Jillietta Macallicutta

On my twenty-first birthday I was not at a bar. Or a club. I wasn’t taking shots or dancing to a band. I was in my friend’s sunny house across the street from my childhood home. There was a pan of chicken and noodles cooking on the stove and a freshly iced German Chocolate Cake waiting on the counter. If you could go back in time and look through the front window of that house you would see us there. Me and Jill. Both young. Both blonde. Both probably discussing the shocking centerfold Burt Reynolds had just done for Cosmo magazine. In the middle of all those giggles and preparations you would also see a little blonde boy who darted in and out talking about model airplanes and when we could eat the cake calling to us from the kitchen cabinet. It was a perfect hot day at the end of summer with the promise of so many good times to come. That night and in the future. It was the kind of day you hope exists for people in this world and it did. It existed for me. Because of Jill.

I don’t remember how many people came that night, or the presents I got, or even if we got a twenty-first birthday measure of drunk, but I do remember how I felt. I’ve never forgotten that. I felt like I was worth using up an entire Saturday on. Like I was worth my friend spending some of what was a single mom’s tight budget on balloons and cake ingredients and that Cosmo magazine–just so she could shock me with it and then laugh when I kept going back to take another look. And, I’m telling y’all, we laughed. So, so much. That night and many times over the years to come. About so many different things. If I could, I would catalog them all right here so you could all laugh with us. Those two young girls with life stretching out in front of them.

You would love the story of how I showed up at Jill’s house late one night and asked her to help me play a prank on someone. And, of course, she said yes. It involved intrigue and heavy lifting and mud. And, of course, laughter. When we were done, we drove back through town with the windows down and icy air blowing through her car singing some Dolly Parton song at the top of our lungs. I remember that night. It gets taken out and turned over in my mind and treasured. I can close my eyes in this moment and see her laughing from the driver’s seat. She is forever caught in the light of that open car door laughing at me and telling me to hurry before we got caught–a mischievous glint in her eye waiting to pop the clutch and get us to safety. I can see our muddy footprints tracked across her kitchen floor and I can see the steaming cup of spiced tea she put in front of me while we analyzed the genius of our prank and the impact it would have. We were sure it was the best prank ever played. I wish you could peek through that window too. It would also make you glad that nights like that exist for people. That there are friends like Jill that will answer their door late at night to help you pull a prank and then serve you warmth after. I am so lucky to have had her.

When I got married and we moved far away from each other and got really, really busy being grownups and responsible and weighted down we still found a way to stay close. To matter to each other. Then, it was long phone calls and surprise packages in the mail. Travel brochures from places I mentioned I wanted to visit. They would arrive in brown envelopes with her familiar looped handwriting printed across the front. Always anonymous except for her super-cool spy name she invented. She invented one for me too. We were going to use them when we ran away to live on a beach and be served umbrella drinks all day every day. I would send back brochures from house builders and even more travel brochures from her places. It was our way of seeing each other. Of remembering who we were before our grown up lives absorbed us. Before life and bills and being serious about things became so important. If you would have asked me then if I could ever lose Jill I would have said no.

I was wrong. I did lose her. Twice.

Once, the first Sunday of the new year to this damn, interminable virus that I hate with every tiny part of myself. And once, before that, in a way that hurts me even more. I say that because when Jill died it had been five years since I had talked to her.

How do I justify that? How do I pretend I don’t know better?

If you’ve been following my blog for even a minute you know I know better.

How could I not? My life has unfurled in a way that has taught me the same lesson over and over. I know how hot a funeral church is when you’re wearing panty hose and snot is running off the end of your nose and you just want out of there. I know that random men with pens in their pockets will always look like my dad in a crowd. I know that going to a little kid’s funeral is every kind of awful you can imagine and ironing their jeans beforehand is worse. I know that when one of your friends dies, barely a year after her wedding, you will keep the furry crown she wore at her bachelorette shower because you can’t bear to get rid of it. It will stay in your hope chest for years shedding pink fluff like it’s molting your memories. I know all of this and I still forgot. I got lulled into complacency. Into believing the awful lie that tomorrow would be a good day to check in. It’s a really crappy thing how life ends suddenly. And, almost always, when you think you have more time.

