My Version of Faith

Bird on Sill

I believe in certain things. Myself. My writing. And I also believe that sometimes, if I am willing to step onto that ledge over the ice cold lake and dive, I will be rewarded.

It was a little crazy to go to a writer’s conference in Virginia, an event I’d never been to and at which I wouldn’t know a soul. But I’d never been to a writer’s conference before so I had no idea what to expect beyond meeting a lot of writers.

Now, flying home after absorbing what felt like a year’s worth of knowledge in three days, I feel like a genius. It was more than worth every penny I spent (not much) and every ounce of energy it required (a lot). I went with a damn good attitude and the goal of meeting agents who would tell it to me straight: Is my book even marketable? I told myself, that if it was clear no one was interested in the book, I would self-publish it as an e-book and start the next one.

I left LA at 4 in the morning and used Uber for the first time to get to the airport. My driver, who looked scary in his profile pic turned out to be so super sweet that it didn’t bother me when he pulled over on the freeway to check under the hood. He still got me there ahead of schedule.

Two smooth flights later I landed on the east coast. My Uber driver in Richmond wore a goatee as wide and thick as a wool hat. It was striped gray and made him appear to be part skunk. He was so excited that I came from LA he practically jumped out of his seat to list Richmond’s fabulous eateries and attributes.

So far I felt the Gods that control weather and traffic and getting mixed up with nice people were smiling on me.

So I was not surprised when I arrived at my Airbnb that my sweet young host showed me (with horror) bits and pieces of a pigeon’s carcass on her windowsill.

I had to laugh. Dead birds are usually a sign that I’m in the right place. I know that might sound weird but ever since my husband and I had a still birth and I started writing about it, and dead baby birds were littering my front porch, dead birds have become my personal totem. God knows I am fascinated with writing about death, illness and the sadness that is bound to follow those events. And birds are my obsession. So when I see a dead bird, it’s a tip off from the powers that be that I am on the right track and something good will come of whatever I am up to.

Boy was I right.

I met agents. I made friends with writers. I got tipsy with self-published goddesses. And I learned more than I ever dreamed about writing and publishing.

I got feedback on my book and after a handful of people all said the same thing I knew it was true: I have to kill off one of my main characters.

Now a week ago this would have terrified me. But today I feel empowered. I have written the book I needed to write for me. I have gotten all the therapy I ever needed from telling that story. So it’s okay with me if I have to mangle that baby into a new one until she can walk onto the shelves of the great bookstore in the clouds.

The bird is gone. Eaten by another bigger bird. And my book is going to be rewritten, one more time.

Where You Live: Part 2

hand hold

Where you live now is fifty blocks north of your apartment with the thirsty cockroaches. This place is squeaky clean and germ infested. The nurse’s shoes squeal against the slick floors, the elevator dings a sweet high note against the clatter of electronic beeps from the machines around your bed and the sirens howling down the avenues outside.

“It’s nice to see you,” I say.

I hold your swollen hand. Rub your puffed up feet. You want out of the bed you’re tied to. You shimmy your legs to the edge so they begin to fall but are held by the tight sheets and straps.

“You can’t get out,” I say. “They won’t let you out of this bed.” You have a tube in your throat and another in your nose. There’s a catheter where I can’t see and an IV in your arm. There are monitors surrounding your bed so they can read all your vitals on a big screen. There’s a machine under the bed that sighs once in while, squeezing your legs so the blood doesn’t pool up.

Your face is different then it was back in June when I saw you at home. The white stubble is longer, the bumped up skin and sores that look like forever more noticeable under these fluorescent lights. You look tired. Weary of the incessant care and attention.

You never did talk much. I’ve said that. So it’s ironic now that you can’t, that your lips move constantly. All the words you never spoke noiselessly escape you in a long string of not words; not sounds; only shapes formed on tongue. I watch carefully, trying to decipher the code but it’s no use.

I ask them if there’s a lip reader and they say no, almost laughing, like I’m crazy. Why not? There must be lots of cases like this one where they put a hole in the throat and the wind can’t get to the vocal cords. Maybe I can hire a professional lip reader. That must exist.

I hire a Notary who comes to your hospital home. I need you to sign something that says I can go into your apartment. You struggle to hold the pen. You make a face and I wonder if you know what you are doing until I realize the grimace is pure effort, and you heroically scribble long lines down the page.

