I reached over and silenced my phone’s alarm, Uncle Jesse barely lifting his head in acknowledgment. As soon as I got out of bed, he stood up, stretched, and curled into a ball right on top of my pillow.
“Not today, Uncle Jesse, you’re coming with me,” I said, shuffling over to my dresser and yanking out a pair of clean black stretch pants.
Hearing the upbeat tone of my voice, he jumped off the bed and eagerly sniffed the clothing in my hand. Deeming the scent what must have been ‘baked-in exercise funk,’ he twirled in a circle and began his stretching routine.
It was 7:15am on a Sunday and Bend, Oregon’s high desert summer sun had finally worn me down. “I WILL go running before it feels like Satan’s belly button,” I had vowed the night before as I’d set my alarm.
When our run was over, I fixed a healthy breakfast and set to work on my latest project – another course with Plant-Based with Robin: “Is that Bird Food?” I was excited about this one.
By the end of the day, I felt proud, strong, and accomplished. …Until about 9pm. When I wanted snacks.
All the snacks.
Instead of putting myself to bed -for an even earlier, harder work-out the next day- I caved.
Toast sounds great. And those peanut butter pretzels… Ooh and that chocolate Kate just sent from Germany!
I went to bed full, and full of knowing I’d be unhappy with myself in the morning. On the heels of last week’s shame spiral, I wondered how I could let such a good day slip through my fingers in its final moments.
Was it anxiety? Lack of willpower? Plain ol’ fat-sugar-salt addiction?
Or had I subconsciously decided at some point -based on my unique blend of childhood experiences and genetic make-up- that my ‘ceiling’ was this? Living somewhere halfway between my old life and my new, not quite fully realized, new one?
Robin and I have talked a lot about progress vs. perfection as we develop our plant-based living courses.
“I get it. We all have those days,” I said in our first course [about easy meal ideas during quarantine]. “So plan for them. Are you going to be running around all day on Wednesday? Social distance happy hour-ing on Friday? Get the frozen pizza, get the margarita. Plan on it. Work with your schedule and preferences instead of against them.”
It was easy to give this advice, so much harder to swallow it myself.
One thing had changed, though. Instead of thinking that all hope was lost (“what’s the point? Might as well eat nothing but fried Oreos!”), instead of making a series of harsh, empty promises (“tomorrow I’ll eat nothing but lettuce”), I laid my head down on Sunday night and thought, just as I had after last week’s disastrous outing: Tomorrow is a new day.
Disclaimer: Names and identifying features changed or omitted.
I pulled off the offending lace tank top and hung it neatly back in the closet, pausing to admire the uniformity of my new wooden hangers. I’d always wanted matching wooden hangers and a closet that looked like a high-end boutique shop. I might not have achieved the latter when I moved to Bend, Oregon last year, but the hangers?
I tried on two more shirts, holding a small mirror in front of my face and glancing backwards into my full-length mirror.
Do my arms really look like that? And my back? Is it the bra? Oh god. I can’t wear my hair up like this. Look at my double chin.
I yanked the bobby pins out of my side bun. Two months of calorie counting, weight lifting, yoga, and running 50 miles a week, and the reflection in the mirror still betrayed me. I settled on a red floral shirt, dark wash jeans, and a low ponytail.
“I’ll be there at 4:30 to pick you up, if that still works,” I texted my friend, Meghan.
“What are you wearing?” she replied.
I snapped a selfie, strategically cutting out my arms, and surrendering to the fact that this was just as good as it was going to get today.
When I pulled into Meghan’s driveway, she stepped outside in a jaw-dropping maroon dress, her hair and make-up perfect. Playboy bunny meets red carpet knock-out.
“You look gorgeous, as always,” I said, popping out of the car to give her a hug (we had decided weeks earlier that we were definitely “COVID family,” thus able to enjoy embraces).
I hoped I sounded sincere, because I was. Even if I suddenly felt even older and haggier than ever before. We spent the late afternoon enjoying outdoor live music at a lake lodge, every head turning as Meghan walked by, two men even stopping to ask if she was staying at the lodge. The afternoon beer eventually turned into an al fresco “frosé” (frozen rosé) at a bar closer to home.
