January 24, 2024

First Month

Should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?
— Scottish folk song
          
          
          The ground is white. 
          It is luminous as a sheet drying on the line, the pockets of shadow cyanotic.
          The driveway shows through in charcoal patches, and the dog and I follow them like stepping stones.
          How hot the macadam was in July!—tipping the rainwater into the sewer grates noisily. January has no movement, except for the tall trees that turn their backs against the merciless wind. Their branches fall like tears into the yards.
          The huge old furnace has failed four times this winter. The silence wakes us at 5. The room is cold. The technicians descend the cellar steps with their tools. Perhaps they ask it to take deep breaths as they listen for congestion. It is being kept alive by the short-term measures and prescriptions that mark the end of life.
          The cat sleeps on the floor grate anyway—the only one of us with faith.
          But the absence of holidays is delicious—no Santa, no Jesus, no gourds. The pointlessness of the month is perhaps its only virtue: January is not a team player. It is a hangover, drawn out until Valentine's Day. It is all fact—unmitigating, disapproving as an ex-lover, hard on the paint.
          The wood is stacked safely in the barn, but the trip over ice is so long—so far away!—in the 4:30 darkness. The birdless sky, the ghostly swinging of the feeders where they had evidently been, the furniture we didn't bother to cover this fall, the headless bird baths and upside-down jardinieres are postapocalyptic. Under half a foot of snow, the hammock frame is shipwrecked on the lawn.
          Outside the kitchen window, the grapevine frozen under the downspout looks like hand-blown glass, and the trigonometry of the frost is lyrical.
          The driver of the big street plow waves at the dog and me as we scurry home.

August 22, 2023

The Bumblebees of August

          There is no wind, yet the wicker rocker moves once forward, once backward on the deck, lightly pushed by a spirit evidently waiting—like us—for the hummingbirds to appear.
          Audibly, but incoherently—as if from under a pillow—the workmen talk in between the hammer strikes. Their pick-ups are gathered, noses together, in the shallow driveway like perch. The neighbor's apartment house is suddenly the object of consecutive, daily ministrations, as if its crumbling chimneys and rotted clapboards were late-stage cancers. The old house braves its cures, with only a table-sized depression in the shingles where a chimney has recently been amputated. 
          The incessant whistle of the scenic train is silent until Saturday, when the kids will pile again into the old cars that move slower than bikes behind the row of houses, through the wetlands shimmering with black flies, and up into the balsam woods at the junction.
          A tricky little Clementi sonata sits on my piano desk, which I work at like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to assemble a mountain or a winding road from tiny black pieces that appear tossed onto the yellowed page—just thrown there. The dog sleeps under the bench, and I can hear his sweet, sweet breaths. 
          He's the color of a loaf of bread that needs to stay in the oven just a little longer.
          I live from day to day, now. I make no plans, have no aspirations.
          I just enjoy the bumblebees of August, which I will find motionless on the stalks of aster in late September, like a photograph of summer—a memory of hot days.

July 31, 2023

Goodbye to July

          I told her once I wasn't good at anything. She told me survival is a talent.
—Susanna Kaysen, "Girl Interrupted"


          I faced the week like high school gym class: Wednesday would have been Franklin's 12th birthday, had he lived just two more months, and Thursday was my 64th—ropes danging from the ceiling, a pommel horse, my hands chalked and ready.
          Gary's homemade cards and day-long trips to wherever I pointed to on the map were a thing of the past, like his kisses. I needed to come up with my own celebration, and—perhaps for the first time—my imagination failed me.
          Craving and selfish, lustful and enthusiastic, July 27 was my version of Christmas day. Once, living alone in Philadelphia, I called the best looking boy I knew, told him it was my birthday, and asked him to take me to Kennel Club that night. They were pumping the artificial smoke onto the floor, and we danced to Bon Jovi and Van Halen—until he spotted some good friends.
         The late July day has always been a hall pass, a cigarette break from the disapproval of others that characterized the remainder of the year. Each birthday, I was Ted Bundy in a sling, ensnaring, fooling people into reciprocity with me. Year after year the ruse worked, but this summer was emptier, quieter than any that had preceded it—deadlier.

