Good Gravy. Nothing like a little pandemic to make every life choice seem both vitally important and totally inconsequential. I think everyone’s theme word for the year simultaneously shifted to Survive. Rightfully so. It’s hard to focus on “enlightened” needs right now. I mean, when your house is burning, who cares if the bed is made?
None of us are in control right now, if we ever even were.
It’s a lot for me, and for you and for everyone in the whole world.
So what is an everyday person to do? Those of us who don’t work in a vital service industry or on the heroic front lines of health care probably find ourselves at a loss right now. We do the right thing by following public health policies, supporting local businesses, tipping extra…and then what? Speaking for myself, when I get to the part of my brain that controls my “what about me?” response, I don’t have a lot of answers right now.
But “what about me?” is a valid question. We function as a society and work for its good, but we matter as individuals, too. It matters if my business fails or if your company furloughs you. It matters that your kids can’t play with their best friends for who knows how long, or if you don’t get to hug your loved one when they’re ill. It matters! And it’s all happening at once!
The best I can come up with is to share some practical advice from a boss I really liked at a job I really hated.
This workplace was super toxic and extremely full of itself, and every day was an exercise in back room dealings, corporate caste systems and general treachery. It brought out the worst in everyone. But in the middle of all that was my team, which I liked and a boss, who I respected. When I’d go to her office to talk about the latest lie, injustice or general nonsense we had been subjected to and ask how to respond, she’d say “We are going to come to work every day, do our jobs and do our best. We will do exactly what we have been doing.” It was hard to hear sometimes, because it is human to want to react, to fight back or defend ourselves. But since then, I think of that advice when things get so chaotic that my judgement is clouded.
So right now, that’s what I am doing. There is too much to think about, and it is so hard to make decisions when the global landscape changes so quickly, not to mention the simple matter of all the extra steps we have to take to stay healthy and alive.
When things began to shut down, I panicked. My business was just starting to take off, and suddenly, not only could I literally not do it, I also had to try and stay top of mind with my (relatively new) connections without having anything real to offer. No travel meant no meaningful updates for my social channels, etc. I have been a freelance writer for years, but had decided to cut back to grow the business. Scramble time all around. I feel like I’ve pivoted so much I’m back at the beginning! And technically, we (in Texas) are still in month one!
But I am trying to follow the good advice that my former boss shared. Every day, I wake up and I go to work. I stay the course. I am trying new initiatives and projects but nothing drastically different than I was doing six weeks ago, and I’m not knocking myself out to put out new stuff all the time. I’ve temporarily resumed more freelance writing work, because its a known entity, and my other work doesn’t take up 40 hours right now. I’m trying really hard to stay in my lane and succeeding, mostly.
I’m creating art, of course, and writing creatively as well. But right now, those things seem like luxuries. Beneficial and important luxuries, but luxuries all the same. So, I’ll get back to that later, in a different post. I don’t want to be mistaken for being someone who thinks all of this a “blessing,” or a call to “slow down” or to “take time to dance.” If we are dancing, it is because there are hot coals under our feet.
Make room for pleasure, definitely and relax when you can. If you are a spiritual person, lean on your faith. But self care, and even spiritual faith can also look like showing up for your professional, family or personal responsibilities; doing what you need to do, and doing your best.
This is the story of the big life of a little cat.
Molly’s life with me began in July 2002, when I had just moved back from New York City to Austin. I wasn’t happy with the move, and thought I’d get myself a cat as a consolation prize.
But before that, in May, I was in New York, walking with a friend who was visiting for the day from New Haven. “David’s cat had kittens!” she said, referring to her boyfriend at home in Austin, an old friend who had and has been in my life since I was 16.
“Is there an orange one?” I asked.
“I’d like to see that kitten!” I said, looking around me and thinking that a furry friend would be just the thing to take the sting out of leaving all the exciting things and opportunities that surrounded me in that moment.
A few weeks later, I left New York, with an orange kitten on my mind. I know what you’re thinking, Molly wasn’t orange! No, she wasn’t! Stay with me.
I moved back to Austin, into an empty one-bedroom with an inflatable mattress, a huge indigo plastic iMac and no other furniture. After a few days of pushing the mattress from room to room to “settle in,” I was ready to pay David a visit.