*

I pretend I’m you. I open the front door to the building, open your mailbox stuffed tight with a month’s worth. I have a shopping bag in my purse for it all. I am so smart.

I put the key in your front door and it opens to where you live. Your face on the floor, behind glass. A chair on its side. A tube of toothpaste, papers, trash. I clean up. Imagine the EMT guys trying to get you on a stretcher in a hurry. It all makes sense.

In your bathroom a pair of soiled underwear on the floor. I find a garbage bag and toss them. In your kitchen a sink full of dead roaches get washed down the drain. On your desk the clothes you were wearing when they took you lie hastily discarded. I fold them up. I make the bed. I sweep more dead roaches into the trash. I order your desks. Look through your closets.

Your clothes are folded in your drawers and neatly hung. Your bank statements and tax returns all live in neat folders, clearly marked. I pick up your glasses, your watch, wondering if you want them. I look through your Rolodex and calendar. Like my nine year old, you use a ruler to cross off each day with a perfect X.

I sit in a chair stained brown. I open the drawers of your desk. I’m looking for your health care proxy, your will, and I find everything. All the records of your life in a neat stack. Birth certificate. Marriage certificate. Death certificate for your wife. Prepaid funeral arrangements so you can be next to her. Long lists you typed up of every employer, every school, every significant moment of your life. On your wall you have your birth certificate framed next to your diploma and a Good Samaritan award. Everything recorded, like history should be.

In the closet I find a coin collection. I remember when you gave up stamps and gave the collection to me because I was the only one who showed interest, which I lost fast. Maybe a year I did it. I loved the colorful ones, and the ones that went together to form a bigger picture. But most of them were dull and pointless. Thick notebooks full of little scraps of plain sticky paper.

I look for the rest of your stuff but there is nothing. You lived simply.  You were a photographer during the Korean war. You laid in the belly of a plane taking large format aerial photographs. I talked to you about it years ago, when I was a photographer too. But where are all the photographs you showed me back then?

It feels good to close the door. I left your place tidy. I swept. I sorted all the mail into neat stacks. Wiped down the folders covered in roach scum.

*

It feels good to go back up town and put your wallet and keys in your hand. You are pleased, but unsure what to do. I explain the hospital will hold them for you, for when you get out. We both wonder about that.

It feels good to put the words in your mouth I know are there. To verify your wish to die if it gets too hard. You have thank you written all over your face. Yes I know. I also know it feels good to do things for people who can’t. We don’t get that many chances. And I have you to thank for this one.

Where You Live: Part 1

feet

There are cockroaches in the bathroom, drinking from water droplets in the sink. A brownish crust around the edge of the hot water faucet is taking over. The linoleum floor with the faded squares of orange is worn through to the floorboards at the threshold. You must have a habit of taking a heavier step every time you enter, or something. The light switch has a thin layer of gray built up around a smooth cream colored halo close to the toggle and I can see your hairy finger reaching for it in the dark, night after night.

The smell of rotting takeout that pervades the kitchen makes its way through the living area, down the hall and into this tiny washroom. Or maybe it comes right through the wall. I wash my hands in the sink, ignoring the roaches and wipe them on a towel so threadbare my fingers go through.

I peek down the hallway to your bedroom. I’m curious. There is a desktop computer with papers piled beside it and a newspaper on the chair. So you do read. You keep up with the world in some way. I imagine a young person (but who?) coming to the apartment to set it up for you, explain how to use it and ask you what you’d like to do. I wonder what you told them.

I go back to the living room where you sit on the seat of your walker and my girls sit on your grey with dirt couch. They look at me a little uneasily having eaten all the donuts we brought for you and not knowing how to behave in this foreign world of yours. I think the last time I brought them to your apartment was seven or eight years ago when Frances was still a baby and Grace was four or five. Neither of them remember.

I sit down across from you at your little dining table. You grin at me with your arms folded across the top bar of your walker. You’ve lost weight. Like a slightly deflated beach ball rather than the one that was filled to bursting last time.

“It’s nice to see you,” I say, even though I think it might be the second or third time I’ve uttered those exact words since we arrived fifteen minutes ago. I can’t think of anything else and the questions I told myself I would ask are sitting in my belly like black coffee in an empty stomach.

