Dinner’s On Me

CoServ LogoTwelve years ago, I went to Houston to see my brother Michael. While I was helping him with some yardwork, I found his old DirecTV system sitting in the garage. I made him an offer, and had it shipped to Dallas. Hooked it up, got a signal, then called my cable company (CoServ Cable) to cancel that service.

It ended up that I had a leftover balance of $3.25. Knowing that every penny counts, I told them I’d take a check. A couple of weeks later, I got the check and deposited it. One thing to keep in mind is that with my then “pay-off-the-credit-card” budget, I tended to dip low in my bank balance. Well, one month I started bouncing checks, and I know I hasn’t overspent my account!

Turns out the $3.25 check bounced, and I got charged $20 by my bank for it. CoServ had declared bankruptcy in the two weeks it took for me to cancel cable and receive my refund!

Being the cheapskate that I am, I decided to do something about it. I found a bankruptcy hearing notice in the local paper, showed up, and put myself down on the list of creditors owed. I’ve received stacks of bankruptcy paperwork from the law firm handling the procedure, which
turned out to be interesting reading and likely cost more than $3.25 to print and mail. However, the bankruptcy (like all) dragged on-and-on with no resolution. So I forgot about it.

This process has been going on since summer 2001.

Two years later, I returned to my apartment from dinner with my parents (the tasty beef stroganoff I remembered from my childhood paired with a terrible bottle of South African wine). I then wandered out to check my mail. The only piece of mail I received was from a strange address, Lain, Faulkner & Co. It looked official enough to not immediately trash as junk mail.

I opened it, and inside was one check for $3.25 made payable to one Matthew McGarity.

Three cheers for the power of determination.

Dinner’s on me.

“Wanna Go Schwimmin’?!”

Everything was hazy.

“Matthew,” called a muffled voice, “time to wake up.”

My surroundings, although fuzzy, would come into slow, painstaking focus as the voice gently called to me.

“Matthew, how do you feel?”

I was cold, despite the thick blanket draped over my listless body. I was sitting in a dentist’s chair and was awake. I guess that my oral surgery must be over.

Buzzing around me was my surgeon, whose name I did not remember, and a couple of comely assistants, whose names I wish I did. They kept asking me questions, attempting to discern if my anesthesia had worn off enough to permit discharge.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, “I am ready to leave.” Each of the assistants took hold of my hands and helped me out of the chair. When I seemed properly set on my feet, they asked if I was doing alright. I nodded. They gently released their hold, and down to the floor I fell like a wet noodle.

They tried to help me up, but I would have none of it — I slapped their hands away, frustrated at the unwanted attention. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” I barked. But instead of standing up, I started to crawl towards the exit. The doctor, embarrassed by my display, barked at me to get up. “No!” I yelled. I reached up, turned the doorknob, and continued slithering into the lobby.

My mother was at the receptionist’s counter, in the middle of writing a check for the procedure. When the door popped open, she stood stunned at the site of her youngest, doped-up and army-crawling into the room. Other parents in the room emulated my mother’s reaction, while their kids giggled in highest of amusement. I reached my mom, wrapped my arms around both her legs, and settled down for a well-earned nap.

My brother Michael was in the audience, sitting on a nearby couch and enjoying every minute of my show. Mom bent down to wrench herself free from my grasp, and Michael popped over to rib me in the process. I don’t remember much of what he said, but the words “Spaz!” and “Idiot!” come to mind. At the very least, he prevented me from starting my nap, and for that I hated him. If I wasn’t so doped up, I might have been able to fire back a witty retort about the patch he was forced to wear for his lazy eye.

Mom was terribly embarrassed and you could hear it in her voice. “Matthew, get up!” she snapped. Grabbing my wrist, she forcefully directed me out of the office, into the elevator, and beyond to our waiting car. Dad was inside, and any happiness at seeing his family was muted upon catching my mother’s sour expression. Not needing to ask what happened, he flatly declared, “Alright, Maffers (his nickname for me), let’s get you home.”

“No!” I retorted.

Dad was taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘No’?!”

