Shari Busa Ortiz



“Holy crap!”

I turned from the sink as my husband, Vic, ran into the kitchen, followed by one of my best friends. Kate yelled, “He walked in on me while I was in my bra and panties!” The look on her face was priceless.

“How was I supposed to know that you were undressed?” replied Vic. “It’s not as if the door was locked!”

“Well, this is my room while I’m staying here, and I would like to think I can expect some privacy when the door is closed!” Kate yelled again as she performed a barefoot pivot and stomped off.

She must have picked up a nightshirt to cover herself before she came into the kitchen. I had no idea whether she realized that her scantily clad rear end was wiggling and jiggling as she left the room in a huff. So much for modesty, I thought. I covered my mouth and turned back to the sink to keep from laughing aloud. In the process, I caught a glimpse of my husband’s face, which mirrored Kate’s appalled expression. He, too, walked away muttering something about being “scarred for life.”

My friend was in my house getting dressed because today was my fiftieth birthday and tonight was the big, celebratory shindig at our local VFW hall. I would have liked to celebrate the main event at a more upscale establishment. I was thinking along the lines of a well-known New Jersey banquet hall made popular by an also very well-known television series. My somewhat thrifty husband had been geared up for a backyard party replete with latex balloons, party store paper tablecloths, and homemade banners. The VFW hall was the compromise setting. As far as I knew, the paper tablecloths had been upgraded to plastic, the balloons were made of Mylar, and the banners were still homemade.

It was good, I decided. There would be plenty of food, drink, and DJ music and a room full of family and friends. What more could a girl ask for?

June 24, 2010 was my fiftieth birthday. I’d been married twenty-four years to a great guy, Vic Castillo, and we had one seventeen-year-old son, Neil. Completing the family were a cairn terrier, Oliver, and a guinea pig, Pig.

We decided to call him Pig because three intelligent people could not come up with a name for this small creature. Calling him Guinea would not have been the most politically correct choice and could have caused all manner of negative feedback. We might have even seen a rock or two come flying through our window.

Oh, and I almost forgot our two geckos, Millie and Speedy. There wasn’t much to say about them other than that they were sweet, didn’t make noise, and didn’t cause any trouble. Unlike Oliver. My only problem with them was that they ate live crickets. The eating of live animals and insects was definitely not on my top-ten list of things to watch, so I refrained from this particular form of animal care and left it up to Vic and Neil. Anything else animal-related, I was your go-to woman. Just no live-feeding for me!

There was a cute little story surrounding the addition of Millie and Speedy to our family. When Neil was seven years old, he decided to ask Santa Claus for a puppy for Christmas. At that time, we already had a black Labrador retriever named Max, who, although entering his senior years, was definitely not going any time soon to wherever dogs go after they’ve passed on. A second dog was out of the question as far as Vic was concerned, and yet I had the sweetest “Dear Santa” letter tucked away in my top desk drawer.

A few weeks before that Christmas, I was telling a friend about my dilemma and she responded with, “How would you like a couple of four-year-old geckos that I’m looking to get rid of? My boys want hamsters for Christmas, but there’s just no way that I’m taking care of hamsters AND geckos!” I swore that at that moment, a huge, flashing neon sign appeared before my eyes saying, “Problem solved!” To this day, I still think it was a “sign” from God. Whatever the case, Millie and Speedy came to be part of the Castillo family.

I considered Kate to be part of our family, too. She is one of my best friends, and I’ve known her for thirty-eight years. She’s married and worked in Manhattan as an interior designer. She decided that my birthday weekend should also be a girls’ weekend, so she was staying at my house, where we could do lots of girl talk, wine drinking, and then slurred, silly girl talk followed by passing out in bed. That was what last night amounted to, at any rate, and I had no doubt that after my party, tonight would be a repeat performance. I loved Kate. She made me laugh all the time, especially when I was feeling down and out. When she walked into a room, it was as if a sun-filled gust of wind had entered. When she left, the room felt empty.

The doorbell rang, and before I had taken two steps, in walked my mother-in-law, Maria, who yelled something that contained the words, “¿Qué pasó?” and “gritos.” Now, I knew that “¿Qué pasó?” meant “What happened?” but I was lost on “gritos.” My mother-in-law lived right next door to us. I mean right next door, and because of that, two things frequently happened. The first was that she knew all of our comings and goings. That didn’t bother me as much as the second thing, which was that she felt she had the right to let herself into our house at any time. It was always the same: she’d ring the doorbell while inserting the door key and letting herself in. After many “running-naked-to-hastily-dress” experiences, we’d all gotten into the habit of always having clothes on. We just never knew when Mama Castillo would come waltzing through the door. At one point, I started showering with a bathing suit on, but that became a little awkward when washing certain areas, so I had to give it up. Let’s just say that nowadays the bathroom door was never unlocked when occupied.

