Touche

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In its first incarnation, my novel which ended up as You, in your Green Shirt, began as a memoir, entirely non-fiction. Over a process of years, two agents, many publishers, a lot of thought and two complete rewrites, I determined that the material – the sum total of story, voice, and intent –could be better served if I abandoned the “facts*” and allowed the characters free reign to tell their tale.

Still very much in a new and experimental place, my current thinking is that A January Diary might benefit from a similar break from reality. Thus (I’m always looking for an opportunity to use the word thus!!), following is the first foray into the realm of the constructed reality known as fiction for A January Diary.

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It was after the first time we – hmmm, should I say made love? Had sex? Fucked? It’s best when it’s all three, all at once.

Should I fault myself for not remembering the details? Of the actual sex, I mean. Other things, I recall with the clarity of a photograph that sits right in front of me. One that I can stare at, examine over and over, discover new and more new. There was the Very Serious expression on his face. His extreme thinness, combined with his heights – he’s a blue person! I thought. One of the blue people from the movie Avatar!! The shocking cold of his foot afterward, as he traced it along my calf.

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There was the languid and lovely movement from the breathless, voiceless sinking into one another’s bodies that immediately followed, to the murmured first words, to the return of full sentences, to the eventual time when we woozily sat on the edges of the bed and regarded our widely-strewn clothing.

By the time all of our clothing had found its way back onto our bodies, we stood fully upright and regular conversation had resumed. He was saying that he really needed to get started on his Medicare stuff, grumbling about the whole pain-in-the-ass of it. I said that I was counting the days until I qualified. Why, I said, do you have any idea what I’m paying for my health insurance right now? Being a Company Man, the kind with paid-for health insurance, of course he had no idea.

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I threw out the monetary figure, which elicited a visible level of shock and horror. He actually paced around his hallway a little, trying to wrap his head around the sum. Ha! Saw my opening. So with a totally straight face I said: well, this is as good a time as any to segue into something I really need to talk with you about. You can probably understand now why I have an ad up on Craigslist – I’m advertising for an arranged marriage for health insurance.”

Without a second’s hesitation he said: Hell, I’ll marry you. Let me call the benefits office right now and get the info. Lemme just go grab my phone.” And with that, he walked away, pretending to search for the phone.

Touche, I thought.

Touche, indeed.

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The First Time I Died

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The air was hot, and dry, with a burning white sky ablaze from the sun. There was no wind. It was so utterly unmoving that the scene was completely silent, like being in the movie theater when the sound suddenly snaps off and the picture continues in the dark, silent cave. “Have I suddenly gone deaf?” I thought, and I looked around to see if anything was moving – a branch, a lizard, a bird – something I might be able to hear.

The young woman wore full native dress. A skirt that went all the way to the ground, a long sleeve shirt with the sleeve bottoms rolled to reveal inches and inches of bracelets. Her waist-length braid had been bound with a thin leather strap. She turned to glance at me when I approached the edge, briefly, then looked back down. She did not say a word. She did not say hello, which I thought was odd, because almost everyone says hello to a four-year-old child, especially one who is approaching the edge of the Grand Canyon.

She sat very near the edge. But she wasn’t sitting, actually, she crouched, as if it wer the most relaxed position in the world, and she wove her basket. I watched the quickness of her hands, young hands, and I thought she might be very young despite the baby beside her. A papoose. I was proud of myself for knowing the word for an Indian* baby who was bound up in a beautifully adorned little cocoon. The baby was wide awake, but utterly silent, his calm black eyes focused far away.

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I thought they must be miserably hot. In my 1960 shorts and sleeveless blouse, I couldn’t imagine how they seemed so——————

My foot slipped. At first there was just the scrape of my saddle shoe’s heel against the dry dirt. Then the grate of my calf. I felt the skin rub away and felt the first tiny droplets of blood rise to the surface. But after that I was in free fall. My feet flew out from under me and I was face to face with the hot white sky, falling, and falling.

My back hit first. I felt the sensation, the pain I suppose I would call it, for less than a second. It was like the wind being knocked out of you, except I knew that it was not the wind. I was instantly surrounded by the blackest darkest night, but within the black, an ocean of spark-like bursts flew from my body in all directions at once. I died.

I lay in bed for a long time before I believed that I could breathe.

I have died many times in my dreams. This was the first.

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*The term “Native American” was not in widespread use at this time.

