January 16, 2021

Peppermint Tea

Remembrance of things past is not necessarily remembrance of things as they were.
Marcel Proust

          I got a huge bottle of Halston 1-12 on eBay for ten bucks and free shipping but it didn't quite remind me of getting ready to go out in Philadelphia in 1984, but Celestial Seasonings Peppermint Teaeven as I am opening the box, which hasn't changed in 40 years—is able to put me right back into the pyramid at the top of the Chelsea Hotel sometime in the 1970s. This sensory umbilical cord has never weakened, much less been severed. It persists, powerfully, to this day. Like C.S. Lewis' wardrobe, there is always an exciting trip waiting inside.
          I don't remember how old I was, or when it was that we went to New York, or how many times we went (I think it was more than once). I just remember that I was a teenager, that Amtrak was so crowded we had to stand the whole way from 30th Street Station in Philadelphiahow my mother bitched!—and that she was using a set of pink luggage.
          I remember the luggage because my brother said "Oh MOM! It's the color of PEPTO BISMOL!" Always the exaggeratedly queer inflection, a sort of mash-up of Phyllis Diller and Margo Channing.
          Actually, Tim Curry in Rocky Horror is spot on, as if he had modeled the manner of speaking on Bruce—which I have occasionally thought he did.
          I had no awareness that my brother had been briefly rather famous, or that he was interesting or even infamous, or that he was gay or talented or doomed. I thought the hotel was a little depressing, with heavy glass doors that didn't seem to match the architecture and frightening, glacially delayed elevators. I must have been in something like 9th or maybe 10th grade (or was I even younger?), and all I thought about was God and sex. I knew that Bruce knew this, somehow, and I avoided him.
          I had no interest in New York City, or my family, just like kids today occupy only their own sphere of interests. Nothing about childhood has changed; it's only us that have changed.
          Down on the street, I was faced with newsstands full of pornography, and from choices like Blueboy and Mandate I chose Honcho (it seemed the dirtiest) and ran up the stairs of the pyramid with the magazine tucked into my shirt as my mother called after me. I shoved it under the mattress on the floor all the way at the top (you reached it by climbing a short ladder) where I was to sleep that night. I wonder if Bruce found it after we left.
          Bruce used to drop his tuxedo cat "Chaplin" from the top of the pyramid to the bottom; apparently the cat loved this. He cradled Chaplin in his arms and blew onto his belly—again, another ritual enjoyed by both. Chaplin ate only cottage cheese and Brewer's yeast powder, and after Bruce died and my mother started getting ill Gary and I took him to live with us in Washington DC. He lived to 20.
          These are stories of the family that wasn't able to engage my attention when I was 10 or 14 or 16, or something. There are many more. But my family was all gone by the time I was 42. They were all selfish and flamboyant and alcoholic, and, unsurprisingly, my genes don't work in my favor in a small Maine town—or anywhere, really, and I've come to prize the steadiness of the personalities that surround me as if it was an art.
          And today I am nursing my hangover with peppermint tea, and I am back in that big room. 
          One big room. It felt colossal, and white—all white—with the bank of three arched windows like a theater box that looked down on West 23rd Street. The ceilingif there was one—I don't remember one—seemed remote as the heavens. At one end of the room a white chair and matching love seat formed an el, surrounded by nothing. It was terribly spacious. 
          I guess Bruce had no ginger ale or coffee, and so I had my first cup of this stuff that smelled so exotic, the large tea bag like an area rug at the bottom of the small cup. Of course, I hated it. Like his baked peaches with—I don't know what was on top. My mother winked slightly at me as if to say "Eat it and be nice." 
          From another spot upstairs you looked out on the Hudson River. I stood there for a few minutes. Downstairs, Bruce pinched my mother's ass or something and I heard her sayin her somewhat masculine voice she reserved for anger, yet not without a trace of being slightly pleased—"Bruce! I'm your MOTHER!" He enjoyed breaking taboos. 
          Their relationship had been complicated and intense. He was about 14 when my mother left the family and moved in with my father. Bruce's father remarried quickly—the piano teacher!—and Helen told me Bruce idolized his mother: "He thought she was so beautiful." They took a painting class together (my uncle in Maine also took a painting class about the same time; what was it about painting classes in the early 1960s?) and clowned for photographs on the beach. They were friends.
          On one of my trips to Pennsylvania in the 1990s my mother and I went to pick up a large trunk of Mr. Campbell's photographs and memorabilia from down in the rec room (I remember Helen's free weights—free weights at 70!), and when we got it back to my mother's apartment we found a bunch of snapshots, bound together in those yellow Kodak booklets, taken during one of the family's vacations at Beech Hill Pond. In the picture, Bruce is very young, wading in the shallow water as his mother sits on the rocks with her legs pulled up to her chest. She is all in white—white Keds, white shorts, and a simple white pullover—relaxed and looking at her golden boy standing in the lake. The photo was luminous and posed like a Vermeer—instantly frameable, unforgettable.
          After casually flipping through one of the booklets of pictures, my mother asked me to take them all back to DC with me. Because it was not (exactly) my family, not my vacation, not even my lifetime, I left them with her. She gave them to her oldest son and they were stolen from his car before dawn one winter morning as it was parked on a Philadelphia street.
          So these trips back have their value, not advertised on the box. Celestial Seasonings, the hippie tea my brother served me in some big city that didn't make much of an impression on me (the copy of Honcho was just burly guys in leather—never my thing).
          How mundane yet elegiac, our memories.

