new year

we may win this year

M. is away this weekend on family business so I take the boy out early for chocolate chip pancakes and bacon. He brings his building blocks to set up elaborate mazes on the table while we wait and I steal a few minutes for Speedboat. I am at the eponymous chapter. There is a breathlessness to the writing that thrills:

Summer. The speedboat was serious. The young tycoon was serious about it, as he was serious about his factories, his wife, his children, his parties, his work, his art collection, his resort. The little group had just had lunch, at sea, aboard the tycoon’s larger boat, a schooner. The speedboat, designed for him the year before, had just arrived that day. The tycoon asked who would like to join him for a spin to test it. The young American wife from Malibu, who had been overexcited about everything since dawn, said she would adore to go. Her husband, halfway through his coffee still, declined. The young Italian couple, having a serious speedboat of their own, went to compare. In starting off, the boat seemed much like any other, only in every way – the flat, hard seats, the austere lines – more spare. And then, at speed, the boat, at its own angle to the sea, began to hit each wave with flat, hard, jarring thuds, like the heel of a hand against a tabletop. As it slammed along, the Italians sat, ever more low and loose, on their hard seats, while the American lady, in her eagerness, began to bounce with anticipation over every little wave. The boat scudded hard; she exaggerated every happy bounce. Until she broke her back.

She was sped to shore, of course, and then to Rome, by helicopter. Soon after that, she was well enough to fly back to New York. She recovered in Malibu. But violent things are always happening to the very rich, and to the poor, of course. Freak accidents befall the middle classes in their midst. Martin, our campaign contributor, who spent one term at Oxford many years ago, and who has sounded English ever since, tends to say “How too like life” when he is drunk. Anything – a joke, a sigh, a quarrel, an anecdote – has upon him, at such times, this effect. He says “How too like life.” When the American lady had her accident, Martin said How too like life all afternoon.

As we finish breakfast, I make phone calls – an appointment for my daughter, check in on some friends.

A couple slides into a booth near to us and they are talking about renovating their apartment. He wants to hire a professional contractor; she wants him to do it himself. “It doesn’t make sense to spend all that money – you could do all that.” He speaks in a voice much lower than hers, so I can’t follow the specifics of his response. But there is head shaking and there is cajoling that is paused only long enough for the two to place their orders for French toast, pancakes, and sausages. The waiter – who carries a small wire-bound notebook and pen, but writes nothing down – departs, and immediately, they are at it again.

We walk slowly down the brick steps to the street and W. says: “This is like we are in a chimney.” I say, yes, I guess it is, and take his hand. When we reach the bottom, there is a man hosing down the parking lot. The soapy water glistens on the blacktop and runs in narrowing ribbons down to the street.

The day is bright and unseasonably warm. A gorgeous day, which in January, can only seem like a bit of a trap. I remind myself to remain vigilant.

We open a bottle of wine, some friends and me, and talk about our plans for the year. We have lists of projects – for writing, for art, for work. It’s going to be a big year, we all agree. That feeling – of possibility, of anticipation – is as delicious and seductive as it is familiar, each year, at the start of it. Several years ago, a friend of mine proclaimed in January, “This will be the year of ‘Yes.’” It probably goes without saying that none of us is really willing to give names to the years any more.

This is the weekend the tree comes down. It’s overdue really, but the evenings have been busy. M. drags the bins up from the basement and leaves them for me. Earlier in the week, I had asked: “Next year, should we not have a tree? I mean, a live one?” The thought had not occurred before, really, but our friend S., in explaining his own reluctance to have one – although he did, in fact, acquiesce to the wishes of his wife, their son – says: “Look at this beautiful tree that has lived all these years, and is now going to die in my house.” I’m embarrassed that I’ve not been more cognizant of the truth of this, had not thought this before. M. wavers. “Let’s think about it some more,” he says at my suggestion that we arrange bare branches in a vase or stack books and string some lights on them. “I’m not sure if I’m ready for that.”

From his parents’ house, where they are cleaning out forty years of memories, he sends me photos and messages throughout the day. No need, I realize, to give up everything at once.

An afternoon spent in the sun watching W. roll around in the grass. We walk down near the water and watch the dogwalkers and the runners move back and forth across the landscape.

When I can, I scribble notes on scraps of paper that I find in my purse. The things I want to do this year I’ve not yet mapped out in any sort of plan – they are still floating around – a shapeless mound of vague ambitions – and I capture them as I can, so that later, I can sort and prioritize them:

French lessons
SF itinerary

Piano for W. and art class
NYC in February
Valros in September?
W. wants to see the White House
Z. to Chicago
MDD birthday
Brunches

Again, from Speedboat:

We may win this year. We may lose it all. It is not going as well as we thought. Posterity, anyway, does not know everything. The simplest operations of life – voting in a booth, filling out returns, remembering whether or not one has just taken a pill – are very difficult. Jim leads an exemplary life, and I can’t cook. As is clear from the parking regulations, however, there are situations in which you are not entitled to stop.

carried home

There are times when I feel as though these days are an extended dream sequence, and in a moment, I will wake from it, heavy-lidded and groggy and I will find myself at some earlier point in time:

In my tiny apartment on Angell Street with the pink gingham curtains I have sewn myself in a frenzy of domesticity. My daughter is just over a year old. She has learned to walk and we practice going up and down the front steps, holding hands.

