October 8 (Day 35)

My first Adult Gap Year project has begun. 

I mean, besides "Find a Better Name than 'Adult Gap Year'". That project is ongoing.

A friend owns a bakery. She graciously agreed to let me intern there as needed, possibly — at least partially —because I've spent so much time there I could declare it as my weekend house. I screwed up my courage and asked if I could be of help as the busy holiday season hits full stride. This required courage because what if I asked and she said no? It would be embarrassing. I'd feel so awkward, I'd have to find another bakery only it wouldn't be as good and I'd have to teach another group of fresh-faced employees that they don't need to ask, yes, I want more iced-tea. I always want more iced-tea. Mercifully, the bakery owner accepted my proposal. 

"I will try to reward your generosity," I responded, "by not setting myself on fire."

She laughed.

I guess to some people that could be considered a joke.

For a small person, I am remarkably accident-prone. When you're the size of the average ninth-grader in Beijing, there shouldn't be that much to damage. But at least I'm creative. Anyone can hurt herself falling down stairs. I defy you to find another person who fell up a flight of stairs, landed on her own fencing foil, and removed a chunk of shinbone.

[I also refused to go to the ER because I hadn't shaved my legs and I decided an unshaved leg was the more awkward disclosure here, not the part where I skewered my own tibia.]

Bakery kitchens are notoriously filled with things that are sharp, hot, or delicate so this is not a place I would naturally put myself. Nonetheless, as I commit to my Adult Gap Year (ew) I will commit to being a newer, better version of me. Anything is possible, right?  Yes, I did run into the coffee table again last week and, yes, coffee tables aren't known for throwing themselves in front of innocent people but perhaps that was my last stupid domestic injury. Perhaps my notorious clumsiness will become a thing of the past. Perhaps all my new burns, fractures and contusions will come from making cookies! 

Perhaps I am unclear as to what goes into making cookies.

That's the other thing. I happen to like baked goods quite a bit but actual baking only interests me about a third of the time. I don't mean that for four months a year you can't keep Quinn out of the kitchen. I mean that if a recipe produces three trays of cookies, by the time the second tray needs to be popped in the oven I'm already staring longingly at the pile of food magazines on the shelf. Or the kitchen door, Let me also confess right here and now that I absolutely adore "The Great British Bake-Off" .  I adore it because: 

  • It condenses years of skill and hours of work into a few shots of British people frowning into ovens and
  • If I'm watching it while lying on the couch, I'm probably not getting injured.

[Which reminds me, I need to figure out which lunatic family member left a steak knife between the couch cushions. On the bright side, my tetanus shot is always up to date.]

Everything is possible this year and it's a really nice bakery so, darn it, I'm going to give it a shot, learn new things and work very hard to stay unenflamed. My nails were clean and unpolished, my shoes covered my toes and my soles were grippy. I was ready to work. I was handed to a young woman who took me in the walk-in freezer and pointed to a shelf. "Grab those," she said, "and bring them out."

"Those," I came to discover, were industrial-sized cookie sheets about 2-feet square, each rolled flat with dough. She slapped one down on the cutting surface and handed me a cookie cutter.

"You know we do something new each day for the thirteen days up to Halloween, right?" 

I nodded. I knew this because I had eaten all of them.

"We cut the cookies in advance, freeze them, bake and decorate that day. Cut them out and set them out on these empty trays, here. Try to use as much of the dough as you can. No waste. The dough has a lot of butter in it, so try to work as quickly as possible, because it'll start getting sticky."

I stared at the skull-shaped form in my hand and the irregularly-shaped dough in front of me.

Oh, God. 

Spatial awareness.

We meet again. 

You remember that test in high school where they showed you a weird milk-carton-looking shape and you had to pick which of the four options it would resemble if you unfolded it? Upon seeing those, I had to be restrained from stabbing the page with the pointy side of my compass out of rage and horror. What sort of sadistic bastard would design such a test? What sort of sick freak could decipher it?

[The father of my child just read that over my shoulder and chirped, "I loved those. They were fun." May he run up a flight of stairs with a fencing foil.]

My spatial awareness is so bad I've taken to blaming it on my multiple concussions because "brain damage" is easier to explain than "flummoxed by shapes." I read somewhere about spatial tests designed to test crows that I'm quite confident I would not score well on. It's possible I was designed to live in that universe mathematicians are so excited about -- the one with only two dimensions.

And now I had an asymmetrical object I had to orient on another asymmetrical object in a repetitive and efficient manner before one of those asymmetrical objects started getting sticky. On one level, I knew this wasn't a huge deal. First, any leftover cookie dough gets gathered up, chilled and rerolled. Second, if this was a critical process I wouldn't be doing it. The really nice woman working next to me graduated from Corden Bleu. I was basically participating in Take Your Shut-In To Work Day. But my very unqualified-ness meant I had to try even harder to make the most efficient use of dough ever seen before in any bakery. In the days to come, I longed for my rep to be: "Weirdly injury-prone but surprisingly useful."

