Acquaintance

I wouldn’t say we were friends.  It may have looked like that for a while – at the beginning – but before long the whole thing sort of plateaued.  We ended up merely acquaintances, the people who will stand together at a party if the rest of the company is flat.  We were a bookend match of each other’s awkwardness, holding our drinks close to our chins as our arms tried to fold themselves over our chests, while one hand took orders from the brain to dose hard early because this gathering was going to suck.

She went by Caro in college, although when we were in junior high school she was called Carol or sometimes Fats.  In tenth grade, before Mom and I moved away, she found the theater club, dyed her hair red, and dropped the ‘l’.  She also dropped thirty pounds and found a light, languid gait unlike the slightly panicked walk-run that used to propel her into classrooms just after the bell.  Damned if Carol didn’t always knock something over with her backpack trying to slip into her seat unnoticed.

But not Caro.  This new tenth-grade artsy-fartsy goddess entered the room within a cocoon of laughing thespians, her auburn waves falling over her eyes, pushed back with a careless gesture now and again as she rolled her eyes at the droll nonsense of her troupe.  No shit.  Every day of tenth grade her entrance to Mr. Martolli’s class played like the opening credits of a show about with-it teens figuring out life while giggling over Twizzlers.

When my mother was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, we had to move to her hometown in Maryland.  It was all very sudden and she knew we’d need help.

“I don’t want to ask your grandma, let alone live with her, but how are we going to do this otherwise?”

“I could quit school – just for a year – and get a job.  Wouldn’t that help?”

“Me watching you make milkshakes for minimum wage when you should be learning? Knowing all the while the only reason for it is my being too proud to ask that woman for help…”  Mom was washing dishes.  Her gaze slipped out the window, whisked the worn picnic table and brown grass of the yard, and rose to the pale blue November sky.  The silence stretched and I almost tried to make my pitch again.  I was licking my lips and taking a breath when she finished her thought.

“It would kill me to see you working instead of being in school.  We’re going to Perryville and that’s that.  It’s a year. We’ll technically be closer to Johns Hopkins there than we are here and their program is good.”

“But UVA…”

“We don’t know anyone there. I can’t keep working. You can’t quit school. We’re going to live with your grandma.”

And so we did.

The last day of school in Virginia floated along like a dream.  A friend had got me a card that played a song from Peanuts and someone else thrust a balloon tied to a candy bar in my hand.  I was always vague about who had done it, although everyone knew I loved candy.  I spent too much time on the drive trying to figure it out.  When we got to the bridge at Havre de Grace, I put it out of my mind, knowing on a visceral level that in ten minutes we’d be carrying suitcases into Grandma’s house and that from then on out, it would be a daily battle to find any calm.  And not just watching Mom fight for her life.  My stomach was already in knots; I twisted around in the car seat to watch the sunset poking through the steel arch of the bridge.

 


 

I didn’t see Caro for three years. I had kind of forgotten she existed.  High school wasn’t when we started talking.  It was in college, when Mom and I moved back to Virginia. I was a year behind because we had to wait to reestablish our residency for in-state tuition.  I was surprised to see Caro in a class with me; surprised she was studying science, too.

“Well, acting is fun, but I get too nervous,” she told me once.  “Like everyone says they do, too, but this one time I was so close to puking on stage that I realized I needed another option.  My Dad suggested I rethink science, which I loved first. It felt right.”

I looked away, swallowing a chalky little bitterness that I always felt when people talked about their fathers.  I wondered if I’d ever stop being jealous of that.  It drove me crazy because I knew my mom ought to be enough.  She certainly worked her ass off to fill the void.

“Well, they say what you loved doing at seven is what you’re meant to do,” I said.

We were standing amid the trees in the quad, watching clouds thicken and tighten above us.  Other students were ambling about, some clinging to their perches in the grass, determined to stay until the rain chased them off.  I remember watching the president of the university pacing in her private garden at the top of the hill, disappearing and reappearing from behind a bronze bust of Mary Wollstonecraft.  She was talking into her cell phone, her face pale within a frame of black hair and red dress.

“Prima donna,” I heard myself say aloud.

Caro followed my gaze, her eyebrows raised in surprise.

“You’ve heard stories,” I added.

She shrugged and I realized then she didn’t play this game.  Caro the actress with the red hair and the nose ring. Carol the bookworm who’d come packaged with a beaker if she were a doll.  These girls didn’t talk smack.  That’s why we’d never really be friends.  I’d spend a lifetime figuring out the shape of the world by critiquing others as harshly as I would myself.  Girls like Caro would opt for a simple motto like ‘be nice’.

The rain started to fall one big splashy drop at a time and we turned in unison, holding our books up in front of our chests as we headed for the shelter of a portico nearby.  She smiled into the distance.

“So what did you want to be when you were seven?”

“Cruella. Maleficent. Ursula.”

She laughed.

