I’ve Got Zero, You’ve Got Zero

ross

sleuth photo by Jaime Alexis Stathis

Exactly one week before I meet Ross Gay I’m standing outside the swimming pool talking to a friend of my son, who is ten years old.  I say to her, Your earrings are so perfect.  I say, If I had my ears pierced I’d wear ones just like that every day.  She touches her ears.  She smiles. I realize if she had lighter skin I wouldn’t be able to see them at all.

About the earrings:  they are little roses, and I like so many flowers better than roses.  Snapdragons, daffodils, and buttercups, to name three.  But these earrings make roses look very simple, not fancy at all.  if roses were a circle with lines dashed around in them.  If roses didn’t try to be shiny, if they wanted to stay plain old matte.  If roses liked pink and orange and white equally and so said, make us not one or the other.  Make us all.       

I have only sons but I know, from reading parenting articles that come my way despite  trying to never ever see them, that you’re not supposed to complement girls on their looks. Or what they’re wearing.  You’re supposed to complement them on their inner traits.  I know this and yet I can’t stop looking at what they choose and saying Hey I like that, I really like that.  Is it because I have no girls in my house, so when I move out among them I am spellbound by their fashions?  Is it because I remember the clothes I chose as a child—the green Toughskins jeans, the cowboy shirt with flowers and pearl snaps—with wistful love?   It is probably weird to have an old lady—am I this? Somehow I am this—telling you she would also wear those earrings, if only she had her ears pieced.  But then too, as a kid I liked weird, wanted more weird, watched grownups desperately for signs of it.  Weird is where the story is.

**

I used to have a really weird reason I’d give for not getting my ears pierced.  I said, If everyone who has their ears pierced dies in a plague I’ll be left with….all these men!  Imagine the ratio! I was in my early 20s, and it was fun to envision a long line of suitors tromping up my driveway, which would be paved with truckloads of unworn earrings.  Studs and gem-stones and flowers and chandeliers and hoops all tossed in, beautiful and glittering, crushed together under tires.    

**

My son is very interested in fashion and wants to discuss it, which is maybe also why I comment on what kids wear.  He has gotten me used to talking about it.  In pre-school he could tell me what all the parents who came to pick up their toddlers were wearing, right down to the socks.  At age four he surprised me by slipping his thumbs into the slits of a long-sleeved shirt that previously had no thumb-holes in the cuffs.   He had scissored them in the perfect places.  He still tries to change his clothes to suit him, with paint and scissors and thread and safety pins and duct tape and sandpaper.  He possibly wants the wrong things—to live in a city and have lots of money—only for the access it would gain him to certain designer looks.  He wants to see, all day long, the cutting-edge clothes worn by fashion-savvy people.  The sweat-pants and gaudy T-shirts running rampant on kids at his island school—on the body of his little brother—can bring him to heavy sighs.

So when my son hears me complementing his friend’s earrings he perks up, and steps in closer to study them. After a long beat he says, They look like they’re made out of frosting.  And he’s exactly right.  But what a taunt that would be on your tongue, that single dot of frosting.  I turn from my son and say to the girl—it is tricky not betraying your kids of the opposite gender and also not betraying your own gender, which in this case I nod to—Watch out or he might eat your earlobes.  Is it appropriate?  Do I care?  They look amused.  They look away quickly in different directions.

**

Why does the decor in conference rooms always seem so menacing, so fancy-neutral, so devoid of nature or color?  Everything is draped, as though naked lines and textures are too distracting.  The mauve and grey curtains bury the outer edge of the views, and someone has flung this same heavy fabric over all the tables too.  Even the chairs are carpeted.   

Out of this decor steps Ross Gay, in his electric-red basketball shoes.   

His limbs and even his fingers seem so much longer and stronger than an average human’s.  One thinks of a tree.  A tree growing right up through the floor.  It has grown its way through cement and concrete and layers of densely-packed beige carpet.  It has grown past thick tablecloths and carpeted chairs and percolator coffee pots and bags  laden with notebooks and water bottles.  And past, I should say—because this conference holds many strong and shining attendees—other trees too.  It stretches and twists in the artificial backdrop, and you might feel bad for how obviously it doesn’t belong in the room.  But he, the tree of a person, is smiling comfortably in the stifling conference room.  Just like a tree would sway and bend and let the light (florescent in this case) bounce on its leaves and let the wind (air cooling system in this case) toss them around, whatever.  Some people will say trees aren’t happy or even content, that they aren’t anything.  But just look at them.  The trees I mean.     

**

On the second day of the conference, at breakfast, I work up the courage to talk to Ross Gay.  This is harder than it seems because we are supposed to talk to the faculty members, who all three—aside from being magnificent, at writing and at talking about writing—might actually help us on down-the-line in our careers.  But I’m terrible at schmoozing. I’m actually good at it when I don’t have to, when it’s someone like myself without any rank.  When it’s conversing I guess, not schmoozing.  I once tried valiantly to converse with Annie Dillard and she pretty much called for security guards.  I suppose when you’re in awe of someone’s work it hinders your ability to say a plain hello followed by a plain goodbye.  They have given you so much already—their written words have—that you feel a pressure not just to speak but to give something back in return.   And why would I be writing if I could give anything of value with my voice?

I tell Ross Gay I really like the literary sports magazine, Some Call it Ballin’, that he helps edit and publish.  I say that most people think of sports and literature as opposing, so it’s a treat to see the two combined so artfully.  I make a point not to mention—not to think of—his poems, how when I read one it feels like I’m easing out of really tight shoes.  He smiles.  Maybe I’ve set this up well, because he doesn’t ask if my writing is fiction or non-fiction (tricky) or how far along I am on my book (no clue).  The day before I just barely made it across the Canada/US border, because the security agent asked me in depth about—of all things!—my writing career, which made me twitch and sweat and stammer and finally lie.  But Ross Gay just asks: What sport do you play?

His smile is….I want to say something here about wattage, but my understanding of electricity is so scant.  Should I say light on water?  A sheet on the line?  Or:  a spiral wobbling towards you from on high.  When you’ve gone long, and you’re wide open.   

**

Oh dear, this is sounding like I fall in love with Ross Gay.  But I am so old that I don’t.  By old I mean, I let things go.  I can let beauty go.  I let it roll on over me, away.  I know I will find it—beauty, light, curiosity, kinship, imagination, joy—other places, in footballs and flowers for instance.  I can find it in me.  This is a gift from getting old, from being old.  You can at last use and feel the word adore without feeling winded at the prospect of that adored thing or person disappearing.

**

I do, however, hear myself asking Ross Gay if he wants to play tennis.

I can only think I say this because he looks, standing in front of me, like he should be moving.  He has a gigantic body which he carries very easily, and ordinarily I don’t write about body but in this conference the instructors speak frequently about The Body, and how The Body is crucial to writing, and how The Body itself is political.  I try to understand but my hang-up is they don’t say whose body.  The Body leaves me with a blank picture.  The Body leaves me with windows displaying sunlight shining on mountain trails so beautifully I want to point at them and say, Can we perhaps take our The Bodies out there? (this is not a typo, though it looks like one).

As soon as I suggest tennis I notice Ross Gay’s wingspan, if you can use that word for a human.  He has an enormous wingspan.  Like, if he stretched out on his back on a twin bed you would think the bed was an ironing board.  Maybe even a balance beam.  When I later point out the unfair advantage between his wingspan and mine (more like drenched, folded wings), he will reply:  So I should play with a ping-pong paddle?

