spring

do not sit

It has been a season of false starts. The heat comes too early. It cannot last, but it forces the trees into bloom and they are left vulnerable, unprotected when the frost returns. Frost on the forsythia blossoms. Frost on the hyacinth, the daffodils. On the foliage of the columbines. Visible even on the slender fronds of lavender. On the tight buds of rose bushes.

I worry that they are too tender. That the return to cold after so much heat will now be too much to bear.

I wake early. Linger in the dark cocoon of my bed. Listen for the familiar sounds of morning. The hum of highway traffic. The distant warnings of trucks as they back into place at the construction site. Birdsong. M.’s breathing – deep and rhythmic.

I hear him rise. Still, I remain in the tangle of bedsheets with my eyes shut tight. The door opens, then closes again.

One night, as a child, I brought a toy into bed with me – a diecast yellow school bus that fit in my hand. My mother came in to say goodnight. Before she turned out the light, she lifted the blanket to fluff it, and I lay perfectly still as it fluttered back down on me, one arm stiffly at my side, my sweaty hand clutching the bus. It was not something she would have been angry at, really, but she may have taken it from me, put it on the shelf or in the plastic bucket that held the other cars and trucks. And I wanted to hold on to it, to have it with me through the night.

After she left, I brought my arm from beneath the covers, held the bus up to look at in the now dark room. The warm metal smell of my palm, my fingers.

In the morning, there is a brief concert at the school. We arrive late, and my son is ushered in to sit on the floor in front of the auditorium just as the song that his class is to sing begins. I stand in the doorway, crowded alongside the other parents who have arrived too late to sit on the benches and chairs set up in the back. They sing about recycling. First in English, then in Spanish. We take photos and videos on our phones. We applaud loudly when they are done.

The students file out and I stay behind to wave to my son. To make sure that he sees me before I leave. I catch his eye. I wave. He stands still to wave back as the other children jostle around him. He blows me a kiss with his small hand.

In the hallway, by the exit, there is a black office chair on wheels. A handwritten sign taped to it: “Do Not Sit.”

It is more difficult than I anticipated to leave this place. The things that I have built over these last months and years. To remember sleepless nights and anxious mornings, poring over file folders, rows of numbers. But I am trying to resist sentimentality. To resist romanticizing what is, in the end, work, that will continue long after I am gone.

Isn’t there a danger, really, in thinking yourself irreplaceable? The boundaries of self – blurring, merging. This thing – this work – takes on a life of its own. And can’t it grow larger and more entangled than you may have imagined?

Be vigilant, I tell myself, have told myself over the years. Pay attention. You are not only your work. You are this but you are more than this.

I walk the perimeter of the garden to survey the damage of last year’s neglect and this year’s premature warmth, but I am distracted – angry, unsettled – for reasons I cannot quite identify. Some of the metal stakes for the peonies have bent and I kick at one with my boot to loosen it from the hard ground.

The climbing rose has grown wild, has taken over the brick path between the back door and the patio and before I can make it to the back corner along the fence, to inspect the lilac and the butterfly bush, I grow weary, head inside. All of it will have to wait.

This time last year, I had a short trip out of town for work. I stayed in a hotel that was attached to a mall, attached to a metro station hub, which itself was attached to other hotels, and to other malls – a webwork of subterranean destinations. One could travel for days – eat, shop, sleep – and never emerge from underground.

I was in something of a letter-writing phase then, and I spent the non-working hours on the wide hotel bed, composing long, meandering missives to people far away - the pen-pal letters of childhood replaced with typewritten words on a glowing screen. 

Last night, J. calls me while I am pacing my kitchen, opening and closing pantry doors, vacillating. We talk about her job, the new frustrations of it. About her online dating profile.

“I’m only doing it so that people will stop telling me to,” she says.

“Who is telling you to do it?” I ask.

“Oh, you know – people who have been in relationships for years. Who have never had to do it themselves. Who are all like: I know so-and-so who met blah-blah-blah online. You should try it.

I laugh.

“I hate it,” she says. “It totally sucks. I’m never going to have a baby this way.”