“I never wanted to be the princess, either,” she said.

I side-eyed her then, thinking that she was the princess whether she liked it or not.  It was her right.  It came with being beautiful and kind and natural and smart.  Caro was all the things they try to show us about the princess, the qualities so remarkable that they come wrapped in a ball gown and a tiara.  She had all the things that draw men and magic and sometimes foes.  I didn’t want to be her enemy. Yet I couldn’t see how to be her friend, either, because she seemed to exist on a higher plane of self-confidence.  I was sure I’d never know how to breathe that air.

“Anyway,” I said. I tried to sound light. (I always tried to sound light back then.) “I realize now that none of those Disney witches are very real. I’d settle for being Dorothy Parker.”

I had to explain to her who that was and I knew she barely found it interesting.  Still, we found things to talk about in the coming years, dosing ourselves with gin and tonics, two people who sometimes defaulted to chatter when the room wasn’t entirely ours. And later I realized that we didn’t exist on a different tier; we were just two kinds of people whose overlapping interests made a narrow bridge, hastily traversed in youth and vanity. Now I would try to take it slower, see what developed if we walked instead of driving.

On Burying A Friend

The air is still moist from the night when I with gloved hands take up the shovel to make the grave for our very old friend.  It helps to be alone out here, bent over the earth with my thoughts.

Later the loneliness is edging close as thankfully my husband joins me in a cap to keep his ears warm. And so we take turns cracking through tree roots and pulling up stones. Helpmates. Silent in our grief, the passing of our ginger cat.

Our Guy.

The scratch of iron and rock make a sharp cry to break the calm of the woods, fittingly rough, like how we aren’t ready to let go.  Finally the hole is deep enough.  We climb the steep hill and I take off my muddy boots before entering the house.

My eye drops toward the floor as I push the door open, to where he usually stands with curious eyes asking to go out.  I cannot give a moment for tears just yet.  I push through the house, to the cool spare room, where he waits in his carrier.

I take him outside and together my husband and I wrap him up for burial.  He weighs the same in my hands as he ever did.  Or is he lighter now, not twisting to protest being cradled like a human baby?   I feel he must be given a final hug, something to say that inside the bundle is still the lovely creature who shared so many years with us.  I curve around his still form, weeping freely, my husband weeping with me, the two of us with rubbery garden gloves, hands a little cartoonish, eyes as red as pickled eggs.

“Okay,” I say.

Somehow we fitted his resting place perfectly.  The bundle settles into the depression as if sized by tireless craft, rather than the educated guess of two men unfamiliar with the digging of graves.  I gather a wad of mud between my hands, say a word of good-bye and sprinkle him over with earth.  My husband says his farewell and reaches out to let his gathered clay fall like dark heavy snow.

I am careful with the first shovels-full of dirt, filling in the edges until the ground is level with the top of him.   Then another level until the black bundle is covered over. When the ground is filled in again, we pull a rake over the earth until it is smooth.  Then I rake away the autumn leaves because they make his resting place seem too forlorn.

I decide we ought to cover him over in stones to keep animals from digging him up.  We root around at the edge of the woods as the day opens up bright and warm above us.  The mud on ours boots grows thicker as we work.  We cannot seem to stop hunting for new stones.  I like best the ones from under the leaves, the ones cleaned by a recent rain.  One crude rock at a time, we build a mound to cover the grave of this our very old friend.

“We’ll put a ring of bulbs around it in the spring,” I say.

And my husband nods through his tears.

“I’m glad it got warm. I fell asleep last night dreading the cold, knowing how he hated it.”

We are silent a moment more before taking up the shovel and the rake and climbing the hill.  At the side of the house, I realize we have forgotten the pick axe.  When I return to the edge of the woods to fetch it, I see a small rock winking up from the ground.  I almost turn away from it, but it seems that in noticing it, I ought to add it to the mound.kingly-guy

 

Acting 201

Felix went all in to help Adele with her final performance in acting class.  Perhaps he was regretting that he hadn’t signed up for 201 with her; every time they hung out with friends from the first class, they said they missed him.  Weeks before the end of semester, he had mapped out a plan for Adele.  He chose the monologue, coached her through it line by line, designed the set, and did her hair and makeup.  All because she looked like Bette Davis.

It wasn’t an easy three weeks.

There were times when Adele begged to abandon the project.  One night she came really close to putting her foot down entirely.  When she yet again failed to enunciate her lines with the proper Davis clarity, she tossed herself across the battered sectional in Felix’s basement.  Hugging a pillow close to her chest, she suggested she might rather do the monologue from Fame, which she still remembered from high school.  It was a little on the short side, but she even had the clothes she’d worn. The leg warmers were doing double duty as curtain tiebacks in her bedroom.

Felix wouldn’t hear of it.

