Head Spinning

A few nights ago, I searched for old boyfriends on social media.

I found one from when I was 19. When I met him, he was a few years older than me, had just returned from Vietnam, and had his jaw wired shut as the result of a car accident. He was also my college roommate’s boyfriend. She told me to look him up when I visited his town. So I did.

I ended up telling my roommate what had happened, that perhaps I had overinterpreted her suggestion that I look him up. It was one of the most low-down things I’ve ever done – both messing around with her boyfriend and then telling her about it. Even though I’d only known her a year, she had been a true friend who had helped me through a very difficult time. Still, our friendship wasn’t strong enough to withstand a guy. That happened a lot then. It probably still does.

Because he has a public profile on Facebook, I was able to read his posts and see his face. I remembered him as thin with dark hair and eyes, very close-mouthed, not surprisingly. He was sarcastic and funny. He loved music. I heard Otis Redding the first time on his stereo.

We never fell in love. We just hung out. He tried to teach me to smoke marijuana but I was a drinker and didn’t get the point about pot. He got the point, though, and was almost constantly high. It made him mellow which I appreciated at the time because not much else in my life was. But the relationship went nowhere and, one day, another roommate of mine casually mentioned that she’d just gotten back from a motorcycle ride with him. So that was that.

He is an old man now. His hair is white and sparse but he still has a moustache and something of a beard. His Facebook posts make him seem still sarcastic and funny, self-deprecating, skeptical about the world. I gleaned that he had owned a bookstore for many years and was a published writer. He had been married a long time, lived in a house that required firewood, and had two sons who checked in on him during last winter’s polar vortex.

I considered messaging him. To just say, Hey, Hi, it’s Jan, remember me? And then tell him that I was kind of literary, too, married, successful, a pillar of the community. We could be two 70-somethings shaking our heads and rolling our eyes in different states, oh, weren’t we the interesting pair back then in the roaring sixties. But I didn’t. Of course, there was always the possibility that he wouldn’t remember, which would be mortifying and put me in the terrible position of trying to find something notable about myself that would jog his memory and, besides, maybe he has dementia, who can tell? So I scrolled on by.

It was too weird, all of it. I moved on to being preoccupied with the mind-blowing nature of the massive passage of time. Fifty-two years, that’s how much time has elapsed since I’d last seen this man’s face and, I have to say, I barely recognized him. Or myself, for that matter. It’s a trip.

Rings

[I’m taking an online flash nonfiction class. First assignment this week: 10 minutes on the prompt: The telephone rang.]

The telephone rang but I didn’t answer it. I thought I knew who was calling but figured I’d only know if the phone rang again. It did. It rang again, long and hard, until the caller gave up, waited a few minutes and then called again. There were ten more calls and ten more times the caller gave up after many rings. The whole while I sat on the sofa across the room, smoking cigarettes and calculating the odds.

Was he calling to ditch me or was he calling to tell me he’d ditched her?

I eventually figured a man wouldn’t be so persistent just to deliver bad news. Heck, most men I knew then wouldn’t even bother to call, that’s how they’d send the message. Disappear. A man who called eleven times in a row and let the phone ring and ring was on a mission. I decided that he was on a mission to tell me good news and I ought to be brave enough to pick up the phone and hear it. 

I wasn’t that brave nor was I ready to call him back because, after all, it could have been someone else, a bill collector, an old boyfriend, my parents thinking I was dead because I didn’t answer. There was no voice mail then so telephones had magic and mystery. You never knew anything for sure unless you picked up. 

The next night he showed up at a small party I was giving for fellow students in my graduate program. He wasn’t a student but he brought a jug of wine and sat on the floor with us, listening to our stories of lament and overwork. And at the end of the night when everyone else left, tired and talked out, he stayed. He is still here thirty-five years later. Sometimes he leaves messages but mostly he texts.

The Fall

I fell. I fell on a boat ramp that had jagged rows of bumpy concrete intended to prevent falling. I gripped the end of the kayak in my right hand, faced up the ramp like I had done so often before, and waited for my husband, Howard, to give the signal that he was lifting the other end and we should walk the kayak up the ramp. He signaled, I pulled hard, and then I fell.

