Open Book

The book lay between them. Something soft, something breathing lightly in the corner of the room.

“Open it,” he said.

She turned to stare off into some spectacular distance.

The book had been on the “A” shelf but he had only seen it for the first time this morning. He waited, but she wasn’t listening. The braces and elastic – teenage chewing gum – a 45 on the turntable, no arm, no needle, no noise.

The book spoke first. Leaves — some dry, some wet. Some broken, others red with autumn.

They heard others speaking but then there was only the breathing. The racing breath now.

Gingham
so long ago

a white apron

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Friend-love

There it is again — this feeling of wanting to jump inside her chest, to be infleshed, full inside, nestled and beating. It is the only way to describe this love. It’s not sexual — it lacks that same sort of longing — but it’s friend-like in a way that I don’t know. It’s love, but friend love — fierce, full friend-love, big love, open-sky love, and if there’s a little bit of greed in there, then it’s a thirsty love. It’s a recognition love, comfy divan chaise sunlight-in-the-face closed-eye love, water lapping love, it’s twisted insides love, gratitude love, we’re-on-this-earth knowing love, and my hands are useless on this love, waving this way and that looking for something that could be held, some motion that makes any sense of this, in a world where touching is not enough, where movement, while impelled, has no root, has no cause, has no direction, no resting place, where movement becomes its own object of love, mute, graceful, arms waving and holding what it can, letting go, holding again under the clear certainty that this, this holding and letting go won’t end, and knowing, too, that it will, and how the continuation and the ending are both true.
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The Road Home

The Joni Mitchell song was playing in his head when he stepped out of the car onto the highway. The salt lick – it was for her cows, she’d said, but he thought it might be laced with LSD – lay on the floor of the front seat where he’d been sitting. “Bye,” she said, waving, “and good luck!” He looked down the highway, took a breath. She sped into traffic. He watched her yellow truck merge onto the Merritt Parkway South. The sun was beginning to set.

He stuck his thumb out, into the wind of the passing cars. Endured the stares – the gawping children, the mothers with their looks of surprised disgust, the firm fathers. He read fear, and felt scary somehow. This gave him courage. He was wearing moccasins. They weren’t actually moccasins, but he’d read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee and felt a connection, so he had put on his Sears slippers before leaving – furry on the inside, leather outside. Close enough, he thought.

He walked backwards and hitched, even though his father lived 200 miles away. He thought it showed some initiative, and he needed to distinguish himself from the bums he’d seen out there. If he had been an Indian, he would walk the whole way.

The cars began to spin a little, or weave, or maybe he was losing his balance. Maybe it really was acid – he waited for the hallucinations to start. There were no rides on this stretch of road. It began to drizzle. Headlights came on. He retreated into the bushes on the side of the road to have a smoke.

When he woke up, it was dark. There were no cars. He realized he’d been asleep for a long time, but he didn’t have a watch. Three a.m.? He walked onto the highway. The white stripes seemed exceptionally long compared to what you saw from a car, driving at 60 mph. He kept looking down the road, waiting for traffic that didn’t come. The rain had stopped and clouds were clearing. Stars winked.

He sat on the pavement of the highway, lining up the soles of his moccasins with the white line, and then he lay back, spread his arms. He could see stars, patterns he couldn’t name. If he were more Indian, he could tell the time. He would know when the moon would rise.

He was standing on one bare foot — like a crane, he thought — when he saw the car approaching in the distance. It came closer, headlights clearing a path through the dark.

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The “After” Phase

There it was at the end of the sentence, right as she was about to hang up — “sweetie.” Like I hadn’t almost said it to her before, but I guess I have the wits to stop myself and she doesn’t. It’s there, hanging in the air between us — ex-man-and-wife — this rapprochement, and the feeling of falling back into the kind of easy comfort where “sweetie” comes rolling off your lips before you know it.

This was not supposed to happen. In fact, no one observing the wreckage of this divorce could have predicted it — certainly not me. On some theoretical level, I thought we could be friends, but after what went down, it seemed clear that we’d be doing well if I could pick up the kids without a major blowup.

A therapist said that there are three phases — before the divorce, the divorce, and after the divorce. We’re now moving into the last phase and I don’t have a map. Sure, I knew we’d have to be connected in some way for years to come because of the kids, but I just thought it would be pretty perfunctory and businesslike. You know — the logistics. The business of operating a family. And, for the most part, that’s pretty much what it is. Is that how it always was?

