waiting

hold fast

After the theatre, we walk through the damp tunnel to the parking lot. The concrete walls are stained. We avoid the inexplicable puddles. You take my hand, but we do not speak. Hollow sounds. 

Nothing is as we imagine it might be and yet we persist in imagining. A table by the window overlooking the river. High white moon throwing light on the dark water. We linger for hours. Your hand on my hand across the white table cloth. White plates bearing the last traces of our indulgences. It is a stage set that I design. And you. It is my words in your mouth. My longing that is written on your face.

No matter. The hours pass and the days. The years exact their costs.

I walk downtown in the early morning in the cool, damp air. The river is high and swift. A branch has fallen. Water rushes past. Near the bridge, the rusted skeletons of old machinery. Notched wheels and levers. I wait at the corner while the buses glide past, half-empty. A woman edges past me pushing a stroller. There is no child in it, just plastic shopping bags tied by the handles.

I walk past the empty buildings of the main street. The storefronts abandoned, one after the other. The pawn shop is not open yet, but soon will be. In the window, scale models of race cars sit atop their dusty boxes. The medical supply store has taped cardboard santas and candy canes to the windows. A length of garland is draped across the doorway. Just past, there is a fountain in which a mermaid, caught mid-dive, is perched on a pedestal. The water beneath her is green with algae and stagnant.  

The doctor arranges to come to the house. He calls himself “Doctor Bob,” and pulls a suitcase on wheels behind him. He wears a sweater vest over a long-sleeved collared shirt. His hair is gray. We sit at my dining room table. He spreads out his papers and points to where I should sign then. Here and here and here. He takes my pulse, asks a series of questions without looking directly at me. 

Have you at any time in the last five years? 

No. 

No. 

(nervous laugh): No. 

He takes a box from his suitcase that has rows of lights and switches on it. It is like a child’s rendering of a piece of medical equipment, its purpose unclear. There are wires attached by one end to a series of nodes on the box. To the other ends, he affixes adhesive discs, lays them out on the table next to me.

I will need you to take off your sock, he says and two wires are placed on my ankle.

I will need you to lower your shirt. Two more on my chest.

And now, lift your shirt to just beneath your bra, and I have the sudden and fleeting realization that I am alone in the house with Doctor Bob. He presses three adhesive discs across my abdomen. The machine spits out a narrow strip of paper like a cash register receipt. 

Very good, he says. Very good. 

He writes a few things down. He wraps up his wires. He hands me a green plastic cup and asks me to fill it. So I do. 

There is a man in an orange vest standing at the entrance to the highway. It is closed now as it has been for some time, with the construction. He has a stop sign in one hand, but he is not pointing it anywhere in particular. I look up as I get closer and our eyes meet briefly. I smile then look down almost immediately as I pass. A few steps later, I hear a high short whistle like the call of a bird. And then once again. I keep walking. 

By the time I make my way back from the gym, the pawn shop is open and the medical supply store. They have propped their front door and I can hear a radio playing tinny Christmas music. A woman is sitting at her desk, staring at her computer screen. 

Back at my desk, I sit staring, too. I am stalled a bit, searching. Waiting. 

I imagine us back at the restaurant by the window. I imagine us back in the dome of the cathedral.

I imagine us in the hospital room on the day our son was born. How you hovered as the nurse combed his hair. You gave me an apple and I ate it, the sweetest fruit in the world. When they finally left us, the glorious silence. How we slept there so lightly, so radiant and pulsing. 

We try to go back. Back to these moments. To recapture something that has been lost to time. That we are afraid we will forget. 

Or perhaps I should say I

I am fearful that I will not remember. And what then will I have? These empty storefronts? This stagnant pool? These rusted machines?

Is it nostalgia to linger so long between memory and imagination? Is it sentimentality? Is it a kind of pathology, to move forward through these days, muted. To imbue memory with such sweetness? To give oneself over so fully to anticipation? 

The leaves of the red maple tree outside my window have held on to their branches. They have shriveled and are dry, but they cling even when a breeze blows through them. There is a wind now, picking up and all the branches are trembling. Eventually these leaves will fall and we will rake them into piles. But for now they hold fast.  

glowing, but not burning

Even early, even before the light, there is birdsong. 

Morning breaks. 

M. spends the weekend at his childhood home, readying it to be sold. The enormity of the project overwhelms. He spends the day with his siblings, sifting through the stuff of a fifty-year marriage and a family of nine. They work first on the barn behind the house. They fill dumpsters. They are at it for hours. He sends me photos through the day. In one, sunlight floods through a small opening in the wooden structure, the floor of which is obscured by decades of abandoned playthings, scraps of wood and metal, and trash. 

We speak by phone at the end of the day and he sounds weary, drained. 

“I miss you,” he says. 

I say, “Yes, I miss you, too.” 

My friend comes over late one evening and we talk about the choices we have made. The things that still, we want. 

“What is it that you want?” she asks. 

“I have everything I ever thought I wanted,” I say. 

She presses. “But what about now? What about for the future?”

I tell her about the house in France - my dream of it. To buy a little run down cottage that I can restore, bit by bit, over years. Down by the Spanish border, near the sea. “I need a project,” I say, “to get me through this decade.” 

At this point, it is still just a wish. There is no real plan, there are no steps yet taken. But I have started saying it aloud, to hear the sound of it, to send the reverberations of it out into space.

“Tell the universe what you want,” I read somewhere once, in some self-help book or magazine. “Send your wishes out to the universe and the universe will provide.”

In high school, I spend a semester abroad in England, in a town called Solihull. I live with a family where the father’s silence dominates - his attentions doled out among his daughters carefully and in small portions, like after-dinner sweets. I have never known a house to be so steeped in longing, hearts to be so tightly coiled. 

