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First day of the new year. It’s a sparkling bright new day, the city washed clean by last night’s rain, the last rain of the old year. The wet sidewalks glitter, showcasing last night’s cast-offs: broken, deflated balloons in silver and gold; plastic hats reading “Happy New Year” in gold letters; soggy noisemakers, silenced; dented silver beer cans; a white plastic lei, tossed with abandon onto a parking meter. A trail of deep red rose petals leads to a now-closed strip club, where the rest of the petals are piled on the doorstep. A tribute to beauty, seen but untouchable?
The short winter day is already coming to a close. The sky is briefly, cotton-candy pink, unnoticed by workers hurrying home. The construction workers across the street have finished their daily ration of noise (really, how many times does a truck need to beep to signal it’s backing up? And how many truckloads of cement can be mixed and poured in one day?). There is a brief silence between quittin’ time and the start of a heavy rainfall. It batters the skylights, but sounds cozy, since I’m inside in the warmth, with the lamps lit and the Christmas tree twinkling.
My trainer asks me to set goals for the year. According to him, 2% of people have written goals, and 2% of people control most of the world’s wealth. I can’t help feeling that the equation can’t be that straightforward. Otherwise, the percentage of those writing down their goals and those being rich would be much higher. Sometimes, in the face of his unflagging optimism, I feel cynical and as though I need to hide it from him, since he sees no reason not to think positively. I think the evidence is to the contrary, but keep it to myself.
The goals are all set, but I’m not sure I am. They are: regain pre-depression levels of strength and energy (the strength part being both emotional and physical); stay away from doctors and medication, other than necessary check-ups; get copies of my contract and other paperwork from my boss; meet with him to set goals and plan for the coming year; organize my apartment (this may well be the biggest one – 1,200 square feet of utter chaos plus my inability to cope with housework of any kind); and move closer to my brother and sister. Can she do it?
When I see women with babies, I feel sorry for them, imagining their harried life, the sacrifices. Sleep, sex, disposable income, peace of mind all offerings to a tiny being who is completely unaware of them. I never wanted children. Even when I was a child myself, I didn’t like playing with dolls. I thought they were creepy. When I was married, people were always asking when we’d have kids. On discovering that we wouldn’t, rather than couldn’t, their expressions would change from pity to horror at our selfishness, my lack of maternal instincts. I have no regrets. They do.
Being an expert in procrastination, I have yet to write an article, which I know will be published, on one of my favorite topics: my dog. I have tried writing exercises, like writing her name on a blank page and then writing all the words she inspires – and there are many, more than the 100 word ration – but I can’t get myself to start the piece. I am unable to determine the cause of this hesitancy. Maybe I need a focus, like how she accidentally came into my life, or how I always had cats before. That’s it!
Every time I see or hear an ambulance, I am reminded of my sister. She’s an Emergency Medical Technician, the only woman in her area to be one. Most people don’t find the sight or sound of an ambulance comforting, but it makes me think of her, her strength, calm, and passion for her job. What she dislikes most about her job isn’t the blood, the gore, the pain and fear of the patients, it’s the paperwork. She loves helping people, easing their fears, calming them in their worst moments. If I were them, I’d be glad she was there.
I’d like to disable the nagging function in the world. The microwave emits three high-pitched beeps every 30 seconds after the cooking time is ended, to remind me that I haven’t taken the food out. The car chides me for having the door open, as if I were too stupid to realize the door was open and might drive away with it ajar, speeding down the highway exposed to the elements without noticing. Ditto for the seatbelt: believe it or not, I know if there is a strap squishing my boobs and pushing against my windpipe. I’m observant that way.
Making soup, I think of my father. Not only because we loved to cook, and loved to cook together, but because I’m using what’s in the refrigerator, the way he did. Having survived WWII and its rationing as a boy in London, he never wasted anything, so I acquired the habit from him. Carrots go into the pot, the end of an onion, what’s left of chicken broth. There are so many things I do when I cook because that’s how he did it: half an eggshell of milk for an omelette; rolling meatballs in flour. And always, always, singing.
Lying on the couch, watching TV, I hear the unmistakable sound of horse’s hooves reverberating in the courtyard. Surprised, I get up and look out the window. Sure enough, there is a horse, with a policeman riding him. I open the window and ask if I can pet the horse. “Sure,” says the cop. I dash to the refrigerator, grab a handful of baby carrots, and head outside. Turns out he had ridden by the slightly creepy passageway to my courtyard and was curious about the building, so he rode on in to check it out. I’m glad he did.