At the time, David was living a few blocks from UT, with at least one roommate and what seemed like 100 cats who seemed to be everywhere all at once. Big kitten energy, is what I’m saying. I stepped around the rolling balls of fur and teeth, and settled on the couch while David made introductions.
“I’m keeping that one.” He pointed at a sweet, silky white boy kitten with big eyes. “This one has been scratching her ear a lot.” He pointed at a beautiful tabby while I priced ear drops in my head. I looked over at the orange one, the prize I had come for, just as David pointed at him. “I think T-Bone has been pooping under the couch.”
“Hm, way to sell those cats, David.” I thought. He ended up keeping all of them except for Molly, so he probably didn’t actually want to sell them at all. But I had a decision to make.
As I was pondering ear drops vs. the stealth pooper, a friendly calico toddled up to me and raised on her back legs, balancing her paws on my jeans. I looked at her, then David. He had nothing to say.
“Maybe this one,” I said, stroking her soft fur. The other cats weren’t very interested in me, but this cat was immediately. “Definitely this one.”
“I thought I’d name her Tank Girl.” David said.
“Hmm,” I looked at the kitten’s face. “Don’t let him name me Tank Girl!” It seemed to say. She had an “M” marking above her right eyebrow. “How about Molly?”
And that was that. She stayed with David for a few more days while I got her litter box, bowl and starter set of cat toys, then we loaded her up in a boxy green plastic carrier and I drove, as slowly and carefully as I could with the precious cargo, down 24th Street and up MoPac, across 183 and onward to my apartment.
I knew my life had changed. When we got home, I remember unlatching the carrier and sitting on the inflatable mattress waiting for her to come out in her own time. After about 15 minutes, she did. We were home.
The joke was on me, because while Molly never pooped under the couch, she peed everywhere. A bladder condition diagnosis and medicine took care of that, but she never stopped preferring a soft carpet, couch or bed comforter to cushion her paws vs. scratchy litter and a drafty box. I think she was 16 before she was an exclusive box-user. She also pushed her way through my newspapers when I was reading them, knocked stuff off the counters and jumped to and from the highest cabinets in my apartment while I begged her to behave. In other words, she was a Grade A Normal Kitten. One night I couldn’t get her to take her bladder pills, which I would wipe in strawberry cream cheese and stick to my finger, hoping she would just open up and let me put it on her tongue. (Why yes, she was my first indoor cat! Why do you ask?) She became agitated and I had to put her in the bathroom and call David to come help medicate his damn cat. He stopped by an hour later, rolled her up in a towel like a burrito and had her pilled in about two minutes. She did everything but say “Aah” and get a lollipop. She was a stinker.
And by stinker, I mean, she was the best. She loved Bob Marley and other music with a deep, dance hall beat, and music with reedy voices and instruments, like the Dixie Chicks, sent her into a biting, scratching rage her whole life. She wasn’t a lap cat, but she loved being close to her people and spent most of her final weeks snuggled against me while my husband James and I watched The Crown on TV. Molly loved TV time and strangely enough, had the same preferences that we did.
She enjoyed being where the action was, always part of the conversation circle or checking out houseguests’ suitcases, making sure they were all settled in. Until I met James in 2008, it was just Molly and me and a short parade of not-James’s, some who she liked a lot (the small-town vegan) and others who made her hiss and leap sideways (information withheld because, well, let’s just say Molly often picked up on things that I didn’t.) We spent a lot of time by ourselves. In the early days, I was a newspaper reporter and worked odd hours. Most nights, I’d unwind with her by watching some late-night Cheaters TV and enjoying International Delight coffees. (Remember, I was 26, it was 2002 and “coffee culture” was years away, as were the good cable channels.) Sometimes I’d be home so late, and so tired that I could only hold out the feather stick limply while she jumped at it, desperate for playtime after being home alone all day while I chased down stories about mercury in the local fishing lake and small town petty shit.
I talked to her all the time. I said, “please move,” when she blocked my path to bully me for treats. “Excuse me,” when I brushed past her reaching for the remote. “Thank you, Molly,” when she obeyed a request (there were never really any commands in our dynamic) or gave me kitty kisses. She heard so many stories and so much dirt on so many people. I’d like to think she was as shocked and appalled as I was when people misbehaved or there was drama to share.
