Shuttlecock

The last snow falls over the city like a reverent hush.  With their faces tucked into their collars, the people on the streets aren’t talking as much as they might.  Sharp and I move over the thin, white blanket just a little slower than usual.  It isn’t the weather alone.  We have our own weather between us, a soft, silent storm building.

We cross at MacDougal and cut into the park.  Beside me, Sharp is watching his shoes against the snow as he walks.  The shoes are old, but the laces are new.  We were together, two days ago, when he impulsively tossed them onto the counter at a store across town.

He shrugged as I caught his eye, “I need a new pair.”

I had glanced away to watch two women bickering as they pushed out through the revolving door.  Valentine chocolates, stacked near the counter, were going for half off.  I’ve had enough sweets the last couple of months.

The park is beautiful in the fresh snow.  Yellow urine and tobacco stains are all whited out, homely mistakes corrected to make a tidy page of the morning.   We come to our spot near the fountain and use our gloved hands to clear the seat.  The fountain is still today.

“We have to clear the air.”

Sharp frowns into the distance.  “I hate that phrase.”

“I know.”

“Well, here’s the thing,” he says.  He casts me a quick glance, the frown fixed in place.  I know Sharp all too well; there’s a gentle pity in his brown eyes.  “I know you feel like Fiona is hurting our friendship, but really I think it’s you and me doing that.”

“I love you.”

“Well, I love you, too.  But this is about stupid, old school jealousy.  All friends have it and it’s nothing but trouble, you know?”

I look out over the park, feeling the needles of tears starting.  He doesn’t understand me.  Taking a a breath, I try again.  “Sharp, I know I’ve been short with you a lot recently.  And you were right the other night: I didn’t forget to invite Fiona over.  I decided not to invite her.”

“We spend more time together than most friends I’ve ever had,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I’ve been bending over backwards to make sure we get time to do our thing – you know, people watching and putzing.  I hate those guys who forget their friends when they get a girl.”

“Sharp,” I say. “I fell in love with you two years ago.”

One time, Sharp and I were walking home from a bar and we saw a taxi hit a homeless woman.  It happened so suddenly that it couldn’t have been avoided.  She just sort of fell into the street.  Everyone who saw it stopped in their tracks.  Sharp had worn the open mouth of an astonished puppet and, queerly, it made me giggle.  He wears that look now, but I can’t quite laugh today.

“I thought I was over it and then Fiona came along and it’s been eating me up.  It isn’t just that friend thing.  I just think you need to know.”

“Oh, fuck,” he says.  His eyes search my face, looking for a joke, then fall to his lap.  “You’re crying.”

“I know.”

He stands and turns away from me.  We’ve become the awkward staging of a Neil Simon play.  That thought will make me laugh later on, I tell myself as I scramble in my coat pocket for something to wipe my face with.

“The plus side of allergies is you always have one of these,” I say, holding up a used tissue.  “Although I think this one’s spent.”

He doesn’t say anything.

I turn on the bench and hook an elbow over the back.  “Here is the plain, unvarnished truth.  I fell in love with you and then I decided I wasn’t anymore. Didn’t feel that way.  And I know that Fiona is a perfectly fine person, but when you already have a reason to want to dislike someone, it’s not hard to notice their faults.  You and I have made days of finding fault in people.”

“I know,” he says.  He lets his shoulders down a little and turns to look at me.

His auburn beard is scotch kingly against the white morning, but his eyes are those of a sad fool.  Love is an astonishing thing.  I’ve been on his side of this mess before. Easing out a breath, I say, “I told you this because I can’t keep it anymore.  If you let it ruin us, I’ll never forgive you.”

He lets out a surprised laugh like a bark; the jaded park birds give him mild, quizzical glances.  Taking his seat again, he says, “For the moment, let’s put this aside.”

“Okay.”

“Hear me out.”

“I’m all ears.”

He rolls his eyes and glances away.  “Well, no matter what the motive, you can’t be cold and distant every time she’s with me.  I agree that she name drops a little.”

