Join me in hell

Houses here are gated and low to the ground. The gate draws together your portion of sand so it’s finite. A dot, a pearl of property held in the palm of the mountains that loom beyond the dirt city.

I’m outside my friend’s gate with a quiche staring at two layers of wrought iron. Through the grate I see sandstone walls and my tired friend leaving the house in T-shirt to meet me for coffee despite the fact that I’m early. She lets me in and I follow her to the kitchen, where we chat and she pours two mugs of coffee. We set the quiche in the oven and she shows me the mechanics of her house – the doors that stick when you close them, the locations of light switches. She explains that her cats will run out in the yard even though they aren’t supposed to.

I’m cat-sitting. It’s a position of privilege. For a whole week I will extend my domain to the couch in my friend’s living room, to the lounge chairs on her back porch.

When the quiche is ready we move to a table in the front yard and talk. We look at each other despite the sun and we share the most recent events, from dull changes in routine to insecurities. She is peaceful, I am not. She wonders why she overcommits herself, I tell her I’m scared of my next steps and I don’t know if I’ll be a good lawyer.

Before I leave I tell her what I’ll get her for a Christmas present and she gives me a book she told me about reading a month ago “in like three hours – it’s so good.”

In my car I start my car and as I drive home I think about how I have just let someone in. I have just let someone expect a Christmas present. Somehow she smiled about it.

When the feeling began, I was young. I sensed that I would die. I saw the rot in the world and I felt myself in it. Reconsidering my attachments, I grew internal. My thoughts became longer chains. And under the chains, the assumption remained: I am contagious, I am designed to die. As potential relationships emerged before me I dismissed them with the thought of their brevity, not even moments in my minute of life.

Illness – I think it was illness that prevented me from seeing the joy that could erupt in a joke told to the right person. While depressed, I didn’t see reactions. My emotion was consuming fog: effective isolation.

The novelty of death wears off. Growing older, it becomes commonplace, even in the drugged and developed world. I see a dead bird on the highway. I see dust grind fences down.

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Zenith

“I married a woman who would not make me tired.”

“I married a woman who would not want to talk about politics at night.”

“Your mother, she could never be a political wife.”

 

-Themes in my father’s confessionals in the car.

 

We drove from my hometown, where he lived his final days of married life, to silence and Maine, to close-knit pine boughs and silent snow.

The journey is scenic, or it is highway – alternately. In fall, my hometown erupts in yellows and hysterical orange. The many ponds freeze slightly over. Jags of white and blue mirror amplify the reds, the browns of multifoliate forest.

From the school bus, we would see mist rise as the ice began to melt, and it would obscure familiar houses, leaving the colonial scenes incomplete and subject to rifts in memory.

Recitals of shortcomings persuade over time.

My mother silent after my political rants about President Bush. My mother’s deferral to other opinions. My mother and the other mothers in the pick-up line, and apart from their manicured mass. My mother picking me up at tennis lessons, her flyaway hair, her Boston accent, her wild laugh.

In childhood when the walls of self are down and disengaged, what you cannot do becomes what I cannot do.

I wanted to swing car keys like my mother. To wipe off lipstick in the rearview mirror. But I wanted to affect a power I saw in other people, to initiate the silence my father did. To tame my hair and clothes and schedule into country club order.

Associating with you, I build the weaknesses I can handle, the weaknesses that do not erode love or respect, the desire to be near and the desire to be known.

I did not sense my own limitations. I would play and assume my wants would settle into my reality as I became adult-looking. But one day, after caking my shoes with mud, I slipped and held the wood of our swing-set structure, getting wood splinters in my tiny palms.

My father held my hands outstretched and he paused before lowering the tweezers to my skin. “No calluses,” he said. “You will always be a lady.”

And then I began to perceive the work of self-creation.

There were so many ladies. I decided the best type were the ones that made cookies for you before you got home, like my friend Elizabeth’s mom.

