28 March 2010

Forsythia Promise

“Hello?” It was towards dawn, and the ring of the phone had awakened me from a deep sleep.
“Cathleen, it’s Rae,” the voice said, and I recognized her distinctive Carolina drawl and slow speech even before she’d said her name. I felt strangely lucid. It had been more than a year since we’d spoken. Last April, as the forsythia was fulfilling the promise of the end of winter, Rae had died. A lethal tumor had grown in her brain, metastasizing in her lungs, taking her quickly but not fast enough.

The last time I’d seen her, she’d looked grey and tired, but she was still herself. She had been my student – I was tutoring her privately, and although she was the same age as my mother, I considered her my friend. Less than a week later, as I eventually learned from her neighbor, she’d checked herself into the hospital. The following day she could no longer speak or walk. Her daughter had flown Rae to Santa Fe so she could die near family. I’d been left wondering what happened; it was so unlike Rae to forget anything, and when I’d shown up at her house to tutor her, I was shocked to find she wasn’t at home. And the next week when I returned, after leaving phone messages, I knew something was horribly wrong before I even knocked on the door. Peeking through the window, I saw the same scene as the previous week. She still wasn’t home, and obviously hadn’t been there since my last attempt to meet with her. It was completely out of character for her; she was punctual, organized, responsible, and considerate. Where could she have gone, I had wondered on my way home. It wasn’t until the third week, when I’d returned again, ever hopeful, that I’d thought to check with her neighbor.

“Rae, how are you?” I asked deliberately, certain I was dreaming.
“Good. Very good,” she replied, but I knew from the way she said it that she was still dead, and that this conversation was something she needed to do.
“Rae,” I said, still trying to convince myself that I was actually speaking to her by repeating her name. “What is it like where you are?”
Her breathing changed, becoming short and shallow, and she was softly weeping, trying hard not to make a sound.
“Beautiful,” she whispered. “It’s beautiful.”
I felt my own breath catch on her words, and I thought of family and how we rarely speak about what matters most.
“But, Rae, why are you calling me?” I asked. I didn’t understand why she’d chosen me, and why now, a year later as the forsythia glowed yellow again. “Why didn’t you call your family?”
“We can’t. It would be too difficult for them,” she whispered, abruptly composed and matter of fact. And then she was gone again, and I stood holding the phone a moment longer, wishing I could understand, and realizing again, I didn’t say goodbye.

20 March 2010

Carnitas Kid

She sits across from me in the Mexican taco shop, eyes full of anticipation for the meal she believes herself brave enough to try. Our number, yelled from behind the counter, prompts her father to retrieve our order: fish tacos for me, carne asada torta for him, a bean and cheese burrito for the younger sister, and a carnitas taco for her. One glance at the taco, and she knows, and I know, that she won’t eat it. Two corn tortillas sit, covered with shredded carnitas, that much she expected. It’s the slather of guacamole topped with pico de gallo that causes her eyes to brim with tears.
I understand this, this mixing of food groups and expectations. And inside myself I feel the same fear of the unknown, the same this-is-not-what-I-bargained-for despair rising, her eyes pleading with me, “please, please, please don’t make me eat this.” At one time, for me too, the food groups were sacred, meant not to be mixed. How many meals I picked at, not wanting to soil my tongue with disparate flavors and textures at once.
For me, the hardest part of parenting is seeing my own weaknesses, my own struggles, my own failures bloom again inside my children. I thought I’d conquered these! And yet, here they are, facing me full on, and not only do I have to shoulder them again for myself, but I have to find the courage to muster her strength, so that she can bear them herself. Tears now slide over the dam.
I’ll be honest. She and I don’t always get along. It’s hard to see those traits that I don’t particularly like in myself manifest in my children. It’s especially difficult when I’ve tried hard to mask them, to grow beyond them, to bury them deep. The traits, that is. Not the children.
Insecurity, lack of confidence, a wish to become invisible at times so I wouldn’t be noticed, an inability to speak up, struggles with grasping mathematical concepts, difficulty making and keeping friends… these are all things I tried to jettison from my own life. Yet they surface again and again in my own life. And these unsinkable buoys are now tethered to her and don’t allow her to swim freely and hold her to the dark waters that can be adolescence.
I see now that these dark waters pepper the length of our lives, and it is possible to navigate through them, beyond them. But when she’s in the midst of them, my maternal advice rings hollow.

