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She wondered where her friends went. Ten years ago, she had so many friends, she could go days without being alone. She rode a manic high all the time but couldn’t concentrate on anything requiring solitude. Now here she was, in a relationship but deeply lonely. She had more fingers than friends. And she wondered what would happen if her relationship ended. It was like imagining cancer, or blindness: she would never know what it was like. Or she
she would never know. The thought that the life she knew could end so suddenly terrified her.
Peter had flashes of the person he'd been: confident, easy-going, full of hope. Once, he had liked himself, and when you like yourself, people like you. But now. There were times when he felt trapped inside someone doomed. He didn’t understand the change. Was he just going through what his friend had once called a
? Nothing dramatic had happened in his life during the last couple of years, just this silent, invisible wearing away of his soul. The
joie de vivre
that he’d had hovered just out of reach, taunting him.
It was worth it to get up earlier, leave work later, just to enjoy a solitary drive through the canyon--as solitary as possible in Los Angeles. No one tapping your back bumper, impatient. No one riding his breaks in front of you. It is dark now, but you can still see the magnolias, star-shaped and voluptuous; if you open your sunroof, as you always do when it’s quiet--so perfectly quiet--you smell honeysuckle and fresh soil. Someone has a garden, someone is planting flowers, or a tree, choosing sides in the war between industry and Nature.
Chloe was beginning to despise people who began their sentences with, “As a parent.” Especially when they finished the sentence with something completely unrelated to having children. Today, she had lunch with a friend who recently had a baby. The woman ordered a cheeseburger and then turned to Chloe and said, “As a mother, I just love red meat.” Chloe wondered why being a mother would bring out the carnivore in someone, but she simply nodded and ordered a salad. Perhaps she would start her own sentences with, “As a lesbian” or “As a misanthrope.” Establish her identity right away.
He had been in a good mood all afternoon--something out of the ordinary for him--but when he left work, she stepped into the elevator with him. She didn’t like him, although she pretended to. They joked about leaving early; then he caught his reflection in the mirrored elevator walls: overweight, wind-mussed hair, jowls jiggling under his chin. Was that
him? No wonder she didn’t like him, he thought, while she watched the floors go by.
Eleven, ten, nine
... He could think of nothing to say that would make her care.
One of her sisters was an alcoholic and drug addict. Chloe could have dealt with that, if her sister would have taken responsibility and sought change. But she wouldn’t, and here was the problem: her compulsive lying. Over the past few years, Chloe had seen her lie to so many people--big lies, too, about having cancer and six months to live--that she no longer believed anything she said. Her sister had once changed her name, legally, and burned her old “self” in effigy. Chloe would do the same with her sister, cleanse her family with the ashes.
The older he got, the more he appreciated the simpler things in life. He surfed the Internet less, didn’t look at Facebook or Twitter updates, and turned off the television and radio. He once took a “visual identity” quiz that asked him what his idea of a perfect vacation was, and he picked what turned out to be the least popular answer: the photo of a book under a tree. Only two percent of people chose that--where were they? He would like to meet them. Or actually, he wouldn’t: It was just good to know they existed.
Georgia ordered mussels at a fancy French restaurant. She enjoyed her lunches out with colleagues, gossiping about customers, trying to spot celebrities. But when she pried open the last mussel with her fork and glanced down, there were three tiny starfish, floating in butter sauce. They must have eaten the mussel weeks ago, possibly days ago. Georgia imagined them at the bottom of the sea, alive and pliable, dining from the same menu as hers. They're magical, she thought. She wrapped them in her napkin and took them home, a reminder of what she might have been in another life.
Last night, he walked to the museum to hear one of his favorite authors read from her book of short stories. He watched her legs behind the podium, shifting every second, her feet flexing up and down, as if she wanted to run. Her reading was excellent, although there was an element of nervousness about her. Those huge eyes. The legs. And she was so out of breath that, when she finished, she swayed until someone brought her a stool. It was question-and-answer time, but he was so worried that he kept quiet, hoping she wouldn’t faint.
Eighty-one years ago today, Rae was born, premature and, at two pounds, smaller than her twin sister. Their mother was exhausted and wasn’t sure if either baby would live, so an aunt stepped in and brought Rae home. They lived in her one-bedroom apartment, where the aunt had spent most of her adult life, where her husband had died long ago. Now, she had a baby who needed her. They spent two wonderful years together, until Rae’s mother took her back. Even now, so many years later, Rae still missed the woman who saved her life.
