REPORT A PROBLEM
Susan K. Coleman
Bedazzled by a wealth of information today at BEA's uPublishU - some brilliant stuff, some just the same old thing any writer worth his or her salt would already have had drummed into her/him since starting the journey toward authorhood. It was a long day, and a chore at times to be cooped up in the Javits center basement when the beach or some Catskill peak would have been more pleasing what with the late spring sun and heat that foretold of early arrival of the summer. But time well spent, I'd say, if today's lessons help sell more books.
I'm sorry if it seemed that I wasn't paying attention. I heard every word you said. I also heard what you were trying to say, which is far more telling than the words themselves. I have no response for you, as you only want answers to the unspoken questions, the implied demands. But if I address you in those terms, I know how you'll react. You'll tell me I wasn't listening at all, didn't hear the words coming out of your mouth. But I heard them. And we both know that nothing I say could possibly make things any better.
The train clanked toward the surface, and I reached out to adjust the zipper on Tina's rain slicker. As we edged out of the tunnel and arrived at street level, tiny droplets spattered across the window. It had only been threatening rain when we entered Grand Central earlier that evening. Nevertheless, flocks of pigeons were out circling their rooftop coops, their wings beating silver grey like shiny strips of confetti against the purpling clouds. I pointed out them out to Tina. She stared wide-eyed, but didn't react as I'd wanted her to, didn't smile or clap her little hands.
Theodore slips off his favorite perch on top of one of the old chairs from my grandmother's basement. But he doesn't sleep on one of the chairs that's pushed under the dining table. He prefers to lie on the one that's turned upside-down in the corner of the office. The fabric on its underside has all been clawed away, leaving the hard board of the seat exposed. I wouldn't think this a comfy surface for napping, but he seems to like it. Going from a rock to a hard place, he just left this spot for the office floor.
She lurched forward when she felt the hand on her shoulder.
"Honey, it's only me. What are you doing up?"
"Can't sleep. I didn't want to keep you up so I came out here."
He settled in next to her on the couch.
"What's wrong? Is something upsetting you?"
"Yes and no," she whispered.
He sighed. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
"No. It's just that..."
She started again, "It's just that, every night when I lie down to go to sleep, I worry that I won't ever wake up again. That's not normal, is it?"
If I were to try to imagine my ideal life, I'm not entirely sure I could. The knee-jerk response would be to want that quiet, thoughtful life of writing, reading, and inward focus. But what about companionship? The joys that come from standing in a crowded club and listening to music so beautiful it makes the hairs on my arms stand on end? The random conversations in the store with strangers or chatting with neighbors as they walk their dogs? I'm a bit of a fraud in that sense. I don't doubt that true solitude would drive me mad.
The rain has been coming down all day. I've almost stopped noticing the sound, it's become such a gentle wash in my ears. The streets up north are bound to be flooded tonight. No sense in trying to drive anywhere. Feeling a lethargy that will certainly turn what could be a productive evening into a vacuum of vapid Netflix viewing, unnecessary snacking, and maybe a bit too much wine. But recognizing the pull of this inertia won't sway me to take action. Is this what growing older means? Losing the battle to ward off the effects of rainy, dreary days?
In Columbia and Greene counties in New York today house hunting. Though the prospect of making a move to a location two hours outside of New York City is a bit frightening (I've moved away three time before and always come back to being a resident of one of the five boroughs), I recognized how different I feel when I'm up there. There's more of a sense of ease. There's both the opportunity and the strong desire to take notice of all that surrounds me there: from the breathtaking views of the Catskills to the vibrations of the cicada songs.
Yesterday I accepted an offer on the apartment I'm living in now in the Bronx and made an offer on an adorable house in Athens, NY. Today, I'm feeling spent, a little queasy, and kind of excited all at the same time. As with any such transition, I'm second-guessing my decisions, fretting about worst possible outcomes, and wondering if it's not too late to change my mind. Did the little house really feel enough like home to make the leap? Was I maybe just forcing myself to be enthusiastic about the place because that's what I felt the situation warranted?
Faced with the dilemma of either remaining in his favorite chair (where he'd planned on spending the entire evening, watching the Knicks get the snot pounded out of them by the Pacers) or heading to the bar around the corner (where he was being driven by the presence of his two nasal-voiced sisters-in-law and their endless stream of gum-popping, cosmo-induced gossip), Jack decided that if there would be no peaceful environment in which he could watch the game, then he'd prefer the noise of fellow sports fans over the grating presence of his wife's sisters.
