You know you don't read enough. You know you want to be reading a lot more. We've broken the article into chuncks to make reading easier.

“Reading Is Fundamental,” is what we were taught in elementary school. That was back in the days when schools had libraries full of these things called books and children were taught to not only recognize words in a sentence but to understand the context of those words and to appreciate the meaning of a story.

Those days are not entirely gone. I’m not a doomsayer who is certain that the digital revolution spells the end to civilization as we know it. If anything, technology offers us the opportunity to read more than we ever have before. We can know more than we ever have before.

But we don’t, do we? Despite all the resources and opportunity lying around us, our reading time is limited to the four seconds it takes to read a headline and deduce the contents of the associated article or story or book. We live in a world of assumptions thinking we know things we’ve never actually read or studied. Our level of knowledge is false but the extent of our Kreuger-Dunning disease is so severe we don’t care and refuse to acknowledge that we’re living in a fantasy world.

Actually reading is important. Yes, that means sitting down and taking time to not only consume words and sentences and paragraphs but to take some serious time to think about what we’re reading, the inferences of the words chosen and the implications that any given article or story might have to our own situation. The challenge is not that we don’t have the time but that we’d rather spend it doing mindless things such as looking at cat videos. We have devalued the art of reading to the point that we treat it much as we do a chore such as washing the dishes, making the bed, or scooping the cat’s litter box. If we could somehow delegate reading to another person, we would.

My challenge for everyone today is that we begin reclaiming the art of reading, that we take the time, put down the cat videos, and actually consume an entire story. Study the words, consider their meaning, appreciate the effort some writer took to put those words together in the particular order printed. Whether the source is digital or paper is, at this particular point, irrelevant. The words I’m about to give to you are not available in print so to insist that one only consume from that form of media would be a bit disingenuous. What matters is that you read.

I’ll start with a story from this past week, my experience in taking my driving test. I’ve not had a valid driver’s license for over ten years, which meant I had to go through the whole process again that I went through when I turned 16. This was a much different experience. Following that story, I’ll give you a few more from the archives, providing enough material to get one through at least 30-45 minutes of reading.

Of course, I already know that of the few people who start this article only two or three will actually finish. While that makes me sad, I’m not the one who can change that statistic. You are. Reading for yourself is not enough. We must encourage others to read as well.

Here’s the first story.

The Adventure of Taking My Driving Test

Art of Reading - Old Man Talking

It’s not fair, you know, an adult being told they can’t drive. Not in today’s world. One has to drive everywhere to get anything. I know because I’ve tried walking and I’m here to tell you that people in cars have absolutely no respect for people who are walking. If you want respect you have to be in another car, riding their bumper, then whip around them and cut them off right in front of a cop. That’s how you get respect. And a $750 ticket for careless driving.

Seriously, the last time I was stopped by a police officer it was because I was guilty of walking. Mind you, THERE WERE SIDEWALKS! What else is a person supposed to do with a sidewalk if they can’t walk on it? But no, someone called the police because they had a report of, and I kid you not, “a suspicious person, matching your description, walking.”

Walking. Not messing with anyone. Not snooping where I wasn’t supposed to be snooping. Just walking, on my way to the grocery to get milk, actually, and I get stopped because someone thought it was suspicious that a grown adult would be walking on a sidewalk in the middle of the afternoon. Who the hell calls the cops on someone who is walking? Oh, wait, Maybe they thought I was black or Hispanic. Or perhaps, since I was wearing a blue shirt, they deduced through their massive front window that I’m a registered Democrat There are people who would call the cops for either of those reasons. We’ve seen it happen too many times.

Bottom line is if you want to avoid harassment in these fan-fucking-tastic United States, one has to be able to drive. Not Uber. Not Lyft. Damn sure not the bus. Drive. If a person can’t drive, then there is a significant portion of society that doesn’t consider you a person. I know this because they’ve tried to run me down when I’ve been walking and the only reason they weren’t successful was that I looked at them and the stomped on the brakes out of fear. Had I been better looking, I’d likely be dead. Being scary saved my life when I was walking.

No kidding. About 11 years ago now, I was walking down the street through a part of Indianapolis that tends to have a reputation for being a bit rough. There’s a lot of gang activity in that neighborhood and the police are called to investigate shootings and homicides on a regular basis. I had to walk through this neighborhood at 11:00 at night. It was the only way to get home. I couldn’t afford a cab and the busses had stopped running. That’s right, this neighborhood was so scary even the buses wouldn’t go there at night.

So there I am, walking down the sidewalk, and I see this for young men coming toward me from the opposite direction. I start feeling nervous. There’s four of them, one of me, and my feet are already tired so running is out of the question. We’re getting closer to each other and I feel my heart start to beat faster, my palms begin to get sweating. I didn’t even have a cell phone to call 911. I was concerned about how to handle this situation.

