Mistaking My Face for an Ashtray

In a strange twist of synchronicity, I started working on a short piece about Frankenstein’s monster a month ago; the next morning my face began to erupt in shingles, a mess of painful blisters and scabs. At first I had no idea what was going on and blamed spiders at the vacation home where I was staying.

As I shaped words about the ugly monster whom no one loved and who never had a name, did I bring to life the scarred face that I would soon have, in which it looked—and agonizingly felt—like cigarettes had been extinguished across my forehead and temple? One eye swelled shut, and the eye socket bloated into a prominent, ballooned, circular frame around it. A crusty rash bloomed on my eyelid.

Like the unholy night on which Victor Frankenstein birthed his creation, it stormed outside as I sat by myself in a beach cabin with my laptop during my first getaway on my own since I became a mother nearly four years ago. Although it was a working vacation of sorts, in which I took a short car ferry ride to speak to a writing group and peddle my book and editing services, I felt overwhelmingly, unexpectedly twisted inside by guilt over leaving my family—a new sensation for me. As the trip approached, I had vacillated about going, looking for excuses to cancel. I was almost happy when I pulled a humiliating muscle in my ass just by getting out of the car the day before departure; I thought the gluteus yank might be bad enough that I couldn’t drive, but it wasn’t. Besides, who cancels a gig because her okole hurts?

“Maybe I’ll just drive up there that morning, do my talk, and drive straight home afterwards instead of staying overnight,” I suggested to the Man I Married. I could justify that time spent away from home, but not the time I would spend by myself alone in a cabin for an unnecessary extra night.

“Uhh, why would you do that?” MIM asked. He didn’t recognize me: who was this clinging creature who had never in a quarter century with him had qualms about her Garbo-esque need and right to be alone?

Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, this creature has a name: HOUSEWIFE.

This name had never been spoken, but it loomed in my psyche as silent and large as a giraffe.

During a lifetime with MIM that surpasses the half-life of linoleum, I’d always had a “right” to leave the house because we were full equals, on paper and off. I had always earned a paycheck and carried my own health and dental insurance. But since recently leaving the cubicle world to marry a 1310 square-foot, plywood structure—running the household and my son’s life like a precision European sports car while simultaneously launching my freelance career and fitting in minor tasks like the paperwork mountain of adopting a child—I was now a kept woman. A dependant. For the first time in 25 years, I quite literally depended on MIM’s health insurance to cover things like emergency room visits due to stress-induced shingles which I might have given myself because I was so stressed out over vacation guilt.

My husband, I knew, was fully capable of remembering to pick his son up after work, of heating the huge pot of stew I had made, or of going so far as to prepare a Trader Joe’s frozen dinner from the freezer I’d stuffed. They could even—gasp—go out to eat. I had not prepared them for my brief absence; I had prepared them for the apocalypse.

Whether MIM remembered to turn the electric tea kettle off of its Warm function when it was empty was the only real hazard of my absence. Most likely the dog would poop on the floor because her walks would be missed, but I’d clean that up when I got home, because no one else would notice her little turds. MIM was having to go to work an hour late in order to drop the Little Monster off for two mornings, but I’m sure that was a luxury more than an inconvenience. I’d not even pilfered the family coffers for this two-night jaunt; the cabin was lent to me by a kind friend and the writing group was paying for my ferry ride and dinner.

But for the first time in my life, as a work-at-home mom, I already had plenty of time alone. I had no need or desire to travel somewhere else to be alone. What fun is a vacation without the child I waited so long to have? (Although admittedly on a family vacation I would regularly state my need to be left alone.)

When I finally forcibly ejected myself from home and arrived at the vacation cabin, I couldn’t focus or concentrate on a single book or project. I broke the dishwasher, flooded the kitchen, and couldn’t work the dryer to take care of the soaked towels. I watched a bad Richard Gere movie. And then I finally settled down to work on a piece about Frankenstein’s monster.

Did I conjure the face that we women feel when we take “mother” a few pegs down the list and put ourselves first?

The face that our culture gives us when “me” comes before “ma?”

Beast, not breast. Monster, not mother.

As is the case with shingles, only half of my face blistered and scabbed.

If I looked in a mirror, which side would be the mother’s face, and which side the writer’s?

Housewife-Writer in the Morning

My mother-in-law would call the writer’s side the ugly side. She once uttered a shrill and vehement lecture about how mothers should not have Hobbies, a quaint, archaic word that I thought had gone the way of “Women’s Lib” and Florence Henderson hairstyles. But Hobby is what she pejoratively called my writing. It’s not my writing (which she has never read) that bothers her—it’s the antisocial condition that writing requires. To thrive on being solitary is to reject the woman’s role of always being in the kitchen to bring people together.

