BY: Mindela Ruby
It’s midnight and I’m googling the word Squacquerone. I saw it in a pizza review earlier today. The surplusage of vowels and consonants caught my fancy.
Often, before turning in, I scoot between home office and TV nook, browsing the web, chuckling at comedy, breaking the Rule of Insomnia Club about No Device Light At Night.
Just one quick search. Or two. Then bed. No worries. I have limits.
WeAreItaly.com identifies Squacquerone as curd cheese, cottage cheese, basically. With Italian phonics on overdrive for a name. Connection to minestrone? Calzone? I wonder.
Cheese curds on pizza might be a good thing, but lately I am begging off dining establishments, even casual eateries. The better half and I have been subsisting on less than half our average income for over a year, ever since his major consulting contract fell through.
In retrospect, I see now how my long obsession with esoteric foods was elitist, even wasteful. The idea of gastronomic indulgence suddenly stings like a strong injection.
The current mainstays are beans and rice, homey and frugal, if not thrilling.
Desk lamp light knifes my cheek. Spendthrifts among our social circle don’t think twice about their multiple costly pastimes—chef-y eateries, stage plays, art collections, home remodeling, exotic voyages, while I, relegated to bargain-counter culture, try googling “free events bay area.” Eureka! Philosophic talks at Claremont Library. Oakland Museum’s $5 Fridays. The university’s free noon concerts at Hertz Hall.
Anne Lamott once called life a “not ideal system,” sweet and desperate at the same time. My iMac cursor winks, tempting me to scour the net for other nectar out there.
But the blue light being absorbed by my eyes could be kindling a chain of negative biologic reactions: Short blue light waves, deficient delta brainwave production, impeded pineal gland function, reduced melatonin supply, incapacitated sleep, depressed mood. I read online about this domino effect another night.
Downstairs, my husband noisily cranks open the deck door, to let Wallace, our Maine coon cat, in for the night. The latch clunks. The thud of the shutting door jolts the ninety-five-year-old house. I take the tremor in the beams as a cue. The hour is late. Enough computer and cable TV.
The bed linens, from different sets, don’t match, the odd sheets and pillowcases that haven’t yet ripped beyond thread and needle repair. Their worn softness invites my legs to unbend.
For those who struggle to fall or stay asleep, a sleep hygiene practice has benefits. I follow the guidelines religiously. No caffeine after noon. Cool, quiet bedroom. Keep regular sleep/wake hours. Alcohol intake at a minimum.
The iPad, however, I can’t quit. It comes to bed at my peril, navigating so lithely that I willfully disregard the toxic pep of its diode-emitted light.
Almost immediately a sonorous rumble rises from our older son’s former bedroom below. Between periodic wakings and shufflings to the toilet, my husband snores down there without compunction. In our bed-sharing days, I’d shove his shoulder to get him to stop snoring. These days his own apnea snorts awaken him. The mister’s aging adenoids and bladder are not conducive to my sleep—or his.
We’d bicker, sharing the master bedroom. My spouse and I have quantified the cost of old age differently. Fear of destitution in our waning years drives me to frenzied nagging about his dwindling income years shy of full Social Security eligibility.
More unnerving than the Spartan budget is witnessing my mate’s fire extinguish. He appears to have lost the determination to live his best life. I think it too soon to be put out to pasture. He’s always enjoyed the latitude to pursue his ambition as he sees fit, and to give up prematurely seems unfair, to both of us. How much better it would be to end his professional career strong. To ramp up his self-esteem. Maybe sell his business, like he has fantasized, and score a small but useful nest egg.
His lack of drive irks me and hampers my compliance with the dictum Never go to bed angry. Spooked by the possibility of an unfunded future, I feel sour and can’t issue a fake goodnight, let alone an honest one.
Life has a way of kicking you, too, when you’re down. A string of physical debilitations has tripped me up and siphoned precious money; a nasty urine infection’s the latest. Peeing, I think we can all agree, should not induce tortured shrieks.
My doctor prescribed Cipro, a household-name antibiotic since the post-9/11 paranoia about Anthrax attacks. The pharmacy bagged my vial of pills with ten photocopied pages of black box product warnings. Among the less common side effects of taking this drug is spontaneous rupture of Achilles tendons.