You nod in agreement, squeezing your eyes shut while a big smile stretches across your face. This is your preferred method of giving an affirmative answer, so it comes as some surprise when you open your mouth, strings of saliva in the corners, your voice rough and wet sounding and say, “Its nice to see you too!”

Your eyes sparkle against the bumpy pale skin that surrounds them. Little growths have sprung up over the years the way they do. Also hair. A patch of fine black ones grace the top of your cheek bone, a different breed than the white stubble around your chin.

Your voice is deep and uneven as a gravel road. It’s immediately reassuring, attached to memories stretching back to my own birth. It’s not like Dad’s voice or my mother’s or my grandfather’s. It’s all yours. Familiar and from the past.

“The problem with your uncle is he doesn’t talk!” said your nosy neighbor on the phone. She looks after you, calls my father when the paramedics come because you’ve fallen again, and let’s us know when she’s concerned.

Your lack of interest in complying with what most would call normal levels of conversation is only a problem for the rest of us. But your neighbor is right. It is a problem.

 

Order and Solitude

Empty House

It wasn’t that easy to go straight back to the house after dropping my kids off at school on Friday morning. I felt a familiar pull telling me I should celebrate this incredible gift of an unplanned weekend all to myself. Instead of going home to write, I should go grab a nice pastry and a fancy coffee drink. Maybe call a friend. Take a hike and wallow in the vista of time in front of me. Three and a half days.

My husband was already out of town when my kids were invited to go away with friends who would pick them up from school. As soon as I dropped them off I had nothing to do. They had packed their own bags the night before and I had kissed them good-bye and said see you Monday afternoon.

And it was only Friday morning.

But I did. I went home. I opened the door and the cool breeze of air conditioning wrapped around me. I set my purse on the floor and went straight to my husband’s espresso machine and made a latte. I stared at the clothes on the floor, the shoes in the corners, the disheveled books on the counters and tables and dishes in the sink and asked myself how I really wanted to spend this precious time. Would I clean up? Or just get to work? Should I pile my dishes on top of the girls’ breakfast plates? I went into the bedroom and my crumpled sheets bothered me. Again: How shall I spend my time? Shall I write, or clean first?

I went to the bathroom. As I sat on the toilet I considered my options. It seemed obvious that I should put all my energy into writing. I was a third of the way through a final edit on my manuscript and I could easily finish it in three days. Maybe even two. Shit, with all this time and nothing else grabbing for my attention I might be able to pull it off in one damn day.

If I was really going to shift out of the chaos of normal life, ignore my to do lists for three days, and let the house go; if I was really going to only read and edit and eat and sleep when I had to, then I definitely needed to meditate first.

Often when I meditate I get a very clear picture of what I need to do and this was no exception. I saw my empty house. I saw the beauty inherent in fending only for myself. And I saw order and cleanliness. I saw clear counters, an empty sink and a neatly made bed.

Ahhhhh order. My long lost friend!

When I was finished with the mind clearing I made myself a simple breakfast of toast with butter and jam, washed the dishes and wiped the counters, put in a load of laundry and made my bed. It was already eleven by the time I sat down to work, but I didn’t get up again, except to stretch, until it was getting dark out and I was getting hungry.

I opened the fridge and pulled out cheese, leftover greens and a beer. I ate, lay on the bed and read until I was falling asleep. In the morning I woke up early, and started writing. When I got hungry I made food. When I got bored I made tea to keep my hands and mouth busy and kept on writing. A friend called to invite me to dinner. I worked up until the last possible moment before it was time to leave, enjoyed a delicious meal and great conversation, talked about writing and came home and went to bed. The next day I woke up early and told myself, if I got all the way through the second section, I would reward myself with a swim.

For three solid days I worked. I kept my house clean and put away everything I used when I was finished with it. The bed was always made which kept me from crawling back into it. I had my choice of spots and moved like a cat from room to room, settling in to different positions, always straightening the pillows on the chair or the couch, putting everything back in order when I changed to a new one.

It took all three and a half days but I finished the edit. I enjoyed every minute of my time. I enjoyed the peace and the focus it allowed me to stay in the story the entire time. It was an amazing gift that I will not soon forget.