Days before I leave, I meet a boy and we spend some time together. I remember an afternoon in a rowboat on a lake. 

“I will come back,” I tell him. “Some day, I will come back.”

“I will wait for you,” he says. We are sitting on a bench on a tree-lined street as the sun sets. “I will wait for you.”

But we don’t wait - any of us - do we? 

We go on. We stumble through the days, thinking perhaps, “What if?” until the day that we don’t.

And we forget. 

Mercifully, perhaps - we forget. 

“As long as it takes,” is how he signed the letter he sent to me after I left: “I will wait for as long as it takes.”

I wait at the train station for my daughter as the light fades, the sky a multiplicity of blue. I can see the dome of the capitol building in the distance. The flags are at half-mast, although why we are mourning, I cannot say that I know. Nor can I remember the last time the flags flew at their summits. We are in a state of constant mourning, it seems. 

A car pulls up behind me, and then another behind it. We idle there in a row opposite the entrance to the station. There are bicycles locked to the stair railings. Tree branches shiver in the wind. 

A group of motorcyclists circle the station, their engines angry and loud. They loop around once, twice, and then a third time before speeding off into the distance. Then, silence. 

And waiting. 

I spend an afternoon in the garden. It is windy but the sun is warm. I pull weeds from the front bed on my knees. The earth is cool to the touch. The dirt smells like rust and iron.

Last year, I planted two new rose bushes along the side of the house. They did not make it through the winter. I pull their dry brown branches from the soil, toss them on the pile of weeds. They are long, crooked fingers pointing up at me in reproach. 

I rake out all the beds. Line the paper bags up along the back gate. The irises are in full bloom and in desperate need of thinning. This may be the last season for the old tired clematis. 

M. returns with a few items - a framed mirror, a fireplace screen that had been his mother’s, and her mother’s before that. It is beautiful, ornate. 

A silver tea service. A few records, a dusty box of items from his childhood. 

The train is late. 

My friend says we are not supposed to speak our wishes aloud. Don’t you know the stories, she asks, of the people who make their wishes - for wealth or fame - but they don’t get what they really want because they can’t articulate what is in their hearts? 

“We don’t know how to,” she says. “As soon as we say something out loud, it flattens it, deadens in. Sucks the life force out of it.”

We are sitting on my couch, stretched out, our heads back against opposite ends. It is late. We are warm and flush with wine. We are a little giddy with it. 

“Wishes are magic,” she says. Her hands flutter up for emphasis. “And you can’t put language around magic.”

For a moment, it is quiet. 

She sits up. Reaches for her glass, takes one last sip. “And that is why,” she says, setting the glass back down on the table, “you always have to wish for more wishes.”

We laugh. “Good to know,” I say. “For when the genie comes.”

When the train finally arrives, I watch for my daughter. It is dark now, but the station doors are illuminated by track lighting above them. A woman stands by the doors and as a man approaches her, she reaches out. They embrace. They hold each other there, standing still, like people reunited after long separation. I imagine they are former lovers. It seems a kind, generous embrace. Loving, but without hunger, without expectation. Glowing, but not burning.

I see Z. walking toward the car. I wave and she waves back. She slides in and tells me about her trip. About the museums and the galleries. The things she saw. 

We drive back in the dark and I think about the couple at the train station and wonder whether it is possible to love without expectation.

After we take take our glasses to the kitchen, we step outside into the cold dark night. My friend says, “I want everything that you have. But you have it, and you want more.” 

“You should not look to me for anything,” I say, “I have no idea what I want.”

“Maybe you do, but you are just afraid of it.”

“Maybe I am done having this conversation.”

She laughs, and we hug as I walk her down the driveway. 

“Anyway,” I call after her, “I thought we are not supposed to speak about it. You know, magic and all that?”

She waves her hand at me dismissively. “You have to know it here,” she says, patting her chest. “You don’t ever have to speak of it, but you have to know it here.”

I watch her as she backs out of the driveway. I head toward the house. The wooden steps creak as I ascend them. I close the door behind me. I stare out through the beveled glass of my front door. The street is silent and dark. I turn the porch light out. 

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. 

more, on forty

These are strange days.

This writing is a kind of waiting. Anticipation for the longer projects. For a time when I can see a path to something sustained, something that requires more of me than this lovely morning hour, before the light, before the press of the day has begun. 

This morning, the pre-light is blue, the air is cool. The house is so still, the men folk asleep in their beds.

These days are full of longing. How can I explain this longing?

I ask everyone who will speak to me: What was it like for you, turning 40?

Did it wrap you in a blanket of memory and desire?

Did it carry you in its teeth, shake you till you broke?

Did you weep, every day, nostalgic and wistful? 

Did your body glow with light, with desire? Did you tremble with wanting?

Did you make lists of the things you still wanted to do? This year, I will do this. And next year, this.

My friends send me words – books and letters and poems. They say: This, too, shall pass. They say: Hold on tightly.

And: You are in your power. Be there.

This does not feel like power.

This feels a little bit like madness, a little bit like fever. A little like the days as a storm moves in, the air crackling with what’s to come.

When I can manage it, when I can find the time and the focus, I am working on a collection of forty short pieces for this year of forty. This magical number forty. I say it over and over until the word itself loses meaning. Let it soak up meaning.

Let this waiting be a kind of meaning.

Forty days & forty nights

Forty weeks in the womb & we are blessed

Forty sons, forty daughters & forty tribes of thieves

Let a team of forty wild horses carry me home to you tonight. Give us forty years & forty more.