I cut out one skull, flipped the cutter upside-down, cut the next one mirror-imaged. I couldn't see as that bought me any better use of dough but it seemed like the sort of thing people who had spatial awareness did. Three, four, five skulls. This was oddly satisfying. I was creating both skulls and reassuringly small bits of residual dough. Maybe I was getting better at this type of thing! Maybe the krill oil I had been taking was helping the head trauma. I started on the third row and set the cutter in the first direction.

Nope. Hanging off. 

Flipped the cutter.

I was now staring down at a wide band of cookie dough over to one side, unused and mocking me. Noticeable, embarrassing, an area about the size of India but not quite wide enough to press out one complete skull.

"Ever worked in a bakery before?" Cordon Bleu asked me cheerfully as she snapped out skull after skull, as identical as playing cards. Her dough remnants were minuscule. I wiggled my skull around a bit, noting grimly how the dough was starting to get sticky. Damn it, I had to pull the trigger. I cut a skull and moved on.

"Nope," I said in what I hoped was an approachable tone as I stared down at the dough. How could I have have what appeared to be yards of dough but no way to angle more than a single skull in the rest of it? Was I missing something? Was this the permanent record my high school math teacher had warned me about in Geometry class?

"What made you decide to do this?" Cordon Bleu asked as she slapped perfect skulls on the tray. I restrained myself from screaming,  "I can either answer a question or cut a cookie!" because that would have come across as unsociable and also insane. Instead, I went with pretending I didn't hear her. Eventually, I accepted the inevitable, cut out the last cookie— a skull with a trephination dent — and rolled what seemed like a volleyball of dough into the "retrieval" pile. I got another slab. Once again, the first two rows worked like a dream and the third row demanded configurations best suited to a Cirque du Soleil act. I quickly gave up on being "the wise user of dough," and went with "Gracefully accepts her limitations." Eventually, the skulls were finished and in the freezer so we moved on to ghosts. You know what a ghost cookie cutout is? An amorphous blob. I was confronting my own limitations before the first row was out.

"The ghosts are cute, aren't they?" Cordon Bleu said enthusiastically.

I'd have answered but the shape and the dough had banded together to mock me. Add in the wavy bits which looked for reasons to break off with each stamp and I can now say that for the first time in my life, I'm afraid of ghosts.

You know what's a perfect Halloween cookie? The candy-corn cookie! You may not love candy-corn, which to me are just insect-sized sugared-up votive candles, but let me tell you something: that's a fantastic freaking cookie because it's a triangle. Even I understood what to do. Cutflipcutflipcutflip, againagainagain, you're done. It felt fabulous. I wanted to rewrite my resume to begin: "Ask her about triangles." 

"How's it going?"

The bakery owner swung past to check on we  happy band of brothers the cookie-cutters. Also, quite possibly, to make sure I wasn't bleeding on anything. I looked up at the clock. Hours had passed without my noticing. This isn't my life's work but, damn it, I was accomplishing something. It was novel. It was useful. It had a beginning, a middle and an end.  And God knows it was taxing certain parts of my brain to their absolute limits. I brushed some flour off my shirt and answered honestly, "I'm really happy to be here."

Day 22 (September 30)

It's been three weeks and a day since the kid left, which is a milestone. Before now, the longest we've been separated as a family was three weeks for her bucolic summer camp which allowed no electronics, forcing them to communicate with loved ones with a PEN and a PAPER. So the irony is that when she was at camp twenty miles away we heard from her less than we're hearing from her in France, texting us to let us know French food is amazing but their burritos are somewhat inconsistent. 

I've missed her, but if you're the parent of a senior in high school and you're starting to dread the upcoming wrenching away, I can only give you my reaction so far. The dread leading up to her leaving was far, far, worse than her being gone. What has replaced the dread is some occasional aches, but also kind of quiet relief. 

We're modern parents, we didn't do this by halves. I used to entertain myself by asking parents of the kid's classmates if they did a) more, b) less, c) the same amount for their children as their parents did for them. 100%, let me repeat 100%, of them said "More." One woman applied for and decided on a college without ever mentioning it to her family. Teens got themselves to practices at 5 in the morning. One father said to me, "I'm not sure my father knew where I went to school." 

This isn't to say that we had terrible, negligent parents. There were fewer expectations, fewer options. The journey to a good college is now presented as an arms race, a race in which tens of thousands of Chinese millionaires are paying American grad students to write their children's essays for them. The prizes go to the shining stars, and there's always something more you the parent could be doing to burnish the kid's glow. Also, sexting! We're very worried about sexting. We're very worried about everything. Parenting is 18 years of playing Chutes and Ladders with someone else's future. We're trying to do everything right. You don't realize how much energy that program, trying to to everything right, is using up running in your head-computer until it's not. 

