Let me state for the record that all of the things I have done in life made sense at the time. I have never once thought, “Well, this will be an expensive, foolish, and ultimately useless endeavor. Where do I sign up?” No, I always think it is absolutely the right course of action under the circumstances.
Graduate school: Where else do you go when you keep getting fired from jobs?
Martial arts: Obviously I was trying to quit smoking.
Marriage: A transparent ploy to get my parents off my back.
When my daughter was born with oh let’s call it special needs, it was not unlike a nuclear bomb going off in the middle of my life. At that point in time my idea of a challenge was a hotel without room service.
When the neurology resident said, “Your daughter’s brain is massively deformed,” I wasn’t thinking serious thoughts like, What is the prognosis? and What are the best treatment options? I was thinking WTF? WTF? not unlike a squirrel running up and down an oak tree.
Now an adult, Jessica moves slowly and carefully but loves to dance. She has a serious cognitive impairment but enjoys philosophical debates about abstract concepts like truth and justice. She has a significant visual impairment and needs help navigating unfamiliar terrain but is an inspired glass artist.
Over the years, I learned how to be the kind of woman who could raise this child. But that is not today’s story. Today’s story is about what happened after that, when all the dramatic action paused for a moment and I took a breath, and thought about me. At first it went like this: me me me me me glorious me! Then I began having deeper thoughts, which is a course of action I cannot in good conscience recommend to other people. Introspection is a dangerous activity when not handled correctly. Proceed at your own risk.
This was a sign on the wall near a cliff Jessica and I visited during our European adventures. Note that it is a very graphic representation of what could happen if you step too near the edge. Note that I disregarded the sign even after I took a picture of it. In other words, I can’t say I didn’t see the sign.
There’s a story behind the sign. Oh, yes, indeed. And! You will have a chance to read the story once I get finished writing the book it’s in.
I came back from Europe with a suitcase full of notes. At first I wasn’t sure what they would turn into—a podcast, a photo essay, a bonfire—and then, of course, after I fooled around at it for months, it turned into a book. I have no idea why I thought it would be anything else.
Well, I do know why. I thought perhaps I was done being a writer. It’s been a good run and I kind of wanted to do something else, preferably involving wine and Greek sailors. But alas. It turns out that my great adventure has not freed me to become a runway model or deep-sea fisherperson. It has in fact made me more deeply committed to the process of writing, which was not at all what I was expecting. I am tempted to ask for my money back, if only I could figure out where to register the complaint.
The book, The Improbable Adventures of a Middle-Aged Woman, is nearly complete. I am planning on a May 1 release date, so scribble that down on your calendar. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder what I was smoking (nothing, I swear).
In the meantime, Jessica has returned to the art of making glass. I have not yet updated her website (I have been busy experiencing personal growth) but I promise I shall get to it soon. She is working on some quite lovely glass casting which is a finicky and time-consuming process and just watching it drives me to drink, but she adores it. Casting means she can make jewelry more easily, if by easily we mean through a nitpicky and agonizing series of steps, but I don’t mind. Really. It means she can make things for people who prefer not to own large glass objects that four-year-olds can use as weapons. (Do not ask me how I found out about the four-year-olds.)
Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter on my home page! You never know when I’m going to give away random good stuff.
I am talking on the phone with a friend of mine about freelancing and how to make the work of marketing ourselves more efficient. She mentions that a career coach she knows says that the way to get people to buy your brand when you are the brand is to sell your lifestyle as something they, too, can have, if they buy your stuff. Like you can be thin and pretty and wealthy, too, if you go to their ImagineIt! seminar or whatever.
This is about the point when I start laughing like a hyena.
I think it is fair to say you would not want my life and if you actually lived it for a week or so you would totally be pounding on my front door demanding to give it back. You might want parts of it—like maybe you think it would be great to work from your kitchen table with companionable people you don’t actually have to be in an office with so you never have to find out how annoying they really are, or maybe you’ve always wanted to write a book but have never done so, or possibly you wish the silver in your hair was just as awesome as the silver in mine, and like that.
But you know, or you should know if you’ve gotten past the age of, oh, five, that the good parts don’t come without the bad parts and mine has some seriously bad bad parts, parts I would never wish anyone else to ever have to go through. Ever. EVER. But just like you, I look at other people’s bad parts and think I have better bad parts, so I’ll settle for my own life, Alex, thank you very much.