Each tendon is dear to me, especially Achilles, the only one whose name I know. My one reliable pleasure is trail walking with friends, healthy and cost-free. Since the first swallowed Cipro tablet, I’ve walked on eggshells, scared of losing the option of these hikes. Random twitches in any ligament send my blood pressure spiking. I sit up against the pillows. On the prowl for counterevidence, I google “Cipro side effects.”
A practical rule for keeping calm, especially at night, is Don’t Read User Comments on a Medical Website. These contributions are anecdotal. Never data based. For all we know, every detail on such sites is fictitious. Nevertheless, fired by stupidity, I click WebMD.
“This drug nearly destroyed my life and continues to haunt me daily,” goes one of the User Reviews. “I almost went blind from it and now can no longer eat gluten.”
It isn’t hard to dismiss the long shot of blindness. But gluten intolerance? That would be catastrophic. Whole grain carbs are the staples of our household nurture, a holdover from the diet-for-a-small-planet fad.
I’ve already suffered, because of tooth pain, a months-long privation of my favorite gluten, crunchy toast. Oatmeal and yogurt demand minimal chewing, but with these substitute choices, mornings suck.
The tooth trouble is more fallout of our economic duress. As another cost cutting measure, my husband subscribed to cut-rate Medicare supplemental vision and dental coverage. “Teeth cleaning only $10!” he crowed. His mission to spend less across the board makes sense in a Calvinistic or environmental way. Inevitably, though, downsides rear their ugly heads.
Frankly, it’s mystifying that the scholar I first met during our respective doctoral programs at Berkeley isn’t fazed in these later years by the derisive Yelp reviews of his new Delta Care dentist, whose handiwork customers refer to as incompetent and shoddy. Every dentist on our budget plan, in fact, gets low ratings from ex-patients who warn newbies to seek treatment elsewhere or purchase different insurance.
One night last year, this stranger-called-my-husband sponged the kitchen counter as we discussed dentistry options. “Those Yelp comments aren’t based on actual treatment people received from her,” he said, squeezing the sponge out at the sink. “Patients are biased against her Iranian accent.”
“According to who?”
“Her.” He dried his hands. “She does have a curt, academic manner. But I like it.”
I could not get past the red flags. Even after Dr. Yazdad satisfactorily installed a dental crown in my husband’s mouth, I postponed my own appointment.
Eventually my teeth grew mossy, my gums inflamed. Still, it didn’t feel right, given our cramped cash flow, to shell out $160 for a hygienist visit. Thus, I reluctantly submitted to a $10 cleaning with Dr. Yazdad…and survived.
Seven months later, I returned for repeat and rinse. At the second appointment the dentist noted that tooth 31 in my mouth, a molar causing no pain, was dangerously cracked. “You could be teaching a class,” she said in a thick-tongued accent, “or eating at a restaurant. Maybe your tooth breaks. No warning. Could be uncomfortable.”
I considered telling her I don’t eat at restaurants but kept mum. Maybe fatigue made me vulnerable to her melodramatic scare tactics and hard sell. I signed on the dotted line: $985 for a porcelain crown.
Over the subsequent weeks, Dr. Yazdad botched two attempts to install a crown. The first crown didn’t fit because, she admitted, her mold was faulty. The replacement crown, which she defiantly pronounced pear-fetly-made, felt more wrong. For weeks I couldn’t bite down on that side of my mouth without pain. Contact with simple room-temperature water spawned excruciation. In my opinion, Yazdad’s careless zeal to avoid the cost and embarrassment of another misfit crown caused her, on the second try, to damage the base of my tooth with over-aggressive drilling.
The ordeal that ensued required a dozen office visits. Every time the crown came unglued and fell out of my mouth, a huffy and defensive dentist awaited me. To take the cake, seeing as how I’d fallen for it once before, she tried the charade again.
“This pain in 31 you speak of…You are confused.” She pronounced “pain” like “pen.” “My crown is good. It’s the other tooth that hurts you.” At my request, she applied permanent glue to promote better settling. She squinted after thrusting the crown into my mouth. “You fix the next door tooth. Then, no problem with pain.”