"I'm going out!" he called out to his wife, after he'd already pulled on his windbreaker, loafers, and official Knicks sportswear baseball cap. Funny, he thought. Why do I have baseball caps for the local basketball and football teams, but none for the area's baseball teams? Maybe because the Yankees are a bunch of overpaid, whiney pansies and the Mets couldn't bat their way out of a paper bag that had been soaked overnight in gravy. He didn't wait for a response from his wife as he passed through the vestibule and out the front door onto the narrow walkway.
The late spring air was damp, but Jack could feel the first hint of summer that evening. The rain that came down the day before in a seemingly endless, miserable drizzle left the streets and the tidy little gardens in his Queens neighborhood smelling faintly of the country, of grass, growth, and renewal. He inhaled deeply and noted the scent of honeysuckle wafting over from the arbor two houses down. He took great care to savor this floral gift, as the summer's heat would soon bring with it the odor of stale garbage run-off baking on the city sidewalks.
Jack reckoned the game was nearing half time when he saw the smokers being belched from the doors of his local bar. They lit up, puffed heavily, and began recounting the highlights of the first half and their predictions for the game's outcome. Stricken with a sudden desire to avoid detection, Jack continued straight down the side street he lived on rather than taking the turn out to the avenue to join the other fans at the bar. There'd be a little break before the action started up again, so he might as well get some movement in his bones.
Though it was only Thursday night, the neighborhood seemed like it was already gearing up for the weekend. Jack wondered when that new pizza joint had sprung up, not five blocks from his home. He tried to recall how long it had been since he last came down this stretch of his street and was troubled by the fact that he could neither remember the time of year, the day of the week, nor the occasion that had last propelled him farther from his home than his weekly movie date with his wife or the odd visit to the bar.
When he first moved to New York in his mid-twenties, Jack had loudly brayed, along with his college buddies who'd made the move with him, that he would never leave the city. That the exciting urban metropolis would be his home for the rest of his life. After landing a job that paid enough for him to ditch the roommates and get a place on his own, he'd find some dilapidated loft to renovate and make his haven for parties, for solitary recovery after the revelry, and for hosting more intimate evenings with whichever women he chose to court.
He'd lived that life for a time, right down to the loft, the parties, the women. But then when one particular women held his attention for longer than any of the others ever had, he found himself dropping his guard and even becoming a bit lax in his usually religious adherence to contraception practices that were often so rigorous as to squelch the desire of the women he'd brought back to his bed. But he'd not been so strict when it came to Gina. She'd made him want to loosen up, throw caution to the wind, and live a little.
After having dated many just like himself, who'd come to New York from the midwest, or the south, from just over the border in Connecticut, or even from further afield, it took a born-and-bred gal from Flushing Queens to wrap him so tight that at times he could barely breathe. The evenings waiting for her to make her way from her office job in midtown, back to her family's home for dinner, and then into the city again to crawl into his bed in the Lower East Side apartment were some of the most glorious of his life,
He'd let himself be introduced to the family, all six of them: two brothers, one older, one younger, and two sisters, also one older and one younger, and mom and dad. Jack laughed to himself. What was it people used to say about the middle child? Awkward, cast aside because the parents' attention was always focused on the older or younger ones? Not my Gina, thought Jack. That one shied from no one, never shared the spotlight. No wallflower, that's for sure. Not my Gina.
Up ahead Jack saw the entrance to the 7 train on the Manhattan-bound side.
The pocked metal stairs brought him up to platform level, where he fished through his wallet to find enough money to purchase subway fare out and back - but just out to and back from where, he wasn't quite sure. After straining to hear the garbled instructions from the MTA agent on the other side of the bullet-proof glass, he slid his $5 bill into her waiting her waiting hand, all dazzling with multicolored nail extensions and a variety of gold rings on all but three of her fingers. For his outlay, he received a snapping new metrocard in return.
As he'd been conducting his transaction, he'd heard the arrival and departure of a Manhattan-bound train. He cursed quietly when he realized he'd have to spend the next ten minutes waiting for another train. He rarely took the subway, as his job in Farmindale necessitated he drive to work every day. He'd tried to maintain the habit of the daily commute into the city, just to convince himself that he wasn't too old for it, that he still craved the regular infusion of heady Manhattan air. But this wasn't really the case. Not after 20 years of that rat race.
