Home as a Kind of Sickness

I remember an apartment filled with bodies, an apartment loud and raucous with partying college kids, and I sat among them, a thirty-or-something, drunk on the company, but loathing the clean-up.  I hated it at times.  It was a welcome respite from the days alone in Punta Gorda, a small oasis of talk and drinking games and fire spinning.  I loved it even as I hated being the only one who cared enough to contain the mess afterward.

Here it’s quiet.  I know people.  I could go out.  Sure.  Maybe.  But I could also sit on the floor and stare up at the ceiling, and it would be about the same thing.

They call this place Tallahassee.  My spouse sent me the following etymology: “from Muskogee tvlvhasse, name of a tribal town, perhaps from etvlwv ‘tribal town’ + vhasse ‘old, rancid.'”  I looked it up after he’d sent it to me.  He’d apparently copy pasted it from the Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper.  It’s fitting.

I remember these things about Miami: fifteen or sixteen or more bodies pressed into our apartment on a weeknight.  Someone pouring the rum right-handed across his body, leaning to the left into his phone, against the counter, away from talk in order to better hear the tiny receiver.  I remember our philosopher and our resident kandi kid sitting cross-legged on the unmopped floor, hunching over the shesh besh board, dice rolls exploding from hands which drunkenly fumbled the chips in interlocked U’s.  I remember the cups of the tea set all holding rum, all glued to careless fingers, and dishwashers stuffed full of things that were supposed to have been hand washed.

It’s a folly to prefer that to this.  It’s a folly to think “I should have.”  I hated those nights when I could get no break from the noise.  But I’d trade everything in this town for one more night in a cramped apartment with friends.

I wonder if it’s wisdom to listen to our philosopher: you can be happy anywhere.  I don’t know.  I can try.  I found woods filled with paths bursting with chanterelles and wild onions.  I found pools seeping out of sinkholes smelling of earth and cool water.  I found isolation and strange hills, businesses that close early, park hours enforced, and no beach to wander at night.  Nowhere to sit until 2 a.m. with pen in hand around people, unless I want to drink coffee bad enough to hurt my stomach.

This is the choice I made.  I came here to cold winter nights and college girls stage-whispering to each other about my clothes.  I love my spouse, but my pentacle draws stares.  What do you do with that?

Once There Was

Listen.  I used to tell this story of a girl and a dog roaming the swampy slow meetings of streams in the Connecticut hills.  The truth is, I don’t remember the girl or the dog exactly.  The truth is I make it grander than it likely was, girl and dog, splashing through shallows, scattering frogs.  Oh, it happened. Just like it happened when my sister and I, lumbering beasts, deprived of our mobility by snow suits, waddled down to our neighbor’s pond to try the ice.  It wasn’t cold enough, the layer not thick enough and we fell through, soaked up to our waists.  Or maybe our knees.  But we were shielded by the trees from our mother’s view, at least we thought so until we arrived home to a scolding.  Sure, that happened.  But I don’t remember the color of our coats.  I’ll say mine was a stained glass patchwork, 90’s bright.  I’ll say hers was pink.  I’ll say my mother yelled and yelled.  But I don’t remember for sure.

Listen.  They get better in the retelling.  They get taller when we become liars.  We loan them a kind of grace.  They hold their heads higher, their backbones carry them straighter.  We use them as vehicles to talk about what we’re facing now.  What we’re thinking about this instant, unless we learned something really big.  Then the tale gathers a different kind of power, but we embellish it no less.

So the girl and the dog.  I was the girl.  The dog’s name was Chance.  She had one blue eye and one brown.  She looked something like a husky, something like a springer spaniel, because she was both.  We terrorized the frogs, singly or together.  And I learned from those wet days how like smoke a memory is.  Or maybe how big bullfrogs were.  Or how easy it is to catch a dog with arthritis in her hips. Or perhaps how we build our identities by telling it all again.

Listen, I’ll keep telling these tales so I don’t lose them.  I’ll keep telling these tales so they don’t evaporate, so they don’t fall inward like a sinkhole in my mind, their foundations eroded with time.  What I’m doing is not an act of remembering.  It’s an act of reinvention.  We are all architects of our past.  We didn’t build our past actions; we are building our memories of them right now.  We are all Gene Wolfe’s Latro, injured in the head so he can’t remember yesterday, who must always write down his doings, or they will forever be lost to him. 

