Posts tagged tuesday
Posts tagged tuesday
I didn’t realize how late we were out until we went to the 24-hour McDonald’s to get fries and found them closed, in the middle of their half-hour changeover period from lunch/dinner to breakfast. It happens every morning at 4 a.m. Leila giggled. “Well, shit,” she said. “I would say let’s go home, but at this point we might as well just stay up until sunrise.” We sat down on the shallow curb in front of the McDonald’s to wait. Hash browns now instead of fries, I guessed. Leila plucked two cigarettes out of the pack in her purse and handed one to Jonathan, and I watched them smoke, the acrid vapors twisting into the black-blue night above us.
It was four nights after graduation. My parents thought I was at Leila’s, Leila’s parents were in Chicago visiting family, and Jonathan’s parents never investigated his whereabouts too closely. We had used up half a tank of gas this night alone. It was supposed to have been a last grand hurrah, but things had kept going wrong. Our favorite park turned out to be actually guarded by police at night. The pool in Jonathan’s friend’s apartment was too cold to swim in. His friend’s older brother had sold him half a fifth of vodka at an extravagantly inflated price, but I couldn’t drink, it being my car.
Now Jonathan and Leila were lighting their second cigarettes and touching each others’ shoulders. Their knees were resting against one another and they were laughing. Inside the McDonald’s, the workers looked at us, hostile and bored. I supposed we were the worst kinds of customers. Tipsy underage kids secure in our belief that the world was an enormous joke and that nothing could reach us to hurt us in any lasting way.
The parking lot was empty and Leila and Jonathan were kissing each other, their hard and smoky teeth clicking in an uneven rhythm, their cigarettes burning into nothing on the cement. I looked into the place the sunrise would be and picked at my fingernails and hoped for something better.
My brother and I used to play this game we called Grocery Store. We would go to the pantry, which was one room away from the kitchen and living room area, and open the door. We would take out all the food and bring it to the living room and pile it up on the floor there. Piece by piece, can by can, corn by cereal by flour. Everything went, our small bodies back and forth. The batteries and the rubber bands. The boxed macaroni and the warm liters of diet soda. Everything, even the small bottle of fierce mustard, still unopened, that our mother bought in Germany years before either of us were born.
In the living room, we would sort it into arbitrary categories. They were different each time. By color or container, or by things that were good and things that weren’t. Then we would stand back to look at our handiwork. Next came shopping, which never lasted long. The fun was in the setting up and tearing down. This was the requirement: Mom would only let us play the game if we put everything back. But she lost out anyway in the end, because my memory was fleeting and my brother’s even more so, and the pantry was different after we had taken everything out and put it all back in. Differently ordered.
Grocery Store wasn’t that great by any measure of a game. No one won and the stakes were nonexistent. It was low on my mom’s favorites of ours, lower than board games and higher than Parade (the best game, wherein we walked like statesmen around the house banging together pots and pans with their lids). Looking back, I think it was a reflection of how bowled over I was by the magnitude of my world, how lucky we were. I mean, you laugh, but have you ever really thought about a suburban American grocery store? All that food, most of it cheap, right there, easy. And our pantry was the same. If anything, my game was a way to express my amazement at how remarkable it was, how incredible, the fact of such bounty.
The lights that illuminated the garden at night were mounted very near to the end of the garden, but not quite. Still ten or twenty yards of gravel path and fountain stretched beyond the place where the lights were mounted. That meant that when someone was walking toward the light, they could see nothing of those ten or twenty yards. They simply squinted and slowed their step, uncertain of what was beyond that blinding wall. If you were on the other side, however, looking out, you could see the whole of the garden, alternately shadowed and bright in the night. Like a two-way mirror. The best hiding place in the world.
One night I was walking in the garden and heard a woman’s voice, clear and low, coming from the shadowed end. Like others, I was not brave enough to walk right into light; I slowed, hesitated, stopped, started again until I had passed the place where the light was mounted and saw a silent audience of thirty listening to a pair of speakers mounted near the fountain. I sat down to listen to the rest of the show. The woman’s voice was quick and elegant, quintessential performance Italian, and I could only pick out a few words.
A few minutes later, David approached with a bag of dry laundry over his shoulder, squinting but not stopping like me. He took a moment to orient himself to see whatever was happening, and then he sat down beside me and folded his clothes while we heard what we could of the story. Undershirts, jeans, socks, l’uomo, la giardinia, la luce.
Sixteen years ago my grandmother stopped cooking. It used to be her passion. She worked as a librarian at the elementary school down the street for decades, and they would do different units every week. When they got to the food unit, she would stand up a little straighter, and at home, my mom told me, she’d be cheerful as sunflowers the whole week. She’d take so much time with every meal. From waking up early to make fresh biscuits in the morning to spending her lunch break sneaking out to the farmer’s market for fresh vegetables, food was everything to her.