But at the moment I only barely register his shoulders, because my eyes have landed on his ears.  Blooming from each of his ear lobes is a frosting rose, of the sort I have recently proclaimed I would wear every day.  That is, if I could bear to gather any more holes than the ones I was born with—plus the figurative ones I’ve gathered.  One of his roses is very green and the other is very turquoise.  And here—at breakfast on the first full day of a writing conference that I’ve won a fellowship to—I am quite ready to quit writing altogether in order to join this rose earring manufacturing company, in whatever capacity they’ll take me.  Because every one of these earrings—the creamy pale-pink, the turquoise, the green—is the perfect color, the only color it should be.  And in fact that’s the case with real roses too: the one you’re looking at is the best one.  Probably when you’re enlightened that becomes true of people too.

**

I did play some tennis back in high school, but I sucked at it.  Even at doubles I sucked.  Some summer evenings my dad and I would go down to the community courts and play, but I always noted with apprehension—from a long way off—who was playing on the other courts.  My dad sucked too.  We both sucked.  Winning was just a matter of who sucked less on that particular night.  He wasn’t patient or parent-like and I never asked for tips or praise or condolences.  We were just two people, two bad players, who wanted to win.    

I did remember the tennis footwork though.  I knew how to pick up a ball without my hands, by scooping it between the outside of my foot and the racquet.  I knew to crouch low and hop from one foot to the other when waiting on a serve, to look like I was about to pounce on prey.  I knew the prancing and bouncing once a ball was in play.  Tennis is basically dancing, only with a racket in your hand.  And towards something.  Your shoes might squeak on the court and that is fun too, the sounds of it.  The thumps and squeals, the panting and muttered curses.  The whoosh of air through strings and ball through air. The clunk of a thrown racquet hitting the court.  I remembered the dance and I remembered the chorus, so I figured I might be alright.       

**

Outside the conference rooms and the mountains and the shining trails the political situation is dire, dire, and there’s this feeling even here—here where we revere and hone our craft—that being a writer isn’t enough.  We must be activists (But I grow still among people, wanting to hear who they are).  We must choose our words more carefully (But as it is, with this fierce internal editor, I can hardly write a thing).  We must be born into a different skin.

In a panel called “How the Personal Becomes Political,” Ross Gay suggests that hollering about what we love is radical politics.  He also repeats something his friend Patrick Rosal said to him on the phone the night before: We seem incapable of expressing the nuances of our sorrow. 

I relax, just a little bit.  Hollering love and expressing the nuances of my sorrow.  Now that is something I can do.    

**

The day of our tennis game is hot and bright.  It’s the day, too, of the 50k and 50 mile run through Sun Mountain, where I happen to be staying.    

Three years ago I was training for this very run on Sun Mountain.  My kids were home from school for a province-wide holiday called Family Day.  I was reaching for something in the garage when a coffee table slipped off a low shelf (maybe someone was climbing it), and landed on my big toe.  I heard the crack before I felt anything.  Nine curse words wanted to fly out my mouth, but for the sake of my sons I edited them to one very loud one.

The Doctor’s office was closed for Family Day, so I dragged my sons to the ER and we waited in the bucket seats playing Old Maid.  My youngest son had on the Batman costume, without the mask, and he kept proudly swishing his cape over one shoulder or the other, as one would a long pony tail.  Both boys became quiet and wide-eyed, staring shamelessly at the gathered sick in that way I can never correct, because I want them to be curious about people.  Neither of them threw down the Old Maid card in whiny defeat when they were stuck at the end with it, like they might have at home.  I decided I should come to the ER more often, for no medical reason—just to sit and play games with these polite and wide-eyed stranger-children.   

The doctor said the toe looked fractured.  She said they could x-ray it to make sure, but there was really no point, as there was nothing they could do for a broken big toe.

Well I’m training for this 50k run in May, I said.

Not anymore you’re not, she said.

I went home and deleted my screen-saver of a trail snaking through Sun Mountain.  It looked photoshopped anyway—a mountain marketed to people like me who love trails and light and a big sky.  It would look even better with some yellow, the marketer probably thought.  And blipped those wild flowers into the foreground.

**

But now here it is, Sun Mountain.   And the pictures didn’t even do it justice.  They couldn’t touch the space, the light, the peace.  Yellow wildflowers dapple entire hillsides.  Their pedals ripple in the slightest breezes, making their black centres seem darker, more still. As I walk towards the courts with Ross Gay a parade of tall, thin, sweaty people wearing hydration packs staggers by.  It is late in their race, for some a fifty miler.  I could be one of them.  And I’m so far from being one of them.  It is a curious feeling, when the longing to be who you once were meets the gladness of not being her.  Because on one hand, how far I’ve slipped.  And yet, how terrible I’d feel right now—and how shut-down my senses, on this, the sensory heaven of Sun Mountain—if I were that runner.    

**

Ross Gay and I swing our racquets a little as we walk, spinning them in our palms to show each other how easily we handle them.  On one of these intimidation spins I almost drop mine.  I ask him about teaching, and how it feels for someone like him—who seems so curious and steadfast on wondering—to be in a position of authority.  He laughs and says, Well I tend to teach…by asking a lot of questions.  Then he asks about my writing, about the piece I read,  and I stutter, my shoulders tensing up to my ears.  Is this a ploy to weaken my game?  But no, like me he’d rather learn (collect material) than impart what he’s learned (spout material).  I can tell by how quickly he answers this or that question in order to fire one back.  I persist.  I find out he used to play college football.  Then he played basketball.  He still plays basketball, but not as seriously.  Now he grows gardens.  Now he finds the perfect words for his questions, his wonder and delight.  Now he teaches.  Now he swings kettlebells.  They even have kettlebell competitions, and I think this sounds pretty cool until he tells me they’re held indoors, usually in the poor decor of hotel lobbies.   

We reach the slope to the tennis courts and Ross Gay says, Where are the nets?

The courts look undressed, two naked slabs of lines.  I stop short, staring at them, dismayed. How will we know who wins?    

But Ross Gay doesn’t stop walking at all, not even a step.  If anything he speeds up.  He’s laughing.  He’s not most an athlete? He’s must be most a poet.

This is perfect, he says,

**

About our tennis game:  we suck.  We both suck.  He sucks a little less than me.  It’s fun.  When my hit doesn’t make it over the invisible net, Ross Gay dashes right through, over to my side, to return it.  Sometimes he dashes so far across the net he is within touching distance, and just taps the ball at me.  It’s so wrong it feels awesome.  Tennis generates a certain grace in the air, even when the players stumble around.  Ross Gay has told me he wants to win like a motherfucker, and I can tell he does, because sometimes when he misses a point he curses.  But also, he keeps laughing.  It’s a joy to play a sport you don’t play.

**

When a runner staggers up to the drinking fountain I feel pulled back momentarily, towards the sport more mine, and I call out: How many kilometres to go?  This sounds pesky but I remember what a relief it is to get outside yourself, late in the race, when you’re all twisted with the constant wavering between body awareness and tuning out your body’s pain.  I stand with a ball in one hand, a racquet in another, waiting on an answer.  But when the runner turns I notice the circle of his ear, above where the earring would go, is white plastic earphone.  He didn’t even hear me.  And so, maybe I’ve become one of those people.  I talk to people who don’t talk to me.  Or they give flat, short answers, as has happened some at this conference.  Saying nothing is considered rude, but a flat, short answer is considered okay.  When I turn back to the game I can’t tell if Ross Gay is laughing at me.  Or maybe, hopefully, he’s smiling affectionately at me– because I’m one of those people who tries to shoot the shit with strangers, even when they don’t respond.  Maybe I could own that.  Because really,  how can you complain about human rights, about the state of human politics, if you’re not going to treat the human right in front of you with interest, with kindness?   