“You’re destined for this role, Adele! Don’t be faint of heart…”

He motioned for her to stand, and she rolled her eyes, but she climbed out of the sunken cushions.   She had the big eyes and the small mouth and if she could just learn to actually be dramatic and articulate all at once, while not dropping a line or forgetting a mark, then she’d be fine.  His big obstacle was getting her to embrace the bigness of the part.  Adele had a dry, close-lipped personality, but for this she’d need to have sweep and volume.

Secretly Adele thought the lines were corny, but Felix was protective of his heroes.  “Bette exudes corruption once you get to the end and look back on it, but for at least the first half, you’re convinced she’s the classic woman wronged. She plays it so well.”

His eyes would drop to the floor each time he praised the long dead actress, as if embarrassed that Adele might feel inadequate by comparison.  She could have told him she didn’t like that whole old style – people didn’t act like that anymore – but they’d had exhaustive talks about it in the past.  He thought there simply wasn’t enough guts and saliva in modern theater.

That night they watched the movie together again.  Maybe for the first time ever,  Adele was glad she wasn’t stoned because there were some line readings that would give a nun church giggles.  Glancing over at Felix, she saw a pleased little smile on his lips. With his dyed black hair and painted on brows and lips, he looked vampiric in the television light. Not that she would ever tell him; he was too vain about his looks already.  He’d spent almost two months pay on green contact lenses to look like Louis from The Vampire Lestat.  And one night he told her about an exhaustive face lightening regimen that involved peroxide and a nail brush.

He was silly, she thought then, growing frustrated with the movie.

“Can’t we turn it off and try the lines again?” she asked.

He agreed too readily and she wondered if subjecting her to the film had become a tactic.

“Feed me my line…”

He was about to when they heard a soft knock, telling them Felix’s mom had come down the steps and wanted to enter her son’s subterranean den.

“Hello?” Jean called out warmly.

Felix looked peeved, but Adele felt like she was getting a pardon.

“You two still working on the play?” Jean asked.  She was dressed in denims that rose all the way up to her bra and a sweat shirt with an appliquéd kitten clambering anxiously out of a watering can.  Her shoulder length hair was messy except for scrupulously combed bangs.

“Yes,” Adele said. “The drill sergeant never sleeps.”

“Ha, ha,” Jean laughed.  “Well, Felix, you ought to give Adele a break. You two could come upstairs and eat with me. I made goulash.”

“No, Mother,” Felix said. “Maybe later.”

Adele never knew how to act around Jean.  If she followed Felix’s example, her demeanor would hardly be warm.  She was raised to be polite to elders, but like her friend she wasn’t always comfortable with chit-chat.  As usually happened, a silence stretched between the three of them and eventually Jean edged towards the steps.

“Well, I’ll let you get back to it then…”

“Thanks, Mom.”

When she’d gone, Felix made a little face. It wasn’t exactly mocking, but it seemed to say, ‘What just happened?’ As if it were odd that a mom would offer supper to two teenagers who rarely left her basement except to go to their classes.  Feeling angry at him but unsure of exactly why, Adele took a deep breath and began her monologue.

“‘I was in love with Jeff Hammond. Been in love for years. We used to meet each other, constantly, once or twice a week-”

“Can you hit those t’s a little harder? It’s like this…”

Pulling his characteristically slumped shoulders back, Felix launched into the monologue in a perfect impersonation of the old movie idol.  Adele stared at him with a mouth like she was eating worms.

“What?”

“You,” she said. “You ought to do it.”

“I didn’t take the class. Besides, I’m not a girl.”

She almost said maybe that was up for debate, but she bit the comment back, turning away to gather up her things.  “I’m going home.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I know you’re tired-”

“I am. You’re right.”

When she turned on her car lights, they shone through the patio doors of the basement, and she saw that Felix had already put the movie back on.  If she knew him at all, he’d make a run upstairs for goulash in about two minutes.  But he wouldn’t eat it with Jean.

 


 

The day of the performance was hectic.  Felix had made a list of all the things they needed from home.  Adele would bring her own extensive makeup kit, a curling iron, bobby pins, and the 1940’s outfit she’d borrowed from one of her mother’s friends.  He would bring a piece of plastic rattan valance to wrap around the base of a plant he was borrowing from the admissions lobby.  This would help make the set look more Malaysian, he determined. And he had a piece of cloth his dad had brought from Guam that they could drape over the This-End-Up sofa ubiquitous to all theater department performances at the college.

Tension propelled them through makeup in near silence, but they started to get testy with one another while he was curling her hair.  Worrying that he’d burn her skin and ruin the show, his hands trembled and he got the waves around her face wrong.  Luckily her brow was just as high and rounded as Bette’s because he doubted he could have talked her into shaving back her hairline, even though Davis had done it herself twice in her career, both times to play Elizabeth I.

“You’re pulling!” she said, punching his arm.  He was through with the iron now or else she wouldn’t have dared.