“I wanna go t’ Simon David,” I slurred.

Simon David was Dallas’s oldest gourmet grocer. Earlier in the day, I read they had just opened a small handful of supermarket-sized venues. Somehow in my drug-induced state, this sounded interesting to a ten-year old child.

“No, we need to get you home,” Dad said.

I screamed, “No! I wanna go t’ Simon David!”

As Mom and Dad still needed to buy groceries that night’s dinner, they relented.

When the four of us arrived, I assumed my usual position as cart handler. My parents walked at the helm, excepting me to take up the rear as usual. A minute later, they turned around to check on me, but I wasn’t there. I had disappeared along with the cart.

I could be found on the opposite end of the store, briskly navigating each aisle and filling the cart with every bright color or shiny sheen that industrial packaging could provide. Soon it was overflowing with various sundries, a super-majority of which did not need.

My family eventually discovered me. Mom would later tell me that she was more embarrassed at that moment than at the doctor’s office. Dad assigned Michael to keep an eye on me while the two of them went through the laborious task of putting back the sundried tomatoes, Black Sea caviar, and fizzy French water that wasn’t on our grocery list. Then we checked out and drove home.

When we returned home, my brother and I discharged our official shopping duties: he unloaded dry goods into pantry, while I filled the refrigerator. I opened the door and bent over to transfer vegetables into the lower-level crisper bins.

Unbeknownst to me, the gravitational pull of the planet earth was beginning to exert a stronger pull, but only on myself. In one slow motion, I was brought down to one knee while continuing to unload groceries. Then came both knees. Soon enough, I sat on the floor in a side-saddle fashion. After the final item was inside the ice box, I closed its door and sat with my back against the cold, steely metal. My eyes felt heavy, and a shit-eating grin emerged on my face.

The air was then pierced by a determined squeak. I looked down, and there was our oldest Siamese cat Martha Mitchell. Three years older than me and already ancient by this time, with her trademark blue eyes now a steeled grey, she was frail but still full of vigor. Time had turned her purring meow into a single note of a screech that sounded like a rusty screen door. She sashayed up to my side and began to purr.

I looked outside and caught glimpse of our swimming pool. Then I looked back at her, and an idea came to mind that seemed just as logical as visiting a grocery store half-drunk.

“Hey, Martha! Wanna go schwimmin’!?”, I asked.

The last thing I remember is my dad yelling, “Goddamnit!” as he snatched me by the shirt collar, then tossed me into bed, where I immediately passed out.

I didn’t wake up for two days.

The Radio That Ruined Christmas

The day before Christmas is a big day in my family. It’s usually the one day where the entire family is in one place, and there was one year long ago that included myself and my older brother, mother, and father.

While we were sitting around, the doorbell rang. Dad quickly responded by bounding out of his La-Z-Boy to greet our unknown caller. We watched with curiosity as he spoke to a FedEx deliveryman and came away with a medium-sized package. Dad took it into the kitchen and we followed. Soon enough, he had released the gift, a Bose WaveRadio personal stereo.

The smile on my father’s face was not enough to dissipate her curiosity. She began the conversation with him as follows:

“Who bought this for us?”

I bought it.”

“I thought we weren’t buying things for ourselves this Christmas.”

“I’ve always wanted a radio of my own that I could listen to while reading the morning paper.

“I’ve seen those things in magazine ads and they look expensive. How much was it?

“It wasn’t bad–”

“How. Much. Was. It?!”

“$399.00.”

“I thought we agreed to discuss major purchases!”

“I don’t consider this a major purchase.”

The night was downhill for my parents from that point.

Later that evening came our traditional Christmas Eve dinner, where we gather around and share brotherhood and fondue. The meal was mostly quiet, as we were busy digesting both dinner and the earlier conflict.

