with a cat curled against my back,
with a pillow cushioning my knees,
with another cradling my cheek,
caught in the undertow of sleep.
with a book set in my lap,
with my glasses marking the place
where I read of a mysterious case
that my mind proceeded to chase.
and jump into the gap
between reality and dreams
where sunlight beams and monsters scream,
where whimsical schemes reign supreme.
Copyright 2020 Beth Pontorno
Isolate means to be alone or apart from others. Technically, I’m not isolated. I’m around other people when I go shopping, but it’s been exactly one month since I’ve seen or talked to anyone I actually know in person.
I’m depressed. I’m grateful to have a job that allows me to work from home right now. Still, it’s difficult to be alone so much.
This past Wednesday, one of my co-workers sent our department an email, in which she explained her current situation and how she was dealing with social distancing. Then our boss sent an email “to encourage everyone on the staff to share your experiences during this difficult time.”
Out of the ten of us in our little department, I was the only one who didn’t respond. I couldn’t. I was depressed and extremely irritable. I knew anything I wrote would’ve been snarky, so I didn’t say anything.
I live alone, and I have no family nearby. I’m the only one in my office in this situation. What could I have said that wouldn’t bring them down or seem bitchy?
A lot of them talked about how great it was to go outside and listen to birds. It might’ve just been my irritability, but I couldn’t relate. All I could think to say was this:
I had a lot of tree branches, junk, and trash in my backyard, so I spent a lot of time cleaning, organizing, and throwing stuff out. It was difficult, sweaty work, and I hated every minute of it. My only interaction with wildlife was the snake I had to kill in the back yard and the dead crow I saw in the front yard.
The snake slithered out from under a pile of wood I was moving. I tried shooing it away, but it wouldn’t budge. The little guy kept rearing up into attack mode, so I cut it in half with a shovel. It’s two halves slithered and twitched separately for what seemed like hours. It was more like minutes, but I was impatient. Just to make sure it would actually die, I sliced it again with the edge of my shovel, this time closer to its head. Then I went about my business. When I came back about an hour later, it had finally stopped moving. I shoveled the pieces into a trash can, put the top on, and left the can in the outside heat while I finished cleaning up the yard. A couple of hours later when I took the top off the can, the smell of death slapped me in the face.
I didn’t kill the crow. The crow killed itself. It landed on the power line in front of my house, screeched, and dropped to the ground. Its crow friends screamed and flew away. They didn’t even check on their friend. When the screaming stopped, I walked over to check out the dead guy. It was big and black and looked like it had no head. I crouched down a little, stood back up, and then walked to its other side. Yep, no head. There wasn’t any blood, so I assumed its head was bent back underneath its body. Technically, it had landed in the neighbor’s part of our shared front yards. Otherwise, I would’ve shoveled it into the trash can with the dead snake. But since it wasn’t in my yard, I left it. A few days later, I saw two construction workers who had been working on the gas lines in my neighborhood with a shovel and a plastic bag. They shoveled the crow into the bag and drop the bag into a trash can my across the street neighbor had left by the curb.
Can you imagine if I had emailed this story to my co-workers? I don’t think their delicate natures could have handled it, which is why I posted it here instead.
I’m afraid of the coronavirus. I have elderly relatives, some in good health, some in poor health. I worry about their safety during this unprecedented time. I have friends and relatives who smoke cigarettes now or smoked them in the past. I’m worried for them. I know people who are generally in poor health or who have recently been sick. I worry about them.
I also worry about myself even though I’m in relatively good health. Sometimes, I can’t help but panic. The reason I worry – my left lung has spontaneously collapsed twice in my lifetime.
The first time it happened, I was sixteen and a nervous wreck. I hated high school and was desperate to figure out where to go to college. Plus, I was very petite, weighing less than 100 pounds. I was not healthy.
One night, I was lying on the couch watching tv when a pain began stabbing the left side of my chest. The pain radiated to my left arm and was so intense that I couldn’t sit still. My mom thought I was having a heart attack and called an ambulance. The paramedics were calm and professional, but I could tell they were concerned. After they loaded me into the ambulance and hooked me up to their machines, I moved suddenly and disrupted one of the monitors. I remember one of the paramedics saying “What happened?” in a panicked tone. The other paramedic reassured him, and me, that nothing was wrong, I had only moved.
