What does it feel like to have your kids leave the house at the same time your parents might need to move in? With self-deprecating humor and sharp wit, Kari Lizer gives an honest account of finding herself in the middle of growing up, growing old, and still figuring it all out.
The following is excerpted from AREN’T YOU FORGETTING SOMEONE? Essays from My Mid-Life Revenge by Kari Lizer. Copyright ©2020. Available from Running Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
* * *
I am a loner, a deeply reluctant socializer. I would rather sit in my bed with two dogs and a bowl of popcorn watching Law and Order: SVU than be anywhere with anyone that requires me to wear a bra.
One or two friends have always been enough for me. In fact, my children as my only friends suited me nicely. Until they left me. The only problem with making your children the center of your social universe is that when they orbit away from you, you find yourself like Sandra Bullock in Gravity: spinning in the dark, alone in your underwear, thinking about George Clooney. It also leaves you with no one to reach out to when you need a ride because you’re going to be mildly sedated.
On Wednesday, the wind was so powerful it was blowing down palm trees as I made my way to Beverly Hills, creating an obstacle course over Coldwater Canyon. I parked my Prius at a meter on Wilshire and was digging in my purse for quarters when suddenly cash started flying out of my bag, picked up by the wind, then sailing out into the middle of Wilshire Boulevard. I clutched my purse to my chest and was about to dash into the street after my dollars when a little old man passing by on the sidewalk said in a very calm voice, “Not worth it. Not worth it,” then just kept right on walking down the street without even looking up at me.
His words stopped me, though. He was right. There were a lot of speeding cars, and it probably wasn’t worth it. They were only singles. And only about four had escaped. I stepped back onto the curb, put a credit card in the meter instead, and went into the imaging center for my appointment.
“Routine,” Dr. Norman said. “It’s important to keep tabs on your uterus during menopause.”
“Keeping tabs on my uterus”—this is what it’s come to.
Inside there were three people waiting. All old. All yellow. No kidding, I didn’t need an MRI to tell me—these people were about to get some bad news. I just hoped they weren’t thinking the same about me. I smiled at one lady, but she didn’t smile back. So I tried it on the other two people waiting, but all three just stared back at me like they couldn’t figure out what I was up to. I pretended to be very interested in something on my phone until they called me into the exam room.
I’ll spare you the details of my pelvic ultrasound, but let me say this: anyone who makes their living squirting freezing-cold lube onto a penis-shaped instrument and inserting it into women’s vaginas should have a way better sense of humor than my lady did, even if I was the thousandth person to say, “Really? You’re not even going to buy me dinner first?” Because that’s still funny.
I asked her if she could see anything troubling on the ultrasound. She told me I’d have to wait and get the results from my doctor. I said, “I know, but just tell me this: Based on what you see, what would your advice be for my lunch? Stick to your diet and order the salad, or with the shit I’m seeing in your uterus, you might as well enjoy yourself now and go for the double cheeseburger?” She wouldn’t budge. There are some whole days when not a single person is delighted by me.
When I was back at my office, Dr. Norman called right away. I’ve been seeing him since I was 25 years old, and he always has the tone of someone who is about to deliver bad news—loving, serious, and sorry.
Twenty years ago when he told me he saw two heartbeats on my pregnancy ultrasound, I thought he was telling me my baby was going to be born with two hearts, not that I was having twins. It took me a minute to realize the news was exciting, not devastating. Although to be fair, I’m always looking for devastating news, so between his tone and my expectations, we’re a disaster together.
This time the news was no news. He tells me they couldn’t see anything in the ultrasound. No. Here’s what he says exactly: “They got a pretty good view of your giant uterus.”
What? Why? Why giant, Dr. Norman? No one ever wants to hear the word giant used in connection to anything unless it’s their brain, vocabulary, or penis. God. It was unkind. I would never say to Dr. Norman, “Oh. Hey. You’ve got a little something on your giant nose.” He said I was going to have to go back for another test. Something called a sonohysterogram. He said the problem was my endometrial lining. They weren’t able to see it clearly with the regular ultrasound because due to my age and hormonal changes, it gets quite thick. “Like a shag carpet,” he said. And it could be hiding something. Jesus. Giant uterus. Shag carpet? Could you take it easy, Steven?
