by Margaret Karmazin
I. I adjust my coat collar, straighten my shoulder bag strap and put on my Meetings Face. Better to do it now, like a method actor – get into character and make sure it doesn’t resemble Resting Bitch Face which I have a tendency to normally wear unless actually smiling.
This particular meeting is political, so I have made myself look competent and even slightly corporate. Smoothed the hair out, put on a dark gray outfit, gold earrings and my gold colored watch. I have added an official looking notebook, which I will doodle in during the presentation, but unless you are sitting next to me and making a point of looking, I will appear to be “taking notes.”
Let me tell you right here that I hate meetings. Anymore, I pretty much abhor most social gatherings, but I continue to attend them because They keep telling you that if you don’t, you’ll probably die sooner. Really though? Enduring shallow relationships where no one gives a hoot about you except that you make financial contributions to the Cause or you fill up a space and make it appear that whatever this meeting is about is “working” are good for your health and give you more of a chance to make it to a hundred?
Gretta, the leader (she started it and we play with her bat) and Marcella, who is apparently going to be Treasurer/Secretary though no one seems to have any say over how the money is spent besides Gretta, are sitting at the head table. Everyone politely listens to Gretta’s stream of consciousness. She has forgotten to shave or wax her throat, which is sprouting a forest of post-menopausal hairs. From this point on, out of terror, I will shave my own neck just in case.
“We need to come up with a different design for our business card,” Gretta says, which immediately gets my hackles up since I was the one who designed the logo, though I was not permitted to lay out the card.
Like the butt-licker I am, I immediately start doodling potential card designs in my official looking notebook. The problem is that Gretta seems to want entire paragraphs on this two by 3.5 inch piece of cardboard. Nevertheless I persevere, knowing the entire time that no matter what I submit, she will not choose it. If it were up to me, I would make the card simple with a web address on it so anyone can just look at the website to see what the group is about. Later I hand my sketch in only to be told by Gretta, “Several people have handed in ideas. We’ll decide later.”
What? Were they all frantically sketching during the meeting too and somehow passed their papers up to her table without me noticing? Or did she collect these at some earlier secret rendezvous? And why won’t she smile? Why can’t she fucking ever SMILE?
But I remain in my professional political meeting mode, holding onto my composure while visualizing her being ripped apart by hyenas. The thing is though, I am not planning to do any of thing things she wants people to do like canvas for our Party or harass voters by phone. This is a rural area, people have barking watchdogs and guns, and a serial killer might live in one of the farmhouses – who knows? And I personally hate it when people call me to tell me whom to vote for. So what am I even attending this meeting for?
I’ll tell you what for – just to be with other people of my own Party in this vast sea I live in of citizens from The Other Party. I am here just for human companionship with people I don’t want to run over with a steamroller.
So I smile ingratiatingly and stay till the meeting is over, after which I escape to my car and drive the half hour home. Soon I will be comfortably dressed in sloppy stretch clothes while wearing my Resting Bitch Face, and smug about having made the effort to socialize so that I won’t drop dead earlier than expected.
II. I’m preparing for my Meditation/New Age group discussion meeting. For this, I adorn myself in the local New Age style of one hundred percent cotton leggings and soft tunic top, also cotton and preferably of ethnic design. Shoes, which will be removed at the door where you line them up neatly on a woven mat, are Birkenstock and constructed of nicely weathered leather though many of the participants are vegetarian or even vegan for the purpose of respecting animal rights. (Leather covering for massage tables is also conveniently overlooked.)
I wear my graying hair loose and fluff it as wildly as I can, before inserting large silver dangle earrings, handmade in Indonesia, and a silver bangle bracelet, ethnic looking though counterfeit. Gold is a no-no. Gold implies a woman who kowtows to The Man. My shoulder bag is soft brown leather so it can pass between the Political meeting and the New Age meetings even though a cow died in the making of it.
When I arrive, the leader, Sage, is setting up for Meditation with the help of Bodhi – her given name is Christine but she was blessed with this new moniker by a guru in Phoenix. Bodhi doesn’t talk much since she believes that talking distracts from her communion with the Universe and drains her spiritual energy. She is arranging an altar at the front of the room with little Hindu statues, incense and other paraphernalia. Sage regards me critically.
“Dennis and I would like to have a session with you.”
“What for?” I innocently ask.
“You need to work on some issues that have to do with honesty. We can help you. Maybe Thursday evening?”