July 8, 2020

The Yard in Summer

          Just outside the window, in the absolute last light of the July day, in which objects are visible but monochromatic, like a graphite sketch, the heads of the fleabane swayed drowsily in the breeze. I paused my episode of "The Crown" and ran outside to walk around in the chalky remnants of what had been a brilliant yet cool day. By the time I walked back inside, covered in mosquito bites, night had fallen.
          All day I had wrestled buttercup roots from the ground and carried armfuls of 6-foot valerian to the dump, sidestepping stands of peppermint but bruising the knapweed. When I was skinny, and 24, and living in tiny apartments in big cities, I collected used books on wildflowers, looking at the drawings like you'd stare at a pretty word of a foreign language. Now I'm fat as a Buddha, crawling on my hands and knees to pull torpedo grass out of the iris beds, and my yard is overrun with wildflowers—crowding the embankment behind the garage, swallowing the $14.99 perennials from Home Depot, choking off the junipers and boxwood, and generally making a mockery of the prissy astilbes and peonies. Only the wild ferns and the rugosa—so rugged and ubiquitous here on the Maine coast—can hold their own in a patch of Dame's Rocket. 
          Contrapuntal, the different wildflowers swelled and decayed through May and June—themes within a seasonal fugue: first the blue starflower, then the delicate webs of Forget-Me-Nots like the veils of a stylish hat, then mounds of pink or yellow anemone, the sturdy towers of lupine the color of Welch's grape jelly, and then the riot of Oxeye daisies. I couldn't keep ahead of it, and, instead, I tried to take photos of the crowded flowers in the sun—always disappointed with the electronic images I got.
          Under the noontime sun, the plants give off a heady aroma when broken or crushed underfoot—herbaceous, vaguely sexual, something like the stuff in those necklaces Minnie Castevet had in "Rosemary's Baby." The smell makes you stop for a minute—think about things that aren't really appropriate for your age: certain city memories of Sunday mornings in somebody else's apartment, a stranger's records playing, the furtive little adventures of one's twenties, being surprised at the end of a long party by the person who'd ignored you all night ... being surprised at all, by anything, anymore.
          Then those thoughts pass, and you're up to your elbows in composted manure. The sun moves out from behind the enormous White Pine and the bee balm simply bake, stretching their stalks up like a cat's neck being scratched. Tireless, constantly dangling, the bumble bees have their work ethic. You could make tea from the water that pools in the garden hose.
          With the first drink of the evening we wait for hummingbirds. I lean on the deck rail with a sweating glass of cold white wine, waiting for that mechanical whir when a bird circles my head or pauses midair in front of me in a kind of cheerful yet slightly hysterical—and always briefgreeting. The sound is like a tiny box fan on low. 
          Below us, an enormous embankment of yellow loosestrife grows unchecked.
          There is nothing I can do. I can't keep ahead of it all. Our yard is wild. And, I thinkdropping my hoedag on the floor of the shed in profound exhaustion, smelling like citronella and perspiration, my tube socks caked with dirtthat suits me just fine.

