Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Mittlemans of Middletown

The day wasn't promising. A morning run with my good friends, the Middletown dead, in the Wesleyan cemetery. I like them. I like Rebecca, wife of Thomas Cooke. After life's fitful sleep, her headstone reads, she sleeps well. I like the thin, toothlike tombstones, made with a bare minimum of stone. The trees are starting to bloom.

I feel comfortable in the Jewish section, by the tennis courts. The Mittlemans have the most recent plots I've seen. Stones placed on Judith's headstone, the grass still in square sections from her burial.

Another Mittleman headstone in another neighborhood of the cemetery, similar design, minus the star of David. Sadie died within a few years of Judith. I wonder about the Mittlemans, their sway in this town.

I believe this will be the best the day has to offer, but my stepdaughter, A, calls. She's in Rhode Island, she has the day free. I can get in a car and see her, as simple as that. Less than two hours to drive.

I stop at the diner for lunch before I set out. B makes me knee-weakening food, sends me off with bread and muffins for A. Across the table are a young Polish-American couple, eating here for the first time. The girl's forehead creases with pure pleasure in the taste.

I drive. I've forgotten that I used to love driving, before I lived in a place where it wasn't necessary, the kind of place I'd always wanted to live. When I first got my license, driving meant freedom, and that feeling comes back as the miles roll out under my wheels. Music and NPR on the radio.

A is so beautiful I want to hold up my hands to shield her from the world, but it's too late. The last time I saw her, she was a girl, but she's all her own person now. We have dinner at a Thai/Japanese/Vietnamese place near the airport, and talk ourselves out, almost.

Back on the road and back to my home for the month. New friends invite me out. The girl from the diner, the Polish-American girl, works behind the bar. She seems taller and blonder and more authoritative here. She smiles to see me. My cohorts run out of steam early, school starts on Monday, they're all professors, they all have classes to prep.

I walk home alone and alert, listening to the sound of my feet. I feel rich and new and awake in the night. My neighbor asks if I have a cigarette. No, I say. I gave 'em up. Smart, he says, pulling back into the shadows, The cost these days.

Friday, March 16, 2012

A lot of nonsense

Last weekend, in New York City, I heard a female voice to my left say, Tell me, quick. Quick, before running past me on the sidewalk, then stopping. When I passed her, I saw she was crying. Twenty-something and crying big tears on the street, in New York City, in the East Village.

I'm not in my twenties anymore. Public crying isn't done, unless someone's died. Even so, yesterday I sat in this coffee shop in this small town, in this coffee shop where I come to write every day, where the same people sit in the same chairs every day, every day. I sat here and tears leaked out of my eyes, however much I tried to hold it together.

I've exiled myself here. It was my choice, and also - it hurts. I swiped at my face with my gloves and the people in the coffee shop tried not to look.

Today, I'm back in the coffee shop. I don't know if anyone looks at me funny, or differently from the way they looked at me before I cried here. It doesn't matter. A friend told me I'd have to write a lot of nonsense, so this is what I'm doing. I'm writing nonsense.

Today, I had lunch in an aluminum-sided diner with curved glass block corners. A man in an apron with a long white beard came to my table with a plate - not my order, not yet. He looked like he'd been at sea for many years. He turned a small loaf of bread out of its pan, used a butter knife to cut off a hunk. A generous portion of butter, a smear of jam. He offered it to me, quoting James Joyce:

The butter, he said, weeps into the bread.

The bread was sweet and salt, as warm and intimate as a kiss.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The thread winds into the woods and out of sight

Every town, if I get away from the strip malls and tourist spots, if I step off the main road and follow my feet, if I find where the locals hang out, every town is exotic.

Every piece I set out to write leads me in a new direction, and it scares me to sit down without a clear plan, with only moments and people: only the redhead in the white skirt, the two baristas with tribal plugs in their earlobes, the young woman with an infant, the baby passed from girl to cooing girl. A couple approaches the coffee shop - she with dyed pink hair and matching pink shoes and skinny jeans, he with wild hair and skinny jeans - and a guy with patchy facial hair and pierced septum whispers "hipsters" before they open the door. An older man talks to the hipster guy about his job hunt.

Middletown is quiet, but the people are loud. They are spaced wide, so I hear every word. I wonder if my face is doing the right thing, if my California manners show. My swallowed words, my quiet voice reflects as rude here, forcing people to lean in, say...What?