Jill and I had one more visit after we were young. I went home for a high school reunion and, even though it had been a minute since we had actually seen each other, she opened up her house to me. To my little girl. To my brother and his wife. She folded out couches and fixed breakfast and made us all laugh the entire weekend. When we left that morning I gave her a big hug and we promised to do a better job of staying in touch. And, then we didn’t. I didn’t. In the end, I should have held on tighter and sent more brown envelopes. I should have remembered who she was in that sunny little house across the street from mine. That moment when she was young, with her son running in out of the room, when the future was unwritten. I shouldn’t have lost her before life took her.

So, I’m sorry Jillietta Macallicutta for losing you before I needed to. I’m also sorry for revealing your most excellent spy name in this blog for the whole world to see. Can you forgive me for both? I hope so. One of us needs to.

Why I got vaccinated.

It was a muggy little town in east Texas. Town square. Signs on shop windows left over from the previous football season. A restaurant called Cindy’s or Lori’s or something like that with a parking lot full of pick-up trucks and a dining room full of men waiting on coffee. My husband was trying to navigate the narrow streets to find the courthouse, but I was drinking in the measure of the town. It was a new place. I had never been there and I felt like it was a town I would never forget. Not because of its’ numerous flowered bushes or bricked churches that would be full that Sunday, but because it was where I was going to get my vaccine. By some strange quirk of fate, I was in a town I had never been in to get a shot I never could have imagined I would need.

We found the courthouse and, after a brief argument, a parking place in front of a lawyer’s office. (I was convinced it was not reserved and Richard was convinced it was.) We gathered up our things, made sure we had our masks, got out into the early morning heat and joined all of the other people walking toward the courthouse. There were a lot of them.

We climbed the steep steps into the building and, because I was busy thinking about how I would reenact the scene from Rocky, I almost ran right into a police officer. He was standing on the very edge of the top step and his boots were so shiny I immediately thought his mom must have helped him shine them. I say mom because there was no way he was married. He couldn’t have been older than twelve. Of course, he did have a gun strapped to his side so I guess I could have been wrong about the age thing. He was greeting everyone with a big good morning and questions, “Did you pre-register? So, you have an appointment time? Go to the right. You don’t have an appointment? No? Go to the left. We have some extra shots for you folks.”

Our next stop was a long table that ran the width of the building as soon as you came in the door. It was manned with various women looking at you over the top of their glasses. You’ve seen similar tables I’m sure. Church. Charity events. NATO. These women and the tables they man might be the last bastion between order and chaos. Nobody was getting past those ladies until they had done what they were supposed to do.

Turns out what we were supposed to do was fill out some paperwork. Who are you? Where do you live? Various medical questions to determine you didn’t have prior knowledge that this shot contained things you were allergic to. Similar to when you get the flu shot every year. I went through them with the secret panic that I was forgetting something important. Like, maybe I really was allergic to eggs and I had just never noticed? So, I asked my husband. “Babe, I’m not allergic to eggs am I?” Without looking up, he said “Dear–it’s a different kind of shot. They don’t need to know that.” “Well, I know they aren’t specifically asking, but am I?” He stopped filling out his own form, pulled his glasses down and just looked at me. For a significant amount of time. Then, he put them back on and went back to reading sentences and checking the corresponding boxes. That meant no.

So, I took his word for it and checked no I was not allergic to anything and no I didn’t have any prior knowledge that made me think I should not take this shot. I will admit my pen hovered over that box. Just that morning I had read four posts on Facebook about how I should not do exactly what I was doing. That knowledge was definitely with me as I handed in my paper to one of the table ladies and waited nervously while she checked it over. She was a little scary, I’m not going to lie. But, then wonders of wonders, she looked up and smiled with her eyes, gave me a number to put on my shirt and sent me over to “Those big long benches over there honey. The ones right outside those double doors. Do not go in until they call your number. Do. Not.”

No way lady. I’m going right to the benches. I found myself a spot on the end where Richard could stand next to me–he will never sit anywhere in public where seats are a hot commodity. It’s one of the things I love about him. Then, we waited. I didn’t mind. I’m a people watcher. It was a bounty.