Something could go to hell with the kid tomorrow. Something could be going to hell right now, and they're just trying to fashion an effective tourniquet before they let us know. I'm probably putting the horns on the serenity merely by noticing it. Coming to regret the hubris of having written this already. But for right now, as far as I know, my kid is happy. Daniel is happy. I'm constitutionally incapable of happiness, but am looking forward to the first Gap Year adventure, which starts later this week. The pets seem to be working through their grieving.

Hey, parent of a senior?

This might be as a bad as it gets. 

Day 17 (September 25)

"Cheryl and Mike are going to be in Las Vegas," Daniel said.

I hummed in a not-listening way.

"We could meet them for dinner," he added.

"Of course we can't," I shot back quickly, "because-"

I stared at Daniel. He smiled at me. 

Right. We can do stuff like that now — meet friends for dinner and stay over in another city, what with our kid being someone else's responsibility. We're carefree and gay!

Well, we're carefree.

Or, more accurately, we're carefree once I got the dog an appointment at the dog hotel he likes for a night, sub-contracted the foster kittens and arranged for a neighbor to check on our actual cats. The nest might be empty but it's still thickly covered in dander.

Let me tell you about the Great Lie of Las Vegas. The Great Lie isn't "I have this foolproof system!" You don't. It's not "She actually likes me!" She doesn't. No, the Great Lie of Las Vegas is: "It's easy to get there from Los Angeles." It's not.

True, you can drive there or fly there but the cheap tickets are out of LAX — an airport currently in the middle of a comprehensive renovation slated to be finished never. You can spend an hour at LAX just realizing the parking for Southwest is ten miles outside the city limits. You can fly to Las Vegas via Burbank Airport, which is delightfully convenient, small and manageable but makes up for it by charging three times as much. Or, you can drive.

"It's just four hours!" people tell themselves and the Great Lie is born yet again. First of all, four hours in a car is never four hours. A more accurate way to describe the drive to Vegas is, "Four (LOUD DERISIVE SNORT) hours." Also, it's not so fascinating a drive. The road to Vegas is a hostile moonscape periodically dotted with rotting housing stock from the Boom of 2007 which forms a sort of Pilgrim's (Lack Of) Progress and a warning to those greedy enough to be duped by "zero-down" mortgage hucksters.  We left Los Angeles before noon on Friday but the road was already clogged with people eager for both their mimosas and their serving staff to be bottomless. Daniel and I passed the time chatting and eating what could be best described as a nauseating amount of trail mix. Five hours later, we hit the city limits.

I looked up at a billboard.

"We could see Ricky Martin!" I announced happily.

Daniel frowned. "You want to?"

"No, but we could," I said, and shifted in the seat, brushing some sunflower seeds and chocolate off my shirt. "We can do things like this now. We can start being people who go to Vegas! Why haven't we been to Vegas in years?"

"You fear the sun. You hate gambling. You fall asleep after one drink." Daniel noted.

"I'm not saying we'd go every weekend," I mumbled mulishly, finding a nice-sized chunk of dark chocolate on my sleeve and eating it. Antioxidants. 

Ten minutes later we were still staring at the Ricky Martin billboard. We hadn't moved. Even inside the car, I could feel the sun radiating every part of me not covered in cloth. I reapplied sunblock fretfully.

"I hate the Strip," I announced.

Daniel said, "I know. You tell me every time we come here."

It's nice, having traditions.

We got to the hotel, I admired the first hotel bar, cunningly located between the parking lot and the car-rental desk. We slogged through the casino. Every third row had one person sitting at a slot machine as if part of its root system. This person was of such age that gender was indeterminate and of such stillness that it wasn't completely improbable they'd died two days ago. I can only assume the air filters the casino run to keep the cigarette smell at a minimum also helps with the corpse funk.

Whatever exhaustion we felt after five hours in a car and a surfeit of cashews was immediately ameliorated by seeing our friends. You know what's great about dinner with people with adult children? How you talk about your children for a bit, and then you don't. You talk about other things. I'm not sure I've talked about other things in seventeen years. They travel together. They go to vineyards. I'm probably not going to do that any time soon (see: asleep after one drink), but we could.

WE CAN DO ANYTHING.

But what I really wanted to do was not get back in that car. After dinner, we strolled a few casinos along the Strip. More specifically, I stared at the couples under the age of 30. Almost to a couple, the woman would be wearing something tight, really short, low cut and typically backless. It was like a philosophical exercise in how much fabric you could eliminate and still be defined as a dress. These girls would teeter along in their mock-Louboutins, every third stride or so grabbing the sides of their dress and jerking downward so the entire casino wasn't doing a visual Pap smear. Nearly all of their dates were wearing what I would describe as Saturday jeans and a t-shirt that reeked of having been shot out of a cannon. She was dressed to impress voters at the Adult Video Awards; he was finally going to clean the gutters. I'm not turning into that old person who carries on about how people "Used to dress up to fly," but if I'm having to deny myself salt for a week to fit into a dress I'm going to insist my boyfriend take off the snap-back. These couples all strutted the casino's aisles, seeing and being seen, passing by the possibly dead slot machine jockeys, searching for the elusive exits and pulling down their skirts.

