still life with roses, orchids

There are five of us around the table. K. has made lamb. The small apartment is warm, the scent of rosemary, faint trace of mint. The table is set in browns and reds and golds. One of us offers a toast. We raise our glasses. We talk about our work, our friends in common. M. tells us about her ex-husband, forlorn. How she meets him for breakfast and he tells her he is sad all the time. She says: I cannot be all these things for you. I cannot be all these things.

They share homes, still. One here and one on an island. She takes her friends down to the island home every winter and they lay out on the beach all day and go dancing at night. Sometimes, in the summer, he will bring the woman he is dating to this island house. But he has not been dating now for some time.

I wake from a strange dream in which I watched a man plummet to his death. He was a scientist. I had traveled far to meet him. I had crossed a wide desert in the dark. I had climbed a stone staircase in a stone cathedral. He was waiting for me there. As I approached, breathless and dizzy, he leaped. There was no sound as he fell, just the falling. On the ground beneath us, snow. His broken body arranged on it. A still life with roses.

K. talks about the man she has been dating. He works all the time. It is difficult for them to see each other. He has a daughter. He has a mother whose health is failing. An ex-wife, an ex-lover. All these require attention and time. K. says: He wanted to spend the afternoon here, but then his daughter. She does not finish the sentence. I stand up to clear the plates.

I drive home in the dark. It is cold and the wind is fierce. As I merge onto the highway, I am overwhelmed by a sudden, sharp sadness. It fills my ears and mouth. It makes my hands tremble.

I am halfway through the draft of this novel, but I should be further. I write around it now, on scraps of paper. I scribble phrases. Questions I will ask myself and not answer. I sit at this desk and hold my head in my hands. I make grocery lists. I examine the stitching on my sweatshirt. Gray thread on gray fleece. Tiny flawless stitches.

I see the forlorn ex-husband all over town. We all do. At opening nights at the galleries. At the new restaurant on the west side. In front of the bookstore on Westminster. Sometimes, he will be with R., sometimes with someone we don’t know. But most often alone. This city is so small. How grateful I am that everyone I have ever thought I loved is far from here by now.

Years ago, walking in another city in another life I can barely remember, I crossed the street in front of the library and bumped shoulders with a man I used to know. It was like a scene that had been staged. The light turns, the clusters of people spill out into the crosswalk and one man and one woman cross in opposite directions. The woman’s hair is longer than it once was. She is small and walks quickly with her shoulders hunched. The man’s gaze is at some point in the distance, but when they make contact, he turns to look at her. In the moment of recognition, the background music swells and they are frozen there with the swirl of people all around them. She walks across the street with him. They stand on the sidewalk and embrace.

Perhaps the stage directions say: They hold each other not so much out of love, but of recognition. A familiarity, a glimpse of one’s past self, which gives its own sort of comfort.

They bought the house together and imagined wintering there each year. The white sand beaches, the mountains, the waterfalls. The orchids. How the orchids alone could make your heart ache. She does not speak of how they parted or why.

In the dream, the scientist had been calling for me, but I do not know why. I only know there is urgency and so in dream logic, I trudge across the desert until I come to a glowing city. I have walked all night. I reach the cathedral at first light. There is snow on the ground. It is cold.

I ascend the stairs, slowly at first but then fall into the rhythms of climbing. The steps are endless. The staircase narrows then widens. It opens out to a small balcony from which more stairs beckon. These are steeper than the others and barely wide enough to accommodate my body. I climb higher. There is no sound except my feet on the steps and my own breathing, growing labored, growing short.

The stairs end on a wide balcony. There is a low wrought-iron fence and my scientist is leaning against it. I reach the top step and run toward him. He turns to face me for a moment, then he is gone.

flow chart

Last night, an unexpectedly free evening, so we all meet up for dinner – coming from our various directions – and huddle around a table in the noisy, bright little restaurant that has become one of our favorites. There, we feast! Chopsticks fly. Banchan and bulgogi and tofu bibimbap. While we eat, the boy draws in a notebook I have brought for him. He creates elaborate scenes with expressive characters and narrates aloud as he draws. “You have to get this guy to the next level, but this goo is over here and if you fall into the goo it is poison and then this guy here is trying to steal your fruit.” It has been a while since we’ve all been together for a meal like this and we’re all rather cheerful.