Because of this, she was very in tune with people. “She understands tone!” I’d later say to James, who seemed to buy it but I’m not so sure. But she did understand! James likes to remind me that Molly’s brain was the size of a walnut, but it must have been all empathy.
When a friend who had just lost her father was crying at my kitchen table, Molly was there with knee pats and purrs. When I lost a close friend to suicide in 2007, she barely left my side for the months that it took me to get through a day without losing it. When James lost his dad, Molly was right there with us on the couch working through it as a family.
We went on like this for almost 18 years, Molly and me, and beginning in 2010, Molly, James and me. I have so many stories, and to tell them all would be to write a book. She was my best friend. When I looked at her, I knew the world was right. The night before my wedding, I opted out of staying at a hotel so that I could spend the night at home with Molly. One of James’ and my wedding debates was what tier of the cake Molly’s figurine should go on. (I won. She was placed on the top tier with us. I mean, where else would she be?) When we moved in 2018, we had to leave her in the old apartment bathroom all day while the movers did their thing. We freed her around 10:30 that night and drove through Whataburger, the cat carrier on my lap like a puzzle piece. When she first got sick and we knew the end was coming, I’d wake up in the night and see the silhouette of her ears in the dark, right where they were supposed to be. “What happens without this?” I thought.
Molly was, for a long time, the very best thing in my life. Until I met James and had two best things. And she was the most constant thing in what was a very transient and not always great life. Because of my newspaper career, we moved four times in the first three years alone. We did not always have consistency in income or a stable place to plan the future from. Most of my close friends live elsewhere, so Molly was my only steady companion for most of our years together, and you can probably get an idea of my dating life from the “made the cat hop sideways” anecdote above. (But nobody mistreated Molly! Not only would that have been an instant dealbreaker, she was universally beloved even by those who she herself could take or leave.)
What was life going to look like without that stabilizing influence, being able to see, interact and care for a companion who had filled that role for 17 years. That is such a long time! Molly’s social media presence predates even MySpace by many years! She was an early Friendster adopter. When she was tiny I put her photo on RateMyKitten but then deleted it when someone said it looked like she was wearing makeup. It weirded me out for some reason. But, Molly was totally Generation Z, a Digital Native by Gen X proxy.
My friends started having babies right after I got Molly. She was the oldest. As the years flew, I couldn’t help but compare their ages, and wonder what human Molly would be doing. The ages came and went where she could drive, vote, buy cigarettes, start high school. I don’t have kids, by choice, but it was still an interesting thought exercise.
But a cat is not a person. Adopting a cat, as James liked to remind me, is both a promise made to a kitten and accepting a small tragedy. I knew that it was highly unlikely that Molly would outlive us, and still I hoped. With each birthday, I thought maybe she’d live a long time and be not just old, but really, really old. A Guinness World Record of a cat. But without old cat health problems, because I wanted her to always feel good.
She felt “good” until about three weeks before she died, and I’m grateful for that. There are so many things I’m grateful for. Her facial tumor made her look like she had a jaw full of chewing tobacco, but didn’t hurt her. She was mobile and playing, albeit with some painkiller help, until the morning we said goodbye. The only time she really slowed down was in the final week, between Christmas and New Year, and that just meant that she spent most of her time in one of a warren of Christmas package boxes we had set up in our breakfast nook. We learned to read the boxes. The big one meant she was feeling okay. The medium-sized box on its side meant she wanted to rest but also see the world. The tiny Target box with tissue paper still in it meant “My painkillers are wearing off. Pretend you don’t see me until I can have another one.”
On the last night of her 17 years and nine months, she watched The Crown finale on the couch with us, played with Christmas Tree branches, gave her rolling ball toy a few hearty whacks and went to sleep after a healthy dose of painkillers melted into a Brothful. (Aside – did you know there’s a whole product industry based around soup for cats?!) The next morning, James woke up, gave her heart pills, breakfast, treats and medicated eye wash, then took his shower. Molly made a normal lap through the bedroom where I was, then suddenly broke in to a panicked run all the way to the closet in my art studio and hid in the far corner of the farthest closet. Molly was old, sore and had not run for anything in probably a year. Something obviously awful and bad and non-salvageable had happened.