I ignored this, scheming to escape the trap of her malpractice and ineptitude. My problem with “pen” persisted. An out-of-system, out-of-pocket dentist hired for a consultation hypothesized that the nerve might be getting irritated by the banging of my slightly uneven bite. He smoothed down the high spots on 31 and sent me off.
His fix failed. The best option, ultimately, was a root canal. I asked the endodontist about the crack in the adjacent tooth 30. His high resolution x-rays showed no deleterious crack there, nor in 31. I’d saved $300 on two cleanings but was forced to pay $1,900 in damage control.
Before long, more bad juju struck: Wallace vomited on my husband’s laptop keyboard: $350 repair. Skimming thousands from our retirement fund to cover untoward expenses left me drained and shaken, like the victim of an uncontrolled bleed.
To this day, my teeth continue to need attention. Have I faith that any reputable dentist miraculously joined the Delta Care provider team? No. I pull up the company’s homepage on the iPad anyway and let my eyes run down the list of dental practices. Already juggling Enterococcus, involuntary thrift, Ciprofloxacin risks, and my usual migraines, another quandary is more than I can bear.
So I swipe the iPad off. Despite the substantial exposure to display light that I’ve had, one miracle happens: as the nightstand lamp goes dark, slumber whisks me away.
Eager for a revival of toast love, come morning I cycle thin-sliced Vital Vittles’ Russian Rye three times through setting number 5 on the toaster. The crisp slices get slathered with almond butter. My mug of tea sits steaming on the dining table. This long-awaited meal is predicated on the assumption that tooth 31 is healed well enough to eat my favorite breakfast with fearless abandon again.
The crust splits under pressure from my incisors. My tongue repositions the sharp edges to allow my molars to grind the lump of seared bread to a paste. There’s no pain, maybe because I’m chomping hesitantly.
My taste buds gleefully register the flavors of grain, earth, citrus, carbon, and bruléed sugar. As I swallow, my husband blunk blunks up the stairs from his basement office. He carries Wallace in his hands and drops her like a bowl of black feathers onto the chair beside me.
“You entertain her,” he says.
I wash down gritty toast residue with tea. My husband retreats to the basement to, I hope, dig us out of our fiscal hole.
Wallace’s little feet wobble on the seat cushion. Her facial expression looks if not offended then at least unconvinced about this chair and this room, neither of which she chose for her morning nap.
Preoccupied with my meal, I dip the ragged crust edge into tea. Small pleasures mean everything these days.
Wallace manically licks the base of her tail.
When my lips close around my third mouthful, there’s a faint sound, a tumbled chink on the wood floor, something tiny falling down. Wallace, with a feline’s refined hearing and reflexes, jumps off the chair, pounces to the landing spot, sniffs at the fallen object, gets it in her mouth, and elaborately jaws the toast crumb.
“Good girl,” I murmur. “Kitty floor vacuum.”
The dropped morsel is gone. Wallace sits on her haunches and purrs. Taking a deep breath and lifting my mug luxuriantly, I notice something off about my wedding ring. I put down the mug and examine a small dark spot on the gold.
Where one of my wedding band’s very small round pavé diamonds should be, a hole stares back. With a start I realize what happened. That faint sound of something hitting the floor was the diamond.
“Fuck!” I yell. “Fuck!” I stomp my foot. Wallace gallops, startled, into the living room, claws scrabbling and clicking on the wood floor. I drop to my hands and knees and search around the table leg. All I find is the small wet spot where her mouth made contact. “Fuck!”
Blunk blunk blunk ascends my husband. “What happened?” he calls.
“Why couldn’t you leave the cat downstairs?”
“Why are you on the floor?”
I tell him.
“Wallace wouldn’t eat a diamond.”
“I saw her!”
He scratches his cheek, not wanting to get sucked into this melodrama.
I wail, illogically, “I can’t even enjoy my first toast in ages without my ring getting ruined!”
“Let me see.” My husband sinks to his knees and grabs my hand as if my testimony can’t be relied upon. The hole, though small, is a glaring imperfection. Once before, a diamond disappeared from the same area of this ring. It’s possible the replacement gem has now been lost. The cost to acquire and reset a stone was $200 ten years ago. Present prices could be steeper, exactly when money is tighter. Another hurdle.
My husband pops up, slips to the kitchen and returns with the dust pan, broom, and long flashlight. He hands me the flashlight and sweeps under the table. “Shine the light so we can see what’s down here.”
