White Room, Black Shoe

Photo by Guy Bourdin

Photo by Guy Bourdin

It is a searing October, one that you wait for, yet are still surprised by when it flares in the quiet of morning. From the bed, we can see in the distance a few orange and ruby leaves fall against a blue sky. Here the buildings are densely packed and light struggles to wend its way through shadow. I roll out of bed, disturbing Ian in the process. Padding across the hallway, I half-expect her to be there, packing the last few things that had been strewn around her sleeping bag. The furniture was taken the night before. She only stayed overnight because another friend nearby was picking her up. Later she had a plane to catch.

The bedroom holds a cloying dampness that escaped her foggy bathroom. She might have raised the window sash and dried things out. Encouraged the outdoors to inhabit the new emptiness. But she isn’t one to adore nature’s wiles. A difference between the two of us. She only tolerates city offerings, whereas I am a glutton for both.

Pale. A silent, pale room. Not like her overreaching life. That is what I think as the room stares back. Whiteness overwhelms me, its sheer blankness, how it pulses nothing in my direction, a clean slate for someone else’s urgent imagination. Not mine. I only see her still, as she was a week ago, narrow bed pressed against a corner farthest from the window, her powerful, long legs draped across the sheets as she leaned against a large pillow. She said the color white soothed her, kept things simpler and the mind freer. There was one picture on the wall: she was wearing an ivory dress, playing in the expanse of green grass behind her childhood home. He mother reclined in a chaise lounge by the pool; her father sits beside her in a wooden chair that seems to have been moved from the house. It was all the vivid colors she needed there, she said: green and blue-green. Her parents actually wore greys and taupes. Blended in with the greyish background. It was a family preference, a quietness of color, of style. Sotto voce. Even the impressive stone house was pallid. She loved that picture; it was the last taken with them, she told me, before she left home. Before her growing renown distanced them.

On second thought, her sateen pillow had tiny rosebuds on it. She liked the idea of roses. When once we got a bouquet and placed it on the dining room table she caressed them, then pinched her nose with thumb and forefinger. They were reminiscent of her mother’s failed garden.

“They were dreary, their heads drooping, petals ruined. Mother cut them off without a thought, planted things that required little care. Yes, she was thoughtless–I so loved them once.”

Her recalled words jar me. I know she spoke of roses as if she was speaking of her youth. Speaking of her parents. They wanted her to be a lawyer or surgeon, like her aunt or father. She was their only child but she danced, anyway. Could not do otherwise.

I hear Ian as he rouses in bed, then pads up behind me.

“Well done.”

I can feel his smile. He means she has left just a small trace of herself. He means she has done what was promised: all but disappeared. I think he worried last night that she might change her mind, hang on to the door frame as he pushed her out.

How little he knows her, her strength. So unlike him.

Ian’s eyes meet mine, revealing tentative relief. He places his hand on my cheek, kisses me though I can barely feel his lips. My eyes are open. He is trying to not make any ripples, to keep the morning calm. And also trying to ferret out my love for him without my noticing. This, despite the words that rattled the walls a week before.

I stare at her shoe and turn to him. He shrugs, hands held up, then moves toward the kitchen. He will make omelets with potato and onion and bell pepper. The coffee will be freshly pressed and poured into small china cups resting on saucers. It was how I liked it once, before last week. Now the china we found at the antique store begs to be chipped, even thrown.

The shoe looks dangerous on the floor of the white room. I know it well. Today it assumes the presence of a weapon, a benign object that really is an explosive. It is strange it fell from her bag and she didn’t pick it up. It’s one of a pair I admired; she wore them with black slacks and velvet jacket lined with Chartreuse silk, a favorite color to wear recently, a color I chose for her. Monochromes are becoming less prominent. I wonder how she, a dancer, could neglect it, even in a terrible hurry to get to another city, another ballet company audition. The far-flung stages. A virtuosic life.

It was not unexpected, what happened. Only a matter of time, I thought from the start. Ian: beautiful, strong, lean and graceful despite an embarrassing virility. And terribly well-mannered. People love or hate him easily. And he feels he can pick and choose.

Ian knew her weeks before I did. He dances–danced–in the  same company. She needed a room after her last boyfriend grew tired of her long hours rehearsing and performing and a few eccentricities, she said. We had an extra for six months before our long-term roommate returned from Italy. She moved in and made it hers immediately until last week, when she unmade it, left us, then returned to pack two days ago. The bedroom was occupied by her presence for five months and one day.

“She had to leave, anyway, because Lee soon comes back,” he reminded me yesterday. “She’ll bounce right back in Germany. We’ll be better than ever.”

I was brushing my hair with hard strokes, dislodging every snag. He kissed my neck as I swallowed tears.

She: Marisa. Marisa Tellis-Delgado. My finest of friends. Extraordinary principal ballet dancer.

Ian is not as gifted but his charisma makes up for it. For now. I don’t dance, did once. Yes, for eight years. I do not miss it. But Marissa and Ian are two who cannot live without it. I, on the other hand, can live without almost anything. I see what such obsession does to people whose undying passion is their very lifeblood as well as their work. It insinuates itself into their innards, becomes their breath of life. The past, present and future. There are more options than that, and I need choices to make my living whatever I want it to be one day to the next. I love pastry-making and jewelry design, apple trees on the half-acre we maintain outside the city and riding horses in the woods. I need less activities, perhaps. More friends.

But even when he fails me, I stay with only Ian.

Yet what would you do if you connected to someone and that someone cared in return and it was all you ever hoped for in true friendship–until your husband decides otherwise? It was a revelation, becoming friends with this woman. But he said it was too much. I needed to spend more time with him but what he meant was less time and energy with her. His insatiable hunger for attention and appreciation! His relationships must support his needs, first and last.