What I try to do with all of my work is to make it so your bad parts don’t feel so bad and when I succeed that makes my bad parts feel not so bad, either, so it’s kind of a reciprocal deal. But frankly I have no idea how to market this, and I’m pretty sure that career coach doesn’t, either. So I just put it out there where people can wander by and see it and some people pick it up and a few of them hate it—boy howdy! do they hate it! with a fiery and somewhat disconcerting intensity!—but I like to think they’re the ones buying the lives other people are selling so this is not a place where they would be comfortable anyway.
But I’m glad you’re here.
I bring all of this up because a while back I wrote a blog post about some changes I am making in my life—how I am leaving town, taking a peek at Europe, spending a couple of months in Florida, and seeing what happens next—and a lot of people—seriously, a lot of people, more than I can count on both hands and all my toes—wanted to know more. They wanted to know How I Did It, and it is very seductive to start writing the how-to portion because that is what I have been doing for most of my career. Like, when you are packing all your things and shoving them into storage, there is definitely a how-to involved. For example, you want to avoid the scary deserted self-storage units where serial killers keep all their dead bodies and instead choose the reasonably priced one with the nice guy who answers the phone promptly and shows you personally how to work the gate.
But I don’t think people are really asking how to stuff all their things into storage and go be like water. I don’t think anyone is actually planning to do that or thinking that is an excellent item to add to their bucket list. Most people are thinking, “I shall watch Jennifer from a safe distance and that will be amusing.”
What people are responding to, or so I think, and if I am wrong they will be sure to correct me, is the idea of freedom. And I don’t mean this in the shopworn sense of freedom to chose from fifty-seven kinds of salad dressing at the grocery store. We need less of that kind of freedom and more of the other kind, the real kind, the self-determination kind.
But that’s wrong, too, or at least limited: I’m not talking about rugged individualism and every person for him- or herself. If you have any kind of connection with other human beings whatsoever, you know that you are not in charge of your own life and your own destiny, and you wouldn’t want to be, anyway.
I am trying to find a way to describe this to a friend, to say what I feel I have lost and need to recover, and I say I am looking for the spaciousness of youth, for the feeling that I had time for everything, that life was magical and not yet boxed in by definitions, all the things a girl can and cannot do, that the infinite possibility of the world belonged to me.
Is it innocence you are looking for? she asks.
But it is not; I wasn’t innocent as a child, if by innocent we mean unfamiliar with anger and cruelty and pain and violence and sex and death. I am not talking about my unformed infancy but about my childhood. Who is innocent in childhood? Not me and probably not you. And anyway I am not a person who prizes innocence; I would have eaten of the tree of knowledge. I would have taken an enormous bite from the apple. I would have consumed the whole thing, core and all, spitting out only the seeds, and never once regretted it. I am looking for the truth and have been since I was old enough to conceive that it might exist. Innocence is a barrier to that, not a means of achieving it.
I sit for a long time to understand what I mean by spaciousness, trying to remember that feeling. What was it? How did I lose it? Can I ever get it back?
The sitting doesn’t reveal anything. Impatient, I pack us up and leave town. It’s nearly the Fourth of July and all the terrors in the neighborhood will be shooting off fireworks and triggering Jessica, it will feel like she is under attack for five days, and I can’t bear it either, not her fingers digging into my arm while she suffers like she has been gut shot and no one will do anything about it. I hate this town and these people at this time of year.
We go to the Grand Canyon. Fireworks are not allowed in national parks, a fact that fills Jessica with gratitude towards the federal government. (“Really? Not at all? Nowhere in the park? That is a very good rule.”)
The Grand Canyon is somewhat inconveniently located but I don’t mind the drive. A change of scenery always changes the quality of my thinking. Quiet time in the car keeps the rational part of my brain engaged watching for cops and trouble while the creative part is free to wander. I’m not thinking of all the things I have to do. I can’t do them right now anyway.
Jessica is the navigator, the atlas and directions on her lap, her eye out for road signs and mile markers. She is a good traveler, willing to meet the world exactly on its terms.
We stop at Santa Fe. I buy a storyteller figure, then another. “I collect them,” I say.
“When did you start?”
I think about this. I got my first storyteller about twenty years ago and my second one today. “I started just now.”
She smiles. “You have been collecting dragons for a lot longer. Did you stop collecting dragons?”
“No,” I say. “A person can collect more than one thing at a time, if she wants.”