I see how people end up back in their marriages. For me, that won’t happen. This distance must be permanent, which is the only way she looks even remotely good right now. I know what happens up close. I also know what real love is. But now I have a lifetime of navigating a relationship that’s probably going to be as complicated as any primary relationship I’ll ever have.

Lucky me.

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Living in the DMZ

mountains

Today I reserved a lovely one-bedroom suite at a lodge in Colorado, with a gas fireplace, two-person Jacuzzi, and a mountain view, the latest piece of the typical puzzle of how my girlfriend and I ever get to see one another, living as we do 2000 miles apart, both with kids. And then, driving home from work, I got the last piece of the puzzle, and along with it, at last, a sense of elation.  I figured out the excuse.

The excuse. The reason why I can’t take the kids on that Monday night is not because I will be flying back from Denver – that would be the truth. That kind of truth means revealing even more truths to my ex-wife, the worst of them being the existence of a girlfriend. I’m not ready for her questions and so, no, I won’t be on that little porch in Colorado, with a cup of coffee, in my bathrobe. That weekend, I’ll be home, in Massachusetts, doing nothing. And that Monday? Gee, I have to fly to Ohio for a work thing and won’t be home until very late – can we swap nights?

Although I moved out over a year ago, I still feel like I need to prevent my ex-wife from knowing that I’m happy. Right now we live in a divorce DMZ. Though the fighting is over, we’re still clearing away bodies. We’re suspended in time between what happened and what’s going to happen next. It’s not like she can take anything else from me, out of spite, if she knew. It’s just that it’s – unseemly, like dancing during wartime, or “grief sex” after a spouse dies. You can’t be too happy too fast. Unlike actual death, though, in a divorce, the departed still lives. I see her or talk to her many times a week. Dancing feels, at best, awkward. At worst, it’s like saying to the departed that you don’t matter, and that you never mattered.

As much turmoil and bitterness as we went through, I have no desire to hurt my ex. I don’t want to be that guy having a fabulous vacation with a woman he’s crazy about, leaving his ex to stew about what went wrong and to wish that he would die so she could at least use the life insurance policy to buy some nice jewelry. I’m trying hard to maintain some kind of a relationship, but a large swath of myself has to remain off-limits. I can be “friendly” but I can’t really be honest – not really.  Not about this.

So I’ll go to Colorado, but I won’t text pictures to my kids. When I call to say goodnight, I will have had just an ordinary day. I won’t tell them how much they’d love these mountains. I won’t bring back little shampoos for my daughter.

But I will be happy to talk to them, maybe a little happier than usual. I may laugh, from the belly, about something my son says. I’ll be listening more closely to everything they say, and they will hear that.  For now, maybe being “more” with them is all anyone needs to know.

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Box of Leaves

It was after one of their crying jags, when the Kleenex pile grew in the middle of the floor in between their holding each other and talking, that he made a fist and touched her softly in the middle of her chest and looked deeply, soulfully into her. She offered the gesture in return, and they did that many times afterwards, but he always felt that maybe he was holding his fist a little more earnestly than she was, that maybe her fist did not mean what his did when it touched her. When he left her apartment that day, he carried all the used tissues with him, saying that one day they would burn them together.

 ***

He kicked the leaves with great exaggeration as he walked, bringing each foot as high as his waist in an attempt to get the entire forest airborne. It couldn’t be autumn, not officially, until he did that at least once, he’d told her. That Sunday he walked alone through Lincoln, looking for the perfect leaves. He’d driven 45 minutes because he’d remembered them being spectacular there, and he wanted to send her the best ones he could find. After she moved to Colorado, she said she missed the smell of the leaves most of all. The box he packed for her was filled with the yellows and reds of his walk, each leaf hand-selected from the ground. He wanted only the moistest and most colorful ones, imagining how she would slit the box open and press her face into it, the smell of their love overfull and carrying her back to him.

 ***

At first she thought it was arthritis. One week it was nutmeg week, when she put nutmeg in everything so she’d manage to ingest the entire cup that her healer said would help her knee joints. When it didn’t work, she moved on to Chinese herbs, which, when she cooked them, smelled so bad that she had to open the windows even though it was winter. And then, when he visited her, they went together to bee sting therapy, where the healer held the wings of each of 11 honeybees and pressed its abdomen into parts of her knee, leaving its throbbing stinger hanging there like a living zit. Her knees didn’t improve after the swelling stopped. That visit, they broke up again. At least, he thought they probably did. It was confusing because they lay together in bed with all their clothes on the afternoon before he left, “hugging,” but they had not had sex the whole time.  Is this what friends do? An hour before she had to take him to the airport, he was moving against her almost imperceptibly – he really thought she wouldn’t notice — but finally she said, “do you want to fuck me?” and he said yes. He didn’t know if that meant that she did, too, but she enjoyed it and you didn’t have to ask him twice.