Our local Satan affiliate KVIL 103.7 FM does well the evil deceiver’s bidding by playing nothing but Christmas songs from midnight Thanksgiving until long past the birthday of Christ. My father broke the silence by cheerfully offering, “Hey, I love Christmas music. We should listen to some songs while we eat dinner.” It is at this point that my father reaches into his shirt’s breast pocket and whips out the Bose’s slim remote control, barely bigger than a baby’s hand but packed with the power of Hercules. He pointed it over his left shoulder, and with a quick click, the pre-tuned radio came to life with dark, catchy holiday melodies.

And so dinner went, the night filled with music that was interrupted only by the occasional sounds of chewing–or my deeply annoyed mother harshly grinding her knife and fork just as deep into her fine wedding china.

Merry Christmas.

Years later, the very radio which united our family so stressfully was stolen by a contractor working on my dad’s new house. Since they didn’t manufacture that particular unit anymore, he decided to replace it with a newer model — and a 67″ rear-projection HDTV. No news yet on what my mom thought of it.

God, I love my dad.

My Twin Sister

Micha and Me 1997
A mid-90s portrait of complete self-unawareness. The decade was not kind to our fashion.
In the summer of 1989, my parents moved across the Metroplex, from tony North Dallas to the rural community of Southlake.

The timing was particularly hard on me. I was fifteen years old, without a driver’s license, in a new area code — the combination of these three factors made hanging out with my old friends entirely unrealistic. It would be months before I could make new ones at my next school. And since my brother had recently graduated from college, he was moving to Houston for his first job.

On the other hand, the move couldn’t have come at a better time. For years, I had been the subject of teasing from other kids, who made fun of me for the scar on my face, the bouncy way I walked, or even my childhood chunkiness. I quickly realized what was blessing I had before me: a blank slate, where I could leave behind that accumulated history of angst and be a different person. I made a conscious decision to make the most of this opportunity, restrain my social awkwardness, and make new and better friends (which I am sure all teenagers wished they could do).

Once the semester began, I became friends early on with a girl named Tara. Along with Tara’s friendship came her circle of friends, so I started meeting new people fairly quickly. Soon enough, I was invited to a birthday party for her friend Michelle.

At her party were a bunch of fellow students I hadn’t yet met. Being a good host, Michelle took me around and introduced me to these fresh faces.

Soon enough I had met everyone, save for the girl in the front room. Although the lights were on, it was hard to make out her face, as it was being smothered by the dude whose lap she was sitting on. Completing the last of her introductions, Michelle pointed at this motley pair and said, “Oh yeah, and that’s Micha.”

I waved hello.

She didn’t wave back. Micha was too busy making out with her boyfriend.

And this was how I met my twin sister.

I grew up in a small family which didn’t have many extended relatives — so for most of my life, my idea of family included just me, my parents, and my older brother Michael. Because of our six-year age difference, my brother went to college when I was still a young teen, leaving me to my own devices at the age of twelve.

I often wished during those quiet years that I had a younger brother or sister to hang out with. It’s not entirey uncommon–in literature or real-life–for one to discover a sibling they’ve never met. It’s a bit more unusual for that person to be a twin, let alone one that’s not even a related by blood. Then again, there was little that was usual about my early relationship with Micha.

I was an artist that filled most of his elective credits with art classes. Micha was a member of the marching band and the star actress in our school’s drama productions. Because we were both creatives, we had a large number of mutual friends. As we got to know one another, we realized that our similarities were errie. Both of us were Saggitarians, born in the same year just five days apart. We lived blocks from one another. Strangers and everyday acquaintances marveled at our physical resemblance, as we looked remarkably alike when together. A mutual love for “Tiny Toons” and “Animaniacs“, along with boisterous, sarcastic senses of humor didn’t hinder our friendship.

When I became involved in same theater productions as Micha, most teachers, administrators, and classmates assumed that because we looked alike, talked alike, acted alike, and were involved in the same school activities, we must be brother and sister. And they treated us like such — for example, if I was sick teachers would ask Micha to bring home to me that day’s homework assignments. The two of us thought it was cute and funny, so we played along with it. After all, I always wanted a little sister. And Micha thought it was cool to have a brother that wasn’t in prison. We got along great, but at the time I wouldn’t say we were close.