“That is not like you,” she says and it takes a while for me to understand what she means. And then I get it: All along, I have done an excellent job of picking just one thing. I collect dragons, and nothing else. I have one good pair of shoes for winter, and one good pair of sandals for summer. One excellent pair of black pants, one comb, one watch, and one sweater.
You might say I am good at closing doors in my life. I am marrying this man, and not that one. I am having this child, and no others. I am living in this town, not that one. I am taking this university degree, and not that.
I have learned to say no and I have needed to. I have gotten rid of the unnecessary baggage, the people who make life harder, the work no one appreciates, the expectations that chained me to a hamster wheel, spinning and spinning but going nowhere. I have made a life that I can just about handle, as long as no one expects me to vacuum.
I have closed a lot of doors and I have needed to. But perhaps I have closed so many of them that I have wound up in a room with all the doors shut. It seems likely; it is just the sort of thing I would do.
Jessica is spinning the postcard rack and picking out a handful to bring home with her.
“We haven’t been to Sedona,” I say, looking at her selection, and she doesn’t understand my point. I choose postcards that represent places I have been. But she collects postcards of sights she thinks are pretty and places she would like to go. It is like she doesn’t understand that there are rules.
I laugh at myself but gently because something hard is happening and I’m not sure I’m ready for it. (Later it turns out that it is not hard at all but I did not know this at the time.)
We get in the car to drive to Arizona, and Jess is quiet and a little perplexed.
“What is it?” I ask.
“I love Santa Fe.”
I think Santa Fe is fine, and by fine I mean I have no interest in going back, but I can see why Jessica feels the way she does. It is picturesque, with a pretty plaza and benches you can sit on to watch the buskers. You can’t walk three feet without running into an artist who is more than happy to talk about the work; art is everywhere and she has absorbed as much of it as she can touch. It reminds me of the first writers’ conference I ever went to, meeting a room full of people who were just like me. It was the first time I ever felt normal.
“I know we were planning to go to Florida but now I am not sure,” she says.
In St. Petersburg there are a lot of artists working in glass and she is hoping to learn from them but she loves Santa Fe in a way she does not love St. Petersburg.
“Well,” I say. “I’m not spending the winter in Santa Fe. They get more snow than we do! But we can come back in the fall and stay a few weeks.”
“Then we will do that,” she says. “And go to Florida afterwards. Until the spring.”
“Excellent,” I say.
About twenty miles east of Gallup, on a dusty road with no one around us, a rock falls from the sky and cracks the windshield.
Jessica jumps. “What was that?”
“Apparently a meteor from outer space,” I say. “It didn’t come from anywhere.”
I think of my friend Debz, who will love this omen. Back in my spacious youth I would have loved it, too, when I thought I might be an astronaut, before I started closing all those doors. A meteor from outer space would have fed my imagination for days.
The crack lengthens as we travel, meandering across the windshield, first horizontal, then vertical. The glass will have to be replaced before we can drive all the way home again, and I start to gnaw on this problem. And I realize that this is what separates the spaciousness of childhood from the narrowness of adulthood. When you are a child and a rock hits your windshield you think about outer space and compose stories in your head. When you are an adult, you think about how much it will cost to fix it, consider whether you should run it through insurance, and wonder how you’re going to find someone who can replace it before Wednesday, and on a holiday weekend, too.
We find our motel, a trading post in the Navajo Nation, and check in, and I go online to see what I can find out about auto glass shops in the middle of nowhere. Flagstaff, sixty miles away, will be the best place to try. I start saving website URLs.
“There is a garden,” Jessica says. “We walked by it on the way to our room.”
“A garden?” I know she is bringing this up because she doesn’t want to sit around while I type on the computer and sigh. There is nothing I can do about the windshield right now anyway. “Let’s go,” I say.
We sit in the garden and watch the birds, sparrows and crows and grackles, the grackles graceful and pretty from a distance but loud and impatient up close. I am thinking about birds, and the sun low in the western sky, and meteors from outer space and not at all about the cost of repairing broken windshields.
“I want to live on a houseboat,” I say. I startle myself by saying it; I had no idea this was on my mind.
“Yes. I’ve always wanted to live on one. But there aren’t any houseboats in Kansas.”
“You want to live on a houseboat when we go to Florida.”
“Yes. For a little while, anyway.”
“Do you even know how to drive a boat?”
