Once upon a time there was a usually sweet boy who lived with a little old woman and her friends in a big yellow building in a small gray town. The boy was usually sweet, which means that sometimes he was not, but only rarely. The little old woman was neither particularly little nor particularly old but this is a story so bear with me until snip snap snout this tale's told out.
When the usually sweet boy was about to turn six years old, the little old woman and her friends decided to have a party for him. They wanted to give him all the things he wanted and celebrate him with all the things he loved. In the weeks before the special day, the little old woman and her friends cleverly asked questions, all feigned innocence and misdirection. What, one friend inquired, might be the usually sweet boy's favorite food? And this friend then began gathering the ingredients to make that special food for dinner. What sweets, another friend (who was at the time pregnant with a future usually sweet boy) inquired, might be the usually sweet boy's heart's desire? And this friend then waddled into the kitchen and commenced to bake enough chocolate chip cookies to feed a small army of preschoolers. The third friend bought a puzzle with characters that the usually sweet boy loved. And the little old woman doesn't even remember now what she was planning, because what happened next wiped her memory clear.
On the morning of the day that the usually sweet boy's birthday was to be celebrated, the little old woman tiptoed into his room to wake him, as she had done on every birthday morning before. She held the usually sweet boy in her arms and told him the story of how he was born, which I might write down some other day and then nest in here, nested stories are cool. But today just this story. So the little old woman told the usually sweet boy his story, and then held out her hand to take him into the kitchen to see the pile of cookies and hear all the best wishes from the people who loved him on his special day.
At the doorway, the usually sweet boy tugged at the little old woman's hand. "For my birthday," he said, with the voice of someone who has just realized some of his dreams could come true, and has decided to harness that power.... "I want a cake. A cake with trains and cars and Harry Potter on it."
"Oh!" exclaimed the little old woman. "It's a little late to arrange that. We will have a nice birthday party, but we can't get a cake that fancy at this point."
"Then I do not want a birthday at all," replied the usually sweet boy.
The little old woman paused. A tiny piece of her heart crumbled. "Hm." she said, and tried to keep a neutral tone. "Well, you think about that a little. I'm going to go start breakfast." She went to the kitchen, where the pregnant friend was probably trying to choke down an egg because she did that every morning for her baby, even though she didn't like eggs. A lot of parenting is doing things we don't enjoy so that our children grow into strong and reasonable people. That sentence is called foreshadowing and it is also the moral of the story. The little old woman told the pregnant friend the story about the cake request, and she was very sad when she told it, because she could see the future even before you can.
The pregnant friend went to the usually sweet boy's room to talk sense into him, since sometimes the little old woman got carried away with emotion and what was needed was a cool head. The usually sweet boy told the pregnant friend that he wanted a cake with trains and cars and Harry Potter or he did not want a birthday at all.
Back in the kitchen, the pregnant friend and the little old woman were joined by the jolly friar friend, who actually was more like Mr Spock than a jolly friar but once a pseudonym always a pseudonym. The jolly friar friend thought that the pregnant friend and the little old woman were taking things a little too seriously, and he went into the usually sweet boy's room to speak in his magical calm voice, which was known on two continents for its ability to soothe savage beasts of two and four legs. Murmuring sounds through the door were promising, but after five minutes the jolly friar returned to the kitchen to proclaim the sad conclusion: cake with trains and cars and Harry Potter or no birthday.
The little old woman and the pregnant friend and the jolly friar friend conferred. On the one hand, plans had been made. On the other hand, the changeling in the usually sweet boy's bedroom had to be stopped. What to do? When the third friend joined them, the friend of mighty naps, he listened to the story and went back to bed. Sadly, they all concluded that this was the way of things: a cake with trains and cars and Harry Potter was not going to happen, and the magical day of cookies and favorite foods and fun puzzles was finished before it even began.
The little old woman will confess here that she cried a little.
The little old woman took the usually sweet boy to preschool that day as usual and worked that day as usual. The pregnant friend and the jolly friar friend and the friend of mighty naps also had their days as usual. There was nothing else to do. It was not really a day as usual, it was a day of heavy hearts and the cookies were eaten without celebration. I'd say they were bitter but they were actually probably perfectly delicious. That night the family had dinner as usual and went to bed as usual.
