Thirteen

When I turned 12, I took a certification class with the Red Cross, and started babysitting. All the money went into my college fund, but eventually I used it to buy one terrible car in high school, and then one miraculous one that I’d drive for the next decade. I loved babysitting. Little kids can rocket from joy to abject misery in a single sentence. They seem, always, on the edge of space travel. As though a new and better planet were one leap over the couch away.

I know you don’t like babies, but imagine someone handing you a rare and powerful Yu-Gi-Oh! card, or a kitten. That is how delighted I am about babies.

In the hospital, they handed me an angry little burrito and I was already moonstruck. Dazed with love. To meet you at last after singing and dancing and walking and laughing with you for so many months beforehand. My beautiful boy.

So tall now that you can put your arm around my shoulder without leaning. So tall now that you can boop my nose while you stand several feet away. How I love you. Your refusal to do anything quickly. To sit and stare at your cards when you’re supposed to be getting ready for bed or school or an outing. How you are so busy remembering things for me that you forget things for yourself. How you never remember the names of the kids around you. “I think it’s either Josh or Dan? I don’t know. He has brown hair I’m pretty sure.”

I love your terrible jokes. Your painful puns. I love the way that you have a joke ready for every situation. I love that you play trumpet like a battle cry.

Yesterday my friend told me about this thing Mr. Rogers said, “Everyone has someone who loved them into being.” That is what you did. You loved me into being. You beautiful boy. Happy birthday.

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The end

After my son was born, I told everyone — my husband, my mother, my friends — anyone who would listen, that I was not okay. And everyone told me I was fine. That I was fine, and doing well.

Now I can recognize it as postpartum depression, but at the time it was just a long, terrifying panic attack. I was convinced my son was going to die in my care. I thought that every time I walked into his room. Every time I leaned over his crib. I would dream of a blue baby. A dead baby. My fault. He would die and it would be my fault. Every day. Every hour.

But everyone said I was fine.

I wasn’t sleeping. I was alone for nearly 20 hours of every day. Alone except for a baby. But that is a different kind of alone. I had no internal monologue. I would tell my baby what we were doing. I’m reading you a story. I’m playing guitar for you. I’m bathing you. But in my head there was just a distant sound of screaming.

But everyone said I was fine.

My hedgehog died several weeks ago. He’d been ill, and had already lived longer than most hedgehogs. But I’ve found his death difficult to process. He was the most cantankerous creature I have ever met. He bit me whenever I held him. He bristled and hissed at me when I fed him. He ran around his terrarium looking for me when he wanted more food, and then got angry with me when I gave him more. I began to think of him as my unhappy self. Always a little past knowing what’s best for it. Too hungry to eat. Too thirsty to drink. Too lonely, but bristling at all contact.

Being intuitive means that I know more than I want to know.

My hedgehog died and I looked at his opened eyes through the terrarium and I was filled with sadness for both of us. For my love for him, and his reliance on me. For the difficulty of relationships. For the well of sadness that people want to assure me doesn’t exist.

I am having a hard time.

And as is often the case, I am having that hard time on my own.

I am alone with the burden of being me. The sadness of wanting human connection and intimacy in the age of electronics. Headphones and screens and the endless hustle of busywork. Where we mistake social media for real life. I am tired and I am sad.

I realized something today and it bothers me. When people assure you that everything’s fine, they mean for them. It’s fine for them. I used to think they couldn’t see me, but what they are saying is that they can’t see our relationship as I see it. Everything’s fine from their point of view. And everything is not fine from mine. We are in a different relationship. That is so much worse.

But, Jill, you’re talking about perspectives. We all have perspectives. We all struggle sometimes and that struggle comes at each of us differently. We’re always in a different relationship. That’s why your story of what happened is different from mine. 

Yes. Yes, that’s true. But in my relationship, I’m not OK. And in yours, everything is fine. And those two things are not compatible.

Not today. They aren’t compatible today. Last week everything was on fire, and today there’s rain. 

My life isn’t like the climate.

It is, Jill. Your life is exactly like the climate. Temporary and lovely and unpredictable. Sometimes heartbreaking.

You’re being reductive.

I meant to comfort you. This mess is yours for a while. A while is all you get. When you woke to the sound of rain this morning you were happy, remember?

I remember.

Right now you feel paralyzed with sadness. And that feels real and you are miserable. This evening you’ll walk through the black streets and the trees will stand like sentinels and you’ll love the day a little more. It’ll feel like a secret. Yours to keep.

Maybe.