A few days later, the car bumps, jolts, picks its way deliberately over a 4WD jeep road up to the Calcite Mine in Anza-Borrego State Park. From my vantage in the front seat, I am nervous but not scared. My dad took my over dozens of roads like this one, or worse, throughout my childhood. I do not see her in the back-back seat, alone, clutching her stuffed panda, eyes alternating between bugging out and squenched shut.
When we arrive at a wide spot in the road, we decide to park and hike the rest of the way to the mine. When we get there, I notice she’s in tears and terrified of the drive back. I offer to walk the road with her while the rest of the group surveys the mine.
We head back toward the main road, walking at a good clip and holding hands. Words bubble forth from her, this taciturn-at-times, only-a-week-shy-of-being-a-ten-year-old girl. I’ve felt that she’s usually only taciturn with me, and this pains me too. But then I recognize that it’s not me, it’s my own insecurity buoy popping up, and sometimes she just doesn’t feel like talking.
We walk on, stopping only to look at the distance we’ve covered since leaving the car, and once to inspect up close the flame-red buds on an ocotillo whose arm waves right at eye-level. We’ve gone a fair way (the road in was a long 1.7 miles) when we notice the car is turning around. It’s at this point that she really starts to haul. She really doesn’t want to get back in that car, not on this road. And I don’t want to either, because at this point, if feels more like I’m walking with a friend than a daughter. The conversation flows easily, especially from her, and I like hearing her talk and express herself. And she keeps grabbing my hand.
Finally, the car catches up to us, but by this point, we’re only about a quarter of a mile from the main road. We climb in, welcoming the air conditioning and the shade.

Afterward, we visit Los Jilbertos again, but this time when she orders the carnitas taco, she remembers to ask for it plain, and she eats it all with a smile on her face. And late that afternoon as she bobs up and down in the pool, the sunlight and water amplify the happiness that glows from her tan face, my carnitas kid.

14 March 2010

Why I read

It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. – James Baldwin

My freshman year of college I was a tormented soul. Somehow I had come to inhabit a place of deep darkness and I wasn’t really sure how I came to be there, and I certainly couldn’t seem to find my way out. And then in the spring, I met James Baldwin. Not literally. But through his short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” which is to this day still my all-time favorite short story.
(You can read it online here.) Although the characters in this story, two black brothers living in Harlem, had nothing to do with me, their struggles and experiences resonated deep within my soul. Somehow, I felt less alone in the world. That these two brothers might, after all their personal struggles, still find love and peace and happiness made my own struggles seem worthwhile and even possibly surmountable.

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis were two other books I read that year, with obvious parallels to my own life even just from the titles. Through books, stories, poems, I found pain and struggle, torment and oppression, and yet there was also beauty. A glimmer, a spark was somehow guiding me out of the darkness. In sharing stories, fiction or not, we inspire, grieve, break and mend hearts, live and die.

I’ve found many other books that have buoyed me even when I was in the midst of much happiness. Some favorites include:

Albom: Tuesdays with Morrie
Foer: Everything is Illuminated; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Kingsolver: The Bean Trees; Animal Dreams
Krakauer: Into the Wild
Martel: Life of Pi
McBride: The Color of Water
McCourt: Angela’s Ashes
Morrison: Beloved
Oates: We were the Mulvaneys
Ondaatje: The English Patient
Proulx: Accordion Dreams
Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
Sebold: The Lovely Bones
Stegner: Angle of Repose
Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
Zusak: The Book Thief

And I suppose that the reason I write is to connect with others as well. Writing and reading are both solitary acts. The author writes alone, the reader reads alone – usually. And yet writer and reader are intimately connected through the work itself. It has been gratifying for me as a writer to have a reader tell me that I expressed something they felt but could not quite articulate. That moves me to write more, to write better, and to find more stories to tell.

What stories have touched you?