You know, there was a time when Steven Norman was smitten with me. He would stroke my leg while giving me my pap smear and tell me he would run away with me in a heartbeat. Obviously, that was when my endometrial lining was a gorgeous tightly woven Berber, not a hideously matted shag, hiding old Barbie shoes and green plastic army guys and backs of earrings and God knows what. Was there no end to the indignities of menopause?
“Okay. A sonohysterogram. What’s the procedure?” I ask him.
“Well, they inject saline into your uterus—it helps illuminate abnormalities.”
“Does it hurt?”
Right. Of course not. Since I was twenty-five, his only answer to this question has ever been “a little pinch or mild cramping”—that’s for everything from cervical dilation to childbirth.
“How much saline goes in?” I inquire.
“Quite a bit. They fill it up like a water balloon.”
“And how does it come out?”
“Some comes out right away, when you stand up. That’s why they put a pad on the floor.”
“And the rest comes out over the next 48 hours.”
“Your body releases it.”
When my beautiful yellow lab Sophie stopped knowing when poop was dropping from her bottom, I knew it was time to say goodbye. She was much too dignified to live that way. Was no one going to offer me the same kindness?
Dr. Norman tells me he’s set it up for Friday at Cedars and I would need a friend to drive me because they would be giving me a mild sedative for the procedure. A friend? Who’s going to want to be my friend when I’ve got salt water dribbling out of my uterus?
That night in bed, I was alone, mulling over what could be hiding in my uterus, when a Facebook message popped onto my computer from someone named Jen. I didn’t immediately recognize the name. Which happens to me a lot. My dad was a management training executive with the phone company, and we moved every year or two when he got a new assignment, so I was always starting new schools, never staying in touch with the kids I left behind.
Because of this, I might have that attachment disorder that orphans get, which is probably why I can’t bond to anyone but my dogs and chickens. People remember me though, because I used to make up lies about myself to make me seem more interesting, knowing I’d be moving along at the end of the year, leaving only a mysterious memory in my wake.
“Remember Kari Lizer? Did you know she could only see in black-and-white?”
“Her parents bought her in Haight-Ashbury off a hippie.”
“They have to move so much because her dad is in the Mafia.”
“Her middle name is Ferta?”
Jen’s message said, “Hi. You lived next door to me when I was 10. You told me Santa Claus wasn’t real.” Oh yeah. I remembered Jen. She had an impossibly thick blonde braid, like a horse, running down the middle of her back.
I was crazy jealous of her because my mom had sent me down to our neighbor Connie’s house under the false pretense of borrowing eggs, and Connie, a hairdresser, had ambushed me and given me a pixie haircut.
My mom was tired of me falling asleep with gum in my mouth and waking up with gum in my long hair the next morning—which she then had to try and extract with ice and peanut butter. When Connie was done with me, I looked like the youngest son, Bud, on the TV show Flipper. Watching Jen fly around our neighborhood on her bike, her horsey braid flapping behind her, pissed me off. So I told her Santa wasn’t real.
Jen had an older sister, Margaret, with a repaired cleft palate, whom I was also jealous of. I wanted something wrong with me that would get me extra attention.
I tried in vain to break bones by jumping at odd angles and fast speeds off my skateboard so that I could have a cast for people to sign, but my bones were too strong. I bent paper clips and shaped them into retainers around my teeth so that I could talk with a lisp. My teachers made me take them out of my mouth—saying I was going to swallow them and end up in the hospital—as if I could ever be that lucky. I faked bad eyesight so I could get glasses, but the first day, I sat on them and they broke, and my mom refused to buy me new ones.
Jen had another older sister named Elizabeth, whom I was also jealous of. She was a beauty queen of some sort. I feel like she wore her crown all the time, like around the house and to school, but I can’t be remembering that right. She was beautiful, obviously. My dad couldn’t shut up about her. Which in hindsight was pretty pervy, since she was 16.
All three of those girls had something I wanted—amazing hair, harelip, a crown. I didn’t care if I was super pretty, super ugly, super deformed, super whatever, I was just not thrilled with being super right down the middle. I normally wouldn’t have accepted Jen’s Facebook request, but I was feeling vulnerable after my difficult day.
I thought about asking one of the kids to drive me to my procedure, but I knew they wouldn’t want to hear about my doctor’s visit. The number of appointments for routine screenings seemed to have multiplied into an unmanageable amount in my fifties. As I was leaving for one of those appointments last summer, Dayton said to me, “Another doctor’s appointment? Maybe it’s time to just let nature take its course.”