We had been kayaking along the shore of Islamorada in a double-seat, heavy plastic sea kayak. We started from the old resort where we had stayed nearly every year for thirty years. There was just the two of us now, our kids were grown, so we stayed in the resort’s smallest room, in the back near busy U.S. 1, the only highway in the Florida Keys. I missed the old days when we drove from Wisconsin over spring break with our carload of children. Then we stayed in the front unit, a cabin with a sliding glass door across the entire side facing the Florida Bay. After our first day there, the concrete stoop by the cabin door would be littered with snorkel gear, swim fins, and fishing poles with tangled lines. Our kids ran in and out of the ocean like they’d been born there.

Our family’s history in this place is long and deep. Howard had stayed in the same cabin with his family when he was a child and had told the story a dozen times of breaking his arm falling off the roof of the adjoining building playing tag with the owner’s kids. His grandmother, an immigrant from Ukraine, made gefilte fish from their daily catch. Her name was Bertha, but Howard called her Moy. When we stayed in the same cabin years later, I could imagine Moy latching an old cast iron meat grinder to the side of the kitchen counter and grinding snapper and yellowtail into the paste that is gefilte fish. All of this history, his and ours, made this small, old-fashioned Florida Keys resort a beloved place for me, a place I yearned for quietly nearly all the time but visited only every couple of years now that it was just the two of us.

The kayaking before the fall was smooth and almost effortless. It was hot, though, and I wished I’d brought a water bottle. The water was still except for soft lobs from the powerful wakes of speeding fishing boats far out in the bay. We paddled past old Keys houses and new mansions, sometimes a dog would run to the end of a dock to bark at us. We looked for the parrot fish and barracuda that we often saw when we snorkeled, but the water seemed empty, like everything had left to find deeper, cooler places.

We watched a helicopter hovering over houses on shore. It was so close to earth that I worried it would crash. I thought maybe there was an escaped criminal. The copter’s blade- slapping roar alarmed me, maybe because it was all I could hear. Knowing we would be on the water, I’d taken off my hearing aid and the receiver for my cochlear implant Without them, I was deaf except for the helicopter noise which rattled me with its loudness.

We turned around about two miles down the shore. We paddled back, next to the resort’s dock and then to the base of the boat ramp. I got out in waist deep water and steadied the kayak for Howard to negotiate getting out. We positioned the kayak to hoist out of the water, so we could put it back in its storage place along the bamboo fence.

And then I fell. It hurt. It hurt in the shocking, painful way that it hurt when I fell off my bike as a kid skidding around a corner on the dirt road near our house, the scrapes on my elbows and knees thick with gravel. Falling stunned me like I had suddenly become infirm, unable to do the simple thing of bringing a kayak out of the water. I gathered myself, stood up, and looked over my shoulder at Howard, “It’s just too heavy for me.” He nodded, shrugged as if to say, “no big deal.”

Two young men who had been watching came to help him with the kayak. Still dazed, I walked across the boat ramp, up a small hill, and sat in a white plastic chair at the resort’s little tiki hut where I’d sat a hundred times reading The Miami Herald and drinking Bustelo, watching my kids fishing or swimming. Sitting there felt like sitting in my living room, it was that familiar. Except now it wasn’t.

I sat still with my hands folded in my lap like I was at church waiting for the homily.  Howard walked by taking the life preservers and paddles back to the resort office. He disappeared, and I imagined him having a nice chat with the lady at the desk. Maybe he was telling her about the helicopter. I put my head on the table.

A man and a woman on their way to the dock looked at me concerned, they mouthed the words “Are you alright?” and I nodded yes, I was fine, and put my head back down on the table, looking at the door of the resort office, praying that it would open soon, and Howard would come back. I couldn’t talk to anyone else. They would ask me questions I couldn’t answer. He was the only person I could understand when I didn’t have my hearing equipment, when I was deaf. We had our own language, hand signals and lip reading. I could tell him I was in trouble with just my eyes if he would only come back.

When Howard finally returned, he suggested we move to better lounge chairs for a while and enjoy the sun. He doesn’t know I’m hurt, I thought. “No, no. I’m really sick,” I mouthed, not wanting anyone to hear me. Somehow, it was important for only him to know. He looked at me, baffled, and then called out for someone to call 911. Later, he said I was gurgling when I talked, and my eyes were glazed and seeming to roll up in my head. I remember it being strange that he was so concerned but trying hard to look nonchalant, gesturing to other resort guests to move them to action but keeping his eyes on me all the while. I sank into the chair and surrendered myself to his care. Everything would be all right now that he was here.