“Those guys keep looking over here,” Meghan giggled, her eyes fixed on a few men behind me.
I tried to casually pivot, turning back to Meghan with a grin.
“You can say that again.”
“They’re leaving now,” she whispered a minute later.
One of them paused in front of Meghan, the final traces of daylight catching his rugged stubble.
“I just have to tell you, you look great,” he said earnestly, staring Meghan down.
“Thank you so much,” Meghan replied, her picture-perfect smile and big, bright eyes shining. “Where are you from?”
“Seattle,” he replied. “I’m here for a bachelor party and leaving tomorrow.”
“Oh, that’s too bad,” Meghan said, a wink in her voice. “What’s your name?”
“Scott,” he answered. After an awkward half beat, he glanced my way.
“I’m Julie,” I heard myself say. “Jules” felt too unfeminine.
He immediately returned his attention to Meghan and I downed the last of my frosé. After he left, the server started putting up chairs and wiping down tables.
“Want to try The Lot?” Meghan asked, referring to another outdoor bar just two blocks away. “I think they’re open ’til 10.”
It was 9:30pm, which is when most of Bend shuts down on a Saturday night, international pandemic or not. As we headed to The Lot, a young man shouted out his car window to ask where we were going, his gaze fixed firmly on Meghan.
As soon as we reached our destination and approached the bar for a drink, three men descended.
“You have to come sit with us,” they insisted, practically dragging Meghan to their table.
I waited for our drinks and then sat down next to Meghan, tugging my high-waisted jeans over my gurgling stomach. We had skipped dinner and all I could think about was my couch, my dog, and the delicious cauliflower pizza I wished I was eating.
Within five minutes, the three, scruffy-haired, patchouli-drenched men offered us mushrooms (which we politely declined) and told us about their Pacific Crest Trail through-hiking adventure.
“Because of those six months, we really learned how to read people,” the tallest, and youngest, of the crew said.
The cutest guy in the group had already cornered Meghan, forcing me to face the remaining two intoxicated men on my own. This is so not where I want to be right now.
“For example, I can tell that she,” the scruffiest and oldest one began, nodding towards Meghan, “is way more open and spontaneous than you. You’re really closed off.”
He went on for a minute and now had Meghan’s attention. Is this really happening? Are they going to keep talking about how this bombshell next to me is superior in every way, including her entire essence?
“That’s no way to live,” they both went on. “You’re clearly so rigid and uptight.”
Meghan took one look at my face and interjected,
“We need more people like Jules. Jules is one of the greatest people I know and I always tell people about the dinner party I invited her to when we first met. She showed up with so much amazing wine and food and even labeled it in case anyone had allergies.”
By then I’d missed my opportunity for a graceful escape to the bathroom. Tears rolled down my cheeks.I am 38 years old, crying in front of strangers. In the middle of a bar. I eventually made it to the bathroom, with Meghan, and found myself saying,
“Yeah, I guess we can go with them to the dive bar downtown.” I can’t ditch you, and maybe I can redeem myself.
An hour later, Meghan was missing and Mushroom Man #3 was two inches from my face, shouting over the blaring music.
“I need you to hug me and prove you can connect on a deep, genuine level with another human being.”
“I’m good, thanks,” I said, staring at the shot of whiskey he had given me.
“Come on,” he persisted, and I wound up with my arms around his short, solid frame. A decision I’d later regret for many reasons, not the least of which involved reeking of incense for the rest of the night.
He wouldn’t let go, so I eventually pulled away, knowing I had -purposely- not given him what he was looking for.
“See, that still wasn’t genuine,” he said. “You’re so closed off. You’re living your life all wrong.”
“No, we’re nothing alike,” he retorted, staring directly into my eyes. “You’re never going to experience what life has to offer if you don’t open up.”
My eyes filled for the second time in as many hours.
What if he’s right? Why can’t I be one of those women who goes on spontaneous camping trips, seduces strange, stubbly men, and embraces her mismatched hangers?
…Why can’t I be a little less me and a little more Meghan?
As I felt the hot tears trickle down my face, Meghan returned.
“He’s being mean again,” I said shakily, reduced to a toddler’s verbal range. “So I’m leaving, and you can come if you want.”