07 March 2010

Weekend with Frank

As Louise drove her tan Oldsmobile, she glanced at the stack of student papers she was bringing home to grade. The essays, each set in a class folder, were alphabetized and awaiting her red pencil. In the rearview mirror she saw Jo waving, and then turning off onto her street. Louise chuckled.
“Louise, you’ll never believe what I just saw. Frank pulled a little box out of his pocket, opened it and elbowed Jimmy Villaborghe. Jimmy said, ‘Well, Frank, Louise is a damn good catch. And you deserve her.’ I saw it with my own two eyes in the teachers’ lounge while I was copying spelling packets for Monday,” Jo had said just five minutes earlier as they’d walked toward their cars in the parking lot.
Frank’s wife had died five years ago, and in spite of this great loss, Frank had remained steady, strong, and serene. He never once seemed to falter, even after the football team crumbled during the state championship one month later. Unflappable. That was the word for Frank. Well, that and handsome.
And how long had she waited? Two decades. Not for Frank, but for any man, really. For any man to come and take her out, to kiss her hard on the lips, to go on picnics where they could lay side by side. At the next red light Louise practiced looking seductive in the rearview mirror. None of the faces she made managed to look anything like Kim Basinger. She supposed, though, that it didn’t really matter if Frank did really like her.
Pulling into her driveway, Louise honked. Mr. Chan, her fat Siamese, sat in the middle of the drive, licking himself. He glanced up, blinked, and went right back to licking. Louise put the Olds in park and got out of the car. She bent to hitch up her knee-highs, then smoothed her calico-print dress over her poochy belly.
“Now, Mr. Chan, Mommy’s home. Time to scoot.” She approached him and again, he glanced up, blinked, and went right back to licking.
“Mr. Chan, you know better. Stop that licking and get out of the drive. You remember what Dr. Heiden said. You’re going to lick yourself raw again.”
As soon as she was close enough to grab Mr. Chan, he rolled himself up into a standing position and took a few tentative steps and then lay back down and began to lick again.
“Come on, now, Mr. Chan. You know Mommy can’t get the car into the carport if you’re there.” Clapping, she walked a few paces toward him again. This time he snapped up and trotted toward the front door, settling to lick onto the stoop.
Louise settled into her teal armchair. The folders of essays waited on the end table, under the remote. The tv blared. A bowl of Campbell’s chicken noodle steamed on the tv tray in front of her. Mr. Chan meowed loudly in the kitchen.
“Mr. Chan, you’ve already eaten. You know Mommy gets to eat dinner now. Come out here and keep me company.”
Louise slurped her soup directly from the bowl, pinkies raised. She inhaled the steam from the bowl and placed the bowl back on the tray. She wondered if Frank liked Campbell’s soup as much as she did. Clicking the tv off, Louise rested her head back and closed her eyes. She wondered what else Frank liked. She thought about him, the two of them teaching at the same school for seventeen years. He always was so polite, holding a door for her, calling her Miss Barnum in front of the students.
She imagined him walking through the door at that moment, and undid one button on her dress. He leaned down to kiss her, caressing her neck. What would that moustache feel like? Would it tickle or scratch? Then his hands were in her lap, and she opened her eyes to watch his hands reveal a ring.
“Would you, Louise?” His white teeth shone.
Mr. Chan pounced on Louise’s lap, breaking her reverie and jostling the soup bowl on the tv tray.
“Oh, Mr. Chan, how could you? I was just getting ready to accept Frank’s proposal!”
Mr. Chan meowed and pawed at the slip on the chair of the arm. Louise picked up her red pencil and the first stack of essays from the end table.
Louise picked up the phone and speed dialed Jo. Jo didn’t answer, and Louise remembered her saying she was going to the movies. Hanging up the phone, Louise looked again at the stack of papers in her lap.
If it was true, if Frank really did love her…
The ceremony, of course, would be simple. Maybe they could even get married in the multi-purpose room at school. Streamers in Ranger Red and Blue hanging from the ceiling. And any florist could probably dye carnations in the same colors for the centerpieces. The school band could play the wedding march, and maybe one of those girls with such angelic voices could sing that Whitney Houston song, “I Will Always Love you.”
And Frank, waiting for her to walk down the aisle, wore the navy sport coat and beige slacks that he usually reserved for graduation, the sport coat emphasizing his wide shoulders. Oh how she longed to dance with her arms around those shoulders.
By the next morning Louise had planned the reception and the honeymoon. Cake and punch, with the special heart-shaped ice molds that she’d seen years ago in a magazine. Then they could drive up to Las Vegas for the honeymoon and stay in a suite one of the smaller motel casinos off the Strip. She was sure they’d be able to afford that on two teachers’ salaries.
And after the wedding festivities were over, they’d certainly sell her house, she inherited it from her mother and really, it wasn’t Frank’s style. She imagined unpacking the wedding china and organizing the stacks of plates, bowls, and saucers into the cabinets. Frank’s house probably had cabinets made of real wood, maybe white-washed oak even. She wondered what she should get him for a wedding gift. Maybe a nice set of monogrammed bathrobes for the two of them. They could lounge in them with nothing underneath on weekend mornings. She wondered how hairy his chest was, if the hair there was the same distinguished salt and pepper, and what it would feel like.
Sunday evening came and still the papers hadn’t been graded. Louise had tried, but she just couldn’t concentrate. She never thought happiness would make her job more difficult, and yet here she was, catching herself reading the same paragraph for the third time, with a smile on her face and Frank’s moustache moving towards her mouth. Mr. Chan often sensed these daydreams and interrupted them with loud mewing or an attention-seeking nudge.
As she opened a can of Campbell’s cream of broccoli, her usual Sunday evening meal, she thought of buying the larger size cans of soup once she and Frank were married. She wondered if the cream of broccoli came in the larger size. Oh, how she hoped he loved soup. The phone rang.
“Louise, it’s Jo. You’ll never believe what I just saw. Louise Larsen brought Frank DiCiccio to church today. He proposed to her! And I thought he was talking about you when I’d seen him on Friday. They are both just beaming. And they’re going to get married right away, probably before the end of the month. To think I thought he was talking about you.”
Louise swayed, but her sturdy legs held steady. She endured Jo’s cackle two more times before she somehow ending the call. She had never noticed how every conversation with Jo started with ‘You’ll never believe what I just saw.’