 

 

A Proper Burial

DeadDove

My nine year old discovered a dead mourning dove just as I was starting to make dinner. I called to my husband, “Can you please take care of the dead bird on the lawn?”

His snarky reply was, “but you’re the one who deals with dead things in this family!”

I sighed and washed the garlic off my fingers. Fine. I’ll just put it in the trash. No need for ceremony. It’s not like it was a pet.

I walked out the front door and the grey lump stood out immediately on the brown grass, perhaps a fellow drought victim. Its head was tucked under the wing, the way they do when they sleep, but it was clearly gone, looking deflated lying on its side, like a popped balloon.

I didn’t touch it. Mom always said not to touch dead birds because they could carry disease. It didn’t look sickly but it was too far from the window to make sense as a suicide. Maybe it just fell from the sky.

Sigh. I couldn’t just put it in the trash. Everyone deserves a proper burial and it wouldn’t be that hard. The ground was soft after the hard rain we got earlier in the week, and dinner could wait.

I walked down our long driveway to the back of the yard to scout a spot that wasn’t already taken by my old cat, Jane and the two (or was it three?) various species of birds buried in my little graveyard. Death does seem to follow me around. When I was grieving our stillborn daughter Keirnan, I would find dead things all the time. There were house finches nesting in the eves of our Spanish tiled roof and little baby birds that never made it out of their eggs were landing on our doorstep regularly. Just before publishing my book about her, we went to visit family up north. When I took a walk by myself I counted five dead deer in different spots alongside the road.

My eighty-something uncle is in the hospital on life-support. He has lived alone for most of his life, though he was married at one time. His wife, like his sister, died young of cancer. When I visited him this summer he struck me as terminally happy, leaning forward from the seat of his walker and grinning at me while I talked. He doesn’t say much. Hums to himself when he walks, pushing the walker in front of him and says yes by blinking the long lashes above his eyes. When he does speak his voice is rough from being used so seldom. We brought donuts but he didn’t have any. He consumed me and my daughters with his eyes.

I am bracing myself for his death and it occurs to me that he would want a proper burial. I don’t really know. We never talked about it and no one knows what is in his will. We don’t know if he has many friends left. But though I spied a computer in his bedroom, he lives like someone for whom the world is not marching forward. Modestly and without making much of a footprint. Perhaps he wants to be cremated, his ashes sprinkled somewhere without a funeral at all.

It felt good to dig my little spade into the earth. I had to jab it hard to get through the tough roots from my neighbor’s tree and get down deep enough for the bird to rest in peace. I upgraded to the larger spade and dug deeper, telling myself through tears that everyone deserves a proper burial, not some half-assed shallow grave.

I know I feel guilty for not visiting my uncle more over the course of his life. I feel badly not knowing what he wants us to do and wishing I had pressed the issue when I saw him last. I cried as I dug, wishing death wasn’t so hard to bear, adding another soul to my odd little cemetery, hidden in the back of the property, where no one will see the little unmarked graves.

I carried the big spade with me back to the front of the house and rolled the bird onto it with a stick. It was lighter than air and its eyes had gone white. I stared at it as I walked back down the long drive, then spoke. “Here we are processing, little bird.”

I laid him or her down into the hole and told it, “Here we are putting your body to rest so your soul can rise up.”

It doesn’t really get easier. When you’re young death is shocking and makes seismic shifts in your perspective. But as a middle aged person it’s still hard to let go, watch someone suffer, say good-bye. I can kid myself that I’m used it, a pro who likes to talk about death and grief so much that I can handle anything. I probably can. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy or that I don’t fall apart in the shower or weep with a shovel in my hand.

 

Fiction: The Teacher: Chapter 2

Bicycle spokes

At a few minutes before two am on a Friday night the library was still open. Just the sublevel after midnight but that was where the pickup scene was. Scholarly students who wanted to get laid after a long night of research would start to congregate around the long tables piled with books. The weight of Kierkegaard, Ibson, Proust and organic chemistry textbooks kicked aside in favor of trading unlit cigarettes and innocent questions about assignments and what time it was though everyone knew it was time to go home. Any minute now they would be shutting down the building and people who had never spoken before would be pairing off, swapping spit and waking up in each other’s dorm rooms a few hours later.