My neighbor drops by (this happens often, since my front door opens to the courtyard, which most residents of the building pass through) and notices that my Christmas tree is up, still twinkling away merrily in the winter twilight. “I guess when you have an artificial tree, you can leave it up as long as you want,” he observes. It’s true that the tree is as artificial as I am, and even older, being of 1950’s vintage and hailing from long-gone Gimbel’s department store in New York. It’s also true that you need the brightness on the dark days.
Despite my goal of not seeing doctors this new year, or taking medication, I find myself doing both. This week contains two visits to doctors: the cardiologist and the family doctor, to report on the visit to the cardiologist. The cardiologist prescribes medication to calm my occasionally frantic heart, as an alternative to zapping the naughty part of the heart with a thread thing given access via my groin. He seemed surprised at my lack of enthusiasm after a sentence which included the words “procedure”, “groin”, and “hospital”. I felt as if the sentence was either needle or firing squad.
Edward never goes to the shops. That’s something his wife does, along with the cooking, laundry, tea-making, and other domestic chores. This despite the fact that Edward has long been retired from his job in international banking in the City, the job that made him feel so important. Though he had been a soldier in WWI, survived being gassed – just
- that job is how he defined himself. He never thought of himself as the child of poor people from the slums, even though he was. He had long ago distanced himself from that part of his past.
Jane watches her niece apply nail polish. The smell is unfamiliar, sharp; she wrinkles her nose. She doesn’t know anyone who varnishes her nails. It seems wrong, especially for a girl who is only in her teens, not a grown-up by any stretch of the imagination. Jane wonders if her brother allows his daughter this indulgence. If so, it’s his American wife, that flashy foreigner who took him away. Her niece asks Jane if she wants to polish her nails, too. “Oh, I couldn’t!” says Jane in horror. The girl can’t understand her aunt’s refusal of something so ordinary.
I marvel at the solidity of my friend’s life. Her parents are not only still married, but live in the same house where she and her brother grew up. She has friends dating back to grade school. She lives in the town she grew up in, though she had moved away and moved back. When she did, it was all waiting for her, as if she had never left. “Don’t you find it stifling?” I ask, thinking that you’d have to be the same old you you’ve always been, but she says it isn’t like that. I will never know.
He wakes in the night, like he always does. Like he always does, he slips out of bed, leaving his sleeping wife to her dreams. Like he always does, he goes to his study, opens the bottom drawer of his desk, and takes out a bottle of good whiskey and a Waterford crystal glass. He pours a generous dose, then sips it, looking out over the garden he loves to the night-time sky. There’s always ambient light in London, so he sees fewer stars than he did in his youth, but the moonlight reflects on the facets of the glass.
Computer problems, all day. Again. I don’t want to know what I’ve spent on my computer this past year: software, house calls, etc. You know those people who can’t wear a watch because their magnetic fields or something screws them up? I’m beginning to think I’m the same way with computers. It seems there’s always something going wrong with it, and it’s always expensive to fix (if you can call it fixed. Ever). It’s almost enough to make me go back to paper and pen (of course, I’m envisioning a silver fountain pen and hand-made paper, not writer’s cramp). Almost.
My sister tells me that her beloved 15 year old cat is gone. “What do you mean?” I ask. Is she dead? Ran away from home? What? It turns out she went missing 10 days ago, and what with the hazards of country life (hunters, traps, wildlife bigger and wilder than a cat) and the unusually cold weather (below freezing), it’s not likely she’s ever coming back. My brother lost a cat this way years ago. Another of my sister’s cats died only a couple of months ago. Now we’re out of parents, is the Reaper going after our pets?
The thing is, I wish she’d told me when it happened, so I could worry too. When she moved to the country from the city, this same cat went missing, and my sister called me to tell me. I was still living in the city, there was nothing I could do to help find her (she turned up only a couple of days later, dizzied by the freedom of the forest), but she turned to me for love and comfort. Now she’s too worried about me to worry me, and I wish things were the way they used to be.
Sleepless. She lies there, awake in the darkness. He, on the other hand, is sleepful, and snoring vigorously to announce the fact. Really, she thinks, is there anything more annoying when you can’t sleep than someone loudly advertising the fact that they are? She pokes him lightly to see if that will stop the sound effects. It does, momentarily, but then the sleepy symphony starts up again. Should she get up and read? Compulsively check her email, though everyone she knows is asleep? Sleep on the couch? Move out for good? It’s not just the snoring. It’s everything else. Everything.
I realize with surprise that I missed my former mother-in-law’s birthday. I never used to forget birthdays or anniversaries – in fact, I was one of those annoying people who would buy all the cards needed for the month at the month’s beginning. I’d write in them and put them in my desk diary on the day they should be mailed so I’d never forget. I did this for my family and my husband’s. I wonder if he does now. I used to start addressing Christmas cards a day or two after Thanksgiving, but now I don’t send any.