Sunday


          Not even the tide was with me, so I played my last card with Gary: take me to Wadsworth Cove Sunday at 2:00 and I won't ask for anything on Thursday, when high tide wasn't until supper time. I graded summers by how frequently I swam, and, so far, this one was not receiving a passing grade.
          It was a fortuitous, if hasty, plan. Gary's combination of magazines and books, apparently, was sufficient to pass the time as I splashed and dunked—12 again, the gentle surf moving my body as if I were chest high in jello, bearing me southeast. Every few minutes, I would correct my position to be in direct alignment with Gary in his apple green folding chair. He was still, always, despite the past few years, the anchor for me throughout my difficult adulthood, and likely to be so until he slips away, however fate may configure that.
          The afternoon sun on the water entered the wide-open cove without obstruction, so that, facing full west, my toes appeared as if out of a firey glass of absinthe. It was the kind of beauty that could make you cry, suddenly, but then leave you feeling quite fine a moment later. In the distance, the hills beyond Belfast were a low, indistinct, Robin's-egg blue band. A tanker and—after a long while—a small cruise ship slowly passed, right to left, in front of it like tiny rod puppets. I was in that same water, wide as a halibut in my trunks.
          That night I decided to do my birthday as any other Thursday—no special plans. But I emailed my garden club friends with my typically sad humor, a by-product of my insecurity, my habit of auditioning words like one presses a thumb into the stem end of a canteloupe, and about four 5-second pours of Prosecco consumed in quick succession. Coyly, I suggested that I would do my 2 hours of weeding and dead-heading but could there be a few power bars or iced teas afterwards to mark the occasion?
          Just another gimmick, another inducement: Please don't leave me alone on this day!

Monday          

          Around 4:00 I found a box at our back door addressed to Gary. He has a habit of buying little shrubs and plants from catalogues, and I called into him sarcastically then returned to my yard work. It had been another day of not speaking, usually the consequence of an evening I can't remember, and I duck my head and live through them as my just deserts. When he asked me a few minutes later to come and look, his voice sounded odd.
          Our pet food company had sent just short of a dozen roses, along with a simple glass vase and a card that read We hope these flowers bring you a smile and remind you of the love Franklin left on your heart. There was also a little packet of something to help extend the life of the blossoms.
          I fell back into the claustrophobic, unresolvable pain as one leans on a door that has never been properly shut. For the last 12 years, this week—already the favorite of my year—had become "Our Birthdays," my darling Scottie dog's birthday falling one day before mine. This happy coincidence enlarged the celebrations, and there had been special trips to a cabin at the foot of the Blue Ridge in Virginia and trips to Maine.
          But with the terrible separation from this creature—whose odor alone could tranquilize and restore my troubled mind, and whose perfect face I cupped in my hands, sitting on the kitchen floor at the end of every afternoon—came an unexpected, unwanted cauterization that felt like a tool of old age. I had survived this loss rather too easily, and I knew that my frequent questioning was the disturbing of a wound that, as grief would have it, I didn't want to heal. I was discovering a new and somewhat repulsive numbness that sanded off the sharp edges of loss, even as I myself was pointed—toes first—toward the horizon.
          I put the roses out in the mud room so the cat would not get into them.