Soon enough, high school graduation was upon us, and it was time for the senior class of ’92 to split up for distant colleges unknown. I and most of my friends had been accepted to the University of North Texas, just a few dozen miles away from Southlake. Micha ended up attending Texas Tech University, 300 miles due west in beautiful, scenic Lubbock. She was ambitious enough that she would set out immediately after graduation to attend summer school. Before we separated, the two of us expressed a desire to stay in touch. We exchanged addresses, and over the next couple of years we sent each other letters filled with news of mutual classmates and happenings in our new hometowns.

High school seniors are an amazingly arrogant bunch, largely due to their false sense of immortality. In some ways, it’s refreshing to know that all of us were innocent enough to believe that things would never change, that our lack of tragedy up until that point in life was indicitive of the rest of it. It took just two years to pass after graduation before I was called by an old classmate regarding Jason, one of our fellow classmates.

Jason was a hard-working blue collar dude. His best friend throughout his whole life was a country bumpkin named Derek, who was raised by his father, a single parent. Jason’s own parents had divorced many years before, leaving just him and his mother.

As a result of Derek and Jason’s close friendship, their parents met often and eventually fell in love. They married one another, and the two best friends that acted like siblings were now officially brothers in every sense of the word. Micha and I, although we pretended to be related, were nowhere near as close as the two of them.

After high school, Jason took a full-time job delivering auto parts so he could put himself through night school and achieve his ambition of being an E.M.T. Realizing how hard he was pushing himself, Jason took a little bit of a break between semesters to enjoy a Hawaiian vacation. He didn’t have much time off, so he packed his trip into a handful of days bookended by red-eye flights.

I’m sure he had a good time, although he likely didn’t get much in the way of relaxation. Immediately upon returning, he went back to work. The combination of grueling travel and exhaustion took a deadly toll. While he was driving his delivery truck, he fell asleep at the wheel, veered into oncoming traffic, and was hit head-on by a tractor trailer. He died instantly.

Although I didn’t know Jason very well, the news of his death rattled me. We were the same age, and he was the first member of our senior class to pass away. Around the time, I owed my penpal Micha another letter, and it occurred to me that she might not be aware of what happened to Jason. Instead of the usual randomness and gossip I normally enclosed, this time around my letter was filled with thoughts of emotional numbness and my newfound sense of mortality.

Micha wrote me back, and the silly tone she normally composed with had given away to an seriousness that I hadn’t figured she was capable of expressing. In her letter, I learned that she and Jason were close during middle school, but had drifted apart in high school. She shared stories about him that noone had heard before.

The two of us didn’t write each other much after that. Instead, we spent the time & money to visit, place long-distance phone calls, and catch up more regularly around the holidays. Thanks to a tradgey that didn’t directly involve either one of us, our friendship changed from being pals to best friends more like the brother and sister we pretended to be.

Years later, Micha got engaged to her future husband Jay. Their nuptials would occur in Ft. Worth, just a skip away from our old hometown of Southlake. Knowing she needed a break from both wedding planning and her crazy family, I told Micha to free up a day so I could take her out on the town.

We packed alot of goofing off into that day, visiting our old high school, wasting time at the local Sears Portrait Studio, and consuming our weight in nitrates at the Ballpark in Arlington. Despite all of the fun and bonding, the most important part of the day was a trip we made to Lonesome Dove Cemetery.

I didn’t tell Micha where we were going. But once we arrived, she realized immediately our purpose for being there. It took awhile to find the grave, as it did not yet have a headstone (edit: it does now). Once we found it, along the western border, we sat on opposite sides of a semi-fresh mound of dirt and contemplated the man buried under it, a man named Jason.

It was a strange experience, sitting six feet above someone whose face, laugh, and warmth you can still remember to this day. I felt myself regretting that I didn’t get to know him better when I had the chance. Micha told me some more stories about Jason, including details on his kindness to her in middle school when most kids are prone to warrentless teasing. Her stories flowed for a few moments, then came a pause as the gravity of it all hit us. Once again, we were realizing our mortality.