Then, about 20 feet away from me, they stop. One of them points in my direction and whispers to the other three. I’m thinking, “Great, this is it, they’re planning how to kill me.” But I was wrong. The one pointing at me looks scared. His eyes get big because I didn’t stop, I just kept walking and I’m getting closer, and the other guys’ eyes get big too, and now I’m only about ten feet away from them.

That’s when they wave, quietly say, “Hey, how you doing?” then RUN to the other side of the street. Why? Because I scared them more than they scared me. I didn’t say a thing, either. Didn’t brandish a weapon, didn’t even pretend to have one. Just walked right at them. And they ran.

There comes a point, though, where walking just doesn’t cut it. It’s more than not getting the respect one deserves. From where I live now, it’s over four miles to the nearest coffee shop! That’s a matter of life and death, man! On those mornings when a person wakes up and discovers that someone else in the family decided to fix and drink the last of the coffee, it helps to have a coffee shop close by, but we don’t have one. 4.3 miles one would have to walk, crossing a major highway in the process. That’s a bit too dangerous. It was time for me to get my drivers license.

Now, I’ve had a drivers license before and I was a good driver. Had it not been for the fact that I had some health issues and almost cause a wreck, emphasis on the almost part, there would not have been an interruption in my driving. That happened, though, I gave up driving, and in Indiana when one hasn’t had a valid drivers license more than three years one has to take the whole set of tests all over again. All of them. Written test, eye test, organ donor test, and the driving test. Should be easy, right? Of course.

The problem is that included in all that is the trial driving period. After passing the eye test and the written test, one has to drive with another licensed driver for a total of 40 hours across a span of 180 days, minimum. That’s six months for those of you who went to public school. Six freakin’ months that Kat has to be sitting in the front seat with me every time I drive.

Understand, one of the reasons Kat was so excited and supportive of me getting my license back is so that she wouldn’t have to be the one to cart my fat ass all over town. She especially hated trips to the grocery store because I never can remember everything. We’d go to the store on Sunday, then Tuesday morning I’d tell her I need to go again.

“You were just at the store,” she’d say.

And I’d reply, “Yeah, but I forgot the cheese and I really need cheese for tonight’s dinner.” So, we’d go get cheese and I’d come out with 15 other things that I remembered that I’d forgotten. This would happen two and three times a week every week. She was getting a bit tired of it all. She really wanted me to have my license so I can take my own damn self to the grocery store.

We get through the trial period, I go to make an appointment for my driving test and I can’t find a time available at the nice Northside BMV office where I’d taken my other test. All the times were full when Kat was available to take me. I had to look at other BMV branches and the only one that had an opening within the timeframe I needed was on the South side of town right smack in the middle of one of those neighborhoods where people are likely to cross to the other side of the street when they see me coming. Rough neighborhood but that’s our only choice.

We get there a little before they open. Mine is the very first appointment of the day, always a good one because the person giving the test, the examining officer, is fresh and should be in a relatively decent mood unless they ran out of cream for their coffee or some similarly horrible personal event. They’ve not really had time for their day to be ruined by drivers who are not as good at driving as I am.

We walk in and all the BMV staff is standing behind the counter calling out numbers. “I can take the person holding number 1 here!” calls one. Another takes two, three, and so on. I have number six and a young woman calls for number six. I start heading in her direction when the person standing next to her shouts, “I need to see whoever has the first driving appointment! Whoever is scheduled for the 8:30 driving examination needs to come right here.”

Now I’m confused. Do I go to the person who is looking for number six or do I go to the person looking for the first driver? I’m both. To whom do I give my attention?

I walk to the young woman looking for the first driver and we get the number thing worked out and she gives me this exasperated look like I should have known better than to take a number but the sign at the front door said everyone needs to take a number and that’s exactly what I did. Nothing said anything about people taking driving tests not needing a number.

She instructs me to take a seat across the counter from her and I immediately start to feel nervous. This young woman is no older than my own sons, probably between the oldest and the middle sons. I have coffee mugs older than she is.

Part of my nervousness comes from how hard she’s trying to be authoritative. I guess when you’re young and short, she’s around 5’4” or so, getting people to respect the authority bestowed upon you by the state of Indiana isn’t exactly an easy thing to do. I get that. She’s doing her best to not appear as though she has a personal feeling in the world. She’s all business. No smiles. A permanent grimace all the way through the opening procedure.

“I need to ask you a few questions,” she says, pulling out a piece of paper with ink on both sides. This is not “a few” questions. I’ve had college finals that weren’t this long.

She starts the questions. “Have you ever had a license suspended or revoked by a judge in any state?”

No.

“Have you ever lost your license as part of a plea agreement or other court action?”

No.

“Have you ever been convicted of committing a crime while in the process of driving a motor vehicle?”

I swallowed my smart-mouthed answer and said, “No.”

She goes on and asks approximately 40 more questions covering every possible illegal act one might commit while driving a car. “Have you ever abandoned a moving vehicle? Have you ever killed anyone while driving a motor vehicle? Have you ever attempted to eat a gyro while driving and had the cucumber sauce drip onto the pants that you just paid $30 to have dry cleaned?”

