Musings of a Jersey Girl


Musings of a Jersey Girl is a blog of personal essays gleaned from observations from my life experiences and the world around me. Friends’ urged me to share my writing and this blog is the result. I call it Musings of a Jersey Girl because growing up here, living here, is so much a part of who I am.
Each piece covers a different topic but they all, at their core, grapple with the same universal themes all stories do: love and loss.
I suppose those are the themes that define our shared humanity. That it’s really that simple; we were born to love. Loss is just what comes after.
Thank you for taking the time to read my work. I hope some of it resonates with you .

Cathy

4 years-old with hat in Jersey.

4 years-old with hat in Jersey.

A 5lb Bag of Potatoes

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I have friends that have been married a long time with varying degrees of happiness and have grown into what I call a "comfortable stasis." In other words, she's allowed to wear a stained pajama top with frayed sleeves around the house in the middle of the day because he gave up on his pot belly a long time ago and stopped caring how it looked under an oversized superhero T-shirt.
I get it. I was married once. I started to wear big girl undies and practical bras about a year in.
I now know why people cling to bad marriages. Like me, they get attached to that iron-on designer label of inclusiveness. That thin gold band on the right-hand ring finger that declares, "I belong." You are part of a "thing. You are lovable and, though this may not be accurate, we all know the emperor has no clothes and that "seems to be" can often trump "how it really is."
Marriage can be a false qualifier but sometimes I miss the label.
That's because single doesn't carry the same prestige. It's a throwaway word. Doesn't belong to anything. One plus zero equals one. No my husband or my wife. Just my-self. Divorced is a tad more acceptable because it implies you were loved - once.
It took a while, but I realize now that comfort eclipses happiness almost every time. It's nice to know someone will be there when you slip in the bathtub and break your hip but is that enough to stay in a marriage in need of a wrecking ball?
My former in-laws seemed comfortable but I'm not sure they were happy. They only vacationed once; a weekend in Bar Harbor they won by entering a mail-in contest advertised on the side of a 5-pound bag of Maine potatoes.
They did like to visit the mall though. At 7AM every morning, before the stores opened, they'd walk from one end of the mall to the other ten times and go home. 
One day, not too long ago, I was walking down a suburban sidewalk with my former husband. Our pace was quick. Like his parents at the mall, we were going nowhere fast except we were heading to a nowhere I didn't want to go. I turned and bolted. 
Two days later he asked for a divorce. I let him think he was the decider. He didn't know I'd already exited the mall. There was nothing there I wanted. 

Bird Watching

John J. Audubon, Song Sparrows. Image Public Domain.

John J. Audubon, Song Sparrows. Image Public Domain.

You could blow him over with a whisper or a shrug. That's right. He walked on his toes as if they were unstable springs planning to catapult him to a fall in an instant.
     A 10 year-old scrawny little thing, freckled and pale. He was nasty though, that Dennis. He called us homos when he was mad. All squeaky voiced and shrill. We knew it was a bad word though we didn't know what it meant. I don't think he did either.
     “He must have heard it somewhere," my mother said.
     Dennis was the last one standing when we picked teams for kickball. His team didn't try to hide their collective groan. I get it. He couldn't throw, he couldn't kick, he couldn't catch and he ran all funny like his feet didn't know which way they were going. Sometimes we threw the ball to him, but off to the side a bit. He’d shimmy and falter and we would giggle like we couldn't control it.
     "Homos!," he said.
     We woke up one day and Dennis was in a wheelchair. Just like that. He looked like a mini Dennis in that wheelchair. Like he lost some of himself when he sat down.
     My mother said it was M.S.
     We agreed, "it is a mess."
     We never saw Dennis walk on his toes or run all crooked-like again. He became one with his chair. We didn't play with him. We didn't know how. We couldn't make fun of him anymore and he didn't get mad.
     My little brother though. My 7 year-old littlest brother. I think he was kinder than the rest of us. He pushed Dennis in his wheelchair even though he was barely tall enough to see over the back of the chair. He pushed Dennis down sidewalks, on paths in the woods. They went bird watching. They had guidebooks and binoculars and peanut butter sandwiches and they went to look for birds. The wheels on the chair acted as legs and my brother was the wind spinning them like pinwheels, fast and faster as they zoomed down the sidewalk; my little brother and Dennis going bird watching.

Chateau Neuf du Pape!

