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My career (until I abandoned it last October—but that's another story) was, essentially, counseling writers. "My" writers, as I still sometimes think of them, were forced to work within a strict format; within it, I tried to help them find originality, spark, surprise and pleasure, for themselves as much as their readers. I also live with a writer, who works within the same format, and who allows me to read his work only when he feels it is finished, and then, only to look for typos. And now, I am writing, within much more confining, but much safer, rules.
When my in-house writer is writing, he often says (with a wink-wink air of ironic judgment) that he's in his "sacred space" and ought not be disturbed. I am not in a sacred space, not in the sense of peace and non-interruption. The in-house writer and the in-house toddler are in the next room, watching A Bug's Life, and two charming houseguests are down the hall—all threaten to look over my shoulder at any moment. If not now, when? But in stolen moments today, I have accomplished, flexing mind and muscles in tiny bites of time to great satisfaction.
This is how I remembered the painting: a youngish woman, smiling confidently, almost challenging the viewer. She sat on the beach, right on the sand, wearing an old-fashioned swimming costume, and, oddly, black, woolen stockings pulled up to her thighs. A small child, no more than two or three, played quietly on the sand in front of her. The colors were the bright but still reserved tones of an impressionist, and so was the brushwork. I remember the vibrating tension I felt stretching between the attitude of this woman's expression, her garb, and the world in which she found herself.
The nicest thing anyone did for me after it happened was to quietly slip away to our bedroom, and subtly remake it. My friend Bill thought, not wrongly, that remaking the most private room in our home would somehow remake the end of the day, if not its outcome. The furniture assumed tentative new positions around the room, and the bed wore fresh linens, so fresh they hadn't even been washed, and bore the creases pressed into them by long confinement in their plastic wrappers. Even the pillows were new, and had the firmer substance that I had always wanted.
His attention to the banjo, bass, fiddle and twiny vocals of the farmer's market bluegrass band was almost as rapt as my two year old's. At least fifty, looking at least sixty, legs like those willow twigs they package with cheap flowers in the supermarket, white sneakers laced too low on the instep, a scarab of a scab just under his right eye—he was tapping his toe gingerly, and singing under his breath even more tentatively. He clutched a bag of pink lady apples in his two hands—I could see their color just slipping through the opaque plastic.
The dinner was held in a crowded Turkish restaurant, its Middle Eastern-ness conveyed through permanently installed Christmas lights. These drooped like spent balloons from a stained tent over the parking lot. I suspected (rightly) that the floor of the tent would be Astroturf—that matted fake grass that seemed so new in the seventies, when the Astrodome was the height of human endeavor. This was my first outing post-Peter where the group of strangers wasn't so large that I could avoid all conversation, or limply discuss only the odd Christmas day rain before turning away to start a new discussion.
In narrating his own life, one of Peter's favorite threads was his father's story. A second generation American, and an academic, Georg married Mayflower and DAR. The solid, stoic New England family wrapped him up like a too warm duvet, isolating him from the cold outside. He never stopped teaching, right up to his death, his classes in "Social Communication." The part of the story Peter avoided telling was his father's area of specialization. It goes without saying that Peter and his father had no communication, except social, and even that needed lubrication and a fair degree of kid-gloved force.
Really, all she wanted to do was eat chocolate. But only dark. She could feel the hit of sugar ,the slide of melting butter down her throat, the pleasant burn of the bitter aftertaste. It would consume her, not the other way around, because as soon as one piece was gone, she would have to find more. Instead of chocolate, though, the kitchen held casseroles. (Who makes casseroles anymore, she wondered? Where are the recipes? Why do people feel the need to stuff you after a death?) The craving for chocolate notwithstanding, she felt bloated from tears, stiff and full.
The first time we separated, I left. I was on the last go-round of a particularly vicious chemo. When I went to the hospital for what was supposed to be my final treatment, my T cell count was too low. The drugs would have killed all my cells, or so I was told. I retreated to my father and his beach house for a weekend to try to find this ugly dance's next step. When I returned, my counts—miraculously-- had soared. I rented an apartment over the phone. I didn't go back to our house for almost a year.
I had heard stories about the painting as long as I could remember. Aunt Norma had given it away, thoughtlessly, aggressively, to a neighbor who had schemed to get it for all the years she'd courted my aunt's friendship. It hung with a haughty hubris in the living room of her rundown house, purchased from the bank after the Reverend Simmons defaulted, needlessly, on his mortgage. He was off to South Carolina for a new wife and a new congregation. Norma, suspicious of everyone else she ever met, inexplicably took a liking to the solicitous grey-haired woman across the garden.