Wednesday

          Unlike anything I write sober, my drunk emails invariably have consequences. My version of Edward Hyde puts his pain into words still pretty well chosen, so that my friends receive a bitter, pointless text that sounds, on the surface, like Dr. Jekyll's voice.
          I got a reply to my garden club email from an unexpected source. Ritualistically, I opened it and went immediately to the last line to ascertain the extent of the scolding, the damage, with one eye closed. It was a lovely invitation for dinner "on our deck." Elizabeth had recently broken her left leg, and her friend and housemate Ray had been battling for his life since March, yet her email sounded suprisingly anxious to entertain. I couldn't imagine how they would bring it off, but—with my predictable lust for birthday attention—I accepted.
          Hers was an invitation of distinction in this town, which had kept its collective eye on both of them throughout the spring and summer. Ray's illness took Elizabeth away from the triple-layered, persistent schedule of chair-level work with arts organizations, non-profits, universities, and, of course, the garden club, that characterized her life. Meetings had been overlooked, and agendas throughout town were noticeably lighter because of her absence. By June, her life was reduced to waiting rooms and consultations that brought good news—only to be followed by bad.
          But here was Ray, putting ears of orange-yellow corn on the table. I glanced at the kind face we all felt certain we'd lose this summer. When he took the cobs out to the kitchen, I told Elizabeth how gratified I was to see him and to be able to share this meal. "He's a miracle man," she said, with her standard reticence. Indeed, he was something of a celebrityhis body half its size, his speech soft, guarding his strength, his aspect flat and slightly suspicious of recovery, as one might be who had seen death crouched and shapeless at the bottom of the bed, or who had observed the endless whirr of ceiling tiles as he was pushed through hallways, the metal doors of the surgical theaters yielding to the foot of the gurney, the IV riding alongside like a translucent chimpanzee. It must have been an exhausting summer of encouragement and setbacks, and emotion of any kind had probably been discarded in favor of this blank expression of terrible but necessary patience.
          Almost nothing about my mutual work with Elizabeth was discussed, and I was reminded of Maria Callas, who was said to have never sounded a note of music when she wasn't purposefully practicing or rehearsing—so for Elizabeth, there was no wasting of her talents in off-record adjudications or casual advice. There was the rapid, brief batting of both eyes that signified a difficult topic or substituted for emotion, as when the cars roared by her garden in mid-sentence. Yet, there were several subjects that might well have been discussed, as the gap between my hostess and the town in which she grew up widened. The house at the crest of Bridge Hill had become symbolic, and—like any successful or influential person—she had a few opponents.
          When she brought out the raspberry pie with six candles, Ray's weak voice joining in the happy birthday song, I felt like I'd spent a private evening with the Windsorsit was all gaiety and the intimate topics of daily life, no talk about renounced crowns or old scandals.

Thursday


          Tupperware started filling up the picnic table in the park stealthily, so that by the time we were done pulling the yellow leaves out of the clumps of daylilies a picnic was underway. I felt an awkward remorse for putting my friends on the spot. Had I gone too far this time? I ate a blueberry scone, and then another. Then came the bagel sandwiches with salmon and cream cheese, then the watermelon wedges. Whether I had demanded or begged for it, it was a nice little party, and I was digging my fingers into the wooden bench hoping the others were enjoying it as much as me. I'd been awake until after 2:00 the night before, and the sleeping pill I took at 12:00 had flattened the highs and lows of my remarks. My eyes were stab wounds in my face.
          Afterward, a reduced group of us trudged down the conservancy-restored trail to Little Tunk Pond. Marie brought to bear all of her usual magic: the folding chairs with the plastic hibiscus flowers (so she could find them at blues festivals), the inflatable donuts that were marked to look like tires (they were on sale), and the bottle of red wine that had functioned as a point of convergence in our early friendship.
          We had the tiny sand beach to ourselves, and the fish, gathering at our calves, were so thick it felt like swimming in an aquarium. I could feel them, one after another, kissing my back, and my high-pitched curses entertained the group. I often took the part of Puck—bargaining that it might buy me affection.
          Janet asked me, suddenly, What are your plans for this year? The remark landed onto me with a peculiar force of empathy, with a concern for the quality of my existence that exceeded my own refusal to plan or dream.
          That afternoon, Gary handed me a framed picture of Franklin he had manipulated in Photoshop to look like a watercolor painting. I wanted to give you something to honor "Our Birthdays."
          I wept internally, like holding your nose when you sneeze, or refusing to fart. I just lowered my chin to my chest. I felt again the ancient, scratchy wooden door that refuses to latch, opening behind me into an airless place, death crouched and shapeless, just beyond my toes.
          For dinner we got lobsters, and Gary looked the other way when I spent $60 on a bottle of Moët & Chandon.
          I don't remember the rest of the night.

