falling

freefall

My friend returns from a weekend in New York and we meet up late, at the restaurant across from the park, to catch up.

“I was glad to be there, but I am so glad to be back,” she says. “That’s good, right? That I feel like this is home?”

She has moved back, not too long ago, after several years in the city. She tells me of the places she went, the galleries, the concert halls. The brunches with friends, the breathless pace of it. 

And then, she tells me of the man she sees there. She no longer asks him whether he is moving forward with his divorce.

“I think it needs to be over,” she says. She is drinking a glass of sangria - bright mauve with a wedge of orange perched on its rim. “It’s just making me so sad all the time.”

“He says that he’s not good for me. That he’s damaged. But we have this connection,” she says, “I think he’s afraid of it.”

“Do you think he’s just not ready to be with someone right now?”

She says maybe. She says but when they are together, he is so tender, so intimate. “He opens up to me,” she says, “I think that’s real.”

We are quiet as the waiter comes over and clears our plates. 

I ask: “Why does he say that he’s not good for you?” 

“I think he’s scared of what he’s feeling,” she says. “I think it’s his way of pulling back - of keeping me at a distance.” 

“It’s possible that it’s true,” I say. “Maybe you should take him at his word.” 

“Yes,” she says. “I know. It’s just sad to think it’s over.” 

“Maybe don’t think of it as over forever,” I say, as I reach for the check. “Maybe just for right now.” But even as I say it, I know it is untrue. 

M. is traveling again - for work this time, and at night, while my children sleep, I wander the rooms of the house we share, keenly aware of his absence. 

This house - so full of him, of us all - of the objects and stuff of our lives together. We are so careless in this house. We leave coffee cups in every room, on every surface. A newspaper, opened, its sections spread out across the couch. A small plastic tub full of marbles on the floor, waiting to be spilled. Our lives are haphazard, rushed. We are moving in all directions. 

When he is here, when we are together, there are times when I enter a room, and I am surprised to see him there, standing at the kitchen counter, or sitting in a chair. As if I have forgotten that I do not live alone. 

And when he is gone, I see him all the time - ghost versions of him in every room, in every hallway, lingering there, everywhere I go. 

After several days of rain, bright sun one morning as I drive down the wide tree-lined boulevard. The gray road stretches out in front of me to receive the great swaths of light cast through the branches.

Later, I walk up the hill to an afternoon appointment. Trees are in bloom so full that they drop their blossoms to the sidewalk. The sweet scent of their decay wafts up as I crush petals beneath my feet. It is a warm afternoon. There is a light breeze which delights the skin. It is difficult - all the senses aroused as they are - not to feel a particular, urgent pulsing. If not joy, then something akin to it. Even if only for a moment. 

I stop at the bakery for coffee. We stand in line, my son and me. I offer him a treat as reward for his patience with the morning chaos. He chooses a cookie in the shape of a heart. We walk back to the car, and I hand him the paper bag. He clutches it against his own heart, beaming. “Heart cookie, heart cookie,” he sings, and there on the sidewalk, he does a little dance - kicking up his feet, twirling around, his bag in hand, the happiest boy in the world. 

He is still smiling as he climbs into the car. He holds the cookie on his lap until I say, “Go ahead, you can eat it.” And I watch as he takes it from the bag, holds it up, turns it around in his small hand, admiring it before finally, he lets himself taste.

It’s been several days since I have seen K., but she is there at the library talk, and so after, we walk down the hill together for a glass of wine at the restaurant that burned down last summer. It has since been restored and when we walk in, it is as if the fire never happened. Not a trace of it -  the fire, the damage, the events that followed - remains. 

She tells me about the new man she has been dating. “It’s great,” she says. “It’s really pretty amazing.” She shows me a photo. He is sitting down on a low wall. He is smiling. His face is kind. 

“I think I’m really falling for him,” she says. 

Then: “But I think if G. asked, I’d go out with him again.” She is talking about the man who broke up with her over email. 

“No, you would not,” I say. “No one would let you. There are people all over this town who are just furious with him. We would never let it happen.” I say this like I am joking, but I am not. 

“Anyway,” she says, “it’s going really well. I want you to meet him.”

“I’d like that,” I say. 

C. joins us, later. She is back from New York. I haven’t spoken to her in weeks. She tells us: I was with an old friend who for the last ten years has been married to the best man in the world. The most perfect, most wonderful man. We all adored him. He comes home last week and tells her that he’s been having an affair for the past year. So, I spend the weekend with her in freefall. 