There was an old lady just down from me trying to fold up an umbrella. I don’t know either. But she had one. There was a young couple across from us sitting thigh to thigh staring at their phones. Matching masks. So romantic. There were two older men just down from me with mud encased boots talking in low voices about something that seemed to be extremely important. Could have been tractors. That’s what my city-girl mind thought, but probably it was something like peace in the Middle East. But, my favorite was Madge. No clue if that’s really what her name was, but it’s what I’ll forever call her. I’d say she was old enough to be my grandma, but I’m getting old enough I really shouldn’t say that anymore. She was skinny. So skinny that I wondered how she was standing. Her heels were at least six inches and I just knew there was a cigarette waiting somewhere in her day. Everything on Madge matched. Her purse matched her shoes which matched her lipstick which matched her mask which matched her earrings. I saw the girl from the matching masks couple give Madge a brief nod acknowledging her superiority before going back to her phone. Y’all, Madge was turned out. And, she was so happy. She greeted everyone that came near her with her gravely voice and coffee stained smile. “Hello honey. How are you this mornin’. Wadn’t that snow last year somethin? Last night I answered three questions right on Jeapordy.” Then, she would reach up and pat her hair that I’m almost positive was a wig, but I didn’t care. Madge was owning the waiting line. Fake eyelashes and all. I was still admiring Madge’s pep when I realized they were calling my number. 38. It was my turn. I gave my husband a big hug which he returned– sort of. He hates it when I’m dramatic. Then, with a nervous look at the table ladies I made my way to the double doors.

The next room was organized chaos. There was a gentleman with too much cologne to check my papers one more time to make sure I was where I was supposed to be. I also told him I wasn’t allergic to eggs. He looked at me the same way my husband did. Then, there was a lady directing traffic like they do at Chik-Fil-A, “Stand right here hon. You’re going to go in that line right there. Before the lady with the kids, but after the guy with the baseball hat.”

The next thing I knew, I was in a plastic lunchroom chair talking to Sheila. Sheila was very nice and smelled like vanilla. That was comforting. She was wearing scrubs and her glasses were connected to one of those really pretty eyeglass holder necklaces things. I love those things. I buy them continually, but they just end up broken in the bottom of my purse and I am forever getting rid of the little beads! But, Sheila was actually using hers and she pulled her glasses up to once again check my paper work. Then, she asked me how I was. I told her I was good how was she. She said she was great and asked me to roll up my sleeve. I started swinging my feet and told Sheila there was a big crowd outside. She probably already knew that but, I needed words. She said it had been like that since they started. She told me she went home so tired at night she didn’t even eat. But she added, “I’m not going to say I don’t have a little candy. I need my Mars Bar.” I liked Sheila.

And, I really hoped Sheila liked me since she was fixing to stick a needle in my arm with an experimental vaccine for a world pandemic that was killing people. Whoa.

“I was just wondering if you’ve had anyone cry?” I asked Sheila.

She put her hand on my knee and said, ” I sure have. I sure, sure have.”

I was glad I wasn’t the only one.

I stood up, thanked Sheila and wondered out into the big holding room and started looking for Richard. I didn’t see him so I went and found us a good leaning spot on the wall and dug for my sunglasses in my purse. I was ok with Sheila seeing me cry, but not necessarily my husband. Eventually, he found me despite my sunglasses/mask/hat ensemble (think unabomber!) and we leaned on the wall together for the necessary thirty minutes (I added an extra ten) to make sure we weren’t going to have a reaction and then we left. On the way out, the guy holding the door open for everyone was dressed in an orange striped jumpsuit with big black letters that said prisoner. He was telling everyone to have a nice day and be safe. I told him to have a nice day too and then felt a little dumb. But, I reasoned, maybe it was nice to stand in the sunshine and send people on their way having just been vaccinated. I hoped he had sat in Sheila’s chair too. And then, we were done. We stopped in the parking lot to smile at each other and then walked back to our car in front of the lawyer’s office. It was fine.