After the boy is in bed, even though we are so tired, M. and I slip out. We go to the French restaurant nearby, sit at the bar. Decadence is a trio of tiny custards and cranberry crumble. The plates are so beautiful. Down at the other end of the bar, two men talk with the bartender about restaurant life. About the kitchens they’ve worked in, the people they know in common. The bartender pours them each a shot glass of something new and they all taste it, nodding their approval.

We make plans for the summer. We talk about little trips we can take. About seeing friends we have not seen in years. 

We talk about his writing project, its frustrations. I ask about his parents, their health. He is talking, but he is so tired that he has grown pale. It’s been an evening of excesses and extravagance.

This morning, I head to the track a little earlier than usual. Just down the block, the men sit out on the front stairs, smoking their cigarettes – the last vice that they are allowed in this house they share, this place between the end of one life and the beginning of another. They wave to me as I pass. I wave back, but quicken my pace.

When I get to the track, one of the regulars greets me like we are family. He jogs up to the fence as I enter. “You’ve been away,” he says. “We’ve missed you,” he says. He keeps pace with me for a bit, so I slow down, allow him to move on ahead. The next lap around, I run fast to pass him. I throw an offhand wave in his direction when I leave the track. From the distance, I can’t tell whether he has seen it. 

Years ago, my aunt asked: “Do you think you have trouble trusting people?” It was not a question I was expecting. “You know, because of the adoption. Maybe you feel a little insecure about that?”

And then later, B.’s mother, before we married: “You are still so young. Do you think you’re emotionally ready for marriage?”

I do not take challenges about my emotional self-awareness well, no matter how innocent or well-intentioned they might be. Decades of living in my own head – turning every conversation, every off-hand comment, every interaction, every decision over and over in my thoughts, worrying it all from every imaginable angle – have left me weary and resistant to the notion that I am not – at every moment – painfully aware of my own emotional capacities.

So I lash out, relying on the oldest, most tired weapons in my arsenal. I become shrill. I carry on at great length. I enumerate my grievances. Nothing I have said in moments like this reflects well on me, so I will offer only this: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

The gift of trust – of allowing yourself to be vulnerable – is true intimacy, the literature suggests. Vulnerable, I think? Am I anything if not vulnerable? Do I not walk around like a raw wound? How could I possibly be more vulnerable?

My aunt: “Well, in that last year or so when you were still married, it seemed like maybe you were already somewhere else? Like you already had one foot out the door?”

There was a time when I thought I knew what I was supposed to feel in a particular situation. As if there was a master flow chart of emotional responses to frequently lived experiences that one could consult when needed:

IF: spending time with husband; THEN: happy.

IF: mother dies; THEN: sad.

IF: breaking promise; THEN: shame.

How then, to explain the loneliness that creeps in, even in the company of people you love? How then, to explain the relief when finally, someone who has been struggling for so long, passes on from this world to the next? How then, to explain the release of leaving a life you no longer love behind?

As my marriage was ending, as the term “failed marriage” became my constant companion, I remember clinging to this thought: No one really knows how to live. We are all just stumbling around in the dark.

Our lives, our loves are dynamic. Unpredictable. Complicated. Baffling. We do our best, I think, given what we carry, what we know. But aren’t we all just stumbling toward some imagined graphic on an imagined flow chart of how it should all go?

On the phone last night, with J. She says: “If I take this job, my dream job, I’ll have to put off having a baby for another year. Am I giving up my dreams to have a baby? Will I ever be able to go back to what I love?”

I think about the years I spent in jobs that made me cry. And about the early days with my daughter, my son. How they were magical, yes, but also maddening. How there were days when I wanted only to be out of my house – anywhere, anywhere but home. How those feelings can’t be written down on any flow charts.

“You are not giving up your dreams,” I say. “You are prioritizing different things right now. You can’t know what is ahead. You make the best choices you can. Right now, for this one moment, and then when the next moment comes, you choose again.”

When we hang up, I am so tired. I try to read a little, but can’t focus.

IF: tired; THEN: sleep. Perhaps this at least, for this particular moment, is mercifully simple. 

life is as long as it needs to be

Not far from the house where my family lived when I was high school and college, there was a reservoir, in the center of the town. Often, on weekend nights, I would take my friends there, and we’d park on the dirt road that ran along side and climb up to the tiny observation deck – a concrete area just large enough for a group of three or four teenagers to lay out a picnic on an old beach blanket and lean back on our arms, faces lifted to the night sky.