**    

Our play improves a little when we start keeping score.  I get embarrassed when I sing out Love-Love!  What an optimistic way to say:  I’ve got zero, you’ve got zero.  I have to remind Ross Gay of how it goes, from deuce to ad-in or ad-out, then possibly back to deuce.  We each have many advantages, but we keep coming back to deuce.

We have a can of three balls, and when they go over the fence we have to look for them in the bushes.  This is part of the tennis I remember too, watching the body of your opponent bend and half-disappear into branches.  After Ross Gay wins the game (he would want me to add bold exclamation points here !!!!!) he transforms back to a poet—always shaking things up—and suggests we try a rally with two tennis balls in play at the same time.  And boy, are we good then.  We can’t miss!   We look like professional tennis players.  If professionals hit two balls back and forth at the same time, higgledy-piggledy, keeping no score.

**

That night after the conference dinner (it makes you want to go vegan or gluten free, when you see the sorbet those specialty people get) Ross Gay shuffles up to the podium in his giant sneakers.  He reads from the book he’s working on, his Book of Delights. He’s been writing a delight every day for almost a year, and at his August birthday he’ll have accumulated 365 of these essayettes (as he calls them).   What can I say about them?  They illuminate the magnificence (beauty, sorrow, absurdity) of the most ordinary things and moments.  That the essays are most particular to him and his days, and yet they read like a field guide to being human.  A lot of them are really funny.  In one of the day’s delights he is doing errands in town and needs to pee pretty badly, but at both the hardware store and at the coffee shop he finds a reason not to.  On the drive home he realizes he can’t hold it anymore.  He pees as he drives, soaking the car-seat.  He writes it so poetically, though.  So by the time he pulls up to his house, all soaked, you feel it—this human filling and emptying of the bladder, the warm car seat—is not a disaster but something worth celebrating, delighting in.    

After the reading he sits at a table signing books for people.  He makes the table look like a toddler bike.  He’s the elephant.  Every time Ross Gay signs a book for someone he leans in, asking questions.  If he and I had a curiosity contest, how we would go about it?  They would probably have to cut our heads open.  I bet I would win.  I hear him saying, Which part of Kansas?  And I think:  Alright, maybe we would tie.

**

The next day everyone in the conference scatters away, into cars.  Many of the cars are bound for airplanes.  When writers say, Promise me you’ll write—they don’t mean to each other.  I have to scatter too.  This is part of the deal.  You have to leave wherever you got to go and and not cry about it.  You have to wave goodbye with the hand that’s not holding the giant cookie, and step away as lightly as you stepped towards her and her and him days ago, when she and she and he was a stranger.  I linger, though, buying two more 25 cent tampons from the bathroom vending machine with American quarters.  They are crazy thin and won’t last the drive, but once I bleed into the seat it’ll shift quickly in my head from catastrophe to near delight.  That beautiful rose with the ragged edges, blooming onto the drab grey carseat.  But now here’s the deal, you have to leave one-of-a-kind people and kindred people, you have to drive away.  You don’t have to be good at it, though.  You don’t have to be agile or athletic or speedy about it.  It’s okay to coast away like you’re just learning.  It’s fine to drift past the perfect tennis courts, down the perfect mountain, with your foot hovering clumsily above the pedals.   

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Tom Petty and My Heartbreakers

tom

What if when musicians died their songs died too?  What if each song got sucked away in a storm of sound—that sound being every note of the song playing at once.  Then: complete silence.  It would be, as Tom Petty might say, a real drag.  How much harder would we mourn, if we had to lose the songs too?  It’s kind of amazing the way people grieve for musicians when they still have the music to remember them by.  Because don’t musicians go on living, more than most?  Even on the poorest sound systems, a song is so alive.  Certain guitar riffs, they enter your blood.  The way, even tight and close, they seem to spread out.  They knock down walls, floors, ceilings.  They zoom inside you and smash down whatever containing thing you cling to, the ties you’ve built to hold yourself in one piece, in one place.   When the last note sounds, you have spilled out into the past or into dreams and you’re not anywhere, really.  A finished cassette tape squeaks into the silence, quietly as a bird warbling inside a draped cage.  A record rises and falls slightly as it spins, and all that’s left of wherever you went is the symmetric static of the needle sizzling around on an empty line.    

**

When I was 11 my neighbor would play the same two Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers songs over and over, after school, as we sat on the red squiggly carpet of his room.  I didn’t get it.  Tom Petty’s voice was whiny and nasally.  The lyrics were too desperate, too forthright.  And why, for the love of English, would you spell dragging without a “G”?  My neighbor was always either in love or dealing with a broken heart.  When he was in love I knew his heart was going to break soon.  When his heart was broken I knew soon he would fall in love again.  Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, to my ears, was just more of the same.  And yet.  I liked that when we sat on the carpet, listening to records, we didn’t have to talk.  It felt like a better, easier, and maybe deeper way of being with someone, this turning your twin attention to an outside thing.  So I listened.  I pretended to be moved.  So much of life, I suspected then, was going to be about someone sharing something sloppy or shrill or surface with you, and then you pretending to be moved.

**

Much later I filled cigar boxes with letters from a guy who resembled Tom Petty, but with black hair instead of yellow.  He was from California and talked real slow and dreamy, like a space cadet.  He had a long face like Tom Petty too, essentially a skull with a layer of skin pulled tight over it.  He never knew where a letter was going to go and he never pretended he did, and therefore it soared all over, everywhere.  It hardly stayed on paper.  Still, it had the tight form, with the anchoring date and greeting and paragraphs and salutations.  But wow, the places those letters went.  You could say trippy.  You could say groovy.   You could live by such a thing.  Even if you lost the letter writer, when Tom Petty’s voice started oozing out into the car you could still take one hand off the wheel and twist up the volume.

**

The adored boys where I grew up, they never held still.  They spun and coasted and dashed and dove and glided away, and then occasionally they’d go and lean against a wall.  I remember their sneakers exactly, every one.  I remember their hair flying around, the sun playing in it.  The scarred pavement looked lavender sometimes.  The grass was electric green.  During drives to Indiana for booze or fireworks the corn fields closed in on the car.  People might think you’re creepy when you’re just being shy, I say to my sons now.  That boy.  Why would I say Hi?  It would be easier to pick up a sweatband he had dropped by the tennis court and take it home, dragging my cheek over it.  That might be what I’m doing still, during a Tom Petty song.  Some boy is disappearing through a parking lot in his black-faded-to-grey sneakers with a blue star and white soles.  He’s just walking—he doesn’t know he’s walking away from someone.  I’m always right back there, I can’t move.  But hey,  if you’re going to be stuck, then inside a Tom Petty song is a pretty good place for it.  I don’t know of a voice that better manages to simultaneously cry and comfort the crier.