The stabbing pain didn’t ease until I got to the hospital. In its place was a weird, aching pressure, but I could finally breathe deeply without feeling like I would pass out. The chest x-ray revealed a pneumothorax. The upper portion of my left lung was shriveled. The doctor didn’t think a chest tube was necessary, assuring me the collapse would re-inflate on its own. After two days in the hospital, I was back home.
I returned to school and was looking forward to going to New York in a few weeks to look at colleges. Then I started coughing. Fever and exhaustion followed. I had another chest x-ray, which showed pneumonia. The doctor gave me medicine and told me to rest, but I didn’t cancel my travel plans.
My dad was staying with his cousin on Long Island while he attended work-related training in New York for two weeks. One weekend, my mom, my grandmother, and I took the Amtrak from Washington, D.C. to New York City and then boarded the Long Island Railroad so we could visit my dad and see some colleges. I don’t know if it was because I was so sick, but New York felt like another planet to me. Everyone was so loud. Everything moved so fast. The buildings in the city were so tall that I could hardly see the sky when I looked up.
I eventually recovered from the pneumonia, and my life went on. Instead of New York, I ended up moving to the New Orleans areas, which is where I lived when I suffered my second pneumothorax.
I was twenty-four, working a full-time job as a legal secretary, and going to school four nights a week to learn how to deal blackjack at a casino. I was still underweight, and stress and exhaustion consumed my life.
One morning, I was getting ready to walk out the door to go to work when I slung my backpack onto my left shoulder and happened to sneeze at the same time. That’s all it took. The pain from eight years before struck again. I knew immediately what was happening. I went to work anyway, hoping the pain would ease as it had the first time. I sat at my desk, and my boss asked how I was. I said I was okay. Then a moment later, I told her I wasn’t okay and that I thought my lung had collapsed. I went home and called my mom, crying and sweating from the intensity of the pain. She told me to go to the hospital. The pain made me so impatient that I drove myself instead of calling an ambulance.
At the hospital, I told the triage nurse what I thought had happened. She listened to my chest, didn’t hear anything weird, and thought I was being ridiculous. But the emergency room admitted me anyway. By the time the x-ray technician came to pick me up, the pain had eased to the same achy pressure I had experience the last time. Again, the x-ray revealed a pneumothorax, same location, same percentage of my lung.
I only stayed in the hospital a few hours, and I didn’t get pneumonia. I went back to work and my classes. I graduated from casino school. Then I got a full-time job at one of the riverboat casinos. I dealt blackjack for about a month (which is a whole other blog post) before I came down with a cold because of all the smoke in the casino. The next morning, I called in sick and went back to sleep. When I woke up later, my eyeballs felt like they were steaming. My glasses actually fogged up when I put them on. I checked my temperature and took a cold shower to try to reduce my fever. Then I went to the doctor. This time it was bronchitis.
Right now, I’m in self-isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic. The stress of constantly being alone has my mind playing the what-if game. What if my lung collapses again and I get sick with COVID-19? What if I don’t recover? I could actually die. I’m healthier now than I was in the past, which means the odds are in my favor that this scenario won’t occur. I worry, though, even as I try my best to be safe.
MRIs freak me out.
The first time I had one, I declined the headphones. I also opened my eyes at the beginning of the test. Big mistake. The top of the tunnel was an inch from my face, and I felt buried alive. I spent the entire twenty minutes trying to calm down so I didn't press the help button and ruin the test.
The second time I had an MRI, my doctor prescribed lorazepam to take beforehand. I swallowed two pills and asked the technician to cover my eyes with a towel. I also accepted the headphones, choosing Billy Joel to play on Pandora. Billy did not help at all. I sailed through the test only because I was so dopey on meds. Good thing I'd gotten a ride from a friend.
A few weeks ago, I had my third MRI. This time, I sucked it up, only took one lorazepam, and drove myself to the appointment. I did the towel thing again and chose Good Charlotte to play on Pandora.