I’m not sure any of them would be the sympathetic ear I needed to share the humiliation I was suffering at the hands of Dr. Norman keeping tabs on my uterus. So I confirmed my friendship with Jen.
I quickly looked at my Facebook page to see what kind of impression I would be making on Jen after all these years. Oh shit. My profile picture was the Planned Parenthood logo. Now not only did I kill Santa, Jen would think I had graduated to killing babies. She’d used the word blessed twice in her message, so I knew she wasn’t going to be on board for that.
So even though I knew it was too late, I quickly swapped out the Planned Parenthood logo for a picture of me kissing a donkey in a field of lupine in Vermont. She was going to see that I changed my profile picture five minutes after becoming friends with me, but maybe if I was lucky, she wasn’t very Facebook savvy and didn’t really realize how the whole thing worked. Maybe I could convince her the Planned Parenthood thing was a pop-up of some sort—a virus that had gotten into my computer without my knowledge. I didn’t remember much about Jen, but if she still believed in Santa at age 10, how bright could she be?
I started looking at Jen’s adult life as it was represented on Facebook. She had a husband and four kids. All six of them were tan and blonde and fit. Her kids all had Jen’s enviable blonde mane of hair.
There were pictures of them on skis and paddleboards, bikes and hiking trails, on boats, in tents. They were playing sports and accepting awards. Her husband was giving a speech to people in suits. Jen was surrounded by a bunch of ladies on a cruise ship in an album called “Besties Cruise the Caribbean.”
She was with a different group of women in matching T-shirts for a breast cancer awareness walk. And even more women surrounded her at the Cheesecake Factory as she blew out candles on her massive birthday cake. She had so many friends!
I went back to my page and looked again. Me with the donkey. Me with the dogs. Me with a cat. Me with a chicken. People had tagged me on my page too—sending me links to posts showing people who had knit sweaters for their poultry. Or news stories about baby alpacas who got stuck in holes. Deer who made friends with dogs. Dogs who made friends with cows. Cows who made friends with kittens. And nowhere, anywhere, was a picture of me with another human being other than my children. I wondered if this was a problem. I decided to act normal.
I sent Jen a message. “Hey, Jen, nice to hear from you. You look the same. Your family is beautiful. I have three kids, as you can see from my page . . . two are away at college in faraway places. My third is about to go. I’m super proud of them.”
The first thing she asks is this: “Are those all your animals?”
I quickly write back, “No! People just like to send me a lot of animal pictures because they know I like animals. I’m kind of an advocate for animals. It’s one of my causes.” (Trying to sound noble instead of weird.) “I only have three dogs, four cats, six chickens, a rabbit, and two horses.”
Jen simply writes back, “Wow.” I didn’t like her tone.
Then Jen tells me she’s moved to Los Angeles for her husband’s work and she figured I must live here since I’m in show business. Hey! That’s nice. She thinks I’m in show business! I don’t think show business even thinks I’m in show business sometimes.
She says she thought she’d look me up because she doesn’t have a single friend in town. Hey! Me, either!
She says maybe we could get together sometime.
I ask what she’s doing on Friday.
* * *
Okay. I know.
I’m about to ask a person I haven’t seen in more than 40 years to drive me to a highly sensitive medical appointment. But here was my problem: Of course I had other friends that I could call, but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually accepted an invitation to a social engagement from one of them. Also, I’m not great at returning phone calls if I’m not in the mood to talk. There are many days when I don’t see or speak to another human. I once went for seven days in Vermont—if I hadn’t run out of hummus, who knows how long I would have gone?
I’m not just an introvert; I’m actually antisocial. I had turned down so many invitations to parties and plays, dinners and hikes, birthday celebrations, and kids’ graduations that I couldn’t just pick up the phone now and ask one of those people I’d blown off for months for a favor. Especially knowing that I would probably be back to blowing them off when it was over—and might even ruin the upholstery in their car with my soggy bottom. Damn it, I finally figured out why people needed husbands!
There is one man with a crush on me that cannot seem to be deterred. He’d gladly rush to my aid, even knowing the details of the task. No matter how rude I am to him, he’ll still happily take any crumb I throw his way, but I couldn’t lead him on, letting him think he had a chance with me by letting him see me sedated and soaked in salt water. Plus, that would probably only make him fall deeper in love with me because seriously, something’s wrong with him.