“I told you she ate it!” I stand and switch on the light anyway. Oh, the futility.
“Just in case,” he mutters, holding the dustpan under the beam of light. Dust, generic flecks of matter, a shard of napkin, cat fur, human hair illuminated in sharp relief. No diamond.
I set down the flashlight, wrest the ring off my knuckle, and place it on the table. “I won’t wear it like this. Makes me feel pathetic. Along with everything else that’s going on.” Tears fill my eyes.
“Don’t worry. Wallace will shit it out, and I’ll retrieve it.”
“That’s disgusting. Plus you’ll never find such a small thing. If only you didn’t bring her upstairs.”
“She was distracting me from prepping for an important call.” Determination on his lips, my husband retreats downstairs.
I stare at the toast. The glistening almond butter smells acrid. Many “important calls” have led nowhere. Optimism’s in short supply. In my peripheral vision I see Wallace glare distrustfully. It’s true my husband and I have roofs over our heads and food in the cupboard, as do our adult children, and we should appreciate these blessings and not get bent out of shape over privileged troubles. But contentment’s at a premium. We’ve become people of limited means, making trade-offs all the time, demeaned and tight.
I pick up the half-eaten slice of toast that thrilled me minutes ago. My appetite’s faded; I drop the food. In short order my husband blunk blunks back. I can’t look at him when he enters.
“I searched e-how for recovering a jewel from pet excrement,” he said.
“Are you kidding?” I say.
“I couldn’t find instructions, but I came up with an idea on my own.”
“I don’t want to hear.”
“The next two or three times Wallace poops in her box, I’ll scoop the turds into a jar, add hot water and let them dissolve. I’ll strain the liquid, and there will be your diamond.”
“Do you realize how sad that sounds?”
“It’ll clean up. That’s what matters.”
No matter how gross or outlandish the mandatory efforts, my stubborn husband must execute his plan. More than saving the replacement cost of an almost microscopic diamond, he wants to prove he’s right. I pick up my tea but leave the toast, ring, husband, and pet behind.
Maybe black cats truly are bad luck. As I climb upstairs, my husband blunks the other direction to his basement phone call.
I drop into my office desk chair and automatically lay fingers on my wireless keyboard. The computer I booted up and signed onto straight out of bed hums companionably, but, uncharacteristically, I don’t feel like typing a thing. I feel caged and don’t see the point. My income as an adjunct professor is a pittance by Bay Area standards. A rush of self-pity makes me dizzy.
An old friend recently commented, “Your problem is, you have rich friends.”
She’s right, though not the way she thinks. I’m not vying to keep up with the landed class. I wish our acquaintances were more willing to function at our level, be more creative and open about time spent together. Life is more than orchestra-level tickets and fusion bistros.
Our change of fortune dredges from my subconscious a lifelong fear of being at risk. In recurring dreams, I am scared to wit’s end by the destruction of the house I live in. In some nightmares, a monster ocean wave bashes my house to smithereens; I lose all grounding. Or the walls of where I live spontaneously bow and gape apart, poor upkeep and treacherous chance to blame. Windows pop out of frames, leaving me coldly wind-whipped and unprotected.
Straining cat shit raises the specter of destitution and vulnerability that I’ve grappled with, at least symbolically, my whole life. What I crave isn’t luxury. It’s security.
My keyboard rests on a funky wood shelf my husband fashioned and custom-fitted to my 1940s metal desk. Along its painted edge I notice a pebble, a chunk of gray the size of a pin-head. About to pinch it with my fingertips to deposit into the trash can, I tilt my head and see light glittering colorfully off the pebble. It’s the diamond, a faceted wonder of miniaturization barely visible to the eye.
Wallace ate a toast crumb after all. I wrap the impossibly small treasure into a tissue and carry it down two flights.
My husband’s desk is an old 1920s work bench left intact when we moved in many years ago. The mood between us remains standoffish. “Behold.” I unwrap the tissue. The diamond looks like a balled gnat at the bottom. “So tiny.”
“Where was it?”
“On the narrow space next to my keyboard. It could easily have fallen off and been ground into the carpet, and me none the wiser.”
It’s 8:40 a.m. We exchange exhausted looks.