No, no, and why are you paying $30 to have a pair of pants dry cleaned? Say they’re your dads and they’ll do it for $5.

We finish the questions, I prove to her that I’m not as blind as I look, she puts on a bright yellow safety vest and bright red ear warmers in case we are in a horrible accident and she has to walk back, and then we go out to the car. The first thing we have to do is show that both the brake lights and the turn signals all work. That means I’m inside the car with the seat warmer on, toasting my buns, while she’s out in the cold. They do, of course, and she comes around to the passenger side of the car to get in. And can’t.

The door’s locked. The locks on the car operate off a key fob. Kat and I both carry one and all we have to do is step up to the car and it unlocks the door for us. The driving examiner doesn’t have a key fob and I can’t find the freaking button to unlock the damn door. The thirty seconds of fumbling around felt like half a day. I was sure I could see her delicate skin beginning to chafe in the cold. I’m hoping I don’t get demerits for this.

She sits in the car and puts a clipboard on her lap. Attached to that clipboard is a piece of paper and on that piece of paper are all the things I can possibly do wrong to fuck up this driving test. The clipboard is on her lap, her pen is at the ready,she instructs me to back out.

Immediately, another person steps behind the car on their way into the BMV office. I see them in my mirror, she doesn’t.

“Anytime you’re ready,” she says.

“Just waiting for this pedestrian,” I respond, as the man passes by her window. She jumps in surprise and double-checks her seat belt.

From that point forward her pen never hit the paper. Maybe it was Indy roads and all that pot hole dodging (Indy’s next contribution to the Olympics). Maybe she was too scared to move. Maybe it was the lulling sounds of NPR on the radio. Maybe it was the seat warmer.

We drove around the block, I parallel parked without any curbs being assaulted and returned to the BMV office. The test really was that straight forward. We didn’t even talk, really. She gave instructions to go this way and that way and yes I instantly thought about that children’s song and wondered what it really means.

I did ask one question. I asked what the rule was regarding dodging potholes. Her response was to inform me that she was not allowed to answer any questions regarding the test, but yes, please, avoid the potholes.

We get back the the BMV office and she jumps out of the car. This is when I realize that her face is paler than it was when we started, and that’s saying something for a little red-headed person who likely has to wear SPF 40 just to open the microwave door. We get inside the BMV door and she says, “You passed, you did fine. Take a seat and someone will call for you.”

And then she disappeared.  Maybe she needed a drink. Maybe she needed to vomit. Maybe she needed to call a family member and tell them she loved them. Maybe she was double-checking her insurance. Another ten minutes would pass before she would return to her station. She was right next to where I was finishing up my license. Not once did she even glance my direction. She was visibly trembling.

But hey, I passed. I have a real driver’s license again, which means you have to respect me now or I’ll run your ass over.

Okay, maybe not your ass, but at least your toes. Seriously. Be nice.

Naked And Unashamed

Art of Reading - Old Man Talking

From the earliest moments of my childhood, the biblical myth was pounded into my head with a resounding moral: being naked is wrong. The predominant scripture used was this, from Genesis 3:

7And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

8And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

9And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

10And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

The theological arguments to be made here are irrelevant to my point: I was taught that being naked was wrong. For the past 52 years, I have not been comfortable being naked.

Now, given what I do, and the sometimes graphic nature of the pictures I take, the dichotomy here is severe. I’m comfortable with anyone else on the planet being comfortable, standing in front of my camera in said state, and distributing pictures of people in various states of undress. Go ahead, YOU can be naked; doesn’t bother me one bit.

But ME be naked? Okay, I have a problem with that.

I never have been comfortable being naked. Is that the fault of the religious prohibition? Perhaps. I’m sure that constant indoctrination has a great deal to do with my psychosis on the subject. Yet, I don’t think that alone is to blame.

I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, a time when exploration and personal expression was common place. Streakers were everywhere, it seemed. So, at the young age of 12 I tried streaking … in the back yard when no one else was home and neighbors couldn’t see. I made it about 15 feet from the door then hurriedly ran back inside. I didn’t like it. Being naked wasn’t just wrong, it felt uncomfortable.

A few years later, I tried again. I had seen something on television where one of the major characters slept nude. So, that night I quietly shucked my underwear and gave it a try. I didn’t last ten minutes before I was reaching for those tidy whities, thankful to have something keeping my most private parts ensconced and well protected.

Even after being married, when sex became a semi-regular event, I still wouldn’t sleep nude. We’d fuck, then snuggle, and as soon as she was asleep I was reaching for my underwear. I never walked around the house naked. I didn’t get into nude tanning. Never have been a huge fan of skinny dipping. Sorry, I’d just as soon keep my pants on, thank you.

So why is it, at the less-than-sexy age of 52, I am suddenly finding that, more often than not, I wake up naked? How is it that I am suddenly comfortable walking down the hall with my junk jiggling? What makes sitting around in a loose robe more palatable now than when my body was in a more flattering condition?