Listen.  There was this girl.  I’m pretty sure she was me.  She had a dog.  I think.

Freer, Then

I never knew where they’d hunt the turtles, but they brought them back in buckets. I kept one, and named it Nicole. We dug pits in their backyard, set pulleys in trees, and ranged around on our bicycles just down the street, turning circles like small pale-skinned vultures. We didn’t know that our neighbors were a network of spies, informing our parents. We didn’t know that the only time we were truly free was when we dove through the underbrush, picking up prickle burrs and climbing high into the forest canopy. They never saw us there, the watchful eyes, and the better for us, perhaps they reasoned, learning independence. We were independent little things, and we made our own adventures, pretending to be stranded on deserted islands in the tropics when we pulled ourselves from the waves of an above-ground swimming pool, seeking out signs of animals we’d never met before under the arms of old oak trees.

We were trusted to wander far, and when we weren’t, we slipped leashes and struck out on our own. We were caught and dragged back by ears or arms, given stern lectures, but the call was too strong to ignore. There were river banks to explore. There were patches of woods between neighborhoods, and daunting pines to climb, half-trusting their boughs to bear weight.

I look around me at the kids I know today, in this different time and place, and wonder about their wanderings. There’s a lot I don’t see of their existence. There’s a lot that’s different from mine. Was it better as a kid for us to have been turned loose? Was it better to be able to roam the back ways on bicycles and find our own paths? I can’t make a judgement call. I only wonder, do they trust them own sense of freedom?

Comfort Food

There are few foods I liked as child that I still like today. That’s why the concept of comfort food is a bit strange to me. I can list almost everything that childhood me enjoyed: hot dogs with mustard, chicken, black olives, mac and cheese, Rice Krispies, chocolate milk, lobster legs, potato pancakes, and orange sherbet. Only in my childhood lexicon it was “sherbert,” rather like “spaghetti” was “basghetti.” I used to also like the presentation called “Cubic Scoops,” with the orange “sherbert” and vanilla ice cream stacked in blocks, and we’d go purchase it at Almacs instead of Ro-Jacks, for some reason.

And this list? Comprehensive. I’m not quite certain how I survived into adulthood with a diet like that, but I did. My palate has broadened since then.

There are very few of these foods I eat today. Foods that comfort me now are things like eel maki with a bowl of miso soup, or sautéed Brussels spouts with garlic and salt, or lamb served with peppers and olives and feta. They make me feel warm and cared for, exactly the thing one needs when one is sick or sad or hurting. Most of the foods of my childhood… just remind me of my childhood, which involved a lot of yelling, and the food, a lot of preservatives.

But I haven’t my own kitchen to experiment in, these days. Making these foods is involved. So instead, last night, I walked to the grocery. In the frozen section, I scanned the ice cream offerings, following my sweet tooth. That tooth, while still something to contend with, has shrunk of late. But there they were, isolated in the corner: the sherbets. I picked up the orange. Blue Bell, in a round plastic tub, not a box. That was okay.

I walked back to the house, lost in music and melancholy, and when I arrived, served myself of the melty mass. One taste. One taste and it was summer in New England. Milk and orange and cicadas. Milk and orange and Catwings at the Norton library, in the basement children’s section of the old building. Milk and orange and turtles in buckets caught by neighborhood kids down by the river, my dog with them, dripping with pond slime, her odd eyes laughing. So what did I do? Cry, of course. I always cry. I didn’t know a taste could capture all the escapes I had known as a kid.

But it wasn’t a comfort.

Barefoot

This wasn’t the three-story building I had known. The outdoor hallways were gone, the dusty science classrooms and the feeling of decay from the 40’s and 50’s were washed away by a torrential downpour and high winds, damaged in the hurricane. This building here wasn’t my school–but then, it had never been my school. I never belonged there, at least not within the boundaries they defined.