The season, it seems, mirrors my own transitional state. Not fully one thing, nor another, but divided. Hovering in uncertainty. Waiting.

I think of Stephen Dedalus, as I often do – brought back, as I often am, to adolescence, itself the very definition of waiting: falling, falling, but not yet fallen, still unfallen, but about to fall.

We grow fond of our routines, don’t we? Become accustomed to our attachments so that they are rendered barely visible. Until something shifts: A point of inflection, a moment of action.

And then slowly, you are compelled to let go of what is no longer yours. Perhaps to understand, in fact, that it never really was.

the fire people

I am making some changes – leaving the place I have worked for the last five years for a new one. For the last five years, I have thought of myself in a certain way. Soon, I will begin thinking of myself in another.

We are always reinventing ourselves though, aren’t we? Our sense of self – evolving all the time? In the small and the large ways. In spring and early summer, I am a gardener. As the summer wears on, I am more of a garden-avoider. Most evenings, I am a mother, wife, a keeper of house. By day, a creator of documents, a meeting facilitator, a fast-talker, a salesman of sorts.

“A professional flirt,” my friend said once, when we were talking about raising money. I laughed, lowered my head to look up at her from beneath my batting eyelashes.

“Is it working?” I asked.

“Not a chance.”

With my son, we are working on transitions. “We give him a lot of advance warning, and then tell him everything that is going to happen, step by step,” his teacher says at the kindergarten parent-teacher conference. When he is doing one thing – say, building with blocks – then has to go to another – to get in line for lunch – he will sometimes express his frustration by whining, or shouting or crying. Yes, we are familiar with this, we say. He can be the same way at home. We all nod, write down the strategies that we think will help. Agree to be consistent – at home, at school. I think about myself and about M. About all the little rituals we put in place throughout our days. The ways we give ourselves advance warning, try to predict what will happen next, as a way, perhaps, of allaying our fears.

The question arises, as it often does in conversations about transitions of any significance, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” It could be five years, twenty years, a hundred years – the time frame, it seems, does not matter. The question meant to evoke a vision for some desired future life – a state of aspiration, a wish. I am never sure how to answer this. In ten years, I see myself better. A better version of myself. Wiser? Kinder? Less doubtful? Less fearful? Calmer somehow? Having found something I have been searching for?

I think instead of ten years ago. In the tiny purple house on the west side of the city. New homeowners, newly married: completely unprepared for both. I remember standing in the kitchen one evening and M. coming up from the basement, wide-eyed. “There is a fire. We have a fire in the dryer.”

“What?”

His exterior calm did not match what I heard him say. “There is a fire. In the basement. In the dryer.”

I stood there, unmoving, staring back at him.

“Do something,” he finally said, annoyed.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Call someone – call the fire people.”

“The fire people?”

And so it went.

I can’t recall whether, in the end, the fire people came. But I do remember having to hang our clothes on a drying rack for several weeks after that.

The bridge construction delays traffic as we drive across the old bridge. A woman in an orange vest walks out into the street, holds her STOP sign aloft, waves it at me. I stop. A few cars behind me, someone honks his horn, impatient to get to his destination. We stop there as a truck carries giant concrete slabs from one staging area to another. The horn honks again and its insistence makes me think of my five-year old son. Who among us does not have trouble with transitions?

The basement of the purple house had a dirt floor and a low stone wall, where we stacked the accumulated detritus of our prior lives. My wedding dress – the first one, the one I wore to marry B. – was there, preserved as it had been in its coffin-sized box. It was something I had been expected to do: To have the dress – an ivory taffeta affair with lace and with silk-covered buttons and a bustle – an actual bustle! – cleaned, pressed, and preserved in a box with a plastic window through which I could admire it – its bodice and arms now stuffed with tissue paper so as to appear, I suppose, lifelike. It was bulky, of course, this box and I didn’t want to keep it now that the marriage was over. I didn’t want to save it for Z., superstitious as I was, but it had been expensive, and so to avoid making a decision, I left it down there in the basement, where loose dirt and stone from the ceiling would fall on it, leaving little pockmarks on the plastic viewing window.