 Graphic by Scott Snibbe

Lucky Sweater

“Lucky Sweater” is the third entry from A January Diary, which is very much an experiment in writing.  Each of the entries from Diary is meant to stand alone, to evoke impressions much the same way as a poem does.  When the entries are taken together, as a whole, they tell a story — of sorts — in the way a gallery show of visual art tells a story, without the connections being explicitly drawn. Well, we’ll see how it goes…

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It’s not like I chose. More like it chose me. I didn’t even have the idea, wasn’t walking around on the constant outlook, scanning the landscape of my life in a perpetual hunt.

But when it caught my eye, something made me look again. And with that simple second glance, I knew. This was it. Truly it. The critical armament. The charm that could tip the balance of the scales.

I ordered it. It wasn’t something that I would wear, ordinarily. Though I do tend to be a fan of Anthropologie’s boho uber chic extravagant exorbitant tatters, the fashion sense can tend towards the jejuene and seem to be designed for those size 0 and under. Still, the deep emerald green. The sparkling brooch that held the two sides together; it perfectly teetered the line between vintage treasure and cheap trash. The refined softness of the lambs wool. The three cotton flowers, in muted earth tones, appliqued across the cardigan’s front, sequins randomly strewn onto them.

“I am exactly what you need,” this sweater shouted at me. And I believed it. “I will carry your water, give your weary head a strong shoulder to lean on, rock your weary body and sing you a lullabye. ” Yes, it said all that and more. ” I will wrap you in soft warmth. I will be with you every moment. I will hear the beat of your heart, and I will know all that it feels. I will keep your child safe. All that time that you wait, I will keep her safe.”

I wore the sweater only one other time after that. A group of friends from the neighborhood wanted me to join them at a local Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day. And since that marked a far cry from my usual, I figured it made sense to wear a sweater that fit the same description. Besides, it was the only item in my wardrobe that was sort-of green. And even though a dramatically over-served bar patron spilled an entire pint of beer on it while becoming increasingly overly friendly, compelling the bartender to leap over the bar, hoist said patron over his shoulder and deposit him on the curb; well, I didn’t really think the sweater was a factor. That’s not luck, good or bad, that’s just St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago.

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Angels

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Entry #2: A January Diary

The plane was nearly empty. When my mother switched seats to talk with my aunt, I had the entire row of three seats to myself. She probably thought that if I were by myself, I would fall asleep, as my older brother had done, his knees drawn up and his freckled face squished against the seat back. His long skinny legs – like my mother’s- showed a mile of bright white sock before they disappeared into his pants leg.

My grandmother was dying, and we were racing across the country to see if we could make it in time to see her, while she was still “her.” My other grandmother had died three months previously. I missed her terribly and talked with her every night while I lay in bed. This other grandmother, the one who had just suffered a stroke, had always been more distant, in every way. She was a stranger who visited infrequently, made my mother send me to my room when I had disobeyed, and thought a disgusting menthol cough drop was a reasonable peace offering offering that I should leave me deeply grateful

Way below us was a solid floor of dazzling, puffy clouds, like a miles-deep bed that would catch us if we fell. The sinking sun shone on them like it does on a new winter snowfall, making tiny lights dance in front of your eyes from the blinding white. I believed those tiny white blue yellow bursts of light were angels. The same ones you could see in the very middle of the night if you stared very, very hard at the nothingness of the dark.

I spent a lot of time wondering if my grandmother would look like her older self as an angel, the way I had known her, or like her younger self. I wondered if she got to choose. I tried to picture her based on the one picture I had seen of her as a young woman, plain and clear-eyed and strong, her arm around her big sister.

I rested my forehead against the airplane window – wondering what in the world it was made from that could be strong enough to hold an entire airplane together – as the sun dropped below the cloud floor. The light changed to an in-between that was neither light nor dark. It was nothing. I felt perfectly suspended, floating with no effort, in an endless world between light and dark. I was eight years old, and I thought : Death. This is what death is like. Exactly and completely…nothing at all. The angels are all around. And you float.

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Bottom two photos: Winged Victory, also known as Nike

A Wee Ball

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Entry #1: A January Diary

That cat seemed to love that little boy nearly as much as she did. From the time he was able to pick up the ever-spreading, quite portly Bo, Dylan would careen around with Bo eternally spilling out of his arms and sliding every which way, while Dylan staggered under the weight. The loving, philosophical Bo just let it all happen, trusting, she supposed, that he was close enough to the floor that serious, lasting damage was unlikely. Bo let himself be carried from room to room, and hoisted on to various pieces of furniture, and shoved through holes in the cat climbing tree, often purring through the entire journey.