She uses the word freefall, and I think yes, of course, what a perfect way to describe the feeling of suddenly not knowing what comes next. How you plan, how you spend your time thinking you know the way your life will unfold and then without warning, you are falling. Wondering if you will ever stop falling. 

There is more to say, of course, and more to ask, but K. is distracted and it is getting late. So we hug each other, walk out into the cold, damp night. 

Late at night, we talk, M. and me. He makes a joke that I misinterpret and I respond with petulance. I pout through our conversation. I hang up sad and tired. How wearying it must be to love me. 

I drive through the rain this morning, thinking of our conversation. Thinking about the work of love - its tending. 

How we think we know each other, how we think we know ourselves. How we think we understand why we do the things we do, that we can know what others will do in response. When really, we are just making it up as we go. Creating and destroying and re-creating love, as we go. 

Without a map, we keep driving - cautiously at times, and at other times, recklessly. Veering away, when we can, from the falling.

That is: when we can see it coming. 

incident report

I am thinking about transitions. Then I find this:

Lucifer
– Dean Young

You can read almost anything
about angels, how they bite off
the heads first, copulate with tigers,
tortured Miles Davis until he stuck
a mute in his trumpet to torture them back.
The pornographic magazines ported
into the redwoods. The sweetened breath
of the starving. The prize livestock
rolls over on her larval young,
the wooden dwarf turning in the cogs
of the clockworks. I would have
a black bra hanging from the shower rod.
I would have you up against
the refrigerator with its magnets
for insurance agents and oyster bars.
Miracles, ripped thumbnails,
everything a piece of something else,
archangelic, shadow-clawed,
the frolicking despair of repeating
decimals because it never comes out even.
Mostly the world is lava’s rhythm,
the impurities of darkness
sometimes called stars. Mostly
the world is assignations, divorces
conducted between rooftops. Forever
and forever the checkbook unbalanced,
the beautiful bodies bent back
like paper clips, the discharged
blandishing cardboard signs by the exits.
Coppers and silvers and radiant traces,
gold flecks from our last brush,
brushfires. Always they’re espousing
accuracy when it’s accident, the arrow
not in the aimed-for heart but throat
that has the say. There are no transitions,
only falls.

Outside the classroom of the preschool my son attended last year, there hung a shoe organizer - the kind with pockets for each shoe to slip into. Lining the walls of the long corridor of classrooms, these “pockets.” Communications home. Newsletters. Permission slips to be signed. Snack lists. “Check your child’s pocket,” we would be told. “Don’t forget to check your child’s pocket.”

At the end of most days, the pockets would be empty. I would walk halfway down the hall to check, then walk back toward the parking lot, my son in hand. On the worst days, though, all the pockets would be empty, except for one. A sheet of white paper, that had been folded in thirds and stapled shut. An incident report. Something had happened during the day. My son - screaming in class, a tantrum. Or kicking. Or throwing himself around, his arms flailing. “We took him from the classroom,” written carefully on the lined form. “He apologized and then we took him back.”

The teacher tells us: “He is having trouble with transitions.” When they move from one activity to the next. He needs to be told several times, in advance, what will happen. If something happens that he is not expecting, he will fall to the ground and cry. As if leaving one thing and going on to the next is more than he can bear. 

I sit at my desk in my office which is no longer to be my office. There are white binders, stacked. File folders, bulging. Tacked up on the wall - cards and notes written to me to mark various occasions long passed. Lists of phone numbers. 

In the late afternoon, I begin taking these down, slip them into a large envelope. I stand up. I pace. I walk to the window, watch people crossing the street at the light. A man in a black parka waves at the driver of a bus passing by. 

We take him to a doctor. We talk about transitions. About what we are and are not doing to assist him. We hear the names of the various conditions he might have. 

We take him to occupational therapy, where he sits on a wide swing while a woman throws beanbags at him and he tries to catch them. He rides a tricycle down the carpeted hallways. He stacks foam bricks and knocks them down. 

My friend shrugs her shoulders and frowns. “He’s four years old,” she says, “maybe his condition is that he’s four.”

“I am sorry,” my son says, we approach the pockets, my heart sinking. I take the white sheet, tear through the staple. “I’m sorry, mommy,” he says again. “It was by an accident.”