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Robert swore in fine wine tones. 
Chateau Neuf du Pape!” he'd proclaim with the hint of a flare. 
Robert had an extensive vocabulary and liked to rub it in. He was superior. Excuse me.
I lived with Robert briefly in 1985. Me and my boyfriend Billy. It was a tiny apartment in the back of an abandoned storefront. Billy and I slept on a futon stuffed in an alcove carved into one side of the hallway. We had to bend our knees to lie down even though we were short.  
Robert was impatient with us. He said we didn't do our "fair share." We knew when he was mad: He ignored us loudly - usually within banging distance. 
Robert's bed was over the kitchen. He had to climb a ladder to get to it. The bathroom was down some steps. It had a claw-footed bathtub that lured me with warm bubbles. Scented candles crowded a shelf attached to the wall. Scattered on the floor lay a collection of gay porn magazines.
Hard to look at. Hard not to. 
Robert was tall and slight and looked older than he should have for his twenty-three years. He called himself an artist and wore a black beret and round wire-rimmed glasses under a shock of unnaturally white/blonde hair. His skin was pale as if it had never seen the sun. He was easy to pick out in a crowd. 
At night, sometimes even on cold evenings, Robert put on his long wool coat, donned his beret just so, and went out. Billy said he went to the Wall. The one near the train station. Billy told him it was dangerous and not to go but he went anyway and did things gay men do, but with men he didn’t know.
Robert hung out at a nightclub on the edge of town. Billy and I strung along at times. Jubilant gay men packed the place. Wild-eyed and dancing to Donna Summer like there was no tomorrow. It was a giddy time. These men were "out" of the closet and out on the town. 
The last time I saw Robert he still wore a beret but his sunlit mane was gone. His cheekbones were too sharp. It had been two years. He sat on a bench in front of a church, one leg crossed over the other. Beyond the black rod iron fence behind him was a small graveyard. The kind with gravestones older than your ancestors, half tipped over and leaning askew, their once deep etchings all but erased. No matter. Those people stopped being missed a long time ago. 
Robert was happy to see me, I think. I asked him how he was.  
"Just dandy," he said with a sideways smirk. 
He seized a drag from his cigarette like he had just came up for air. I had my camera and snapped a picture. In the darkroom, the photo revealed itself in the tray of developer. The rod iron bars behind Robert looked like a prison. He was the last thing to come into focus.
Robert died of AIDS soon after. So did so many young men like him.


On Spare Change: Doc Cheatham

Doc Cheatham plays and sings "I want a little Girl.” (1987) Click on photo to watch a video of him performing.

I was a cocktail waitress when the varietals of wine sold at most bars were “house red” and “house white.” Triangle drinks and trendy craft beers weren't in the vernacular yet. No, I handed out the real deal. Grown-up drinks with masculine names like Stinger, Sidecar, Gimlet or Gibson. Up, on the rocks, with a splash or a twist. Drinking was a more serious pursuit in the 1980s. It was about picking your poison.
The restaurant I worked at featured live music on weekends. Jazz musicians stopped by before their gigs in New York City. One was Doc Cheatham, a well-known trumpet player who had lived longer than most. 
Doc had joy in his pocket and shared it like spare change. He was lanky and tall and walked with a happy purpose. Thick-lensed glasses nearly overwhelmed a face lined by a life lived. He favored plaid polyester suits. His hair was brown and suspect. I found out later it was a toupee. 
His was a bad one. 
Doc and I had a "thing." Not in the way you might think. I was eighteen. He was more than seventy. But, he flirted with me in a grandfatherly way that rendered me light. 
"You look lovely tonight beautiful darling. That smile of yours would make the angels sing" or "Well, well looky who's here. Now I know I'm gonna have a good night." 
I floated the rest of the evening, handing out drinks like a ballerina. 
Doc sat on a high bar chair on the small stage wearing his bad toupee like a crown playing magic through his horn. Sometimes he sang. Once he sang a song for me. 

I want a little girl, call my own.
She must be someone who's all alone now.
Say, I want a little girl 
To fall in love with me, oh yeah. 

The song swelled a Wawa in my heart and left behind a muted fullness that lingered. It was our song, though he didn't know it. 
I left that job. He kept playing. From time to time, I'd picture him sitting on that high bar chair wearing his bad toupee and playing magic through his horn.
I read he performed up to two days before he died, eleven days shy of his 92nd birthday. 

A Hollow Leg

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He was prepared for our date and I loved him for it.
We sat at the bar and he pulled out a list of questions. Fun questions like, "who would you rather be? Bert or Ernie?"
“Ernie, of course!”
He knew I loved games and we'd just met. 
He said he had a wooden leg - just so you know - while what he meant was a hollow leg and we laughed at that even though he did - have a hollow leg.
We sang television theme songs from our youth and corrected each other when we got the lyrics wrong and I nursed my wine while he drank his drinks and drank another and, just one more, and we got punch drunk for different reasons and I was happy and he was happy. Too happy. Close to out of control happy.
And, we left and we kissed and I never saw him again.