Stipulate: I didn't want to go to this stupid party in the first place. That said—I was lonely and nearly alone, having been left just a week before. Left, that is, as a euphemism for my one-time and occasional lover, wife, housemate and supposed one from whom only death could part me abandoning me in a display of sang-froid that even she had never before equaled. Of course, I didn't know just how cold her blood ran, then. At least where I was concerned. I couldn't learn that until after she left the second time—but I'm skipping ahead.
Norma was legendary in the family for standing against her mother, my great aunt. Solange, in turn, was legendary for not only surviving much longer than anyone thought she had a right to, but by managing to impose her will on everyone around her for nearly a century. Solange (who wasn't French, nor were her parents) applied an inviolable set of rules to everyone but herself—inviolable, that is, if you wished to remain in her favor. Her favor was not warm or wonderful, but to be out of it, and still in the family, was a long, pitted road.
The sounds of construction echoing across and up the canyon threatened to continue long into the night. Every clang of steel on wood jolted her. They didn't provoke fear, just a disturbance of her submersion in her own thoughts. Words and images careened through her mind until sound intruded, only momentarily, until she could sink back into the safety of that inner chaos. Eyes closed, she felt an awkward comfort like a wrong-sized sweater: soft, tactile, warm, but too constraining. Dogs barked, too, and occasionally the keening song of coyotes announcing a kill would hold her attention a moment longer.
She lived on the upper story of a rickety Craftsman house up a winding canyon road when I met her, at a party she threw to celebrate the imminent end of her twenties. She avoided birthday parties—instead of celebrating the unknown future, she focused on the concrete (if elusive) achievements of her last decade. To enter the apartment, you climbed an outside staircase, almost a fire escape, though a good brushfire would have made fast work of the weathered wood. Her ancient landlady refused to allow entry to the apartment through her own quarters downstairs. She believed in boundaries.
With this group of people, I am my best self—the version that I want to be, and of which I often fall short at other times. With them, I believe in myself; I believe their enthusiasm for my ideas; I believe I am capable, my accomplishments limited only by my dreams. We have in common nothing, necessarily, except this Academy, which we attended, or which we now serve, or for some, both. It defines us in some way so fundamental as to be invisible to anyone outside. It now shelters my memory, not my body, yet it is home.
She was married when we met, and pregnant, though I couldn't tell at the time, and she swore she didn't know. She swore that later, when we spent part of afternoons marveling at how close we'd come without becoming close. That didn't happen until much later, when I had forgotten about the party, and the painting and the intersecting lives of our two old aunts. Instead, we waited through divorce and death and, on my end, no small number of years spent wasting time on dead ends in work and sex. When we met again, it felt like a coincidence.
North Carolina's beaches feel small, at least the ones I've visited. They lack the craggy clouds of rock like the beaches in Southern Maine, the vastness of the carnival-edged coast of Southern California. They look little, their waves seem little, and there's a seediness to them that would feel quaint if you didn't always drive past a Walmart on the way to the water. At night, they lock the workers in those stores—they're told, for their safety. I cannot imagine being locked in, anywhere, for my own protection, though there's a noble history of it amongst artists and writers.
I tried to imagine, when I was only imagining the painting, unable to really view it, where that beach actually was. It lacked decisive landmarks or characteristic to place it in a definite geography. Even if it had, I might not have accurately read the clues. Geography was never my strong suit; in high school, I made the mistake of wondering aloud where the Minnesota that was home to the Vikings was a state or a city. Foolish, not to mention dangerous, in an academy full of overdriven boys. But my ability to restrain my foolish comments ever failed me.
At night in the canyons, you will often hear a dog beginning to bark, joined by another one braying, until the dogs stop suddenly, and the coyotes begin their singing. It would be almost melodic, like those recordings of whale songs made popular by—whom?—in the seventies, if you didn't know that the singing means a successful kill. Maybe it's a raccoon, or a dog, or someone's poor pet cat, but more likely a skunk or a squirrel. The coyotes aren't picky, and the volume and duration of the choir doesn't reflect the quality of the meal to follow.
Writing was the thing I wanted to do, until I stopped in college. I didn't actually stop writing—plenty of term papers kept me putting words on pages—but I did stop writing anything that didn't state, restate, prove and conclude its thesis. Fiction blew quietly out the window, as did poetry, dramaturgy and anything more creative than a recipe. Not that some of my recipes aren't damned creative. Why stop? I wrote a mean two page story about a turtle in the second grade. Terry Turtle. And my high school fiction wasn't bad, for high school fiction. So, why?