I can think of a few reasons.

One is that I have more reason to be nude now than I have before. My current situation, minus health issues, is one where clothes get in the way of spontaneous sexual activity. Sex is not just one of those things that happen one or two nights a week. Any time we are both conscious and interruptions are not likely, lively physical frolicking is likely to ensue. One needs to be ready to drop those drawers at a moment’s notice.

Another reason may be that there is no shame to nudity in my current situation. Sure, I’ve had other roommates *say* they didn’t mind being nude, but I never saw them in that condition unless it was specifically for the purpose of taking pictures. And had *I* walked through the house naked, they all would have turned red with embarrassment. That stigma doesn’t exist here. As long as little ones are not present, clothes are truly optional, if not outright discouraged. Being naked is celebrated, not merely given lip service (pun acknowledged).

More than anything, though, I think this new burst of being comfortable in my own skin boils down to one significant factor: Love. For the first time in my life, I feel genuinely loved for being exactly who I am, wrinkles and all. Receiving that kind of love makes it easier for me to in turn love myself for the same reasons. The result is a level of comfort with myself that does not generate any shame in being naked.

Look back at the Adam and Eve myth. They realized they were naked and became scared. Their shame, however, was not caused by their nudity. Rather, the realization of being nude induced guilt from being disobedient to their deity. They had been told not to do something and did it anyway. As a result, they lost everything that had allowed them to be comfortable in their garden condition. Not only did they now need clothes, but they also had to actually work for food, and felt pain for the first time. Nudity did not cause those things, dishonesty did.

I’m still not 100% comfortable with being naked all the time. I’m sitting here in my underwear as I type this, and even that is a big step for me. Yet, the same I always felt with being anything less than modest in my attire is gone. No, I’m not likely to go publicly parading around in my birthday suit any time soon, but I’m no longer afraid of doing so should sufficient reason for doing so arise. Being loved and accepted takes away the guilt and the shame with which I grew up.

Which leads me to this conclusion: Perhaps if we did a better job of raising our children with the same level of love and acceptance they might find it easier to accept themselves for who they are without all the years of therapy.

Just a thought.

Jumping Off Bridges

Art of Reading - Old Man Talking

“Do you want me to throw you over the bridge now or later?”

My thoughts had already catapulted me off into distant lands so I did not immediately grasp the question, prompting its repeat.

“Do you want me to throw you over the bridge now?”

White grocery bags held together in her left hand give her the appearance of possibly being homeless, the glossy sheen to her eyes and her otherwise kept attire indicated a greater probability that at least her body had a home, even if her mind and soul had been dismissed by whatever pharmaceutical cocktail forced her to wander the near lifeless streets of Elgin.

At least she was smiling.

When she repeated the question I mumbled a hasty, “Not today, thank you,” as though I might give her offer more lengthy consideration on some later date. I looked over the crumbling concrete railing at the sludge-brown water of whatever river smirked slowly below. What would she have done had I responded with an enthusiastic, “Sure, you toss me then I’ll toss you!”  Internally, some small wrinkle in my brain chuckled at the potential hilarity while the remaining neurons fired away at all the instructions necessary to keep one’s body propelled forward.

Having time to think opens precarious doors. One’s initial thoughts focus on the inherently obvious and can entertain a logical analysis of known factors. Given sufficient time for processing, though, the mind eventually begins substituting the illogical in place of the logical. Unknown elements replace known factors and before long one inevitably tumbles headlong into conjecture and the impossible world of “what if.” Within such ambiguous territory, fears enjoy free reign, popping up in every concept until they leak past the world of the unknown to pollute the world of the known. Suddenly, nothing seems quite so certain anymore.

Except, there’s still that bridge and it’s potentially life-changing offer.

Ever stop to think about bridges? They are fundamental to transportation, or any manner of transition. Bridges represent a desire to leave one place, one existence, one ideal, in favor of another, the two being separated by some form of chasm which cannot otherwise be traversed.

Look carefully at the construction of a bridge and one finds the very structure itself is the definition of change. Such was true even of ancient bridges; on either side of a ravine may be roads or paths of sod, yet the bridge itself must be made of a different material, usually wood or stone. Modern spans of asphalt spread on beds of gravel are bridged by delicately poured concrete under-girded with steel. Engineers would never consider building an entire road from the same material, using the same methods as bridges; the expense alone makes such an idea impractical. As a result, it is almost impossible to cross a bridge that does not invoke change.

Often, one sets focus solely on whatever lies on the other side of the bridge. After all, whatever exists over there is the reason we cross the bridge in the first place. Yet, what too often catches us by surprise is the change invoked by the bridge itself; a change wholly unlike what waits on the other side.

And in that consideration, that change requires pre-change, the question of a seemingly mentally challenged pedestrian takes on a whole new meaning. “Do you want me to throw you over the bridge now or later?”

