In sleep, I clench my jaw so tightly that by morning I ache. I wake early. I consider rising from the soft cocoon of my bed, starting the day with a walk in the brisk morning air, but decide instead to lie awake, let my eyes adjust to the darkness.
I remember anxious dreams – appointments missed, tasks forgotten, the dozens of ways in which what I have done has fallen short of what I had hoped to do.
The minutes pass. Gradually, the light comes. M. rises and we slide into the day.
At the table, my son signs the valentines he has made. He draws a heart on each card’s interior, speaks each letter of his name aloud as he writes it. We look on, M. and I. We watch the resolute way he takes on this task, moving from one card to the next.
My daughter thumps her way downstairs, her eyes red, her face hot. We send her back to bed. I leave the breakfast dishes in the sink, and a few on the counter.
Down the block, there is a gray-haired woman in a purple shawl fussing over the trash cans on the sidewalk. I cannot tell if she is putting things into them or taking things out. She is hunched over, but she lifts her head up to look at my car. I meet her eyes for a moment before I pass. I think about pulling over, going back to see if she needs assistance, but as I make the turn at the corner, I wonder what I think I am trying to do.
“Not everyone with a problem needs you personally to solve it,” I said once to my sister, before I threw my napkin down on the café table and stormed out, leaving her, her husband and M. there, staring after me. As if that alone had not been enough, later, when we tried to resolve the issue – which, in short was that we were planning an outing for the four of us and she wanted to bring along an elderly couple that she had met. “They are alone,” she said. “What does it cost you to be nice to these people?”
I would like to say that as the argument escalated, I did not ask her why she insisted on taking responsibility for this couple to whom she had no obligation, when she had in fact stayed away all those long months when our own mother was dying. I would like to say that I didn’t, at the first opportunity, spit this out at her, my voice shaking with rage. I could say this, I suppose, but it would be untrue.
The roadwork on Hope Street takes me on to some of the local streets that I have not driven in some time. But I have lived here for so long and through so many stages of life that I can point out all the houses where my friends used to live. K., in the green clapboard two-family across from the park, before the divorce. L. in the white cottage before she moved back to New York. The poet’s apartment on the second floor of the yellow house with its chipped paint and its leaning front porch; the creaking floorboards that announced my arrival, and in the morning, my furtive leaving.
The sweet bungalow on the tree-lined side street that M. and I almost bought, but for a moment’s hesitation we lost it to someone more decisive.
At the bar, J. arrives late, a little flustered. It has been a long day. There is a birthday being celebrated just a few feet away, but I have gradually moved the one empty bar stool closer and closer to me, lest the noisy group of smooth-faced men in their button-down shirts think it is theirs for the taking. It is not.
She speaks softly about the anxieties of her days. Her mother, ailing. Her work, its frustrations. She asks of me, of my family. We are fine, fine. I tell her of my friends – of the divorces, the illnesses, the seemingly endless complications of our lives here in these middle years. As the men near us drink, their volume rises. She walks me to my car.
I let my boy out of the car and he ambles down the sidewalk toward the school. A car pulls up behind me, and I watch as from the passenger side door, two children tumble out with their hoods up. Down the block, the school bus turns the corner, idles parallel to the entrance, its yellow lights blinking, and then the red lights, too.
The sudden noise of geese overhead startles us all. My son calls out, “Look,” and we follow his gaze up to the geese in their perfect V-formation. They are moving quickly, so it really is only for a few seconds that we all stand there frozen, our faces upturned, our mouths hanging open – pointing at the sky.