Dylan would finagle Bo on to the sofa, look up at her and say, “Want to snuggle him with me, Abuela?” To which the only reasonable reply, even while she prayed that she would not tear up and be unable to explain this to a child so young was: “of course I do.”

Bo slept with Dylan at night, and spent most of each day in his room as well. They had a favorite game they played, where either she or Dylan would look up from reading, playing trains, racing around the house doing laps, measuring various things with his animal measuring sticks, jumping from couch to couch, making a fort, and suddenly say: “What a minute! Where’s BO!?”

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At which point they would dart around the house, pretending great alarm, venturing from room to room while saying: “I don’t see him in here. Huh. Where in the world could he be?…” until at last they would end in Dylan’s bedroom, where Bo invariably lay curled into a wee ball, a mountain of blankets surrounding him.

On New Year’s Eve, the final day of a rough year, Dylan said to her: “Buela, want to play a game with me? I’m going to curl up with Bo, and you cover us up with all the blankets you can find, and pretend that we’re a present, and unwrap us!” Dylan glanced at Po, then made himself into a ball that replicated the exact positions of the cat’s head and paws. He raised his head to say: “Make sure you start with OG blanket. On top of me. With the fuzzy side down.”

OG blanket was followed by second OG, then 3rd OG, then a baby blue electric blanket, then a fluffy down comforter. When any trace of living creatures had been thoroughly obliterated into a shapeless heap of fluff, she said: “Oh! Look!! A present!!! I wonder what in the world it could be?!?! Oh boy oh boy, let’s unwrap it and see. Let’s take off the wrap…why…there’s nothing here but more wrapping paper!” She proceeded through each blanket layer, pretending pouty frustration each time a peeled off blanket exposed no marvelous surprise.

When at last Dylan was revealed, she exclaimed: “Why look! It’s a boy! A lovely and wonderful boy! Not to mention a cat.”

“Again, Abuela, again!! Make Bo and me a present again!!!”

Dylan tucked his head and folded into a ball, and she thought: how in the world did he get this idea? This magnificent idea? And piling the blankets atop him, on New Year’s Eve, it seemed to her that this was the best idea she had ever heard. She could not imagine anything as lovely, as perfect, as making herself as small as she possibly could, being covered by a mountain of tenderly embracing warmth. Smaller and smaller, she could be swallowed by this cozy cave, until she disappeared altogether. Until she would not have to see the things January would bring.*

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*This is a work of fiction. In real life, the cat is female.

On-Line Dating: A Glimpse at the Rage and Hatred behind Orlando, Baton Rouge, the Republican National Convention, the Country in General, and the World at Large

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I admit it. My parents were Republicans, though they came to that same track from vastly different sides. My father grew up in a small Pennsylvania town, part of a sizable extended family of first-generation French all struggling to keep their children fed. He was so far down the hand-me-down line of cousins that his feet were forever crippled by shoes that never quite fit. My mother, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Naval officer, raised in frequently-changing “quarters” where servants cooked and cleaned and manicured the grounds. My mother remembered, with great fondness, how her parents sent the help home each evening and did the dinner dishes themselves, so they could chat about their day.

But my mother and father, born in 1919 and 1920 respectively, prided themselves on their social liberalism. And like all children who grow up with all parents, I had nothing to compare them to, and therefore no idea how truly remarkable this was considering the time and place. My mother worked as a chemist during part of World War II, and never tired of telling me how she and her lab mate shared a beaker to drink water from. He happened to be African-American, though in Norfolk, Virginia in the mid 1940’s, one said either “Negro” or “colored.” She never thought a damn thing of it, as she would have said herself.

I thought my mother might explode with pride when a new child moved into my 4th-grade classroom in the middle of the year, and became my best friend. She was Mexican, from the country itself, and I thought every single thing about her was wildly exotic and perfect – her flowing, jet-black waves of hair, her circle skirts with donkeys and cacti and such. I walked around my house saying her name, slowly savoring each syllable of E-LO-DI-AH. E-LO-Deeeeee-Ahhhhhh. And when Debbie Allison – one of those prim 10-year-olds whose youth is an entirely wasted slog in their march toward the thin-lipped spinsters they were born to be – conspiratorially whispered in my ear, “I don’t like Tommy Whitesong; he smells funny,” I was completely baffled about what she meant. All I could think of was when my father’s cheap after shave (that I had undoubtedly bought for him) was around for a bit too long, it took on some rather rank undertones. I told all this to my mother when I got home; and whereas my mother was not one to throw her arms around anyone or make a show of feeling, she did straighten her skirt and say, “good for you.” Tommy was one of two – count them, two – black children in my elementary school. Even as a kid, I thought it must be kinda hard to have just one other person who was like yourself in an entire overcrowded school, and I thought Debbie Allison was a mean little twat.