Unperturbed, he spoke through a mouthful of bobby pins, “Don’t forget the line is, ‘We’d always been so careful before about writing in the past.’ You said ‘calling’ instead twice last week and you could still hit those t’s a little more aggressively.

“I’ll pretend each one of them is you,” she muttered.

He smiled for the first time all day.

“That’s right, my queen,” Felix said. “Get it all out.”

Finally there was nothing else he could do and Felix had to leave the stage area and take a seat with the class. As he watched Adele perform her scene, he was glad they’d chosen dark green for her outfit, but he couldn’t help but feel she never quite rose above a level of emotion one might call robotic. It was worse than that she wasn’t as fiery as his favorite actress. Rather she was flat, like someone who’d never felt anything before. Maybe she was on the sociopath spectrum, he wondered. Was there a spectrum for that?

The class applauded nicely for Adele.  After the curtain closed on stage,  Professor Dupree studied Felix for an awkward moment.  He imagined she was realizing how much of a role he’d played in Adele’s final project.  Impulsively, he leaned towards her and made a bold suggestion.

“Since I’ve done so much of the work in helping Adele, do you think admissions would let me sign up for the class retroactively, if I could complete all the homework assignments before next Tuesday?”

Her eyes widening, the professor said haltingly, “I don’t think they’d go for that.”

Quelled, Felix studied his lap.

A moment later, Adele was cautiously descending from the stage in her borrowed pumps. Professor Dupree gave her an empathetic smile.

“That was an interesting choice, Adele.”

“It was all Felix,” she answered.

For a moment, it seemed that the two women were transmitting a silent message to each other.  Felix felt if he had a moment, he might figure it out.  But then someone up on stage was asking who brought the plastic rattan valance. They needed to break things down quickly to do their monologue from Fame.

When he was done corralling all of their props and the makeup kit, he couldn’t find Adele anywhere.  The class was recomposing themselves for the next number and the professor gave him a smile that was thin.

As he stepped out of the student center to see if Adele was having a smoke, he heard Professor Dupree give a gleeful little squeal, saying aloud about the next act, “Oh, I love this one!” He shrugged, thinking with some pleasure that Dupree had always struck him as fatally boring.

Adele was sitting on a picnic table on the smoker’s terrace.  She’d unbuttoned the vintage blouse a little, but left her hair up off her neck and face.  In the harsh afternoon light, the makeup looked thick, but her eyes were magnificent.  He shook a cigarette from his pack as he approached her.

“You were great.”

“No I wasn’t,” she said.  “But I’m glad its over.”

He lit his cigarette with a lighter that had a spent flint.  After a moment it sparked, but it was too late to continue to argue her defense.  He said instead, “You want to come over tonight.  We can watch whatever you want.”

She shrugged, “Okay.”

They both knew it would need to be something funny.

 

 

Rideshare

originally posted under the name ‘Fireflies’


Mariam was quick at everything she did, but when she was angry, another kind of fuel kicked in to keep her jets lit high. He could gauge her irritation by the time it took her to fold laundry or sort the bills and pay them.

The evening was thick, scented with a rain to come, and in the distance he could hear the traffic that ran alongside the subway station. It was late and he was the only one waiting just now.  At last he took his phone from his pocket.  He stared down at it for a moment before calling home. She answered on the second ring.

“You on the way?”

“Well, I’ve run into a snag.”

“Oh.”

“Well, there were a lot of people because the holiday-”

“The holiday is why I suggested you leave earlier,” she said. “But what about all these people?”

He held the phone away so she wouldn’t hear his sigh. Mariam hated to hear it; she would tell him to stop feeling sorry for himself.

“Of the four card machines, two were out of order, so the lines were twice as long as ever. I almost made it, ran all the way down and even scratched my leg on the escalator, but I was just a couple of seconds too late. I’m sorry, Mariam.”

She took in a breath. It sounded like she dropped something heavily on the counter. It might have been metal: a knife or a spatula maybe.

“The next one will be here in about seven minutes.”

“But you’ll miss Will,” she said. “He never waits – not even for a minute. Remember last week?”

“He saw me running across the lot. I know he did.”

“He’s kind of a prick that way.”

“Isn’t he though?” he said. Perhaps she would direct her ire at the man who always gave him a ride to the end of their drive, providing he didn’t have to wait. “It really was too much this last time.  He’s so rude.”

“It’s still your fault,” she said.

“Yes, I know.”

A pause snaked between them, too long and too thin. Finally she said, “I guess I’ll drive into town when you get in, but you’ll have to call me when you pass Dunn Grave so I’ll have about five minutes.”

“Okay,” he said.

“But this has to stop. We have to get your car fixed.”

He didn’t know what to say. They both knew they couldn’t afford the repairs. As it was, they were always a month behind on the house payment. Their little house with the crack in the stoop and the stink of mildew in the bathroom, it was a little bit of nothing that even so they could scarcely afford. How did she imagine that repairing the car was going to happen?