The interesting thing about Vegas is how quickly it's not Vegas. Ten minutes away, it's suburbs, filled with people who, according to our friends, arrange their lives to never get near the Strip unless they have guests in town. Ten minutes past that, it's lizards and spiny plants. So, the next morning, before our friends flew home and we took the four-(HA!)-hour drive back to Los Angeles, we went for a hike in Red Rock Canyon about thirty minutes west of Las Vegas.

There are dozens of hikes in this spectacularly scenic park. Being fit people about to court deep-vein thrombosis with another sitting-marathon ahead of us, we chose the hike marked "Strenuous." If the girls walking around the casinos the previous night taught me anything, it's that in Vegas you do nothing by halves. Also, a dress can be both backless and frontless.

Ice Box Canyon is less than five miles round trip. That is not why it's strenuous. The elevation is less than one thousand feet, steady and not particularly dramatic. That's not why it's strenuous. Ice Box Canyon is strenuous because it is mostly boulders and wiggly,  fist-sized rocks. I can say that for the first time since the kid left, there were stretches of time when I wasn't thinking of her. This is because not spraining your ankle while exploring a terrain reminiscent of Soviet-era missions to Venus can be mentally taxing.

There are few situations where being short is an asset. If you get trapped in a mine, I can bring you water. If someone's ninth-grade daughter has outgrown her clothing, I may get free stuff. If a hiking trail is coarse and unsteady, my lower center of gravity comes in handy. I scuttled along in a steady, not-spraining-your-ankle manner all the way up to the waterfall, stared at it appreciatively for a few minutes, took a few snapshots, and started back. Cheryl and I headed down the same path we'd come up, chatting and clambering. Here's the fun thing about a strenuous hike along a path which mostly consists of rocks of varying sizes: it's hard to notice when you've gone off it. After a while, Cheryl politely cut off my ramblings about something and asked, "Aren't we supposed to be up there?"

I looked up the side of a steep hill on our left to what appeared to be a flat road. Or maybe not. It was too far above us to say for certain. Cheryl is tall and had not chosen this path. I am short and had chosen the path. This was mine to fix. I told her to stay where she was and flung myself at the steep wall to see what if anything was above us. My resume may now safely add, "Quinn is an ungainly but marginally effective rock climber." 

Cheryl climbed up behind me to the path we'd wandered off — the real path. We found the guys who were just starting to realize we weren't where they'd expected to meet us. Daniel and I sent Mike and Cheryl off to the airport and we headed back to Los Angeles. I found the trail mix bag and was pleasantly surprised to find a few more raisins. I waved a fond farewell to the Ricky Martin billboard as we drove, squinting into the setting sun.

 

Day 13 (September 21)

Right now, I have two writing projects on deadline and other than that, I have nothing. After I finish writing for the day, you know what I could do?

ANYTHING.

For the first time in nearly two decades, I am my own person. I could even be writing from anywhere. That's the benefit to being a freelance writer that freelance writers tell ourselves when we notice we still haven't got the money for our own island. And yet, every morning I wake up, I write jokes in the same place, I work out the same way, I eat a carb and drink a caffeine...please. I eat the same carb and drink the same caffeine. Even dumpster rats would look at me and say "Honey, you gotta mix it up." Then the day becomes a haze of words and keeping the foster kittens off the keyboard and falling asleep briefly mid afternoon. The next thing I know, it's dark and I'm no closer to the transcendent change I promised myself. I know that in October I have an adventure arranged, but there is currently nothing teed up on the other side of it and I can see my habits have their own gravitational pull. If I don't actively change things every day, even a bit, I'm going to get nothing out of this time. There is no carbohydrate in the world which will ameliorate that. 

Both projects go in tonight. After that, I have no excuse. 

I'm not saying everything has to change overnight.

But something has to. 

Day 9 (September 18)

I don't wish to brag but I'm a terrible sleeper. When the kid was about five months old she started sleeping through the night. I, however, continued to wake up at around 3:30am, which was when she had usually gotten up. It wasn't every night. First, I woke up once every couple of weeks; then every week or so; then for long stretches of several nights in a row. I'd wake up at 3:30, stay awake for anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours then drift back to sleep for another hour or so before the day started. I could fall asleep like a champ. I just couldn't stay asleep. If you're currently thinking "Oh, I have a cure for that! I should write Quinn right now!" please realize I've followed this routine now for 17 years. If your suggested remedy's first side effect isn't "This Will Kill You," I've tried it. Some treatments work for a couple of nights before my brain seems to wire around whatever therapy or medication we're testing. If it weren't so unwonderful, I'd almost be impressed at my brain's work ethic. But in the last few days, something new is happening. 