In the last few weeks of her life, when we chilled on the couch, I’d ask “Molly, is it time?” and give her a good, clear look to see if I could tell. Because, for as long and as much as Molly and I “talked,” she was a cat and could not really talk. I knew she loved her life and wanted to keep it, and I also knew that James and I would have to understand what her limits were so not to prolong the inevitable. Usually, she’d just kind of look at me and go back to TV or bathing herself or whatever it was that she was doing. She was trucking along. Tank Girl until the end.
But that morning, Jan. 2, I didn’t have to ask. At that point, we had to force a radical shift in our perspective from “Molly, our friend and family member” to “Molly, who is a terminally ill animal and just wants to not hurt.” We called our vet, and took her in immediately. After our vet confirmed our suspicions that Molly wouldn’t recover from her cancer-related injury, we, as a team, decided to let her go.
My strongest memory of that day is when the vet brought her back from the staff exam room, a little tranquilized and buzzed but not asleep yet. They had wrapped Molly in a pink blanket like a little baby. Molly was alert, ears up and scanning the room for James and me. When she saw us and was placed on the table, we had a few precious, priceless moments with her to give kisses, head butts and “I love you’s” before she started to slip into sedation for the next step. I honestly don’t remember much after that, only that leaving the vet’s office without her cat carrier, which we donated to the clinic, was the weirdest and one of the hardest things I have ever experienced. It was like leaving your wallet on the bus, if your wallet had your 17-year old cat in it and you’ll never get it back.
This is the story of Molly, but as with all stories, there is more to it.
James and I were visiting David this past weekend. Molly’s mom and siblings (ear drops and the couch pooper, aka Lucy and T-Bone) had passed in spring of 2019 and beautiful Mad Dog had crossed the bridge years earlier. It was the first time in nearly 18 years that I’d see David and not have cats in common to talk about. So, we spent a happy couple of hours talking about the cats we used to have.
“You know the story, right?” He asked. I did, but I wanted to hear it again.
Turns out, I didn’t know the whole story.
Molly’s mom Ella was a stray who David took in. There was a medical delay in getting her fixed, and between the first time she went in and the time he took her back for the surgery, she snuck out a bathroom window and went on a little Rumspringa. When the vet saw her again, she was pregnant with kittens.
Molly’s story, and the story of her siblings runs on such a thin margin that it is nearly cosmic. There are so many scenarios where Molly would not have been with me. I reconnected with David in the late 1990s, through a situation that wasn’t great, but having Molly come from it made the chaos completely worth it. If I hadn’t spent the day in New York with Audrey, who happened to mention David’s cats. If T-Bone hadn’t been in a sneaky pooping phase. If Ella hadn’t escaped, or if she had been fixed at that first appointment. If Molly hadn’t so obviously made herself known at the kitten-choosing night.
I would have missed so much and never even known it. I know I would have probably found another cat, and a different joy, but it would not have been this joy. I love my life with Molly, all the ups and downs, both of our bad behavior, the expense and responsibility that comes with pet ownership, everything. Even the end of it that was so scary and consuming with the medicine and her encroaching, very obvious tumor and eye issues that I assured her just made her look more interesting.
At the beginning of this story, I said that I thought a kitten would be a consolation prize, a second place compromise between a life in New York that I so badly wanted and the life I was expected to lead. It shames me to write that now. How wrong I was. Consolation prize? She was the blue ribbon of my whole entire life. Aside from my marriage, which didn’t happen until 2012, she was the first and only thing that was ever truly mine, the first unconditional love I ever experienced in either direction. We figured the whole pet ownership thing out together and I didn’t always get it right, but I know she loved me in whatever ways a cat can love and she inspired me to do my best for her. A night or two before she died, we were relaxing on the couch and I scratched her head. She looked at me as a geriatric cat with a lopsided face and bad eye, but I could clearly see love, or something like it in her face. I felt strongly then, that even if she wasn’t ready to go at that time, that when she did go, that our lives together really had been everything to each other, and to James, that they were supposed to be. That it was okay for this chapter of our story together to end.
In my last post, I wrote about being on a Rickie Lee Jones kick. This coincided with Molly’s final weeks around the end of the year, so Molly got to enjoy it, too. When I hear “The Horses” now, I think of Molly and for now it makes me sad, although I know it won’t always.