Even your sadness is beautiful. Surely you can see that. How else would you make space for your joy?

I don’t know. I don’t know how to make space for my joy.

You are. That’s what you are doing right now. You are typing it into being. You are telling yourself a story of joy and sadness and love. Like all stories. Of the death of a small, hostile creature and the way it reminded you of your suffering and your love. You are frightened that your unhappiness is permanent, so you are telling yourself a story of impermanence. Life as climate. 

I see.

And now you feel better, don’t you? 

I do. I do feel better.

All these things are inside you. And they are yours and they are true.

Yes.

And that is why.

Why what?

That is why you feel better.

 

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I can see more from out here

I thought girls actually used pencils to darken lines beneath their eyes. The same pencils we used to take bubble tests. That seemed so brave to me. Like something a pirate would do. Lined up in the hallway, waiting to march out to the playground, I could see them leaned over sinks, drawing emphasis.

Girl 101. I studied it from the outside. Girls with their hair products, their Keds, their bangles. When Jimmy Stewart told Katharine Hepburn she was lit from within, I nodded. They all are. Every one of them. Shocking as a lighthouse though a moment before I had been alone at sea with the stars overhead.

My wife has potion bottles on every surface of our house. She’ll swab her skin and then press her wrist to my face. “Do you like this one?” And suddenly she smells like winter solstice. I can feel the snow beneath my boots and then, all at once, evergreens. Or she’ll lean down to kiss me before she leaves for work, and everywhere there is sandalwood.

“Why do you always take my photo before I have makeup on?” she’ll ask.

Because I can’t tell.

Because you are a lantern to me in every condition.

Not alien, exactly, but as an apprentice. That’s how I approached women. As a kind of nautical chart to set a course. A path of wonder.

Skin like cream.

I wish I had seen my wife pregnant. Not in the photos but in fact. I wish I’d eaten waffles with her after her labor. I can imagine it. The young hippie woman with her plate of waffles.

On Sunday, the 20th, she will be my longest marriage. Though we are only getting started. What is six years but a beginning? We’re still somewhere in the Pacific, getting a handle on the currents, on the rigging.

I woke once, with an idea of her, just an idea — a sketch really. A woman in outline, sitting at a small, round table, with coffee before her. One leg crossed over the other, and an arm raised toward me in greeting. A homecoming. The way she pulled me into her so that I couldn’t keep to the periphery. Safe from any collision. Safe from the bold fact of her. This inevitable woman. How she has drawn me over the decades. A line between us of story, and nets, and cities, and rivers. Of wild flowers and starlight. Of a cold room with deer just across the window pane. The dogs wakeful. The day so nearly broken. And I am awash with light from the woman beside me. It spills out of her, and cuts me. Look how I’m dashed with it. Glowing from my injuries.

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Intimacy

My sadness is a tail that shakes
out behind me. What have I ever been
but certain?
Watch me bring these walls down. Thrashing
even as I walk from room to room.

I check all the windows,
and out on the porch.
I check the driveway.
I check my phone.

And when I find you, at last,
it is worse than not knowing.

Startling.

I want that word to be a bird. Startling

To take flight from my chest and sail up

up

up.

Later, you’ll hunch in some
adjacent room.
A drink in one hand, a phone in the other.
All hail America! How grand we are.
Our opiates as dull as ever.

I saw a porcupine hit in the road tonight.
The driver followed behind it with her brights on. She didn’t even
step out of the car as it stumbled into a field.

The news channels fill with riot. Riot and riot and riot.
How much does it matter that I grew
this tail?

That I cried as I tried to tear myself free of it.
To make startling a bird, shearing
away from this house.

I am all out of love songs.

Isn’t that timely?

One of the dogs walked up the bones of my left leg in the night and I thought,
whatever holds me together
has built a dragon rather than a bird.

This armored tail.

This armored tale.
Every soldier to her quarters.

Drawn and quartered.

Small, and frightened.

Here at the end of the story.

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Rings

I met Ruly when she was still called by another name. This was in 2005, when I managed a bookstore. She had a jewelry store upstairs, and came down with a banner that she needed to hang from the air duct several stories above the main floor. I held the banner while she rigged it, and an exchange of maybe fifteen minutes led to my visiting her store for the beautiful silver she carved. Waves, and trees, and moons, and stars. Streaks of resin. Ravens. Owls. Skeletons laughing their way down a river. I loved her work. Started hucking it at a series of girlfriends as though that were romantic.

Who needs a U-Haul when you have hand-carved silver jewelry?