The next morning the little old woman went into the usually sweet boy's room to wake him up. Sitting in bed, still blinking away sleep, the usually sweet boy said, "So... yesterday? When I cancelled my birthday? That was really dumb, huh?" And the little old woman agreed that it had been. "So can I have my birthday now?" asked the usually sweet boy. And the little old woman replied sadly that no, he could not. The usually sweet boy hung his head sadly and dragged his feet into the kitchen.
In the years after that, the usually sweet boy had many adventures and many wonderful days and some sad days, too, but he never again acted like an entitled ass, and he never got a cake with trains and cars and Harry Potter. He grew into an aspiring artist, a beautiful boy, a creative cook, a dynamic dancer, and so on all the way through the alphabet. And the little old woman could not be happier or prouder.
Happy Eighteenth Birthday, Squire. You are my heart.
And we are shopping again, hooray. The second-hand shops, the malls, the boutiques, every city has a shopping district, a store, clothes on the rack and sales tags telling you more than you need to know about each item. The doors hiss open and the store is warm inside, the security guard just nods, the music is good enough you can take off your headphones and figure out what people listen to these days. One hand flicks across each rack, nope, nope, nope. Swipe right. You've got a good eye now, you can tell what isn't going to work.
What's harder is telling what MIGHT work. What you would honestly like is something you can put on and feel instantly at home in and also wear out with friends. You do not want a dress for parties, not silk nor leather nor fur. Something that matches a bowl of popcorn and a good movie, something cuddly and soft, something that brings out the color in your eyes. Something that makes you feel good about waking up. Something that lasts, durable. Not something for every day, as you have black t-shirts and sweatpants already, but something that COULD be everyday.
There is nothing like that in this store. But you are not yet ready to give up, so you narrow your desires. It is possible that you are expecting too much from one outfit; maybe you should try several. Something practical, something fancy? Cargo pants, a plunging neckline? Here are some sequined leggings on sale and they're in your size! Here is a blue sweater that looks warm enough to keep you cozy for the last month of winter. Here is a t-shirt with a witty saying. Here is a wine-colored shirt that might do.
It might do, it all might do. When the weight of the hangers has bent back your fingers to the point of pain you carry it all into the dressing room and strip under the fluorescent lights and try it on, and try it on, and try it on. Nothing is quite right. It's never bad, because you don't pick bad things; it's never exactly what you wanted but you need something, it's too cold to go naked after all, and leaving empty-handed is sometimes more depressing than compromise. And it could be the light you're looking at things in, harsh and unforgiving. Or it could be just that you're not attracted by this season's fashions. Sooner or later you may come to admit that the problem is you. That in a store full of clothes a person who cannot find a single outfit is doing something wrong, is in fact wrong in some concrete nameable way. But that's sooner or later; today you grab another black t-shirt and hand over your credit card and put your headphones back on and call it a day. Which it was.
Lana Turner has collapsed! I was trotting along and suddenly it started raining and snowing and you said it was hailing but hailing hits you on the head hard so it was really snowing and raining and I was in such a hurry to meet you but the traffic was acting exactly like the sky and suddenly I see a headline LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED! there is no snow in Hollywood there is no rain in California I have been to lots of parties and acted perfectly disgraceful but I never actually collapsed oh Lana Turner we love you get up
How many V-neck or scoop-necked black T-shirts does Anne need?
a. One; it's a staple
b. One of each?
c. MORE! I NEED MORE!
- From the cycle, "Conversations with myself while shopping to replace one lost thing and instead expanding my uniform"
I'm not letting go, because I'm sad about it and I think I will still feel spots of regret for a while yet. Things I haven't even realized I'm missing yet, that sudden pang of desire, the realization that one thing is gone, and the whole loss comes back in. It's not an ocean of sorrow; it's a pond, but for the moment I'm wallowing in it. The loss of art, of the language of love, of small treats I didn't need but wouldn't give myself. Tokens, mementos, silk and sand.
I will eventually remember and then give up in turn on everything that I lost -- replace some with similar things; find new interesting distractions to fill the holes that are gaping with irretrievable losses. The first step is realizing you really have lost it; the second step is deciding what you need and getting it elsewhere; the third step is figuring out how to compensate for what cannot be replaced, and the fourth step so on and on. I will take step after step, because that is how you move on, and my life will smooth over and I will be able to remember everything I had without feeling particularly wrecked about the fact that I don't have any of it any more.