I am pretty positive “The Horses” wasn’t written for a dying cat, but that’s how I see it. I think of the Pegasus and Equuleus constellations and how Molly is in the stars now, riding the horses in the sky. In my mind, I see her leaping from star to star, playing as free and easy as she did in the early days when she leapt from my countertop to the top kitchen cabinet and back down to the side table. Maybe we all come from the stars and go back to them. It’s not for me to know. I do know that the beauty and promise of wherever Molly is, is that she’ll never fall again. But I hope she still knows in her heart, or whatever source of light that is left and is still her, that I”ll be here to pick her up until it is my turn to meet her there.
While I haven’t written a Pine Curtain Storyin a while, they’re always on my mind, waiting for the right time and way to be told. I know they’ll be back soon. I think about those stories all the time. Not because I’m living in the past or wish to (no thanks!) but because I feel they’re important and timeless; both the smaller focus on my friends and I, and the larger focus on what it meant and still means to have been a teenage girl in a specific time and place.
Like any good daydreamer, I have a list of songs that I would choose for a soundtrack to my future Pine Curtain movie. It evolves, but it’s mostly eighties and early nineties alt-rock. The latest addition is Rickie Lee Jones’ “Satellites,” which to me perfectly describes the relationships in Pine Curtain Stories.
“So you keep talking in many languages/ Telling us the way you feel…”
When we were younger we had so many creative “languages” to communicate in – folded notes, made up stories, prank calls and other outward expressions, even collages and cartoons and of course, the treasured mix tape. If we could think of a way to express an emotion or idea, we did, even if it was weird, risky or poorly-executed.
And that goes away.
Now there are text messages, emails, social media…meetups and video calls and viral videos…and all of those things are clinical and ultimately dilute the message for the sender and the receiver.
And yet, we are satellites. Some of us are in touch more than others and we are all busy and scattered, at the same time we are bound by those years we spent together. I can think of something that happened in 1991 and immediately feel exactly how I felt then, and remember who was there and what their voices sounded like and what style of clothing they were wearing. If it was nighttime, I can hear the cicadas or wind blowing through the pine trees. I can remember what was playing on the stereo and the sound of car wheels on gravel when we pulled over to socialize on the nights we cruised endlessly between the local mall on one side of town and the Sonic drive-in on the other side.
Satellites homing in on a shared constant.
I wish there were more songs that brought to mind early friendships. Most of the songs on my “future soundtrack” are pretty angsty or about boys. But as the heroes of these stories, we need an anthem just for us. This is a strong contender.
Do young people have social dances any more? I don’t have kids, so I honestly don’t know. But before cell phones, texting, social media – all the things that make it easy to plan for yourselves and/or socialize without leaving home, the dance floor was THE place to be. My church hosted one every few months, and in between, there were school dances, Teen Nights at grown-up clubs, dance parties at the Episcopal church…we were dancing nearly every weekend. We definitely could not relate to the anti-dance histrionics of “Footloose,” because our parents knew that if we were all thrown together in one room, a chaperone in every corner, a few stationed along the walls, and one weaving through the crowd to move errant hands, then a dance was the safest place in town.
As I have mentioned before, my social group was largely unchanged from kindergarten on up. I made other friends at school through the years who I loved just as much, but as far as Saturday nights went, I was with the same ten kids, give or take a few for disciplinary groundings, etc. So that’s who became our dance partners.
Our parents: “Tired of seeing this kid? Too bad, you’re dancing with him. No, there are no other options. This one’s a known entity. You can dance with him or you can sit down over there.” More or less.
Anyway, the pickings were slim. There was a group of nerds who clustered together and did the “California Raisin” dance to every song, and there was my mortal enemy who spent ages 6 to 35 trying to take me out, Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner style.
So that left “Eric.” He was taller than me, which was a plus. Good-looking, but I didn’t “like” – him – like -him, so there wasn’t any hormonal weirdness to contend with. He wasn’t caught up in the raisin dance and he wasn’t trying to throw dynamite at me. A catch! And an easy, low stakes dance partner.
But off the dance floor, things were harder for Eric and me. He was a part of the cool group, and I was in a… different group. I had it bad for his best friend, who thought I was an irritant at best and treated me accordingly. So, Eric was my friend away from school, and in school, he was something else. Meaner. Sharper.
But for some reason, at the time, that was okay. I didn’t know any better, and accepted it as the way things were. After all, if “Wile E. Coyote” could destroy my belongings, hurt me and be invited back over to do it some more, then what Eric did was nothing.