It was my school when I walked barefoot to the bus stop, my feet concealed by the absurd length of my skater jeans. It was my school when I felt the tile on my toes and when I hopped into Amy’s Beast, a quad-cab pick-up, and we cut out for lunch or maybe to Sarasota or sometimes just to the rest stop on the highway south of there. But that tile is gone, and so are the moments when that place was mine.

I remember the terra cotta color, sealed smooth, and the works of high school art hung on the walls, and the old auditorium, unairconditioned, and peeping open. I remember barefoot in the library, sneaking glimpses at Le Guin when I should have been in working equations. I remember Taoist feminist anarchist ideas dripping through the denseness of dull days made bright from my shoelessness.

I had walked the open air campus from portable classroom to great green space where the cafeteria once stood, grass crushing between my toes. I remember the well-walked dirt patches where the grass would never grow again, and the color of my soles at the end of the day. I remember shrub gardens made for class-skipping, now bulldozed and built-over. And honestly, honestly, when all’s wrapped and packaged for the end of the day, I don’t miss it. Because those moments are still mine: the feeling of bus aisles under naked toes, the roughness of the street back from the bus stop on black leathery calluses, the transition of in through the front door onto long slats edge to edge of hardwood floors. In those unhappy days, the soles of my feet got to see all the best parts.

A Madeleine for My Memory

Memory is a strange thing.  I didn’t post last Thursday because I thought I had.  See, I remembered the intent and not the deed, and was so certain it was done that I never gave it another thought.

Memory is moldable.  I remembered convincing my sister that one year, at the family picnic at Slater Park, I had handed her Tabasco Sauce for her hot dog, “no, no, it’s ketchup,” that she’d taken a regal bite and burst into tears.  I never did.  But she went along with it in every telling for years, up until recently.

Memory is fragile.  I was not tired when I picked up the toothbrush.  I was not taking medicine, I was not altered in any way other than in the fact that I could not place this object in my hand with a long stem and bristles.  The natural thing to do, it seemed, was to pick up another one and rub the bristles together.  So I did for a time, until the bristles seemed done.  As I moved to place one of the brushes back, it came to me what they were and what they were for, and I stared in horror at my hand holding the remaining toothbrush.

We remake memory every time we recall an event.  Remembering is reassembling, reinterpreting.  We can’t bring ourselves back to an idea, a moment, a feeling, wihout rebuilding it.

Recalling I hadn’t posted unstitched an entire week in my head, and it lay like a heap of birds-nested thread on the underside of a machine-sewed sweater.  I could make no sense of the time.  The days slid and rolled into a kind of place, and then came up, and rolled back before settling into a place I finally deemed proper.

These earthquakes only momentarily confuse.  They are not so disorienting as losing whole days for good, no record of its events.  That has never hapened to me before… but these things are possible.  And this knowledge lurks in the corners, under every forgotten detail.

The Problematic Girl

Birds are a problem. Up there, the air is dense with up-fluttering, wheeling ’round, down drafting. It’s deafening. The rustle beat of a thousand ruffled primaries striking a syncopated rhythm that cocks asymmetric after a moment or eight.

The smears on the screen of my cell phone make the shape of a bird skull in oils. A crane’s bill smudged on plastic. It’s well enough. I am a bird some days myself. Not a crane, but a shocky little screech owl…

I should tell you the tale, better this time. It would be easier. He was only my whole hand in size. He did not have flight the night before, struck from the air by a passing something. The good Samaritan who brought him in wouldn’t say, maybe didn’t know.

I thought, I’m not all that different from you, when I reached in with my gloved hand. I thought, you must be terrified, and he blinked.

Birds are a problem.

There were feathers everywhere when he exploded into the room. There were feathers everywhere in the nest he’d left in the back of the kennel cage. He circled the trailer on little wings, silent except where they collided with lights and cabinets and trays full of medicine and meal worms.

Up there, the air was hot because the hospital trailer’s AC was out, and the owl could not be calmed. Don’t open the door, I thought, and the door remained closed a moment more. Don’t open the door, I thought, when the handle, held, turned down.

He wheeled ’round and down, and then there were tiny talons in my scalp. He wound ’round my hair with his claws, and I was deafened with needles; no sound but the chorus of prickles. I could not hear the words the vet spoke as she entered by the door, only the rustle of the owl on my head.