And sixteen years ago she just stopped. Just like that. She started ordering cheap pizza a lot, stocked her fridge with microwave meals, and ate a lot of cold sandwiches. She started filling her grocery carts with the kinds of foods she used to snatch from the tiny hands of her junk-crazy children. Pop-Tarts, spicy chips, cheap ice cream. She ballooned with useless fat.
Sixteen years and nine months ago she cooked healthier than she had ever cooked before. It was a kind of revenge for her: you did this to herself, so I’m going to make you do it right. She pulled out her old nutrition books and set down two meals a day plus a packed lunch for my mom, crammed full of the vitamins and acids she needed. And even though there’s research saying that post-partum nutrition is also incredibly important to your health, she just stopped. When I happened she stopped.
We went to the beach in November to get away from Rachel’s ex and the crippling grey rain that had been a constant and unusual presence for the past two weeks. “We used to love just lying in bed and listening to the rain together,” she sighed to me more than once when we got to work in the morning. Her shoulders slumped in her sweaters and there were blue-brown circles under her eyes all the time. I wasn’t feeling so well either, tired and lonely with the scent of damp wool seeming to follow me everywhere. So we left.
The beach house belongs to my cousin George and his wife, and truth be told, even though he’d always told me I was welcome to stay in the off-season, I felt a little uncomfortable as I groped for the spare key under the empty flowerpot on the porch. We weren’t close, George and I, never had been. I’d been to the beach house a few times before, but had never considered renting it from him during the summer, even at the discounted rate he offered our family. I have no one with whom I’d want to share one bed and one bath for a steamy summer week.
Except, now, Rachel, I supposed. We stepped into the house. A few brightly colored cups lounged in the dishdrainer and the bed was made with less-than-perfect hospital corners, but otherwise it was just like walking into a rental home, albeit a tiny one.
“Let’s look around,” Rachel said. I let her do so. There really wasn’t much to explore.
Or so I thought until she came back with a battered, bursting shoebox. “Are these your old family photos?” Rachel asked, a trace of a smile on her face.
“Huh?” I peered into the box. It was crammed with pictures, none of which I recognized. “I guess they must be.”
“We should look at them,” she said. “There could be some really cool stuff in here.”
I glanced at the clock. It wasn’t even midnight yet, and I wasn’t tired, so, “Yeah,” I said. “Sure.”
We spread them out on the coffee table, and when that wasn’t big enough, we continued onto the floor. Old-fashioned women looked out at us from barbeques and Christmas dinners; once-young men smiled in school portraits; kids played in my great-grandmother’s backyard. Rachel asked me if I recognized anyone.
“Not really,” I said. An aunt here, my grandparents in a few places, and in a few places I thought I saw my parents. In one picture I was pretty sure my brother is there, as a baby. “I don’t know any of these people.”
“What if these two were married?” Rachel said, pushing together two images of a soldier and a prom queen.
“Mm, no, I don’t think so,” I said, grabbing another picture from the corner. “Here’s that same woman with another man.”
“Maybe it was an affair,” Rachel said. “Or maybe not.” She pulls the two pictures apart again. “Hey, what if this person was this person’s daughter?”
We stay up late like that, making up and breaking up love between strangers on the floor.
A few weekends ago we went to the Hendersonville Apple Festival, the largest apple festival in the state of North Carolina. The mountains rose blue and smooth in the distance, and I would later find a sunburn on my chest, creating two thin strips of pale skin under the lines of my tank top. Various community organizations collected five dollars’ parking fare in the blocks around the festival. We gave our money to Hendersonville Junior Basketball League, at the far end, where all the festival food was.
We went into the general store that Ben had loved when he was a little kid and browsed antique store displays from the sidewalk. I bought a chocolate cream-filled doughnut for eighty-five cents, and it was the best doughnut I had ever had. Ben had his camera out, snapping pictures in the perfect light, while I walked and exclaimed at every booth. I tried every apple product I could bear. Apple butter, fried apple pie, the most delicious pretzel with apple cinnamon bits embedded amidst the salt, and a quarter peck of fresh apples to take back to the tiny mountain cabin where we were staying.
Ben got a caramel apple as his only apple product of the day, a restraint that neither I nor my stomach could fathom. He’d walked past two caramel apple salesmen before he settled on one he felt looked right and cost an acceptable amount, three dollars.
“You know,” he said thoughtfully as we ambled, “I’ve never actually had a caramel apple.”
“What?” I laughed. “Why were you so insistent, then?”
“Dunno,” he said, gnawing at the caramel. “Just seemed right. Apple festival, I feel like you should get a caramel apple.”
We walked like that in the mountain sunlight and it was a brilliant, beautiful day.
Katherine looked around the station. The trains arrived and left in slow, loud movements, pulling and pushing like tides in the sea of chatter and potential pickpockets carpeting the building. Destinations flickered and disappeared on the screen. She felt dizzy, ill with excitement. The faces around her turned their eyes downward. Haggard shoulders, tired waists, legs lagging with cramping and age. She felt the red in her cheeks and the strength in her wrists more acutely than others.