Here find both cause and solution to failure; it is not that one does not want or fears the change on the other side; but that we are unprepared for the intermediate change of the bridge and, caught up in the panic of the unexpected, we either jump or allow some random crazy person to toss us over. As a result, we end up soaked by the muddy waters of despair, never achieving the change we so ardently desire.

What we fail to realize is that what we experience on the bridge is necessary preparation for what we find on the other side. Bridges are designed to get us there, not stop us in the process. We need what bridges offer.

Granted, some bridges have the innate ability to invoke fear.

In the Disney movie “Shrek,” the ogre and Donkey arrive at the dragon’s castle to find they must cross a less-than-secure looking bridge below which flows a stream of fiery molten lava. Donkey is immediately concerned and, half-way across, is ready to turn around and go back, willing to leave the princess for someone else to rescue. Shrek proceeds to employ distraction tactics and before Donkey realizes what is happening, they both are safe across the bridge.

And what distraction did the giant green ogre use to get donkey across the bridge? The threat of being flung over the side!

Two matters are worth noting in that story. First, it was Donkey’s over-thinking the safety of the bridge that allowed room for the fear to engulf him. Had he simply walked cautiously across the structure he would not have encountered any problem. Second, when paralyzed by fear, we sometimes need the help of a friend threatening to send us over the side before we can get across.

“Do you want me to throw you over the bridge now or later?”

Outside the Adams Street entrance to Chicago’s Union Station, an older man, his back hunched from the reality of a life lived, sits on a bench and removes from his shirt pocket a pack of Marlboro Lights. His old hands trembling, he removes a cigarette from the pack and lights it. Not a scenario that sounds too terribly unusual, especially given that almost every other bench in the area is occupied by someone else doing exactly the same thing.

What makes this gentleman unique is that, prior to fishing the pack of cigarettes from his pocket, he had to first remove and shut off the oxygen tube from his nose. Every drag on the cigarette was obviously painful and labored. More than once the man winced as he struggled to draw the nicotine down into what little remains of his lungs. When finished, he replaced the tube in his nostrils, turned on the portable oxygen tank strapped to his back, and resumed a more relaxed and comfortable breathing rhythm.

Talk about addictions all you want, ultimately the man couldn’t, wouldn’t, cross the bridge. Crossing the bridge, for him, means putting down the cigarettes and he has made the decision that suffering is preferable to crossing the uncertain path leading to quitting.

We may find it easy to criticize the old man for making such a self-destructing choice, but how often are we guilty of making choices of equal fatality to our careers, our families, our well-being, our happiness, all because there is some bridge, some challenge, some fear that we must first conquer before we can reach our goal?

No significant change happens without some manner of transition. If there were no canyons between the status quo and progress, we might well slide between one state of being and the next without realizing any chance had occurred at all. Yet, it is those muddy rivers, those gullies, the ravines, and ditches, that create boundaries, territory markers, and we simply cannot move from one existence to the next without crossing some manner of a bridge.

Many of life’s bridges we zip across without care or worry, scarcely even noticing that the ground beneath us has changed. However, as we cross some of the most meaningful bridges of our lives we will often be faced with that now lingering question: “Do you want me to throw you over the bridge now or later?” 

Perhaps the old woman wasn’t so crazy after all. Something tells me she knows the answer to that question better than any of us.

In From The Rain

Art of Reading - Old Man Talking

Thunder echoed off the cavernous walls of skyscrapers, shaking the city like an old rag in the wind. Julianna worked the keys in the locks of her apartment as quickly as she could. The exit from the subway was less than half a block, but that had still been enough, in this downpour, to soak through her clothes, leaving her shivering, cold, and dripping water in the hallway. She gave a fleeting thought to mopping up the small puddle that had formed in front of her door, but decided against it, hoping that bothersome old Mr. Dreyfus might slip and fall to his death, or at least damage enough to keep him from stalking her.

Clothes started hitting the floor the instant the door was shut behind her and she was naked by the time she reached the towels in the bathroom. She turned the water in the shower on as hot as she could stand and stood under the stream until it started to cool. She then wrapped in a towel and made her way back to the living room, still wet, but feeling some better about the matter.

Passing by the phone, she saw the message light blinking, reminding her that even after five her work was not done. Pressing the play button, she stretched out across the bed waiting for the first message.

“Julianna, this is Kristi. I guess you know by now you left your umbrella in the cab. I have it here at the office. Not that it does you any good here, does it? Anyway, it will be here. I think it’s supposed to rain all week. You may want to bring hip waders, too, though not for the water. Bill’s back from his vacation. See you tomorrow!”

Julianna smiled. Kristi was a good enough admin, but not always quite as on the ball as she would have liked. She made a mental note to grab a copy of the Post in the morning, in case she needed a cover between the building and the subway.