The condemning messages hissing in my head, you see, were not phantasms that I had created but were very real verbal bullets.

But they are blanks unless I give them the power to take me down.

I maintain that the ugly side is the mother side when we put aside our own passions and needs as unimportant. We care for our families best when we care for ourselves, too. My own mother didn’t have the luxury of much time to do so, but she had a demanding, satisfying career at which she was highly respected, and I always knew that she had a purpose outside of her children and value outside of the home. She had a personality unto herself, a ready laugh, and somehow despite the miracle of her single-handedly getting dinner prepared on time every night, she often managed to find time to escape into a book with Tarzan-like men bursting out of castles and spaceships. She put us first, there is no question, but I guarantee you that if someone had offered her two nights alone in a cabin she would have been halfway there before they finished the sentence. And no one back then, least of all she, would have questioned her parenting because of it.

Although I was conflicted, I did go “on vacation.” I left my family and spent two nights away from home, as I should have. Perhaps the prevalent online Bad Mommy Police would say that I brought the shingles down upon myself as just retribution. But I see the shingles as a reflection of the cultural conflict that rages right now, which casts mothers as either Angels or Monsters, when we are neither. We are Human—With Hobbies, if we have any sense, and sense of self, at all. And our Hobbies should not be our children—that practice creates only monsters, of them and of ourselves.

Surprise, surprise, my two boys managed just fine without me. The Little Monster said that he missed me, but I think it’s important for him to see that when people leave, they also return, and that women can be independent. Just like I think it’s important for him to sometimes see mom in the driver’s seat and dad in the passenger’s. Yes, I left him, but as he said when I lifted my Ramones hairstyle to show him the scabs on my face, “But you’re still beautiful, Mom.”

My Favorite Little Monster


In prescient solidarity with Frankenstein’s monster, the eloquent, vegetarian fiend who is approaching his 200th birthday (he came to Mary Shelley in a waking dream on June 21, 1816), here is the piece I worked on in stormy solitude:

Why I Like Frankenstein






The Strangler Fig: Stories by Jennifer D. Munro
Now on Kindle at Amazon.com

Six sensual, darkly fantastic tales that reimagine classics such as Dorian Gray, Helen of Troy, and The Yellow Wallpaper. The Erotica Writer’s Husband & Other Stories author turns to a darker eros with her new collection of haunting and magical tales, which have appeared in various fantasy, horror, and literary anthologies. About 100 pages.

From New Orleans to Mexico to ancient Hawaii: An obsessed paparazzo stalks his subject–a famous singer whose photos morph but face remains unchanged. An unborn triplet haunts and taunts its mother for the choice she made. An infertile woman seeks to learn the language of the dead baby she continues to carry.

Surreal, slipstream, supernatural stories, in which fertility and infertility take a stranglehold on possessed minds. Collected from the pages of Best of Crossed Genres [Year One]: Fantasy & Science Fiction with a Twist;  Thou Shalt Not: Stories of Dark Crime and Horror;  the South Dakota Review;  Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica;  and others.

Cover image courtesy of Rhonda “Shellbelle” Renee © 2009, ShellbellesTikiHut.com

7 thoughts on “Mistaking My Face for an Ashtray

  1. Truly laughed out loud at “. . . the half-life of linoleum.” Loved this piece and “Why I like Frankenstein.” BTW, if it assuages your guilt, I went to Norcroft for two weeks the year after Ben and Logan came to live with me. My sister took over for one week and their grandfather and step-grandmother came from Missouri for the second week. I maintain it taught them I wasn’t the only one they could count on — that many people cared for them.

  2. The beauty (and terror–as in “Wow, you write scary good!”) of this incredible post is your ability to weave in humor. I could relate to the guilt of leaving home, and to the new found “dependence” at this phase of your life (I’m living it!). What is fascinating to me is the physical manifestation of your guilt. In a way, it’s good it “came out” like that instead of an internal festering that we don’t always see, but that stays with us most the fucking time! Thanks so much for sharing this with the world, Jennifer.

  3. […] I’m no stranger to pain and illness (who isn’t?), but they’ve never prevented me from writing (unless I’ve got my head over the toilet bowl)—just the opposite: I often write because of or about my uncooperative body. Much of my fiction and nonfiction touches on miscarriage and infertility treatments, and I dug literary meaning out of the shingles. […]

  4. […] before when a friend had lent me her house for two nights near an out-of-town teaching gig, and I’d been so guilt-wracked that I gave myself the shingles. I’d learned my lesson. Why did I not think I deserved this and that the boys wouldn’t burn the […]

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