June 4, 2020

Memories of You

          You shaved at your kitchen sink and showered in a closet in your bedroom.
          You looked so good in a robin's egg blue dress shirt that I would steal glimpses of you in all those second-hand book shops and think—long before it was legalmy husband.
          Whatever happened to those paper umbrellas you had on the ceiling lights?
          In the cool spring evenings you played Gershwin, and I stared out the window at the old iron gates across Hanover Street.
          I had no idea where they werewhere I wasin that tiny apartment with the emerald green wooden wheelbarrow next to the toilet. The steps to your door—a short flight, then a long, and then a narrow passageway I forgetturned so many times I lost my bearings.
          Which gave those long Boston weekends their quality of fantasy. The little shops in the North End that sold just one thing. The tiny restaurants with their fronts open to the street, only a handful of tables inside. Walking to Cambridge Saturday morning after sex and raisin toast and more sex.
          But I cried one Sunday night when it was time to catch the trainthe kind of tears that come like a bloody nose, or jury duty—no warning. I just started to cry into the kitchen wall, as if turning to sneeze or take a book off a shelf.
          I didn't want to leave the little rooms with the carousel horse and the glass towel bars that made a prism of the window light and the arguments in Italian coming up from the streetthe plaster chest with the Mardi Gras beads, or the plastic toilet filled with change.
          Remember your houndstooth phase?
          That T-shirt you left didn't keep your scent long enough. 
          One time my phone bill was over $200. You'd fall asleep and I had to wake you up to hang up. Then I'd smoke for several more hours, alone.
          It all came to a head our first Easter—your mania to make a basket to send to Hans. I still have the little wooden chicks in a basket you gave me, a powerful token. The stores with the neon signs sold bread with pink and turquoise eggs on top, windows full of marzipan, and little ricotta pies that made my jeans too tight, 30 years ago. 
          My boss said: Do you know how lucky you are?
          You were like color TV.
          Memories of you!
          

March 24, 2020

A Stranger's Grave

          Our plot was past where the macadam turned into two dirt ruts. My grandmother pulled off onto a grassy spot between two septuagenarian maples, leaving the Buick staring ahead at the frightening concrete reservoir my grandmother told me never to climb.
          Obscuring the sky, its dome rose like a cracked concrete circus tent at the southeast corner of the cemetery. Nearby, empty paper maiche baskets the color of brains were piled like fallen soldiers on the ground.
          In her dark Wayfarers, my grandmother attended the graves, bending sadly. 
          Although not architectural, our markerZeck, Fogle, Seaks—was a good size, and we had a nice population scattered in the plot. This added to the pleasure of my summers with my grandmother and her two sisters: we had a big house, a huge yard with every kind of fruit tree, a grape arbor and a fish pond, and a painted wooden glider with a canvas top that looked like a carriage from Oklahoma! On summer nights I pushed back and forth with my Aunt Ada as we watched lightning bugs. My family was not merely known but respected in the town.
          For three months out of an otherwise long, desperately unhappy year, I was the center of attention.
          Under the hot sun, my 10-year-old head cast a strong shadow on a marker that was familiar to me but unknown just the same. The stone had two lines: a name, CHARLES E. SEAKS, and, below that, a year of death, 1918. But both were too low on the polished face of the granite. A first line had been inscribed above the name, then—evidently—scratched or blasted away.
          At 10, I wasn't really dwelling on the fact that it had said Husband. But on this day, while my grandmother was looking down at another stone, her back turned to me, I asked.
          She must have turned around. I don't really remember where her voice was coming from. But she said "Charlie was my first husband, Billy."
          Above, one of the old maples shimmered in a brief wind.