Ian dances his life. He is selfish with it. I have to live mine. And I give it away. Maybe too often.

So he drove a wedge between us. It didn’t take long. He placed himself where he should not have been.

“Marisa and I had lunch together,” he said when it started. “We suddenly realized how much we have in common.”

“Suddenly? Hasn’t she been living in our flat for months? She’s quiet but not that quiet. Why the lunch talks now?”

He yawned as if bored with the topic yet it was necessary to report. “I don’t talk about much, just interests like dance and music. You. We work together. I don’t want to interfere. She likes me, not just you. I can have friends as well.”

“I hope so. What do you mean by ‘interfere’?”

“Your … devotion to her.”

I was polishing a silver ring I had just finished. It shone in my hands.

“You mean, our friendship? You mean, that I have found someone I enjoy talking with and sharing my time with while you devote yourself primarily to dance?” I shook my head in disgust. “Ian, I have made a close woman friend at last. Don’t ruin this.”

“Marissa is important out there in the dance world. Charismatic, smart, incredibly talented. Everyone adores her, not just you.”

I saw him make a moue with his mouth, like a little child.

“Oh, stop. Marissa makes time for me for reasons you don’t understand. It’s like we’re sisters at heart…sympatico. You have time for you.”

He mentioned the next day he met her for lunch again. Marisa said nothing of it to me. Sometimes she and I walked together early in the morning or met after rehearsal for tea. We might stay up after dinner once or twice a week, talking for hours in her room or the living room if Ian could stand it. Two weeks passed, then a month, but I didn’t realize what was happening until Marisa finally mentioned it.

“I keep running into Ian at the dance studio but also Beauford’s Restaurant. He practically waylays me even when I’m with someone else. I suggested we see enough of one another at work and here. But he is either pursuing me or he thinks we’re such good friends.” She put her hand on my wrist, shook it a little, gave it a squeeze. “Like you and I are. Imagine! I don’t even connect to him unless we are dancing. You know how that goes. And he talks about you, little gripes. I’m sorry, but can you suggest he be less relentless?”

I told him I knew he was bothering her and to back off. Marisa was not only important to me. She was, after all, a tenant.

“Don’t run her off as you have others.”

“I just meant to be friendly. And don’t rehash what’s done and over,” he hissed and turned on the television.

He has issues with people sharing our space but he must have this expensive flat. Must have his way. Must have me to himself. I trust him despite his beauty because I know his secret, that he is afraid he is no one valuable. Jealousy lurks in his blood, a sickness waiting.

The last night we three were together he spoke up as he served coffee.

“So, Marisa, I think we should address things.”

She placed her willowy arm along the back of the sofa. “What things?’

Ian sat between us on the easy chair. I was in the rocker, rocking, the green cashmere throw draped over my legs, thinking about lighting a fire in the fireplace. I stopped moving and braced myself.

“You know…whatever you want to call it, how you’ve gathered up both of us, how you seem to require us each to share more with you than we’d like. To follow you around like lovelorn puppies, like groupies.”

“Speak only for yourself, Ian,” I said, trying to control myself. “You are being ridiculous and rude.”

“I’ll say what I observe to be true.”

He shot me his offended look and turned back to her. She seemed bemused, as if she couldn’t interpret his language. He continued.

“Marisa, you’re greedy. Isn’t it enough that you’re a star? You can’t have my wife, too!”

Marisa’s jaw dropped. Her amber eyes glimmered in lamp light, her dark wavy hair swayed.

“Ian, that’s absurd. You think I’m in love with her, or both of you? Or just you because you’re so dashing, wonderful? What an ignorant idea. I cannot get rid of you, my friend. I dance with you and see you here and you try to get me to spend more time with you…you seek me. I do not seek you.”

She gazed at me, eyelids heavy with misery, then back at him. A deep breath was inhaled and released.

“You are utterly mistaken. I care so much for Helena. She’s honest, frank even, yet so kind. She’s smart and savvy and likes to laugh. At silly things! How often do we find that in our mad, competitive world? It is a relief to have Helena in my life–someone who understands dance but is not swallowed by it. Who is good to me for my own sake! Not for what I accomplish. Not how much money I can bring in. Not how I can make someone look better on stage. She just knows me, like that! ” She snapped her fingers sharply. “I would choose her over ten of you. And I suggest you examine your motives.”

Marisa stood up, every muscle moving in perfect alignment. A queen unafraid. She put hands on her hips. “You haven’t a clue to your unhappiness. You can’t bear to share her? Well, of course not. She’s a treasure! While you, Ian, are a fool. And, I might add, a bore.”

Marisa left. After a few seconds I followed. Ian was immobilized by her steady rush of words, each aimed with precision at his ego. But he called out, anyway.

“You don’t belong here! Get. Out. Helena, please stay here!”

I wanted to yell back at him, but nothing left my lips.

So now, this morning, the room is cleared out, stripped of Marissa’s quietly burning presence, left like a bone to bake in the last flame of October. I go back and pick up the shoe from the polished wood floor. I take off one of mine and put hers on. It fits as it first fit. I walk out her room, past Ian in the kitchen where he is whistling and cooking. I keep walking, out the front door. I want things to go on as before but I don’t think they can. Love of a partner may be less crucial than that of a friend. It depends on who loves best.