I wasn’t usually at the library that late. I was usually in the photo lab printing or procrastinating or cleaning up or mixing chemistry but really waiting for him. I was the photo assistant which meant it was my job to supply the students in all three photography classes plus the independent studies with paper, film and chemicals, open the door for them if they got locked out which they did often, forgetting the check out key in the rest room or the darkroom or the grass outside where students would lay down to rest and breath fresh air and think their grand collegiate thoughts under the illusion they had never been thought of before.

I was hiding. I was tired of waiting for the sound of the lab doors opening, turning around, bra-less in my blue thrift store tank top and jean shorts, the ones that showed off my long legs to see if it was him and be disappointed for the thousandth time that it was a student. I was so lost in the haze of my obsession that I couldn’t even see students. They were like little kids to me. Immature. Annoying in their constant neediness. I was so far gone I couldn’t even recognize when one of them was cute and flirting with me. Actually I could, but in a distant way that didn’t matter. He was all that mattered.

I was hiding because I was scared. Things had changed between us. My crush was starting to turn into something. My little fantasy was growing legs and it scared the shit out of me. He was thirty-three. He was my teacher, my mentor, my boss and my crush and he was turning into something else. It was terrifying. What if the sound of the door opening was him? What if he found me here in the sublevel? What if he really wanted me? Then what?

I picked up my art history books, slung my backpack over my right shoulder and walked through the automatic glass doors into the cool Ohio night. My apartment was a five minute walk from campus and I could have biked but I had no idea where my bike was. I had always been scattered and college hadn’t changed that. I would see my bike outside Walker Hall and remember that I had ridden it there to Calculus the week before. Or a friend would say, I think you left your bike at our house last night and Sadie borrowed it this morning. Bikes at Oberlin were shared and no one bothered locking them unless they had something nice, which I didn’t. Mine was a silver no-name ten-speed that I’d bought off a senior when I was a freshman and no one had bothered to steal it yet. So I glanced at the bike rack outside of Mudd, the library’s nickname, just to see if by chance it was there and caught a glimpse of it, behind a hefty red dirt bike with a big shiny lock.

“Ah there you are,” I said pulling it out of the tangle of bikes in the surprisingly full rack. I had a habit of talking to inanimate objects, a habit I picked up from him and which I used to feel closer to him when he wasn’t around. I pulled the other strap of my backpack over my left shoulder and rode the four blocks home, my tires a little soft on the uneven pavement of Oak Street.

Inside the apartment, my eyes immediately went hungrily for the little red light on the answering machine that denotes a new message. There it was, flashing away, the red light that so often had disappointed me with its lack of illumination. Dead. Dark brown. Nothing. My heart would sink every time, especially on the days when I went home between classes instead of using the time to study or hang out with a friend or discover something new in the art building just to see if he had called. How many hours had I wasted, I wondered, searching and waiting for communication from him? For verification that he had feelings for me. The ones I detected in his eyes during a critique, or in the touch of his hand on my shoulder after class, or in his office as he gave me instructions, or we went over inventory or he shared something about himself that was personal. It was a constant question: Does he like me?

I pressed play and heard his voice. Sexy, authoritative, sleepy.

“Where are you?” Long pause. “I want you here now.”

I pressed play again, and again, listening to the words, the click at the end and the whir of the tape rewinding to the beginning, pressing play, listening to his voice, click, rewind, and pressing play again. It was too late. What time did he call? My cheap radio shack answering machine didn’t record the date and time and he hadn’t bothered to include it.

This was huge. He had gone out on a limb. It was the first time he’d ever left a message that wasn’t all business on my machine. I listened to it again, dissecting the nuance of each syllable, each cadence, each empty space between the words. Trying to fathom his willingness to implicate himself in his desire. Not only for me. But on a tape that was recorded and could be played back for an audience. He was paranoid and had drummed it into my mushy romantic nineteen-year old head that anything personal between us was strictly confidential and had the potential to derail his career as a professor at the college. Click. Whir. “Where are you? I want you here now.” He had given me power.