* * *

          At 73, any worldliness my grandmother might have enjoyed had been set aside. She was still mourning the death of my father—her sometimes brilliant, profoundly bipolar only child—at age 33 ("The same age as Christ," she reminded everyone). Grief was in the air. There were Bible readings around the kitchen table at 5:00 every evening, and before bed we knelt—together—to recite the Lord's Prayer and the Nicene Creed. From the bedroom across the hall, Aunt Ada's voice quietly joined ours.
          My family's stories were carefully handed down to me, heavily edited.
          Once, while she was dusting the stairway banister, my grandmother responded to one of my questions about my father by saying "Billy, do you know what a homosexual is?" I dodged out of the topic, and she never finished.
          Sometimes I would stand behind her chair and brush her hair. She'd let me cover her cheeks with rouge and draw lipstick on her as she tried not to laugh. 
          I think I wanted to see them as they had been—before their peep-toe platform pumps and crocodile handbags started their long sleep in crowded bedroom closets of old coats and fox fur collars with little heads and jewel eyes. Stacked on shelves were hat boxes the size of breakfast tables and shoe boxes with names like Air Step and Caressa. On the dressing table mirror were hat pins with milky pearl ends and beveled glass atomizers. 
          Inside my grandmother's music case I had seen some of the old lithograph Verdi and Schubert song scores signed "Effie Seaks," but I still wasn't letting myself think about that. Besides, all her calfskin luggage on the attic was marked "EMF." She was the proudest—and, likely, the best—Fogle there was.  The thought of my grandfather as a consolation—rather than a manifest destiny, a (necessarily) reproductive calling, an only love—seemed selfish, and a bit sneaky.
          Not much more was ever said about Charlie Seaksthat summer or for the rest of my childhood. The marriage had lasted only a year. He was a nice guy—a description that seemed platitudinous and dismissive compared to what she said about my grandfather; thus I wasn't bothered by thoughts of my grandmother as experienced in anything other than baking or as a sort of layman physician—"Nurse Enquirer" as my grandfather called her because of her habit of reading the medical column of the Philadelphia Enquirer. 
          In fact, it wasn't too long ago that I realized Charlie Seaks had died, at age 34, in the 1918 influenza pandemic.
          Lately, my thoughts return to that cemetery often.

         

December 29, 2019

The Text

          It came in with two others, and I almost overlooked it. No name, just the number.
          Merry Christmas Bill.
          I recognized the area code—Philadelphia, King of Prussia, Norristown. This person knew me, all right. I replied politely, a little delighted with the mystery. I was like Bette Davis on "This Is Your Life," listening to the voice but not guessing the right name.
          Three hours later, the reply confirmed the game:
          I think we should Keep it a secret for a little while. Life offers so little mystery these days.
          The capitalized "K" is an easy enough mistake on the phone, but the statement about life seemed a little flabby for anyone I really loved. If anything, life was more mysterious at our age.
          Still, I was excited. I texted back some names, even mentioning that it could be my dead mother. I said I missed Pennsylvania.
          A little over an hour later:
          Do you? And of that fine group of possible well wishers, who do you miss the most? Excluding mother of course.
          Then, immediately after:
          And don't forget the possibility of my having moved from a different state Or perhaps even a different country! Remember?
          I sent another name just before bed. The reply came in 15 minutes: Or perhaps...?