Still, right now it’s just Marisa’s shoe on one foot and my old one on another. She is sitting at the Headliner Cafe with scones and coffee. We’ll talk about something good before she heads to Germany and is dogged by fame. We will plan visits, promise “for always”. I may be gifted her other shoe. But the opulent glow of that room has already begun to dim.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making My Way Upstream

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I am no domestic goddess. I was all but shooed away from the kitchen as a child and youth as my mother reminded me that I needed to study or practice my cello or voice lessons, work on figures for ice skating, or whatever else was crucial to learn and do that moment. My parents were forward-looking people in a time when most were solidifying traditional roles. They wanted all their children to have their minds broadened, seek excellent educations. Mave a few good waves intellectually or creatively. I didn’t complain. On the contrary, I felt sprung from the brig.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the inviting ambience of kitchens. Few things were as reassuring as watching my mother create a fresh apple pie. I didn’t mind helping a little–I could swiftly peel apples and potatoes, occasionally in one long peel, thanks to her tutoring. But other than making salads, toast and poached eggs (the egg poacher promised me easy success), chocolate cookies and grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato soup, thanks to Campbell’s–well, my repertoire was severely limited but it didn’t impact me. (That was later, after marriage to a man whose mother ran her own catering business.) The best I could do some days was open a jar of home canned pears or peaches and sprinkle cinnamon with a dash of wheat germ on top for garnish. This was my response to being asked to make a fruit dish. Voila–nutritious sweetness, about the extent of my culinary aspirations.

I was good at being a hostess, however. I could refill glasses and coffee cups with elan. I could offer silverplated or cut glass bowls full of nuts and mints, platters of shining strawberries or lace-delicate cookies; I could sneak away an emptied dish and replace it with something new. I had no idea this was what waitresses did for money. It was just what children did when told. I was trained in niceties as well as the art of interested, fairly intelligent conversation. I didn’t have any argument with this. I liked to listen to and examine our guests. They often were musicians with fascinating tidbits to share. And a palpable tranquility is evoked when one behaves in a civilized way. Manners are still valuable to me, seemingly verging on extinction if many street and sidewalk behaviors are any indication. They may seem superficial to some, but if you practice long enough you will daily begin to feel more benevolent toward the general populace. And much more patient with those you’d prefer to ignore.

But while engaging in conversation or completing my small kitchen task, I was longing to climb our sheltering maple, get comfy in a crook of the tree and write another play for neighborhood kids. Yours truly snagging the starring role, of course. I wanted to sing the song wending its way through my brain or finish a poem I had begun the previous evening. And there was that montage I had begun with cut out pictures of a South American jungle, and a paddlewheel boat gliding down the Mississippi, plus that chic woman–Jean Shrimpton, a famous model, or was it Verushka, my favorite?–dashing across the street in London, a Pucci scarf dangling from her fingers. The scattered words I spelled out in different types: DO WHATEVER COMES TO YOU NOW. Or some such thing that found its way into my pile of clippings and I found clever or ironic.

As a child and youth I gave over to dreaming regularly. And today, as ever, when that creative impulse comes over me I’ve often felt as if in a trance. I just need to let things happen, be available to follow the muse. Right then. To do otherwise can feel as if I am a creature out of its natural habitat, an awkward, flopping fish trying to find its way upstream when what it wants to do is leap the tantalizing bank and fly. Or play a rousing Irish jig at a corner cafe before some sharp, hat-wearing guy and a gum-snapping brunette come in and grab said fish to fry up for a meal. Oh, gosh…apologies, I got caught up in the fish flying scene and my proclivities. What rescue does the next paragraph have to offer?

Well, back to the post at hand. The fish can carry on alone a bit.

There is always, in this adult life, work and obligations, and with those may also come the privilege to attend to creative work. To play but play whole heartedly. Thoroughness was the way. I understood that early on. It takes discipline to complete anything and to do it well, more of the same. It needs to be being done in a timely manner, too. “Every thing has its season”, I read and heard.

So that is what I have told myself as I have wrapped up the wedding plans. There has been so much to plan, re-check, alter, research, find a Plan B (or C) in the event Plan A falls flat. To complete the whole, the small details must be aligned and made to fit. The goal is a good wedding. Not an expert one, not one that the society pages review, thank goodness. But a wedding that will bring together families and friends and leave indelible contentment and laughter in the hearts of my daughter and her fiance.

Okay, but when do I get to write?

Every word that has gone into these posts the last five or six weeks has come at the cost of something else. Right now I should be cleaning the bedrooms. Or perhaps storing some of those mountains of books that are lined up against the electric heat board (in case it has to be turned on, or they get in the way of someone’s feet). I have more laundry to do. (Don’t we all?)

But I want to write. I long to write. Always.

It’s not that I have life-altering insights that others haven’t already noted a few times over. The feel and shape and sound of words entice me, bedazzle me, hold me up and free me. They are a currency I use to garner beauty and wonderment. They are what keep me afloat when everything has sprung a leak. Words can be the most attentive companions when other ones have somehow disappeared. They are the live wires that transfer–sometimes seem to translate–mythic ideas or fresh poetry, prayers I am given or tall tales from other realms to me, a writer. As an avid dictionary reader, I can say I have never met a word I have not fallen for, even when it turns out to be the wrong one.

So I am giving myself a few moments today. I know after tonight this place will be resounding not with words placed upon a page but those with life that is pulsing, soothing, words fully inflected issuing from the unique voices of my family members. Oh, it will be a cacaphonious symphony of sound and meaning. May we all enjoy such times.

