fire

dangerous propinquity

My aunt writes to tell me about a fire in the apartment complex she lives in: 

The fire was on the second floor and the smoke just kept rising. At first those of us with balconies were told to go out and stay there. Then it kept getting worse and at one point I could not see my front door from the balcony door.  

Then because my neighbor is away, they broke her door to get in and inspect the apt. I told them I had the key but they didn’t want to hear it.  All in all, they broke 13 apt. doors.  Most of the people were right outside the bldg. We don’t understand why they told people to go out and then broke into their apartments.  

Let’s hope that this is all the excitement for a long time.  I think I’d rather go back to my little quiet life.

One night in the late summer, there was a fire in the apartment building I grew up in. I remember being ushered down the two flights of stairs to the lobby and then out the front door to the street in my nightgown. We stood on the sidewalk and faced the building, watching while smoke billowed from the roof. Someone had thought to bring a tin of cookies and she moved through the clusters of us holding out the tin with both hands. What I wanted most of all was the one shaped like a small pretzel, sprinkled with sugar crystals. I eyed the fluted white paper cups as she approached my mother, my sister and me. My mother declined. My sister was sitting on the ground, slumped down, her head resting on my mother’s leg. The tin came to me, was lowered to my eye level. If the woman spoke, made encouraging sounds, I do not recall them. The tin was in front of me, the cookies so close I could smell their sweetness. I had only to reach out with my hand. I stood there for a long time, silent, immobile. Eventually, the woman moved on. 

I pick up a book that I have not read in many years. In graduate school, it had been recommended to me - a way to look at some of the things that I myself had been trying to do. A way to talk about desire, passion. A way to interrogate the complexities of love. 

The book, By Grand Central Station, I Sat Down and Wept, is a fictionalized account of Elizabeth Smart’s 18-year love affair with the married poet George Barker. The language is at times so ecstatic and the imagery so vivid that it can be difficult to read. To read it can feel like holding a beating heart in your hand - the rawness of it, its pulsing. 

As it opens, the narrator is waiting to meet the poet and his wife who have traveled from London to Monterey, where she will be hosting them for a time. She and the poet are to be working on a manuscript together. She describes passing time with the two of them together, watching him interact with his wife, who unaware of their intentions, laughs and “smiles happily across the room with a confidence that appalls.”

There is no shortage of beautiful prose. Here:

Under the waterfall he surprised me bathing and gave me what I could no more refuse than the earth can refuse the rain. Then he kissed me and went down to his cottage. 

Absolve me, I prayed, up through the cathedral redwoods, and forgive me if this is sin. But the new moss caressed me and the water over my feet and the ferns approved me with endearments: My darling, my darling, lie down with us now for you are also the earth whom nothing but love can sow.

And I lay down on the redwood needles and seemed to flow down the canyon with the thunder and confusion of the stream, in a happiness which, like birth, can afford to ignore the blood and tearing. For nature has no time for mourning, absorbed by the turning world, and will, no matter what devastation attacks her, fulfill in underground ritual, all her proper prophecy. 

Gently the woodsorrel and the dove explained the confirmation and guided my return. When I came out of the woods onto the hill, I had pine needles in my hair for a bridalwreath, and the sea and the sky and the gold hills smiled benignly. Jupiter has been with Leda, and I thought, and now nothing can avert the Trojan Wars. All legend will be born, but who will escape alive? 

With the critique of my knees and posture now suspended, the physical therapist moves on to my hips. “They are weak,” he says. “We need to strengthen your hips.”

I try to form a joking response, but only the phrase “childbearing hips” leaps to mind and I open my mouth, but say nothing. 

“Stand comfortably,” he says. I am facing the mirror, he is standing just to the side of me, facing my side. “I’m going to try to push you over.” I tense.

“Just relax,” he says. He pushes his finger hard against my hip and I lose balance. 

“See that?” he says. “You should be more balanced. I shouldn’t be able to push you over just like that.”