It could be today. It could be this day, this day of sunlight and sharp cold and the lingering scent of flowers, day of worn flannel and bruises, morning sickness and unmade bed, crisp apple and wound-up nerves, day of low music. It could be today that the train would arrive and, prophetic, the screen would display, in yellow blocked letters, instead of an arrival or departure, a name.
People moved like pinballs around her, every man and woman and lost-eyed child bouncing from train to pillar to the wide bright outside world. And out of nowhere, with no pronouncement or warning, Katharine caught sight of him stepping off the train. His shoulders were alive and alert, his head turned looking for her. He had shaved and cut his hair. She couldn’t tell from this distance whether or how his hands, ears, calves, hips had changed – after this long, wasn’t that a possibility? Couldn’t it have happened, so easily, a shift of something vital in her absence?
He pulled his luggage off. She felt sick and shaky with joy, too shaky to move. She walked forward anyway.
Across from my boyfriend’s apartment complex there is an old folks’ home. From the front it’s mostly parking lot, a perfectly flat and empty expanse of white lines on grey, an unnaturally calm ocean with islands of pine needles and single trees. The home – the living community – is one story and made of brick. The largest island, flat and sad and low.
I drive to work from my boyfriend’s apartment complex. As I wait to turn right the pine needle islands in the parking lot are speckled with people in wheelchairs. Black, white, male, female. All ancient and watching. They never look at me or the other cars, or each other. They don’t talk. They could be dead but for the tiny tremblings of their hands – sitting there like bewildered stranded birds.
I think of this short story I read once, or maybe it was the beginning of a novel – that was it – about a guy who drove a van for an old folks’ home. He would pile them all into the back, like you see criminals in sci-fi movies, and take them to the beach or the park. I imagine these figures transposed onto the places from the excursions, looking exactly the same, hunched in their wheelchairs, squinting into the sun. Paper dolls you move from place to place.
The whole thing makes me afraid of growing old. But then again I have no idea what the world will be like when I’m seventy, eighty, ninety. Maybe old people will be farmed out to a separate world. Maybe gravity will be lighter there, and instead of being trapped in seats under skinny new trees, our frail bones will bounce and we will fly.
The morning after Henry left for college felt exactly the same as every other morning he had ever been gone. I’d expected it to feel different. The house emptier, the rooms more likely to echo, perhaps his bedroom reaching out to me like a ghost. But it was just like other mornings, when he’d spent the night at a friend’s house drinking Mountain Dew and playing video games until the sun came up. All I felt was the vague small worry in the back of my head that I’d learned to live with every night he was away, and over that, a deep relaxing freedom. I was alone. I could do anything.
I woke up and made myself breakfast. I went to the bank and the craft store. My plan was to turn Henry’s room into a studio. Get back into art again, after all these years. We’d joked about it – “as soon as you’re gone, I’m taking over!” I’d tell him every time I knocked on his door and found the space messy.
But now his room really was empty. I walked into the room, and it was bare. His bed was stripped of sheets, his closet mostly empty except for some heavy winter clothes. There were blank squares on the walls where his favorite posters used to be, outlined by photos of friends he didn’t talk to anymore and posters for movies he hadn’t seen in years – a record of him as he was when he ran out of space.
It didn’t take long to rearrange the furniture into an office arrangement, with the desk by the window and the bed turned into a daybed with a pastel sheet and throw pillows. I put my colored pencils on the desk. My brushes went into a chair. I hauled in my thick sheets of paper, freshly bought and creamy, and tucked them between the desk and the wall.
It was time to take down the pictures. And that was when I faltered. That was when it felt, for a moment, that I had lost the ability to breathe.
I took a deep breath and shook my head. The emptiness I had expected had come to me; I didn’t have to look for it any more. I turned towards the wall nearest to me and tore down pictures one by one, leaving tiny holes in the white paint as I worked.
The day they brought my sister home, the ground sparkled with petals. Hers would be a spring birthday. Later, I found out that she had been an accident, just like me. But at the time, my parents presented it as if they had planned her. They sat me down at the kitchen table after dinner and, hands held, told me they were pregnant.
That was actually the weirdest thing, that they said “we.” My response to this was, “Wait, well, Mom’s pregnant. To clarify.” And Dad shifted and said, “Sure, but we, you know, as a couple, together, we’re pregnant.”
After that I didn’t have much of a response. We sat for a few more minutes while they reassured me that I was still so important to them, and then I did my geometry homework.
They named her Elizabeth. My mom was carrying her when they got out of the car. Both of them looked exhausted, and suddenly I felt guilty for lounging in front of the TV and eating pie while they were at the hospital. The baby was asleep, crinkly and flushed. While my mother walked slowly inside, my father supporting her, a gust of wind swept through and brushed the petals from the trees. One landed on my baby sister’s forehead, white on red. I looked at her and had no idea what to feel.