“Call me at Dunn Grave,” she said and she rang off without a good-bye.

“Thank you,” he said a moment too late. She hadn’t heard.

____________

When the train got beyond Mauricetown, the city glow was blotted out by the overhanging trees.  If he pressed his face to the glass, he could watch the fireflies begin to light, green stars in a galaxy of woods.  He noticed them last week, when he was late the last time.  They weren’t visible on the earlier trip; the waning days of summer were still too bright at that time to note them.  But if one missed the train and came on the very next one, there they were, something hopeful and beautiful to watch all the dreary ride homeward.

He recalled a night when he was a child, when his father was still alive.  It had been the two of them and his sister, returning from the barn after feeding the animals.  They spilled out into the night, the three of them, when the sky was purple all but for a ribbon of gold over the mountains.

“Do you see that?” his father whispered.  The two children fell silent.

At first, like star gazing, they could not quite see the fireflies.  Then they noticed one and then another and then a dozen more and finally countless lights in the dark lower pasture.

“Daddy,” his sister said.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he answered.

They stood in the silence and the night, hearing the throaty noises of the summer bugs, watching the green lights come and go and come again.  Behind them, a few pale rectangles marked the windows of their house on the hill, but they were lost in the beauty before them and forgot everything else.

It was hard to tell how long they stood there, three side by side, so calm and happy together, unlike so many other times.  Whether it was a minute or an hour, in the years after, he learned it was not long enough.  Had he deliberately missed the train tonight so that he’d see these fireflies again?  He wondered about that, unable to answer. There had been no broken machines at the station.  He’d just sort of moved too slow, his mind elsewhere, until suddenly he heard the train departing.  It would never do to let Mariam know the truth.

He was so happy to watch the fireflies of this day, pressed to the train window, that he forgot to call her as the train went through the station at Dunn Grave.  Finally, it came to his own stop, the end of the line, where the parking lot lights of the sprawling commuter town wore unholy halos in the muggy evening air.

At the end of the station lot, where a strip mall butted up seamlessly, his gaze fell briefly on the spot where Will usually parked his car while at work.  The slot was empty, as he already knew it would be.  He faced the street toward home and started walking away from the town.  He might have called Mariam, told her he couldn’t get a signal at Dunn Grave, told her he’d wait in the vestibule of the Target until she drove up to get him.  Instead, he headed toward home, grim and sure of the argument that would await.  He would never know why suddenly he couldn’t lie to placate her, but he trudged into the shadows of the county road like a child going to meet the strap.

When the last street light was at his back, he started to notice the fireflies again.  He thought of a spot on the road ahead where he could sit and watch them; the porch steps of an empty, plain farm house overgrown with Virginia creeper.  The iron gate cried out when he pressed through, and while it startled an owl out of a hole in the eaves, it did not startle him.  Nothing about the house frightened him tonight, though at times he’d thought it vaguely sinister.  In the autumn, if he glanced over just as his car lights flashed on the dusty window glass, he feared seeing a grim face looking out.  Tonight it was merely a lonely old thing, dead inside and out, with a little of its bones poking through its outsides, like a deer rotting open on the roadside.

He sat on the step and looked out into the familiar points of light.

It had been a long time since the night that he and his sister and his father shared this simple pleasure.  He remembered when the memory of it still was fresh, when he was a younger man, and he recalled that for a while it lay dormant, pushed aside by many other cares, only some his own.  But since last week, it was as clear as if it had just happened. It seemed like a sort of magic was waiting to unfold.  Perhaps there was an enchanted door somewhere, maybe inside the old house, that would spill him out into that other meadow and that other night.  He could steal up softly beside the three figures, the tall one and two little ones.  His steps would have to be still, so as not to frighten them, but if he could manage it, he’d stay as long as they had stayed and then he’d wait longer still, until the last light went out.

Wilderness

When I was a kid, I became enchanted with Cinderella stories, but my versions never had princesses.  They had houses and they had witches.  It was the house and the witch who would be transformed and made beautiful.  Homes should always be sweet; women should always be gorgeous. I must have thought this as a kid and clearly popular society is still largely convinced its true.

My favorite place to draw was the dining room because there was no place else to spread out the typing paper I took from my mother’s desk and the assortment of random colored pencils that hadn’t gone missing yet.  There were corner windows in that room, looking out over a pasture and a scrap of back yard.  When the chickens were out, they littered the grass like folds of white towels – the crowns each a smear of blood.  Sometimes when I looked up through the smudged glass I saw my mother coming back from the barn.  Her plaid jacket was frayed at the cuffs and her hair was ruffled messily by the work.  She always seemed tired.

The first iteration.

I would draw a house and a woman softly, the pencil whispering on the page and leaving only the vaguest impression.  The woman would have worried bags under her eyes and a ragged gown.  The house would have loose shudders and a shaggy lawn.  It had to be drawn lightly so that I could cover it over with the magical transformation.  I thought it was cheating to erase the lines, so instead I would add more pigment on top, burying the first and deliciously tragic version under the adorable cheer to follow.