Mama, as we called her, did not speak much English. She was born and raised in Spain and never worked outside the home after she came to the United States. Also, Vic and his brother, Pete, always spoke to their mother in Spanish, so she was never given much opportunity to learn English. Sometimes I thought she knew more than she let on, but she always spoke Spanish to me, so we had a bit of a communication barrier. I think she did it on purpose, too, just to frustrate me. When I was in high school and college, I took the basic Spanish courses, so while Vic and I were dating and through our first years of marriage, I could have some semblance of a conversation with her. Well, I’ve long since lost my Spanish-speaking skills, so most of the time I nodded and smiled if her face looked happy, and I frowned and tsk-tsk when she looked unhappy or mad. Don’t get me wrong: this was not the best way to handle the situation. I’d more than once given inappropriate responses, which landed me on Mama’s shit list. Trust me, that wasn’t a place you really wanted to be!

My father-in-law, Pedro, was an easy-to-get-along-with guy. Unlike his wife, he spoke English, but, also unlike his wife, he couldn’t hear and refused to wear his hearing aid. All of our conversations were punctuated by the question “What?” After several attempts at getting my point across, I simply gave up. On the other hand, the man was happy to stay in his own home, minding his own business, sitting in his own chair, and reading his own newspaper, so who was I to complain? If he could just keep his wife at home with him, life would be good.

I looked at the clock. It was time to get ready for the big party. “Getting ready” seemed to have become a much lengthier process than it was when I was younger. I thought that two hours should be enough time. I shaved, showered, and was in the middle of putting on my anti-wrinkle, firming, take-ten-years-off facial moisturizer when in walked Kate. For a moment I wondered if Mama Castillo had sent her, but then I shook my head. I sometimes forgot, since I didn’t live with her, that Kate was also prone to barging in unannounced.

She looked me up and down and commented, “Boy, your boobs look big! Is that a push-up bra? Where did you get it? Can I feel it?” Then she reached out and attempted to grab me. Fortunately, at the same time I took a step back and avoided being woman-handled. Kate had never been one to mince words. When I was seven months pregnant with Neil, she and I went to the beach one hot July day. She took one look at me in my one-piece maternity bathing suit and declared that I had “tree-trunk legs,” which is just what every half-naked, self-conscious, seven-months-pregnant woman wants to hear.

I kicked Kate out and studied myself in the mirror. I really don’t look that bad for fifty, I thought. My face was relatively smooth, with some crow’s feet around the eyes and laugh lines around the mouth. I’ve always been a big smiler, so I assumed that was to be expected. I detected a slight facial droop, so I pulled my face up at the temples. Hmm. Much better! I had green eyes and long, straight, medium-brown hair, and I thought I was considered somewhat attractive. At least, that’s what people told me. I was by no means beautiful, so I was happy with being called “attractive.” I was five feet three inches tall and 115 pounds on a “skinny” day. From my teens until I turned forty, I was a very content 103 pounds. Apparently, for women, the arrival of their forties brings with it all manner of mental and physical changes. One of my biggest and most depressing changes was my ability to gain weight simply by looking at food. I’m not kidding! A swift glance at the window-displayed cakes in my local bakery was an instant one-to-two pound gain. I had spent my forties averting my gaze from all food that I had no intention of eating. If I wasn’t going to eat it, then I certainly wasn’t going to allow myself to gain weight just by looking at it. Despite my best efforts, by the age of forty-eight, I was 130 pounds and climbing, so I put my up-a-half-size foot down, hit the local Weight Watchers, and started a rigorous exercise regimen. I might never see 103 pounds on the scale again, but that was fine by me. My current weight seemed to agree with me, and eating carrots and celery sticks as healthy late-night snacks had gotten old.

I should be honest about my “straight” hair. It was really a mix of curly, wavy, frizzy hair depending on the level of humidity. I tried to keep this fact a secret. It had been this way since I was a kid, and I hated it! For many years, I permed my hair after Barbara Streisand in “A Star Is Born.” She popularized perms for many women. For me, they gave my hair a less frizzy, more attractive curl. I was always jealous of the girls with the long, straight, swingy hair in the L’Oréal commercials, so as I got older, I started doing everything possible to straighten my hair. The invention of flatirons was a blessing for me. With the exception of vacations and the anonymity that went along with them, I always kept my hair straight, much to the dismay of my friends and family, who claimed they loved my wild, curly look.

“Hey, Mom! Dad and I have to shower too,” yelled Neil while banging on the door. I guessed inspection time was over, and I opened the door to my son’s exasperated impatient face. “Did you leave me any hot water?” he asked as I walked by. I kept my mouth shut as I thought of the countless forty-five minute showers he’d taken, but Neil was a teenage boy and I’d been told that this was quite normal behavior. Apparently, teenage boys liked to study every new hair that grew and every muscle that developed. They did this at various angles until they found the angle that enhanced their bodily appearance the best.