Yes, I am about to put on my “hostess apron” and answer the doorbell many times. Greet adult kids at airports. Put out coffee and tea, scones or a pot of stew, all the necessary accoutrements. I am set to direct the logistics like a traffic conductor, whistle in hand. And I even bought a new teatowel and kitchen rug. I checked to make sure the best tablecloths are stain-free. I am hoping my husband will still be willing to cook most everything. I am truly not talented at this  but “act as if” because I like gatherings. But I can and will wrap my arms around each person. I can welcome them, smell autumn on their shoulders, or saltiness of tears (that wedding…), arcane and memorable scents of all as they sidle up and say something funny or good in my ear. I will be intensely present because I care to be here, and don’t want to miss one minute. Even if there are mishaps or difficult moments. It is the multi-texture of life, what is in between, under and over each weave that I seek to know and file away. It’s love.

The family members and friends all intrigue and inspire me. They are funny, daring, bright, full of foibles that can drive us all crazy, with hearts that beat in strong, diverse ways. I am going to dive in and write of them and the events. Infant poems are just there on the edge of thinking and dreaming, whispering secrets, unfurling colors, shapes, feelings. A story alights briefly, then floats, wings hovering, its energies infusing me with ideas. I will not forget; I will keep it all in the waiting place inside and finish my present work. I tend to believe the story itslef knows I will put down the tea kettle and pick up the pen again.

 

(Note: Due to the impending nuptials of aforementioned cherished daughter, I will not be posting again until later next week.)

 

Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fall Equinox, Autumnal Dreams

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Apparently autumn began on September 23 at 7:29 p.m. in my city. On that date in the northern hemisphere the sun crossed the celestial equator, that imaginary line corresponding to Earth’s equator. Earth was perpendicular to the sun rays as it is each time this occurs. Thus, there were twelve hours of daylight around the globe that day. In Latin, equinox means equal night, so that happened, too. These are simple facts I find impressive and interesting. How is it that the sun and Earth do that? I begin to muse on the precise workings of the universe and what else there is to know. So much I can barely imagine the possibilities. (As my eight year old grandson said recently, “Have you considered that the universe might end? Or that there might be others right beside ours so there is no actual ending?”)

Yes, dear Asher, and thanks for that discussion. But I am more concerned today with mundane matters like meteorological patterns in the Northwest. That is, temperature and precipitation in a very basic sense.

It just doesn’t seem very much like autumn to me. On September twenty-third it did rain, which was promising after a very hot and dry summer that continued into September. But I don’t think it got below the upper sixties. Not that I’m really complaining, just stating the manifestation of fall in Portland, OR. The sun keeps beaming. Today it hit eighty. I wore sandals with jeans and cotton shirt and felt overdressed. I had an urge to change over my closet for winter clothes earlier in the week. But what’s the sense of that when I must wait until it rains for a couple of weeks straight and the temperature shows low sixties or lower at least that long? Still, I did pause over my quilted green jacket and teal fleece today. I’m getting antsy to wear them both, as well as three pairs of boots. I’m done with painting my toenails mauve; they want socks and my old slippers.

I keep waiting for fall to make its entrance with a flourish. The heavy rains to shutter me in the house a few hours until I get readjusted. The heat to be turned up a tad. The windows to be cracked enough to let in the intoxicating smells of wet earth and city but no so much that  hands and feet freeze. I have a circulatory condition called Reynaud’s; my extremities become painfully cold at around sixty degrees (or if I hold onto something cold or frozen for more than a few seconds). Even in our generally mild winters I get to wear fingerless gloves and always have warm socks on. But it’s okay with me. I love the rainy fall–what we have of it. It turns into winter almost without our noticing it. Except for digging out fleece vests, a couple water-repellant items.

Well, I am mostly okay with this.

I was shopping earlier today and about stopped mid-traffic to look at the two big trees with leaves turning red amid the barely burnt-orange and cheerful green. The shock of color scooped up my psyche and carried me home. Way back home to the Midwest, where I was raised.

That kind of fall–like all four seasons there–meant special performances of the theatre of Nature. Being of a dramatic bent, I appreciated that even as a child. Cold, sometimes face-whipping rainstorms, winds that bore down on the land with a wail and drops in temperature that got me by the neck and chest on the way home from school. Dressing in many layers was the key; one had to be prepared or pay the consequences. Our mothers just dressed us protectively against whims of nature we kids found fun. Fall and school meant shopping for wool skirts and sweaters, boots, rain coats with a heat-supplying zippered liner and mittens. In other words, preparing for the inevitability of a serious sleet storm or winter snow by Thanksgiving at latest.

The whole point of which was to allow me to go outdoors, to walk to school and back, and to play. Being outside each day was a priority after school and all week-end. Indoor activities included school assignments, cello lessons and hours of practice, board games with family, reading and writing for fun, church activities and chores. (We didn’t even have a television until I was thirteen, not for financial reasons but because my parents didn’t want one– and then we watched the news occasionally, not much else. But that’s another post.) Being outside was a relief for me, a kid who wanted to be as active as possible.

Besides, in autumn, everything smelled better, seemed interesting, looked amazing. The swift, edgy breezes enlivened me, shook any shred of boredom right out of me. It grazed my pallid cheeks, made them bloom rose. The light underwent a subtle but striking transformation, as if clarified as it shot through chilly daybreaks. Strengthened, although the air wasn’t droopy with heat like summertime. It intensified hues, whether it was brilliant leaf coloration or the mutinous gray of thick nimbus clouds. On bright blue days I remember just sitting in the crook of the old maple and looking hard, my eyes absorbing the panorama. Making it indelible within me.

A file pops up in my brain: “A perfect jazzy fall day.”