And yet, as I listened and tried to think as he did of the ramifications and implications of his words, I realized that in a court of law (or wherever these things might play out) he hadn’t actually said anything that could be construed as actual proof. All he said was he wanted me there. It could have been in the middle of the afternoon and he meant he wanted me there for work. That I was late. That he needed something like the key to the supply closet or help cutting paper. He could be a mean boss sometimes and often I would be in trouble for not remembering that I was supposed to meet him at a certain time or for not giving him the exact right change from the petty cash drawer. He would often distance himself and was always protecting something. He was careful.

But the truth was he left the message sometime after 11:00 pm because that was the last time I’d checked it. And I knew from his tone that it meant he wanted me to come spend the night, something I had never done. I couldn’t believe he really wanted me even though his actions, for months had been moving, undeniably, in that direction. He had invited me for dinner before but lately the invitations had gotten later and we would sit around after and smoke pot and watch a movie before I left. His desire for me was frightening even though it was all I wanted. I wasn’t sure I was ready to cross over that threshold. To exchange my fantasy for actual touch, sweat, and the messy work of a relationship that was already many layers deep. I treasured his friendship and all the access I had to his incredible mind and I knew if we crossed that line there was a high risk of losing it all. It became clear to me, as his voice became distorted and abstract through repetition that I didn’t want to change. I wasn’t ready to let go of the thrill. The tight rope of not knowing, absolutely, what he felt.

 

 

 

 

Fiction: The Teacher, Chapter One

Shoes

I was still caught up in the delusion that he loved me when this petite but forceful woman showed up on his doorstep and said, “I’m Iris,” flinging me a dismissive look.

She had mastered this move, this barging in and owning a place through sheer presumption and entitlement. Not that she looked particularly rich or as privileged as I felt, a senior at a private college, my destroyed/reformed family back home in New York. She was pretty, with sharply defined features and long, straight jet black hair and she had nice clothes. High heel pumps, a straight skirt and silky black blouse.

A cab backed out of the driveway as she entered and pulled the door shut behind her. She worked. She was a professional, and on a college campus it was like seeing a rare bird. She carried herself as if no one had or ever would own her. Like she had earned it all.

“Who are you?” she said next. I guess she had to make up for her lack of height with a left shoulder thrust forward, head bent down with eyes cast upward like a doctor looking over her bifocals, but surely she wasn’t a doctor, and she didn’t even wear glasses. She was older than me, probably thirties like he was, and she made me feel small, which truthfully wasn’t that hard.

Minutes before, and all morning before she walked in, I was busy pretending I owned the place. I was making myself breakfast in his kitchen. Cracking eggs into one of his never completely clean pans. There was a permanent level of scum in his house due to his large grey cat that shed everywhere and the fact that he didn’t seem to care about cleaning. “Dirt is good for your immune system,” he once told me when I asked if he ever thought about hiring someone because I knew he would never get down on his knees and scrub a bathroom floor. I didn’t think he would get down on his knees for anyone or anything. But it didn’t get in the way of me loving his dirty house. I loved it because I could pretend it was mine.

He was away. He never told me where he was going or when he’d be back. He just called and asked if I would take him to the Cleveland airport, which I always would because it meant a fast drive in his Rx-7, dinner at our favorite Mexican place in town and the keys to his life, including the Rx-7. It was a stupid car and I almost preferred the VW Rabbit he traded for it, but it was fun to drive.

I didn’t answer.

“Is John here?” She dumped her big bag on the worn out chair that sat nearest to the door. It was where he talked on the phone and checked his messages and it held the imprint of his body, the smudge of his work clothes. He considered himself a post-modern artist and as such had devised a way to write an elusive novel by leaving new chapters as his outgoing message on his answering machine. Listeners would respond with their own fictional versions of his story. He spent a lot of time in that chair.

I knew she knew he wasn’t home. I knew she knew that my presence meant he was away. I knew she probably knew him better than I did and that she had probably guessed I was in his snare.

“What are you doing here?”

Iris waltzed past me into the dining room where John had all his books and papers piled on a big table and on into the living room turning her head this way then that, taking it all in. “Nice place.”

“Are you being sarcastic?”

“Are you?”

I was starting to like her already. She seemed curious and free, like a cat, though she carried herself more like a bird. Head perched high on her neck, observant, able to fly. She had brought a bag like she was planning to stay but she obviously hadn’t told him. I was wondering what her plan was. I was staying in his house. She couldn’t.