“Julie, it’s Mom. Tory’s birthday is Saturday. You are coming, aren’t you? You’ve missed the past three years. I know you’re busy, but you’re hurting your brother’s feelings. I know you think Tory’s a skank, and, just between us, you’re probably right, but as long as Dave loves her …”

Mercifully, the machine didn’t allow long messages. Julianna winced at the thought of having to be in the same room with her brother’s wife. She and Tory had gotten off on the wrong foot from the beginning. Julianna was positive she had seen the young woman just the day before, standing on the subway platform locked lip to lip with someone who was definitely not her brother. She made a mental note to take her digital camera with her from now on, just in case she came across the bitch again.

“Hi, this is Karen Richardson at the Gotham Cancer Center. Our records indicate you’re due for another check-up. This is the fifth year since your surgery, so we’re going to want to run some tests while you’re here, make sure there’s nothing hiding from us. Please give me a call to set up your appointment. My number is … “

Groan. Was it that time again, already? The colon cancer that had given her a scare five years ago had been caught in its early stages, thanks to an extra-diligent young female doctor with whom Julianna had fallen hopelessly in love. Unfortunately, though the cancer was in full remission, so was their relationship. The check-up was necessary, but there was no way the visit could be comfortable.

“Ms. Gartner, this is Lucas at the Freshman’s Deli. We have that special Virginia-cured ham that you requested. Just give me a call and I’ll have it sliced and waiting for you when you get here.”

Mmmmm. The sweet flavor of the Virginia-cured ham brought back wonderful memories of dinner at her grandmother’s in Norfolk. The particular brand her grandmother bought wasn’t widely available outside the region. She would look forward to dining on the special meat all weekend.

“This is Roger. Julianna, listen, about last night, I just want to apologize, you know? I mean, I didn’t even know that bra was in my coat pocket! Really, I’m not some lothario. Can I have another chance, please?”

Sigh. What was it about boys that forced them all to be so very disappointing? Especially the pretty ones. Julianna suspected than the more muscles a boy had the fewer active brain cells remained. Again, another reason for preferring girls.

“Hey, pretty. Thanks for the flowers. You always know exactly what to pick to fit my mood. God, I miss you. Seriously, is there any good reason you can’t come to Connecticut this weekend? I need some time between those lovely legs of yours. Call me when you’re wet, dearest.”

“Should have seen me thirty minutes ago,” Julianna laughed. There was her excuse for not going to Tory’s party: she was needed in Connecticut. Her family didn’t need to know who she was seeing there, nor why. Although, she wondered how jealous Tory would feel knowing she was with another woman instead of her.

“Julianna, this is Roger again. Uhm, you don’t happen to remember me setting my credit card down anywhere, do you? I can’t seem to find it and I need to make plane reservations for a trip to … uh, well … nah, you probably never saw it. Anyway, call me, okay? Bye.”

She laughed. Stupid boy. She wondered how he would explain to his wife the charge for flowers sent to Connecticut. Of course, she had used the card only once before passing it to a homeless person who looked like they could use a good meal. She hoped he had a high credit limit

“Julianna, Gordon here. I just got off the phone with the Milliken Agency. Good work there! Now, the downside is they’re going to be here in the office tomorrow afternoon and they want to see your sketches for their new campaign. I went out on a limb and told them you’d be ready. Please, we’re counting on you for this one.”

Shit. She had bullshitted her way through that whole presentation. Not only did she not have any drawings, but she also didn’t have any hard research to support her plan. So much for a relaxing evening. She’d order pizza and spend the rest of the night getting the campaign together.

“Julianna, Gordon again. I’m sorry, that meeting’s been moved to ten in the morning. Hope that’s not a problem.”

What the fuck? She sat up and looked around for something to throw. A 10:00 meeting meant she’d have to be at the office by six to get everything printed on time. She hoped no one would mind the bags under her eyes from lack of sleep.

“Hey, this is Tory. I know your mom and brother have probably already been on you about being at my birthday party this weekend, but … uhm … yeah, I know you saw me in the subway and, well … it really wasn’t what you think, but … I won’t be offended if you decide to not come, I mean, given the circumstances and all …”

This time Julianna did throw a pillow at the phone. “What a fucking bitch,” she thought. Not only would she definitely be at the party, but she would also be taking Miss Connecticut along with her. Cheat on her brother and then try to blow her off? Oh HELL no that wasn’t happening!

“Julianna Gartner, this Daniel’s Cleaners. This white blouse you brought in, we can’t get clean! What is this, blood on the collar? Please, come pick up. We can’t do anything.”

Julianna groaned and fell back on the bed. She had been shaving and, of course, cut herself. Thinking she had grabbed a towel, she ended up blotting her leg with her favorite white blouse. Obviously, she was going to need a new one.

“Ms. Gartner? This is Gary at the front desk. We just had some flowers delivered for you. Let me know when you’re in and I’ll send them right up.”

She wouldn’t even need to read the card. Julianna knew who had sent those flowers, and why. She smiled. Perhaps the night wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Let it rain. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to be a little wet.