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My father’s best friend was always “Uncle Bill to me.” He lived at the top of the hill where our street began, and we lived most of the way to the bottom. Every year he brought his whole family down during the holidays so his kids could play with the Lionel trains that ran all around our Christmas tree; and we would go to their house for a dinner of potato latkes (certainly one of the best things ever) and an evening of dreidel. A few times a year, he would come to our house by himself, right around the time I was going to bed, and I knew that he and my father would either hole themselves up in our little den, talking into the wee hours of the morning, or they would set up a card table in the living room and play chess, in virtual silence, for just as long. My parents were involved in numerous bridge clubs and neighborhood groups and medical-related stuff that kept them socially active, but Uncle Bill was the only real friend that either one of my parents had.*

So here I am, 60 years old, trying to gather all the various things one has to gather in order to [re]enter the world of on-line dating. Years ago, I ran into someone who referred to this world as The Wild West – meaning a vast land where there are no rules, a whole lot of very bad behavior, some good souls, and absolutely anything can happen. He nailed it. And, into this maelstrom, one has to proceed with the lowest possible expectations while maintaining eternal, even if faint, hope. You have to believe that whatever it is you seek is 1) out there, somewhere (it is), and 2) you can find it (um….).

At this point, fifteen years after my divorce, I believe myself to be a seasoned and skilled decipherer of on-line profiles. If I may quote from Joan Crawford addressing the PepsiCo good old boys: “This ain’t my first time at the rodeo.” Perhaps I should add that the line was preceded by her saying: “Don’t fuck with me boys!” What this attitude translates into is that I am very, very selective in communicating with anyone. Believe me, this is not a case of me passing up terrific potential guys, this is a case of me saving both parties additional wear and tear on our fragile sense of hope. When I was an on-line dating newbie, I wrote a nice note back to each and every person who took the time to write to me, just as the daughter of Mary Barbara Mills had taught me to do as a necessary part of maintaining a civil society. What I found was – people will then argue with you, often with frightening intensity! They will badger, bully, name-call, hurl insults – all in response to a very lovely note that wished them all the best! Last week, I forgot my own rule (Do NOT Write Back!) when I received a note from a guy who seemed very decent, and worked in a field quite similar to mine. I wrote back, told him that I really wanted to find someone in an entirely different line of work, for balance, and I wished him well. He completely went off on me. At length, and with a degree of rage and hostility I can’t imagine feeling, let alone directing it at a complete stranger?!

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OK. Onward. Wild west. Expectations sub-low. Hopes, um, in tact enough, I hope, to be awakened if there is reason.

Last weekend, I received on on-line approach from a guy who seemed…pretty good. Cute, a bit off the beaten path, fun-loving and witty, and seeming to be genuinely seeking something of substance in both a woman and a relationship. I responded. We emailed back and forth, safely and anonymously through the site, throughout the afternoon. At one point he asked me what I do for work; I responded that I was a clinical social worker in private practice. He wrote back: “It’s completely unhealthy to spend time with people less fortunate than ourselves.”

Earlier in my life, I would have assumed that he was joking. I probably would have laughed. But, lo these many years of life later, instead I wrote back and asked: “Are you serious?” He replied: “Absolutely, yes. That has been my experience.”

We were, as of that moment, done. Out of curiosity, I went on-line and started researching. I wondered just what percentage of the people in my own country, and then the world, I should shun from here forward if I followed this credo. Using income alone as the determining factor, this handy rule would save me from any further pesky interaction with more than 65% of my fellow citizens, and wow, certainly well over 80% of the people on the planet. While I was pondering the complexities of the term “less fortunate,” and the multitude of things that covers beyond money, my phone indicated that a new message had come through.

Yep. New note from The Guy. “I mean, these people have undoubtedly stolen from you, right?”

What?

WHAT?!?

Is this guy seriously suggesting that the “less fortunate” will eventually steal from you? No! He’s suggesting that they have already! Somehow what came to mind was shoplifting, a frequent rite-of-passage in the upper economic brackets. I mean, my daughter’s acquaintances who did a very brisk business in shoplifted Abercrombie merch out of their middle school lockers were among the wealthiest kids in the school.