How is it, really, that we are to live? To know what path to follow? When to search and when not to search? What impulses of the heart to suppress and which to bring to light?

When to leave one thing and go on to the next? 

When to fall to the ground and cry?

One evening while I am still in college, I get a call from one of my closest friends, S., who is home, unexpectedly and having a party. “I want you to come,” she says, “everyone will be there.” I am hesitant. 

“We miss you,” she says. “We haven’t seen you out in so long. Not since.” 

She doesn’t finish the sentence but she doesn’t need to. Not since my mother’s funeral. It has been several weeks. No one knows how to speak about it. 

It is a three and a half hour drive to her house. 

“You can spend the night here,” she says. “Sleep over. It will be like the old days. Just like it used to be.” 

It is already growing dark as I head to my car. 

By the time I get there, the party is loud and sloppy. I wander through the rooms of her house, looking for her. Across every surface it seems, there are people draped in various stages of disarray. I spot her in the kitchen. We hug and she hands me a plastic cup of pink liquid. “Drink this,” she says, “and all your cares will disappear.” She says this last with a wave of her hand. 

“I’ll be right back,” she says, as she heads off carrying another two plastic cups. I don’t see her again that night. 

I lean against the counter and sip the drink. There is a giant bowl of it on the table, with several plastic cups floating in it. A couple stumbles in, refills their cups. They raise them to me and I raise mine back. 

I don’t stay the night. I am tired from the drive and the weeks of weariness. I know that S. will be upset with me, but I slip out and walk down the block to my car. The night is clear and cold. 

There is very little traffic on the highway. The sky is filled with stars. I speed back in the darkness toward my apartment, to the bed I share with a man whose voice, whose hands I will eventually forget. 

Another goodbye I will have to say. 

But not tonight. 

and so I did

In the white room, the daughter sits beside the bed where finally, her mother is sleeping. She calls her mother’s name, softly – once, and then again. When she is certain that her mother cannot hear her, she begins her story:

Once I waited for three hours in the lobby of a hotel to meet a man. I hardly knew him. We met once before, at a gallery party. It was so crowded. I was standing near the door, thinking about how to leave gracefully, leave the people that I had come with, and he came up to me and handed me a glass of champagne. They were passing out champagne on trays and for a moment, I thought he might be one of the staff. But then I looked up at him and he broke into this wide boyish grin. I couldn’t help but smile back. I took the glass from him and we walked around the gallery together. Thomas had been away for so long.

We stayed there for a long time. We talked about our families. It all felt easy. I felt safe. At the end of the night, he walked me to my car. I remember it had started to rain. Just a light rain, but enough to make people walk quickly. But we didn’t. We walked so slowly it was like we were hardly moving at all. When we got there, I said, I really should go. And he said yes, probably so. And I said, I don’t really want to, but I should. And he nodded, said, ok, and just like that, he was gone. I stood there at the door to my car and watched him walk away, and the rain was still falling.

Weeks passed and I thought of him sometimes. Thomas came home – just for a couple days – and then he was off again. We weren’t fighting anymore. He was so quiet. He seemed sad all the time. But this is not meant to be an excuse, an explanation. I just didn’t know where we were.

And then the man reappeared. He sent a note and said he would be passing through and wrote the name of the hotel, about thirty miles away. As soon as I saw this, I knew I would go. I didn’t know why I was going, but I knew that I would.

So when the night came, I drove out there. I brought a book and sat in the lobby. And I watched the people ride the elevator up and down. And I waited. I would get up and walk around sometimes. I would read. I bought a cup of coffee from the cart in the lobby. And I waited.

Do you know how sometimes you can look at someone and see how inside, they are so alive and they glow with this white hot light? They are radiant? And then you look at someone else and can see how small and dry and ashy they are inside? How it seems like whatever light there once was has just been stamped out of them? I was standing by the elevators and when the doors opened, I saw myself in the mirrored walls of the elevator car and I nearly gasped out loud. All I could see was this hollowed out shell of a person. Like if you opened me up all you’d find is a pile of ashes and dust.

I thought: My god, I have to go home. What am I doing waiting here for a man I don’t know. What do I think is going to happen?

And as I headed toward the door, you know, of course, what happened. There he was, just coming in. So I stopped and stood there, let him come toward me. I told him I was just about to leave. That I had been waiting so long. I told him I was crazy to come out here and crazy to wait as long as I had, and couldn’t he have called so that I didn’t have to just sit there waiting like a fool, like a crazy, hollowed-out shell of a woman who has nothing inside her but dust and ash.