That smell of falling, then fallen, broken leaves–do you know it? It is pungent and thick when you breathe in; it almost tastes of trees’ lives lived well. I know, they’re dead leaves, all used up. But that sound? Happy. The leaves underfoot seem to rouse themselves, make a shushing sound that is brittle and bright. When they’re raked, the cool, damp underside of the pile oozes out musty but sweet. Jumping into piles of them creates instantaneous laughter and screaming. And when flame is put to a pile, the scent carries for blocks, lingers in the nose, is carried into houses on hair and skin, clothing. A leaf bonfire at night is something enchanting: it draws people and keeps them there, enamored of life, of that very moment.

My Midwest autumn meant riding bikes as long as possible, before rainstorms howled, then sleet and snow raged. It meant the last of kick-the-can in back yards. Fall was full of trickiness, with temperatures that fluctuated wildly until it settled on way too cold, then freezing. It called for the unfurling of scratchy scarves in gusts, the donning of hearty hats–and all the while the trees disrobed, one by one.

I remember those autumns so well that I can see my younger self running through the yellow, orange and red piles. Later, curling up with steaming hot chocolate by the window while leaves twirled and twisted, released by their months-long keepers. I grabbed a book and a blanket and settled in. I knew winter was on its way. I was ready.

It was nearly eighty here today. This is a bit surprising but it stays warm here way past when Midwesterners would expect. Fall is within reach when it starts to ping-pong between twenty degree differences and the numbers start to make more sense. And when rain returns like a grumpy but entertaining old friend.

Not big storms, usually, not accompanied by the siren call of biting winds. Just “the rains”. Every couple of days, then gradually it stops playing around and it becomes most days before the winter daily rains. Such royal rain. Sporadic dripping and spitting, misting and soaking wetness. A reverence for rain comes upon me. It is a daunting yet beautiful half-year of it. The flowers turn their faces upward all winter. The grasses offer an emerald swath of life spread out for humans and beasts. I have learned how to hike in the rain; the forests are a wealth of mosses and conifers and more.

I care for the Northwest so much that at least once a week I ask myself why I waited so long to live here. It has been twenty-one years. But that doesn’t mean the Midwest autumns have faded away. There are different, perhaps fewer sorts of deciduous trees here. I long deeply to witness more of their cycles, the alchemy of foliage coloration. I want a bonfire at a lake, leaf piles to get lost in, the stinging wind zooming in from the North. I dream of it sometimes, this left-behind place. Its complexity of seasons. Its power to bring me to a sudden stop in the street. I breathe in and smell it: a Midwest fall is like a fine perfume, a balm.

But when the rains return I will be relieved, despite the enjoyment of extended warmth. I will get out my gloves and make my way down sodden pathways. The fallen leaves will glisten in the soft, damp shimmer. I will be at peace in this rainforested land, as I was in that autumn-leaved country now far from here.

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Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, Personal essay, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Nels’ Northwest Initiation

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Nels didn’t like the neighborhood. He thought it was too quiet, so tidy that he wanted to drop his gum wrappings on the sidewalk, maybe a wad of gum, too. The dogs were all well-behaved, not a snarl out of any of them as he passed. It wasn’t Chicago, he kept hearing from his dad, who grinned whenever he said it. Nels felt gypped. He had heard it was a cool city they were moving to, smaller but still with plenty of stuff going on. Portland was supposed to be bursting with music and art, tech nuts, young hippies and old hippies, skateboarders and cyclists, a famous bookstore. Mountain ranges soaring nearby. Two rivers (one that dumped right into the ocean, not too far away) with ten bridges.

Four were draw bridges, he’d read. He was fascinated with bridges so had planned on making his dad drive over every one of them in the first month. Nels was half-scared of being stalled high up over water, and when he thought about earthquake potential, it really made him crazy to consider being stuck on there. They had crossed two so far. He planned to document them in his notebook: “Bridges Surveyed and Survived”.

Presently his topic of research was farmer’s markets. He’d never been to a genuine market, not a large one with food grown in nearby farms. It was early fall so there would be pumpkins and weird mushrooms to check out. The possibility of tasting goat cheese, fresh smoked salmon and homemade Marionberry jam thrilled him. There was a market downtown, even with certified organic food (a concept that puzzled but interested him), which likely meant there were bugs on it and more.

Fifth grade had begun and all he could say was this school one was as boring as every other school he’d been to, all three of them.  The last one was a Quaker private school (thanks to his aunt, who taught there), not one Nels would have chosen even if he did like the subjects better. He was relieved to be back in public school. But he daydreamed about his mother and his oldest best friend, neither of whom would likely visit him here too often.

Friends weren’t that easy to come by. He was just too new. His dad suggested he head out on his bike, see what he could see. He felt silly riding around the same area over and over, looking cool, unimpressed with the scenery which he found exotic. Often there were a couple of teen-agers playing basketball in the street at a portable hoop. But they ignored him. He saw a kid, maybe seven or so, with a crown on and she waved like a beauty queen from her porch. She looked more like a dirty fairy princess, wings and all. Nels rode by without a nod.

But there was something interesting that got his attention one Saturday morning. It was a bungalow with peeling white paint on a corner two blocks away. The drapes were half-open but the rooms looked dark. The yard was teeming with flowers. He slowed down. He’d seen roses, of course, but not growing like they were wild in every yard. In late August and September. There was tons of lavender–he’d seen it in a gift shop by the North Shore–with bees buzzing about. He laid his bike down on the outer grass and peeked into the back yard. There was a small play house, and red, yellow and blue chairs about a table. The little red house looked rusty, as if it needed fresh paint, too.

He heard the back door open and stepped back. A large orange cat leapt out, then zig-zagged across the yard, batting at something defenseless with wings. The play house looked abandoned. He didn’t see any signs of life, not even a dirty old tennis ball or a crunched pop can. Just looking at the yard made him want to be back in Chicago where you could rub shoulders with masses of neighbors. His current back yard was spacious and fenced and emptier than this one.

