Some Days

Some days I don’t notice the nuthatch
climbing the cinnamon scales of a pine tree,
or the honeybee paused
on the edge of the birdbath, drinking.
Some days I see only the skim
of a hamburger wrapper floating in the bayou,
a chain link fence studded with plastic bags,
a still gray form in the middle of the road,
justifying despair.
I lose some days entirely,
as if this world can do without me,
as if the way back is not just a few feet away, where a lime green katydid the size of a staple is waiting for my astonishment.

the love that stays

I’ve been in love three times. How about you?

I’m not referring to unanswered adoration. I mean the reciprocal version, where you plunge hand in hand, helplessly. Three times seems like a generous allotment for such a chance event. I am grateful.

When asked this question, most folks have a clear number in mind: If you’ve been in love, you know it. But how, precisely? The duration varies widely and the symptoms are many: Love is a creative process, made new each time. So how do we know, unmistakably, that we have fallen in love?

For many it’s a period of immunity. Bad news bounces off them and nothing provokes concern. They live in a state of blissful suspension, far above the quotidian world. For others the earth becomes surreal. Even the lowliest objects—a broken cup, a piece of newspaper caught in a fence—take on a certain beauty and rightness. Some liken the experience to a drug they can’t get enough of. The more they consume, the more they need, and time spent apart from the loved one is agony. An ache, some folks call it, a glorious and nearly unbearable ache. “You lose control,” a friend told me, “but you’re okay with it.”

Oh those hallowed hours spent gazing at one another, faces inches apart, the sheer delight in discovering a new freckle or gesture. Time, surrendering, slides out the back door. While the rest of world continues somewhere else, lovers are locked away, immersed in a slow tease of mutual discovery. They will not be available to their friends and family, and for this they must be forgiven.

Nothing this extreme can last. The lives we abandoned want us back, and invariably we are reclaimed. In the presence of our beloved, we are not quite as careful with our words or fastidious in our manners; we floss in plain view, burp without apology, and inch by inch our perfect images fade from view. At first, the signs are subtle—a withering look, an eddy of annoyance, a gust of exasperation. Finally we can’t hold out any longer—the world elbows in and hands us a load of laundry. We can’t believe it, we won’t believe it, but there it is. Honeymoon’s over.

Plenty of couples do not recover from this transition; I am interested in those who do. I want to understand, to name, the kind of love that is left.

It has work to do, this leftover love. I see it operating in the background, like virus protection on a computer. I see it forming its own bulwarks.

This is a no-nonsense kind of love. Left unattended, it nurtures itself. Roomy and forgiving, this love allows us no end of mistakes. While our backs are turned, it makes us worthy, and as many times as we need, we are reminded that it’s still there. What luck to find this love that doesn’t go away. We may miss our passionate beginnings, but we trade them for something far more fierce.

To My Aging Cat

Her eyes are clouding with age,
and when she peers at my face,
I see confusion in hers:
How do I appear to her now?

All I can do is lean forward
and kiss that small patch of white
just above and between her eyes,
the star she was given by a god
who foretold this moment.
She bows her head slightly,
allowing my reverence,
knowing her worth
all at once.

Posthumous

I see your bedroom. First, the slanted ceiling angled over the twin beds, Sam’s on one side, yours on the other. Sassy, your beagle, dozing on a blanket on the floor. One small window, a view of the snowy yard below: the burn barrel with a few blackened aerosol cans around it; a listing swing set; Elizabeth trundling about in her blue snowsuit; Rick leaning against the fence, smoking.

“Get out,” you’d say to Sam; being the younger, he would leave without protest. (This impressed me, the straightforward way brothers interacted. I came from a family of girls; all requests were negotiated.) We’d kiss for a few minutes—you loved to kiss—then take off our clothes and fall into your unmade bed, where we would leave the world behind and thrill each another with endless, steamy foreplay. You were the best sex I never had. At last we’d notice the time and pull on our clothes before your mother, if we were lucky, pulled into the driveway. Afterwards, you would escort me home along the half mile of abandoned railroad tracks that separated our houses. You did this unfailingly, whatever the weather. On the days it snowed, I would pause at the edge of my yard and watch you fade into the white distance, waving at me just before you disappeared. Although I could not see your face, I knew you were smiling.

No two people recall the same things, and I wonder what images you were left with. Remember your navy-blue blanket with the roping cowboys on it? The cracked “Little Ben” clock ticking away our time? Maybe those details, those afternoons, didn’t linger in your mind. I can accept that possibility, reluctantly.