After a moment or eight, I caught the cock of his head in the silver of a tray before he leaned out and down to glide to the operating table. He stood there trembling when my gloved hand caught his tiny legs, those talons that had drawn my blood a moment before.

He knew not what he’d done. Birds are a problem. He and I are not so different. We are, for instance, not so stately as a crane, instead are shocked by the awkward world around us, caught off guard by something which plucks us from the air. We, unable to fly, can only sit at rest, heart pounding, until we test the measure of a wing, or the space in which we’re given to fly.

Lit Bit: When I Was Wild

Mr. Sendak, it has been five years since the last time I cried for the death of a person I never knew personally.  It was  on June 15th 2007, when Don Herbert died.

I have loved your books and art since I was small, like many an American child. But even when I was little, I noticed something about your work that wasn’t present in so many other books aimed at my five-year-old head. It was a basic thing, though I couldn’t name it until I was older. It was a thing that Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in her writings about writing, something she implied was missing in C. S. Lewis’s writing, when she reviewed The Dark Tower; he one-upped his readers, condescending slightly to write for them. Mr. Sendak, you trusted me. Respected my intelligence. Fuck, you trusted me to read, identify deeply with Max, and to go on his journey with him, trusted me enough to show me that place of wildness and release, unleashed, you trusted me to cut loose, to break free, and arrive back with Max safely. Maybe not safely, but at least mostly whole, and better for the experience. You trusted me, and all of the other children who would read your work, to get it. Because we never didn’t get it.  But try to tell that to all the adults running around.

Don Herbert gave me a sense of empowerment in my ability to do; you gave me a gift just as powerful. You acknowledged my humanness, and instead of moralizing, sugar-coating, or sanitizing, you let me run wild in your pages, fierce and free, and trusted I would do right with this gift.

I hope I did right with this gift.

Of the Rites of the Bean

That’s college. Down to the lounge to the only oven open to a hundred students, and there is my one lonesome burner free. I am smart enough for an honors school, but not smart enough to get a bag to carry the burr grinder, the whole bean coffee, the moka pot, and my spoons. I’m too bleary for it to matter. That is what I say, though the real reason is that it isn’t part of the ritual. You have to be careful what you do, lest it become part of the ritual. That’s true of anything. That’s how hard cider and chocolate became a healthy breakfast, and why I light candles for Elsa every January 3rd.

There is a meditation in balancing my items in arms too small to hold them all, and tottering down the concrete stairs barefoot every morning. There is something entirely present here now in depressing the door handle with an ass cheek, and leaning the steel door inward.

I unpack on a small section of counter that I have to clear with a knee. It’s mostly hippie food grown over with mold, stacked on paper plates.

I refuse to make my coffee in an unclean kitchen, so all the food has to be air lifted into the trash. I have to run up to my room on deer’s feet to grab a rag for the counter. No one ever leaves cleaning supplies in the lounge.

Once the sweep of my arm and the smell of the soap has almost made the space usable, the real ritual begins. I set the grinder finest. Three scoops of beans once ground will fill the middle chamber. Three scoops a day sustains me.

I have forgotten my espresso cups. Another trip, bird’s feet on tile, and up to rummage and back flying wings down to my lonely coffee tools. There is a hippie at them, diaphanous skirt swaying under the AC vent, her nose in my beans.

“Hey!” I snap.

“It’s in the lounge,” she says.

“Because I brought it here to make.” These turf wars are never fun.

“Geeze, you don’t have to be so mean.”

I brush her aside, and fill the lower chamber with tap water. It is pure shame that fills me. Tap water is unworthy of my beans, but it’s what I have. It will have to do. And there is the ritual to mind. It would not do to change it.

The burner lights, coil rising to glow one shade at a time. I have but to screw the upper chamber in place, and place the pot on stove, step back and wait.

Books are good for this, but they are not part of the ritual. I watch my pot boil. It is not like grass or paint, because there are tiny changes to note.