One night, it must have been in late summer – it was warm and the sky stayed light long into the evening, three of us – N., S., and me – had come from some party, where N. had managed to sneak out a half bottle of Absolut Citron, which was, as I recall, the preferred spirit of the day, and we headed up to the reservoir to finish it. The light was blue, and we sat there in the stillness, heady and flushed with drink and youth.

It was then that S. told us about how sick she was. How her illness was progressing, accelerating. She didn’t know, exactly, what it would mean, but that she wanted us to know. We cried and held each other. In that unabashed fervor of our late teens, we declared our love for each other, told each other how beautiful we were, how we’d always be there for each other, no matter what. And in some ways, I think, we were.

At her funeral, barely ten years later, I stood in the back of the church, with N., and with S.’s husband. They had been married two years. We told him how much we had loved her. How much we knew she had loved him. How great they were, together. He was quiet, mostly, let us go on, but when he said, “She was just so easy to love,” we all broke down again, sobbing, holding each other up.

Even when my father lived with us, it was as though he was more imagined than real. I have a few images of him – standing hunched over the kitchen sink, too tall to stand comfortably; awkward in a suit at some family occasion, a pink striped dress shirt, a burgundy tie that does not sit flat on his chest; behind the counter at the Italian grocery store where he sometimes worked, a dingy apron tied around his waist.

It does not seem odd to me then that I have a memory of him, but I can no longer recall whether it is memory or imagination, or perhaps something that only happened in a dream. We are walking in the park near my childhood home. I am disappointed about something. He is comforting me, in his way. The air is cool. The leaves are starting to turn, although they are not yet in full color. He walks with the slight limp that would become more pronounced as the years went on. He favors his left leg, so we walk slowly.

There is a bridge over the narrow part of the river that runs through the park. We are standing on it, looking down. Just below the surface there is movement, but it is difficult to see too clearly.

He calls me his “bunny duck,” a name that I loved as a child, but I am now, in this memory, at an age where it makes me blush. I squirm at the utterance. Life is longer than you think, he says. You will get the things you want, but they may come looking different from what you expect.

I ask him what he means by that and he says: I know, it’s hard to understand. But you will, some day. You will see it all come to you, in time. Life is as long as it needs to be.

Just after my daughter was born, S. and N. visited me in Providence. It was August, Z. was just barely a month old. She was at that stage where she would sleep soundly for hours at a time, so we took her to the park, let her sleep there in my arms, while the three of us talked. S. had gotten married the year before. N. was still searching. We were all happy, in our way. Or at least, happy enough to laugh easily in the bright sun. To remember the things we had thought we wanted, and to list what we still thought possible. For me, a move back to New York. For S., a trip to Ireland. For N., to build a house in the Catskill Mountains.

Although I try to resist the impulse to cast a veil of sentimentality over the scene – sitting there, cross-legged on the ground in front of an old stone fountain, which had been dry for decades – it’s hard not to see a kind of untarnished simplicity in that moment, in that afternoon. In that long, sultry summer. It was the last time the three of us were together.

I have a recurring dream in which I am having a dinner party at my home. It starts out as a few people, but suddenly, becomes thirty or forty people, coming to the door, one after the other. I don’t have enough chairs. I haven’t made enough food. I am running around, panicky.

There is always a man – sometimes it is someone I know, have loved, but sometimes it is a stranger. Sometimes, it is my father. He is there, and he wanders around in the background, oddly familiar with my home, as I rush from task to task, trying to accommodate this growing crowd.

In the dream, nothing ends well. The walls of my house fall away. The guests argue over chairs. A child is crying. The man has disappeared. It is at this point that mercifully, I awaken.

My father used to tell me that when I was very little, he would carry me up on his shoulders when we walked down to the park. That he thought I would be scared the first time he lifted me up. You were so quiet, he said. I’d ask your mother did you look happy, were you frightened, and she said no, no, that you were just sitting up there, smiling. He’d say: I held your little hands in mine, and you never made a sound the whole way there. Or the whole way back. At some point, you must have gotten too big to carry that way. But I don’t remember when.