We stopped at a fast food joint on our way out of town and not being in the mood for eggs, but still feeling like I should do something breakfast-y, I got an egg roll. Shannon, the girl working the register, looked tired. I had a feeling she wished she could have the day off to go get a vaccine. Before we drove off, Richard handed her an extra five dollars. “What’s this for? Do y’all want something else?” Richard just smiled and told her to put it in her kitty. I don’t think she had a clue what that meant but she smiled and tucked it in her pocket. That guy.

Then, we drove home. Journey playing on the radio and my husband’s hand in mine.

I know, I know– I titled this blog, ‘Why I got vaccinated.’ and you are probably wondering when I’m going to get to the point. But, I have. Y’all just haven’t been paying attention. You might need a Mars bar.

I got vaccinated for the men waiting on coffee, and the table ladies and Madge and Sheila and the prisoner at the door and the tired fast food worker. All of them. And, if it had been in any other town, in any other state, it would have been a different cast of characters but the same hearts. All over this country, people are setting their alarms so they can wake up early and go set up tables and put up signs and direct people through cavernous rooms to a nurse like Sheila who’s waiting to give them a shot in the arm that will help save the folks they just stood in line with. Folks like me. The lady wearing the Whataburger shirt and Houston ball cap that cried when she got vaccinated. My own family and friends and the people in their lines. The way I see it, all of this is happening because this my America. The one I’m so proud of. The one that makes me clap and hug the people around me when I see fireworks. (By the way, they don’t always like that–especially now. Social distancing is the worst!) Or, at least it’s the America I’ve always known. The one my preacher talks about on Sunday mornings when I’m wishing he would hurry and finish before the restaurants get crowded. The one that stops to help change a tire. The one that helps pick up pieces after a tornado. The America that pulls our car over to the side of the road when a funeral procession goes by and helps a lost little kid in Walmart find his mom. The one that buys the old lady eating alone at the restaurant her dinner and sneaks out before she knows it. The one that gets up in the middle of the night to answer a Volunteer Fire Department call. The America that does for others. The America that leans so someone else can sit. It’s the America I will always want to be a part of.

One more thing before I go, for all of you that are nervous about getting an experimental vaccine for a world pandemic that’s killing people I have only this to say–same girl same. (My daughter says I’m too old to say that, but I think it’s catchy!) But, I can’t figure it’s any more scary than the thought of being in a hospital for weeks–or even worse– leaving your loved ones behind. Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith and trust yourself. Kind of like I did with that parking spot in front of the lawyers office. I just knew that space wasn’t reserved. For those that can’t get vaccinated, I’m sorry. I especially took the jab for you! And lastly, for those of you convinced that the vaccine is a conspiracy meant for our harm, you can rest easy and make your appointment for Monday morning. Because, I’m here to tell you that Madge is way too sharp to fall for that and Sheila would never be a party to it! Not to mention those two men in the muddy boots. Those dudes were sharp. I could just tell.

Any pizza joint on any corner.

Y’all, I’m a writer. I don’t say that because you can go to your local bookstore and find a book written by me and pay too much for it only to let it gather dust on your nightstand. I say that because writing is how I process. How I live. Lose my parents? I’ll write about it. Face infertility–there’s blog posts. Angry at the world? Crumpled napkins stashed in my hope chest bear witness.

But, when this pandemic started, I stopped writing. Completely. For over a year I haven’t written a word. While my family, my country and my world spun out of control I had nothing to say. Nothing. No blog posts. No diary entries. Nothing. It scared me. I knew it was all there. I knew there were things to say. I just couldn’t say them.

What are the words you write about a world pandemic? What are the words you write about so many people dying? What words would ever do that justice? And, it wasn’t just the big things. It was the small. When my daughter called to say she had a cough. A cough. Small thing right? Not in the last year. Suddenly, that cough was huge. It meant we might become a family that others would be talking about. I don’t know anyone, but did you hear about their family? They lost someone. How could I assign words to that feeling? It was all too big. Too unmanageable, so I didn’t try.