“Uh, yeah. We feel that you need to work on that, that you’re not being totally honest.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, though I kind of do. She and I both know that I don’t live my life fully in the New Age/Hippie manner. So much for meditational tranquility; this cocky New Age dictator with her tousled red hair, hippie dresses and frequent supposedly subtle attempts to get everyone to take their clothes off and massage each other has ruined my mood.
“Interesting,” I say.
“What is?” she asks, her hand in midair as she decides where to place a Ganesh statue.
It occurs to me to wonder why all the Hindu stuff. Are we supposed to be worshipping Hindu gods and if so, why? I realize that I really don’t fit into this group…well, I do and I don’t.
“It’s interesting that Dennis would be giving advice on honesty when he spends all of his time complaining about what the war did to him instead of making a serious effort to clear up his own psychological problems and get on with his life. I find it curious that he, who has no experience in counseling, would take it upon himself to advise me who took several courses in psychology and who read the entire DSM for pleasure. I think I will pass.”
Of course, Sage does not know what the DSM is. “Well, if you change your mind, I think it would be good for you.”
I nod. “I suppose you do.”
The others arrive, including Dennis who looks sourer than usual, and we sit on the floor in a circle. Everyone appears properly New Agey, especially Crystal who, though middle-aged, maintains an ethereal look with her floaty Indian dresses and pale blonde, fly-away hair.
“Why don’t we continue our work on expressing our anger before we meditate?” suggests Sage, which is not really a suggestion but an order. Sage has a lot of anger of her own built up, due to having married while young and still a virgin and never having enjoyed sowing her wild oats. Apparently men in general are to blame for this or so one can deduce from her frequent ranting against them. She passes around throw pillows for people to beat up during tirades of their own and starts the ball rolling by handing the woman next to her the Talking Stick.
“Dawn, what is your state of mind today?”
Dawn, who is a wraithlike drama queen, gets right to it. “I-I-,” she says flutteringly, “I just think I need some space. Joe just doesn’t understand. I mean he babysits Ariel whenever I ask, but it’s more than that. What we need is to see other people when we want to. You know, experience so we have more to bring back to the relationship.”
Uh huh, I’m thinking. Why doesn’t she just say she wants to fuck around? Talk about honesty. We’ve been over this before and somehow, her conventional husband expects her to stick to their original agreement made four years earlier at her childhood church in a white dress and tux and then celebrated at a backyard picnic.
I listen to her go on and then to the next person, a young guy wearing a man bun who is so accommodating that I want to punch him hard on the arm and shout, “MAN UP!” He is worried about school. None of the offered classes enrich his soul.
This goes on until it’s my turn and I don’t really have anything to say. It’s not that I never get mad – hell, half the time I am mad about something, but just not mad about the sort of things the group approves of.
But I try to fit in. After all, don’t I come here for human contact and to make friends, though now I realize that these are not really people I’d want to have lunch with. I accept the Talking Stick and say, “Uh, yeah, the Me Too thing. While I can’t say that anyone has sexually abused me, I can identify with the rage.” I realize that this is coming out in a totally dispirited way. “I mean,” I add lamely, ” the men I personally have dealt with in my life were for the most part decent.”
Oh dear, I shouldn’t have said that.
Sage regards me with disgust and I hear a low moan from Crystal on my left. “Maybe you’ve blocked out things that happened to you. Whatever.”
“This doesn’t mean that I believe Kavanaugh,” I clarify. “Because there is no doubt he did it. I just mean-”
Crystal reaches for the Talking Stick and in defeat, I hand it to her.
By the time I’m back home, I am so grateful to be there that I kiss the cat so intensely that he meows in protest. I set him down and vow never to return to that group, but undoubtedly, I’ll be there again the following week.
In the bedroom, I remove the silver earrings and, in rebellion, put on big gold hoops.
III. It’s a half hour until I have to leave, but I’m dressed and ready. Driving at night is not my favorite thing to do, but the Writers Group has to meet then since some of the members have full time jobs. For this, I dress like I do at home, only without stains or bleach marks on the clothes. I do comb my hair and the earrings are silver hoops for no reason; I just like them.
The meeting takes place at Richard’s house. Richard lives with his partner Thomas and is Libertarian though only Democrats appear to support gay rights. Thomas greets us as we enter, but soon leaves for a meeting of his own. Richard sets out a plate of cookies and offers tea or coffee. I wonder if he minds hosting the group and would offer my own place, but it is not central to where the others live, as is Richard’s house.
