Nobody has ever asked me what I do for a living when I look like I might actually be gainfully employed. Usually they ask the question when I look like I just spent three weeks crawling on my belly through a dense jungle far from civilization and modern hair products.
Years ago, right around the time when my parents were both very sick, I was so overwhelmed with all the things that needed to be done that good grooming fell by the wayside. Who had time? Raggedy jeans, ratty sweatshirts, old clogs. No makeup. My natural I-am-the-love-child-of-Bernadette-Peters-and-Don-King hair. My priorities had shifted and everything else fell by the wayside. This one particular day I had to stop by the bank and deposit a check. No way was I going inside looking so hideous. (I still had at least a little pride.) I figured I'd use the drive-through and nobody'd know I looked like I dressed in a Dumpster.
So there I was, sitting behind the wheel, waiting for the teller to shoot back my deposit slip when I hear her voice through the intercom: "Barbara?"
Her: Barbara Bretton?
Me: Yes. (It's on the deposit slip, lady. . . )
Her: The Barbara Bretton who wrote the "balloon" books for Harlequin?"
Me: Okay, shoot me now.
No, I didn't really say that but I thought it. The poor woman peered at me through the wall of glass and clearly wondered how it was I'd fallen on such tough times. And me? I started babbling things like, "I usually brush my hair and wear makeup but my parents are sick and I'm an only child and --"
Yeah. Please. Shoot me. I couldn't shut up. I was like a verbal train wreck. And the poor teller probably never read another one of my books ever again. I was that pitiful.
Well, as it turned out, I managed to top that miserable experience on New Year's Eve.
Remember the last time I posted back in December? I mentioned something about Goldisox and I having bad colds. No big deal, I said. A cold is a cold is a cold. Which is true as long as the cold in question isn't actually some freakish flu that laughed in the face of the flu shots we got back in November. We were flat-on-our-backs sick before Christmas, during Christmas, and after Christmas. The sounds of merriment in our home were limited to growls of "pass me the Kleenex" and "what do you mean we're out of juice, bread, milk, eggs, and the will to live?"
Cut to New Year's Eve. My nose is bright red and chapped. My eyes are watery and bloodshot. My hair's a disaster. I feel like hell, But damn it it's New Year's Eve and we're going to at least give the holiday season a chance before it slips away. Late afternoon I hit the shower, hoping that hot water and steam will make me feel more human.
I still don't know how or why it happened but I sneezed and seconds later noticed that the water swirling around my feet was a weird shade of pink. A nosebleed!? I had a nosebleed!?!?!? WTH?
Again, no big deal. You pinch your nose shut for ten minutes and end of story. Except ten minutes turned to fifteen then twenty then an hour and the blood was flowing faster than I could stop it. I called for Goldisox to come upstairs. "There's a lot of blood," I warned him. "Don't be shocked."
He was shocked. I didn't blame him. It looked like a crime scene in the bathroom and I looked like the victim. (The writerly side of my brain was taking notes the whole time. Trust me when I say blood spatter goes everywhere.
I can't even begin to imagine how a murderer would cover his or her tracks against modern forensics.)
Him: You're going to the ER.
Me: Like hell I am.
Him: I'm taking you right now.
Me: Over my dead body.
It wasn't exactly Masterpiece Theatre around here. He was scared and angry. I was scared and . . . well, scared. I mean, it was only a bloody nose but suddenly it was so totally out of control that even I knew I had to do the adult thing and get myself some help.
Except I couldn't do it. Twenty-nine years earlier, just about to the day, I'd miscarried and ended up in (you guessed it) the ER. Two days later they told me I had cancer. So spending the holidays with medical types stirred up a lot of emotion I'd rather not deal with.
We argued for hours. We ran out of towels to absorb the blood. (Sorry for being so graphic but that's the way it was.) Finally I agreed with him and off we went to the ER with me wrapped in sheets and plastic.
I must say I looked adorable. A full head of frizz. PJ bottoms. Clogs. And a maroon sweater (maroon? was I nuts??) with a Santa Claus on the pocket.
And I brought some knitting. I laugh now at my optimism. What the hell was I thinking? I couldn't unpinch my nose long enough to knit a single stitch. But I brought it with me just the same.
Fortunately the ER was empty and I had everyone's full attention. It was no big deal. They could fix me up in no time flat. I wasn't going to face the humiliation of seeing the words "Cause of Death: nosebleed" on my death certificate. Not that I'd see it, you understand, but I swear it would ruin eternity for me.
Goldisox filled out the endless insurance forms while I was poked and prodded by various medical types. Then he went off to see someone in billing or some such while I sat alone in a cubicle with my blood-soaked garments, the slasher movie towels, and a totally embarrassing metal spit tray held under my small but dangerous nose. I challenge you to find a more pathetic fifty-eight year old woman anywhere on the planet.
The clerk from the front desk popped up. "You're a writer?"
I nodded. Please, God, take me now before this gets any worse.
I nodded again.
"What kind of books?"
"Romance," I manage through the wads of cotton and anaesthetic and humiliation, "and women's fiction."
She looks at me as if she can't believe her eyes. "You mean like those steamy books Danielle Steel writes?"
This isn't the time to tell her that Danielle doesn't consider herself a romance writer. I nod again.
"Have I read anything of yours?"
Now really. How on earth would I possibly know her lifetime reading list? I shrugged and gave her what I hoped was a sophisticated smile. Assuming, of course, you could look past the clogs, the PJs, the Santa sweater, and the blood.
"Hey, Marilyn!" she bellowed across the emergency room. "The bloody nose in 3A writes those romance books you love."
Remember how you felt when you first learned there was no Santa Claus? That was pretty much how poor Marilyn looked when she met her first real live romance writer. I tried to make it up to her by sending on a few signed books but the damage had been done.
And that's the story of how Goldisox and I ended up toasting the New Year in cubicle 3A with Patti and Marilyn and four bottles of Poland Spring.
Things can only get better, right?