**

I was once sitting in a broken plastic chair with Modelo emblazoned on it (our major life scenes, they so often happen with no staging given to the sets and props), when a boy with a guitar stepped up to the mic and cried, Well don’t it just feel like heaven right now/ Don’t it feel like something from a dream.  I had meant to disappear in the Mexican village, to starve down to nothing.  But seemingly against my will I kept falling in love with things, starting with the mule dung on the dirt trail.  Each piece glistened, and was coiled as tightly and perfectly as a cinnamon bun.  The boy from New York kept singing.  He knew lots of songs, but he interspersed them all with Tom Petty covers.  He had the right mix of ease and anguish for it.  We became friends.  Only now that I understand how damaged I was can I appreciate how he knew to move closer in a sidelong, infinitesimal way.  The modern world is amazing, he would say, waving about his cutting-edge flashlight.  Then we would sit by the sea for hours with no food or towels or engines.  If you weren’t hiding here, he said once, You could take your country by storm.   After a week he rode away on a boat to a bus to an airplane to traffic at rush hour, leaving me his mailing address and a Tom Petty cassette.  As it happened I was housesitting a palapa on the point with no furnishings except a bed, a table, a chair, candles, matches, and—miracle of miracles!—a cassette player with working batteries.  Even when I scampered across the rocks, out of earshot, I could still hear the guitar notes leaping.  They leapt like someone in socks taking three stairs at once, falling back one, bounding up five.  After awhile it could look like a natural progression, the obvious way to move up.   I used the plastic cassette case to shovel up scorpions, and if the light was right I could see, behind the venomous twitching mahogany body, a backwards image of Tom Petty looking out a sunny window.  When I fished off the point I cast out all my longing for lost boys with my line.  I was so hungry that a nibble jerking the line caused my stomach to lurch.  The boats kept coming and going, and the people on them kept shrinking to stubs.  Some I knew and some I didn’t.  Then I’d walk back to the palapa and I’d realize I could hear them, all the people coming and going, in Tom Petty’s voice.  I could hear sunshine clearing a cloud and a silver fish flipping in black depths and sails flapping and outboard engines starting and hands frantically waving hello goodbye and seagulls crying overhead.  I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t hear any of these things in his voice when I was 11.  And why didn’t I hear how Tom Petty’s voice was always on the brink of a laugh?  With you, of course, not at you.  The night before I was swept out to sea during my swim I sat beside a white candle listening to “Wildflowers” on repeat.  A kind song can be a cool song, I thought.  And during my six hour fight to shore the opening jangles kept starting up again, inside my head, at crucial intervals. You don’t feel, listening to most male musicians, that they care particularly if you live or die.  But whenever “Wildflowers” comes on the radio, whenever Tom Petty starts purring about where I belong, I’m still right back there again.  I’m dragging up onto warm sand, collapsing into it.  It starts to sink away but then holds me.  The endless sky is no longer terrifying—it’s just blue, lightly blue, near peaceful.  How surprising it is, all over again, to have lived.  How surprising it is to be so happy about it.

Go and Stand By My

rhodo

Get dressed, they’re told.  But spring is tricky, bright does not equal hot.   They choose shoes with a contrast either grossly disorienting or perfectly elegant.  They choose a circle suspended in a circle.  They choose pink upon pink.  The hole makes a poncho acceptable: it’s not a blankie, it’s just something you wear.  Why is their hair always cut short?  Because their dad wanted a son.  And how can badly-dressed girls compete, all shag and cowlicks, with a flowering rhododendron?  Their grandma has been watching the buds of the tree she calls hers explode from the picture window of a brick condominium.  She eases the strap of her camera around her wrist, and it collides into a stack of silver bangles.  She say, Girls, go and stand by my rhododendron.  The photograph takes a lot.  It takes their grandma gingerly maneuvering down the steps, which are as wide and white as slabs of cake.  It takes the sister in saddle shoes giving hugs without being told.  It takes patience and love for no reason.  It takes the oldest sister’s arms to act as harnesses, so the other two don’t drift away.  When the blossoms are open as far as they will and everyone is touching, it takes the youngest sister to close her hand into a hard fist.  Now, their grandma says, Smile.   She is always looking for them, even when she can’t see anymore.  They smile.  She crops out the sky.  She crops out the tree.

Dear Person Who I Loved, Back When I Mistook Letters for Love

lotsaletters

Berkeley, CA
June, 1997

Dear ______,

You will see by the corner of this envelope that I’ve now left the desert.  I left the bones and the flint and the yucca pods wobbling in the wind.  I left the red dirt and the giant crows and the sky that went up and on forever.   I left the empty mailbox whistling like a wiffle ball.  And I left, most of all, the one-person lacks and loneliness contest I had going there.  The winner needs nothing.  The winner needs no-one.  I was determined to win.  I almost won, by sheer starvation.  It’s strange how you can die from lack of a bite or sip.  You can die from having no warm room, or, in the summer, from no puff of cold air.  But you can’t die quickly or easily from a lack of human connection.  Does petting strangers’ dogs count as physical affection?  Does reading library books count as interaction?  Not even a coroner knows for sure.

Now I’m in a city buzzing and whizzing with people—real people, not the paper voices of people.  I watch them.  I talk to them.  I listen carefully for parts to scribble down when they turn away.  Silently, secretly, I seem to be imploring every person I encounter:  teach me to be human again.  To eat, to get full, to give, to take, to take up space.  You knew me in a summer river sheen but now the desert has marked me.  I’m dry bones with a dusty complexion.  My clothes and hair appear as afterthoughts, like they were tumbleweeds blowing by that just happened to stick.  So how  is it I’m being courted?  I’m somehow being pursued by a towering punk (punk old school, he always clarifies) guy called Chicago.  I met him while serving homeless breakfasts for the Dorothy Day House.  There’s another whole letter, lots of whole letters, on the Dorothy Day breakfasts.  Chicago, I said, when he told me his name.  I hadn’t told him mine.  Is that because you’re from there?  He smiled from inside his studded hood, a smile both shy and dazzling. Who wants to know?  He answered. 

The young punks on Telegraph Avenue follow him around, flashing their zippers and chains and pierced rings. Maybe they follow him because Chicago has fierce posture and a knife and giant muscles that appear to be carved out of black onyx.  Or maybe because he’s their dealer, I dunno.  He has a pager but no home.  He has a good fashion sense considering he finds all his clothes on sidewalks or in dumpsters.  He wanted me to know, he told me four times or more, that he quadruple washes every item he finds.  He rips the sleeves off shirts because his arms won’t fit into them.  He also wears a black leather vest with this studded hood, often up.  He has adorned his vest with silver lighter tops as fringe, and when I asked him how he got so many, and how he fastened them on there, he answered:  One at a time.   His giant left boot is patched with silver duct tape.  I like you, I really really like you, he keep saying.  He wears a spoon—the cheap cafeteria kind you can bend easily—around his wrist.  You’re so great, he insists, You’re opinionated but you’re also wide open.  He smiles and looks right at me when he says these things, too.  And because he is brave in this remarkable way—a way I’m clearly not, a way you’re clearly not—I sometimes fall down beside him, not too close, on the pavement of Telegraph Avenue.   