“But how could you like someone like that?”

He shakes his head, “And you were right when you said she dresses too nice for me.”

“Oh brother.”

“Well, what I’m getting at is this: Probably the perfect woman for me is you if you had a vagina.”

“Thanks.”

He laughs again and I want to laugh, too, but I bite my lip and look away.  “Think about it this way. How many times do people who get along as pals still enjoy the same level of comfort after sex?”

“I don’t know,” I say.  “Has this become a Nora Ephron script, may she rest in peace?”

I surprise another laugh from him.

“Besides,” I say. “I didn’t tell you to open up a hypothetical about us having sex.”

“Open up a hypothetical? Is that like a hypodermic?”

I bite back a grin.  “So what are you trying to say, shitbird?”

“I mean, dummy, that we’re lucky.  If I met a girl just like you, she and I would still never have quite the same friendship.”

“Because the sex?”

“Because the sex.”

I turn on the seat, my whole self aimed straight at the fountain across the way.  The snow flakes are getting big and feathery.  “They say that’s a sign the storm is almost over.”

“The snow?” he asks. “We’re talking about the weather?”

I look at him from the side of my face.  “Well, I’m not crying anymore.”

“So, you’ve loved me all this time,” he says.  “Whenever we’re out together, drinking and yukking it up, you’re undressing me with your eyes. I’m not even good looking.”

“I’m never undressing you with my eyes.”  I squint at him. “Not even now.  Besides, what do looks have to do with it? You think Fiona lets you have sex with her because of your abs?  Attraction is based on more than looks. You should know that.  You’re a smart person.”

“I do know that.”

“Well then?”

He straightens in his seat, too, so we’re both trained toward the fountain.  In our years, we’ve never had to look at each other to weave humor between us.  “But you think of me when you touch yourself?”

My eyebrows climb my face. “Actually, not at all.  Do you think of Fiona?”

“She and I have a great sex life.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“No,” he says. “I think of Julie Andrews.”

“I know. You told me that once.”

“And you still loved me?”

It isn’t hard to imagine that we’ll come out of this okay.  Even though I’ve been confronted anew with my feelings since Fiona came into the picture, in many ways I’ve had a long time to find a sort of peace with them.  This isn’t a new burden for me, but time will tell if Sharp carries it heavy or if he carries it light.  For the moment, we must do what he and I have always done and kick it between us, always keeping it in the air.

“I’ll make an effort to like her more,” I say.

“And I’ll try to tone it down, not be so charming around you.”

“You’re off to a great start.”

Birthday

The landscape of my childhood is not honey colored or bright with rosy reds. There were stormy blues and sleepy yellows.  If I colored it with crayons, it would be the hues children leave in the box.

In photographs that have faded as much as memory, the fields around our old house are paler than boiler onions.  All the winter walks have become one remembered walk, our breath blowing out ahead in thin clouds, the ice on the bent grass crunching under foot.  Let the snow birds break the air, startled out of the underbrush. Let the dogs make chase, each cry bold and bright and startling.  They are a part of this magic and cannot disturb it.  But we would walk gently, let no words pierce the air.  If I want her to hold my hand, I need only to reach up and my mother will curl her warm, work-worn fingers around.  She will never be happier than on this walk.  She and the woods speak a common language.

I am mesmerized by the pine needles on the forest floor.  If I nudge them with my shoe, they open, but they are deep and never reveal the dark soil beneath.  Yet I know what lies under them.  I dig open the earth each spring, following the smell of the chives, hoping to uncover how it all works.  Where do the earthworms go when the thistle drops its head and the ice returns, first thin and white as powder sugar, than thicker and grayer toward the morose stretch of February?

____________

My mother has a rage that runs deep, a sadness that is darker than all the long nights of winter.  We children are what constrain her, what contain her and pull at her to rise each morning and try again.  We did not ask for the burden; she did not ask for her pain.  She erupts at times, when she is at her limit, and there is no creature that could barrel out of the shadow of the woods that would be any more terrifying.  The boar and the bear would fall back before her and, glancing around her, design their escape.