“Yes, but not in the open ocean. I want to do that, too. I want to learn to drive a boat on the open ocean.” I startle myself with this, as well; I had no idea I wanted to learn how to do this. Or, actually, I had no idea I still wanted to learn how to do this. When I was a child, I used to think that someday I would learn how, but as an adult, it seemed like a ridiculous idea. I live in Kansas. There is no open ocean here.
I hear myself and start to laugh. “I am going to be exactly like Travis McGee. I am going to live on a houseboat and take my retirement in pieces.”
“Who is Travis McGee?” she asks.
“A fictional character.”
Jessica is silent. I can tell she is thinking that modeling my life after a fictional character’s is probably not the wisest course of action I have ever cooked up, but she doesn’t say anything.
It turns out the houseboat and the open ocean isn’t all.
“Then I want to go to Nashville and learn how to play the guitar,” I say as the sun glows golden across the high desert. I used to play, a long time ago, before I closed that door. “I want to write songs. I don’t know how to write songs but I want to do it anyway.”
“On the guitar.”
“Yes. I mean, I don’t have to learn to write songs so that I can break into the music scene or anything,” I say. “I don’t have to succeed. I don’t want to succeed. I can be terrible at it. I don’t care.”
“In Nashville?” She sounds doubtful.
“Well, you don’t have to come with me for all of this,” I say. “But I’m not moving back to Lawrence right now.” Or ever, I don’t say because that is complicated and she has roots that I want to honor. But I am rootless, unbound. I don’t have to live like this anymore. I have honored my obligations and done my duty. I will always be what Jessica needs me to be but I can be that anywhere, doing anything, now that her condition is stable, now that she has graduated from high school.
When I first began planning our travels—late summer in Europe, winter in Florida—a thing inside me cried for the child I once was, hurt and afraid and alone. Now I am laughing. She is laughing, that twelve-year-old girl, brown-eyed and freckled, barefoot in the grass.
This is what I mean. This is the spaciousness I am looking for. I am not a middle-aged woman edging towards the end of my life. I am a middle-aged woman at the beginning of it.
I am opening the doors again, every door I ever shut, except for a few of the ones over there because I know better.
“And after that?” Jessica asks.
“After that?” I can’t stop laughing. “Anything.”
The marketing blurb (because I can at least try, right?): You can find my collection of travel essays, Travels with Jessica, here. And my alter ego, Alicia Thorne, has a novel in the Summer Sizzle anthology releasing July 25. Less than a buck for six books! Preorder here.
The first one comes in the fall of Jessica’s junior year, a letter from the admissions office of Kansas State University.
I don’t immediately recognize what it is. Once I do, for a moment hope flaps its vain and tinsel wings. Maybe it’s true. Maybe my daughter can go to college, and get a great job, and move to Portland or Austin, the way young people do. Fall in love and have a family, her life complete and whole, like other people do.
But reality coolly asserts itself, the way reality always does. Jessica could apply for admission, yes, but that is a fool’s game; she would never be admitted. Not to Kansas State University, not to the University of Kansas, not to any of the private liberal arts colleges or community colleges badgering her to apply.
They get lists of high school juniors and seniors and they target those on the honor roll but they don’t know Jessica is on an IEP, that she is a member of that other 1 percent. I wish could get them to stop sending promises they won’t keep.
For a while each letter hurts, like a small sharp cut, but over time I learn to stop flinching when I collect the mail.
That is when the military recruiters arrive, tall young men in dress uniforms, strong and heroic, knocking on my front door and asking for Jessica.
This time, I recognize immediately why they are here. Small town girl on the honor roll, wrong side of the tracks; this is her ticket out. Except it’s not.
She’s intellectually disabled, I tell them. She won’t qualify for service.
The one on the right says gently, We’ll make a note. We won’t bother you again, ma’am.
And they don’t, which I wish I could say about everyone else.
The postings on Facebook and other groups start. The young adult children of all my friends, accepted by this college and that, alarums about financial aid, pictures of dorm rooms and awkward goodbye photos. The young adults are moving out. Moving on.
Not too much later, Jessica moves in with me. By that I mean she stops alternating her time between her father’s house and mine. She is my roommate, she decides, and she will go to her dad’s for dinner once a week, like a regular grown-up, and she’ll be a weekend guest now and then. But this is her home and and we are roommates, except she doesn’t actually pay her share of the rent or anything. She can’t.
To me her new life is a lot like her old except now I have less time to myself.