“Hey! What’re you gawking at?”

Nels head jerked up and he saw a girl balancing on a skateboard, watching him. Hands were on hips and her head was cocked to one side. She had shoulders that looked like they could level him in one mad rush.

“Nothing.” He got back onto his bike. “Just saw the playhouse as I rode by.”

“Yeah, now you saw that, what else?”

She picked up the skateboard and walked over to him. He felt she was one of those fictional Amazons as he sat on his bike curbside. She seemed to know this and lorded it over him, chin up, looking down her significant nose at him. She couldn’t be much older than he was even though she acted like it. Her eyes glinted in the sunshine, brown with golden slivers.

Nels shrugged and stared down the street. “Like your board. Want to ride around with me?”

“Maybe.”

She put her skateboard on the pavement and pushed off. He jumped onto his bike and caught up with her, then passed her, but she grabbed his fender and held on, getting a free ride.

“Why do you have a playhouse? Do you really still…play house?” he shouted at her and pedaled harder, his breath a little labored. She was not a light-weight.

“My dad built it when I was three,” she called out. “Now it’s a kind of clubhouse.”

“What?” He slowed for a stop sign and turned around. She drifted up next to him.

“CLUB HOUSE.” She enunciated as if he was hard of hearing. “For me to do stuff undisturbed. And maybe a friend or two.”

“How do you get in? On your hands and knees?”

She punched him on the shoulder and skated off, gaining speed with each push forward, then jumped a curb and landed without a wobble.

“Maybe a secret password, too?” he shouted after her.

“Hey, better watch out for Flora! She’s like a wild beast!” The basketball guys laughed as they rode by on their expensive bikes.

Flora. Flora the flying wildcat, he thought, and liked the sound of it. He headed back home.

**********

The next two weeks it mostly rained. Nels had never seen it rain that way, on and off, on and off every day. Hard as pebbles, then soft as feathers against his window. He came home and thought of the bright cold air of Chicago, leaves going orange-gold, fire red. He thought of his friend Holden and the park that was a second home, the basketball court, a fountain in the shape of a lighthouse (with a light at top when it worked) near the swings and the patchy grass and weeds getting out of hand. When Nels looked down the street from his bedroom window now he saw bright bunches of flowers, perky despite the downpours. It looked like a wanna-be jungle down there. Lawns were so green they nearly glowed, as if drawn with florescent markers. Bushes were pruned into mini-sculptures. Trees he couldn’t identify yet elbowed more trees. Back home….(“This is home, now”, his dad reminded him at least once a week)….the lawns were skinny and you could tell what the neighbors were having for dinner and who was mad and if it wasn’t always the safest where they lived it was definitely lively.

One evening as he finished his English assignment–write a three-page report on your favorite author (he chose Tolkien to impress his teacher but he had actually read two books)–rain drops tumbled off rooftops. Then stopped for more then fifteen minutes. He opened his window and sniffed the air. Slightly cooler, earthy, fresh and breezey. The neighborhood shimmered under the street lamp. The block was calm, as usual. He grabbed his jacket and ran downstairs.

His dad looked up from the Irish mystery series he was watching, his phone lit up in his hand. Multi-tasking.

“Going for a short walk, okay?”

“It’s almost eight, be back in half an hour.”

Nels power-walked across the street, arms swinging. His breath emitted little clouds, or he wished they were clouds but really they were just damp puffs, nothing to indicate autumn temperatures. It was a few notches above balmy, in fact, and he began to sweat. By the time he reached the girl’s house, he had taken off his jacket and tied it around his waist as he jogged. He came to a full skid stop by Flora’s back yard.

A light appeared inside the play house. Rather, there was a wavering brightness leaking through small windows and a half-open Dutch door. Nels slinked into the yard, tried to see if she was there. All he made out was a fat round yellow candle.

“Who goes there?” A voice like Flora’s but deeper. “Show they ugly face.”

So she was the dramatic type. Nels sneaked up to the door and crouched, ready to scare her. Flora popped her head out the upper half of the door and looked around.

“Come on out. I can smell you,” she stated flatly.”Sweat mixed with cinnamon rolls.”

He stood up, avoiding her grasp. “Everyone sweats. Cinnamon bundt cake, vanilla ice cream. We bake sometimes.”

“Any extras?”

He thought she meant pieces of cake, as if he would bring her any.

Then Flora opened the half-door a couple of inches. “You alone, no dogs or other bad influences? Gilligan is with me.”

“Gilligan?”

“Yeah, that’s right, like the old show Gilligan’s Island. My cat.”

She pulled Nels in and shut the door. He ducked down a few  inches. He could see the tabby curled up in a corner, the cat that had sprung out of the back door. Flora bent over, too, as she made her way to a large plaid pillow on the floor, then pointed to the other one across from hers.

He sat clumsily after she did. She stroked Gilligan until he settled and purred, then glanced at Nels as if to check that he was behaving, as well.

The candle sputtered in the waxy pool. Flora poured some of it into the palm of her hand. She jerked her head at the candle and he followed suit, a warm carmelly drip stinging, then smoothing over his palm. They waited for it to cool, then crack. The flame on the candle steadied and illuminated the walls.

He saw her eyes turn more golden and imagined her a mountain lion come down from the mountains he had yet to explore. They were piercing and darted about. He wondered if she had long pointy nails, decided she didn’t, but would check later to be sure.

She thought he looked tired and parched, like a creature who finally made it to paradise after being lost in some terrible place. He knew all this was not a mirage but he still seemed very unsure. He had a baseball cap on and his grey-blue eyes reminded her of water trapped under ice.