Saturday


          The day couldn't have been prettier for a garden tour. Always with an eye to branding myself, I've made a point of saying "Lamoine—where the rich people live!" My inappropriate, throwaway remarks are often pretty accurate, and Saturday proved it, as we drove from one gated, bay-facing property to the next, pinching the lavender, crunching the sample radishes, oooohing and awwwing over beets and asparagus, and sampling each host's version of iced tea from screen porches that seemed to hang off the houses like multiple choice questions, a maze of lounging options: Do I sit here, on the deck, or on the granite patio that overlooks the bay? 
          It was one of those moments to really dig in to the online psychology that comparison is the thief of joy. Yet these were the same people I pulled out old hydrangea roots with, people who sprayed my legs and back with mosquito repellent as I turned, childlike, in a slow circle. My persistence with the garden club through Covid and dwindling membership gave me a kind of peerage, and I could speak to any one of them quite intimately—if not entirely equivalently.
          I had a little Truman Capote thing going. For the most part, I enjoyed the role.
          

Sunday


          At 4:30, I took my chilled glass of white Bordeaux out into the garden, intending to stand by the tall Jacob Cline Monarda until the hummingbirds came, feeding on one consecutive blossom after another until they were quite near, the chartreuse bodies of the females—so much friendlier—almost in my face. It was always thrilling.
          I heard a car door slam and saw the slim bodies of two dear friends from Boston walking up the steps to my porch. Our texts had dropped off when Josh asked "When are you coming up to the cabin?"
          After the hugs and greetings, there was the inevitable, slightly inappropriate, questioning about the past year: What's going on with you and Gary? Do you think he will leave you? Are you looking for someone else? Is he looking for someone else? Josh and Alan were barely into their forties. It was still all about love.
          I put out a tray Gary had prepared of olives and sausage and cheese and pickles. They overlooked my blueberry-stained shirt and the ever-so-slight slurring of my words. At 7:00, we kissed cheeks and made plans for later in the week. 
          Walking into the kitchen carrying an empty bottle, swiping the banana peppers into the trash, I exhaled the week of Franklin's first postmortem birthday, of my own configured celebration of late July. I felt everything, and nothing. Like Ray, I had seen enough of death to jostle me into a detestable, awed silence that will carry me, borne by the current of my blood, toward next year.
          I think if Gary is still there next July, with a beach towel and a platter of salami and olives and cheese—his head sunk in the Sunday Times—I'll have done well enough.
         I won't ask for more.

May 20, 2023

The Days Before Goodbye

          When an animal in the house becomes ready to die, suddenly you feel comfortable neither inside the house nor out in the yard. 
          When a dog, for example, that has lain under the kitchen table for 11 years as you sauteed onions or punched down dough or did your drunken Maria Callas impression (he sang along) has been marked for destruction yet still accepts a bit of liver from your hand or shoots you the identical glances that, through the years, asked the same untranslated but intimate questions, every hour is a series of small, stinging goodbyes, overlapping one another like an unlucky hand of cards.
          This airless place, the throat swallowing sob after sob, is, of course, not the friendship at all. It is counterfeit, a wax impression of the love itself, of those untranslatable words you were determined—as you kissed his head before bed every night—someday to learn.
          Now there is only his smell. 
          You cannot live without it. 
          You must. 
          He always smelled like himself. Like corn chips and leather, asleep on his back in the middle of the kitchen floor between the rituals of treats at 3:00 and wine on the deck at 5:00. If you went ahead with a bottle and glass, he barked sharply—inconsolablyfrom inside, certain you weren't coming back for him. 
          Then one day all barking stopped. 
          You have not heard his voice—stentorian, rich as a diapason—for many weeks now.
          You feel an annoying compulsion to remain at the animal's side but are terrified of the pointless future without him.
          They are fidgety afternoons, the days before goodbye.