From nowhere, a young, handsome Latino man took my wrist and felt my pulse. He decided I should lie down on a lounge chair and he and Howard pulled one over. Then he put his arms around my waist and hoisted me from my plastic chair to the lounge chair and felt my pulse again. “Her blood pressure is very low,” he said. I heard him although I didn’t; his lips were easy to read. He smoothed my hair off my forehead. He looked in my eyes and stroked my face, first one cheek with the palm of his hand, then the other with the back of his hand. He smiled at me, nodded gently, and kept stroking my face. I felt like his dying mother, his beloved mother, his touch was so tender. Later, I learned he was a pharmacist from Peru. Did he learn to be so kind in pharmacy school, so reassuring and gentle or had his mother taught him before she died? Of course, I didn’t know if his mother had died. I was only guessing from his touch that she might have.

The EMTs came with their boxes. One with a full sleeve of tattoos took my blood pressure and inspected my left arm which by then was throbbing. It wasn’t broken but it hurt in a powerful way and seemed to be swelling while I watched. The EMTs had me drink water and stand up, then shepherded me to our tiny room where I lie on the white comforter and looked out the window, a plastic bag full of ice on my elbow. They never said what was wrong with me, just that I needed to rest, and I’d be okay.

When I got up after a few hours, there were tiny drops of blood on the sheets, but I felt better, dreamy, though, like a person feels after an accident, delicate, fragile, adrift. Old and unwell but still living. I missed being robust, missed being a person who could haul a kayak out of the water.

Hours later, we decided to go for a drive. Traveling up and down U.S. 1 in the Florida Keys is what people do. It’s about seeing both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico at the same time, the weightlessness of speeding over bridges, white fishing boats below, making out dolphins in the distance, the possibility and freedom of it all. The drive would be a healing thing, I knew that from experience.

Before we left, we saw a group of people near the resort office. On his knees trying to entice a squirrel with small pieces of bread was the pharmacist. I wanted to thank him, so we moved near the group to watch and as we did, the squirrel started to eat out of the pharmacist’s hand. A woman, maybe his girlfriend, took pictures on her phone. The squirrel was perched in the bougainvillea, red flowers framing his tiny, knowing face. It was entrancing, and I wondered if it was the pharmacist’s magic or the squirrel’s habit that brought them so close together.            

“Sir,” Howard said. The pharmacist looked up, then recognized me as the woman with the weak pulse. He reached out and I hugged him. “Thank you for being so kind,” I said, remembering how he had stroked my face when I was so ill. He asked how I was feeling and for the first time I heard his soft Spanish accent. I told him my arm ached a little and he took my arm in both hands and stroked it softly like it was a bundle of orchids that would wilt with too harsh a touch.

We said goodbye and got in our car for our drive down the Keys. In the rear-view mirror, I saw the pharmacist walking with his friends down to the dock. They were laughing and chatting, luckiness and gladness dancing around them like fireflies.

One Bird Two Wires

She sat across the conference table from me, an unintended meeting nearly forty years in the making. She was an old boyfriend’s other love interest, the woman he was with when he wasn’t with me which was often because we fought. He went on long binges of drinking and depression and when he scared me too much, I withdrew, not for long though because I’d panic and go try to retrieve him. It wasn’t a healthy relationship but it was a pretty long one – five years.

I mentioned none of this. I was meeting with her about business. Nothing personal, all professional.

I didn’t know if she knew that I knew about her. Her name had popped up on Facebook the past few years when she would comment on the posts of mutual friends. For a long time, I felt the old reflex, the same bile, as if her status as the ‘other woman’ was still important, still hurtful. That was crazy. It was a long time ago. She had gotten married to someone, not our old mutual boyfriend, and had children, I think, hard to tell just from Facebook photographs. I had been married to another man for nearly 34 years. I hadn’t seen the old boyfriend for probably twenty years although I did go to his funeral a few years ago. It isn’t important to the story how he died except that it was violent and by his own hand and had been something I’d left him to avoid discovering in my own kitchen.