  ____________

When a parent dies, they leave a child.  The age of the child does not matter.  When my father died, his son had as much grey hair as he had brown.  In the wake of his passing, childhood has been opened again.  I thought I knew my past.  But the youth I thought I knew was merely one edit.  The original cannot be altered, merely viewed at different intervals, seen in another way by eyes that know more now than they did before.

____________

On a warm summer night in my thirty-ninth year, I lose myself in an argument.  This is not the soft rage I have known before, nor am I fueled by anger so much as fear.  We are two souls, deeply in love, but not seeing each other or hearing each other.  Blind and bitter and ugly, we are up the stairs and down the stairs.  We are on the bed and in the kitchen.  Words on words, voices climbing and falling, but never arriving.

Before this night, I have glanced around for something to throw, but I have never done it.  I have wanted to rend the air, but instead have gone away to cry, pleaded for pardon and hung my head in remorse the whole of the long, sad day to come.  It is never just my fault, but I imagine myself the keeper of the joy.  The impulse to cook, to keep things tidy, to find the wisdom and the humor in the things that go awry – these are a part of me, a magic that lets the boat rise with the storm.

On this night, this summer night, I pick something up and send it across the kitchen.  The noise is tremendous.  I pick up another thing and another, each missile thrown harder than the last.  Then he comes to me, startled from our strange spell, horrified by what I have become in this instant. I am horrified, as well, but surely breaking the silence is something.  Now the opening has been forced, we can work up and out of the hole.

I clean up my mess on my hands and knees, first with a little broom and dustpan, then with the vacuum.  I stop only to hold him because he is crying.  We are children parenting ourselves and our love.  He fears we cannot find our way back.  I think we’re halfway there.

As I have always done, I want to bring us back to safer ground.  I sent us into deeper shadows than we have probed before, but my wings are strong enough to carry us home.  And sure enough, we do find the healing words and though we will go to work the next day with a terrible weight, we will get lighter with each night’s sleep.  It is in us to keep loving, to keep the light.

The dent in the freezer door and the scratches on the floor remain.  No amount of regret can pop the steel or knit the finish on the tiles.  My rage left its traces on the surface of our life, but through it, the hearts beneath are stronger and closer.

____________

When there is too much happening inside – a terrible brew of sad thoughts, regrets, incomplete sentences, formless worries and dreams bent over on themselves – the explosion is the thing that must happen.  There is a better way, surely, and we hope never to see ourselves blow open that way again.  We will walk away the next time.  We will let our worries out in short, safe little puffs.

Since the night I went mad, I see my mother’s rages anew.  It is true, she could make a wild animal bolt when she lost it.  Now I know what her insides felt like. Before I only knew how she looked on the surface.  I knew the vein on her temple, the black cave of her mouth, the fire running over her cheeks and the white ice of her knuckles as her fist clutched the air.  She was alone with a despair that was killing her and this was the best she could manage.

In my thirty-ninth year I lost my father, which is a terrible thing.  Yet I have found something grave and golden, a lovely cold comfort.  I have found another well of compassion, deep waters connecting me to my mother.

____________

She never had to explain to me the thing about being quiet in the woods.  I knew it because she knew it.  We come out of the pines and pause at the edge of the pond. The banks are brown and muddy on this end.  We step close, but not too close.

The other end is called the deep end.  Its banks are not dark and soft; they are pebbled with light shale.  It is easy to scuttle forward on that end, to slide into the water.  I don’t know how deep the deep end is, but I feel a sort of terror about it and seldom walk around to that side.

If she and I are careful, we can lean forward, holding hands to help balance one another, and we can peer at the gentle blue of the winter sky, mirrored on the surface.  But we cannot lean in far enough to see each other glancing up at ourselves.  If we fell in, the mirror breaks open and the cold water pulls us under.