Why Good Charlotte? One, punk music is awesome. Two, some of the band members are from my hometown and went to the same high school as I did. It's true. We all grew up in Waldorf, Maryland, and we all went to LaPlata High School. I don't know them, I never met them, and we weren't in high school at the same time. I graduated in 1992. They graduated a few years later. But it's still cool as fuck. I mean, these guys are famous now, especially Joel and Benji Madden. They made it through LaPlata and escaped Waldorf, which is enough to make them my heroes.
When I attended LaPlata, it was filled with all kinds of people. Middle class suburbanites, trailer trash, rural folk, rich kids, etc. And apparently, everyone was having sex. Or, at least, they were talking about having sex. A girl in my freshman gym class said she was pregnant and stressing over what to do, have the baby or an abortion. Another girl in my freshman gym class liked to talk about the guys she made out with at parties and how she had to hurry up and straighten her clothes when her mom came to pick her up. During the sewing portion of my home economics class, a girl gave a group of us a graphic description of her first time having sex; it involved her biting her boyfriend on the shoulder because the pain was so intense. During the cooking portion of home economics, I sat at a table with a girl who didn't like having sex on waterbeds because her ass always banged against the wood frame under the water. She also claimed her birth control pills gave her chest pains. Most of them were probably full of shit, but they talked a good game. Some, though, were definitely telling the truth. At least two girls in my class had babies before our senior year. And a guy in my twelfth grade English class was married, and his wife had a baby before we graduated. It was nuts.
More nuts were the fights. Girls pulling hair and giving each other black eyes over some dumb boy. Guys kicking each other's asses so badly that, when the teachers finally pulled them apart and marched them to the office, they had blood pouring down their faces. The worst fight I ever saw, though, happened one morning during my sophomore year. I got off the bus, walked into school, and passed by the cafeteria where a bunch of boys were fighting. Punches were thrown. Chairs were tossed. Tables were flipped. Teachers were hit and pushed during their attempts to intervene. If I remember correctly, one boy even choked another boy. The cops were called. About a dozen students were arrested. All because someone in one clique didn't invite someone in another clique to a party. I didn't watch for long. I went to my locker and then to my first class, where only one or two people were waiting for the first bell. Then a voice over the loudspeaker announced that anyone who wasn't in class by the late bell would be marked as tardy. No leeway this time. Everyone came running. Fucking nuts.
When I first started at LaPlata, I tried to fit in. I ran cross-country. But I figured out rather quickly that I shouldn't run long distances because I would vomit whenever I did. I also hurt my knee. Plus, the coach was not a fan of mine. So I quit. After that, I fucking hated high school. I felt like a loser, a joke, a prisoner, a visitor to another planet. I did everything I could to be invisible because it seemed like the only type of acknowledgement I ever got from anyone there was a roll of the eyes. All I thought about was how much I wanted to not be there. So I kept my head down, kept my mouth shut, and kept telling myself I only had four more years of this bullshit. Then three, then two, then one. After my graduation ceremony, I practically ran out of the school and never looked back. Set these words to music, and you'll have another loser anthem. Although, mine will never be as badass as Good Charlotte's original Anthem.
When the technician slid me into the MRI machine and started the music, Pandora was still set to the music chosen by the previous patient. Something from the 80s? I can't be sure because I was too busy panicking. Soon enough, though, the music switched to a Good Charlotte song, and a calm settled over me.
I'm convinced now. Choose the right music, and you'll be chill during an MRI.
“Tuna time,” I say as I struggle out of bed. From the other side of my queen-sized mattress, Belly sits like a statue on her heating pad, watching me. I make my way to the bedroom door, and Belly twists and jumps down with an oomph-meow, as if her joints ache.
In the kitchen, I fork a chuck of canned tuna into her bowl. “Want some tuna, Belly?”
She stares up at me, a plea in her gaze. “Mow.”
I set the bowl on the far end of the kitchen table as I say, “Here you go, buddy.”
She springs first onto a chair and then onto the table with another one of her oomph-meows and digs in. I fill her other bowl with dry cat food and a third bowl with fresh water. Then I leave her to her meal.
Once she’s had her fill of tuna, she heads into the bathroom for a drink of water from the leaky bathtub faucet. Then she jumps onto the bed, sits on her heating pad, stretches out a leg, and begins washing. I rub my hand over her head.
“Hey, pretty girl.”