“Where you from, Nels?”

“Chicago, home of the White Sox.” He tipped his cap. “How do you know my name, Flora?”

“Word just gets around, right? Wow, the Great Lakes. And a huge, freezing, windy city.” Flora shivered violently. “I’d like to have more snow. We get black ice, mostly. Except on the mountain. Mt. Hood, that is. You ski?”

He shrugged, stared at the flame as it danced, then rested, danced, rested. He felt the urge to say things. “Yeah, I can ski. And snowboard. And swim and ride in marathons with my dad. We came to this bizarre rainforest because my dad got a great job. Had to move…My mother, she lives in a townhouse and does web design. They divorced three years ago but I like living with my dad better.”

He shot Flora an angry look. Her mouth, which was hanging open, closed.

“I was way happier in Chicago.”

“Of course. You’re from the Midwest. You have culture shock, or so my mother would say. She has MS, and writes sci fi books and has nearly white hair even though she’s just thirty-eight. A genetic thing. I’ll probably get it before then–I saw a white hair the other day, swear it.” She patted Gilligan. “My dad left when I was four so I don’t miss him. You’ll get used to your mom being gone. Eventually.”

Nels let loose a sigh; he didn’t realize he had been holding his breath in after he’d let out so many words. He half-smiled at Flora, more out of relief to have air them. No one else knew those things here.

She didn’t smile back but held up a squashy little ball of wax. She pulled it apart and gave half to him. They picked at their pieces and dropped bits of wax back into the candle’s well and watched the flame, blinking and yawning. It reminded Nels of a cobra, the way it moved.

Nels leaned against the wall and got so sleepy he felt like he could sit back and snooze until morning. He noticed Flora was tired out, too, with Gilligan curled up on her lap. The candle flickered and threw monster shadows on the walls. Their shadows. He got up.

“I need to leave. You go to the same school right, right? I don’t feel like being caught in a play house…Is it the only place you’ve got?”

She frowned and studied Gilligan as he stretched. “I have an oak tree that beats the rest. There’s a good park a few blocks away. I like it here. We could sit outside at the table. I was going to say you could come back and visit here, but oh, well. You’d have to donate a candle, anyway. I like to light them as it gets colder.”

She caught Gilligan’s tail as he hopped off, then let it run through her fingers. Her nails were short.

Nels went outside but poked his head through the half-door. “You mean, for heat?” He snickered. “When you’re forced to put on fleece and wear real shoes?”

She flashed a toothy smile. “I wear sandals most of the year.With leggings or tights. You probably brought snow boots but forgot a water-repellant jacket. You might drown with all that weight on your feet.”

Nels laughed and waved. He crossed the yard and stopped to examine the rain jewels on roses, then looked back as the little house went dark. He didn’t wait to see Flora emerge. He took off down the street, Gilligan running after him then making a U-turn, off on a hunt. He thought about the market he and his dad were checking out on Saturday. Portland was possibly going to be a decent place. Eventually.

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Posted in fiction, Pacific Northwest living, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A LeAnn Rimes Sort of Intervention

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LeAnn Rimes’ soaring alto grabbed me at the sink as I cleaned a skillet of salmon leftovers. I was minding my own business and boom! the song shook me right up.

It’s important to know I’m not generally a country music aficionado though I admire its production value and talents. I’m not a very sentimental person, just occasionally nostalgic. I go for Debussy and Berlioz, Miles Davis and Diane Reeves and Bill Evans among many more. But sometimes I need country’s brand of liveliness, its overriding warmth. Even its simplistic and frank commentaries. So as I tackled kitchen clean up from last night’s late dinner, I thought LeAnn might do the trick. The song playing had a great chorus that insisted everyone has their highs and lows, love can stand strong despite life going right or wrong. What I heard was less regarding romantic love, more about life’s highs and lows.

And I thought: that about sums it up. And started crying.

I was elbow-deep in suds as tears slid down my cheeks and mingled with soapy sweet potato bits and salmon flakes. I wondered what on earth was going on but let them quietly fall. I’ve gotten good rest, plans are in order for my daughter’s upcoming wedding, and summer hasn’t yet been utterly vanquished.

Yet, something was up. I am not an easy weeper. Country doesn’t figure strongly in my musical repertoire because I have had enough of broken hearts, longings for more love, sizzling nights and crazy-fast cars, lalalala baby. It was once dizzying and fabulous and nuts but from this perspective, a bit overrated. Well, I mostly have had enough. I admit a lapse into old daydreams from time to time when I have nothing else to do or think about. Or a vivid memory catches me off guard.

But this morning something else happened. Music found me and whispered secrets, awakened dormant feelings. I began to recall cherished friends who have come and gone (or I had to leave due to circumstances), love held close then torn apart, life’s hopes and disillusionments. It seemed the spot where loneliness lives was unlatched, then let out to roam. It dogged me from pan to plate to gleaming countertop. The harder I scrubbed the more tears fell. I need to get a grip, I thought, right now. And I could use a bigger support system–how’s that epiphany for a retired counselor?

I looked around for more to do. I’m an action person, and like to think on the fly, multi-task. Feelings are appreciated, too–as long as I also get things done.

But the sadness intensified. My parents and long-gone friends hovered about like visitors. Faces from twenty-five years ago came forward, those I had counted on and cared for, reluctantly said good-bye to. My mother, having left earth thirteen years ago, may as well have entered the room. Of course she knew I needed her. I nearly felt her hand on my shoulder; her easy laughter came to me like a freshening of breeze. I imagined what she would say to me right then:

“Well, some things are out of our control. But the rest you can work with and have a good time doing it, too.”