Beneath The Skin

Art of Reading - Old Man Talking

Light poured in the window warming the room just slightly beyond the point where it was comfortable. Spring was doing its best to make itself known, even if it did have to struggle to maintain that position more than a few days at a time. Lindsey loved the ability it gave her to enjoy the freedom of being something slightly less than clothed. This afternoon, she was very much less than clothed, having decided after her shower that allowing her delicate skin to air dry would be the best thing for it.

Granted, there was plenty of studying, plenty of homework, plenty of housework, that could have been the focus of those several minutes, but those chores had already managed to consume the morning and she refused to go a whole day without a few moments to herself. She knew full well her peace would be shattered soon enough, and she was quite correct.

Tina was the exact opposite of Lindsey. So much so, that their few mutual friends, both of them, could not figure out how they managed to live together without one killing or at least mutilating the other. Tina was headstrong, defiant, rebellious, and loud. Lindsey was studious, determined, disciplined and, for the most part, quiet. Ultimately, what allowed them to live together was that they were rarely home for very long at the same time. Lindsey was frequently gone during the day while Tina was typically out most of the evening and night. What little time they did overlap was usually spent sleeping. The system worked.

Lindsey being home this afternoon was quite an anomaly. Normally, she would have been at the library, studying, but a short in the library sprinkler system had temporarily closed the section to which she needed access. So, she had decided to try finishing her Philosophy paper from home, being careful to be quiet and not wake Tina.

Lindsey was stretched out across the arm of the love seat when Tina staggered sleepily from her room. “Good morning, sunshine,” Lindsey said softly, but cheerfully.

“What has you home and naked so early,” Tina asked groggily. “Have you seen my coffee cup?”

“Oh, I washed it this morning. Sprinkler problem at the library. Check the cupboard to the left of the sink. Second shelf,” Lindsey replied

Tina took a moment to parse what Lindsey had just told her, then found her mug exactly where she was told it would be. She looked around the normally trashed kitchen. It was spotless. “Uhm, so, you’ve been home all day, I take it?”

“Pretty much,” Lindsey said, shifting her position on the couch so as to not get fabric lines on her skin. “Had class at 9, but then the sprinkler thing happened and it just seemed to make sense to come back here. I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“No, no,” Tina assured her while fumbling with the coffee pot. “Had you woke me I would have had to kill you. I never had a clue you were here. But, how much studying did you get done?”

“Finished my philosophy paper,” Lindsey answered, shifting again. “Got most my calculus homework done, and the reading for my anatomy class.”

“And still had time to clean the kitchen? You disgust me,” Tina growled, only half teasing.

“Oh, I didn’t really clean,” Lindsey said. “I just tidied up a bit. Washed some dishes. Folded some clothes. Paid some bills. Nothing big.”

“You realize you’ve already done more in one day than I do all week,” Tina mused.

Lindsey laughed. “I doubt that. Just because I’m not here to see you do something doesn’t mean you’re not busy.”

“I may do a few things here and there, but I’m not Miss Perpetual Motion like you are,” Tine said. “Which reminds me, I need to change Deacon’s litter box.”

“Already done,” Lindsey said. “I was afraid he was going to wake you with his howling if it didn’t get changed. Wasn’t really any trouble. Took less than five minutes.”

“Okay,” Tina said, haltingly. “Thank you.” She poured herself a cup of coffee. “You want any coffee?”

“No, thank you,” Lindsey said. “Wouldn’t want it keeping me up all night. Besides, it gives me funny freckles.”

Tina held the mug firmly in both hands, still feeling quite groggy from the previous evening’s high alcohol consumption. She took a seat on the adjacent couch and kicked off her slippers. She wasn’t quite awake enough to be as naked as Lindsey, though she had to admit it looked quite comfortable. “Speaking of freckles, I thought you were supposed to stay out of sunlight as much as possible.”

“That’s direct sunlight,” Lindsey corrected. “This is very indirect and feels very, very good. You should try it.” She sat up. “Here, you can stretch across this couch. It’s really comfy.”

Tina sipped at her coffee. “Yeah, maybe later. I need to wake up a bit more first.” She paused, then added, “Thank you, though.”

Tina tried to remember the last time she and Lindsey had a conversation that was more than two sentences long. Her fogged-over memory couldn’t retrieve back that far, if ever. She decided it might be worth actually trying to have a conversation. “How are the new meds the Dr. gave you last week? Are they working?”

Lindsey turned and leaned backward off the arm of the couch. “Not really. One makes me really sleepy, so I can’t take it on nights before I have an early class. The other makes my ears ring, which seems like a really strange side effect.”

“But are they doing what they’re supposed to do?” Tina asked. She never had pried into all of her roommate’s medical issues. She simply knew there were many.

“Some,” came the answer. “I don’t shake as much when I drive, which is a good thing.”

“Very.”

“But it dries my mouth out so that I have to keep a bottle of water or two handy all the time. Not exactly convenient for that three-hour long lecture seminar on Thursdays.” Lindsey set back up so that the blood could leave her nearly purple face.