First, the pot reflects the glow of the coil. Second, there is a sound that steam pressure makes. I cannot tell you what that sound is. You must hear it for yourself. Third, the bubble comes. It is glorious. It’s like the rumble of a train from far away. It’s like the purr of a cat when your head rests on its belly.

When this stops, the next phase of the ritual begins. You need a potholder, or your hand may burn. There is never a potholder in the lounge. There are sometimes dish towels that smell rank, and sometimes a hippie’s shirt discarded on the floor. The ritual calls for one of these in a potholder’s place.

It must be an espresso cup. It must have a saucer. One must pour slowly enough to enjoy the beauty of the crema that pours out; even stove-top espresso has crema.

Here is where the ritual may change. It all comes down to this deciding moment. Now with the coffee made, I can do many things. Today, I will pile my supplies on the lounge counter and walk slowly back up to my room to stand on my dorm’s double balcony overlooking the volley ball net, the swing set, and underbrush and live oaks. I will stand in the gold morning listening to wind chimes and sip my espresso standing. Tomorrow, I may sit on the lounge floor with Scrabble tiles strewn about connecting archaic cuss words, or maybe outside under the bottle brush, my back bark abraded. But for today, this. Gold is out of the ordinary enough.

A Long Way from There

Trains, well, I’d only ever ridden on the subway before. That, and the restored trains that ran through Connecticut, green and gold through the wooded hills, pointing out historic points in the landscape. Maybe the BART counted, too. With my Easy Card in hand instead of a paper ticket, I didn’t quite know what to do. The swipe terminal was for transfers only. So I stood on the platform, wondering how to go about this thing, this riding the train. I was off to a job training 45 miles from my home, blearing into the six a.m. sunrise.

This is my favorite kind of mundane adventure, at least these days, even though I can remember it in my body, in the sweat on my brow and the clenching in my chest what it felt like the first time I took public transit alone.

Down underground, a turnstile to one side, and the BART line that ran all the way up Telegraph Avenue beyond. On my side was a machine. Where you got your tickets. Paid your fare. Gained entrance. I walked up to the machine, set into the wall, and the directions swam in front of me.

It wasn’t just the directions. There were people behind me. There were people tapping feet. There were people shifting uncomfortably. And I could not read the directions. I could not make them make sense. One more frustrated sigh… it didn’t even take that. They knew I had no idea what I was doing. They knew. So I fled.

Back up the stairs, running east (ish), two blocks, before I hunched in the shadow of a high-rise. Back against cool stone in the October air, I slid, shirt dragging, back scratched, until I was crouched safely away from the BART. People walked by. They were looking at the weird girl who had started talking to herself.

Do you know what I said?

“Hey, Story. It’s okay. It’s okay. First, take as long as you need to get calm,” I said aloud to myself. People gave me wide berth.

“First, breathe. Good deep breaths. There. That’s it. Now, I want you to know you have permission to be a freaking weirdo. You have permission to not know how to do a thing.”

Okay, so far so good. I’d stopped crying, and my chest didn’t feel as though it was under an elephant.

“Good. Good. You’re breathing again. I want you to stand up, slow or fast as you want to…”

I shot up and brushed myself off.

“… and I want you to walk slowly back to the station.”

West it was. I went back down the stairs, and faced the ticketing machine again.

“Take your time. Read all the directions. Don’t worry about people behind you.”

So I took a good eight minutes to look over the fares, and calculated the exact amount based on the tables given and where I’d hop off. It’d be a long walk from the station up to UC Berkley, and the co-op where my friend lived. But that was in the future. With a steady confidence, I pressed the buttons, and the machine spat out my pass. Then I checked in through the turnstiles. And I was on my way.

Standing on the Tri Rail platform, I thrilled at the flutter of wind as the train pulled up, no idea how to handle my Easy Card. It didn’t seem so big a deal. In retrospect, neither did the BART. But this is Story-now looking back on Story-then, and they are not the same person. I am trying to uncover her, this me who was afraid to buy a ticket. She’s been all but erased, and I can barely make out her shape when I look back over my shoulder. I want to hug her and tell her that it’s all going to be okay, look at how she’ll turn out. Maybe I already have.

But for the day at hand, I stepped into the car, and off to work.