The change.

With bold strokes of my pencil the house would be reimagined with pristine woodwork and flowering shrubbery.  Birds would appear in the formerly barren skies, a few limp letters ‘m’ that are somehow sparrows or larks in flight. Even to grownups one never need explain that these are birds.

A sun with lines of radiant warmth appeared over the trees.

With greater care still the burdened witch became a mighty queen, her eyes ringed with such lashes that the dimly drawn wrinkles were all but undetectable. With my pencil I sketched over her dismal schmatta, layering on top a diaphanous skirt with hundreds of folds. Messy hair vanished under a mantle of exuberant curls; the bitter mouth fold budded  into a hopeful rose.  If I could find the crayon called peach, I’d bring the blood to her cheeks.

I made the messy and neglected into something ordered, manicured, and styled.  If it failed to convince me, I added flowers and more eyelashes.  I might have flourished in marketing.

In truth I was playing at something adults rarely learn to examine, whether or not the picturesque is superior to the authentic.  There is a reason that we have apps to place crowns of flowers on our Snapchat photos; a glow to our Instagram selfie to blur away the pores; the framework of Facebook to describe the perfect weekend, leaving out the parts where we quarreled over which credit cards to use.  We are terrified of loose ends, of things and people gone ragged.  Perhaps the animal in us knows how quickly we can be toppled, the way a rabbit knows that once the fox has them in its jaws, there are only seconds before the end.

The blood widens a pink circle in the snow as the black eyes of the rabbit reflect a cloudless blue sky.  Burying its nose in the warmth of the rabbits breast, the fox eats quickly amid the smell of iron and meat and frosty grasses.  His breath rises up around them, a fog veil to soften the truth that this is how the circle goes unbroken.

If we are to survive on the terms that make us human, cooperation within the growing village of humanity, without losing our grip on the one power that helps us maintain our place, a self-convincing sense of contentment, we must embroider reality, making over everything that we find dim with bright colors.  If our grip on the story loosens and we are forced to see how quickly our shutters rot, perhaps the entire fabric of our narrative will spill out of control.  Grass that needs our hands to chase away the chicory and pokeberry might return to wilderness.

We may go wild ourselves.

Momentos

As my high school graduation grew nearer, my father sent away for my class ring.  I wore it for about a year or two before it embarrassed me to put it on.  No one I knew advertised they finished high school through jewelry and I didn’t want to either.  The ring was exactly what it should have been: large and golden with a ruby stone and engravings to show I concentrated on The Arts.  A pair of brushes cross over a painter’s amoebic palette and some Greek letters make the case for the man my father thought I was becoming. 

The ring still surfaces now and then, floating to the top of a box of forgotten things from about the age of ten up through my twentieth year.   In that box there is also a keychain with a picture of an old friend in it; a few chess pieces from a set my mother made me in ceramics class;  blue and white shards of a Chinese umbrella holder that I cut my knee on when I was nine; shells from a beach where a girl and I sat in the blast of January winds not talking about things we might.


The keychain is a tapered square of turquoise plastic with a white tip on the narrow end.  In the tip there is a lens and when you look through it you see my old friend.  She is on the beach, her thick dark blond hair pushed behind one ear in defiance of a breeze off the water behind her.  When she and I first became friends, my world was small; my best friends were family and it was a joyful discovery to build my own friendship from scratch. We were close at one time and luckily it did not end in fire, as some of my relationships did when I was younger.  Rather we just drifted apart, first in our interests and later geographically.  Before social media, we were as good as invisible to one another for over a dozen years.  Now we reach out from time to time to say hello.

During all those years when many friendships were considered not only diminished but severed by lost addresses and by telephone numbers that no longer worked, I would occasion upon that keychain, squint into it and try to remember something about how she came to give it to me.  Had she gone to the beach alone or with one of her more loyal childhood friends?  Had we met for lunch, she proffering the memento as I worked out in my head who I’d be partying with later that night?


My mother didn’t handle my growing up very well.   Two dreamers who were much happier at home than out in the world, we needed one another mutually when I was young.  It must have been hard to see me making friends and moving outward into the world, while she was still fixed in a place defined by her phobias and her traditionalism.  When I was seventeen she and I were at our most tumultuous point.  In between our heated arguments about where I was going and who I was going out with – why did I like so and so more than my own family and what did we know about their people? – she would be moved to do very kind things.  One of them was the chess set, although by the time she finished it and presented it at Christmas, there were already changes in my worldview that made me feel only lackluster about the gift. 

Rendered in blue and grey, the Civil War iteration of the game did not suit who I was becoming – a person with growing disgust for a romantic take on rich southern slaveowners who turned on their own neighbors rather than follow the shifting moral imperative of their country. 