I fall asleep at 11 pm like a normal person. I sleep straight through and wake up at 5:30am like a dairy farmer. When you write jokes based on politics and politics occur mostly on the eastern coast of the United States and you sleep on the western coast of the United States, this new wake-up habit is serendipitous but, candidly, still a little weird. I'm up before the pets. I'm wide awake and writing jokes as I hear the newspaper land on the doorstep. I see a couple of texts from the kid, jokes from her new life, ravings about some food or another. She's happy so Daniel and I are happy. At some point, the sun comes up.

At 2:30pm, I become tired.

No, that doesn't actually convey what happens. 

At 2:30pm, it's as if I am hit with a rubber mallet. I can barely form words. I couldn't be trusted to operate a mechanical pencil let alone heavy machinery. I drag myself to a horizontal surface and fall face-forward on it as if dropped from a great height. An hour later, I reluctantly shake myself out of my coma and stumble back to my day. I've never been especially grateful I work for myself but these days I'd have to arrange a desk with a dog bed underneath into which I could curl. I just woke up a few minutes ago and reflexively checked my phone's clock. It was on the secondary setting, which is the local time where my kid is.

Oh.

I've been going to sleep at the same time she does every night. Maybe it's a coincidence. Or maybe waking up at 3:30am for all those years was my way of whispering to her, "Sleep well, I'm here," and falling asleep mid afternoon is my way of pretending I still am. 

 

Day 7 (September 15)

 

This morning, I bounded in to our bedroom and told Daniel,  “I just figured it out. It's not that I don't grieve, it's that I grieve in metaphors!”

Daniel, having been asleep when I bounded in, responded with “Slrph?”

I chose to take this as encouragement to continue.

“Like how this summer, with the calendar thing?...”

Quick backstory on the calendar thing. I am a freakishly punctual person. There are things I do badly, but being where I’m supposed to be when I’m supposed to be there is one of my weird gifts. Well, it was, until the past few months. As D-Day approached, at least once a week I’d forget to be someplace, or I’d put something in the calendar on the wrong day, or I’d hear we needed to be at the ferry to Catalina at 8:15am and carefully write down 8:45am, assuring we missed the boat.

For the sake of his blood pressure, Daniel and I have agreed to not utter the word “Catalina” for at least eight months.

“So,” I continue, sitting on the bed and prodding at Daniel’s foot. “It’s completely obvious that was my brain’s way of trying to forget the passing of time, that with each day we were getting closer to sending the kid off. Because, honestly, when she comes back, she’s back for, like, a few weeks and then she’s off to college. We’re done, right?  Who wouldn’t want to forget a boat ride over that?”

“Znudrgh."

“Sorry. You’re right. Still too soon. But this morning I’m putting on leggings to go walk and they’re hers and it occurs to me! It’s so obvious!”

I waited for him to ask for details. He appeared to be sliding back to sleep. I poked his shin in what I hoped was a convivial way. He pulled the covers over his head.

“Blught!”

“Stop whining, you’re fine. Since you asked, why am I wearing her leggings! It’s like those nomadic people in that documentary!”

Silence.

“You know! From…Russia! Or Peru. Somewhere nomadic. Anyway, anthropologists discovered toothmarks on the skeletons of children and they theorize the mothers would cannibalize their children who died because since they were nomadic, there was no grave to visit. Eating a bit of your child was a way of keeping them nearby! These aren’t leggings, they’re a symbol of loss and connection!”

I waited expectantly.

The silence deepened.

I poked Daniel’s shin.

“Stop that!” the quilt ordered.

“What do you think?”

Daniel lifted his head slightly and squinted at the clock.

“I think I don’t have to get up for an hour,” he said.

“That’s true,” I agreed, “But the idea felt important.”

“Guessing you found the matcha tea again.”

“I wish you’d stop hiding it.”

“I hide it because of mornings like this,” he sighed, gazing lovingly at his pillow.

“Oh, hush,” I snapped, “Now, my idea. What do you think?”

“Candidly, I think eating your daughter’s workout leggings is weird. Now, go away,” Daniel said, flopping back down again.

I learned two things today:

          1.     The matcha tea was in the glove compartment,

          2.     I need something to do, and quickly.

Yesterday’s exercise class bought me 24 hours. I have things to do in a week. Between now and then, I have writing assignments, my own projects, and this diary, but those are going to keep me in the house, drinking green tea and having great thoughts which apparently might include cannibalism. I hate the phrase “Keeping busy,” for all of its little meaningless projects to hold off the whiff of the grave intimations, but it must be said.

I have to keep busy.

And Daniel has got to find a better place to hide the tea.

Day 6 (September 14)

 

I absolutely love the fashion and beauty industries. This might surprise some people who have seen me in public. “That woman loves fashion and beauty?” they might ask. “That one? The one out in public dressed as if she’s in the third day of a sinus infection?”