But as I grew I found myself at odds with the packaging. When I would fold my floral clothes, I felt the absence of some essential element. I realized that hours of my day might be vacant if I stayed at home to bake. I realized men were difficult and loud, that mothers were political and unkind.

Instead of inspired, I felt capped by the problematic zenith of who I might be as a lady. As a wife – if I were a wife – I would be a political wife. As a mother – if I were a mother – I would be tender. I would wipe off lipstick in my rearview mirror. But what would I do with the reach of my mind in all those exposed hours?

Off edges

She did not pause – ever. She kept going to the brink, even after I left. And when he left her, she no longer paused before agreeing to fall.

Celine became my roommate when I decided to leave my life and my job in New York. It was an incautious decision of mine, to throw away my life and restart it. But this urge ate away at me, burrowing in with each subway trip, each uninspired grind. And so I called her (Celine) and asked her to take over my job, my apartment. She became my roommate.

When she moved in, her presence interrogated my life. The city made me reclusive, and I saw it when she went out. And when she came back crying around three am, I knew I was calm. I made her tea. And then I moved out, and she took over my lease because she’d taken my job, and then a bigger job, in the city.

I left and started graduate school. I became competitive and voracious. And it ate into my relationships again, but ambition allowed it.

I knew Celine was in love. She would invite me to parties while I was a thousand miles away. I saw her smiling with her partner and I smiled for the both of them. We agreed we felt fond of one another, and of our oppositeness. And then I saw her relationship fall apart through her sudden silence. Through the photos of her alone, of her at home instead of New York.

She told me that she had bottomed out. And my heart broke for her, my dear friend. But I don’t know how to calm her down from a thousand miles away. She knows the dimensions of my life, the dirt in the corners. But I can’t see through the smallness of my life.

I am, alternately, in a rage at her, for being irresponsible. I am like a parent, yelling at a child who wandered into the road. Raging at my lack of control.

Or, I convince myself that I am not necessary. While I celebrate her ability to heal herself, I conspire with the hard world by failing to respond.

What can I say to an experience I don’t know?

Humility and what I don’t own

My best friend is from Bangalore, India. We met at college orientation. During one of the countless talks on women’s liberation and globalization, I saw her lip curl for the first time, gently at one side. Later I knew the curl was her response to anglicized pronunciations and naïve solutions to the third world.

She taught me that ‘buddhism’ is pronounced buthd-hism and not bood-ism, watched Buffy with me and movies with Aishwarya Rai, and combed oil through my hair. We were always watching explosions, dramatic or literal, in her attic dorm room above a bookstore.

When I go to yoga, or meditate, I feel my lip curling too, as if I weren’t part of this white washing because I am in sympathy with my friend. But my friend is more generous. She does not roll her eyes at shirts with ‘namaste’ on them, and she says growth and spirit can come in anyway. She is beyond judgment of white men with buns in flowing kurtas, and I am not.

But my judgment does break down. Today, at the end of a difficult class, our yoga teacher told us her practice was driven by the beauty of the universe, that she saw the beauty of the universe in human exertion. I felt or intuited truth. My thoughts about how the teachers gossip before class, rolling their eyes at some inconvenience, folded in on themselves. It did not matter that they gossiped because their insight was in spite of it. How humbling that they live a divinity beyond me.

Decisions in Rain

Since I moved to the desert, I fantasize about rain. I imagine the coolness on my face, the way the water runs with abandon down any exposed limb, how it feels like gravity flexed as a muscle.

A neat child, I hated the rain. It damped my fashion, it interrupted play. Days incubated in the rain. But it left a peculiar New England scent of pine and damp dirt, and the pine rose again above our heads – an intoxicating crown.

When you stare up into the falling rain the drops that are closest are magnified and you know you are always underwater. In adolescence in America they ask you to choose your life and you are sorted into a college by a few words and a test score. On the cusp of this, in fear of it, I stayed out in the rain. I imagined the military and myself in martial order, and in academia taxonomized. But my vision was poor in the rain. I felt myself undivided from it. I stayed out, and all around me it fell.