For excuse, for our being together, we sit at the typewriter, pretending a necessary collaboration. He has a book to be typed, but the words I try to force out die on the air and dissolve into kisses whose chemicals are even more deadly if undelivered. My fingers cannot be martial at the touch of an instrument so much connected with him. The machine sits like a temple of love among the papers we never finish, and if I awake at night and see it outlined in the dark, I am electrified with memories of dangerous propinquity. 

I take a walk with K. along the tree-lined boulevard and we catch up on the weeks since we’ve last spoken. 

She tells me of the man at work, who, over lunch one afternoon, informs her that if she is looking for a liaison without complications, he is available to her. Would be. We laugh. As if any such thing could be without complications. 

I ask: “So, will you?” She shakes her head no. He is older than us, by quite a bit, but that, really, is not the issue. Married now, though twice divorced, his children grown and living far away. 

A fat squirrel darts in front of us on the path, and we pause to let it pass. “He seems so burdened,” she says, “so tired. It makes me sad just thinking about it.”

“He is looking for something to lift him up,” I say. 

“Yeah, well, it’s not going to be me.”

The doomed nature of their affair is present from the novel’s opening. It is this inevitable catastrophe that lends the early chapters their fevered energy. Smart’s narrator speaks of it in biblical and mythological terms. “It is coming,” she says. “The Thing is at hand. There is nothing to do but crouch and receive God’s wrath.”

Despite this, despite the internal torment such that “the idea of dying violently becomes an act wrapped in attractive melancholy, and displayed with every blandishment,” she persists, believing that:

To deny love, and deceive it meanly by pretending that what is unconsummated remains eternal, or that love sublimated reaches highest to heavenly love, is repulsive, as the hypocrite’s face is repulsive when placed too near the truth. Farther off from the centre of the world, or all worlds, I might be better fooled, but can I see the light of a match while burning in the arms of the sun?

One can not linger too long in that prose. One must emerge from beneath the waterfall, untangle the pine needles from one’s hair, avert one’s eyes from the brightness of such burning. I close the book with a slip of paper marking my place. A little lightheaded, a little melancholy, I head down to meet my friend for coffee and we sit at a little table in the crowded cafe. The afternoon is gray and cold. She has hovered in the final stages of divorce for many months now. “This time,” she says of the upcoming court date, “I think we’re just about done.”

And there’s the irony, isn’t it? That love can end. That even a fire that burns as brightly as the sun - that blazes across a landscape consuming everything in its path - even a fire such as that - cannot burn forever. 

sniff test

My friend is convinced that it’s all about smell. “Didn’t you read that article,” she asks, “about how for women, chemistry is all based on how a man smells?” I admit that I did not.

The smell of the man she’s in love with – the one she meets in hotels against her better judgment – she finds enthralling. She says: “I went up to him and I just put my face right up to his shoulder and inhaled.” She lifts her face up and closes her eyes, breathes in deeply, to demonstrate. She’s lovely and effervescent and it’s hard not to get a little caught up in her.

“That’s why I can’t understand all this online dating,” she says. “All these people who say they fall in love online. How can you possibly know you want this person until you know the way they smell?”

After a few months of walking in to any room where M. and my son are playing, only to have my son ask me to leave, I am giddy and charmed by his newfound affection for me. The other night, at bedtime, he tells me that my hair gets in his face when I kiss him goodbye in the morning. And that it’s wet, too and it gets his cheek wet. I tell him I am sorry, and does that mean he would rather that I not kiss him in the morning before school? He thinks for a moment, and says, “No, it’s ok. I don’t mind that you put your wet hair on me.”

That following morning, I was careful as I unbuckled his seatbelt: I held my hair back with one hand to kiss him on the cheek. He smiles. “That was perfect!” he exclaims. I watch him walk down the three concrete steps to the school entrance. He is wearing the red winter jacket we bought him that always looks dirty, no matter how many times I wash it. At the door, he turns around, raises his small hand in a hesitant wave. I hope that I will remember this image – him in the dirty red jacket, the strap of his blue backpack slipping down on one narrow shoulder, his other hand raised, eyes wide – for a very long time.

