mercury in retrograde

We drive over to the neighborhood where we used to live to go to the restaurant we used to walk to from our tiny purple house. It is crowded so we sit at the bar. The bartender looks familiar but I can’t remember exactly from where. “It’s great to see you guys,” she says. “We heard you moved away.”

We laugh. “Not that far,” we say, “we just don’t get back here very often.” 

“Well it’s great to have you back,” she says, as she hands us menus. 

We order drinks and snacks. It’s late, we’ve both already eaten, just not together. We spend some time talking about scheduling -  who needs to be where, by when and for how long. The conversation meanders a bit - we circle around decisions, never quite closing in. 

Our seats face the open kitchen. We watch as one of the cooks packs tiny marshmallows into what look like empty soup cans. Carefully, he places each marshmallow in its position. He does this, it seems, all night.

After, we walk in the cool night air. We talk about the things we have done, the things we still want to do. It is so easy, when the air is cool and the night is dark and we are full and drowsy and our bodies are near enough to sense each other’s vibrations. 

We meander up and down the familiar streets. We run into people we know so we stop to chat on the sidewalk. We are loud and laughing. We hear the ringing of our voices in the quiet night. We hold each other up. 

On the highway, we pass a wrecking ball dangling from a crane. It hovers near the open frame of a building. The crane trembles. 

“Look,” M. says to our son. “Did you see that wrecking ball? It was about to hit that building?” He points toward the window. 

I say: “Doesn’t that seem a terribly inefficient way to tear down a building?” I am thinking of the ball, its size relative to its target, and the difficulty of controlling its path from the crane. 

“Hmm,” M. says, shrugging, and we drive on. 

We are at a birthday party for my niece in my sister’s backyard. The day is beautiful - sunny, warm. My sister has tied balloons to every chair and every deck rail. A wide canvas umbrella shields the table and chairs from the direct sun. Long tables are covered with cheerful printed fabric. From the kitchen, we carry out tray after tray, bowl after bowl, and arrange them on every available surface. In twos and threes, other families arrive. I watch as the children gather and run off to one corner of the yard or another. 

After a time, my sister turns on the sprinkler and the kids dance through it, shouting. They run up and down the long driveway and through the grass and around the house down toward the wooded area where a stream burbles past. They come back, shouting still. 

One of the older boys picks up the garden hose and aims it at the others. The water sprays up in great arcs over their heads. More shouting. The kids run to their parents, their hair wet, their shirts soaked through. 

I sit on a chair in the shade and watch the afternoon drift past. Watch the parents pass plates to each other, pour lemonade into plastic cups. Watch the children gather around a pinata in the shape of a flower that my brother-in-law has suspended from the basketball hoop. It floats there for several long moments while each child is given a ribbon to hold on to. On the count of three, they all pull on their ribbons and the candy rains down. My sister distributes bags, pre-labeled with each child’s name and they collect their candy, clutching their bags tightly. 

Here is a story I had forgotten about the first man I ever loved. One night we went with friends to go dancing in the city. I brought cash with me for the clubs. I wanted to leave my purse in the car, so I asked him to hold the money for me. A hundred dollars, maybe. We walked several long blocks to the first club and at the door, I turned to him. He shrugged. “I don’t know what happened, I think I must have lost it. I am sorry,” he said. 

I stared at him, confused. “What?”

“I guess I must have dropped it. It’s gone,” he said. “Look, I’m sorry.”

My friend intervened, paid for us all, and we went inside. I didn’t ask him again. 

“You know he stole it,” my friend said later. 

“No,” I gasped, “he lost it. Why would he do that? He wouldn’t steal money from me.”  

“Oh, sweetie. Of course he did.” 

I didn’t accept this really, until many years later. With some distance. And then there were details that fell into place. His nosebleeds. His mood swings. The times - infrequent in those later years - that I would visit and he would stay awake all night. 

But all that I only came to understand later. There are some things that you can only see when you are ready and willing to see them. 

My son keeps to himself during most of the party. There is a blanket laid out in the shade and he sits on it, drawing. Occasionally, he will join the group for a game or a walk down to the stream. At first, it concerns me and I think about urging him into play. But then I see myself, sitting off on my own, as I am. I introduce myself to the other parents as I need to, exchange anecdotes about my children, or about the trips we have taken. But really, the afternoon unfolds and I am more observer than participant. Taking it all in. 

I am reminded of how, in high school, I was accused of being condescending, aloof. “You think you are better than us,” a boy said, as we were standing in front of his locker in the high school corridor. He had blonde hair and green eyes and I wanted nothing more than for him to see me. To see me. But when he addressed me finally, it was with this judgment, and I was incapable of doing anything more than mumbling, “I don’t. Really, I don’t.”

How to explain this distance between the people we are and the people we want to be? 

At the party, I talk with a woman about the stars and the planets, their alignment. “Mercury is in retrograde,” she says. Another woman says, “Yes, and it is also the year of the dragon - a time of great change and upheaval.” I nod, sip my lemonade, let the ice swirl around in the glass.

I want to believe there are reasons for things - for the urges, the longings, the inarticulable sadness - but I fear that our attempts at understanding are like little more than the spray of water from the garden hose. It makes its patterns, shimmers there on the concrete for a time, until in the heat of the full sun, it evaporates.