“Want to smoke?” She sat down on his couch, a grubby grey affair that might have once been white.

I sat down opposite her on the one piece of nice furniture. A leather chair he said his father made. A simple wood frame with a brown leather piece hung on it like a hammock. You could slide down or sit up if you wanted. I had spent time in it, smoking pot and watching TV.

She poked around the large ashtray on the coffee table for a roach clip and pulled a lighter from her purse.

We got high. We smoked cigarettes. Mostly she talked and I said “uh huh” every once in a while. She told me stories about places she worked, men she had slept with, cities she had traveled to. It was a glamorous life and I couldn’t see why she would come to his dirty little house to find him without telling him she was coming. She avoided talking about him until she asked, “So are you sleeping with him?”

“Yes.” I was too proud of that fact to lie. I had been lying for two years to all my friends and my family when they asked, all of them convinced I must be sleeping with my college professor. It was like having two lives. The truth, that I was having a secret affair which was strange and often felt like the lie; and the lie that I was just a normal girl going to college and dating students, which often felt like the truth. Because I was doing that too. And John was so elusive and hard to pin down sometimes I felt like I was imagining the whole thing. Our whole life. He would never say we had a life together but the truth was we did. And yet, Iris’ presence managed to negate it and make it feel like a fantasy I was having by myself.

She looked at me pitifully. “Has he told you about the others?”

I didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

“Well I don’t claim to be an expert on his love life, but I do know he still sleeps with his wife when he sees her in Detroit, and I know he still sees the girl who graduated from here and lives in New York now. I know there’s a professor here, in his department that he sees, “she paused for effect,” and then there’s me.”

I was dumbfounded. He told me he and his wife were separated and I knew they were friends but he said she had a boyfriend now. I knew the girl in New York and that one made me upset because even though it wasn’t surprising, it made his recent trip to New York tainted. It was supposed to be a work trip. He was supposedly meeting with galleries there, though I had a feeling he was exaggerating about which ones. But the one that got me, was the other teacher. There was only one female teacher in his department. She was middle aged and frumpy. It couldn’t be her.

Iris looked at me. She must have seen where I was. How demoralized. She must have known anger was next. “Let’s go somewhere sweetie. Let’s find some food or something. Sound good? You got the keys to that poor excuse for a car?”

 

 

 

A Clam’s Life

shell

I never knew until this summer why clam shells held so much fascination for me. For as long as I can remember I’ve been collecting them off the beach that I’ve trampled on since babyhood, the eastern end of Fire Island in New York. Clam shells of all sizes have been washing up on that shore for eons, long before I got my fat little fingers on them. They are ordinary in their way. Nobody makes a big deal about finding one, even a perfect one, often tossing them back in the sea like a frisbee. A clam shell lacks the intricate architecture of a cockle or nautilus, or the delicate symmetry of a scallop but is far sturdier and therefor more useful than these. I always used them for digging, making miserable castles or just big holes, while my parents favored them as ashtrays in their summer home. These days I use a white one for my paint palette.

This summer I was visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York and learned that the oldest living animals on earth are a type of clam called the ocean quahog that lives deep in the Atlantic. The oldest known of these was thought to be 507 and famous for being “killed by scientists” causing some undeserved outrage. The clam, nicknamed “Ming,” somehow made it into headlines when it was discovered that he, along with 200 companions, were collected live from the Icelandic shelf and frozen purposefully onboard (to preserve them). Back in the lab the scientists who were studying climate change discovered they had unknowingly (and somewhat ironically) killed the longest living animal on record. It should be noted that statistically, the chances of Ming being an anomaly are very slim, meaning there are likely many more his age or older out there.

Anyway. The ocean quahog is the longest living of clams but all clams live a long time. The littleneck clams that were collected from the Great South Bay near our house on Long Island can live up to thirty years. Probably most of the clams I ate as a little girl were decades older than I was.

I had no idea clams lived so long. Being a Capricorn, daughter of Saturn, the God of late bloomers and longevity among other things, I appreciate long life. I have counted the rings on the shells in my possession and they are all older than I am by a hundred to two hundred years. It gives me comfort to think of a clam, burrowed into the bottom of the ocean, moving at the pace of a snail, eating and procreating and not doing much more for hundreds of years. Scientists are not sure why clams live so long. Like all animals, they stop being able to reproduce long before they die. What does a clam have to do after it stops making more clams I wonder? I guess it just lives. Maybe it imparts wisdom to other clams. Who knows?