When we sold the house, years later, I left it behind. After days of cleaning, packing, and discarding the contents of the house, we were exhausted. The moving date came, and after we made the last pass of all the rooms, wedged the last of the boxes into my car, we drove off. It was not until days later that I remembered it. Perhaps it is still there, on that low stone wall, covered over now, as it must be, with ten years’ worth of dirt.

Now that it has gotten warm, we sleep with the windows open, and I wake to the sound of the cars speeding by on the highway – a muffled hum. Morning birdsong. The world in its own transition: the forsythia blooming, the drifts of yellow daffodils, the purple crocuses.

Ten years ago, spring in our first house together. The heady rush of it – of beginning.

Ten years from now: spring again. And me? Better, I hope. I hope I find what I am looking for. 

spring, pink dress, bus ticket

Over the weekend, I stay in bed so late that it is disorienting – accustomed as I have become to waking before the light. The sun is already bright and high when I rise, make my way down the hall to ready myself for the day. Despite the relative lateness of the hour, I do not feel rested. My body feels heavy, leaden. I try to think of lightness – think of the invisible thread running through my body, as I have been instructed to do over the years – by the physical therapist, the yoga teacher, the dance instructors – I am trying to elongate, to lift myself up.

When I finally unpack from our trip, I come across a pink dress that I did not wear, but when I shake it out to hang it in my closet, I find a dark stain on it, near the neckline. I look in the suitcase, to see what it had been packed next to, but I don’t see anything that could have caused this. The fabric is dry now, to the touch, the stain the size of my palm – large enough to be puzzling.

We venture out – the day brilliant and beckoning – and walk in the park that is bordered by the bay. The air is sweet and redolent of honeysuckle, although we are still weeks away from blooms. The long, slender branches of forsythia show their tight green buds just waiting to burst and seeing them makes me impatient, makes me want to coax them into blossom.

The boys – my husband, my son – run on ahead and disappear into a little copse of evergreen trees. I can hear the sounds of their play in the distance. I sit in the grass facing the water and the sky is so cloudless, so blue that it seems to dissolve into the bay. It is difficult, at this particular moment – the sun warming my face, the blue water, the blue sky – to imagine wanting more than this.

I am bothered by the dress – wondering now if I perhaps packed it that way – stained from the party at the German Club – is that where I wore it last? How had it not found its way through the laundry? Or worse: had it already and still, the stain held fast?

On the drive into work, I am stopped at a light and glance over at the bus shelter. A man is standing there, looking down. I expect him to be looking at his phone, but instead, I see that he is staring at what appears to be his bus ticket – a simple white card. He is turning it over and back and I find this action comforting, pleasing. Around him, his daughter twirls, her bright orange backpack hanging on narrow shoulders.

Is it, perhaps, a function of my age that I find myself nostalgic for the simple tools of my youth? The dial telephone with its coiled cord? The record player – the gentle scratch and warp of it? A ticket to hold in one’s hand? A moment of rest from the glow of the tiny pocket screen.

As I drive off, I find myself wanting to hold this ticket in my hand, to rub it between my palms, feel the paper soften at my touch. Bring it to my face, hold it up to my cheek. Tear it a little at one corner. Slip the corner, surreptitiously beneath my tongue.

On the way back from the park, we find a record store on a side street where we barely ever go. Along one wall are pinball machines toward which my son makes a determined dash. I hover near him as he paws at the glass, presses the buttons insistently. I give M. some time to browse the wall of records uninterrupted and when I look over, he is flipping through them, his head bent in concentration. When the boy’s interest in the pinball machines wanes, I take him for a walk outside. We find a playground a block away and he trots on ahead.

It has become so warm that we are all shedding layers. On the bench where I sit to watch my son climb the rock wall, there is a pile of discarded sweatshirts and jackets. The children throw themselves at the play structures – all limbs and flushed cheeks. Parents hover near the fence and by the steps to the slide, watching for any signs of distress, poised – acknowledging, perhaps that the sudden heat is bound to make us all a little reckless.