Thursday, July 29, 2004

The Littlest Birds

My husband, D. is an audiophile. This is a small but mighty part of what I love about him --- and my great luck is that in marrying him my own music collection grew probably 20 times what it had been without him. There are walls in our home lined with CDs and albums. (Yes, the old black and colored vinyl albums that spin on a turntable. For my money, they still produce the best sounding recorded music, even if you do occasionally have to listen past the shushing, pops, and crackling.) We've got some of every kind of music you could want to hear. We also have boxes and boxes of cassettes, but they are generally neglected -- I almost feel sorry for them. (Occasionally they get attention when one of us wants to listen to something we don't have on CD and thus cannot listen to in the car.)

You'd think it was too much music, a ridiculous decadence. But no one I know, except for my BF's husband, with whom D. shares this bond, listens to music as much as we do. It's even one our favorite "date night" activites: a bottle of wine and a stack of albums to play as we discuss everything, everything, everything. On what I'd call perfect Sunday mornings we choose a good jazz or gospel album as accompaniment to brunch making and newspaper-reading and spend a few hours feeling decadently at ease. In my ideal world, one day, we will lose all wall space to books and music.

Recently, D. brought home two new boxes of records from a sale at a local radio station. The price had been $10/box and not only did he fill two boxes, but he overfilled them, so that before he could even talk to me as he dumped them on our dining room table, he had taken several out of the box anxiously, to make sure none were damaged. He'd gone to the three-day sale just 20 minutes before it finally ended (he'd been avoiding it for fear of just such a outcome) and had frantically stuffed albums into the boxes. He said he'd had barely a second to decide on each album he touched. Nonetheless, as we looked through them, we found no more than three duplicates in our current collection of albums or CDs among the new 200+ albums he brought home. I so sincerely admire that: for as many albums and CDs as he already has (well over 2,000), D. really knows what he wants and what he's got. This is true in all ways.

D. and I had a strange courtship that's a different story for another time, but once we were openly a couple, I told my friends something they had never expected to hear me say, something even I had only ever considered some weakly hackneyed phrase: "I see the father of my children in his eyes." It was revelatory for me to say it and mean it, and was pretty much all my best girlfriends needed to hear to fall in love with him for me. To give friends who hadn't met him an idea about him, I'd tell them that he's the kind of man who wouldn't make anything even close to an ass of himself enclosed in a room alone with a teenage girl brimming with all that lush about-to-burst-ness girls have when we first begin to experiment with our sex appeal. For that matter, I sincerely doubt he'd even give a second thought to her behavior, other than to find her amusing. He's just a real adult Man, healthy enough to be attracted to real women, rather than girls just playing at it. That was a serious breath of fresh air to me --- and to my best friends, who have called him exactly the man they would have chosen for me for this and other reasons.

He's a man cut from the cloth of my grandfathers, strong and kind, honest and hard-working. D.'s principled, generous, smart and funny. And to my great luck since all of that was more than enough to capture my heart, he's sexy and handsome in a irresistably boyish way. The kind of man, especially in a suit, at whom women bat their eyelashes. It's hilarious, and especially endearing that he says he never notices, though I know he does.

His boyish good looks match a playfulness to his spirit that makes him our dog's favorite of the two of us, which might make me jealous except that I totally understand. He's my favorite playmate, too. He's also five years older than me, which I consider an ideal difference, though it would have been awkward if we'd met while he was in high school instead of in our 30s. (Of course, watching John Edwards last night, I realized that like Edwards, D. is going to look under 35 for the next 15-20 years --- and it's going to suck to look like his mom when that happens, especially because he's a good handful of years older than me.)

In any case, as tempting as it is to digress at this point with comments on the DNC -- which I almost certainly will have at some point because it is saving my American soul (I just deleted a couple of long paragraphs about that) -- here's the inspiration for this particular post:

It does not stop thrilling me that this man loves me. Loves me like he thinks he's the luckiest man alive. Loves me not like I'm some perfect ideal of person, putting me in the doomed position of ultimately failing him, but because he knows me and loves me for me.

Yesterday, for my long drive to/from a particularly stressful meeting out of town, D. made me a mixed CD (while convenient, this is a technology taking one more blow to our cassettes collection). He has more music than any sane person should. It makes no sense that he knows it all so well. And yet, yesterday, he made me a CD of songs I'd never heard before but that he knew I would like. Some of them are just satisfying jams -- there's punk, hip-hop, bluegrass, blues, jazz, funk, world, dance, and gospel music in the mix. But one song in particular floored me -- the one he had anticipated would be the highlight of the mix, positioned in high relief in an artful arc of inspired compliation. Only someone who really knows me, and only a man who truly loves me, would make a point of making sure I heard this song and would frame it as the climax of a mix meant for me.