I bolted out the nearest door and pushed through the 20-somethings scattered on the bar’s back deck.
“How the hell did this night happen?” I wondered as I made the long, solo trek back to my car, choking back sobs and grateful that I’d sobered up so I could get home safely.
As I passed through Drake Park, the midnight sprinklers pivoted, drenching me. I almost laughed. Well isn’t this cinematic. I pictured the scene from The Holiday where Kate Winslet bends over her gas stove range, turning on a burner and inhaling deeply. She quickly chokes, running to the window, cracking it open and sighing,
Low point, Julie Jules, low point.
As soon as I got home and opened my apartment door, Uncle Jesse lavished me with licks and whines, watching curiously as I sat on the couch and wept – as deeply and fully as I’d wanted to all night. When I ran out of tears, I went to the fridge and fixed my long-awaited dinner, surprised that I had no urge to open a bottle of wine.
The cauliflower crust immediately crumbled into 17 pieces as I tried to flip it and I felt like crying all over again. Why does everything always fall apart?
“I’m home, are you okay?” Meghan texted a little after 1am. “I’m so sorry I didn’t leave with you. I came outside, and you were already gone.”
“I’m glad you’re home safely,” was all I could manage.
I collapsed into bed a short while later, clinging to my favorite life line as I drifted into dream land.
“This is one of the highlights of my week,” I grinned, staring at my laptop camera lens. Does it look creepy when I do that?
“Mine, too,” Karla replied with trademark sincerity.
We said goodnight and each retreated back to our respective lives – mine in central Oregon and Karla’s in central New Jersey.
“The tacos here are amazing,” Karla gushed.
“Oh my god, I love them, too,” I agreed.
We both spoke loudly over the din of a sprawling Mexican restaurant known for their cheap -but strong- margaritas and piping hot, freshly fried tortilla chips.
“I used to be a cruise ship director,” Karla began once our food had arrived.
I nearly dropped my fork. Whenever I was forced to dine dined with my Big Pharm colleagues, stories usually began with, “I majored in biology in college” or, “I first discovered my love of Bunsen burners when…” I would smile and nod and wait for the inevitable confusion when I shared my own background: “Well… I have a degree in creative writing…”
Karla finished her story and I stared at her for a long moment.
“You HAVE to turn this into a memoir.”
“You know, I’ve always thought I might do that,” she said.
And thus, a creative seed was planted.
That was 2011, and it would take nine years, but eventually the universe brought Karla and I together with the joint purpose of nurturing that seedling.
When Kris Tucker, an instructor from my Masters program and founder of Creative Writing with Kris, approached me about teaching the class, I felt utterly unqualified and certain it would lead nowhere. But before long, someone signed up. And then Karla signed up.
“Oh my god, is it memoir time?!” I wondered.
Suddenly, all of the stories that had peppered our conversations for so long began taking form. Karla was turning out page after page. It was happening.
“That’s the thing about dreams,” I said one evening to Karla during a weekly video chat. “They never go away.”
Dreams will haunt us or heal us, and we have the power to decide which one it’s going to be.
Whether or not your dreams feel “artistic,” rest assured they’re steeped in creativity, and our world would be a little less colorful without them. We need them brought to life just as much as you do.
When I started this blog nine years ago -another small, seemingly insignificant act- I had no idea it would change my entire life. And you don’t have to know either. Just start somewhere. Anywhere.
And speaking of helping each other realize our dreams…
If you’d like to help artists struggling during the COVID-19 crisis, here are a few handpicked places where your generosity will be put to good use:
Through their GoFundMe page, you can help the Arts Leaders of Color reach their $100,000 goal in support of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) artists AND administrators (consultants, facilitators, box office staff, seasonal/temporary employees, etc.) who have been financially impacted due to COVID-19.
Not too shabby. By the way, all of the posters featuring Second Husband were already sold out! You go, Darren!
If you’ve ever experienced the awe of watching the curtains part on a Broadway (or any live) show, you’re probably having trouble imagining a world where all of New York City’s iconic theaters have gone dark. Help shed a little light by donating here. Your support will provide urgent additional resources for the vital social service programs of The Actors Fund, including emergency financial assistance, health insurance, counseling and the operation of The Friedman Health Center for the Performing Arts.