I remembered when I was a blossoming, pre-teen/teenager and would check every day to see if there was any new breast growth. Sadly, by thirteen, I had hit my maximum bra size of 34B and, with the exception of during pregnancy, was never to see anything bigger. To this day, I still envied those women with C’s and above, and I thought that men did too, or rather they found them more appealing than the less endowed ones. They’d tell you that a “handful” is good enough, but I really thought they lied just to make us small-chested women feel better. And let’s face it: those lying men were usually our husbands!

I’ve been married twenty-four years, and when people exclaim, “Doesn’t it only seem like yesterday that you got married?” I look at them like they have four heads. “No,” I answer. “It seems like I’ve been married twenty-four years.”

Although, as I glanced back at my bathroom-bound seventeen-year-old, I thought that those years had flown by. Gone were the days when Mom was the next best thing to peanut butter (which was coincidentally Neil’s daily lunch for six grammar school years). Up until high school, he couldn’t wait to rush home from school to tell me all about his day, his teachers, and his friends. With the arrival of freshman year came the loss of my son’s communicative skills. The only words he seemed adept at now were “Uh-huh,” “I don’t know,” and “I don’t remember,” punctuated by grunts. I thought this meant that he was approaching manhood, but that was just a guess on my part and solely based on my husband’s behavior.

Speaking of my husband and son and seventeen years ago, I thought of the day that Neil was born and how he got his name. I had picked out two names, Kate for a girl and Neil for a boy. Obviously, Kate would be named after my best friend, plus I really did love the name. Neil was to be named after my favorite singer/songwriter/musician, Neil Young. Vic fought me tooth and nail on that one, and we had finally settled on Joseph as a name, somewhat to my dismay. I’ll never admit this to Vic, but I used my labor to my advantage. As I screamed, sweated, writhed, and grunted through the birth of our son, I somehow found the mental acuity to force my husband to promise that after all of this “suffering,” I would be able to pick the name of my choice. So, as I screamed in pain, I also shouted out, “If this baby is a boy, I want him to be called Neil! I deserve this small concession from you!

Vic never knew what hit him. As he cried my tears, felt my pain, and took every Lamaze breath with me, he yelled back, “Whatever you want, honey! Whatever you want!” and Neil was born. I learned a very valuable lesson that day. Drama, pain, and tears can go very far with your spouse. You just have to know when and where to play your cards.

At that moment, Vic walked into the bedroom and gave me a strange, sideways look, as I was laughing to myself while alone. He was used to it and claimed that I also was prone to laughing in my sleep, but it still struck him as a bit strange. He and I possessed totally different senses of humor, which meant that I laughed at everything and he didn’t. Vic tended to be more of a quiet, serious guy, which I supposed was why he did so well in his position as Chief Financial Officer of a hospital. Despite our differences in humor, we were very compatible. Our only problems and arguments stemmed from Vic’s thinking that he was also a CFO in our household. Besides wanting to control each expenditure that we made, he also leaned towards the frugal side. I was more of a “You can’t take it with you when you go” kind of girl, which usually led to a monthly brawl between us when the credit card bills arrived. He was also a “Worry about the future” guy, whereas I was a “Take it day by day” woman. Well, it is said that opposites attract. Although I don’t really believe that we’re opposites, I think we balance each other out nicely.

I tried not to pay attention as he pulled out three dress shirts. “Which one goes good with the black pants?” he asked as he always did.

They’re black pants. They all go, I thought, but didn’t say it out loud. I knew he was really looking for me to make his attire decision for him as I usually did, so I said, “I like the brown- and black-striped shirt. You’ll look very good in it.” For as long as we’ve been married, I have purchased my husband’s clothes, from underwear and socks to suits and coats. I thought if it were up to him, he’d still be wearing the clothes from the early 1980s when we met. It was true and it scared me, so I made sure that at Christmas and birthdays there was an abundance of clothing gifts for him. For whatever reason, these gifts were OK by him, and he wouldn’t turn them down. He just wouldn’t go out and buy the apparel on his own. I also thought that this might have to do with his absolute hatred of shopping and the fact that he had to part with money when doing so.

An hour later, everyone was dressed and ready to go, so we piled into two cars and got ready to head the mile or so to the VFW hall. Neil was in charge of driving my in-laws to the party because we all couldn’t fit into one car. I felt a little sorry for him since getting my father-in-law out of the house could be a challenge. Papa Castillo was neurotic, so leaving the house, even for just a short period of time, involved checking and rechecking the oven to make sure that it was off, unplugging all appliances, locking the front door, and then going back numerous times to make sure that it was indeed locked. All of this was followed by a brief walk around the outside of the house to ensure that no windows had been left ajar. I always wondered if his obsessive-compulsive behavior was why he tended to stay home frequently, as leaving seemed to be exhausting, time-consuming work. I saw Vic smirk as I happily waved good-bye to Neil, and thought, Better him than me!