* * *

          When I woke up at 2:00, I thought about how quickly I was ready to forgive Bob or Sara, or Jose. All that work I had done to nullify the excitement of those names, my longing for them simply to remember—so that I could exist. To be forgotten is the cruelest fate, to be put aside like a bad wine. My only dignity was in recognizing—fully acceptingthat I was not the defining, blazing memory that they were for me. Such understanding seemed the accomplishment of my years, tinged with Buddhism.
          I had been a chocolate confection, tasted and put back in the wrapper without embarrassment. The stories of their lives had been recast, diverted around me like a traffic bypass. 
          Now the mystery texter was making an absolute fool of me. The size of my need for those old people—one wrinkled by too much sunny California tennis, the others consumed by their careers, tone-deaf and strident, wealthy and slim—is incalculable and beyond my manipulation. One word and my heart is back in the bucket.
          Such is the biography of lust, I guess. They listened, too, but not for long. By the time Gary came along, I had largely stopped talking—knowing, finally, that good sex just doesn't buy you all the pre-dawn conversations I needed. No one can make it better.
          The fact is there is plenty of mystery, and danger, and humiliation, left in life.
          And of that fine group of possible well wishers, who do you miss the most? 
          In the texter's question, the power is suddenly inverted. I am asked to choose from among old loves who would never choose me, faces that have peopled my dreams for 30 years. In every one, the behaviors and outcomes are the same, locked into place by memory, the subconscious heating up like a reel-to-reel film projector that stays depressingly on script.
          I can't read the boxes of old diaries I kept, filled with cards from bars and slips of paper with phone numbers and names I can't remember. I made lists of food, the money I spent, how many cigarettes I smoked, where I spent the night. It's too real.
          Perhaps I am a curator of stultified memories, like a person who hums a tune imperceptibly altered, remembered forever—incorrectly.
          This morning the texts have stopped. I looked up the number and found it's someone in Reading, PA.
          Just a wrong number.

November 10, 2019

New Kitten

Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.
—C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
          
          In the dark room, a game commences. One sound is dull and brief: it is a book hitting the floor. A jug of lotion is louder, as it is (finally, successfully) toppled. Papers cascadelike a deck of cards being shuffledunder the pink pads of the kitten's paws as she grips some kind of starting line on the top of my desk. A couple of pieces of art deco pottery I somehow overlooked when I was taking everything out of the room yesterday have a sharp report as they are rearranged, in the darkness—and I am on my feet, cursing.
          Two tall, matching glass lamps on the nightstands will have to go.
          Twenty minutes later we are together with my book. She looks up at the pages approvingly from my armpit. Her purr is unexpectedly baritone for such a tiny creature, and it continues even when she sleeps—with her sturdy tail wound around her body like a spool, its dot of white paint at the very tip hidden beneath her.
          At feeding time I watch Gary's face as the kitten festinates about the room: he is in love. But I am not. Exactly two weeks ago I covered the space between my old cat's ears with kisses even after the injection had done its work. I left the room craning my head backward to the stainless steel table where she layin a strange blanket. I stepped outside into the lush fall morning and wailed into Gary's arms with a voice that didn't seem my own, despite all of my comic mimicry, my drunken singing in the kitchen. I had never heard my throat sound like that—as sudden and embarrassing as vomiting.
          That was love.
          This kitten is life, in all its abundant, metabolic banality.
          And now she is bouncing herself against the bedroom door like a calico tennis ball. She seems to have a bat's wings, when she appears from somewhere below the foot of the bed, her paws spread like a lab frog, her eyes like two olive-green saucers. Ten times a night I decline the offer of her butt, presented below a tail raised like a mainsail as she strolls between me and my book. No, thank you.
          The next day I scroll through my photos for the final picture I took of Bit. When I find it, I'm disappointed—she's just on one corner of the bed, cleaning herself. An excessively ordinary moment. I took photos of her every night, in DC, when she would stand like a striped amphora on my mother's dresser, clearly guarding me against bad dreams, leaving me water bugs and mice, teaching me self-respect. 
          That mesmerizing poise came at a high cost: she was too wild and frightened to be held, and her fear was bottomless and ugly when she'd dart in front of you, trying to escape but only becoming more entangled with your legs. Whatever early trauma she sufferedwhenever it occurred, defined her. Yet its temporary passing—moments of security when her neck was being held down and groomed by Frannie or Holden, or when she sat on the toilet lid on a sort of proud, preoccupied sentry duty as I took a bath—was as ravishing as the slow movements of old music.
          She didn't wear her heart on her sleeve, like this kitten—hardly the size of a paperback, already a competent snuggler.
          Bit accompanied mevery much my own cat, a true friend, as it turned outfrom my 46th year until my 60th. I am unexpectedly diminished without her silhouette on a piece of furniture, watching me like a soft grey bowling pin as I struggle to sleep.
          We sign our names again and again in the sand. Each morning requires of us some kind of unbiased, raw energy that becomes harder to muster. Memory is cheap.
          A vertical bar of light forms along the edge of the black-out shades. The kitten is still asleep, but the laces of all my shoes are frayed.
          