Over dinner the other night, we trade family stories. My friend, raised here, tells of her sister and the first time she went to New York as a teenager. The way she spoke of the experience as if it had transformed her in one short day from a young suburban girl to a jaded urban woman. Her sister came back and told her, “I have seen a car on fire in Harlem. And other things that you will never see.”

We laugh, but the image is a haunting one. I remember driving back from New York one night – the familiar route between home and school – seeing one point of light in the dark. It was a stretch of I-95 without streetlamps and a car – or what was left of it – was pulled over to the shoulder, engulfed in flames.

The city has taken back the park now where the tents had been. Talks held, agreements reached. The grounds looks strangely bare, like the parking lots of strip malls just before sunrise. I drive past slowly, taking it in, and there is a man there, walking through the park in a plaid wool coat. He is tall, hunched over a bit, lighting a cigarette against the wind. His posture, his gait – the way is cupping his hands up near his mouth – reminds me of my father. I smile at the thought. My father, gone all this time, but then here, walking through the park – after all these years, a cigarette in the morning before the day has even begun.

When I first had my daughter, what struck me most was her fragility. I carried her around as close to my body as I could. It seemed impossible that I should be responsible to keep her alive. The dangers were pervasive, endless. She was here, in my arms, entrusted to my care. But there was no way for me to predict what lay ahead. What perils I would need to shield her from. What might take her from me, without warning.

Some time ago, I heard the story of a man who, upon learning that his son, nineteen years old, had been killed in Afghanistan, locked himself in his van, which was parked across the street from his house, and set himself on fire. I could not get this out of my head, told M. over dinner that night. Said, “My god, why would anyone do such a thing?”

M. shook his head slowly, said, “You can’t possibly know what you would do facing that kind of grief.”

It is true, of course, of course, and I am reminded of the other grieving parent whose story has haunted me for years. She appeared on a talk show. I remember little of the context. Only that her son had been kidnapped, murdered as a small child. She said what she missed most was when he would come home from playing outside. How he was always filthy and sweaty and would smell “like a wet dog,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. I will never forget this. She said, “I miss that most of all. That smell – that little boy, wet dog smell.”

The morning is cold. This pleases me, after weeks of unseasonable warmth, though I am completely unprepared for it. I leave the house with my lightweight coat open wide, my hair wet. I still have not found my hat from last year, though I have looked. I am reminded of the afternoon several years ago when we showed up for a winter walk with friends dressed haphazardly like any other weekend day. They eyed us skeptically, asked if we thought we’d be warm enough. As they recalibrated their plan, D. remarked – cheerfully, but not without a hint of irritation: “You guys dress like you don’t know that there’s a world out there.” I looked at M. in the jacket he wore over his t-shirt and at my own skirt and tights and canvas sneakers. They both wore hats with ear flaps and sturdy boots. Sweaters, coats, and scarves. There was not much we could say in our defense. The comment stayed with us, though, and we vowed to think in more practical terms. Later that year, he moved out of the house they shared and we didn’t see them much after that.

J. does not describe the smell of her man. Says only that she loves it, is addicted to it. I remember my sister, when she was small. How she wrapped a mound of dried garlic in a square of fabric and kept it under her pillow. I didn’t understand this until much later when I was first exposed to kimchi, Korean foods. How she must have longed for this thing for which she did not yet have the language to express.

I try to think of the smells I love – heady, sweet honeysuckle; gentle lilac in late spring; the milky breath of each of my children while they were still nursing. The malty, earthy scent of M.’s forehead, at his hairline, when I bring my lips to it. The bitter, peppery coffee aroma in the morning.

This morning, I help my son put his backpack on the sidewalk in front of the school. He’s already started walking away, but I follow him, stop him at the steps, turn him around for one last hug. I inhale deeply. The sweet mint of toothpaste over a trace of sour breath. I stand there, watching as he descends the stairs. He does not turn around to wave today. The glass doors close behind him. I get back into my car, pull out into the street.

mostly I am thinking about your body, like a river burning underground

This morning, words do not come easily. I watch the time pass, anticipate the morning light. I will not leave this chair, I think, until I am done.