And he said I’m so sorry. Please don’t go. He said: Please stay.

Please. Stay.

And so I did. 

a dream of falling

This morning, I wake up angry. This is not a common occurrence – usually, the frustration builds through the day, the anger kept at a slow simmer. I wake from a dream that troubles me:

I am standing on top of a tall building. It is taller than all the buildings around it. It is eerily quiet. I walk to the edge, look down. It is almost too far down to see. I think about what it must be like to walk from a rooftop. To decide that this is the way – after all – it is to end. With falling. Not yet fallen, but about to fall.

As I stand there at the edge, contemplate the fear of falling, I lose my footing. And now I am falling. The fall is so fast but from such a great height that I have time to find my voice and to scream. In my dream, I can hear the sound of my voice – high-pitched, fearful, but filled with rage, too. It seems I may fall this way, screaming, forever without stopping.

I wake and my head is pounding.

After the reading the other night, a young man talks to me about his writing. The skin on his face is so smooth, so untouched that it makes me want to cry. He asks me about graduate school, about the writing program, the faculty. He asks me what I am working on now. I hear myself telling him, yes, I am writing again after a long time of not writing. He writes some things down in a little notebook while I speak.

Two blocks from my house, a squirrel lies dead on the sidewalk. There is no blood visible, just the small animal curled on its side. I think about calling someone, but I don’t know who to call.

We drive to the grocery store. The clouds are high and gray. There is a chance of rain today, and I am hoping for it, willing it. We are all a bit out of sorts today. We ride in silence.

The hours pass. I put the groceries away. I load the dishwasher, sort the laundry. I pile the recycling into its bin. I peel carrots, potatoes. Chop onions and celery. I will make soup today and lentils. And roast vegetables for the week. I fold laundry. Unload the dishwasher. Put the kettle on for tea. My head is pounding. I think about falling. I think about the squirrel dead on the sidewalk. I think about the boy at the reading with his little notebook.

Not yet fallen but about to fall.

The kitchen table is piled high with the things I have not yet read. The New Yorker (4 issues). Harper’s (2 issues). The New York Review of Books (3 issues). The Sunday New York Times (today’s and the book review from last week). A newspaper called Korean Quarterly. A magazine called “More” that was sent to me as a gift (“for women of style and substance,” which here, loosely translated = over forty). I want to set the whole fucking thing on fire.

My head is pounding.

I follow the link to the film about Korean adoptees. I start to watch it, but have to stop. The tears come fast and unexpectedly. I go back downstairs for the laundry.

Here’s the thing: I want to re-write history. I want to change things I cannot change. I want to have things I cannot have. And like a child on the ground, kicking his legs and pounding his furious fists, I want it now.

Many years ago, when I was still married to B., we were in DC at his parents’ house. I was looking for work at the time. His father was in finance and wanted to get me a job at the local office of his firm. I had protested, said I wanted to do something related to what I had studied, something that I was interested in, felt passion for. He eyed me coolly and explained that many people ended up doing things that they hadn’t planned on doing, but they do them because life is filled with difficult choices.

“I am not yet ready,” I said, “to make those choices.”

We were sitting at their dining table – a long plate of thick glass atop curved steel legs. The walls were bone white and unadorned. The wood floors were polished and bare. For several long moments, we did not speak.

He stood up. I thought he was leaving the room. Instead, he came around to the side of the table where I was sitting, stood a few feet away from me, his arms folded across his chest.

“I know you are struggling. I’ve been where you are. Sometimes, when I feel like that, I do a small task – like polishing my shoes, or pressing my pants. I do that, and it makes me feel better. To have done something. It’s just a little thing, but something.”

I sat there, listening to the sound of his footsteps – slow and deliberate – as he left the room.

I drag the last of the baskets of laundry upstairs from the basement, dump it out on the bed. I make piles for each of us, fold the things that can be folded, make a separate pile for things to be hung. I roll the socks into matched pairs.

Back downstairs, the soup is simmering. A few cupfuls at a time into the blender, then back into the warm pot. I bring the puree just to a boil, add the kale. Cover it.

I start on the lentils.

I go back to watch the movie excerpt. This time, I get through it without weeping. It hasn’t rained all day, but evening is coming.

Come quickly, nightfall.