Long ago I knew I would not have the same milestones my friends and neighbors do. My life and other people’s are like a Venn diagram; they only overlap a little, in awkward places.
One day, in the spring of her senior year, for the first time ever she successfully ties her own shoelaces. We go to Dunn Brothers and split a cookie to celebrate.
I don’t know what we’ll do after she graduates. She will make more of her art glass, I know, but I have no idea how one makes a living from a thing like that. I am already hard-pressed to juggle her studio hours and the small amount of marketing we do with my own work; I don’t see how to make hers bigger without making mine smaller, and that sounds like a good way to wind up living under a bridge.
I panic and start thinking about buying a house and settling down. Maybe the cure is for me to act like other people. Then maybe my life will be more like theirs.
I am able to be enthusiastic about this course of action for several months in a row, which is some kind of new record for me. But then reality does its thing. I don’t have enough money for a down payment, and it’s unlikely I can get approved for a mortgage loan just now because I had that down year a while back, but if I try earnestly and am a good soldier, maybe five or ten years from now, I will be able to do this thing.
I envision another crappy rental in another crappy part of town and I think how my life wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Jessica tries to cheer me up. “You wanted to go to Ireland sometime. You’ve got enough money for Ireland, right?”
I look at the bank balance. Yes, I have enough money for Ireland.
“Then let’s go to Ireland,” she says. “And maybe other places. You like Europe.”
I do like Europe. Tentatively I make a list. Ireland goes on it. Scotland. I’ve never been to Scotland, either.
“We’ll go back to London,” Jessica says. “We can see some plays. You know. That guy you like.”
“Shakespeare,” I say.
“Where would you like to go?” I ask her and she gets that shy smile and her eyes slide away from mine; she isn’t sure how I’ll react.
“Romania,” she says.
“Romania?” How does she even know Romania exists? Then I remember how much she loves Buffy the vampire slayer and Buffy’s lover Angel and I get it all in a rush, how she wants to go to Transylvania and see Dracula’s castle and be in this place that has meaning to her. I don’t laugh; I had things like that when I was her age, things I longed to do with my whole heart and was embarrassed to tell anyone about.
“Sure,” I say. “But only if we go to Sofia, too. Bulgaria is right next door to Romania and I’ve always wanted to see Sofia.” And Prague and Budapest and Berlin. The list of places I have always wanted to see is long and daunting. Maybe someday.
She nods, absorbed in reading a website about things to do in Romania. After a while she looks up and says, “What if we keep traveling?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we don’t have to come back right away. We could just keep traveling.”
“It’s expensive,” I say. “I don’t have that kind of money.”
“Well, not staying in hotels. And we could work.”
I start to see a shape to things, a glimmer. We’ll give up this rental, put our things in storage, and kick around Europe for a while. Jess starts looking up youth hostels that accept old people, “Even though you are not really that old, Mom.”
I entertain the idea of never having a mortgage at all. The glimmer blossoms into something bigger, sharper and clearer. There are things I have always wanted to do. Places I have always wanted to see. All my teaching and editing and writing is online. I can do that from anywhere.
We decide to winter in Florida after we come back from Europe. She’ll work with some hot glass artists and pick up whatever skills she can over the winter. In the spring we’ll head west; there’s a warm glass studio in Santa Fe we can visit, and then I want to see the redwoods in California.
“The only rule is I have to see my dad sometimes,” she says.
“Of course,” I say. I’ll keep my post office box and a storage place nearby; we’ll have to stop in at least occasionally anyway so I can do banking and legal things. Maybe in ten years I will settle down. But not right now.
I meet some friends at an open house, and Jessica shares our plans, and Johanna, who has been teaching for thirty-seven years and is the epitome of all that is settled and committed, says, “Oh, my gosh, yes. Don’t get a mortgage. You don’t want a mortgage. Go do this.”
Vickie chimes in. “This is the kind of thing you do, you know.”
And it is. I realize that the thing that has been wrong, the thing that hurts, is not Jessica’s situation at all; it is that I am still trying to be like other people, even after all these years, even after I should know better. The problem has never been Jessica or her situation. The problem has always been me.
You have always had a gypsy soul, my grandmother used to say to me. She meant it as an insult. But she was wrong. Not about the gypsy soul, but about the insult.
Not long later I am squinting at the computer screen, looking at the seat layout and trying to figure out which tickets I want to buy. The map is small, and it is in German, and I don’t read German.