When I met her the second time, she didn't remember me. I knew that as soon as she saw me looking at her across the restaurant. She turned away, quickly, but not quickly like she was avoiding someone with whom she shared any kind of history; quickly like: "I don't know him, but—is he looking at me? Fuck." That kind of turning away, embarrassed, but not wanting to run. I had no idea she would be there. But it was no surprise—if I were going to find her, at a party of Katherine's made a kind of sense.
My mother and I used to spend our Christmases going to the movies and to the beach. Sometimes, the night before, we'd go to midnight mass at the big brick church downtown. We said we went for the music, since neither of us had ever been a Catholic. My father would not have approved, and maybe that's why we did it, without either of us ever bringing up that as a reason. But when we woke up in the morning, after presents, we'd head out. If the theaters weren't open, we'd head to the gray waves and empty, noisy sand.
Do you remember that feeling of complete freedom while driving? Driving a long distance, windows open; if you're driving, the music is pounding, and if you're the passenger, it probably is, too, but you have the added bonus of bare feet perched on the dash. Ultimate relaxation. I remember driving through New England and feeling this delicious way, indescribably powerful and alone, joyful in an exuberant way that I imagine must possess the truly faithful. I've never had much faith in anything but moments of joy like these. In New Hampshire. On Martha's Vineyard. Once driving through the California desert.
Here's the thing: I don't know what I wanted from her. The obvious things, of course, at least to me—sex, companionship, someone to take to dinner on a Friday night for both of those—but something else, too, that I have never been able to define, maybe because I don't really want to: a kind of pass into a world just out of reach for me. Not social class, necessarily, but some unnamed ease and confidence that she had and I never, ever felt within myself, even at my most elated. Once upon a time, they called it élan.
In spite of the family lore, I never ran away from home. They'd already sent me off to an awful boarding school, one of those places proudly called "horsey" by the square jawed women allied to it. The fact is, I just never came home again. It is true that I stood up to my parents, but that came much later, and did no one any good. I already had my freedom by then; I was trying to help my little sister find hers. But she didn't really want to be free, she wanted to be married, something irreparably different.
Los Angeles in the early nineties felt on the cusp of becoming the big,, crowded, chaotic city it now is; maybe the riots were the turning point, maybe the dizzy rebuilding after the Northridge earthquake. Something changed: the freeways clogged, the people became surly and scared, and everywhere you looked, a minimall or apartment building with a design that could never be called architecture was growing up like kudzu from the dust. Neighborhoods that seemed to be neighbors now seemed far, far away, and the east and west sides of the city grew suspicious of each others' residents and resources.
I never thought I'd be anything but an artist, but it never occurred to me that to be one, I'd have to leave everything behind. The particular constraints of the life laying ahead of my girlhood didn't really make themselves known until I was sixteen, and my mother began to discuss—to announce, really—her plans for my debut. I was to be presented, and secretly auctioned to the highest bidder. I would wear white, and long gloves, and smile, and curtsey, and dance, and not reveal much at all that would differentiate me from any of those other girls.
Widow. Widower. When I look at these words, I start to see others, like "wild"or "flower"—it sounds totally precious, or clichéd, because there's nothing of those other words in the state of loss of being widowed. But if I look at them long enough, that's what I see, and I suppose, ultimately, that is what I felt. As stupid as that sounds, and it does sound stupid to me. I'm not much of a wildflower, nothing prettily fragrant or daintily colorful about me. I am solid, plain, useful, not ugly, and yet in my loss, I see something growing.
I think he moved here thinking he'd make movies. Lots of people do—people who don't have the skill or the courage to be artists themselves, but think there's glamour to be had, and money to be made by associating with the really creative types. He liked the gadfly aspect of the movie business—everyone said it was built upon relationships, but really, it was just a business of connection and memory—neither continuity nor depth was particularly important for success. You had to meet people, remember them, make them remember you, and envision the web of connections between them.
So here's the story: once upon a time, a rebellious young woman artists runs away from her stuffy Wasp family. She goes to Buenos Aires, or Montserrat, not Paris—and she paints a painting, many paintings, but one in particular that is the stuff of family legend. Then she gives it away, to a casual friend. The friend's daughter inherits it—and then meets, at a party in Los Angeles, the grandnephew of the artist. They become involved, marry, but he dies. After his death, she's relieved to be rid of him. Widowhood becomes her, somehow. She goes on to?
It's a question of chronology, really. Life, all its successes, relationships, regrets, loves and losses, all are founded in timing, or lack of it. If my mother hadn't moved next door to Norma ,she'd never have gotten the painting. If she hadn't died, much too soon, I'd never have had the painting in my home when Tim came, uninvited, to the party. If Tim's friends hadn't missed him at the restaurant that night, he would never have come, uninvited, to the party. If I hadn't had the painting, would he have pursued me? That had nothing to do with timing.
The Tip Jar