Georgia talked to strangers whenever they were out; Keith did not. The performance started late that evening, and they were perfectly happy chatting together. But then Georgia said something to the woman sitting next to her, and it began: the woman declared that her parents were famous artists--geniuses--and very rich. She pulled photos out of her macramé purse, insisting that Georgia keep one. She imitated Georgia’s mannerisms, laughed during the play when Georgia laughed, which was always at odd moments. Later, the woman followed them to their car, and Keith uttered his first word to her: “Goodbye.”
Nowadays, school buses had tinted windows. No children could be seen pressing their faces to the back window, no obscene gestures, just black glass. But Kyle did wonder if
, if they criticized his old sedan, his middle-aged baldness. Children were so judgmental. The harsher the judgment, the more hilarious it was to them, as they sat there believing they would someday be Important. But most of them would dissolve into anonymity. One day, they would be as relieved as he was now, not having to face his youth while driving home.
Jeanne dreamt that the city was shrouded in fog, and only the tops of skyscrapers were visible. She floated along a cloud and watched buildings crumble and disappear: a silent earthquake. This wasn’t fog, it was dust. This was the end of everything. She worried about the ground beneath her (was there ground beneath her?), rocks of glass and cement punching through her, but mostly she worried about her cats. She knew they couldn’t possibly survive this catastrophe, and oh, how she loved them. Without a sound, buildings toppled around her, and she woke up, rubbing her eyes.
Almost every morning, he woke up afraid. A list of anxieties passed through his mind while he brushed his teeth. He worried about losing his job, though he’d had it for 16 years. He worried about the state budget crisis, earthquakes, identity theft, the wires and plumbing in his walls suddenly going bad. What if his cats got out and never returned? What if he were in a horrible accident? So many things could happen, at any moment. It seemed like the only safe place was back in bed, and he struggled--really struggled--not to crawl back there.
Instead of revising the report on the organization’s 800MHz radio upgrade, Cecilia closed the door to her office and read several chapters of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours aloud: Virginia’s suicide, Clarissa’s relentless depression, Laura’s desperate need to escape. It revived her soul, though now it was even more difficult to read the report: six pages about a technology that was nearing its EOL, or end of life, and that would need to be replaced. How practical to use an acronym for Death, she thought, wondering if, somewhere, there was a report on her own EOL.
It was official: She had monkey mind. Last night’s meditation class made it glaringly obvious. She could not concentrate on anything for more than a few seconds. It didn’t help that the choir was practicing in another room, that someone in her group had what sounded like tuberculosis, that someone else ascended the stairs behind them with the force of an elephant. When the fifteen minutes were over, she hadn’t been able to count even ten breaths. But she felt better after she talked to her friend. “I closed my eyes," he whispered, "and saw a demon.”
Maureen always had a difficult time finding the right hairdresser, one who knew how to cut her wavy hair, who knew when to stop, and how to blow it dry. She had a lifetime of bad haircuts. Pat was decent, though, and several times during the past few years, he gave Maureen something spectacular. Made her feel pretty. But he wasn’t there one day, when she was desperate, and so she saw someone else. Someone who was better. Maureen went back to see her several months later. Pat stood there, in the next station, watching her in the mirror.
Chloe filled out the census form at the dining table, thinking of the last time she received one of these forms and completed it, with a different address, a different domestic partner, a completely different life. Ten years ago, she was 31 and still full of dreams. She hadn’t yet realized the turn she had taken that would lead to a mountain of suffering. Now, she hoped those days were behind her. Where would she be in another ten years? She licked the glue on the envelope and returned to the couch, a bitter taste still on her tongue.
His face felt vulnerable when people looked at it, especially people he admired. It seemed as if it would break into hundreds of pieces--ugly, Picasso-esque pieces--and expose his soul, lay it bare for all to see, with all its humiliating flaws. So here he sat, across the table from a woman he secretly had been in love with for years (or probably, it was not a secret, even though he had never spoken the words). The love was all over his face, which was cracking now under this woman’s gaze, crumbling like an ancient Greek temple.
When she walked through the courtyard to the laundry room, a lizard ran out from under the washing machine and opened its pink mouth in warning:
Don’t come any closer!
It wasn’t the cute everyday lizard--this was at least a foot long and as brown as the bark of a palm tree, and just as rough-looking. She wondered how many more days she could go without clean socks, if anyone would notice. That night,
was on television. She watched it for the first time, her dirty clothes barricading the front door.
Alexis knew that her student, Marie, was in love with her, and that she wanted her feelings returned. And Alexis
appreciate Marie. Marie was her favorite, the quiet one, pretty, adoring. And Marie had talent; frequently, while reciting a poem she’d written, Marie would blossom into something absolutely breathtaking. Alexis knew how the young woman felt, and she encouraged it. She even thought of Marie sometimes, in a sexual way, but really, they were too much alike: both had a desperate hunger to be noticed, and there could only be one of those in any relationship.