Chicago seems to know I’m starting over again from nothing in the business of being human, of being with humans.  Only one time he asked what I was coming from and what I wanted from this city.  But he was looking down—he was busy sewing a zipper up the side of his pants with a strand of mint dental floss.  One time he drew chalk lines and we pitched pennies at them, and he got all the points.  One time we used the second hand on the chained pocket-watch he keeps beside his pager to see how long each bird stayed on the wire.  One time he tore a strip of the silver duct tape off his boot and coiled it into a tight little ring, asking how I felt about marriage.  Mostly we just sit there, on the curb, until I have to go to work.  Last week a suited guy striding past mistook me for a panhandler and lifted his hands apologetically, palms to the sky.  What can I do?  He seemed to say.  What can I possibly do for you, when I’m me, and you’re you?

Chicago laughs by opening his mouth wide and making no sound, just little huffs of air.  It’s so much like he’s choking I told him he should never accidentally cup his hand around his neck while he’s laughing.  Once he said, Will you hold my hand?  Which was a clever way of putting it.  Not can I hold yours, but will you hold mine.  And since it was inside a fingerless leather glove I did.  Pretend it’s just a wallet, is what I told myself.  There is always traffic here to look out on when faces are too much.   After enough time had passed, two minutes maybe, I let go.  My hand wiggled around freely, saying whew.  But also it missed the soft leather, the heat.  The slight pump and give of something alive.  No wallet can do that because money is dead.  On that day Chicago said, You have no idea how many ghosts I live with.  He started to name the names of his friends and where they had been shot: in which area, in which body part.  It sounded like a poem.  But it’s his poem.  Not even the street called South Paulina is mine to use, though I will use it here for you.

Sometimes Chicago buys me what we call lunch at the 7-11, in the form of a Slushie.  The machine has four flavors.  If you layer them and stir with the straw-spoon (what an invention, that duck-bill on the end), the result is beautiful.  In a way you might call someone’s outfit beautiful, if she was wearing an airbrushed T-shirt and a clown wig.  On the speckled linoleum floor of the 7-11 today we found a letter some woman wrote to a guy she perceived as poor.  She called him that, in the letter.  It was one page of lined paper tucked into a torn envelope.  When I slid the paper out of the envelope my body gave a buck of happiness.  It thought I had mail.  I asked Chicago, Do you think the guy was, like, a loser and couldn’t love her? So she assumed he was poor in spirit? Chicago was shoving some paper napkins in his pockets for later.  He said, I think the guy had no cash.  The letter advised its recipient to pray for guidance, both to Jesus and to the Five Saints of Today, which she listed.  None of them were women.  Billy Graham was listed after Billy Clinton.  At first the letter was funny.  But then at the registers I got quiet.  I said, This letter gives letters a bad name.  Chicago pulled off his sunglasses.  He stared at my face.  He actually stooped down and leaned forward to peer into it, for what seemed like a really long time.  I dunno, maybe I was wincing.  Maybe because of your letters.  Maybe because of the ones I got.  Maybe because of the ones I didn’t get.  He just kept searching my face with his eyes.  It couldn’t have been for that long, because the one person in front of us was just buying a Sprite and a pack of filtered cigarettes.  But it was almost too much.   When we stepped out of the 7-11 Chicago slid a pink lighter out of his vest pocket and held it to a corner of the letter.  He set fire to it, right there beside the obvious choice, a grated trash can.  The paper burned from the edges in, curling up on itself.  It shrivelled to a black potato chip.  Our heads were bowed watching it, bowed I guess to the angle of people praying.  Have you ever seen a flame dancing on a sunny day?  In that bright light it seems like a secret message just for your eyes.  A coded nudge, maybe, to stretch and shine and quietly do just that, to just do that.     

Yours,

 

Going in Again

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Ohio.  August 2017.

Out from the one-of-a-kind tiles holding on in dark boxes.  Out from the stacks of men’s shirts to be sewn into skirts, the felted sweaters to be made into buttons. Out from the plastic sacks of yarn waiting to become something wearable.  Piles of yarn in piles of plastic growing piles of dust.  The world will end—foot space to air space—in piles. Out from the cupboards of food that expired in 2006. Out from the cigarette ashes in the abalone shell.  Out from that giddy abalone addiction which could make any child a hunter.  The greed for rainbows.  Rainbows with holes.  The holes appearing big and black as caves for the iridescence surrounding them.  Out from the oval mirrors that rocked with the tide and shimmered so they had no edges.  Underwater rainbows also look further away than they are. Out from the studded shells of urchins, which my tiny fingertips tried to read like braille.  Out from all the pieces of the beach that blanched and dulled and weakened in this house, even when they weren’t used as ashtrays.  Out from greyed rainbows.  Out from the lame attempt to travel by shuffling nature.  Out from the books I call mine.  Like I did something other than read them.  Out from the favorite spines that ask can you ever tell if a book sang so deeply because it broke you or because it filled you?  Maybe it didn’t break you.  Maybe it just spoke well to places that were already broken.  Out from the boxes of letters stashed in the closet.  My name in so many different prints.  By so many different pens.  To so many different addresses.  Out from the blatant love I never saw in them.  Out from knowing we only get what care we can bear.  That’s it.  Out from all the art on the walls and the memories of the people who made it.  Out from, for example, the female nude Edie did with a red crayon in about six perfect swipes.  Out from the Edie in it.  How she hid her innovative gears in a prim black skirt suit and unchanging babydoll haircut.  Where does the art end and the artist begin?  They meld together.  If you’re lucky.  Out from this Chihuly glass piece that placed anywhere is always a martian landing.  In its black strands I see his big black eye patch which the child me always stared right at.  Even when I knew to be polite I should look with both my eyes at his one good eye.  Out from all the faces of the artists Nelly Bly brought home.  Out from all the artwork Nelly Bly brought home.  Some pictures she hid under sheets and blankets until the time was right.  But sneaking art onto a practical person’s wall works as well as spray-painting on big dollar signs.  Out from the bedside table we all want.  From the bottles of lotion on it, empty to all levels.  Out from the absorbed way she’s working it into her hands and arms and legs. Like there’s nothing she’d rather be doing.  Like there’s nothing else she has to do.  It appears she’s humming. Whether she is or not.  Out from always her lotion, even when I was a baby.  When I couldn’t tell my body from hers.  Out from the reptile skin her dad passed on to her.  Out from the reptile skin she passed on to me.  The lotion just makes its cracks shine for a minute.  That’s all it ever did.  Out from her beautiful optimism.  If you didn’t see the lotion you would think she was comforting one hand with the other.  If you couldn’t see at all you’d think–from the contented concentration beaming off her–that she’s making art.  And maybe she is.  And maybe she is.

And out from all this.  As I was going to say.  Out from all this the corn in the fields is so bright and clean.  It doesn’t do a thing.  And then it grows up and grows up and grows up like it’s ordinary.  Like it’s way easier than staying where it was.

 

Whooping Cough Chronicles: Ten

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After five days of taking the antibiotics we’re no longer contagious.  Even being assured of this, when I see a baby-in-arms near the school my body bucks back and strides the other way, the wrong way.  The right way.  Our coughing fits diminish—first in frequency, then in power.  They only happen when we run.  They only happen when we lie down.  They only happen when we laugh.  I ask my son one evening how his coughs were that day and he says, Good. I only had a few chuckles.  I never would have believed, while in the throes of it, that he would describe our whooping cough as chuckles.   I try again to tag suffering, to tag it firmly in my head as a transitory thing.  I can’t catch it, though.  Because we’re chuckling.       