After break ups, I burn everything. But I couldn’t figure out how to burn the silver. Ruly let me use the welder to torch out the resin, flame against the silver to burn it clean. New. By then I was working for her, keeping her books. We’d sit in the studio and talk art as though we were still in graduate school. Reference books everywhere. The tumblers shaking in the background.

I’d already met my wife, and Ruly was the first person I read my vows to. When I’d finished reading, everything was silent, and I thought, “Fuck. They’re terrible.” But that wasn’t the silence. We weren’t even friends yet, Ruly and I. That was still forming. If we were gangsters, you’d have called it an association. The way I dropped in to create order, and she was deep in a spin of chaos.

She’d tell you a candid story of her addiction, but I will tell you that her work got angry — coffins blooming from hearts, holes in everything. She drew skeletons swallowed into the earth. And then all at once she was done. Sober. Resolved to pay for everything.

Sometimes we’d hand guilt back and forth, the way you do when you’re in the middle of a redemption story. Trying to be good when being good seems like such dreary fucking work.

What are you working on?
Myself.
Fun.

I’ve known Ruly for twelve years, and worked for her for seven, and today she gave me a new wedding ring because I outgrew my last one. Yesterday her cat died. She started crying when she was telling me about it. And then I started crying because that’s the fucking worst, man.

“I know you know how this feels,” she said.

Of course I knew. And she knew I knew because we’ve been friends a long time. Long enough for me to see her work become the most astounding hand-made art ever. She’s making me an anchor heart complete with arteries and rigging. It’s funny how the rigging has come full circle. Full heart.

I don’t think we get as many friendships as we expect. The kind that feel like a mitt. As though you can actually see evidence of the ball striking — the wear, the comfort, the aptitude. My wife is covered in Ruly’s jewelry. And I have this small, perfect ring that winds on and on. A loop of pain and joy and love and art and waves of leaves winding round and round and round. She calls it her Growth Ring. Oh yes, sister. Yes.

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On the suffering of others

When my child was three, he inadvertently squirted hand soap into his eyes. We were in the kitchen. He screamed. SCREAMED. I lifted him into the sink and ran water over his eyes, but when I had him open them, I hadn’t gotten all the soap out and he screamed again. The second time, I let the water run over his eyes for so long that I had time to watch his terrified face, the way he had my shirt in his fists, the tears down his cheeks. He still remembers it. I’ll never forget.

It is terrible to witness the suffering of others. But we are wrong to say that it is worse than suffering itself. I didn’t have soap in my eyes. I wasn’t lifted into the sink and in the hands of another person. I saw his fear, but I was not afraid. I knew I could get the soap out of his eyes. I knew I could help him. It just took longer than either of us wanted.

What does it mean to cut your children off from your love? The premise presumes, of course, that you have loved your child at all, but let’s say that you do. Let’s say you do love your child, but you don’t like something about them that you have defined as a behavior. You don’t like their addiction, for instance. You don’t like what they do when they’re high. Thieving. Promiscuity. Recklessness.

Or maybe you don’t like that they have compromised their soul by falling in love with someone like them. And maybe you have decided to shun them because god would have it so. The way Jesus shunned people whose behavior the Old Testament had called criminal. You are the image of Jesus, right? Casting out your child. And then you don’t have to witness any suffering. You don’t have to watch what happens to a child on the street. A child at the mercy of a world that may or may not have more sympathy than you, the parent.

I have hated these parents for a long time. These assholes who cast out their own children. Who claim to speak for god. Fucking girls when I was a girl will never be a greater sin than pretending you know the heart of god. Fucking women as a woman will never be a greater sin than crediting Jesus with a hatred he never expressed. I promise you. I promise.

Do you know what is worse than watching someone suffer? Suffering itself. And you have thrown your own child out into the world and told them the way they love is broken and wrong. And you have told them they are broken and wrong. And that you cannot love them. You have told them that even god does not love them.

I have hated these parents because they are evil. It is evil to speak for god. It is evil to cast your child into the world with judgment. It is evil to pretend that you know what salvation requires.

You are not the hand of god.

And I, happily, am not the hand of god either. I am just a woman doing the best I can. A woman who can still see her child, at three, in the large kitchen sink, my shirt in his fists. And I would do anything to spare his suffering. ANYTHING. Because his suffering is the worst thing I have ever experienced. And that is how I love him. I love him as though there were no other. There is only a child and my love.

So you throw your child out because you are wrong and you are cruel. But I will love them. I will love all of them. Because that is all the goodness that exists in this world. To love those around us, those in need, as though we cannot abide suffering in any form. As though our greatest desire is to help and heal and tend. Can you imagine?

