The land I grew up on was a former farm. New Jersey had lots and lots of farms before it had lots and lots of strip malls. We didn’t have a farm, but we did have cows. We always had cows, beef cows, and a windmill to give them fresh water which, to a kid, is a spectacular thing. To listen to its rhythmic creaking, sitting on top of a wooden board that my brother had nailed in place, 20 feet up a pine tree but 60 feet below the windmill’s blades, was magical; there was no place like it. That windmill once unearthed and pushed out a shark’s tooth for us. That’s right. A dinosaur aged fossil. And that board gave me a place to retreat when the going got tough inside.
The following is the story of a great escape made by a baby cow who I bet just missed her mother.
It was a brutally hot Sunday in August. I had a date that night with a good-looking Israeli guy who had a nice car that he listened to techno in. I’d never dated a guy with a nice car before. This was going to be me growing up. I would date somebody who had a good job and could buy me dinner. I was going to pretend that the techno was forgivable because he was foreign. I felt sick. I was betraying all the guys I’d loved as friends and as lovers, guys who listened to great music. Music that told me they felt things they couldn’t say but could hear, guys who played their own music and on whom I could pretend to faintly smell the scent of pine needles, as I imagined I smelled, all of us growing up, playing up under pine trees in this beat-up state.
I went and got my hair cut and blown out that morning; a let down. I didn’t want layers. I liked my hair very long and all one length, no dye, no blow dryer. But I was given layers and now had a haircut that was many years late, a longer version of the uninspired Jennifer Aniston look. I was starting to feel like I put myself on a makeover show to punish myself for not fitting in. Ever.
Deciding that the only way to fix this was to lay out completely naked in the sun, I stopped home, changed, grabbed a towel and drove to my mom’s. I took off my clothes in my old bedroom and wrapped my towel around myself. I walked in the kitchen, grabbed a huge glass of water, and told my mom I’d be lying out behind the bulldozer and to make sure she told anybody who came over not to bug me, that I’d be naked.
Maybe because I am half Norwegian, a first generation Norwegian-American, nudity is simply not a big deal to me. I was dropped off at my grandmother’s house in Norway for the summer when I was seven. That summer, not only did I repeatedly see the video for “The Safety Dance,” teach myself how to burp the entire alphabet on my brother’s command, break into a neighbor’s house to retrieve a pair of my sister’s sunglasses that I had left there before the family left for holiday, watch a public service breast exam infomercial that had an entirely naked woman in the shower showing how to check your tits for bad lumps, I also saw five moms at a kid’s birthday party, sitting on the deck, all with their shirts and bras off, sunning the parts of their bodies that were above their jeans. You know how little kids run chasing each other through a house party? I stopped and stood motionless looking at 10 boobs in a circle. What the fuck was this? My parents had a lot of nerve not letting me in on this country’s cultural norms so I could at least be prepared to see this before they disappeared for three months. I mean, the televised breast exam was one thing . . .
Back to the cow story.
I set myself up, hidden in the way back of the backyard, parked right next to a bulldozer, my glass of water on its giant tracks. I was surrounded by my dad’s construction equipment, trailers, rows of steel beams, and all sorts of salvage. There were acres and acres of trees; nobody could find me. No music nor book, just me and my mind thinking that love is one elusive element, like trying to catch mercury slipping on the floor from a broken glass thermometer. Where was the mythical True Love? All I ever saw was partnerships made out of settlement or security. I never saw love that blinded two people at the same time, just couples with banter of annoyance or control. This day, with the haircut and the techno I’d be listening to that night, was desperate. I was ashamed that my lonesomeness lead me to vanity; I had never taken a second look at anybody because of looks or money before. It felt like I was cheating on the man who I hadn’t met yet, who I hoped one day would love me like I was the only thing he ever saw when he closed his eyes.
My mood was shifting now—that thing that sun worshipping does—when I started to hear a bunch of commotion coming from the house. I sat up, turned my ear towards the house and listened; one of the new calves had gone missing. I wrapped myself back in my towel, slipped on my flip-flops, drank all my water, and hurried to the house.
I stood there on the patio, listening to my brother tell my mom that the police got a report of a cow sighting an hour back. This was not good. Poor girl could be anywhere.
I ran upstairs to get dressed. Shit. I did not have any underwear, the top or bottom kind with me. I hadn’t worn any on the way over. I didn’t even have an elastic to pull my hair up. To make matters even worse, instead of SPF 400 I had put on olive oil to attract the sun. I had only planned for an hour of body baking and it was easily 97 degrees out. I threw on a thin, cotton, cream-colored skirt with a 50s pattern of cherries, a tight black wife beater, and my flip-flops; I should have had on sneakers, a sports bra and biker shorts. This was the worst outfit for what I was about to spend the next two hours doing.
My mom, brother and me, we set off separately; they headed towards a corn field and I ran in my flip-flops across the street. I would run through a gigantic, empty (it was a Sunday) corporate complex. These places built up all around our creaky windmill, replacing farm after farm, decade after decade. I ran through a half mile or more of parking lots, circling huge mortgage and tech companies, and there she was, reddish-brown with white spots. At four months she weighed 300 pounds. I started to moo sweetly and ran towards her. This of course made her run faster. She left the corporate complex and ended up in the yard of a neighboring, small house that was there long before these corporate buildings were. She was headed right into a street with two lane traffic.
I prayed for the second time in my life then and there. The first time didn’t help so I never did it again until then, and never since.
