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. 

failure to rise

More reading than writing these days, and not much of either. Speedboat. The Year of Magical Thinking. For a second time, as preparation for Blue Nights. Which – M. says over coffee this morning – I should never, ever read.

“Really?” I ask. “Why not?” He has just finished it.

“Well, no – I guess I do want you to read it. I just don’t want to be anywhere near you when you do.”

Fair enough, I think. It’s not as though I’m good at keeping my struggles to myself.

In the other room, our son is crying loudly over some sudden disappointment that is too crushing for his five-year-old heart to bear.

Winter is difficult. Even the unusually mild temperatures do nothing to address the darkness that falls so early.

I wake with aches, the origins of which I cannot determine.

Daily, it seems, I am at work creating new sources of anxiety: How will we bear the sadness of aging? What will we do if something terrible happens to our children? What if I leave the oven on all night, and then forget, and then try to light a match?

My friends come over and we cheer each other, hold each other up. We enumerate accomplishments. We shake our heads in agreement. It is not as though the things we say are untrue. It as not as though I don’t take sustenance in them. But the exercise calls to mind the presenting of trophies for participation to the soccer team of four-year-olds. For you, for showing up! As if you ever really had the choice not to.

I was eight years old, in day camp, and we ran around the track at the YMCA in the mornings while the counselor pretended to time us, blew his whistle. I was terrible, slow.

At the end of the two-week session, he handed me a gold-bordered certificate with my name on it. “Most Improved Runner,” he had written across the top. Which even then seemed just a thinly-veiled, “Gosh, I never thought you’d make it.”

At the meeting of delegates in the hotel ballroom, at which there is both a Parliamentarian and a gavel involved, my friends and I sit in the back row, holding our heads. We stayed out too late the night before, and one among us has not made it down from his room. When his name is called, there is silence. After a long pause, the presiding official intones: “Let the record show that L___ T___ has failed to rise.” The whole row of us, consummate professionals that we are, giggle like schoolchildren until the gavel comes down hard – once, twice, and a third and final time.

My preoccupations with turning forty now behind me, I have turned my attention to more shapeless, ill-defined anxieties. A constant sense that I am not prepared for what is to come. That there will be challenges for which I will be required to act, decisions that I will be asked to make, and that I will be unable or unwilling to do so appropriately. The list of possible outcomes runs through my head – a continuous loop of clichés:

Will bet on the wrong horse
Will not rise to the occasion
Will not know when to fold

Will put my eggs – every last one of them – in the wrong basket.
Will count all my chickens before they are hatched.

All around me – the coupling and uncoupling. I have friends who are looking for love. And all the divorcing friends. All the seeking for a life different from the life that is being lived. I think on this, as my car idles at the stop light in front of the fire station and suddenly, the thought strikes me so hard it brings tears:

It is not that I want a different life – it’s that I want a different past.

The light changes, and I move on slowly, past the fire house, past the grocery store, past the office supply store plaza. Down the hill to the stop sign where the drivers around me try to inch forward, try to outrun the light a few blocks down that lets out into this intersection. Try to dart out just before the cars bear down on them, the drivers waving their arms around and leaning on their horns.

In front of the bathroom mirror, standing on tiptoe, I consider the lines on my face. I squint and frown so close to the glass that my breath fogs it. I pluck at the few gray hairs that pop up like the weeds that go untended in last weeks of summer.

There is a dusting of snow that covers a thin layer of ice on the lawn, the driveway, and the car this morning. My hands are bare. I take the brush from inside the car and scrape away at the ice while the motor runs. The man across the street – the waving, bus-waiting man – looks away while I move around the perimeter of the car, each window in turn, then take a cloth to the side view mirrors. Inside the car, my son grins and waves at me each time I pass his window.

We are a few minutes later than usual, and the traffic is heavier on the street. It takes several moments before I am clear to back out, pull up to parallel to the sidewalk where the man waits. There is a car coming in the opposite direction, so I have to move quickly. I wave in the direction of the man, but he is facing the other way. I move forward, wave again, but I can’t quite see out that particular part of window in which he is framed; there is still a little frost obscuring my view. I check my rear view mirror as I pull away down the street. He is watching me, but does not wave. I wonder what I have done to offend him. Have I not been cheerful enough, enthusiastic enough in my waving? I vow to be more so tomorrow.