Can you imagine anything closer to the heart of god?

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Love Story, redrafted

The day marriage equality was approved by voters in Washington State, my wife and I were watching the returns online. She was lying in bed, recovering from surgery. I kept calling out numbers, and crying. It was 2012, when I still thought Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan were the worst things that could happen to America. O nostalgia.

Mary got an infection from that surgery. And hefty medical bills. And no physical relief.

Fast forward four and a half years. Her symptoms have returned with all their friends to kick the fuck out of her uterus.

Can I tell you a love story?

I know this sounds like a medical drama, but that’s only because you don’t know that she fell asleep in her sundress last night. One arm cast over her head; the moon blurred in the sky outside our opened bedroom window. The dogs tucked around her. Crickets cricketing.

That I stood and watched her and was grateful. Not for illness. Not for health. Not for struggle or politics or addiction. Not for money. Not for the seven years I have stood and watched her sleep. My beautiful girl. I was grateful because this is it. To be with your person and love. This is the whole endeavor of marriage.

We can complicate it with millions of layers, but this is it. I got to marry my person and love her. And my whole life, I will feel blessed by that fact. The fact of her. The fact of our marriage. The fact of this body that I worship.

Yes, worship.

If you are a woman who has been to a doctor with a complaint, you already know that we are mysterious. We are unknown. We are misdiagnosed.

And we are powerful as fuck.

Could I live in a house with this woman and not already know that power, mysterious and solemn as it is?

I can feel it, always, drawing me toward her.

What I love best about my wife is that she is the woman. The Woman. I have built an entire life around this love.

She returns to the doctor again today. And all the tumult she feels is near enough that I can hear it breathing.

I’ll bike home in the afternoon, and we’ll have dinner at a small Mexican place near our house. And she’ll tell me stories. Just like always. And I’ll be tethered to her. Like two girls at the ends of a jump rope. “Come on,” we’ll say. “Come on! Jump, motherfucker.”

Or maybe the tether is a boat docked.

Or a kite straining into the sky.

A climber lifting, lifting.

It doesn’t matter. Do you see? It doesn’t matter how we are bound to one another. We are bound to one another. And that is the fortune.

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AP English

We didn’t sit at the back of the classroom, though we were closest to the door. As the classroom was long and lean, we sat at the outer edge. The two girls on my left were new to Hawaii for their senior year of high school. I can’t remember if they were military kids, but that seems most likely. The blonde told us, on the first day, that she was from Texas, and the other girl, whose posture was so upright that she could only have been a ballerina replied shrewdly, “Have you ever noticed that the first thing you learn about people from Texas is that they’re from Texas?” And the blonde laughed and said it was true, and they were close friends in that moment and for the rest of the year.

We had AP English in the afternoon, and our teacher loved to fuck with our nerd tendencies. Our spelling test was a list of definitions and you had to know not just how to spell the answer but remember exactly what the word you were meant to be spelling was. There are, after all, many answers to adj. tireless. Once, when asked to respond to a Steinbeck story, the beautiful boy in front of me, who inexplicably called me “Malone” as though we were in a frat, said, “It gives me this overwhelming feeling that I can only describe as yellow. The landscape, the flowers, the woman, the entire story — just crushingly yellow.” And we all nodded, because he had captured it exactly.

I knew at the time that they were the smartest kids I had ever been in a room with: our valedictorian, and the five kids who were taking all seven of the AP courses available to seniors. Our teacher’s office was on the opposite side of the classroom, behind a partition, and when I had my first meeting with her, she took off the thickest glasses I have ever seen and told me she was grateful that any time I spoke, I prefaced my comments with, “Miss,” so that she knew who was speaking because she couldn’t see anything more than six inches away from her face. Posters of terrible hair bands covered her office walls; she was especially infatuated with Bret Michaels.

Later, in college, I realized that she treated us like we were already done with high school. That first month, she welcomed us all to the English Club, and assured us it was fine to declare ourselves English Club President for the sake of our college applications. That final year in school, I sat on the outer edge of everything. I dropped out of cross country, and didn’t even bother to try out for basketball. All year, I struggled with throat infections that ultimately led to having my tonsils out, missing two weeks of school, and losing 20 lbs. I was in love with a girl in college and the pull was always away, away, away.