In another window on the computer I have some guy’s answer to the question, “Which are the best seats in the house?” and I am putting a lot of faith in Random Internet Guy. I’m about to spend 190 euros. I have no idea how much that will be in dollars by the time my bank gets through with me, but it will be a lot, and I don’t want to make a mistake.
So I pick two seats that Random Internet Guy says are good, one for me and one for Jess, and the website offers me a hearty congratulations for successfully placing my order.
That is when I start to cry. I was thinking I might cry when I got there and sat in my seat or when the house lights lowered and the performance began, but I am doing my crying now and I can’t understand why. They are not exactly tears of joy; I am sobbing, bone-deep and ugly.
When I can finally catch my breath, I print out the tickets. I look at them. The Spanish Riding School. Vienna, Austria.
It was been almost forty years since I first learned about the Lipizzaners. I was perhaps twelve years old when I read Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart. I must have read that novel a hundred times over the years. I wanted to be that kind of heroine, intrepid and kind-hearted, capable and brave.
In the world I grew up in, I was none of those things, not intrepid or kind-hearted or capable or brave. They were hard years and I don’t like to think about them. I read a lot, then; I read desperately. I read as if my life depended on it, and in many ways it did.
And then I escaped, not in one headlong rush for freedom but in small evasive maneuvers until one day, not as many years ago as I would like, I woke up and thought, It has been a year since I have had the dream. The one where I am trapped in that house and I can’t escape, no matter how hard I try.
I cried that day, too, the same bone-deep and ugly sobs. It was then, not as long ago as it should be, that I began to believe I could trust myself to take care of me.
When I was twelve years old, I made a lot of promises to myself, promises about what the future would be like, promises that made it possible to get through the present. The only way I could hang on was to believe some day I would keep those promises.
I didn’t. I didn’t move to Malibu or become a film director in Hollywood. I didn’t go to medical school or wear designer jeans. I didn’t buy a stone cottage by the sea. I didn’t have a career like Mary Stewart’s, and I didn’t live happily ever after with the man of my dreams.
That twelve-year-old couldn’t always count on me. My god, the number of times I let her down. The number of times my courage failed, or I compromised, or I gave up. The number of times I betrayed her, or said she asked too much, or decided she didn’t matter at all.
But this time I didn’t. This promise I kept. Not the one about the Lipizzaners. The one about being intrepid and kind-hearted and capable and brave.
“You’ve got the tickets?” Jessica asks, picking them up from the table where I have set them and filing them in the folder she has neatly labeled as “travel.”
“I got the tickets,” I say.
“Then that is good. That is a good start.”
And I see, as I have seen so many times before and yet keep forgetting, that it is not Jessica who built the house I keep having to escape. It is always Jessica who frees me.
I am talking to Pete (not his real name) at the coffee shop. It is probably more accurate to say I am listening to Pete. Pete is homeless, and he passes many hours of each day at the coffee shop, usually sitting outside except on the coldest days of winter. Most days he greets everyone by name including, occasionally, people who are not there.
Some days when he is having a hard time and his demons, whatever they are, get the better of him, he doesn’t greet anyone at all.
I don’t know why I talk to Pete. It’s not my job and I always have something else I should be doing, a manuscript to work on, a document to review. Pete can talk for a very long time if he can get someone to hold still for it. He doesn’t expect anyone to listen but he always appreciates it when they do and thanks them afterward.
The secret is in not breaking stride. You answer his greeting, one hand on the door, and then you slide inside, no harm done. In other words, I know how to avoid him. It is just that some days I don’t. I have no idea why.
Today it is a beautiful Friday afternoon with a light breeze and a sunny sky. It is the first day that feels like spring, a perfect spring day, the kind we don’t get nearly enough of.
I’ve taken my coffee outside and Pete starts talking. It’s not as if I have to listen to him. I could get started on my project, which I have spread out on the table in front of me. He will take the hint and won’t be offended.
Instead I lean back in my chair, coffee in my hand. Every now and then I’ll interject a comment and he listens carefully and when I am through, he will say, “Yes, that’s right,” or “Yes, but here’s what I think.”
He is never adversarial. No one is ever wrong, they just don’t have all the facts. His talk covers foreign policy, Greek mythology, Erich Fromm, and the cultivation of innate talent. I realize halfway through that I talk with Pete because he’s more interesting than 99 percent of the people who enter my orbit, prattling on about their multilevel marketing plans for Christianity and how about those Royals.