In any case, you are gone, leaving me with sole ownership of the year we were together. It feels like a responsibility, holding onto this copy of you. We fell in love at 15, built ourselves into each other. Your wife is grieving the man she was married to for forty-seven years; I am mourning a phantom. 

Though I had moved across the country after college, we eventually managed to reconnect. I can’t recall who found who, only that we began writing letters, real letters, typed and tucked into envelopes. You were married and working at IBM; I was cooking in restaurants, living in Berkeley, in love with the woman I would one day marry (as soon as the law allowed it). Your letters were earnest, your focus familial. You wrote about your three children, the ways they made you proud, the fear you had when your youngest daughter left for Europe. Your wife, Margie, was in daily pain and needed a hip replacement. You wished she wanted to spend more time with you; she lived, you said, for the kids. You enjoyed hunting and skiing, didn’t much like your job.

We finally arranged to meet for lunch during one of my trips to Vermont. I was nervous, distracted, ecstatic, and there you were, standing at the bar, grinning at me in that boyish way, your light blue eyes squeezed into crescents. There was a settled look about you, a solid heft to your frame. You were still handsome, still Sam, but in a grown-up version that excluded me. I was struck by the rights I had lost, the knowledge turned useless.

We ordered lunch, though I don’t recall eating, and shared our middle-aged almanacs. We worked over some common ground—news of our parents and siblings—before offering up the people who had become our spouses. I had only a faint recollection of your wife (she was not in our class at school), and hearing you speak of her sent a gust of something that felt like jealousy through me, as if my teenage ghost had risen up and shaken her fist. You did not seem the least surprised that I was with a woman, and I silently credited you with that. I mentioned that I had dated several men in college but probably shouldn’t have bothered. “None of them held my interest.” I laughed. “You must have ruined me for other guys,” I added, realizing just then that it might be true.

I asked if you were happy, and you said, “Pretty much,” and shrugged. “Nothing’s perfect, right?” You said you were planning to surprise your wife with a vacation in the Bahamas, hoping that a trip to paradise would help. There was a co-worker, you added, who liked you, a lot. “It was a few months ago. I liked her too, but I couldn’t do that to Margie, you know?” I winced inwardly, thinking of my own heedless affair several years back, from which my spouse and I had eventually, but barely, recovered. Honestly, I was annoyed with Margie—couldn’t she see that you were a god?

We talked on. Every so often, I looked at your hands or lips, marveling that they once traveled over my skin. Did you think about this too? At one point while you were talking about your children, I saw us lying behind a glossy privet hedge not far from my house; it was our hide-out. When our mothers were home (our fathers were gone: mine by way of divorce; yours, desertion), when sofas or bedrooms were not possible, nature turned to clemency, a place to disappear, and you and I were as much a part of it as the plants we hid among, all of us getting the same sun and rain. I remember the spent white flowers that drifted down around us, the bits of fall leaves that clung to our coats. How odd it was now to see you now, to regard you without need or urgency.

At last it was clear we’d exhausted every topic, and there was nothing to do but give up on each other again and say goodbye, promising to write more often. We did and then we didn’t.

They say you died in your sleep, a heart attack, which sounds peaceful, lucky, though not for your wife, who tried to wake you. I keep starting to send her a card, but I’m not sure there’s any point in a sympathy card from a stranger. I do feel sorry for her, and the kids, and their kids, and everyone else who knew you far better than I did.

But I knew you then, when you lived in a rundown house with a broken swing set and had a dog named Sassy and a weary, overworked mother who was always pleasant to me. There you are in the yellow kitchen, making a bologna sandwich for your little sister, dropping a slice into Sassy’s mouth, grinning at me. Ask me anything about that year and I’ll pour my heart out.

Pet Portrait

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A dear friend commissioned me to paint this 5×7 portrait of his beloved spaniel. I began to love this dog as I rendered his image, which is something that happens every time I paint: with care and focus comes love. Instead of taking payment, I asked my friend to make a donation to the Animal Welfare Institute. In this way we all win. I am eager to do more of these portraits, each one a small contribution to the healing of this world.

Love and Lilacs

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When I smell lilac blossoms, I am fourteen again and lying in tall sweet grass with my boyfriend. His hair is blonde and curly, and when he smiles, which is often, his blue eyes turn into twin crescents. There are summer cottages just a few yards away, and people moving back into them, but we are tucked behind a tall hedge and no one can see us. We kiss one long last time before getting to our feet and then, laughing, we brush the telltale grass off each others’ back. At the end of my street he pulls me close and kisses me again—this boy loves to kiss—and then he turns and starts walking down the dirt path along the railroad tracks. I do not take my eyes off him. Twice, maybe three times, he turns and waves, and though I can’t see his face, I know he is smiling.

