pacific Ocean and gets caught along its jagged edges; and we are sequestered here under a low ceiling of grey, from as early as October, to as late as June.
I don’t have the mind for winter much past the end of January. I can’t sleep that long. Day after day of this grey, socking us in, pressing us down, depriving us of vitamin D. I try to work with what is left—with what is not dormant. I become fascinated by paw prints—are those snow hare prints? Mountain Lion? Fox? I go out with a field guide and a ruler. Scat becomes a symbol of communion. Even the deer start to seem exotic. Crows, prophets. The raven, a mystic holy one.
I walk in insomniac circles in the snow to prove that I am alive. Is that the actual dirt of my driveway glinting through the ice? Does the pond look like it’s opening up in the middle—just a bit?
I force bulbs in my kitchen window, missing the wildflowers that
cover the hillsides from June on to the snows—the yellow arnica, the pink roses, the purples of the columbine, wild lupine and geranium, the orange of Indian paintbrush, the blue flax, and on and on until the violet of the asters. The bulbs in my window come up so wan, knowing they are decoys.
I become good with the mawl, splitting kindling, never enough in this undying season. Sometimes I split wood just to hear the echo. Maybe the woodpecker will answer. Maybe it will be a Pileated woodpecker—maybe there will be red in the trees.
It is fashionable to complain. I do not want to complain. I remind myself that it is this precise grey that keeps our valley free from over-development, our hillsides thick with Larch and Fir, Ponderosa and Lodgepole pine– not thick with the “rustic chic” of log-accented condos and private ski chalets. These are not Colorado winters bedazzled with sapphire skies and relentless “champagne powder” days. This is still the great Northwest; fertile and wet and dense. And grey. Perhaps that which is so fertile must sleep deeper. Longer.
I slap skins on my skis and hike to the top of the mountain, above the cloud level, just to see what has been procured for pilots and high-flying birds who’ve had the guts to stay. I strap on skis and climb through the grey to remind myself—my skin, my retina– that there is a color in this world brighter than my orange down parka.
The sheen off Glacier National Park is garish. Like a confection. The sun so sovereign. The sky so blue with infinity. My heart rises then sinks: How could we be so…neglected?
And I remember the gluttony of summer. Dipping hot feet into mountain lakes turquoise with mineral-rich glacial run-off, melting lotion into golden shoulders, waking with the birds at the exact blush of dawn, little bundles of fingers purple from picking huckleberries, emerald green peas in a silver pail.
Maybe I’ve got it wrong.
Maybe we are being protected from something that only the sky knows. Maybe the inversion is a great grey net, preserving us, somehow.
It looks so quiet below. Not sinister.
Yes, I decide. We are being preserved.
I breathe into the blue and slide back down under, and for a moment, as the world vanishes into vertigo, I feel free. Floating in-between acute wakefulness and sleep again; a part of the gentle hand of ozone covering us all these months, year after year.
And then it’s the valley again, cut off at the shins. The lake, a white footprint in the middle of it all. And again, I am on my front porch, chin to the grey, but I am thanking it now.
For however else am I to remember the welcome the wildflowers deserve?

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