Anyway, I loved him. I still do.
After the drama of high school, we settled in to an easier, more friendly rapport.
But as some of us went on with our lives, learned about the larger world, made other friends and got a better sense of how relationships worked, Eric stayed the same. The last time Courtney and I saw him together, he took us to see where his trailer had burned down. He’d lost everything in an electrical fire, and was living in a half-finished shed behind his parents’ house. He did okay for a while. Proximity to his family was a good thing.
I saw Eric once more after that, in the late 90s. He was the last person I dropped off after a night out, and invited me to stay and catch up a little longer.
We sat in his parents’ garage into the wee hours, talking, smoking cigarettes, listening to the radio. Sometime just before sunrise, “Love Hurts” by Nazareth came on. Eric stood up and extended his hand to me. My old dance partner and I shared one last song, slow and even then, bittersweet.
In 2013 a friendly acquaintance and the object of many a schoolgirl crush was arrested on live TV, tackled to the ground in his driveway, charged and convicted with trafficking exploitative images of minors. We couldn’t believe it! Him? He was so nice! His family was great! You think you know someone.
Within a year, in a separate case Eric would be arrested, charged and convicted for a similar crime. Unless something changes, we will be in our sixties when he’s released.
When he was sentenced, I went down an internet rabbit hole and found five other familiar names in his prison system, for the same type of thing.
Maybe we don’t really know anyone.
It was hard to absorb. Even with all of his challenges and volatility, we always felt safe with Eric, at all hours of the night and in all situations. He had never laid a non-consensual hand on us in violence or otherwise. Maybe other young women had different experiences. I don’t know. I believe victims.
I won’t speculate on guilt or innocence because Eric was tried and convicted by a jury whose job was to do that. I’m not going to describe what he did or ascribe motive, because it’s not my story to tell. To say more would be disrespectful to his victim and the families involved.
But I can tell you what it did to me.
When you’re fourteen and someone says “this is your friend. This is your dance partner.” You don’t question it. “This is my friend,” you think. Once before a duet at church, Eric shared that his bestie had called me a “butt ugly b*tch.” (I was no such thing, not that it matters.) I bounced a peppermint candy off of his face, then we went on stage and sang our song. Beautifully. “This is your friend,” I had been told, my whole life. The implication was “Forgive him. Love him.” So that’s what I did.
I assumed that was just how it was, with certain types of friends.
My in-laws live in Houston, and when we drive there from Dallas, we pass the state penitentiary. I “wave” to Eric every time. Maybe that seems flip, but I don’t mean it to be. My husband doesn’t get it. How could he?
Every now and then, I think of sending a letter. Eric’s brother died by suicide when we were in junior high, the first domino to fall in many ways, for both of us. For years, Eric and I would leave notes on “Charlie’s” grave for the other to find. I’m not sure why, or how it started, or even if it was appropriate. But Eric and I had always found a way to communicate. It’s too hard now. I know my husband wouldn’t like it, and what would I even say? Even in offering love and friendship, I can’t absolve, which is different than forgiving. I certainly can’t forget and I know I can’t be part of Eric’s life anymore in any real way. It’s not just one thing. It’s all of it.
Looking back on the situation, I try to connect the dots to see if the way he treated me had anything to do with his choices as an adult. I’m sure there is some commonality, in terms of respect for women, respect for boundaries and the lack of consequences in our fairly insular culture, but I know that it’s more complicated than that, too because not every bully grows up to break the law.
All this to say: Love hurts? It’s not supposed to, not really. If someone’s not your friend in all situations then they’re not your friend. If someone punches your boyfriend, it’s like they’re punching you, and they know that. I know that now, too. Love them anyway and forgive them, but only if you feel like it. Set better boundaries. Put the best of your love somewhere else. Life is long and bigger than your dance floor. YOU choose your partners. There’s plenty of people out there happy to break your heart, in ways you can’t even imagine. You don’t have to break your own.
*I struggled a lot with whether or not to write this. I still am in touch with Eric’s family who are wonderful people and have been dealt an unfair hand. And as I mentioned, I still love Eric. But at the end of the day, he chose to do these things and it’s public record. I’m not speculating, editorializing or really adding anything new to the story. It helped me to write about it, and maybe it will help others who are in complicated situations, to know they’re not alone. Names have been changed, details lightly fictionalized.