What I am thinking about this morning:

These lines from a Forrest Gander poem (“Prelude” from the book Deeds of Utmost Kindness):

Mostly I am thinking about your body
Which has run through my fingers
Like a river burning underground

Like a river burning underground
For which there is no hour no language
No ease from its molten glow, no music whatsoever

And also: I am thinking of the Roman Catholic mass. The Liturgy of the Word. The Liturgy of the Eucharist: This is my body: Take and eat. Do this in memory of me.

Of my family in their beds, sleeping.

I am thinking about Timothea’s monologue from the play Sea Marks by Gardner McKay. After she and Colm spend the night together. When he is asleep, she tells him about her first time. About the boy who grabbed her in the barn. They had delivered a calf together – a difficult birthing. They thought the cow would die. They were so tired. She tells him:

I let the boy have me then. It was up in the hay loft – you might have expected that – and he seized me. You’re the boy. That boy was you. And all the time we were doing it up there, there was blood on us from the cow. Blood on his arms he was pinning me down with. Then there was my blood. Too. I just wanted to tell you that.

I am thinking about the stories we want to tell people about ourselves. That I want to tell. The things that we decide cannot be told.

In New York, people are marching in the streets, enraged. We have lived with this rage for so long. I watch from this distance – angry, but immobile. There are few places to turn for comfort.

The stream of news is relentless – New York. Saudi Arabia. North Korea. Egypt. Pakistan.

I wonder how the whole world is not on fire.

Like a river burning underground
For which there is no hour no language
No ease from its molten glow, no music whatsoever

Yesterday, more sad news. How is it that we go on, in the face of so much sadness? I am tired. I sleep poorly. Words fail me, every day.

Last night, I am sitting in my car at the train station, in the dark, waiting for Z. to arrive. I call my aunt, A., on the phone. I hear weariness in her voice, too. I ask her if we can come down to visit this weekend. “Oh, your big birthday weekend,” she says. “Your almost-birthday weekend.”

We talk a bit about my work. About the kids. About M. and his family. There is so much to say that it is overwhelming, so instead we speak in family shorthand: “I guess that’s just the way it goes.” “We’ll see what happens.” And, “Other than that, we are all fine.”

This year, she is 72. I think about M’s parents and their health; his mother near in age to my aunt. I think about the years ahead, how we will accommodate what is to come.

I hear the train announce its arrival, its low mournful whistle.

“Do you remember that priest, Father D.?” she asks, although I rarely remember them. “He died,” she says. “Suddenly,” she adds. He had a heart attack on the altar. It was terrible,” she says. “I wasn’t there when it happened, but my neighbor was there. She told me.”

“The man was standing there, giving communion, and he collapsed. He wasn’t very old at all.“

I bring dessert home, even though it is late. M. and I sit at the kitchen table, talk about the week ahead. A small quiet pleasure in a difficult day. He is wearing a blue t-shirt. His hair is disheveled. For just a moment, in his face, I can see the boy he was. At the age, perhaps that our son is now. The upturn of his lips. The soft roundness of his cheek. The way he tilts his head as he brings the fork to his mouth.

“What are you thinking about?” he asks.

Mostly I am thinking about your body
Which has run through my fingers
Like a river burning underground

It has been many years since I have been to mass. There was a time – brief, to be sure – that I thought perhaps I might live a life of greater faith. Might embrace this faith more fully, live in it as a way to manage the unknowable.

For many years, I loved the mass. The smell of incense. The swelling organ music. Being read to from ancient texts. The strange power of intoning prayers together with others, aloud. Of kneeling down, head in hands, to one’s own private thoughts.

Like a river burning underground
For which there is no hour no language
No ease from its molten glow, no music whatsoever

After taking the communion wafer on the tongue, letting it melt there, papery and tasteless, I would kneel in the pew for a long time. I’d think of it as a contest sometimes, looking down the row in each direction, watching as one by one, each person rose up, sitting back on the bench, arranging themselves, holding their folded hands in their laps. And even after the last of the faithful was seated comfortably, still I would be there, head bowed, on my knees – the most penitent, most faithful, most holy – of them all.