Therapists didn’t work out very well for me. The first one fell in love with me and broke up with me by phone, using the same words a boyfriend would (“I can’t see you anymore”), but for the opposite reason. His timing couldn’t have been worse, since I was due to sort through my late father’s things and he knew how hard that would be. Couldn’t he have just held it in until I got back? The second one made a pass at me, and I felt it was my fault. I should have reported him, instead of blaming myself.
My sister has typed our grandmother’s diary from 1931. Amazing to think of a diary written so long ago being typed into a computer by one person and then emailed to another in another country, another continent, in fact. Reading it, I learn with some surprise that Nana was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which means her granddaughters can join. Somehow that seems kind of fancy for a girl who was born and raised on a farm, running away from home to get an education (her father didn’t think girls needed schooling) and become a teacher.
I can’t call them “my" cats anymore. I can’t say “ours”, either, since there is no us and no ours anymore. Yet they were mine, and I was theirs. I still love them as much as ever. I haven’t seen them in three years. Three years. How is that possible? They live with my ex, and are happy with him, but I wonder if they remember me and our old apartment. Have they forgotten the life we had together? Have the ones still living forgotten the three who are dead? Or do happy memories, sometimes, come to them in dreams?
One of the great things about living in a great city is you can get almost anything delivered. The dry cleaner picks up
delivers, a good thing for those of us who neglect our freshly-cleaned clothes by leaving them at daycare for days at a time. You can (and I do) get groceries delivered. Food from almost any nation can be ordered to arrive on your doorstep, if you don’t feel like cooking the groceries you’ve had delivered after the arduous work of unpacking. Other necessities, like wine, make command appearances. No need to brave the cold or crowds.
Not for the first time, I wish I had a fireplace. Today it’s not for the pretty, cozy look, but because I wish I could huddle over it like a Dickens style urchin starving in a garret. You can’t really warm your hands over a baseboard heater which is vaguely emitting warmish air into a chilly cavern. Ineffective, and stupid-looking, audience or not. Instead, I develop a look almost as fashionable as my typical dog-walking attire: giant, fuzzy socks (pink and orange), sweater (lilac), and cashmere scarf (pink). Indoors. I consider a hat, but decide it would be too much.
Lunch with a friend at a restaurant overlooking the harbor. The restaurant has floor to ceiling windows, showcasing a panoramic view of the water. This deep into winter, it’s an exercise in grey, as the water meets the sky. Deeper grey shading paler, divided by the grey of winter trees, the sky almost white, melancholy. She has broken up with her boyfriend of two years, and it’s only now I discover that he wouldn’t let her meet his friends, put her down, and was pretty horrible all the way around. She always put on a happy face. Now she’s honest.
I turn right on a red light and am immediately pulled over by a policeman who seems to be stationed here just for this purpose. When I roll down my window and ask the traditional question (“What’s the problem, Officer?”), he informs me that it’s illegal to turn right on a red light at that particular intersection. The intersection is about a block from my house, and I have never noticed a sign about it. The cop says he gives out tickets here all day long. I think, “Then the problem is the sign,” but keep that thought to myself.
The house is “pebble dash” – a sort of stucco with small stones imbedded in it. I imagine workers, long ago, throwing handfuls of rocks against the house they had just built. The couple who lived there had moved in as soon as it was ready. They were newlyweds, and lived there for the rest of their lives, the rest of their long marriage, which spanned more than half a century. I wonder if they found the idea of a house with rocks thrown against it a strange idea, or no more noteworthy than the stained glass windows and parquet floors.
My sister sent me the typed version of our grandmother’s diary. It was remarkably banal: just a couple of lines each day, listing her DAR meetings, time spent with friends whose identities have been lost in the mists of time, chores accomplished, weather. She mentions moving, but not why they moved. I thought there would be something more revealing, something of her thoughts, hopes, and dreams, but I guess that wasn’t that practical woman’s style. I wonder if all our lives seem mundane to us while we’re living them. After all, Louis XVI’s diary entry for Bastille Day was “Nothing.”
I’m in the library, indulging my uncontrollable book vice. I can no longer afford to buy books, so the library is now my dealer. Sometimes it still amazes me that you can just go there, take as many as you want, and bring them back when you’re done. The only money that changes hands is for the inevitable overdue fines – inevitable due to my fatal combination of sloth and procrastination. As I put the latest delightful armful into my bag, I hear a teenaged girl say to her friend, “He’s not abnormal, but he’s not normal, either.” Who is?
The Tip Jar