Certain aspects of his life seemed to repeat themselves; possibly, he thought, because he tended to be an extremist. He plunged himself into Nichiren Buddhism for several years, but when his girlfriend--who introduced him to it--left him, he threw it all away and resumed his lonely search for spiritual fulfillment. Eventually, he returned to Buddhism--a different kind, but still the familiar basics. He had to buy a new set of prayer beads, a new singing bowl, a new incense holder and sitting pillow. And there he was again: facing the candle’s flame, returning to the past.
She had to admit, the meditation helped. She imagined her mind as a white room, something out of a Stanley Kubrick film. When a thought tried to enter, it was a slash of color, a door letting in darkness. Her mind quickly erased it, and all was white again. Why hadn’t anyone told her--after all these years--that just because a negative thought enters your mind, you don’t have to let it stay there? You don’t have to think about it, just push it away. This was much easier. Worries? Stay out of my white room.
There was always one last thread she couldn’t break when transforming herself into someone else. She was a vegetarian, almost a vegan, but she couldn’t possibly give up
. There was no substitute for cheese. (She would limit it to organic)... Now, she was supposed to send her enemies “thoughts of loving kindness.” It wasn’t enough to meditate each day and follow the five precepts, she had to wish her enemies well. One person, in particular, constantly hurt everyone she loved--how to send him good thoughts? Somehow, she would have to find a way.
Chloe knew it was coming, and this morning it happened: The parking attendant asked her out. Luckily, he asked her out and immediately followed up with “Are you married?” She said yes, she
married, even though not legally (and thanks to the Stone Age conservatives, wouldn’t have that option for a long time). The attendant poured his heart out to her--messy divorce, suicidal thoughts--while she stood on the stairs, wanting to get to her office and tell her girlfriend she had made it to work safely. Have a cup of strong coffee and breathe.
Gina saw that movie today, about a woman who hires a prostitute to seduce her husband, but then she and the prostitute (who is, for some reason, smitten with her) end up sleeping together. A pathetic ending, as usual when Hollywood is dealing with homosexuals: Instead of something truly interesting happening, the lesbian is beaten up and berated...and then dies a horrible death. Gina hadn't expected it, coming from a director she had previously admired. But there was no telling who was secretly homophobic, when hate and ignorance would rear their monstrous heads: She would have to be vigilant.
From the twelfth floor, he watched teenagers playing soccer on the same field where The Bad News Bears was filmed. Every day, he drove by that sign--as if it were something to brag about. Had anyone even heard of that movie? He was sure no one cared. He added up revenue and expenses, then added them up again, all the while seeing flashes of red or yellow in the corner of his eye: Life, youth, nature. The trees were fluffy and green again; when had their leaves grown back? He must have been too busy with numbers to notice.
Dreams have a way of turning on you. They’re your best friends when you’re young; they’re inspirational, a secret source of happiness. They whisper promises, make you feel good. You look forward to the future. But when the future comes, and you’re older, you see them less and less often. When you do see them, they’re hand in hand with someone else, usually someone younger and smiling. You pass them by, and the dream gives you a glance, up and down, as if to say, “What was I thinking, hanging out with
It hit Chloe while she was in the break room, getting coffee: Everyone around her was a cartoon character. They wore the same type of outfit every day. One woman always wore jumpers, these formless, knee-length dresses with thin straps at the shoulders, a long-sleeved shirt underneath. Every single day. Even Chloe was a character: always a sweater (black, red or gray) with gray or black trousers. She was Lisa Simpson with her perpetual starburst hairdo. She was Fred Flintstone in a leopard-print smock. Maybe children were watching her each day, watching all of them, and laughing.
He wanted to end the month on a positive note, but with the way things were turning out today, he wasn't sure it was possible. It used to be easy to ask the Universe for help. Some mornings, he would drive to work and say, "I need something good to happen today." And it always did. Now the Universe didn't seem to be listening. He wondered what he was doing wrong; what had changed? Something positive did happen this month: He resumed studying Buddhism and meditating. It helped. He wanted to cultivate patience and dispel anger. Both very positive goals.
Lately, Georgia had the urge to take photographs. She wasn’t a photographer, exactly, and always shied away from the camera when people aimed one at her. She never grabbed for her Canon to record special moments, something
photographers instinctively did. But the wildflowers were blooming. It was spring, and the hills were dotted with yellow petals, and purple cone flowers, and these soft, ethereal willows that beckoned her to touch them. This was what she wanted to record and preserve, carry around with her everywhere: Nature. Nothing would ever be as beautiful, heartbreaking in its transience.
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