We’re all surprised. I dress like the writer/errand-doer I am — the kind of person who, while at Target for motor oil and cat litter, picks herself out a shirt because it’s on the sale rack and almost fits. But just because I look as if I’m heading to the pharmacy for urgently-needed medicine doesn’t mean I don’t have loud and informed opinions. Speak loudly enough about something on social media and people start sending you things for the cheap pleasure of watching you bloviate. A few months back, I got an email, the subject of which was: “This is bullshit, right?”

Don’t have to ask me twice. I clicked. Here was an article about a physical trainer in Houston who is the go-to guy for fashion models having to get their measurements down. If you live a worthy and thoughtful life and don’t think about the fashion industry, let me commend you. I'll bring you up to speed. Models are hired to wear clothing. At most photo shoots, the clothing comes in one size — the “sample size.” Your hips must be 34 inches around. You can be the prettiest girl on earth but if you’re starting off in the industry and are an inch, even a half-inch, bigger than the clothing, you will not work. This is where this guy comes in.

He is known in the industry as “The Hip Whisperer.”

So, in answer to the subject line of that original email, sure, it’s bullshit. It’s bullshit that a multi-billion dollar industry hews to a standard of beauty nearly impossible to maintain without lucky genetics, constant dietary vigilance and one very busy workout coach in Texas. It’s also bullshit that this story is, apparently, the most read story ever on this magazine’s web page.

And it’s certainly bullshit that I got entirely too excited when I saw hat The Hip Whisperer was coming to Los Angeles. “WE HAVE TO TAKE THAT CLASS!” my brain shouted happily in my skull. To say this was irrational is putting it mildly. I don’t act on camera any more so I’m not required to live under my natural weight. I’m not a half-inch away from the Victoria’s Secret runway job, so that money could be better spent on something more useful and practical, like clothing without food stains.

And yet, taking this class felt stupid in the right way.  It would be nothing which benefits anyone but me and nothing I’ve ever done before. Every morning, I take my morning walk the exact same way, at the same place, in the same direction, every time. If I do decide to treat myself by going into the coffee house near where I park my car, the barista has my drink poured before I reach the counter. I refer again to rats in Manhattan: this rat needs to try out some new dumpsters. I signed up to have my hips Whispered at.

Today was my first class. I reached the stairwell of the dance studio at the same time as a teenage girl of glowing health and doll-like proportions. Her perfectly-manicured hands held a Lucite box. Inside the box was a tiara. We walked up the stairs in silence for a few seconds before I couldn’t stand it a second longer.

“I have to ask,” I said, pointing to the box. She looked down at it in some confusion, as if she had forgotten it was there.

“I am Miss Teen North Hollywood,” she said. “I’m competing for Miss Teen California.”

“Oh,” I said brightly and then, assuming it was called for, added, “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” she smiled.

I waited for her to explain why she needed to travel with her tiara but she just met my gaze another moment then, still smiling, continued into the gym. Maybe pageant winners must be constantly prepared to open a Hyundai dealership or visit a burn unit. Police officers are the thin blue line. Perhaps she was part of an even thinner bedazzled line.

I have lived in Los Angeles my entire life. I danced ballet for several years in my early teens. I worked for a casting director who did mostly modeling campaigns. I’m used to being in groups of people who are on the thin side, so please understand there is no hyperbole when I tell you that these twenty or so women were nearly perfect physically and for all intents and purposes completely identical. Tall, slender, hips within striking distance of the magic thirty-four inches; Helen of Troy would have started worrying a cuticle around these girls. Also, they were all about 20 years old. I reminded myself my value to the world is rooted in my decency and my ability to craft a punchline. That when it comes to the Body Wars, I am Switzerland. I also warmed up and listened to two of these girls discuss their workout schedules and eating plans, a conversation that was both ceaseless and duller than I can adequately convey.  I’m not saying these girls were stupid. I am saying that fixating on one specific body part will make a MacArthur Genius Grant recipient sound stupid.

I couldn’t have been happier.

The class itself was diverting in a “Dear God, what did I do with my muscle tone?” sort of way. I have injuries older than my classmates and several of these injuries awakened from their slumbers deep within my body and sang at me in terrible joy. It was a kind of circuit training requiring you do so many of these, so many of those, a few dozen third things, then back to the first activity. Clench. Grimace. Repeat. Over and over again. This also required that I count each rep as I worked out. I can do one or the other. If I count while working out I slow down and eventually stop moving, opting instead for staring bleakly into space, creeping out everyone around me. I quickly gave up counting and just followed the girl next to me, as she was freshly transplanted from Houston and had worked with the Whisperer before. She was 17. Once again, a 17-year-old girl was running my life.

An hour or possibly a decade later, the class ended. The Whispered filtered out a little bit more perfect than they'd been 60 minutes earlier. The teenage girl whose counting I borrowed sprung towards the nearest mirror, fluffed her hair a bit, and got a quick selfie in the flattering light that just seems to follow all these girls everywhere they go. I lay on the floor and realized that in order to leave, I would have to move. I contemplated just having my mail forwarded to the dance studio, to this specific yoga mat.