Every night when I’m reading a story to my younger son my voice cuts out.  It doesn’t fizzle out but stops suddenly, completely, as though by flicked switch.  It feels like painful work to get it going again.  Why, even better, do I keep thinking of the dead?  I think: maybe they take my voice.   Maybe this is the pay-back for no longer serving as their messenger.  I might fall more and more silent.  I might, it occurs to me, just stop with the story.  If my son’s head wasn’t beside mine on the pillow beside, waiting.  If his blue eyes inside that round white man-in-the-moon face weren’t skittering over the page, piecing together what might happen next.  How hard it is to stop, when you’re sick.  To give up participating in this thing and that thing, to let all things go one by one until giving up is as easy as breathing out, or loosening your hand.  But then.  How hard it is to get going again, when you heal.  Maybe because the body, when not racked by coughs—feels so perfect when it’s still.  Why try or rush or care?  Why not just watch what unfolds, mustering no movement but marvel?  Under the comforter my son’s bony elbow jabs into my side, subtle as always.  I gargle, drudging up my voice.  I go on with the story.   

**

My older son has waited a few years to compete in his swim meet’s lake swim.  Endurance is his thing.  Plus I may have mentioned to him a couple times, from a young age, that no problem or worry can outlast a swim to the horizon.  This year he’s finally old enough to take part.  But now: he can’t race a lap of the pool without feeling like he’s going to pass out.  The day of the lake swim dawns, sunny and busy, and we move out into it, like other people do.  The boy in his seat of the car is tall.  He looks like he has never been a baby.  The heat feels good.  I stand in the grass penning numbers onto swimmer’s biceps with a Sharpie, and the arms are warm, full of muscle.  We’re alive.  I sneak glances at my son, who is sits at the end of the dock in his dry clothes, watching swimmers dash in and fall to their stomachs.  A younger boy on the dock accidentally drops his goggles into the water, and that begins their own race of sorts—to see how many older kids they have to ask to pick up the goggles before one of them finally does.  It turns into a long race.

My son spots a water snake in the shallows, off to the side, and later he will tell me its stripe—neon green with a yellow glow—went so perfectly with its very very black, maybe the most dark black I’ve ever seen body.  After weeks cot-side in our ward he appears, down at the dock,  so separate from me.  So far away.  He’s watching and smiling and listening, covering his mouth sometimes to cough.  And when he looks out to the middle of the lake, at the swimmers there, his posture stiffens to alert.  Ever at the ready.  I’m struck with a sudden lump in my throat that finally isn’t mucous, or an impending cough.  It’s pride.  I’m more impressed by him than I’d be if he were all kicks and elbows, speeding out across the water.  Because isn’t disappointment the ultimate endurance sport?  The grit, when dismay or sickness bears down upon you, to watch and to listen, to notice the stripe on a snake.  The boy he’s sitting with springs up suddenly, prancing barefoot along the dock, back into the grass.  And when my son catches up they do what kids—the healthy, lucky ones—are always doing.  They disappear into the sun.   

Whooping Cough Chronicles: Nine

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Photo by John Menapace

When I was young I had a case of staph pneumonia that went too long undetected, became dangerous, and required time around doctors.  I remember one eager doctor who would always tell me something wouldn’t hurt–right before it did.  What a job, I think now—now that I’m a parent seeing it’s dicey to even help a fallen child that’s not yours on the playground.  My mom really liked this eager doctor, who had never jammed her with any needles, or pulled too roughly on her IV.  When he swooped into the room where we waited his white coat—so not sailboat, so not parachute—flew out behind him.  ,

Oh look!  My mom exclaimed, one of these times, Doctor X is wearing a tie that’s exactly your favorite color! 

I snuck a peek at it.  It was, indeed, the perfect color: at once bright and quiet, a pink that smiled without needing anyone to notice it.

That’s not my favorite color, I said flatly.

My mom held her smile.  It’s not? But pink’s always been your favorite color!

I shook my head.

The eager doctor took his cue.  Well, he said, looking up from his tray of menacing silver instruments.  What is your favorite color?

I remember the moment so well, maybe because I looked right into his face as I lied.

Black, I said.

**

The medical resident doesn’t hustle.  He talks to my son like they’re the same age, pointedly asking him questions, pausing while my son thinks.  He listens to our deepish breaths—as deep as we dare—to better rule out bronchitis.  And when we have coughing fits he waits silently until we finish, which—I will discover when we’re well enough to be circulating—is rare.  Most people keep talking: a sentence started must be ended.  Or they remark, as we’re coughing, how bad it sounds.  I would probably do the same.  But I’m learning so much from this illness—learning, anyway, about what things I want to learn.  How to give space to people, for their suffering and everything else, with silence.  How to treat a person—even when you’re on a schedule—like time has stopped.  Finally the doctor turns to his computer and types some things into it.  Then he swivels to us and says:  Well, I think you have whooping cough.   

He doesn’t say:  I believe you.  But that’s what I hear.  And because I instantly feel lighter, I realize not being believed is its own sickness.  You might not even know you have it.  But, inflicted with it, you could bury a talent, accept a hug from an oppressor, or end up confessing to a crime you didn’t commit.  Maybe it can’t even be diagnosed until you’re cured of it.  From across a garden I once watched a wasp alight on someone’s shoulder and sting her—one, two, three angry welts rising—before she raised her hand slowly, even fluttery, to see if something was really there.

**

The doctor goes on to say my son’s test could have been a false negative.  I didn’t know there could be such a thing.  I get stuck on that, the odd concept of a false negative.  If pregnancy tests could be false negative.  If someone said he didn’t love you and then later said that was a false negative.  Swim meets have false starts but a false negative start would mean the swimmer gets disqualified for not moving right on the whistle.  A false negative moustache would indicate someone caked skin-coloured makeup over the bristles.  My brain is so busy churning over the weird concept of false negative that it takes to long to grasp the words nasal swab and again.

Wait, what?

I’m going to have to test you both again.      

Can’t we just assume we have it and get the antibiotics?

I can give you antibiotics.  But because pertussis is a highly-contagious and dangerous disease, I’m required to test you if I suspect you have it. 

Um, I say.  I look at my son.  Panic and stoicism battle on his face.  Was that my voice earlier, saying he wouldn’t have to have the nose swab again?  Of all the broken promises parents give, are the said worse than the unsaid?  The best parent might be a silent one.  Or one that jabbers on so much she includes all possibilities.    

What if we refuse? I say to the doctor.  It’s clear I’m no longer dreaming him up

It won’t hurt, he says.

It’s me looking at him, but it’s also a child.  Black, I could say again.

It really hurt, I answer.

It should feel uncomfortable, he says.  But it shouldn’t hurt.

It really did, I say.  We’re not total wimps, either, I add feebly.

I believe you, he says.  Then he says: Hold on. I’m just going to get the paperwork. 

**

I’d like to say when the doctor leaves the room I become a serene parental pillar.  That I apologize to my son for falsely reassuring him, and then I focus on calmly distilling his fears.  But really what I do is, I notice how the doctor’s empty desk chair is about four feet beneath the window.  We’re on the ground floor.  The window looks like an easy open.  It leads out to the parking lot.  Our car is right there, a thirty second sprint.  Well, a two minute cough-filled gallop in our case.   I think:  Why would I notice such a perfect escape, if we were not meant to use it?  Even as I suggest the plan to my son, I’m gauging how to step on the desk chair to keep it from swivelling.  Its cushy seat is covered in loose black leather, and I can imagine the doctor’s eyes landing on the sneaker-shaped dents in it when he walks back into the empty room.     