I had to sit down.

I guessed it all made sense. A wedding for my youngest, A. is soon–but my mother is no longer here to ask for advice, to celebrate or commiserate with. She would have had a word to offer on everything, like it or not. Soft hugs and prayers that targeted bothersome specifics; mom was affectionate but never wimpy. Somehow she could corral unruly life, place it into a manageable perspective. And I know she shed plenty of her own tears.

I thought of the necklace, earrings and bracelet A. will wear with her vintage bridal gown. I sniffled a bit more. They once belonged to my mother, given to another daughter, who is sharing them with her sister.

The wedding preparations have required a concentration of multiple energies. I’ve gathered up scattered information and tried to execute ideas with a level of skill I’ve at times felt was lacking. There have been few to assist me due to others’ life obligations (a twenty-two year old granddaughter helped a couple of times, thankfully, and daughters have chimed in a bit). I’ve relied on my own problem-solving and hoped for the best: May it please not rain on the forest ceremony! Let the food be savory and hot! May the music be lively and the sound system good enough for what we can afford!

And all the time I have been thinking of A. and how her life has been in a fantastic upheaval, with a move to another state, a brand new career and her best friend/fiance who is looking for his own job. Wedding yet to happen, but soon, so soon.

There is this business of the family morphing… again. I have been through it a few times. This idea of losing a daughter, gaining a son… We have known D. many years and care for him, root for him, too. I know how to welcome folks into my home as well as adapt and this was no new person. No, it was all this shifting gears, making things happen, accepting all outcomes. Today varied impressions manifested as a tender sorrow, a pressure within that left no bruise yet radiated pain. And beneath that, a swift, deep river of feelings. To cross over to the other bank where a more productive day awaited meant fully acknowledging them.

So LeAnn was singing away and I was at the oak table weeping and praying: This is how messy it is to be human. I hate it sometimes. How inconvenient to feel so sad when I have things to do and much to celebrate. So help me, Lord, because this life’s drama and comedy will go right on until it does not. Help me, Jesus, to be strong in the compassion you have shown me. Give my soul safe harbor when things get out of hand out there. Show me how to be of use, how to exemplify your Love. Lord, let these tears cleanse any sore spots I have neglected to ask You to heal. And never let me forget the blessings I receive every single day…And please, I need a better sense of humor! (An Aussie puppy might help…but later when I can catch my breath…) 

I thought of my two best friends, both struggling with illness, who may not be able to attend the wedding. I thought of my sisters, one close and one far away, both of whom are dear to me. They also have health issues and demanding lives. One brother is nearby but I rarely see him and one lives across the country but will come and also photograph the events. We’re getting older and time and place separate us more than I would like.

But sometimes what I think I need doesn’t seem to be what I get. Today it was the comfort of someone who knows me well and to whom I could say: “Change in my life is hard, I admit it. And it can make me feel discombobulated and lonely for what used to be. Even though that wasn’t a sure thing, either. Even though I’m curious about what awaits around a next corner.”

After a few minutes I’d had enough of crying. I washed my face and put on more lively music–a little Ry Cooder and his Cuban pals–and got ready for the gym. When blurry or low on spiritual and emotional power, getting active is a way I can circumvent a descent into lethargy or self-pity. I brushed my flyaway, greying hair and put on tennis shoes, already feeling some brighter.

And then A. texted me.

“I’m feeling overwhelming sadness and I don’t know why! Will you say a prayer for me so I act like a normal person at my new job for the rest of the day?”

Just like that, God stepped in closer to do some work.

I texted back. “Me, too…maybe that’s why I shed some tears today. Well, I have my own stuff. It’s all these changes, a roller coaster of ups and downs. When you move out of the temporary place and make your own new home you’ll feel better, I promise. It takes time to fit the pieces together after a big, sudden move like you’ve had. And the wedding on top of it all! I’m proud of you for just coping with it, carrying on.”

We chatted awhile. The topic changed a bit. But I texted prayers and held her close at heart. She went back to work with love sent my way. A. is such a good egg. And she will work work like mad to do a great job. Her new job is a marketing and community outreach position at a performing arts center. It is work she was meant to do and she feels fortunate. But her needs extend beyond work and this transition has been trying.

Sometimes–though I’ve worked in human services most of my adult life and have loved the work–I don’t know what I need. I believe I’m competent overall and have faith in my daily decisions. But what requires most attention can be a blind spot until something jars the truth out of me. It could be music that excavates a clue, writing a poem that sheds light or the natural world enlargening my vision. I start each day with a meditative reading and prayer, yet still I might need more sharpening of focus. But generally what matters to me is a steadfast faith in God, helping others including family, the courage of kindness, the phenomenal resilience of love, and the fulfillment and freedom of creative work.

And as I finish this, it finally hits me: LeAnn Rimes is to be a performer this season where A. works. I’m surprised, but it all comes together. Her song must have been waiting to reach and teach me today, along with my daughter. Such clever timing, when my soul needed a dollop of sweet on top of sour. Didn’t I, in fact, get what was most needed? A pause that allowed some tears, a sharing of love, a refreshed outlook. Now I can better set aside useless longings, make more room for the present and future. More living will certainly occur; stasis is useful but not permanent. There’s no holding back change once events are in action. Life has its own velocity, clears it own paths. We just have to decide how many directives we want to issue and how much work we’re willing to do. When we want to jump in and step back. Sometimes it means letting the aches of living rise up, burble and shimmer, transform our vision and help set us free. To be truly human and glad of it.

Thanks, LeAnn. Thanks, A.

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Posted in creative nonfiction, memoir, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment