Gingerbread

After the trees drop their leaves, and we drift back into our houses, the space heater comes out. It is Japanese, and from the ’80s.

Heralding the winter, this warm angel fills the house with an electric churning sound. It bares its grated face to the living room. The flame trapped inside it rises and falls like a licking tongue.

At four or five I would lay down in front of it. Close to the noise and warmth, I felt the mechanical curiosity that Victorians had for steam engines – an awe of electric lights and of the science of assembly.

About this time, my mother and I made croissants, not realizing it takes a full 24-hours. We got impatient, microwaved the butter (a horrible mistake) and mixed it in with all of the other ingredients. We made buttery rocks. And at the end, we both confessed to being entirely nonplussed as to why our failure to follow the recipe led us astray. Everything was measured correctly, anyways.

After one or two attempts to eat what we made, I took the rest of our creations outside to the backyard, and a stretch of forest beyond. I was feeding the animals, my mother said. I took care in arranging the pastries, thinking about where the birds or foxes might find them.

Christmas came and went and towards the beginning of February, when the snow melted and re-froze, my mother decided to make gingerbread. Spices and molasses, butter and flour became brown sheets.

When she was finished my mother brought out cookie cutters of cupids and angels. “These cookies are for your father for Valentine’s Day,” Mom said. “Ok,” I said. And we cut cupids out of the brown sheets, and my mom cut small circles in their heads. We strung red ribbons through their heads and hung a chain of cookies from the ceiling. A few times we had to reinforce the tape sticking the ribbon to the ceiling.

She made so many cookies we had to put them in the Tupperware with the tan lids – the big ones used for holidays.

When my Dad came that weekend, he laughed at the string of cookies. “What’s this?” he asked. “Mom made them,” I said. “They’re cookies. They’re for you!”

“Why did you make gingerbread?” he asked Mom. She showed him the recipe book, with the photographs – “Yes, but why gingerbread?” he continued, “Have I ever told you that I like gingerbread?”

“I like gingerbread,” I said.

My Dad grabbed three cookies and moved to the couch. He had at least one cupid and at least one angel – a good variety.  He stopped mid-mouthful. “Elch,” he said. “These are horrible! They taste like cardboard. Just get rid of them now.”

Mom looked at me. “But we had some earlier…” “Yes Daddy,” I said, “I had milk too.”

“You crazy?” he said. “I bet even the birds wouldn’t eat these things. They’ll be in the backyard for ages.” I thought of our angels all over the snow. It made me sad.

A few days later Mom told me to take the cookies out to the backyard. Dad wouldn’t eat them and sometimes on the phone he would say things like, “Fucking Martha Stewart – what man wants to come home to a chain of cardboard angels!” The people on the other end would laugh, usually.

I put our angels on the snow. For the first time I thought about how dark we would all look against the clouds of heaven. I was pinkish, but everyone is tan compared with white.

It did not make me happy to think about the animals, but I made sure the angels were faced up and not touching one another, in case it was a sin to do otherwise.

Advertisements

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?

Emotional Clean-up Crew

Wake to the pain. It is fresh as light, new in the moments its causes remain forgotten.

You reach down to touch the sensation. You guess at its location. You find feet and hands instead – realizing the whole instrument.

When it hits you, it will sound the alarm. Your body will sing into sweat and grief and rage at abandonment.

First, reach deeper to feel the wound. Sit up in bed. What will answer it? Will you need an army? Will you need a new lover? Will art open you?

Go to the places he went with you. Smell the roses out of your memory. Place them on the ground.

Go to his hometown which you will not recognize. His perspective to dissipates to air, to gray city.  He is unknown.

The morning generates a morning and a new day. Tender, the pain is wrapped and held. Tender, it dissipates. Memory loosens. Find yourself in air.

Heartbreak, Hair and Philosophy

My last year of college shared a rhythm with the earlier years. On weekends, my friends and I sat on Melissa’s carpet, watching TLC reality TV or Hallmark movies on her television’s tiny screen.

Though she studied economics, Melissa’s passion was hair. So as we watched agitated housewives or people with addictions, she would massage our scalps and brush our hair.

It calmed me.  As I listened to the sounds from the monitor I let myself regress to first or second grade when my mother shaped my hair into curls, bound them up with ribbon, and soothed me into beautiful emotional order.

That year I decided to write a philosophy thesis. I was not prepared. As an English major, I’d read Shakespeare but not Kant, I’d read Milton but not Hegel. But nearing the end of my educational journey, I kept asking myself for meaning.

In all the poems and plays and stories I had read, descriptions evaded definitions. I did not understand love after War and Peace or after Romeo and Juliet. I wanted to strip ‘love,’ and ‘faith,’ and ‘certainty,’ down to sounds and forms and elements. To know when I carried them in me; to know when they were real.

In those days, I awoke and carried my wide eyes across the faces of loved ones, looking for clues. I tried to isolate the love behind their expressions. And with the same intensity, I stared at the sky, at the school athletic fields and the little, dense patches of New England forest.

I wrote and I read and talked through my work with my thesis mentor, until the day that a letter came from the school. Curtly the administration informed me that my mother had not paid my tuition for the semester, and that if they did not receive payment soon, I would be evicted from the dorms, unenrolled from my classes.

With help from my advisor, I worked out a way to graduate early. She told me it was a shame that I would miss so and so’s seminar, and I saw her concern. She knew too how senseless it was to abandon what I had just begun, how senseless it was to pretend my way into adulthood.

In those days I still awoke with wide eyes so that I would not miss meaning if it chose to appear. I continued going to class, and working, and watching TV with my friends on the weekend, feeling childlike and comforted when my friend ran her hands through my hair, adding pins and hairspray.

It is always comforting to be around people with a sense of vocation. “Have you been called?” asked the posters at my church, and they showed self-assured faces, people of all ages who dropped their lives as construction workers or engineers or grandparents to be folded into religious order, into certainty.

My friend was no different. As she twisting my hair knowingly around curling irons, I asked her how she knew she liked hair. What it was about styling that drew her back. She hmmed. She said she didn’t know, but that it was nice to see people respond to themselves with wonder.

I read that semester about Lacan’s idea of meconnaissance, or misrecognition. The idea that a child recognizing himself in a mirror realizes he has been mistaken; that he is the small and vulnerable creature in the mirror, whom the outside world has always known. As my school kicked me out, my mother stopped paying, my work ground to a halt, I felt vulnerable. I realized that the world could place itself between me and my search for meaning.

My heart was breaking.

I loved philosophy. Studying and writing felt like standing before an ocean, like I drew closer to the water every moment, closer to the clean sure words of people who would tell me why love was not reflected in movies, or why rote memorization could not fill or satisfy my mind. But I could not continue.

I packed away my things, I applied for jobs in a state of pure confusion. I found myself on the floor in Melissa’s room. I remember the sound of the brush she moved through my hair. The pressure of the brush on my scalp.

Melissa reassured me. Because she knew what she wanted. Because she carried it with her in a number of cosmetic cases, making moments of sense from disobedient circumstances.

Post-sex cigarette

Ruddy-faced pictures of my friend at eleven show unkempt hair, a dolphin T-shirt, and over-sized board shorts. Certainly not glamorous. The contrast that exists, between my friend as she is and my friend as she was then, was irrelevant to our conversation.

My friend told me about her growing pains because she could see mine. In response to those first shocks of rejection, I’d adopted diets that led to acne. My haircut was awful. Because I was dissatisfied with myself, I lost too much weight. At one point, I stopped eating from anxiety. As she did my hair and make-up before a date she unfolded her eleven-year old images to me, confiding the slow creation of her image from raw, awkward, child material. I felt so comforted.

A few moments ago, I pulled the pins out of my hair and untangled the braids. I let it fall around my face, and I asked myself yet again if I was beautiful. I think this is a ritual question. Shockingly I had an answer a few weeks ago, after sex. He said, “you know, you are just so beautiful.” And I believed him. He was the first partner who shared my ethnic background. So how could I disagree with someone in whom I saw some shade of that same beauty?

I was attracted by our differences. His indigenousness, his proximity to my heritage compared with my isolation in the mixing pot. And he was older, understood more. And he’d seen the whole world and knew I was naive, despite my own travel. And he left.

I am not prone to much reaction. I don’t cry in public, I don’t chase people. I know that catching someone in a scene does not allow you to keep them. When he left, I kissed him goodbye, and grimaced when he said, “If only this were another place and time. I wonder what would happen with us.” As if he were interested.

Now when I stare in the mirror, I imagine I have control over the shape of my eyes or the pout of lips. And that in them – in the posing and posturing and applying of creams – some alchemy exists. That belief creeps in to override what he’d said about the vacation he’d planned, about his unwillingness to settle down “for, like, the next ten or twenty years.” It threatens the revelation I had that I am, in some sense, beautiful.

And it is not so painful to believe that my beauty, like the beauty in so many ordinary things, might be realized and let go, or simply go unappreciated. It is painful to think that my significance was dismissed or pre-empted, but because I only have control over my interface, I end up here, in front of a mirror. Critiquing my upper arms, for Chrissakes.

More damningly, I find myself closing the door. On opportunities, on events, and on would-be friends and the experiences we might have had. I insure myself against the possibility of rejection through an ascetic denial of the role I might play in other lives.

Sitting with myself, I find it easy to belief that another insider, someone with my knowledge of myself, would walk (or run) away. The way I ruminate. My maddening studiousness and my guilt over a thousand nothings. And the reality, the moments of rejection themselves are not so bad. It’s a mild pain. But like a bee sting, you can’t blow it off. It eats in, like the nihilism that comes afterwards for me.

I wish I could blow or burn it off. Maybe through a cigarette. Maybe I could delay whatever pain is there through the true indifference that more pleasure might bring. But I worry that these minor aches are part of some grander narrative that colludes to make acceptance sweeter. That fantasy is my post-sex cigarette.

Other Worlds.

My father claims my mother had numerous affairs. That some days, she would get up and leave our house, to go live entirely different lives, lives which to us were insensate.

I don’t know if this is true. Sometimes she’d take me to office buildings, or parks, or even grocery stores, and I remember her words running beyond my understanding. The impressions of advertisements, faces. But I remember no infidelity.

I am facing this adult chasm, with authenticity on one side and morality on the other, because it’s not ok to run away when you are monogamous.

My last partner tells me that when I left all those times I caused damage he only realized much later, and I believe him. I struggle too to know why leaving was necessary when return was so possible.

The only answer I have is a primordial vision, of a man venturing out of a cave. He doesn’t go to find anything, or anyone. He just goes to take the space, to consolidate his footing, and to feel slow exhaustion of mind syncing with body.

Affair.

So sweet. Sweet, but what a drag, getting to know yourself. On a date, even the silence is filled with you. This breeds indecision. I question every movie choice as I look into someone else’s eyes and think, “I don’t know what you want right now.”

In polite conversation, you can shrink yourself to invisibility. To teleprompter status. And you can keep the secret of your sentience as well as technology does.

Because I am traveling, this relationship has a built-in terminus. An end of the line when a distance of thousands of miles, when space will explode between us. For now things feel fresh and heady. He is outside waiting for me, smiling at me.

Yesterday at six am I got a phone call from Alaska. And I said messy things to an ex to give closure. And then this door opened, and He was there. I still don’t know what this is, this shining and temporary thing. As this affair washes over me, I worry that I am the only discrete thing in the experience.

The guards are up because there isn’t time to let them down. Our conversations, His and mine, have dips and grooves in them from where things were edited or carved out. And at first I rebelled against this dishonesty but now I adapting because I find things I don’t want to share.

After that call, I felt brilliant and solid. I cried. I saw my friendships hundreds of years from now, like iron bonds supporting the earth. I wanted to thank everything, every facilitating thing for the honesty that erupted between me and this ex.

Last night in a fairground over ice cream, I stumbled telling the story of my tattoo. Of how I chose the words I spend my life with. Wonderful, so wonderful, to have someone listen and wait for you and hold doors. But the problem is that you have to open in response, and when things are temporary, this is not easy. And maybe not advisable.

Sometimes I imagine that we’ll course correct, or converge later in life. He’ll visit the US and we will rediscover one another. And when the frame changes this trust, this attachment will be possible, or available, even if we don’t use it.