Or before that – on Third Avenue and 82nd Street on the eighth floor of the doorman building where in the lobby, I dropped a box full of super 8 tapes that I made in the filmmaking class I was taking downtown. For a joke, I had given them all absurd porn titles and printed huge labels on them so that when I had to show them in class, the instructor in his meticulous black button-down shirts might pause to stare up at me over the tops of his horn-rimmed glasses, a blush rising on his cheeks before pressing play on “H.R. Muff ‘n Stuff” or “21 Hump Street,” uncertain for a moment, as to what might come up.

Or in the house on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Where every morning, I walked into town pushing my baby in her leopard-print stroller. In the afternoons, if it rained, I would drive her out to the strip mall and dart into the sprawling box stores, wandering the aisles aimlessly, murdering time. Buying bits of cheap plastic that lit up or glowed or spun.

Before her, even? In the apartment we rented from the elderly Korean woman who clucked her tongue at me and shook her head sadly when I told her I didn’t understand the language. “I’m adopted,” I explained, hoping to gain some sympathy. She shook her head more vigorously as she reached out for the rent check I had just signed. “You could still learn,” she said as she folded the check, tucked it into her purse. “You could still learn.”

In my pink bedroom in Brewster, with the phone shaped like a fat tabby cat. The receiver was carved out of the cat’s back and when it was lifted from its cradle, the cat’s eyes opened, plastic lids revealing giant white eyeballs. Sometimes at night, when J. called from California, I would drag it into the walk-in closet so I could close the doors and whisper in the dark behind my dresses and off-season coats. Perhaps I’d awaken to a morning back then, that summer that I flew out to Los Angeles and we drove up the California coast – the sky, the landscape so beautiful that I thought my heart would break. I would wake up in a motel or later, in the guest room of his cousin’s house, wedged into the side of a mountain, and cry because I could not imagine any other reasonable response to such breathtaking, stunning beauty.

Our friends spend the day with us and we talk about children. My niece is expecting and between that news and a brief bout of nausea – followed by frantic mental arithmetic and calculations – on one of long car rides of the holiday travel, and I have babies on the brain. At the table, we relive the early years – the weeks of sleeplessness. The traumas of weaning. The days where we would weep from the frustration and exhaustion of our bodies – still healing – not being fully our own. We are sure to start each new remembrance with, “Of course, I love him so, so much, but…” to reassure ourselves and each other that we are indeed fit to parent these children. These children who periodically will run into the room, waving some figure they’ve made out of plastic parts, calling “Mommy, mommy, look at this,” as if to remind us how clever they are, how precocious and how charming.

We remind each other how quickly this all will go. How these years will pass and we will find ourselves alone, nostalgic and longing for these days of their childhood. I think of my daughter and how one day, I was sewing cat patches on her pockets and the next, she was gone – laptop propped on lap, pink headphones on, sitting here sharing physical space with us, but in truth – a thousand miles away.

One night that summer on the Chesapeake Bay, there was a carnival in the parking lot behind the fire station. We walked over there after dinner and Z. sat on the little elephants and horses that carried her in circles, lights blinking, tinny music playing from cheap worn speakers. The night was so warm. We ate popcorn and candy apples and stayed out until after sunset. There were fireworks – just a few, set off over a wheelbarrow full of water – that sputtered and left smoke trails. When her eyelids drooped, I carried her home, and she slept, her head heavy on my shoulder.

When I wake from this dream-life I am living, I want to be carried home in the dark, drowsy and with the memory of fireworks. I want to be lifted up onto my father’s shoulders – up so high that we have to duck down under doorways and the further we walk, the higher we go – up through the branches of trees, up through the cover of clouds.

I want to rest my head on a pillow and have blankets drawn up over me. A glass of juice brought to my lips with a straw. A cool cloth on my head for when I am hot with fever. A movie on television where cartoon animals talk to each other and sing. I want to be led into a room with my eyes closed, so that someone can say: “Now open them. Surprise!”

I want to climb into bed between my parents in the early morning light. I want to wedge my small body between them – sprawl out on them. Throw my leg over my father’s stomach, my arms stretched out over my mother’s chest. I want to take up space, be loud, run from room to room, shouting. I want to collapse on the floor on my knees and roll around, moaning. “Something hurts,” I will say, to anyone who will listen. “I feel a little sick. And something is hurting me.”

After our friends leave, my son and I stretch out on the couch and cover our legs in blankets. I thumb through a Korean cookbook I received as a gift while the boy watches superhero cartoons from M. and my own childhoods. M. came home with a box set of them, and the opening credit music stirs something in me that I cannot articulate. Something soft and warm. We settle into the steady hum of the television and the giddiness of the day slowly gives way to the descending darkness.

M. takes the boy up for bed. The house is quiet. A sense of panic creeps in, but only fleetingly. I find tasks: I fold laundry. I stack dishes. I answer holiday correspondence. I make lists of what we need from the grocery store, the errands I need to run. And as the new year begins it appears much like the old one: the evening quiet of our house as I move from room to room, picking up the objects left behind from the day. The soft sounds of my family padding around upstairs. The distant hum of traffic on the highway below. The sky, darkening, but holding the promise of morning just beyond.