Several nights ago, I had a dream about the girl who was best friends with the Texas blonde. I can’t remember either of their names. It’s been more than 24 years since I’ve seen them. I remember she was petite, her hair dark and stylish. She reminded me of Mary Poppins: pretty, bossy, upright, brusque, surprisingly funny. We sat next to each other the night of our graduation. And after the ceremony ended, under the football stadium lights, we were making our way to the giant M sign to meet our families and friends, when she gave me the most determined look. The stadium lights made everything dreamy, and we still had our caps on as we’d been forbidden from tossing them. Her dark hair fell down her shoulders, and beyond her the night held every possibility. We’d made it. We were done, at last. And I watched that look on her face as she suddenly sprang into my arms. Choreographed perfectly as though we had rehearsed it. Her face set, she sprang, and I caught her and lifted her up up up into the lights before slowly lowering her. She had her arms around me and dipped her head to my ear. “Have the most beautiful life,” she said, and then she kissed me.

I never saw her again. Not once until the dream. And I dreamt that moment exactly. I had forgotten that she kissed me. I had forgotten that I set her down and smiled at her, and she’d stepped back into the other Ms and vanished. It had been so dreamy at the time that I wasn’t even certain it was real. Have the most beautiful life. Have the most beautiful life. I wish I could remember her name. I wish I’d replied. And also I wish none of those things. She was so beautiful. So perfect. So light in my arms. Like a dancer.

Hundreds of people poured down from the stadium seats, and draped leis around our necks. Everywhere, the smell of flowers. Crushingly yellow.

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Stirrup

You have been ill. Your body wrung out like a wash cloth. The parts of your brain where the lights live have closed for repairs.

“I don’t understand,” your boss says, “why we aren’t all in the streets. Why aren’t we all in the streets?”

You are too tired to reply, “Many of us are.” Or, more truthfully, “Because we have to last out this work day in our air-conditioned building.”

“Because we are busy typing our outrage.”

“Because we are consumed with making the same amount of money go on and on.”

“Because we are still reacting to yesterday’s calamity.”

“Because we haven’t recovered from this morning’s news.”

“Because we have been beaten up so thoroughly that holding our phones in front of our faces feels like complicity.”

“Because today I just can’t.”

I am 42 and more contented than I have ever been. Can I tell you that I wake in a room filled with art — women and wolves — skeletons and cemeteries? The push of small dog paws against my legs. To a wife so warm that even her murmurs are musical.

My city is under construction. It doesn’t seem like we have a single road that is intact or unimpeded. The angry man with terrible hair is yelling into the wind again; my entire feed is consumed with his latest catastrophe. But it’s the same smash-up as before: the abuser goes on being abusive.

Outside the 13th floor, I watch the clouds press wherever they are headed.

My child with his trumpet and top hat on stage in the spotlight.

Everything in fractions now as we try to solve for x.

My weariness like a cape. Is it keeping me warm, or making it harder to escape?

I wanted to tell you that I still can’t be hopeless.

Even now, as I hold my shoulders together in what I’ve decided to call a huddle, I feel a little more like laughing. Maybe it’s hysteria. I can only do what I have always done. Shop in local stores. Buy used. Repair. Help wherever I can. Refuse to abandon my joy. I am near tears when I feel the lights switch on, and the chairs come off the tables, and the steps in the kitchen that mean we’re nearly there. We’re a little closer. We are together in this.

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The giveaway

The kid had already performed St. James Infirmary for Talent Show tryouts. Yet, we sat in the audience anyway. Maybe this year they were required to stay until the last performer had auditioned. His buddy was called to go home. And still we stayed. I sat on the back side of the lunch table, with my son and two girls in front of me.

The girl on his left kept asking questions. I’d see the dip of his head toward her, and then the deepening murmur of his response.

My god! I thought. We’re staying for a girl!

Again the dip of his head. More questions. More responses.

Forty minutes of children performing at the piano, on stage with hula hoops, dances choreographed to pop songs from two years ago. On and on. Still his head dipped toward hers.

Is there a better giveaway than the dipped head? The way one person seems to drink in the other. A face dipped into a pool of light. A gift still in its wrap and ribbon.

The next evening, we headed up to an after-school event. The kid had surprised us by asking to attend. He vanished after we fed him and reappeared a moment later with the girl who asked questions.

Marvelous.

The dip is also discovery, isn’t it? A kind of attention usually reserved for examination. For research.

I hope I never stop dipping to my wife. My head turned slightly to whisper something to her alone. To rest my forehead against hers for a moment and reinvigorate myself there as though love were a resource we need only bow toward. An attentive, curious supplicant.

My attention is entirely on you. You. With your questions. All of your questions. I will make it a habit to listen. To listen. And respond.

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