Micha broke the silence by saying, “You know, the good really do die young.” A pause, then, “Holy shit, Spam, we’re going to live forever!”

If only that were true.

Nice Backpack

Jenn wearing her backpackIn college, I was sure I had met the girl I was going to marry. Then we broke up, and my life went into a tailspin.

Being the heart-on-the-sleeve romantic that I am, I honestly thought that I had missed the most glorious of kismet and would never be again be fortunate enough to experience love. Years later, I was working as a travelling IT consultant. The job’s lonely existence served me well, giving me the world to experience while my heart mended. One of my projects took me to a small town in southwestern Missouri, whose downtown consisted of some boarded-up shops, liquor stores, a few fast-food restaurants, and a Super 8 Motel. This motel was my home for well over a year.

One night in this extended tour of duty, I felt lonely and began to troll the internet for someone–anyone–to talk to. I eventually stumbled upon the search feature in Friendster. My criteria was quite specific: look for single females located in Dallas, between the ages of 25-35, interested in relationships or friendships. I clicked “Search”, and on the first results page results was the first time I ever saw Jenn, my future wife.

She was wearing that silly little plastic backpack of hers — the one scrawled with the motto “Totally Me”, with a glance towards me that suggested just looking at her photo was only scratching the surface. I was hooked and sent her a message.

Imagine the paths of fate that had to intertwine for the two of us to find one another. Just a week before that night, Jenn had been hanging out with her co-worker Brooke. She was on Friendster and begged Jenn to sign up and be added to her friend’s list. Although Jenn had long ago had her fill of meeting people online, she signed up anyway to help Brooke out. And seven days later, there was a one-line message waiting in her inbox from someone named Matthew.

“Nice backpack,” said the message. And that was it. Even more mysterious than the message is the fact that Jenn actually replied. The next email led to exchange of IM handles, then phone numbers. After a month of talking nearly everyday on the phone, we decided to meet face-to-face. On February 20, 2004 (yes, I am one of those rare men that remembers the most-important days of his life), we arranged to have dinner together at a nice sushi restaurant.

When I first saw Jenn in the flesh, I stopped to take in the picture before me. She was a beautiful petite woman, with raven-dark hair streaked with fashionable red highlights. Her magenta blouse had a bold tone that reflected well against her olive skin. What pictures failed to convery was how great her smile was — one of those deep grins that radiated warmth to my cool heart. I remember everything about that meal: what we ordered, where we sat, the intensity of her green eyes. I found out silly little details, such as the name of her dog (Cali) and that she was in love with the movie “Seabiscuit.”

That evening, the Dallas Museum of Art was celebrating their 100th anniversary by staying open 100 consecutive hours. I wasn’t yet ready for our date to end, so I asked Jenn if she cared to check out the art spectacle. Thankfully, she said yes.

Although neither of us came to the evening with romantic intentions, our friendly dinner was turning into a great date.

A month had passed since Jenn and I started dating. Although it was early in our relationship, there was a spark that told me what we shared was significant.

One Friday night along the way we made plans to go out for the evening. Before I walked out the door to go pick her up, the phone rang.

It was Jenn. She was calling to tell me that she couldn’t go out with me anymore.

I asked why, and Jenn told me it was because I was an atheist, that someone who was Catholic and faithful couldn’t see herself with someone like myself.

Needless to say, I was speechless. Up to that moment, I had expected to be galavanting around town with my cutie. Instead things seemed to be over as quickly as they had begun. I hung up, then laid down on my bed. I was still wearing the nice shirt I had put on for our date. I cradled my head in my hands and stared at my ceiling. There I brooded all night, pondering over in over in my mind how a childhood decision would forever subject me to a lonely existence.

Although I am sure they believed in God, my parents never raised their sons to be religious. Sure, we were baptized, but never once did we attend church together or say grace. I was young, after all, so it’s entirely possible that I am fuzzy on the details. I do remember one thing with perfect clarity: the moment I decided that God didn’t exist.