November 25, 2022

Pumpkin Pie for Breakfast

          The ecru tablecloth with its green and rust-tinted harvest gourds, the silver-edged china, and the milky old flatware sit on the table today just as they appear in a snapshot from 1967. In that picture, I am looking at the camera—my taped glasses sliding forward on my nose, a couple of lower incisors missing—and laughing, my right hand in a destinationless, joyful flight.
          The holiday feeling remainsthe ground just beginning to freeze, the landscape outside the dining room windows opening up like a stage cleared after a performance, and the peculiar, almost sacred silence of a day spent cooking, a day that started very early, one that would stretch late into the night—cigarettes and coffee around the table, the identical alliances, the worn-out optimism.
          Having delivered us to this particular date, the calendar's vocation to organize life, its ruthless regimentation, is dismissed for a few days of eating and farting alone, a blessed amnesia of TV and comfortable clothing, unusually long walks and even more unusual thoughts about books and friends that have been surrendered back to time—and its priorities.
          Piles of dead leaves rotting in the center so aromatically, the chic monochromaticism of the grey sky, the odor of sage from the kitchen, being half drunk at noonthe drive shaft of life's forward momentum broken, abruptly halted, so artfully: the respite of the holidays never changes.
          Headed toward the shortest day, the old year's breaths become shallower, bourne on a silver tray of egg nog. Memories and scents grow indistinguishable in this brightly decorated, gaudy back alley between years. 
          The best of life is still ahead, yet it has been left behind.
          I squirt some Spray 'n Wash on the gravy stains and throw my mother's tablecloth into the washer. It has worked its magic again.



November 6, 2022

Warm November Afternoon

Just when you think it can't get any worse, it can. And just when you think it can't get any better, it can.
—Nicholas Sparks, At First Sight

          The beach on the southern shore of Donnell Pond lies like a cresent moon between two mountains, laid between them like a long, bone-colored necklacejust a band of pale sediment at the bottom of a vast, bottle green cup. There is no road in.
          At the summit of the western mountain we ate our sandwiches in the wind. About halfway up, I did a strip tease: sitting on a rock, I peeled off my soaked T-shirt and wished I had worn shorts. We laughed that I might have to finish the hike in my underwear. 
          But I had dressed for a Maine November day and had stopped short of packing a wool scarf. 
          Harold produced from his pack three coconut macaroons dipped in chocolate, and we ate them on the granite, looking down on a misty canopy of ponds and woods, the horizonless bay, and a bog with an abandoned right of way from the Maine Central Railroad cutting through the center like an old wound. I thought, or half-spoke, a prayer.
          On the way down, a thick stand of oaks grew like an orchard on the sheer face of the cliff as if they could break your falla hammock of bare branches. Gauging every step on the piles of brown leaves that covered the rock, I was relieved to see the first patch of blue water through the tree trunks. Yet, it never seemed to be nearer, and I remarked to Marie that I believed someone kept moving it further away as we descended. 
          I was on 100 mg of gabapentin a day and not at my best.
          We crossed the little log bridge just before the beach, and through the trees I could hear male laughter. We reached a picnic bench, and I sat down and took out my thermos of tea. My heart was breaking. 
          They were swimming.

August 7, 2022

Church Picnic

          The first glimpse of the bay from the car is an excitement that cannot be explained.
          Ahead, framed by the pines that line the beach road like a tunnel, the water and the sky are indistinguishable, cocked at an oblique angle to the narrow road like driving down the capital letter V into a sort of shimmering, aquamarine eternity. 
          The ocean, still a mile ahead, is the end of the world.
          But by the time you start looking for parking the illusion has passed. The briquette smoke and screaming children restore the earth's perspective—flatten it again.
          A malevolent stretch of arid, sun-baked weeks had left New England sticky and argumentative. The cumulous clouds floated, each day, rather insipidly in a blue sky that never darkened, never jostled the leaves that, this August, have started falling early.
          No matter how low I get, I always attend the church picnic. And this hangover—still going strong at 1:00defined low. In my wide-brimmed straw hat and chic sunglasses, I looked like Norma Desmond with distention. I am a bad person, and several people at this picnic know it pretty well.
          I am here to swim.