I did the on-line equivalent of un-friending someone on Facebook – I un-favorited his ass!

Deep breath. Wild West. Onward.

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Next morning, approach received from a cute guy with a wonderful, open smile, looking for a Real Relationship. He had lots of pics of himself at various charity events looking very dapper and sincere, a give-back sort of a guy who made himself interesting by being interested. We exchanged emails back and forth, both of our interest clearly piqued. He indicated he would like to talk on the phone, thereby taking our relationship to the next on-line level; and though I hate talking on the phone with strangers, I agreed that it made sense. He suggested that I text him when I was free to talk later that day.

I did, and even though he had originally said he’d wanted to talk, he immediately blew up my phone with a flurry of texts including additional photos of himself in various locations, various tidbits of news about his day, and a number of questions for me. Hey, I’m pretty flexible, and I hate to talk on the phone, so OK, texting it is. After flitting across various topics, such as his workout routine (de rigeur for men on-line and over the age of 50), he said: “Hey, both of my parents were born in Italy. I’m 100% Italian. What’s your background?”

I said: “My father was 100% French, first generation. My mother was essentially a WASP.”

He: “Are you Jewish?”

Wait, are there people who honestly don’t know what WASP means? Is he double-checking if I perhaps converted at some point?

Me: “No.”

He: “Good.”

Me: “Why?”

He: “I don’t get along with Jewish women.”

Here I am again, saying for the second time in as many days: “Are you serious?”

He: “Yes.”

Me: “Why?”

He: “Because they’re whining, nasally, pretentious, drama filled, high maintenance, boring women.”

I am…utterly dumbfounded. And sad. So sad. There is certainly nothing I can say to a gent in his late 50’s that can possibly alter his views, and this is neither the time nor the place. The only thing to do is…move along.

Ding! A new text comes through: “…also, they never ever take their wallet out to buy a man a drink. In other words they’re cheap as shit.”

So, no, I am not surprised when I go to my computer each morning, and see the headlines that summarize the latest unimaginable tragedy. I’m shocked. I am filled with grief. I am disheartened to varying degrees of near-paralysis. But I am not surprised. In the world of on-line dating, where one might easily expect people to be on their very best behavior, a murmuring level of anger, blame, prejudice, aggrieved bitter rage – all of these lie barely below the surface for so many people.

I am sure that each of the men I encountered believed that their perspective is entirely justified.

And that is how it begins.

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*My parents remained unshakable in their Republican ideals, in the way of a woman born into great privilege whose much-adored parents never missed an opportunity to decry how FDR had ruined an entire nation, and a man born into a fatherless home of endless want who had lived his very own American Dream of rising from the great unwashed to become A Doctor; and who therefore believed with all his heart that this was, indeed, a land of opportunity where anyone with a whit of determination could pull himself up by his bootstraps and succeed. And, perhaps he was right, for his time. If “anyone” was white. And male. And not needed to work from such an early age that dreams could not even form.

Know When to Walk Away

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Those of you who have been following my blog closely – and have you two met, by the way 😉 – have witnessed the birth and development of my third novel, entitled “Pushing the River.” Over the course of the past three years, the novel has endured several structural changes, a complete change of narrator and voice, and the completion of an early rough draft just weeks ago.

“Pushing the River” was inspired by the real-life event of a baby being born. During the fall of 2012, my house swelled from a population of 2 – if you count my dog – to an assemblage of seven people and four animals. Originally, the house itself intended to tell the story of the most astonishing four-month period in its 100-year history.

One time previously, I put this novel aside for a time; I paused, unsure how – or if – to proceed. Ultimately, I decided to change the narrator from the house’s boiler to a regular old third-person omniscient narrator. I heartily missed Merle the Boiler, and always wondered if he might return.

Alas, Merle will not be coming back.

It is with a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting mixed feelings that I have decided to put this novel to rest for good.  The current situation with this now three-and-a-half year old child renders it impossible to continue a work of fiction based on his entry into the world.

There is much good work, and good writing in the would-be book, and the deep, unparalleled satisfaction of having put into words some things I had set out to say. What more, after all, can any writer hope for?

“I was trying to feel some kind of good-bye. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-bye or a bad good-bye, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t you feel even worse.”

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

 

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

–Jack Kerouac, On the Road

 

image by Pablo Picasso