I don't really know what to write about, only that I have to write, and hope the practice sets itself in my hands, my brain. I need to describe the man with gray whiskers and watch cap and long army green coat. His eyes look confused, jumping. My quick-judge brain says: homeless, but he buys a coffee and leaves again.

Judging! says barista #1. Stop judging! as though he hears my thoughts, but he isn't talking to me.

Every town, every town in the world, is full of people I know. Every face is familiar.

I am reading fairy tales by A.S. Byatt. At the end of one story, the youngest princess is given a choice: a magic mirror that would show her true love, a magic loom that would weave tapestries of living forests, or:
'Or I could give you a thread,' said the Old Woman, as the Princess hesitated, for she did not want to see her true love, not yet, not just yet...and she did not want to make magic Forests, she wanted to see real ones. So she watched the old lady pick up from the grass the end of what appeared to be one of those long, trailing gossamer threads...
 'You gather it in,' said the Old Woman, 'and see where it takes you.'

Sunday, March 04, 2012

"I am always happy where I am, and always nostalgic for somewhere else"

I'm halfway through my run when I notice: the inside of my head is still. A quiet that admits the bare-branched trees, the grave markers ("Fannie, Wife"), the nok nok of tennis on a pool blue court.

I'm wearing a stocking cap from Chaminade University in Honolulu. I used to work there. It's ridiculous to wear a stocking cap in Hawaii. Unnecessary in San Francisco. But here, in Middletown, nothing makes more sense. I've owned this stocking cap for ten years and moved it from Hawaii, from the flat I shared with my husband, from my tiny studio on the raging edge of the Tenderloin, and I've never worn it until now.

I can see my breath and the sky is clear and I hear a man bellowing, bellowing, growling and shouting as he walks down the sidewalk on the far side of the street. He is with a woman, and a man on a bicycle, and they proceed slowly. I can't tell if he's angry or just loud, him and his cacophonous procession, but I outpace them and the silence is wide enough for me and my feet, my breath, my wandering thoughts.

I don't doubt that boredom and loneliness are ahead. But at the moment I'm afraid of the opposite: what if, at the end of my time here, I don't want anything else? What if I get addicted to solitude, to my routine, to great swaths of time for writing? What if I don't want to travel, after all? So much effort, and noise, and the thousand details and inconveniences of stepping foot outside the country.

And what if I never want to return to San Francisco, and all the people I love, all that life I've built?

Out here, I could be anybody. I am empty and open as a bowl.

Friday, March 02, 2012

I wouldn't be anywhere without the kindness of strangers, the generosity of friends

I am in New York City for only an hour or so. Long enough to take the bus from JFK to Grand Central Station, to talk with a nurse who has long white hair, to be misdirected by the bus driver, to be helped by no fewer than four kind New Yorkers.

I have packed ridiculous amounts of stuff, and it's clear immediately how little I actually need, but in the last of the late night packing and heartrending goodbyes, I was cramming everything I could into my bags, like I can carry a home on my back, like I can insulate myself from the unknown with dresses and hair product and (am I insane?) hard-cover books. So I'm standing at the top of three long flights of stairs at Grand Central Station with two overstuffed bags plus backpack, slowly churning through my options for getting all of me down those stairs.

It isn't ten seconds before a man offers to help, grabs the larger bag and hoists it down the stairs for me. He offers to carry both, but that would shame me too much. I hump it on my own, lagging behind. At the bottom, he asks if I'm okay before disappearing. This is when I realize I'm in the wrong place. This is the subway, and there's no way through to where the trains are.

Once again, I pause to think at the bottom of the stairs, and instantly another Good Samaritan appears, as though I've conjured him. Again, I insist on carrying one of the bags, and at the top of the stairs I'm winded and burning. "Better than the gym," says my rescuer, before vaporizing like the first. I almost expect a puff of smoke.

Two good souls lift my bags into place on the train, and now I'm feeling oppressed by all this stuff, plotting ways to literally lighten my load before the next piece of my journey. The men on the train joke about the dead bodies I must be carrying, the gold bullion. Maybe they know more than I do, maybe there is a corpse or two in there.

I have presumed too much on others, beginning back in San Francisco, and now my debt spans the country. I lived for nearly a year out of a single duffel bag when I was in my twenties. So I'm not in my twenties anymore. So my carapace is larger. But I am young enough and healthy and my ideas of what is necessary are in flux.

This is where the adventure begins: lumbering, ungraceful, indebted. But it has begun.