 ***

Years later, after the Lyme progressed and the spirochetes had nearly flayed her alive from the inside, her mother arranged for friends to “sit” with her to alleviate the isolation. She could no longer use the computer because the electromagnetic frequencies felt like fire burning every vein. The longest email he’d gotten from her in the last year consisted of five words – “hvng pty hrd time here” – after any number of one-word responses to his by-then sporadic emails describing his new life with wife and kids (“hugs” being the most usual reply). So night after night, in the darkened room, with Mish-Mash purring in his lap, he sat in the stained baby rocker after the kids had fallen asleep and gathered her to him. He held her hands, mostly, and she smiled at him, and he felt her warmth flooding him, and felt that he was helping her, that he had become her newest therapy. Sometimes they were in her small Denver backyard, him holding his arm next to her face so she could follow his finger pointing into the branch where the Northern flicker was calling over and over, seemingly for the sole purpose of evoking deep wonder in her. Other times he made passes at her, stroking her hair, touching her, wanting her, but he always held back because he knew she couldn’t tolerate stimuli and he was afraid she might feel him, even from 2000 miles away.

 ***

He would say prayers at the service, of course, even though he knew none. He’d just make something up for the sake of the kids the same way he made up stories for them every night before bed. He’d talk about what Mish-Mash meant to him, what a good kitty she was, and then he’d ask them if they wanted to say something. The way they’d sobbed in the living room when they heard the news, he figured they’d need some closure. Today, though, he carried her into the back yard alone. He set her down and opened the blanket, fold by fold, until he could see her head, her orange and black calico markings still beautiful. How strange, he thought. It was unnerving, her stillness. He focused on one of her whiskers, watching it very carefully, sure that it would move at any moment. He imagined her running.

As he dug the grave near the woods at the back of the lot, he heard the susurration of oak leaves overhead and stopped to watch the sunlight dancing over her fur. Even though it was already November, the oaks held their leaves. They would hold them, stubbornly, through snowstorms. They would hold some of them even until spring, the last of them twisting and flapping with the March winds. As he placed the cat carefully at the bottom of the hole, he started shoveling dirt onto her, and he thought of the box of leaves he never sent.

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Intention and the Desire to Write

roilingWaters

You say you “want to write,” but what is your intention? At your age, you’ll need to consider and weigh every move against how long it will take to get there, with how much effort, who will be there at the end – “who” in this case being you.

You start with desire, of course – the love of words. How they taste in your mouth. What your tongue does when they melt.

He could – he would — resist this. She gave him warm salt water and he tasted ocean and he swallowed and the waves came, inside, but he held them back. He kept them in.

You find your past splayed wide open in those words. Pull the past forward into your better self, like some giant rubber boot you snagged from under the pier while fishing. You will describe it and love it better than it was ever loved. Maybe you’ll find something about a lawn-full of clover and the bee you picked with your hand, or maybe the way your mother smelled like gardenias, or, more likely, potato peels, or maybe you just notice that she’s absent from every story you tell. It’s a fine occupation, delving. You write and explore. You cast out demons. If you do this at a coffee shop, then you are “writing” and if you have any kind of history and much time, you can sit there for a long while, delving.

He only opened his mouth a little bit, but the raw egg whites slipped past his lips and down his throat, a gelatinous invader. He gagged but held it. Now a neighbor lady was in the bathroom along with his mother. They were talking about time. It was time. He would be strong and he would not throw up. Sick people threw up. He was not sick.

When that memory tugs, though, do you know what it wants? It’s not a screaming child, more like a tapping one, on your elbow, a child you hadn’t met before. What does he want? You must ask, and you ask by writing.

He remembered the car ride, and the blue wash bucket held in front of him. Why were they taking him to the hospital when he hadn’t thrown up? He was a good boy, except for this time. The way the pills tasted – orange, tart-but-sweet, powdery explosions filling his mouth — they drew him to take another, and another. He knew they were medicine but so what? Every single one of them had tasted like candy, and anyway, Mom wasn’t around.

But so what? You relive, recast the past into words. You walk through it again. Maybe you see something you never saw before.

Maybe you see yourself reflected in the coffee shop window, as though for the very first time.


Note to Yeah Write readers — I’m new here, so apologies in advance if this entry doesn’t quite meet the standard for either personal essay or traditional blog anecdote.

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