But the kids got older and needed him at home evenings, for help with homework, or more often than not, to chauffeur them to sports practices, dance lessons, or just to the mall or the movie theater, where they'd quickly jump out of the car and leave him sitting there, feeling like a relic, too battered to be coveted by any museum, gallery or collector. He couldn't really even see himself in them. They were wholly different than he was at their age. He'd grown up in a midwestern suburb of a small metropolitan hub. They were real city kids.
So, he'd left his job near Grand Central and the relatively easy commute from Flushing. He figured he'd miss the bodies around him when he switched to driving to work every day, but this wasn't the case. His midwestern roots were still buried under the layers of New York routine he'd shoveled over them for decades. And those roots took hold again every time he got behind the wheel and slid his car onto the LIE. They had a different hold on him than they did in the relative calm of the midwest, but he felt their slow, glacial incursions.
The 7 train rattled into the station, and Jack stepped into the chilly car, choosing to lean his back against the far doors rather than take one of the many empty seats. When the train lurched into motion again, Jack held his feet planted firmly, not loosing balance or stutter-stepping to keep himself from falling victim to the train's forward momentum. Stop after stop passed outside the window, or at least that's how it seemed to Jack, as if he were the one remaining still while the world beyond the train car rotated into and out of his view.
When he reached the end of the line, at Times Square/42nd Street, he marched with many of his fellow passengers down the long corridor toward the Port Authority Bus Terminal. There he exited and walked south a few blocks to escape the brunt of the carnival-like atmosphere and the ever-present threat of distracted tourists careening into him as they posed for and shot photos of the macabre scenes. Or maybe they were just macabre to Jack. But the place shone brighter at night than most city blocks did on the sunniest of days. That didn't seem right.
He continued on his path westward, until he could go no further. Before him lay the Hudson River. Beyond that, New Jersey. Beyond that, Pennsylvania. Beyond that, Ohio, and another ways beyond that, his hometown. He'd never counted on returning there when he'd left for the city. And, in the intervening years, he'd made only a few trips back, almost never for occasions he'd looked forward to. Once for a former girlfriend's wedding (he knew she didn't expect him to show up, so he made a point of doing so), and again when his father fell ill and passed away.
That had been a hell of a trip. He'd never been close with his old man. From the time Jack started high school, he thought he'd outgrown, surpassed, or just drifted away from his father. Jack sought something beyond his family's firm blue collar foundation, but what that something was, he was never sure. Still couldn't figure it out either, after all these years. He didn't want some stifling office job, but didn't want to sweat each day through in a trade, like his dad did. He came to New York thinking there'd be so many options available to him.
And it was true that there were. He could have done anything he set his mind to. But year after year went by, and he couldn't ever settle on what that should be. His mind flitted about, landing here and there, taking samples and small sips, rolling the flavors around like a connoisseur. But like the wine tasters, he always ended up spitting his mouthful back into the bucket, just to go onto the next one to do the same. Until at some point, when the latest in a long line of contract jobs had ended, two big events happened.
When his mother had first called to inform him his dad was in the hospital, Jack didn't immediately recognize the gravity of the situation. It was on a subsequent call, when she told him the Riverside Medical Center in Kankakee couldn't manage his condition and he would have to be airlifted to Chicago that reality set in. At that point, he hadn't spoken to his father in 2 1/2 years. He was unable to discern what the protocol was in that situation. Was it hypocritical to rush to the bedside of a man he felt he barely knew anymore?
To make matters worse, that very night Gina had wanted to meet up with him, to talk about something really, really important, she'd said. When he told her about his dad and that he was heading out to pick up a rental car to drive to Chicago, she knew the timing wasn't right for her news. It was nothing urgent, she'd told him, nothing that couldn't wait until he returned. Which was true. She wasn't going to get any more or less pregnant during his time away. The deed had been done, and it was not going to be undone.
With the Hudson in front of him, what he considered home at his back, Jack felt a queer tug from someplace beyond the banks of the river. It wasn't a bad life, back then, he thought. The folks did alright by him and his siblings. They'd never wanted for anything, even if they didn't have the best of everything or the best of anything for that matter. But it had all been OK. Would his kids think the same thing? Do kids even care about that stuff these days? Jack sensed a simultaneous tug from below and pressure from above.
The Tip Jar