Having watched the film Gone With the Wind at nine and consuming the book greedily afterward, I spent the first half of my teen years in a love affair with the antebellum south. I wrote and rewrote novels with heroines who lived on plantations and wore hoop skirts.  With each rewrite my shifting principles showed evermore. As I discovered feminism, my heroine became pluckier.  I added character details to make her seem less organized around feminine norms.  Now she liked to sneak off bare footed to go fishing when she wasn’t sparring with our enigmatic and handsome hero. 

As I discovered my empathy for the economically disadvantaged, my heroine developed a friendship with a ‘po-white’ family down the road from the Big House and helped their ‘clean but respectable’ Irish children with their lessons in between trips to the trout creek.  Just as I may have been likely to start writing a slave rebellion into the plot, I grew tired of the whole Southern aristocracy schtick altogether.  By the time I received the chess set, it felt like a postcard from another year to another me, although I was careful to pretend I loved it.  My mother is very, very sensitive.


At the age of ten I was well in the midst of my romance with all things old world and opulent  when I discovered an umbrella holder in the cluttered storage cum laundry room in our basement.  Made of thick china and hand-painted in the Asian fashion with blue flowers and birds on a white field, it seemed like a relic from a much finer home than our fly-specked little ranch house in the country.  Perhaps this was the last vestige of the grand manor our family used to own on the Mississippi, I speculated – until my mother told me they were a dime a dozen in the seventies.

The top was broken and looked a little like the shape of the Coliseum, with pierced arches left incomplete where the missing pieces used to fit.  I found some of the broken bits in the bottom of the vessel and pestered my parents to buy me crazy glue so I could fix this treasure.  I was still working on the restoration months later – frustrated that not all the pieces had been saved by my parents – when a tumble with my sister landed me on a jagged point that split my knee open like a cruel smile.  They stitched it closed and it still looked like a punished mouth for weeks, weeping blood at the iodine-stained threads when I flexed my leg a bit too much.  For a couple years easily I worried that somehow I’d crack it open again, even when all that was left was a quite sturdy white scar, a lumpy albino worm where the mouth had once ruefully grinned.  I still have the umbrella holder and the shards; the mend was never complete.


I don’t remember gathering the shells with Jenny, but a visceral thread woven into the beginning of my manhood hangs free of me, teased even now by the mood of a wintry beach.  When all the umbrellas have been tucked away and the children have returned to school, beach towns become something more like wilderness again.  They become raw and savage: the breakers are cold knives nosing the sand, the blackened tangles of seaweed like so many Medusa headdresses abandoned. No matter where I am, when cold air that smells like salt water hits me, I am taken back to a Carolina beach and seventeen.

We walked with our heads down, our chins protecting our throats as the wind tore at our curls and rippled our too thin clothes.  It had been an awkward holiday, me liking Jenny’s green-haired artist friend we had come to visit so much that the three of us fell into a strange discord. In youth we wear our jealousy loosely on chapped lips, with faces still too childlike to hide our fleeting pain and rage.  Yet we are already learning to ignore what we think we will not be able to change.  And so Jenny continued to love me and I made funny faces and let the incoming storm off the water lift my hair into a wild black mop that she caught in her camera.  When my whimsical bravura was spent, we sat in the sand not talking about anything, unsure yet sure that the holiday had already pulled loose what had gathered us together.  The silence felt intimate, but we were no longer.

In the cold mist we watched the tide go out while three broken shells found a home in my pocket.  It has been over twenty years and I have yet to send them back to sea.

The Virtue of Arrogance

When I was thirty I opened my own interior design business.  From the concept to completion – with a lot of friends chipping in on the grunt work – I went from employee of one firm to the host of an open house for my own in just about eight months.  The night was a blur.  All I can remember is misplacing the cream for the coffee and later finding it in an armoire in my office.

Black coffee notwithstanding, I was proud of myself in my own low key kind of way. Being a nose-to-the-grindstone person, I don’t take a lot of time to jump in the air and high five passersby. Looking back on it, I should have been pleased with myself.  Whenever I wasn’t working at my primary job – or the part time one I kept at my sister’s bookstore to help her with her own new enterprise – I was meeting with prospective landlords and researching market statistics at various government agencies; crafting my business plan; emailing my lawyer friend who was helping me set up the paperwork.  Some days I was meeting with vendor reps at a coffee shop near my workplace, careful to sit facing the door so that I could drop a notebook over the stacks of catalogs should a co-worker stop in for a macchiato before their shift .  I remember one tenacious rep – always eager to sign up a new account – who met me during a snow storm.  I flipped through pages of accessories giddily as the parking lot turned white.