Today he tells me something his wife used to say, then adds, “She died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.” I don’t know if this is something that happened recently or a very long time ago. It seems to be both at once, fresh and remote. Like he is trapped in a temporal fold, and the event keeps playing over and over. He can’t escape it. He has had a while to get used to it but he still can’t believe it happened.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“You didn’t know that?” He sounds a little puzzled, and seems to sort through his memory, trying to figure out what I know about him, which isn’t much. I’m not trying to save him or be there for him or anything like that. I’m just listening to him because he’s interesting. Believe me I wouldn’t bother if he were prattling on about the ten pounds he needs to lose.
He seems to know a good deal more about the inner workings of the federal government than a sixty-something homeless man ought to and for a while I imagine he is a retired CIA agent or maybe a diplomat who had a little trouble with drink at his last posting. He is tactful, the way I imagine an ambassador would be, or maybe the protocol officer on an ambassador’s staff.
But then his talk about the government shades into government conspiracy theory and I realize he is just someone who reads a lot.
Today he is roaming over his past, apparently having decided it is safe enough to entrust it to my keeping, and it comes out that he first started having trouble in third grade, when he didn’t understand the purpose of school. I think how young that is for it to already start going wrong.
Then he tells me he is sharing his stories because he thinks someone can learn from them and I guess that means me, and maybe I will. Right now I am lifting my face to the breeze and sipping coffee and listening to Pete straighten out the world. I think he would be very good at it except when he has his bad days but maybe then we could just have a substitute, or close the offices for a holiday.
He is talking about playing soccer and not understanding the rules and he laughs a little and then he says, “I just thought you kicked the ball down the field. But you had to be part of a team. I never learned how not to be alone. I don’t know how to do it.”
And in that moment I am right there with him. It is curious and hard, to be apart from the world, to see the games and not understand them. I think maybe someone will invite me to play or that I can invite myself and I try that but I still don’t know the rules. Everyone else seems to know them. But when I try it turns out I cannot play, because I do not have job promotions to crow about and my daughter isn’t getting college acceptance letters and I’m not celebrating twenty years together this Tuesday.
I think the anxious bleating about Courtney and Stanford and the waitlist is just window dressing, that there is something more serious beneath, but it turns out they think Courtney and Stanford and the waitlist is serious; they think it is just about the most serious thing that could be. The vapidity is not just surface; it goes clear through. I can’t begin to imagine being like that. I cannot begin to imagine wanting to.
Maybe all of us feel this way. I don’t know. How would I know? I can’t seem to scratch beneath the surface of anyone. I think most people fit in okay. They’ve taken the stray ends and tucked them in so they can belong. Belonging is powerful and safe and I get that, I understand it but I don’t believe in it. I used to, until I learned that you can’t buy safety no matter how good you are or how much money you have.
I see the apartness grow, the gulf between becoming wider and wider, the connections dropping away. My ex-husband calls my life “streamlined” because there is just me and my daughter and my work and sometimes I’m pretty damned doubtful about the work. I long ago stopped believing it was worth doing or that there would be some reward other than a check payable to, so maybe all I have left is a habit. If I didn’t have my daughter, my next stop would probably be homelessness, too.
Pete is talking about his friend, who made a scene downtown and was arrested. “She just wanted attention,” he says and I know he doesn’t mean like a kid acting up although in a way he does. He means she wanted someone to say, Yes, I see you there. Yes, I see you.
“They gave her pills,” he says. “It wasn’t pills she needs.”
That’s a favorite solution, like two round white pills will do the trick. That what is wrong is something to do with brain chemistry or socialization. Maybe it is. But I somehow doubt it. People think the homeless would stop making scenes downtown if only everyone had access to some round white pills and a kindly social worker to pass them out. But human lives are complicated and mental health is hard, especially when we pathologize every difference. It used to be that conformity was suspect. Now it is nonconformity that alarms people. Twee hipsters pose at it but they are just as invested in the games as anyone else.
I probably became a writer to try to bridge that apartness, to have a conversation and not just an echo. But sometimes all I hear is the echo.
I sip my coffee. The breeze stiffens into a wind. I realize I have more in common with the homeless guy than with any of my friends. That is a fact worthy of contemplation though I have no idea what to make of it.
But for a little while, as the heavy trucks barrel down 23rd Street and I strain to hear what Pete is saying, I’m not alone at all.