She was very kind and measured. We talked about the work she was doing with abused women and part of me wanted to ask her if she had chosen that work because of him. He hadn’t abused me, not really, just scared me to death, and made me think I should sit up all night looking out the window waiting for him to drive up and park in front of my house. He had a key which was a mistake but it was a time when I made a lot of mistakes. There were threats and dangerous situations which I’d lived through unharmed but not unaffected. I wanted to ask her if the same was true for her. We had, after all, lived parallel lives in many ways.

But I never brought it up.

_______________

Photo by Ken Treloar on Unsplash

 

Book Smarts

My friend Karen is reading How Democracies Die. She told me this in the locker room after our swim and shower. It was so like her to be toweling off, her skin red from the world’s hottest shower, and talking about the slippery slop of authoritarianism which, in her view, we are sliding down on greased flying saucers from the old K-Mart.

I waited for a break in her analysis, almost not wanting to interrupt her enthusiasm but I thought it only right to tell her, “I’m reading The Trauma Cleaner.” She laughs, she’s always so cheery, and says she reads books like that; she alternates a hard book and an easy book. I don’t alternate, though.

There, you see, is the fundamental difference between us. I’m smart enough but I quit adding to the pot decades ago. Whatever was there the last day of college is pretty much it except for what can be gleaned from the New York Times and the New Yorker (such an influential place). For a while I tried reading the NYT Review of Books so I’d know enough about big, serious books to fake it but I lost patience with that (after about two weeks) and now read the front page, Modern Love, and the wedding of the week which, if you’ve never read it, you should. The stories are always super sweet; unlikely folks who’ve given up on love and live thousands of miles from each other, fall in love and then have a giant wedding in a place with white chairs and towering oak trees. It’s great.

The rest of my reading is mostly memoir; the book before The Trauma Cleaner was Traveling with Ghosts which is a remarkable book written by a woman whose fiance was killed by a box jellyfish. There’s more to it than that but you’d be surprised how she untangles the story and reweaves it; and the sorrow practically reaches out of the pages and holds your face in its hands. I stopped reading it before the end, I don’t know why.

The Trauma Cleaner is actually about a woman who cleans up terrible situations, the aftermath of death and mayhem of all kinds and these stories are compelling in a can’t turn away, must turn away kind of way. But the deeper story is about the woman herself who started life as a boy but an unwanted one. His parents marginalized him, making him live in a hut in the backyard and his father beat him. Eventually, he transitioned to being a woman and became a prostitute and through a series of extraordinarily difficult situations became a trauma cleaner full of wisdom and kind matter-of-factness that one would want in a trauma cleaner. It’s fascinating.

My friend cut the analysis of failing democratic institutions short to tell me why the fiscal crisis of our local government was the direct result of the state continuing to lose revenue because of a blind devotion to tax cuts and thus having much less money to return to localities for essential services. Although I’d taken the opposite position a few days prior, I capitulated immediately. Who wouldn’t in the face of someone who reads How Democracies Die? Dying democracies trump trauma cleaning any day of the week. I know that much.

___________________

Photo by César Viteri on Unsplash

 

Graveside

We sat in folding chairs

My father who had forgotten me

My forgiven self next to him

The minister closing her Bible

Looking at us, waiting with us

Earth, lush and dark and waiting

Loamy, asking to be held

Then soft tapping on my shoulder

Janice, it’s me, Carolyn

We ran through the barn doors

Weaved around trees with hanging buckets

Stood in the yellow heat of the sugar shack

Licked the earth’s plums from our fingers

Said goodbye for fifty years, fifty years

Felt the silvery, light rain on our heads

Remembered everything and nothing

Studied the thick beautiful earth for answers

_______________

Written in response to The Daily Post prompt: Earth

Dumbfounded

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What if all your hard times were a long ago?

What if your scars and shames are folded in the drawer?

What if you worry a hatchet is lying in wait?

How would you change your day?

Would you find new clues to catastrophe?

Would you fling the drawer on the floor?

Would you envy the bleeding and troubled?

How would you decide what is next?

Would you relax into soft arms?

Would you smooth the sheets and plump the pillow?

Would you keep watch for mad dogs and dangerous spiders?

How would you go on?

Would you decide you have already paid?

Would you paint the past in new colors?

Would you protect your neck from the ax?