She must know she’s pretty because she doesn’t stop licking to acknowledge me. She really is a beautiful cat – a brown, black, and white tabby with an M on her forehead. I kiss her on the M and continue on with my morning.
As I get ready for work, I hear her pacing around the living room. “Whatcha doing, Belly?” She stops, glances up at me, and says, “Meep” before heading the other way. I leave her to the pacing, and eventually I hear her scraping in the litter box. A moment later, she races across the living room and attacks her scratching post. Then she saunters back to her heating pad and falls asleep.
Right before I leave the house, I stroke my hand over her head. She rolls onto her back, showing me her belly. I rub her chest, her purr rumbling under my fingers. She grabs my hand with both front paws and tries to nip me. I’m too fast, though. I yank my hand away and say, “Nope.” Then I tuck my hand under the blanket. “You wanna play, Belly?” I wiggle my fingers, and she pounces on my covered hand with paws and teeth.
For a moment or two, she chases my hand as I move it back and forth underneath the blanket. Eventually, she involves one of her back feet, and I remove my hand. She keeps kicking, though, booting herself in the face over and over.
“Belly, you’re kicking yourself in the face. Don’t kick yourself, girl. Stop. You’ll hurt yourself.”
I place my hand over her back paw, and the kicking stops. She grabs her tail between her two front paws and licks the end of it, calm as can be.
“Good girl.” I pet the side of her face, and she rolls to her back again. “I gotta go, girl. Be good.” I unplug the heating pad, drop a few kisses on her cheek, and turn away.
At the front door, I can’t help but look over my shoulder at her. “I love you, Belly.” The end of her tail wags in response, and my heart melts. “Ciao, Bella.” Another wag of her tail. Then I’m off to work.
When I get home that evening and open the front door, Belly’s cute, little cat face pushes through the gap. “Hey, Belly.”
As I push the door all the way open, I bend down and rub the side of her face and under her chin so she won’t try to escape into the outside world. “How are you, girl?”
Her tail wags like a dog’s, high in the air and happy. I nudge her inside and close the door. She walks around the kitchen, meowing.
“You want some food, Belly?”
She rubs the side of her face against my leg and then does the same to one of the kitchen chairs. “Mow.”
“Are you starving?”
I pour some dry food into her not-quite-empty bowl. With her usual oomph-meow, she springs onto the chair, onto the table, and crouches over the bowl, chomping away.
A little later, Belly is restless. I know from being home on the weekends that she slept most of the day. Not the entire day, though, I deduce from the fuzzy toy ball I discover in the middle of the hallway. “Were you playing, Belly?”
I kick the ball to her, but she only stares after it. I walk over, pick it up, and toss it into the air near her. Her eyes light, and she bats at the air with her front paw, missing the ball because she refuses to move. I grab the ball again.
“Come on, Belly.”
I toss it her way, and she bats at it. Then she runs and punts it across the living room floor.
“There you go. Good girl.”
I toss it a few more times. Then we kick it back and forth some. But she never really gets into the game. In the past, I’ve watched her play one-cat soccer, but I guess she’s not up for it right now. Who can blame her? She’s fifteen years old.
I pet the top of her head and the side of her face. She leans into my hand, and her purr rattles the air. “You want some catnip?” She doesn’t answer, but when I grab the container from the cabinet and shake it, her eyes light again. I pluck a pinch of catnip and sprinkle it onto her crinkle-noise blanket in the living room while she bumps her forehead into my arm.
“I hear you, Belly.” I rub my finger through the herb hill, invoking the crinkle sound. She sniffs at the catnip, rolls her face and body over it, and licks some of it up. Crinkle, crinkle, crinkle. Then she assaults her scratching post before making her way onto the pillow I’ve set out for her next to the living room window.
For the rest of the evening, Belly naps, wakes, eats, and drinks from the leaky tub faucet. But when my usual bedtime nears, she starts pacing around the living room and kitchen.
“Mow,” she says.
“What’s the matter, girl?”
“Okay. Let’s go.” I brush my teeth, change into pajamas, and slide under the covers. She’s already on the bed, sitting next to her heating pad. I turn the heat on, and she lies down.
“Is that good, Belly?”
She answers with a wag of the end of her tail.
I read for a while before I turn out the light and fall asleep. Later, I awaken to her walking circles around my head.