Four others arrive, three long time regulars and the new Christian guy. Christian Guy is in his forties and very meek – Walter Mitty of the twenty-first century. He is, from what I have observed so far, a bit on the dim side, but everyone treats him with kid gloves, as they might someone with Down syndrome attempting to compose a poem. Christian Guy’s real name is Michael and he has brought the same story as last month, but revised.
Rachel begins. She is in her late fifties and comes off somewhat hard-edged and I remember she is a dog trainer, so appears to enjoy being Alpha and in control. She reads her mystery story, which isn’t bad. The others critique mildly but everyone seems to like it. I don’t have anything to add, it seems okay and ready to submit somewhere. Myra reads her poem, which is about a sunset and is trite and boring, though of course I don’t say this. Rachel speaks up and implies that the poem is good and Richard chimes in with a restatement of what Rachel just said. I keep quiet; I’m a bit afraid of Rachel.
Then it’s Michael’s turn to read his revised story. Just like last time, the characters are simple-minded and it is ingenuous and saccharine sweet. God wins all in the end. I am thinking that no publisher I have ever submitted to would even consider it. Michael will have to send it to some cheerful, sentimental magazine if such a thing exists; possibly religious periodicals accept such things? Yet, no one mentions this problem, while I know full well they must be thinking about it.
“Um,” I say tentatively, “Marsha seems…um…a bit…not sure how to put this…maybe childish? Like she just accepts what Gregory tells her and decides to keep the baby even though she already has two kids she doesn’t take care of and has no means of support? I mean, exactly how is she going to live? And what about her husband’s parole coming up? Will he get it or not? And will he continue to beat her up if he does?”
“Oh, I think it’s fine,” says Richard.
“Yeah, I don’t have a problem with it,” says Lee Ann, the mother of a teenage girl who is currently driving her insane and shows up frequently in her irate essays.
I feel confused, as if I am suddenly on another planet and not wearing any pants. The eternally suspicious mother is saying that these characters are just fine swallowing anything anyone tells them and that whatever the preacher says is right? Because Michael is fundamental Christian, we have to pamper his belief system?
Suddenly, I feel a violent stab of homesickness, picturing my sweet husband in his recliner cozily watching Netflix. I could be there with him now. What am I doing here with these people who obviously don’t like me?
But now it is my turn to read my latest sci-fi story, which takes place on a space station and involves a prostitute and a smug, rightwing head of security who wants to banish the ladies from the station even though the men are lonely. A delegation of aliens is arriving for first contact and since the aliens communicate best through body contact and smell, the prostitute is called in to facilitate this form of communication. She is the heroine of the day while the smug head of security ends up humiliated.
At first, Richard seems to like the story though the others are quiet. Finally Rachel says, “Maybe you don’t need to be quite so descriptive of what the prostitute does in the opening. I mean, you can just say she is a prostitute.”
I don’t mention that this is exactly what rejecting editors tell you not to do. Show, don’t tell, they always say. None of these people have had as much experience as I have of being rejected, nor have they had anywhere near as many things published.
“You know,” says Lee Ann, “I don’t think they really would ask the prostitute to meet with the alien. They just wouldn’t do it.”
I silently nod though I’d like to ask her how much sci-fi she has actually read.
Richard, who first said he liked the story, now says, “You had to bring politics into it, didn’t you?”
I am rather stunned and my face flushes. Yes, I brought politics into it since politics are actually related to everything in LIFE. I want to scream, how come Michael can “bring politics into it” just by being fundamental Christian, but if I do it, it’s not kosher?
“That reminds me,” Richard goes on, “a friend of mine read your letter to the editor, the one about the Middle East? And he said, ‘I thought you told me she was intelligent.'”
While my face burns, I make the decision then and there that I will not return to the writer’s group. As I drive home, I wonder why I go to meetings at all.
Oh, I remember…it’s to make friends.
My husband turns his head as I open the door. He is cozily in his recliner just as I had pictured, Roger the cat on his lap. The TV is on to a nature show where a mother cheetah is worried about protecting her cubs while she desperately searches for food. I have never been so happy to see all this in my life.
The next day there is a lake association meeting but I refrain and let husband go by himself.
Margaret Karmazin’s credits include stories published in literary and national magazines, including Rosebud, Chrysalis Reader, North Atlantic Review, Mobius, Confrontation, Pennsylvania Review, ASIM, The Speculative Edge and Another Realm. Her stories in The MacGuffin, Eureka Literary Magazine, Licking River Review and Mobius were nominated for Pushcart awards. She has also published a YA novel, REPLACING FIONA, a children’s book, FLICK-FLICK & DREAMER and a collection of short stories, RISK.