**

But Mama, my son says.  We have to. 

My eyes are still glued on the window.  It’s like a toy window, just put there to be shimmied through.

We’ll just do it, he continues.  And then it will be over.

I turn to him.  In the weeks, the eternal days and nights, of this whooping cough we’ve been downed together in a way we haven’t since he was a baby.  And as a baby he was, like this sick boy, still and serious.  Steady and watchful.  Nursing him brought me under the most intense scrutiny I’d ever been subjected to.  While getting his diapers changed he resembled an old man perusing a stamp collection, while a puppy licked at his ankles.  I loved that baby so much.  But I knew I had to be dignified about it.  Now I try to again.

You’re right, I say. It’s got to be better this time.

He sighs.  What if it isn’t? he poses, offering me back the role of parent.

It will be. 

I go first, like I should have the first time.  I can’t look into points of comfort–my son’s eyes, or the doctor’s socks–because I have to tilt my face at the ceiling.  The doctor eases the wand in very slowly, and he stops it seemingly right on the zone of violation.  I only see one star.  It feels uncomfortable.  But it doesn’t hurt.  After my son takes his turn—a slight squeeze of his hand, no water pooling in his eyes this time—relief seeps into me.   Apparently it takes over my entire body, because for a whole minute or more it forgets to cough.     

**

The next day I get a phone call from our new doctor saying that my test—the first test—has come back, and it’s positive.  So I have whooping cough.

And, the doctor says, your son must have it too.

Yes, I say.  It’s a good word.  Small, but you can pack so much of yourself into it.

Whooping Cough Chronicles: Eight

 

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On the seventh day I get a call from the doctor’s office, saying my son’s test for whooping cough has come back negative.  Mine hasn’t come in yet, since the lab is backed up—but we can presume it’s negative too.  The receptionist goes on to say that my father—who I thought was my father—is not my father, and that my real heritage is Arabic.  No, no, I’m not that shocked.  Our whoops and gags have progressed, but I lack the energy for skepticism.  I’m fairly relieved.  Whooping cough is known in Asia as the 100 day cough, so this call is a gift, the gift of time.  However, while holding the receiver to my ear I look over at my son, who is so still and thin, barely there.  The word drawn comes to mind—if he were drawn in pencil and being erased.  And my relief shifts to dismay.   To lack a diagnosis is to lack any treatment, or tries at treatment.  I manage to say, without coughing, that our coughs are much worse.  That we would like to figure out what we have.  We would like, most of all, hopefully, some medicine.  Our old doctor is booked, and our new doctor is booked, but the word luckily is again called for here, since some people on my island can’t get doctors.  Because we have one, we are able to get an appointment with a medical resident that very day.    

**

During the drive there my son worries he’ll have to get another nose swab.  I tell him no, we already did that test.  I tell him there might be other tests, but they won’t hurt like that one.  My mind rushes ahead to what other torturous tests they might give us, that might make the nose swab seem like a tickle under the armpit.  Is this an undisclosed part of the job requirement for parent, this easy progression into the contemplation of worst-case scenarios?    

It’s been over a week since I’ve gone anywhere except to take my younger son to the school bus stop.  (Younger son has been noticeably absent in this narrative, which is an indication of how thoroughly the cough has taken over.  You can imagine him, though, after school with a TV set flashing on his zombie eyes, the crunch of Cheerios he’s pilfered from the cupboard competing in his ears with the never-ending coughs issuing from the mummies who used to be his brother and his mother).  I drive really slowly, ready to coast to the side whenever a coughing fit threatens.  It’s a summer day in June, the first steady showing of the sun since last November, and people along the road are walking and running and biking and milling about at food and coffee stands.  Even the ones standing still seem like coiled springs, poised to move on.  How can they manage to wave their arms while also talking?  Out on the harbour, sails ripple and scoot along the ocean.  The sea is exhausting, how it keeps moving up and down in so many peaks, and how it won’t stop skittering light.

It’s strange to find the mere sight of something I love—like the sea—so wearing.  Just days before, in one of my delirium dreams induced by refusing to lie down, I was living in a beach hammock that I’d woven little mesh compartments into, to hold my toothbrush, my book, and my other bathing suits.  On this dream morning I’m so eager to run into the sea that when my feet touch the sand I start sprinting.  For some reason I’m wearing my calf-high tube socks with the green and yellow stripes, and I completely forget to peel them off.  When I dive into the sea I realize the socks are shimmying and hoisting me along at great speed.  It turns out they are fins that got cast under an evil spell into tube socks.  The frog hopes, but never expects—because really, what are the chances?—to be kissed by a princess.  And these tube socks.  They long ago stopped hoping someone would break the spell by running them into surf.  Even as the dry sand beneath them gives way to wet sand, gives way to an inch of salty sea, the socks decide they’re dreaming.

Everyone is so busy, my son remarks from the backseat.

I tell him that was just what I was thinking.  Even the ocean is way too busy.

**

The medical resident says to call him by his first name.  He is young and good-looking, even by television doctor standards.  He has on socks the same bright green as my lucky sneakers, which regrettably I just left on the shoe rack at home.  We start to tell him about our symptoms and he listens intently.  The more closely he listens the better-looking he becomes.  Maybe it’s how I look to my dog when I suddenly lie down on the floor, at his level.   How fast he rushes over then, to land on my hand or my hair, whatever flat part he can flop on.  The doctor asks lots of questions, which I may answer eagerly, in too much detail.  In the beam of his interest–anyone’s interest towards our diagnosis, I like to think–I may get close to lively, not sick at all.  I never quite realized a doctor has to lift up your shirt to press a stethoscope to your back.  He tells us to take deep breaths, and just as my son and I exchange worried glances—because deep breaths are the devil, the thing that really sets off our coughing fits—he adds:  And if you feel like a deep breath will make you cough then you don’t have to take a very big one.  I’m wondering if I’ve made up this doctor, if I’m dreaming this visit.  Or am I the tube socks in an inch of ocean?

Whooping Cough Chronicles: Seven

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Late 1940’s: A British hospital attempts to treat whooping cough with a decompression chamber.

When my son and I gasp for air at the end of each choking cough, the sound isn’t the airy whoosh movies give when, say, a nearly-drowned person pops to the surface.  This whoop carries a strange clunk at the end, something like a manhole cover clanging shut.  It is low and leaden like that, and seems not to come from me.  Later I read this about whooping cough:  Its name comes from the first breath patients take when a paroxysm ends, an urgent crow that sounds like nothing else in medicine.  My whoop, with its indescribable hollow and solid mix, sounds so strangely it astonishes me, even in my panic for air.  It feels like I’m speaking in a language I don’t know.  Perhaps some person or thing who is not me is using my body to convey something vital.  During one evening fever I start to think our whoops are from dead people attempting to reach back to earth.  It is them, the ones the whooping cough got.  They are using our weakened, empathetic bodies to quickly—timed just perfectly—clunk out messages.  The words are unknowable, of course.  They’re scrambled by long travel from that other realm.  And they’re not meant for either of us anyway.  But when I believe my whoops might be important messages, that instead of just straining for air I’m delivering something–I’m a child’s chosen messenger–the leaden gasps don’t seem to go on as long.  Or anyway, they’re not as scary.    