“For fuck’s sake, Belly. Stop. I’m trying to sleep.”
I nudge her away, but she comes back. I check the control on her heating pad. The automatic shut-off has triggered. I press the button once to return it to low temperature. She curls up on it again and leaves me be. She wakes me the same way a couple more times, and we go through the same routine.
On the last go-round, the heating pad doesn’t appease her. No matter how many times I nudge her away, she keeps bothering me. When walking around my head doesn’t get me to do what she wants, she paws first at my shoulder and then at my chin. I sigh, roll over to check the clock, and groan. It’s tuna time.
My name has always been a little problematic. It’s not Elizabeth or Elisabeth. Not even Bethany or Bethani or Bethanie. Just Beth. Sometimes, people have a hard time wrapping their brains around this fact. For some people, it does not compute, which compels me to explain that my middle name is Beth.
“So your name is Beth Beth?” you ask, a smirk tilting your lips. Don’t try to be cute. You’re not cute.
My snarky response to your absolutely adorable question: “Yes, my parents named me Beth Beth. They thought it would impress people and win me lots of friends,” I want to say with a roll of my eyes. But my brain clamps down on the words before they reach my mouth.
My aggravated response to your ridiculous (and you know it’s ridiculous) question: “No, smartass. My first name is Mary, but I go by my middle name. Talk to my parents if you don’t like it,” I want to shout. Again, my brain shuts that shit down before it slips past my tongue.
My actual response: I don’t call you on making fun of me but instead say, “No, my first name is Mary. I go by my middle name because I’m named after my mom. She’s always been Mary, and I’ve always been Beth.”
My last name is equally problematic. Hardly anyone can pronounce it correctly the first time... or the second... or ever. All those letters intimidate people.
My last name is Pontorno. Just like it says at the top of the page. No, not Portono or Paterno. Not even Ponterno. Nope, not Pontanaro, either. Stop. You’re panicking. Just stop, breathe, and listen for a moment. First, the only vowel is an O.
Sigh. Not Porno. Definitely not Porno. Now, you’re just trying to be cute. I’ve already told you you’re not cute.
Let’s take a trip back to the first grade and sound this baby out. First syllable is pon, as in Pontiff. As in, “Forgive me, Pontiff, for I have sinned.” Second syllable is tor, as in tore. As in, “I punched that jerk in the face for asking me if my name was Beth Beth and tore my rotator cuff.” Last syllable is no. This one is easy. As in, “No, Pontiff, I don’t feel remorse for punching someone who made fun of my name, but I know I must atone.” 500 Hail Marys later, and we put it all together to get Pon-tor-no.
Easy, right? “Does she really think she’s important enough for the Pope to hear her confession?” I hear you say to your companion in a Jim Gaffigan-esque side whisper. No, I don’t. I’m exaggerating to make my point. I think I’ve only gone to confession twice in my entire life. But I bet you’ll never again forget how to pronounce my last name.
No one in my immediate family has it easy in the name department. My mom’s maiden name is Aukward. Yes, like awkward. No, she’s not awkward. But she did marry a man with an awkward-to-pronounce name. His name is Gervasio Pontorno, and he’s my dad. Pick your chin up off the floor, and close your gaping mouth. Yes, that’s my dad’s real name. It’s also my brother’s name. I’m not going to sound out Gervasio for you because both my dad and my brother have nicknames. My dad goes by Jim, and my brother goes by Jerry.
Here’s the story: Gervasio is Italian for Jerome. Hence, the nickname Jerry, which covers my brother. The path to my dad’s nickname is more complex. My grandparents named my dad after my grandmother’s father. My great-grandfather's name was Gervasio Mazzucco, and he was born in Italy. When he immigrated to America, he told people to call him Jerry. At the time, there were lots of immigrants with lots of different accents, and the various accents made it sound like people were calling him Cherry instead of Jerry. Cherry wouldn’t do, so he started telling people, “Just call me Jim.” I know what you’re thinking. “But Beth Beth, doesn’t that mean everyone called him Chim?” I assume so, but I guess Chim was better than Cherry. Don’t worry, though. One day, everyone was able to pronounce Jim as Jim, and that’s why my dad is called Jim.