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Give Me a Break

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After a year of mishaps, a fresh start doesn’t cut it   

By Christine Grillo

Last year was rough. Everything around me seemed to be breaking. I spent thousands of dollars on my house, but not the fun kind of dollars where things look prettier when you’re done. This was money spent on a sump pump, exterminators, mold removal, new wiring, a toilet flange. I barely got one thing repaired before I needed to pull money out of thin air to fix something else. At one point, my 13-year-old son and I stood in the basement during a storm and watched in horror as the walls oozed water, like that scene in The Shining, where the elevator oozes blood. 

“Holy crap, Mom, what’s wrong with the house?” he said, holding a bucket to the wall. 

My fight-or-flight instinct kicked in, and I opted for flight. A do-over seemed like it would be a good thing, and I started looking at houses with a realtor. 

On the road, it was worse. I developed some sort of superpower whereby every time I was in a car, one of the vehicles nearby would break down or worse. A city bus died as it crossed in front of me, shutting down an entire southbound thoroughfare. At rush hour on a busy street with an ambulance trying to get through, the car next to me sputtered to death, trapping the ambulance. 

My 15-year-old daughter, whom I drove to school each morning, was an eyewitness to my superpower. One day we got stuck in traffic radiating outward from a car that had just driven into a brick wall, and she said, “You’re really extra today.” 

One of the high (or low) points was the night I drove home through southeast Baltimore during a storm and had to turn around in the middle of the street because there was a building lying in the intersection. It turns out, a tornado had come through. 

Fight-or-flight kicked in again, and I fantasized about flying. I wondered how I might trade in the car for something newer, maybe a compact with good fuel efficiency and no demons•and why not a pair of wings for good measure?

I began to wonder how I could use this superpower for good, but concluded after many thought exercises, that there’s really no way to use a power like that for good. 

I started to feel like some sad X-Men character: the one whose mutant superpower is to make things around her fall apart. Only instead of being cute and young, as X-Men tend to be, I was Basic Mom. Indeed, the bad things weren’t just happening near me, they were happening because of me. I worried about injuring someone with my bad juju. 

I used the same dutiful coping strategy employed by billions of people all the time: fix what you can; hire people to fix what you can’t; and keep your chin up, because at some point the bad stuff has got to stop. But keeping my chin up got harder, and it became obvious that I had been overrun by bad spirits, dark mojo, negative energy—whatever you want to call it. I pictured mischievous, frenetic sprites clustering by the hundreds in the corners of my house, and because I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, I assumed they were not so much evil as haplessly causing trouble. 

One night, I burned white sage in the basement and in every room. “You don’t belong here,” I said. “Time to go now.”

I whispered to the ceiling corners, “This is not the place for you. Move along. You’ll be happier somewhere else.”

A friend advised me that it’s not always enough to get rid of the bad things; you have to invite the good things too. An acquaintance with a spiritual bent suggested that some deities were trying to get my attention. They wanted to tell me something, she said.

“Tell me what?” I asked.

“About the new beginning,” she said. 

And there it was: the new beginning. The crossroads. The Upright Fool tarot card, usually depicted as a naïve vagabond, full of beginner’s luck, perched on the edge of a cliff, about to jump. I wanted in. I wanted to jump—or fly. 

In this country, freedom and the idea of a fresh start are intertwined. Many of us are descended from immigrants, and maybe that’s why we romanticize the idea of beginning anew. But here’s the thing: I’m not a beginner, and I’m not Fool enough to think I have beginner’s luck.  

When I heard “new beginning,” my eyes rolled.

In my late 40s, I’m kind of done with new beginnings. Over the years I’ve realized that freedom is for people who don’t have children or lovers, and that sounds lonely to me. New beginnings are for people who don’t like to dig in and stick it out. 

I’ve invested so much in so many things and I generally like what I’ve chosen. The tarot card Fool falls off the cliff in search of adventure, but I’d rather see my investments flourish: my children, my writing, my garden, for a few examples. That’s much more appealing than a new beginning. 

Maybe the deities were trying to get my attention, but not because of a crossroads. Maybe they wanted me to slow down and just … notice. It’s possible that I needed to take stock of what I had and feel good about how I’d dug in. 

I’m too superstitious to say that things have stopped breaking. I would never want to jinx anything. After all, the dug-in life continues to be messy, every single day. But most days I like it. Even on days when I don’t like this messy life, there’s no alternative life I imagine liking more. I think the deities have done their job for now. Until the next tornado.


Christine Grillo writes about health, parenting, people and human rights for a range of publications. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, StoryQuarterly and other journals. A graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars she is a fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

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