If you want to see what my adult feet would be you can look at Aunt Maddy’s.  I don’t need your love anymore but it feels good.  Like I’m running full speed again and I’ve got a cherry candy in my mouth because I’ll never choke.  Don’t waste worry on that.  Whoa, that shirt is so not your style.  My little sister has the same baby hair I had.  I mean, she’s bald in the same places I was.  Don’t waste fear on that.  Why do you treat my brother like a flower instead of the bruiser he is?  Look at him hitting the cat.  He’s going to live forever.  You can’t stop feeling by moving faster.  Enough sorries now.  The apologies got boring ten years ago.  There was nothing you could do.  There is no one to blame.  I got a cough, that’s all.  Did you feel that?  I just asked a blue jay to swoop so low it rearranged your hair.  Don’t waste hate on that.  That chocolate chip cookie would taste better in bed.  You know that’s still my bike, right?  But he can ride it if he wants.   

Whooping Cough Chronicles: Six

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photo by Andre de Dienes

It’s a busy end-of-the-school year.  My voice doesn’t work for the telephone.  A few rushed emails and texts trickle in daily, asking how we are.  The effect is, I suppose, of receiving a telegram from a seaside palace when bandits have tied you up for torture, face-down in the dust.  If only the palace reports were amused and amazed.  If they offered the kind of description that could transport me momentarily out of the ward.  But the missives read like this:  I FEAR THE PILLOWS IN THIS PALACE MAY HAVE LOST A MILLIMETER OF FLUFF—(STOP)—GOTTA DASH OR I’LL BE LATE TO THE BALL—(STOP)—.   The telegrams are brief and waver between worry and hurry.  The worry seems to be over luxuries—possible sore throats, for instance.  Worry—I vow to remember when I’m better enough to do it—is selfish.  It’s like even out among people you’re sitting under a cloak with Silly-Putty stuffed in your ears, knitting a sweater for yourself that is way too small.  And the rushing off to this or that seems incomprehensible in in its luxury.  That the body could glide unthinkingly, without glitch or pain, from house to car to work to trail to school to meal to bar to concert to house.  Still, hurry carries a sheen the sick can almost ride.  The way, when the last sparkler gets granted, you might run alongside the kid who got it, trying to wave your hand in a stray spark.    

Everyone grappling with sickness has different needs.  It’s kind and thoughtful to wonder if a bed-bound person is stocked for necessary supplies.  If I hadn’t been, a box of Kleenex without pain-enhancing patterns (Kleenex box artists clearly aren’t designing for the sick) may have been so preferable to a recounting of some funny incident.  But can we also treat being amused as a basic human need? Can we agree that being fed a surprising narrative is as important as being fed liquids and broth?  I wondered about all the people sicker than me who had given up on expecting someone, or a mix of funny and thoughtful someones, to get them away from themselves through their ears.   I wondered if they, like me, were lamenting not living in a way that ensured better visitors for ailing or dying:  people crackling with life, to distract them from their failing bodies.

**

When I’m better, I decide, I’ll form a company that hires comedians and storytellers to visit the bedsides of the sick and dying.  Every time I start to pity myself the lack of a dynamo visitor (Why do wishes for Peppermint Patty and Ethan Hawke drift so frequently into this silence? Is it because neither one of them ever shuts up?) I turn, instead, to plotting a helpful enterprise.  I ponder whether the name Pillowtalk© is already taken, either by an after-hours phone porn company or by a literary pillowcase manufacturer (which should also be a thing).  Scouting employees would require travelling around the world in search of funny people, which sounds—from within the silent, serious walls of our ward—just about perfect.  I plan out the client form, contemplating what sort of boxes the bedded could tick.  Preferred level of animation in a comedian/storyteller seems important, as does degree of humour.  And subject material—both the preferred and dreaded.   Some dying people might want an educational speaker, to teach them in an area they always meant to learn.  Others might feel markedly sicker at the mention of a fact, a stat.  The largest blanks on the form would read Please DO NOT Send Someone Who:  and Please DO NOT Talk About:–since with pain often comes the super-sharp ability to know exactly what you don’t want.

**

After about a week I feel well enough to concentrate, and therefore to read, and books rush in to fill the need for funny, thoughtful, imaginative company.  I can read on average four pages between coughing fits, and writers can take me to so many places in that time.  And so I realize another—maybe bigger— branch of Pillowtalk© will manage book delivery networks.  The very sick and dying will be quickly granted any book they want to read.  In fact, some clients who request comedians will end up saying to them:  Do you mind just reading to me from that book over there on the table?   I can forget, during my healthy, peopled, busy days, how vital a book can be—its characters can only transport me as thoroughly as I hand myself over to them.  But now I fall in completely. And so I’m no longer someone who can’t stop coughing.  I’m a voice on the telephone, a voice with questions and pauses so perfect it seduces all the strangers it calls (Dana Spiotta’s Innocents and Others—the Jelly & Jack chapters).  I’m a cynical old captain hired to return a ten-year-old white girl to family, after a childhood held captive by the Kiowa Indians.  I used to carry military messages long distance, sprinting by myself blissfully over miles of ground—but now I stand at town podiums reading bits from newspapers to impatient audiences.   I’m the captain’s ten-year-old charge, too, holding straight and alert in the wagon, my body attuned for battles, my hand coiled around a knife.  I’m singing in a language no one understands, and I want the wagon to go back the way it came.  I am white-skinned and freckled, with taffy-colored hair, and my people look nothing like me.  I’m both of the captain and the charge,  and I’m here and not here,  because they don’t  belong anywhere.  Except maybe—in their determination to be wild, to not let wild become a memory—to each other (Paulette Jile’s News of the World).  When I’m no longer sick I will be thankful all over again for these books, which allowed me to be so many people who weren’t coughing-me.  There are only twenty-two perfect stories (if you don’t count her amazing novella, Foster) published by the Irish writer Claire Keegan.  Twenty-two transports so complete that reaching their white spaces at the end feels like being slammed into snow.  Then, in way too short a time, I devour all of David Sedaris’s diary entries (Theft & Finding).  I admire anew how many times a day, at the most minuscule prompts, he manages to be simultaneously outraged and amused.   When I look up from the page I find myself again in that pathetic place—a reader’s place—of counting as my best friend someone who doesn’t even know me.

**

Just in case a prolonged illness descends to take my concentration, or my eyesight, I better find Beth.  That’s what I decide.  Beth, my long lost friend from Fife, Scotland.  Beth who from that 1990-something day we met at a youth hostel in Adelaide, agreed—even as we pretended to follow a map, a travel route—that wonder and laughter were our only real destinations.  I’m going to find that Beth and I’m going to find others Beths:  male Beths, cyber Beths, Beths with animal bodies.  But also I will travel to Scotland and reunite with the original.  The travel expenses will even be covered by  Pillowtalk©, because when I find her I’m going to hire her on the spot as our Fife & beyond Superior Bedside Visitor.   

During one of the fevers that descend dependably in the early evenings, like clamps tightening on my head, I actually see Beth entering the ward.  This is a happy surprise: since neither one of us travelled with a camera, I have no photos of her.  Her hair is more brown and less red than I thought. It’s straighter than the haywire ringlets I remember.  But her eyes are instantly familiar:  they spark and bulge with funny findings, with incomprehension over totally-normal-but-completely-crazy things.  If I was asleep her eyes would wake me up.  But I’m awake anyway, because Beth enters a room like someone hurled her into it.  She enters like that loaf of bread she once spiralled at me from way down the aisle of a grocery store.  And even doubled over with laughter—not coughs, never coughs—I caught it.