Back east, where I grew up, lilacs grow like weeds. Each spring their branch tips burst into bunches of light lavender flowers that droop and nod in the breeze. On warm days, you live in their perfume. Tender and persuasive, the scent is like no other. There were roses in my youth, big dew-covered blooms lolling over white fences, but smelling them now does not take me back in time. Roses are not lilacs.

We were fourteen and in love. While I appreciate nature now, back then it was clemency, a place to disappear, and this boy and I were as much a part of it as the plants we hid among, all of us getting the same sun and rain and wind.

Scientists tell us that memories are stored at the connection points between neurons in the brain. The brain has approximately 100 billion neurons, each one potentially connecting to 10,000 other neurons. As information moves through the networks of the brain, the activity of the neurons causes the connection points to become stronger or weaker in response. This process, synaptic plasticity, is how the brain stores information. Once a memory has been created, aromas are potent triggers for recall.

This boy lives in me, my memories of him clear and true because they are welded in place. His wife has him now, but his boyhood belongs to me, as I presumably live on in him. I only need lilac blooms to bring him back and give our sweet youth another moment in the sun.

Photo by Breelynne on Foter.com / CC BY

Happy Hour

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Happiness is a tenuous state, vanishing under the slightest scrutiny. As soon as we become aware that we’re happy, we break the spell. Most of the time.

I have found a wormhole to happiness, a way to enter and possess this fragile condition, at least for an hour or so.

It starts on my drive home from work, as I reach the neighborhood I live in. Darkness falls early now and I drive with care, watching for evening walkers, a loose dog, a child. I consider how quickly life can cave in, the countless hazards I’ve been spared, through vigilance or luck. The close calls I know nothing about.

I get out of the car and pause on the walkway to admire the silhouette of the giant cedar in my yard, the cold bright stars above it. The air smells of fall leaves and wet tree bark. The porch is lit, waiting for me. I can see the living room through the window, the string of willow lights on the mantle and the mountain sculpture above it. I am smiling already.

The front door is a portal to another realm. I cross the threshold into a place of rescue and reassurance, a habitat my spouse and I created to calm ourselves and honor the natural world. Here is a sconce fashioned of paper birch and manzanita branches; here is a hawk with moonlight on his back; here is a carved wooden owl taking flight from the wall; here is a large photo of a deeply fissured redwood in a forest of ferns.

My wife greets me with a kiss, just like in the old movies, then heads into the kitchen to shake up the martinis—one apiece, never more. Fine gin is strong medicine and should be handled with ritual and respect.

We take our drinks into the living room and sit down to discuss the day. Settled into my recliner, I look over at the electric fire with its obedient orange flames, and the carpet with its undulating lines that remind me of wave-lapped sand, and my wife, whom I have loved every minute of our thirty-eight years together, and my joy is so great I cannot speak, can only wonder how, in this world of microbes and menace and mad men, we have been kept safe, why we were born here and not Somalia. How have we managed to hang onto our vision, our limbs, our minds? How have we survived our blunders, our fathers, the things we will never, ever speak of?

A second thought, the slightest change on any given day, and we would not be sitting here now. Had we been moving toward each other all along? Did our detours bring us together, or did we meet, magnificently, in spite of them? To think that we began our lives no bigger than a grain of sand, then had to swim, crawl, walk, run, bike and drive to reach this precarious moment.

I lift my drink, which never fails to knock the rough edges off my work day, and turn to my wife. I can hardly wait for whatever she might say.

It is this way every night.

Lovers and Loners, a Short Story Collection

Thanks to my publisher and dear friend Mark McNease at MadeMark Publishing, my second collection of short stories, Lovers and Loners, is now available on Kindle. Those with other types of electronic tablets can simply download the Kindle app to their device. The paperback edition will be out in just a few days.

The stories in this new collection feature female protagonists who struggle for footholds in a shifting world. “Parasites” involves a widow who agrees to have dinner with a man she believes is a killer. “Manatee Gardens” explores the relationship between a mother and daughter who discover common ground at a marine sanctuary. In “Chasing Zero” a woman with a mysterious illness loses her hold on the callous man she adores. “Odds and Ends” follows a woman running errands on the last day of her life.

Lovers and Loners is a study of the human predicament: our eagerness and despair, our hidden fears and stubborn hopes, the blunders we make and the ways in which we are salvaged.

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