Whatever my hips were whispering doesn’t bear repeating.

Day 5 (September 13)

 

After a two-hour drive from the Cape back to Boston and a six-hour flight home, I didn’t know exactly what to expect of how I would feel upon entering a house without a child. I mean, sure, she’d gone to summer camp for the past few summers but certainly this would feel different. More hollow. More... permanent. Maybe the house would suddenly smell of mothballs and gin. I wondered if I should let Daniel walk the luggage inside and come back and get me, in case I fell apart crossing the threshold. Or in consideration of his potential feelings, we should carry the luggage to the door, open the door and then support one another as we fell apart.

[Or fell apart after carefully closing the door behind us as I can’t imagine grieving is any more pleasant if you’re trying to coax the cats back inside.  Crying or wielding a laser pointer, not both.]

Somehow in the chaos of keys and luggage and hushing the dog from the yard, we got inside. I did what I always do immediately upon returning from a trip, I started a load of laundry. The pets behaved so obnoxiously they got what I knew full well was a second dinner. Daniel asked if I wanted to see the most recent episode of “EPISODES.”

I considered.

Yes. Yes,

This I did. It was an excellent half-hour.

This morning, I woke to the sound of an idiot complaining. We have two cats. Sisters. Squeakers and Diana. Squea prefers me. Diana is fixated on the kid. This is the only quality about Diana I can describe because, candidly, she is the most stupid cat I have ever lived with. If she ambles into the space between an open door and the wall behind it, she cries until someone saves her because she hsn't figured out how to either back up or turn around. But this morning she was having her annual idea and making such a racket I had to go determine what she needed and either give it to her or eat her.

Everyone had warned us how the child’s bedroom will be a bottomless pool of nostalgia, to be entered only if you are willing to book out a half-day for sobbing and watching home movies in the den with the drapes closed. With this in mind, we had closed the kid’s door before we left. The noise I was hearing was Diana running head-first into the door and then meowing, either because she was thwarted or because her head hurt. I felt badly for her. Daniel and I could text with the kid. Diana could not. Whatever pain the sight of my daughter’s childhood bedroom caused me was worth returning Diana to her familiar sights and smells. Also, the sound was terrible and Diana appeared to be learning nothing. Tentatively, I opened the door. Diana dashed in, jumped on the bed, crowed in triumph and trash-talked her tail for a while. I glanced in.

Then, I looked in a bit longer.

Finally I stood in the doorway.

My feelings were deep, pure and sincere.

“My God,” I said, “This room is a disaster.”

The Program had provided a detailed list of what to bring. The kid was adamant we not help her, it was her list, her life, and SHE’S NEARLY AN ADULT AND THE ONLY PERSON IN THE HOUSE WHO CAN GO ON SNAPCHAT WITHOUT CAUSING AN INCIDENT. Her father and I, benumbed by getting things notarized were aware she was days away from needing to make decisions on her own, so we didn’t put up a fight. The luggage we had taken to the airport was of such immense weight and volume I never really thought about what she left behind. I certainly hadn’t considered everything she left behind might be strewn about her bedroom. It was like Dr. Moreau had created a combination of a tornado and a drag queen. I felt pain, but not like what I was promised.

My eye rested upon something on the ground. Workout leggings. She’s much taller than I am, but leggings are leggings. With all my obsessive walking, I go through workout clothes at a clip. We'd just spent a ton of money getting her to Europe so it seemed only fair these pants — which, it must also be noted, I had paid for — get some wear. I grabbed that pair, and then another pair I spied under the bed.

Fashion insiders have a term, “Shopping your closet,” meaning to find new ways to use things you already own. For twenty glorious minutes, I shopped the kid’s room with all the emotional investment of a coroner in a morgue.  I spotted a children’s book she and I had loved dearly which I casually moved to the side because I thought I saw a really nice hoodie tucked underneath.

We put her on the plane a week ago today. I’ve cried three times since she left.  I’m still pretty certain my brain has decided this is just her three-week trip to sleepaway camp and on day twenty-two I am going to seal up her bedroom door and that idiot cat had better be on the right side of it. But for those people not here yet, I must admit I've felt far worse about far less consequential things and right now, I am kind of excited to see what comes next.

Day 4

 

Speaking of path, over the past few months many seasoned empty-nesters gave us the same piece of advice.

“If at all possible, don’t go directly back to your house.”

We got this advice from people who went on a brief adventure and were glad they did. We got this advice from people who went directly home and were very sorry they did. Message received. So, instead of flying to the east coast, putting her on the flight with the rest of the teens from the Program and heading straight back to a now-empty nest, we’d stay east for a few days. The pet-sitter was hired for the extra days and the larger luggage was yanked out of the hallway closet.