“Please God, do not let this calf run across the busiest road in my hometown and have an innocent driver die hitting her. Please, please, please God.”
I even did the sign of the cross I had learned about in Catholic high school, the same school my dad told me I could drop out of because I didn’t need to listen to that shit. I was terrified, making promises I would never keep with a God I never thought about. Timing is truly the biggest bitch of all, and it’d be just like her to have this cow and a car collide in perfect stupid union.
She crossed safely into a new, manicured, idyllic, middle-class, tract of homes, the street bent like a spoon, but she decided to get off the hot pavement and headed right into a backyard; one with a pool, that was having a party, the balloons telling me so. Cows run fast and don’t stop to shit. She ran right through that party with me behind her and took two huge craps that looked like two gallon’s worth of chocolate soft serve. I could hear “Is that a cow??” Some clever bastard said “Holy Cow!” and chuckled.
“I’m very sorry!” I shouted behind me, only about the poop. My newly layered hair flying like a tattered flag behind me, and this cow looking like a mirage on that still cloudless day.
Coming up to a fence, she weaved back onto the street. I passed two perfectly faux-goth 12-year-olds whose moms clearly picked out their clothes for them at Hot Topic, and I yelled
“Hey! Grab some of your friends and help me!”
They took off like the posers they were, on their nice bikes. Then, miracle of miracles, a cop car.
I was soaking wet in sweat, pissed I had to smell all that product coating my hair from the salon drip down my neck (I hate perfume or any manufactured odor with fervor only a genuine racist could match.) Breathing hard, heaving deeply, I ran in front of his car and put my hands up, stopping him, and quickly asked him to please call some more cops and help me. He told me that it wasn’t really the police’s problem. I went completely Annie Oakley on him, my gesticulating arms and hands, more effective than any weapon, doing most of the communicating. I reminded him that yes, it was his job to help me and he’d better get me some more cops, and, if not, I’d tell every crappy provincial newspaper around us a story how he, Officer Andrews, left me, a nice girl stuck chasing a reckless wild baby cow, helpless and alone. He conceded. I was taught early in life that the only thing above the law was the media and there it was; he bowed to my threats. I started after the cow again. I couldn’t lose her, even though I had zero idea how exactly I was going to catch her.
I realized she needed a name at this point. We had been getting cows in pairs or double pairs for the last many years and I consistently named them all Maybelline and Clementine each year. This was the first year that we had three cows and I was starting to think maybe that was this girl’s problem; maybe her grass grazing mates had made private jokes or turned their backs to her. It came to me quickly, along with Emmylou Harris and The Band singing along loudly in my mind; I named her Evangeline. And then I started to sing to her, after her namesake, a song so perfect. Evangeline was goin’ insane.
Three cop cars showed up 15 minutes later and, suddenly, I was no longer alone with this cow. My mom and brother had found us too. Evangeline had found her way into a backyard that was fenced in, with one exit, a four-foot gate.
There were maybe eight of us now. She was surrounded. The owners of this house stared from inside their home in what I assume was deep confusion as to why there was a cow in their backyard, as well as five cops. The cop that happened to be covering the gate, her only exit, decide to step aside casually enough that a polite “pardon me” would have fit, and let her pass when she bolted for the exit. We all made a huge collective “Awwwwwww!” We’d lost her and now we all started to chase her again.
She came up to the side of a house, huffing and puffing between the bushes that lined it. At this point there were five of us left. My friend John showed up. He was a hunter; I figured maybe he could help. One of the cops said he could call his sergeant and ask if he could just shoot her. We all paused and looked at him like he was nuts. She was just about to break away again when my brother did the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen; just as she turned, ready to split, he jumped on top of her and took her down, wrestled her to the ground. My brother was done; he was not chasing her anymore. I stood speechless. To this day, it is in the top five things I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. While he had her down, John hog-tied her legs. He switched places with my brother while he went to get the pickup. She seemed to finally start to relax while lying there, not trying to run, suddenly passive. It took John, my brother and one cop to load her into the truck and return her to the two other calves, both mooing and moaning for their mothers, standing under the windmill.
Driving home, I thought about that cow’s will to run and be free. I wondered how much of that will exists in every living creature, even weeds that demand to be seen, or circus fleas. I had felt the need to run fast out of my own life many times, sometimes permanently, but never had the guts to make one bold move, someone else’s feelings always trumping and quieting mine. In this past year I’ve come to realize that was my excuse; the good daughter, wife and mother, a phony mask of pat-myself-on-the-back principles, noble kindness concealing a coward afraid to risk what I safely had. It didn’t matter whether I was happy or felt anything in real-time. It was easy for me to be whomever anybody wanted or needed me to be. I was always retreating happily to the safety of living and breathing inside the dreams in my mind.
I was tired but I had a pretty good story. The Israeli called me and canceled our date. His friend’s wife had a baby; he was going to the hospital instead. I was dissed for a baby? With this good story too? Aw, fuck it. That’s as low as it gets. Maybe he had a nice car and a good job but, clearly, he had no blood running through his veins with any sense of hunger, at least none for me. I’d rather be alone with my good stories than cry over a case of “He’s just not that into you”, even if I felt a bit bruised from the diss. I sat alone outside on my porch stairs, leaning my head against the yellow stucco I’d painted the summer before, chin in hand, thinking and smoking cigarettes all night, listening to the crickets of summer, wishing that, someday, a beautiful, fucked-up man would show up with his own good stories, let me love him and want me just as much, that somebody would finally listen to my whole story and really hear me, out loud.
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