It seems to take people a whole human lifespan to fulfill their goals in life. When life is cut short in childhood or even middle age, we are saddened by the thought that the person who died never got a chance to finish what they started. Perhaps this has more to do with our own sense of not having done everything we wanted to. But I think that need to “do everything” fades with age. I think my ninety-year old father who says he is ready to die anytime is satisfied with his life and doesn’t feel cheated at all. Then again, my mother who died at fort-five also claimed to be satisfied with her accomplishments. But that doesn’t mean she was ready to leave the party. Then again, my step-grandmother was not ready to leave the world when she died at ninety-four.

Maybe clams enjoy life for the sake of being alive. Maybe I like the idea of spanning centuries. Maybe life, however hard at times is like a great party you never want to leave. Maybe this is why I like clams.

 

New Song

FriedEggPoppy

“Songs,” he added, “are thoughts, sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved like the ice floe sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his blood come in gasps, and his heart throb. Something, like an abatement in the weather, will keep him thawed up. And then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up of themselves—we get a new song.”

–Uvavnuk, an Inuit elder, from the introduction by Edmund Carpenter to I Breathe a New Song: Poems of the Eskimo, by Richard Lewis, Simon and Schuster, 1971

 

It’s the day before we leave Vermont and I wish I had a new song to describe all the mixed feelings that are swirling inside. I have to mop the floor. I have to pack my bag. I hate to say goodbye to the woods and the lake but I suppose I’ve been doing that for days. Took my last swim yesterday and the crisp water temporarily cleared the hard truth of our imminent departure. For the thirty minutes it took to swim across the lake and back, and when I took a rest and floated, staring at the cloudless sky above me, I forgot I was leaving.

A Sleepless Walk

sunrise

“No words will make the slightest difference to the sky at night.

They will not brighten it or make it less strange.

And the day too has its own deep indifference to anything that is said.”

–Colm Toibin, from The Testament of Mary

 

 

A familiar deep pain wakes me up

Something I have known since childhood but never have identified

Mysterious and precariously adjacent to vulnerable parts

A piercing throb deep between pubis and coccyx

I can’t sleep

I ask what it wants and get no answer

Other than the urge to move

 

Slip out from under bed covers

Where my sleeping daughter lies

And step outside in a haze

Half expecting to see something, specially propped up for me

Deer grazing in the field perhaps

But there is nothing outside but the pink glow of early dawn

Which I follow

 

Cross the field, the internal pain subsiding

Dry spokes of grass prick my city feet.

Yesterday, I bragged to the girls that at their age I never wore shoes in summer

And without acknowledging me

They vowed to spend the rest of their time here shoeless.

The view of the bay brings old memory back

Glasses left by the bed turn it to a foggy dream

 

Open the gate to the neighbor’s field

Our right of way to the water

Sodden earth squishing between toes

And blades of grass stuck there

I stop at the sight of Canada geese ahead

Wondering if they were what called me down

 

Sudden stinging

My legs covered in mosquitos

For a moment I consider retreat—Run fast! Back to the house!

One of nature’s cruel jokes

Tough as my childhood feet, I wipe the pests away and run to the shore

Like the Sanderlings

Chasing ocean waves

 

I rub the salt water onto my legs

Which helps

There is a ladder in front of me

I climb it

Onto the neighbor’s boardwalk to their expensive boat

We don’t like these neighbors

But it’s so early they will never know

 

I walk toward the end

The dock is armed with anti-bird devices

Whirling plastic and metal, smooth cones to exclude perching

The devices are meant to intimidate all creatures including me

And are littered with evidence of gulls

Whose large white bombs paint the centerline of the walk way

Another joke

 

I stand at the end

Watching elegant egrets fly low

Another shorebird dives

The sky is pink-orange, the horizon cloudy

I miss the sun

I wonder why I’m here

What am I doing?

 

The great fiery disk appears

Emerging slowly from behind blue grey streams

Popsickle color and ragged edges

A simple reminder

Light years away

Of what I am

And why I braved the mosquitos