[Possible gap year project: Determine how hallway closet is portal to another world populated by sentient ski equipment.]

Then the question became, where to go? Daniel suggested a friend’s lake house in Connecticut where I had my New York Times Caucasian Moment.  But every time we’ve been there, we’ve been there with the kid. The kid who is now far away.

“So, should I call and ask Steve if we can—“

I barked, “NO!”

Maybe I was a little more emotional about this then I realized. I took a breath and tried to find a pleasant expression that would convince Daniel I wasn’t about to start beating him with a broken ski pole we just found in the hallway closet.

“We should go someplace we haven’t gone before," I said. Which is how we ended up on Cape Cod after Labor Day.  Even this neophobe has to admit, it was damn near perfect. Warm air and blue skies during the day. At night, cool breezes and a chaos of forest music (Bugs? Frogs? Both?) that announces a postcard New England autumn is just around the corner. We had a new beach to try out every day. If we had arrived just a week earlier we’d have been crammed between every mental-health professional on the East Coast taking their annual August reprieve from hearing about people’s mothers for profit but now, the week after Labor Day, the coast was, quite literally, clear.  Hell, even the parking was free. We had miles and miles of beaches on both sides of Cape Cod pretty much to ourselves — two intermittently melancholic parents periodically asking each other what time it was in France — along with a few die-hards, a handful of locals and a truly bounteous collection of Labrador Retrievers allowed, once again, to cavort on the beach.

[I’m starting to think one of the requirements of closing escrow in the Outer Cape is: “Do you have a Lab? We will accept a Golden Retriever but only if you have evidence that the dog in question once snuck into the kitchen and ate a lobster roll.”]

And there was one other group.

Like all good rats, I have familiar patterns that soothe me. One of them is I must get in 10,000 steps every day.  If I don’t, I sleep even worse than usual, which is saying something. I’ve marched the length of my house at 11:45 at night to hit my number. This step thing is somehow both healthy and not-healthy in equal measure. So when confronted with a narrow beach of great beauty and greater length and a pedometer which — because of a time-zone glitch now saw me somewhere below “sedentary,” possibly in “persistent vegetative state,” off I strode.  I hadn’t made my number the day before so I had to hit 15,000 today if I had a hope in hell of a REM cycle. I left our nearly-deserted area of the beach and walked south toward Wellfleet, the Atlantic throbbing along rythmically to my left. After about fifteen minutes, I noticed a couple sunning in matching tan bathing suits. I walked a few more paces, squinted.

Not matching suits.

Matching skin.

Nothing else.

I looked around the beach. Empty save this couple, lying face-up on a blanket, holding hands like some 3-dimensional “Love Is…” cartoon, only with pubic hair.  The tide was high, which meant I got to walk entirely too close to them.  Close enough that my brain shouted helpfully, “SAY HELLO TO THEM, BECAUSE IT’S WEIRD TO WALK THIS CLOSE TO SOMEONE AND NOT ACKNOWLEDGE THEM!  AND THEN COMMEND HIM ON HIS DEFT APPLICATION OF SUNBLOCK TO HIS PENIS!

My brain and I settled instead on my whispering “Hello” to a horseshoe crab skeleton several feet from their towel. I looked up to scan the horizon. Only a few people as far as the eye could see. Probably just a one-off here. Everyone else would be wearing some version of bathing togs, including the Labs. It’s Cape Cod!

It is Cape Cod and, I came to learn later, Cape Cod has a nude beach but in that wonderful New England way gave no indication you might have just found it.  I was torn. On the one hand, I fear the sun so I was dressed in my typical beachwear: a sweatshirt and jeans, and was possibly committing the fauxest of nude beach faux pas and should probably go back. On the other hand, I was nowhere near my steps. On the other hand, I was tired of staring fixedly at the sand, not the least of which because many of these nudists were kind of sand-colored and I had nearly stepped on one.  On the other hand, when it came to the human form, I was no naïf. I had seen Harvey Keitel movies. On the other hand, when I looked up, even if I kept my eyes as vague and horizon-focused as possible, I saw things which were, at best, complicated. A naked man wrestled with a folding chair. There were soft bits rushing pell-mell towards hinged bits. I worried about him. Then there was that man just standing there. Having never had a penis, I might be mistaken, but I really do feel he was brushing sand off that thing longer than was absolutely necessary. I wondered if Gap Year Quinn would discover she’s actually the kind of person who practices really thorough open-air genital grooming. I guess the year ahead would tell me. But I’m pretty certain I’d let people walk past without that searching eye contact. Sand-Brusher barely blinked.

I checked my phone. I was at 7,000 steps. That would put me right around 14,000 by the time I got back to clothed people. The hotel room was modest but could be lapped a few hundred times to make up the difference. The tide was rising, narrowing my path among the enthusiasts. I methodically rolled up my pants legs, headed down to the water's edge and hoped my flash of ankle was taken as a sign of solidarity.