I know from reading about your musical tastes on the blogs of some of you who stop by to visit that this song might not be to your taste, but wow. It is a song straight out of my heart. This is a video: The Be Good Tanyas singing "The Littlest Birds." (Here are the lyrics.)

God, I love that man.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Dear ---

My apologies to anyone who finds this alienating. This is offered as an invitation into my private dance with something I cannot name but think is what I mean when I use the word "god." It is directed only to those who are interested, no sell intended, and no offense taken if you aren't interested. I had to go to a particularly stressful meeting today and I arrived very early. As I sat at a nearby coffeeshop, whiling the time until I could in to meet the other participants, I found my pen scribbling this letter.


Dear ---:

I am yours first and above all. Yours before I am the child of my parents. Yours before I am my husband's mate. Yours even before I am my own.

Sometimes I remember this. And sometimes I do not. But I know that whether I remember or not, it is true. Because it is the nature of you -- that which defines and comprises the nature of All.

You confound me often. Yet I trust you beyond reason, with passion, and even with courage, even when I do not always recognize courage for what it is.

Wherever you lead me, may I feel your hand resting lightly on my head, a subtle compass toward your will for what Phoebe shall be in this life. Let my heart always be open, even as it breaks in the face of all the pain I cannot mitigate, all the ways I will fail to tread a faithful path.

If I am good, it is only because you redeem me. It is only because I belong to you first and above all by the fact of my being.

There is no name for you that is not too small, even though you are as present in the tiniest of things, as you are in the most magnificently incomprehensibly infinite universe. You are to me the mystery that fuels my intellect, conscience, love, and joy and I am grateful for all those things.

Thank you for enlivening this collection of atoms, this strange shape and density of mass, buzzing with electricity for the time it shall. I like the experience of being here.

Oh! I place myself before you with praise and thanksgiving, even as I am annoyed with my inability to articulate it truly. Please always keep my eyes open to all your faces, my ears open to all your voices, and my heart and mind open to all of your comings and goings.

Sincerely (and Amen),

Monday, July 26, 2004

Clarity Comes Slowly

An Open Letter to J.K., an Obsession both Despised and Beloved to Which I Finally Say Goodbye:

Dear J:

Actually, it was brilliant, what you did. It was a startlingly insightful thing -- but I don't know why it surprises me to realize that your self-preservation instinct was that honed. I even loved that about you. It was the force in the grip of your charisma. I craved it, in craving you, while craving you, because of craving you. Self-preservation at the price of another: you were always the master.

It has helped so much, looking back at you with some effort at true compassion. I know I withheld all that I could have summoned. I was still so angry. Even now, as I write this letter, I feel the waves of hurt and betrayal, anger, licking at the shores of my better self, like a tide that must roll in and roll out on some schedule both mysterious and irregular. But I think even you would be able to see that I tried, truly, to see you as you saw yourself. To be kind to you as you see yourself. It's just that until now I missed the crux of the issue.

You were unable to love and lose me. Nothing about the idea you have of yourself -- that idea that gets you through the days when some inkling of how far you fail it threatens to overtake you -- nothing about that idea could have withstood that loss. We all have an idea of ourselves, J. And live with the fear of being wrong. It comes calling at the back door of everyone's psyches, late, late on stormy nights, rousing us from restless sleep, when all natural instinct says, "Bar the door! It can come of no Good!" We are all scared to stare into the face of the Thing on the other side, that Thing Which Knows. That Thing which says we are not quite the people we tell ourselves we are in order to place ourselves in the world, above some, below others --- that Thing that knows that we are all but small, defenseless, errant and alone, with no where to run, no one to protect us, and no escape from the searing accuracy of its insight.

We are saved when dawn breaks, the storm has passed, and the world is as before. Come the morning we are assured we were only dreaming. If we are shaken, it is to be expected, but we wake up and we see that who we tell ourselves we are still works today. We hopefully adjust somewhat, matured and humbled -- for that's its gift. But we go on.

If you had loved me, then come that morning, you would not have been able to go on. Come that morning, your life would have been laid bare in a way you could not have borne. Because to let yourself really love me you would have had to embrace a vulnerability that would have opened too many of the doors to your past, the pain you have swallowed, the pain you have inflicted. Staring into the face of That Which Really Knows Us, you would have lost the gift of deniability, with no way to avert your eyes from the parts of your life to which you can otherwise remain blind. The next morning you would have been more than shaken. You would have been destroyed. And I wouldn't have been there to love you through it.

