all that the body remembers

Opal
–Dean Young

It’s not that Monet cared that much about stacks of hay.

Your feelings will never change, you’ll just stop paying so much attention.

A whole summer’s songs go by, the whole house turns blue.

A friend will need some help carrying boxes to the curb.

So slowly you’ll reach into the pond’s reflection of your own face - as if reaching into your face! - the tiny fishes will brush your fingers like nerves made of water.

Someone else will have to be young enough to climb the scaffolding around the town hall to derange all four of its clock faces.

The same laughter will have to work the rest of your life.

A friend takes your arm in the woods, it’s darker turning back.

You point at an opal in a glass case and the person behind it is only too glad to let you see it against your skin but it’s someone else’s skin you want.

You didn’t get everything but you got a lot.

Last Christmas Eve, I walk M.’s father down to the jewelry store on Main Street where I am to help him choose a gift for his wife of fifty years. He doesn’t need my help, but it is thought that he might appreciate the company and so I wrap my scarf around my neck and wait while he puts on his coat.

The sidewalk is icy. There is snow on the ground. We walk slowly, carefully. I keep my arms out for balance. I reach out to hold his elbow when he seems tentative.

We look at earrings. At hoops of different sizes. We consider gemstones. Amethyst. Smoky topaz. I can no longer remember what, in the end was chosen, but it is wrapped carefully with a gold bow and M.’s father takes the little white box and puts it in the inside pocket of his coat. As I imagine he has done countless times before. We are thanked, wished well. The bells on the door jingle as we leave - this whole block like the set of a movie, with its beribboned storefronts, its tinkling bells. Even the weather agrees to play along, offering a dusting of snow. Just enough so that when the wind blows, it can swirl up on the sidewalk.

As we leave the store, I ask if he is hungry. Should we stop for lunch, for a sandwich? But he says no and I can’t help but feel as though I have failed at my task. My company has been inadequate.

We walk back up the hill. We are quiet, mostly. I wonder what he thinks of me, the wife of his youngest son. Of the boy who was something of a surprise. After six children, this last blessing delivered unexpectedly.

The boy who let his hair grow long, let it fall across his face. “I can’t see your baby blue eyes,” his mother would say.

“But they are not blue. They are gray and green and brown,” I say the first time I see them, close. We are lying on the floor of my apartment in the dark. Just a spray of light cast on us by the lamp on my desk. He says nothing. And then for such a long time, we lie still. It is quiet.

There is a photo of me as a child, taken while I was still in Korea. I am sitting on the ground. I am holding a cracker up to my mouth with two hands, nibbling at it like a squirrel. In the foreground, the skirt of a woman who has just walked away.

I take my walk this morning in a fine gray mist. As I approach my house, I see stray pages from telephone books scattered on the sidewalk, on the lawn. I pick them up. The paper is damp and light, crumples easily in my hand. I cannot tell where they are coming from, or why, each morning, there are a few new pages to replace the last. As if someone is passing through before I rise, scattering them like flowers.

Two houses down on the lawn of the transition home, the men have tossed popcorn and crumbs of bread on the ground, all around the base of the tree. The birds gather there, and the squirrels, too. I worry about them, as they all take their fill. The men watch them from the wide front porch, where they smoke cigarettes and pace. Surely, these treats must take their toll on these small bodies. Surely, they will pay a price for these indulgences.

Over the weekend, the weather is glorious, so we drag out the grill and carry the chairs up from the basement to eat out on the brick patio beneath the shade of the overgrown holly tree. Our friends stop by and we offer them grilled vegetables and meats and we drink wine and eat until our stomachs ache. The light fades.

I carry the plates and glasses inside, line them all up on the counter. On the last trip up the stone steps, I notice the climbing rose vine is about to bloom. I go back to look more closely, reach out to touch a branch and almost instantly, a pin prick of blood appears on my finger.

I’ve developed a rash on my skin. It started on my right arm and has now spread to my left. The ankle of my right leg. Across my stomach. Angry red lines. Like I have been clawed at. It is warm to the touch. Each morning, I clean the areas. Apply creams and lotions. Each year, about this time, my skin erupts. As if triggered by the coming heat, the blooming. All these tiny ruptures.

Here is the thing about the body: The lessons we learn, we learn them young and they lodge within us, within our very bones. More powerful than memory. Before language, before thought. We wear them on our skin.

These bodies, the beacon for all that we carry. The way we move through the world - the things we touch, the things that touch us. If you look closely at me, can’t you still see the girl that I was? The left-behind girl, sitting cross-legged on the ground? Every pulse of my heart like a lighthouse signal flashing: come back. come back. come back.

Of the father: We hear the story about how he shuffles out to the porch one night in his bedroom slippers. Down the front steps and out to the sidewalk, turning left at the corner. The same path we take to the jewelry store. But he goes on, past the main street with its little shops, down to the campus where he spent so many decades of his life. A student finds him, in front of the locked door of a building. Oh, dear man, weary man: what is it you remember? Where is it that you are trying to go?

The best days start like this: a walk in the quiet of the early morning, the air still cool, the light rain on my face. The track empty, save for the geese on the grass. And when I am soaked through to the skin, I make my way back - past the ancient tree with its broad canopy of leaves, past the sweet honeysuckle vine, past the mounds of pink dianthus, the rows and rows of hosta. I turn the corner past the the old rusted mailbox and see the gray stretch of highway, the spires and rooftops of the city rising up.

This city. This house. These lives, these loves.

This body and all it remembers.

I didn’t get everything, but I got a lot.