August 8, 2019

At the Optometrist’s

          I wrapped both pairs of my glasses up in a dirty blue bandanna. When I got down the hill to the optometrists office I just handed the bulky cloth to the lady.
          She relocated here from Washington, too. 
          What is your age?
          “Iamsixty.” I spaced the words out like the granite boulders along the carriage roads in the park.
          “I will be, too, next year!
          She seemed too old to be living with her parents. She was smiley but unstable—a cat on a bookshelf. I could picture her screaming, easily. But I liked how she said “I love the Maine winters.
          That's the thing nobody tells you about up hereit only gets better after the tourists leave. Winter is a hardship only in the sense that needlework, or Dostoevsky, is a hardship. Each storm is different from the last one, like the first page of a very good book.
          I was dilated and had to sit for 10 minutes. The doctor told me to relax. He said it twice, as if to make a point. I stared at the striped carpet squares, like giant Neapolitan coconut candies, each turned a different direction from its neighbor. The wall color was under-ripe banana, and the dark vinyl cove molding was like pen underlining done with a ruler. 
          The exam room door was open. I could hear the interviews.
          The first was a young male contact lens client. A lady told him only to wear them for four hours, to lubricate his eyes before a nap, not to shower with them in, never to sleep with them in, absolutely never to rub his eyes with them in (the lens will just absorb certain fats and solvents), and to call if his vision seems worse.
          I had stopped relaxing. I was physically cringing at what this boy would do not to be seen in glasses frames—such an aphrodisiac for me. The powerful eroticism of nerds! Gregory Peck in  “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Garys right index finger holding back the pages of a book.
          The next thing I heard was an older man interacting with the doctor.
           “Which is better: A ... or B?
          I recognized in his replies my own refusal to simplify. After all, my life hadn't been simple. Why should I serve up something cleansed of the difficulty of its birth, finally resolved—thoroughly comprehended, after such struggle, accepted—bluntly binary.
           “B is a little bit better than A, but I wouldnt say it’s a vast improvement.
          Good for you!faceless voice from the next room.
          This moment is now, this rectangular room with its soft yellow orbs of examination equipment lights, and I am the man bringing his glasses to the office in an old bandanna, my blood sugar eroding my retinas, my memories of my mother—younger than me, now.
          Life was a bell curve, and somewhere around 34 or 35—when I was still hiking the mountains in Acadia, still buying things because I was afraid I couldnt be myself without them, still smoking on the back porch—I started heading back to the x axis.
          It’s a lot of experience. But I’m afraid it doesnt do much good.
          The doctor came back into the room, and we talked about having my other eye done, and I said “Forget it.”
          “You're lucky its overcast—a good day to have your eyes dilated.”
          Jay-walking across Hancock and Elm Street I had to hurry to avoid a fast blue Subaru. I thought, God, it can't be Eleanor—but it was. She flew into her driveway, jumped out of the car and waved at me enthusiastically ... slim and tall like a model, her back still straight, the bones of her face perfect like Katharine Hepburns, and her silver hair carefully and tastefully arranged.
          Shes 94.
          I took Elm Street hill slowly. 
          I need to find an excuse to drop in on Eleanor again. She sees things quite clearly.