Spared. For now. In this minuscule way. His mobile phone sounds its marimba ringtone. Maybe this prospect of his will be the one that bites.
The jeweler hands me the monocular eye loupe. In my avoidance of expense, it’s taken five months to bring my wedding ring in for repair.
“Move the lens up against your eye,” the jeweler instructs, “then bring the ring up to it.”
I squint at the complex engineering of gold and pavé diamond in the viewing field, intricate workmanship unseen by the naked eye. My ring under magnification looks garish and busy, not the elegant concept I’ve worn on my finger for decades. There’s no missing the hole that under the scope looks as gaping as it has felt in my gut.
She says, “See how the prongs alongside the hole are snapped off? Compare them to the intact prongs at the other diamonds. The things that look like little claws. Also notice the scuff marks. Your ring must have scraped against a rock.”
“Uh huh,” I say, trying to recall what hiking excursion marred this one piece of finery I have to my name.
“If struck on a hard surface, even accidently, prongs can loosen and eventually snap off and release a diamond,” the jeweler says.
I hand the loupe back. “Amazing I found it.”
Behind the counter, she smiles politely but clearly does not consider my feat noteworthy. Like when I conference with college students and explain their pronoun agreement errors: they are astounded to understand something routine and mundane to me, the technique of inserting a plural pronoun to agree grammatically with their plural antecedents.
I hand the ring to the jeweler, who fumbles and drops it on the glass counter. The bauble clacks conspicuously. We both cringe and pretend that didn’t happen to my keepsake, bought thirty-three years ago on Fifth Avenue when I was in New York for an M.L.A. conference. The jeweler takes out her order pad with carbon-duplicate pages and scribbles the job’s parameters.
I’ve been wearing a substitute ring of inexpensive pale jade my mother picked up at a tourist stand in China. The placeholder wedding band has advantages. Smooth jade doesn’t catch on sweaters and delicate scarves like my prong-y gold band does. Nor do I worry about the cheap ring getting damaged, lost, or stolen. But I don’t feel legitimate when I wear the shlocky stand-in wedding ring.
“Sometimes,” the jeweler says, perhaps concluding from my face that cheering up is in order, “customers come in with diamonds they happen to find in their houses. It turns out the diamonds don’t fit the carried-in rings and brooches. They’re the wrong diamonds! Funny, huh?”
We both laugh, though her humor irks me. How can there be so many lost gems lying on people’s floors? It’s preposterous. My only diamonds are the specks in my wedding ring, the nineteen arranged micro gems and the one in a plastic baggy, together totaling 0.3 carats in weight. The single minute dislodged stone will cost at least $100 to be professionally reset.
We complete the paperwork. I leave the shop, happy to be fixing my ring at last, happy to be walking. Four months ago, my husband dropped a heavy library book on my bare foot. Written by an author we saw on Real Time With Bill Maher, Democracy In Chains aimed its sharp book corner squarely down on my metatarsals and left me with a contusion that prohibited me from walking for weeks. Although the bruise disappeared, pain from the injury flares up now and then and threatens: the freedom to walk can disappear at any second.
Far and away more destructive than this injury is my anger about letting myself become financially dependent on a man. A long time ago, I made a calculation that over the long haul hasn’t added up. It’s not my husband’s foundering consulting career that’s failed me. I failed myself by not seizing the promise of feminism or the power of self-reliance. This regret is a slow-release poison that I keep on the QT.
My friend, a divorced attorney, waits on the sidewalk, half a block up Solano Avenue. I break into a jog, anticipating the coming distraction, knowing I’m about to hear the latest secrets about her unrequited devotion to a married man.
The January sky is the celebrated hue of energy’s power to destroy: natural blue wavelengths can cause macular degeneration—damage to the retina—and literally lead to blindness. It’s another secret about our crippling world that I read about, one unsettled midnight, not long ago.
Mindela Ruby holds a PhD in English from University of California. Her recent writing appears in Marathon Literary Review, WomenArts Quarterly, Rivet: the Journal of Writing That Risks, and the anthology Unmasked. Her poetry has been Pushcart and Best of the Net nominated. A former punk rock DJ, she has published the novel Mosh It Up (2014). She is the Creative Nonfiction Editor of Ragazine.