I hunkered down. I ate ice cream. I grew tomatoes. I sold a house and bought an RV. I coped. But, I didn’t write. I felt like all the emotions and fears were stuck without an outlet. I was the ketchup bottle on the Heinz commercial. Pick me up. Turn me upside down. Shake me up. Nothing was coming out.

Then, something happened. It was a Friday night. The air was calm, the trees were green and my husband and I were hungry. And, we went to a restaurant. A pizza joint. Our local neighborhood pizza joint. We ordered from them a few times during the pandemic. Various paper bags, pizza boxes and little plastic cups of cheese lined up across my kitchen counter, but this was the first time we had gone there to eat. To sit down. To smile at people. And, if I’m being honest, it was amazing. Wonderful. Glorious.

I really mean that.

And, it wasn’t just the food. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the food was great. Pizza hot and steaming with just the right amount of cheese to sauce. A crisp salad served in a funny little sideways bowl. But, it wasn’t the food that made me cry. That made my husband stop eating and ask me if I was ok. That, finally, after a horrible year of horrible horrors made me feel like there was something I wanted to say.

It was the normalcy. It was the people. It was the air. It was life.

And, most of all, it was being a part of it. All of it. I watched the old couple make their way through the tables and stop to talk to every little person they saw. You’re such a big boy! Is that your airplane? Are you helping your mom? I listened to the table of college girls behind us laugh and visit. Did you pass that class? I think he’s cute. I can’t believe she called him. It was the family with four kids and a dad trying to navigate a dinner out without mom. Put your phone away. Does mom let you order that? Get your feet out of that chair. And, most of all, it was our waiter. I’m so glad to see you folks. How was your week. I have two more shifts to work before a day off. You’ll like that. It’s one of my favorites.

My words probably aren’t doing the moment justice. The sheer glory of it. Being at a restaurant on a Friday night with the sun just going down and people enjoying themselves.

But, that’s still not what made me cry if i’m being really, really honest.

What made me cry was thankfulness. To God? Sure. To the people who solved the vaccine riddle? Yep. But, mostly, in that moment, I was thankful to whomever owns my pizza joint. Thankful for so many, many reasons. That my favorite pizza was still on the menu. That, somehow, they still had workers who were pleasant and happy to be at their job. That they had made it. No locked doors and boarded up windows. My little place on the corner was just as I had left it twelve months earlier. They had, against all odds, hung in there.

For me. For my husband. For the old couple and the college girls and the family. They had hung on through shut-downs and canceled orders and lack of sales. They had had difficult meetings on the shiny steel counters of their kitchen trying to figure out a way to weather the storm and pay their workers and just be there with an open sign on their door.

I know they had their own reasons for doing it. Mortgages and car payments and employees they love, but I think they mostly did it for us. Their customers. They know there is nothing better than a meal out. Nothing better than the familiarity of a well-loved menu you have ordered from on many Friday nights when the air is calm and your loved one is across the table from you.

These pizza joints and coffee houses and steak places are serving food. They have ice tea and cheesecake and complimentary chips and salsa. But, right now they have so much more than that. They have normal with a heaping side of comfort and, best of all, they have people. Other faces besides our own. Friendly folks that love the same place you do. Folks that also made it through the last year and are looking for a little taste of everything is going to be ok. Just like you are.

So, if you are lucky enough to have a pizza place open on your corner, gather up your family and go. Go and order an appetizer and a specialty drink and dessert for the whole table. Smile a lot. Say hello to everyone and tip like you just won the lottery. And, if you are like me, cry. It’s ok.

This is a big thing that is happening. We are coming out of the last year. Slowly, but surely. A little worn out and frazzled and unsure, but hopeful.

And, our favorite restaurants, are there to help smooth the transition. So, to my pizza joint– Locatellis on the corner of Louetta and Grant in Houston Texas. Thank you for your delicious green chile and pepperoni pizza. For your Popeye salad–heavy on the blue cheese dressing and cranberries. For the pleasant outdoor eating area you created in your parking lot. For your helpful servers that you kept working through everything. Thank you for hanging on through this terrible year. And, thank you for giving me a Friday night with calm air and nothing but normalcy. An evening so perfect, I wanted to write about it.