Tina gasped. “Oh my god, you’re practically purple! Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Lindsey laughed. “It goes away quickly. Just have to do that every once in a while to keep the circulation going well.”

Tina shook her head. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever asked, just how many different diseases have they pinned on you?”

Lindsey stopped and thought a moment. “Well, they dropped rickets a couple of months ago, so that puts me down to fourteen, I think.”

“And how many different doctors are you seeing?”

Lindsey shook out her long, blonde hair and laughed. “Oh, I stopped trying to keep up with that count a long time ago. Primary this, a specialist in that, sub-specialist in something else. I do my part in making sure everyone who wants to gets a chance to poke and prod me.”

“I know some guys in your Calc class that would like a chance at that, too,” Tina teased. “Especially if they could see you in your current condition.”

“Ew, no,” Lindsey said, making a contorted face. “How do you think I got this sick in the first place? It was all those boy cooties from elementary school!”

Both girls laughed at the joke. They were keenly aware of how rare this moment was and neither wanted it to end.

“OH!” Tina started, excitedly, “Did you hear that Dr. Koskerov got fired for nailing that Susan … what’s her name …Patro-horse-face-something?”

Lindsey laughed. “Patrohorstkovich, I think. I hadn’t heard that, though! Who will be teaching his class?”

“Some boring TA at least the rest of this semester,” Tina dished.

“Good, I wasn’t looking forward to having him again next semester,” Lindsey confessed. “He didn’t get her pregnant, did he?”

“Nah,” Tina said, “but when he wouldn’t raise her grade from a C she filed a sexual harassment suit. The university settled out of court, fired Koskerov, and I hear Susan’s transferring to Ohio next semester.”

“Wow,” Lindsey said, astonished. “Where do you get so much information?”

“Eavesdropping in the ladies room at the bar,” Tina laughed. “That’s the best news source on the fucking planet!”

Both girls laughed again. The sun was beginning to set and the room was beginning to cool. Tina could see goose bumps beginning to form on Lindsey’s sensitive skin.

“Why don’t I kick the heat back on a bit,” Tina suggested. “I think the temps are supposed to take another dip in the frost bucket again tonight.”

“Speaking of tonight, what do you have going on,” Lindsey asked.

Tina knew she could easily think of at least a dozen things to do, but decided, for once, to see what Lindsey might suggest. “I’ve got some stuff, but I’m flexible. What’s on your mind?”

“Want to help me make dinner? I was thinking fettuccine alfredo, with homemade noodles,” Lindsey offered.

“Oh my god, are you kidding me? I’d love to help! I love your alfredo! I always sneak out and eat your leftovers!”

“I know, that’s why I always leave them in a box well marked,” Lindsey laughed.

Tina was literally jumping with excitement. “Okay, so what do I need to do first?”

Lindsey looked at her carefully, and instructed, “Well, pull your hair back and you probably want to lose the clothes. Making noodles can get a bit messy.”

Three, four, five hours passed, along with two bottles of wine and abundant helpings of fettuccine and breadsticks and salad. The girls laughed, danced, sang, and ate as they never had before.

Once again, the girls were lying naked, sprawled across the couches, this time quite happily exhausted. Tina looked across at her roommate of three years and felt sad to have never bothered spending this time with her before. Lindsey pulled the afghan off the couch she was on and wrapped it around her.

“You feeling okay, Linds?” Tina asked. “You’re looking a bit gray.”

“Forgot my medicine,” Lindsey murmured.

“Which ones?” Tina asked as she rushed toward the bathroom.

“They’re numbered, seven, eight, nine.”

Tina pulled the bottles from the shelf and ran back to the couch and removed the lids. “Hold on, I’ll get you water.”

Lindsey shook her head. “No, has to be orange juice, in the fridge.”

Tina hurried and poured the juice, racing back to the couch without spilling a drop. Lindsey took the medicine and then lied back on the pillows, shivering.

Tina put her arms under Lindsey and tried to lift her up. “C’mon, let’s get you to bed. You don’t need to sleep out here.”

Lindsey did the best she could to focus, but the prescriptions were less than fast acting and it took all the energy she had to not fall on top of her roommate. Tina guided her to bed, moved the textbooks scattered across the top, and tucked her roommate in.

Lindsey was already half asleep, but managed to grab Tina’s arm and whisper, “Thank you for a wonderful evening, and for being my friend.”

Tina felt water floating in her eyes. “Thank you for being so beautiful.”

Lindsey’s face grew puzzled. “What do you mean?”

Tina leaned in close to Lindsey’s face. “I’ve always known you were the prettiest girl on campus, and at times I’ve hated you for that, but tonight you’ve shown me what you’re like beneath the skin, and I hate myself for not having looked sooner.” She kissed her roommate on the cheek. “I love you. Sleep well.”

Tina stood at the doorway, like a mother checking on a sleeping infant, making sure Lindsey was still breathing. She knew life in this apartment would never be the same again.

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