I wouldn't have been there because, as we both know, now, I am not yours. I wanted to be. Perhaps, for a long savored moment, you also wanted me to be. In fact, I know you did. The very thing that ultimately repelled you, originally drew you to me: the fact that my love might have redeemed you -- if I had been yours. If I had been for you, my love would have redeemed your life. You could have owned it all. That was the sweetness in our kisses, the ecstacy of our conversation, the electricity between our bodies, the pulse of what felt like possibility: the promise of redemption.

But you knew the truth of it before me, and you did not tell me. Instead, you withdrew, coldly and suddenly, tucking me behind one of the barred doors in the hidden landscape of your soul: that which you refuse to see. You let me bang on that door, crying out, begging -- pathetically, it's true -- to be let out and into your life. To stand beside you. To hold your hand. To try it. To TRY. You were wiser than I knew, until now. Loving me would have destroyed you as you know you.

And I would not have stayed with you. It's true -- I see that now. I would have woken up one morning and known it was all only wishful thinking. I would have heard the call of my real life, waiting. The man who is for me, to whom I belong and who belongs to me. And he is not you. Ultimately, I would have left you, open to all your demons and ill-equipped for the battle. You, the man I craved, the man you have created, the man we both loved, would not have survived that. I see it, suddenly, clearly.

Nonetheless, J., old flame, I must tell you that I have hated you for cutting short all of the joy we might have taken in each other's company for the time we could have had. Especially because you did it so cruelly, denying something true, asking me to believe you'd been a liar, telling me that my heart had lied. Insisting it was only me, naively and foolishly, who had entered the dance -- even after your rashly released marriage proposal, which though stuffed under the rug afterwards remained conspicuous evidence that the place in your heart you said I'd never been had only been quick-cleaned of anything that might remind you of my residency. Your rejection and denial cut me so much more incredibly deeply than if we had just played it through and parted with wise but equally aching hearts. You could have spared me pain that you chose to inflict instead.

I see now that if we had played it through, you would have had to pay the cost. And instead, you let me. I am the one who had to open the door to the Thing That Knows and see how I debased myself for you. How I refused life and light and love to hold onto the pain of your rejection, turning it over and over in my hand, like a promissory note for justice, believing I needed something from you for my own redemption, denying the simpler fact that it was always mine to have without you. I've had to face shame that you have escaped and that humiliation has haunted me as much anything else about you. I do not know when I will stop hating you for that. But for the first time, I understand it, and some part of me relents. Perhaps I will even forgive you.

In the meantime, here, at last, my long ago lover, is my final kiss good-bye: May you forever be haunted by me, especially at your weakest moments, but never destroyed. Your idea of yourself is magnificent. May you have great happiness most of your life, but God make it to sometimes have the undeniable bitter aftertaste of sadness for all the joy you did not drink with me, and all the peace you stole from me. I wish for you a precarious, sometimes uneasy peace to match mine. May it take you through all your days -- and be peace, nonetheless. And ultimately, may you know the truth, and be ready for it when it comes.

I remain, as ever,

Friday, July 23, 2004

Not Funny

I've been trying to think of something to end the week with.  But I rummage through my head, turning over this rock, or that one, rifling through boxes of accumulating ideas and memories, which I refuse to sort (despite the wisdom I recognize in Inanna's post about the limited RAM and limited time dilemma), and, sigh: nothing. So, I'll tell a dog story.

This morning -- as I do every morning -- I took my dog, Corrina, a big, goofy, young black lab, for a walk. She gets a raw deal on mornings when husband and I are slow to get out of bed. Not only are we phenomenally boring as we lounge in bed pretending the minutes aren't slipping by -- as she communicates with loud yawns, sighs, and repeated flapping of the ears -- but then, because we're short on time, she gets less attention and a shorter walk. Usually, though, I'll at least make an effort to make it a "high quality" walk. We stick to the alleys, where there are fewer people -- meaning no need for her to heel -- and the smells are more interesting. If the alley's a long one (there are a couple of places where there are no cross streets for three-block spans in my neighborhood -- thus, long alleys), I'll even let her off leash and she runs through the overgrown weeds and ivy along the tire tracks like she's bushwhacking through dense brush in the mountaints somewhere. We stop and pick some blackberries growing on the wall of a neglected garage (well, I do -- she just licks them on the bush). We tease all the other dogs stuck in their yards (well, she does -- I generally toss them a treat and try to move her along). And meanwhile, she bounces along beside me with a big grin.