Besides, I justified to myself, Jen is a people person. Look at her Facebook. She walks for breast cancer. She’ll probably be happy to help out. So I very gently tell Jen my situation and ask whether she would mind giving me a ride to my appointment and back on Friday. I say we could still catch up on the car ride over to Beverly Hills. And I’ll only be mildly sedated on the ride home, so maybe we could stop for a coffee. Unless I need to change my pants. With that I add a little red-faced emoji. I hit send, and I wait for Jen to reply. And I wait. But Jen doesn’t reply. I check to make sure my message sent. It did.
I check to see if she’s still online. She is.
And then, a few minutes later, I try to go back to Jen’s page, but I can’t. Instead, it says, “To add Jen as a friend, send her a request.”
Jen has unfriended me. Jen has blocked me. I can’t believe it. We were only friends for five minutes. Jen was the one who reached out to me! I’m in show business! Shit. I scroll back through our conversation, and my insides curl up because I suddenly realize the inappropriateness of my request, and it makes me want to unfriend myself.
I think it’s possible I’ve gotten so antisocial that I don’t know how to interact with people anymore. Not just with Jen, but as I think back over my recent exchanges, I have to consider the possibility that the reason I’m not getting my desired reaction from those I encounter in the world is because I’ve stopped knowing how to act like a human being and I’ve become off-putting. When I smiled at those people in the ultrasound waiting room, maybe I was actually sneering at them. Maybe I drooled. Maybe I spend so much time alone that I don’t even know what my own face is doing anymore.
And when I was joking with the ultrasound technician, she wasn’t laughing at all. I might not be funny. I walk around my house talking to my animals. And I have voices for my animals so that they can talk back to me. It started as a bit I did with Dayton, but Dayton is never home these days and I’m still doing it. It’s not a bit if no one is there to see it. It’s just cuckoo.
In the movie Gravity, when Sandra Bullock was alone in space, she kept it together. She was still cute and witty and charming. That’s not me. I’m more Nell. Remember that Jodie Foster movie? She grew up alone in the woods? I can’t remember what happened to her parents, but Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson found her and brought her out of the woods. She’d never been around humans before, so she acted like a wild animal. Super inappropriate. Like me. I’m Nell. Not Sandra Bullock. Nell.
I leave Dr. Norman a message on his answering service, and he calls me back right away. I tell him I can’t have the sonohysterogram on Friday. When he asks why, it’s hard for me to get the words out because I’m afraid I’m going to sob—hard and loud. I can’t trust myself to behave in a socially acceptable way anymore—God only knows what kind of animal sounds could escape. So I whisper, “I don’t have a friend to drive me home.” There’s a long pause, then Dr. Norman tells me he’s going to be at Cedars-Sinai on Friday and he’ll be happy to drive me home after my procedure.
For some reason, I’m not mortified by this. I’m happy. I love Dr. Norman. I’m comfortable with him. We’ve been through everything together—me trying not to get pregnant, me trying to get pregnant, pregnancy, childbirth, trying not to get pregnant again, now this motherfuckery called menopause—and he’s always been about eight years ahead of me on the path, warning me about the happiness and the heartbreak. I was in the stirrups, mid–gynecologic exam, when he broke down over his only child leaving for college. I had to reach down between my legs and pat the top of his head to comfort him.
Truth is, my gynecologist is my longest and possibly healthiest relationship. He’s my best friend. I thank him and tell him I’d run away with him in a heartbeat. He doesn’t say anything. Awkward.
After we hang up, I resolve to get out of the house more. Connect to people more. Show up for my friends. Maybe I’ll start throwing dinner parties. Or host play readings at my house. I could build a little stage in the backyard and put twinkle lights in the trees. I won’t just be social, I’ll be artsy. And effortlessly chic. I think I’ll wear kaftans and big wooden earrings from Cost Plus. I decided to reach out to a few friends right away and get the ball rolling.
As I’m deciding who to call first, I look up at the TV. The Law and Order: SVU episode with Chad Lowe and Margot Kidder is on. Oh my God, that is such a good one. The first one with Dr. Huang. I love Dr. Huang. I tell the dogs I wish he was my psychiatrist. I speak for Canelo Alvarez, my boxer, who says, “You could use him,” in his Spanish accent.
I decide it’s too late to call anyone right now, summon the dogs on the bed, and turn up the volume.
Excerpted from AREN’T YOU FORGETTING SOMEONE? Essays from My Mid-Life Revenge by Kari Lizer. Copyright ©2020. Available from Running Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.