I was seven years old, and my family was on a houseboat vacationing at Lake Powell, Utah. One night, I was hanging around the kitchen with my family. I was off in the corner eating some hotdogs, while my brother was helping mom mix up some powdered milk for dinner. It was when I was by myself that I had my first-ever revelation. I thought, “There’s no such thing as God.”

I hadn’t pondered the question of His existence before that moment, but that answer to an unasked question provided me with absolute comfort even as a kid. And for next three decades, I grew up knowing that things were right in my universe.

My beliefs weren’t seriously challenged until after I left school. In college, it was easy to nuture my atheism because of the rich diversity of people (and like minds) I encountered during my six years. But following graduation, I dated a woman from a large, traditional Catholic family who often was offended by my atheism. She assumed that because I believed in my atheism so strongly that someone as faithful as her must be foolish or at the very least stupid. She assumed this because she herself thought my lack of belief was ridiculous and offensive.

I honestly never thought such a thing, because I didn’t consider people of faith being wrong. I drew comfort from the choices I made; if someone else choose to believe in a higher power I appreciated such decisions. Although they weren’t choices I would make, who am I to judge others? Like any believer in the Golden Rule I hoped they would offer me the same respect.

I thought I had such respect from Jenn. Then that phone call changed my mind.

All of this is what I thought of over and over that one Friday night, lying on my bed with a broken heart.

The next morning, on Saturday, I was woken up by a phone call. It was Jenn. In an emotionally-frayed voice, she asked if I would come over to her place.

Just the night before, Jenn had cancelled our date because she was unable to accept my atheism, so you can imagine my confusion at her request.

I was grateful for the phone call. I told her that I would be up there as soon as I could and that I had some good news to share…

Jenn grew up in Baton Rouge, the oldest daughter in a family possessed of significant Catholic traditions. She attended Catholic school from kindergarten to 12th grade and went to Mass every Sunday with her parents. Jenn’s grandfather was heavily involved with the Knights of Columbus and, along with her grandmother, never missed daily Mass. Even her great-aunt devoted her life to service in the Dominican order.

During our first weeks of getting to know one another, Jenn and I would chat about our families and childhoods. At first, Jenn found my atheism intriguing. Yet, the farther she fell in love with me, the more distressed she was about the future because of the incompatability of our beliefs. Due to past experience dating religious women, I misinterperted her concern as judgement and would sometimes snap at her in frustration. I often asked, “I don’t question what you believe. Why can’t you accept my beliefs in return?”

Jenn wasn’t offended by my beliefs as much as she was worried. In response to my question, she would say, “When I am old and on my deathbed, I want my husband to be at my side reassuring me that we’ll be together in heaven — not that this is it and when I die it will be all over.” She would then ask me to put myself in her shoes and answer, would I want the same thing?

As I lied on my bed the previous evening, brooding about our cancelled date and apparent breakup, that question of Jenn’s kept coming back into my head and wouldn’t leave me be.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my choices and what they meant, not just for me but for those I cared for. After all, when someone becomes an atheist, they are defacto declaring themselves the highest level of their existence. In effect, they are making themselves God; after all, if there isn’t a supreme being, who else to take up that mantle than yourself? It breeds egotism and self-centerness, both of which conspire to prevent you from ever truly being able to love someone. Such thoughts resonated in my mind over and over that night, and I came to experience only the third revelation in my life.

For the first time, I honestly had the feeling that there was something beyond me, something superior with a greater understanding. I believed in God for the first time.

After her call that Saturday morning, I drove north to Jenn’s apartment in Addison. The late winter day was gray and gloomy, and after arriving I discovered her mood matched the weather. We ordered a pizza and sat down to talk.

When I asked why she wanted me to visit, Jenn explained that something about how we met, how we were touching each other’s souls in ways that noone else had, was screaming to her that she couldn’t walk away from this. That despite her religious upbringing and my lack of faith that things weren’t supposed to be over.

I smiled and told Jenn everything that had passed through my mind the night before. Her question about death and love touched me in ways few others have. It made me realize what is important…it’s not myself, but the love & good works that I share with Jenn, my family and friends, and God. Such soul-searching had finally led me to the greatest of loves.