And I have said and will say again that in the scheme of things this loss is nothing much; trivial. My sadness is indulgent. The art of longing is performed against a backdrop rich with having; otherwise it is need, which this is not. I'm not stupid. I'm just a little sad; permit me this: a little sad, for one week longer. And then the gates close anyway, even on the hope I no longer hold.
But while I swear I will get over the loss, I equally promise that I won't forget the experience. I don't let go of that and I don't move on, because if I can't learn from it then it was for nothing. And the next time somebody says "let me hold that for you; trust me!" I will hesitate, hold what is precious to me to my chest for one minute longer before I think about releasing it, think a little harder about what the loss might mean. I'm not saying I won't trust them; I'm saying if I don't realize that it's a risk, I'm a fool. That's what I've learned. No matter how sweetly spoken, a promise to protect what I value doesn't mean what I thought it meant; it doesn't mean I can't lose it anyway. Because I have certainly lost this.
Reading a used book on evolution I wonder
about fingerprints, how long they live.
Were the fingers licked before the pages
were turned, did the owner
of the book, of the fingerprints
read in the bathroom, will there be a hair
on page 231, on a train, did he take the C
uptown, did she eat lunch with the pigeons
and hold the book open with her foot
as she sat cross-legged on the lawn
of the Municipal Building, a short hair,
curly and black or blond and straight
and long as my finger? Was she reading
instead of getting her license on the day
she'd promised to, after five months
of dreading the DMV, instead
of looking into the bill for lab tests,
one hundred and seventy seven dollars
to peek into her blood, her urine,
instead of calling the furnace guy
and dealing with his boots on the carpet,
with his mouth moving in front of hers,
with the expectation of small talk,
did the book keep her from visiting
her mother and asking about the MS,
did he hold the book between his face
and his wife, is it how he asked
for a divorce, by not speaking, by saying
the name Leaky over and over to himself,
by letting the pages stand in for his face?
Will I become everyone who read this book,
did their eyes change the letters,
is reading a sexual act, is there congress
between the text and my gaze,
is there no mirror left me but words,
why am I afraid of people, why do I talk
behind them to the edge of their shadows,
why did the continents drift, why didn't
the thumb stay put, is fear what it means
to be human, am I what it means to be human,
why did the brain ransom the heart
to the mouth, why did we ever come down
from the trees?
Dear airports (and airlines), you dole out basic amenities like the Czechs used to dole out toilet paper. Small servings of a thing that I think you could easily include in your overhead costs and are making us pay for as a means of reminding us who is in control. A Czech acquaintance of mine wrote her thesis on gay lifestyle as recorded by one of the toilet guards, as public toilets were one of the places for gays to meet under Communism. Picture some middle-aged woman, tearing off individual squares and recording the various antics she saw in public bathrooms in the eighties; I expect she got more out of it than whatever is being collected while we sit in suspended animation buying four dollar water, ten dollar wine, trading our grandmother's maiden names for five minutes of connection to people we already like in an attempt to avoid conversation with people we won't.
Overheard, while waiting for the plane to Madrid:
Wake at 3 and roll around with jet lag and unspeakable regrets until 5. Put on sweater and warm socks, a beach towel like a scarf jaunty, a cup of cold coffee from yesterday's breakfast and a bread roll only slightly stale from last night's dinner. Perched on the retaining wall feet dangling into space but well above the waterline, the tide going out anyway so that when the sun rises the broken concrete and rebar from the collapsed hotel wiill be exposed, but now it is dark and peaceful by starlight. The sky turns bluer, then pink, nicotine orange and there is a woman on the beach shivering slightly in a bikini, doing sun salutes in the direction of the upcoming sun, which is both completely appropriate and annoyingly pretentious. You have a three-day guacamole belly already, sitting sweetly in your lap. The cloudline makes an extra horizon for the sun to get past and people are emerging onto balconies in various states of undress, eyes shielded, coffee cups steaming. The air is already warmer. The birds fly across the water basically illustrating the word majestic. Finally it is a ball of fire you can't look at anymore and it's time to go inside.