When I eventually signed a lease, I spent hours revising layouts for the shop buildout. (I negotiated that enough to my advantage that I imagine my peddler grandfather would have been proud.)  With every free moment, I went back over my order list to cut corners as needed, determined to stay within the capital I had to invest.  I guarded that start up money jealously because I wanted to have enough to pay my expenses and my salary for at least three months after opening.  Since that same money came from the lengthy process of refinancing our house, I would care for it like a gardener with only so many seeds – and no promises from the heavens.

I was seeing new clients independently, starting projects that I developed from stacks of crisp, never-before-used fabric books that littered my guest room during the build out stage of the shop.  I was discovering that the energy accompanying big change and bold thinking is fairly magnetic.  From the moment I quietly began to let clients know I was going out on my own, they were not only excited for me, but they started to add more to their projects and clamor for business cards to share with friends.  It’s heart-warming now to look back on how supportive these individuals were to me in that fledgling stage.

I marvel now that I was so bold, so organized, so driven – and so sure that it would not only be worth it but would also be a success.  It would take self-confidence verging on arrogance to act in the way that thirty year old did then.  Arrogance.  It is a severe and dubious virtue, alienating as much to self as to others, yet highly constructive at times.  In the way that the word implies, I was driven to serve self the most.  I don’t make the observation as self criticism.  I think my dream had worth and luckily was protected by that buffer zone of ego.  It helped me.

Later that pride would take a hit when the economy down-turned and – after much agonizing – I was compelled to draft emails to a few likely clients asking if they wanted to get a jump start on their future projects.  I was painfully honest about it: if I didn’t find some work soon, I wasn’t sure how long I could keep my doors open.  The change to my sense of self-worth was huge but also hard to fathom at the time.

I had lived large when everyone else was living large.

While the bubble that caused the crash had my clients buying or building new homes and furnishing every nook and cranny in varying odes to Tuscany, I was buying hand-made shirts and letting myself be pampered by the staff at Bergdorf’s.  I was sitting in the third row at Broadway shows and spending far too much on lunches.  When I wrote those emails to my clients, making my dire straights plain, it really didn’t matter how brightly my cuff links glittered.  The stack of bills on my desk had been growing for weeks. Everything was urgent and dull and dreadfully taut.  I was white-knuckling my way through this change in fortune.

The ego took another carving when I was forced to let my employee of four years know she ought to be looking for work.  I just couldn’t see how to keep paying her.  We had spent so many seasons sharing perspectives on the growing business, that she was as much advisor as shopkeep or assistant.  How often had I sought her perspective on a tricky  email exchange I was having with a client or colleague?  How many times had we celebrated a project win with an icy cocktail at the swanky martini lounge down the block?

When her last day with my company arrived, I went on one of my few house calls and then headed home instead of coming into work.  The other thing that can come from arrogance is a kind of moral cowardice: I simply couldn’t make myself confront the failure that watching her let herself out the door for the last time would make plain.  When I found her sadly cheerful hand-made thank you card on my desk the next day, I heaved a sigh and stared at my email inbox darkly until it became merely backlit lines without meaning.

Ingenuity wasn’t dead and neither was my appetite to survive.  But I was learning that to stay afloat in a new economy was going to take more than reserves of confidence or talent; I was going to have to reinvent my firm from a place of artful humility.  It would be a humble perspective that would help me determine just how much I could cut back, revising the shape and context of my business.  That editing taught me a lot about myself as a designer and a manager; I learned how to get back to the heart of intention and how to cut the fat.

When I met my landlord and asked her to accept half rent until I got back on my feet, I was without any of the pride that made me sick with worry before I emailed those clients.  In fact, my only imperative was to make my case as simply and sincerely as possible, so that she would understand my determination to make it was at the heart of the ask.  She agreed readily because, as I was learning, business people got it.  This change was big and we would need to band together.

Later when I hosted a party at my shop to celebrate its switch from active retail space to appointment only design studio, it was not only the beginning of a long journey of rebranding, but a chance to reset with as much dignity as the situation could offer. Looking back on it, I suppose the facade was fragile, a glass mask.  My clients knew this was the other side of the coin.  On one face, the old version of the business had failed, while on the other it was reborn as a new thing.  What they could only imagine was how jarring and saddening this change was for me – still it was needed repositioning and they gamely helped me keep face.  We stood elbow to elbow munching from cheese plates and sipping white wine.  When it was all over, I wanted nothing more than to have my preferred drink at home – a wintery gin martini – and to crawl into bed with a corny and easily digested episode of Perry Mason.  There is comfort in tightly constructed mayhem that resolves itself in less than an hour.

Nowadays my business has not only survived, but grown, with more employees than it had before, tight systems for daily operation, and consistent self-checks for growth.  Offering not only interior design for homes and commercial spaces, but reimagined again as a vital retail boutique, we have earned a reputation as a stalwart shop around the corner in our bustling little city.

In the wake of the recession, priorities were shifted and I was made a better steward of my dream, but like the coin with two faces, I see that my business has been served by two polarities of confidence: arrogance and humility.