One night, when she was first with us and I was on the steepest part of the learning curve as a dog owner, I took her on one of these "super-fun" walks, as I deludedly hope she thinks of them, because D. and I were headed out for the evening and she needed some exercise before being left to her own devises. I took her to a local playground and we climbed through some long plastic tubes that snake along the ground. She seemed to be having fun, so we climbed up into the play structure and I pushed her down a slide.

She did not like the slide. At all. 

I guess I'd forgotten that. This morning -- short on time because D. and I had a romantic evening last night with a bottle of wine and a box of old albums and woke ready to be Yoko and John staging a "Love-In" rather than ready to go to work (a rareity by any stretch) --- I took her through the alleys for a blackberry breakfast and ended up at the playground again. Again we ducked through the tube and then climbed the play structure. This time, however, as I see now, she was having nothing to do with being in front of me as I approached the slide, so I decided I'd go first.

It's not a big slide. It's really pretty short. Maybe 10 feet of tunnel, and then another ten, open-air. It went by really fast. For me.

She was howling when I landed at the bottom. I stood up and she stopped and stared at me, eyes wide and wild. "Come on, girl!" I said.

She spun on her heels and leapt down the steps of the play structure and then leapt on me, knocking me down and covering me in kisses for a moment before pulling back to stare intently into my eyes.

"Not funny."

I'm pretty sure that was the message.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Not for McSweeney's

I love the way blogging has re-fired my engine for writing. But I'm still working out the kinks of it -- it's been idle for a bit. I've been writing -- in a lot of ways, I've never really "stopped" writing since I started nearly thirty years ago -- but I haven't been trying to "really write" for quite a while. Until lately. Of course, trying to "really write" is a fool's ego-trip and, while I know that, I am also a fool. Some writerly folks' engines purr like Porsches lined up at the light ready to race to the winner's circle, while mine is just a beat-up old Chevy jalopy sputtering at a stopsign along this meandering fool's journey. The best thing I have to say for it is that it keeps on going. Even when I neglect the maintenance. And that's a damn fine thing to be able to say, in the end, I think.

In any case, accepts submissions for "Open Letters" from folks with better cared-for, and naturally smoother-running, engines than my own -- a few of you who've stopped by could probably get one accepted. I'm not ready to try that. Nonetheless, I have one to write, so I'm posting it here.

An Open Letter to the Remnants Lingering After a Not-Fully-Successful Exorcism of a Old Obsession:

Dear Wounded Obsession:

It makes no sense that you haven't just given me up yet. I'm not hospitable, I don't think. I try not to be. I've taken as many steps as I know to boot your sorry butt out of my psyche, yet you linger, a limp mass of whimpering misery, pulsating ominously -- regrouping, I suppose, for your next stranglehold.

Listen, this waste of humanity you hold onto like some savior of my soul, is an asshole. Everyone else can see that. He is cowardly and crass and thwarted, critically. He believed, really believed, that the extent of his responsibility for his actions and professed feelings was acknowledging that he wasn't going to take any responsibility. He looked you and me right in the face and said it. As though that were honor. I think he might even have believed that was honor which is even MORE frightening.

And you, you just trip along, insanely believing that someday he'll know and feel and regret his failure to reach out for something that could have been sublime -- which more likely, would have been catastrophic. Even if that ever happens, I'm never going to know about it. And I'm fine with that, I really am. It's just you who isn't.

I get over him and fall in love with my real life, my now life, and you pull the emergency brake so violently that everything I've tucked away so neatly into the closets and gaps of my heart and mind, comes tumbling out, crashing about, paper and knickknacks and memories, hanging in the air until they settle, a mess like a tornado hit spread throughout my whole internal world.
And for what? Why must we keep doing this? What is the appeal of having to pick through all of that again? All the slights and wounds. There are so many more slights and wounds to dress and rebandage than anything sweet to stroke and hold. I grant you, there are some very sweet things to hold. But the slights and wounds outnumber and outmatch them pitifully.

To put it gently, you are not constructive.

Listen, I think he's someone somewhat decent, who got hard breaks, and made bad choices. He certainly, occasionally, had his moments. But he is just not a good cause for you. There's nothing worthwhile in this ridiculous pursuit you refuse to give up. Maybe I just don't understand what you're after. What is it you want? What is the payoff price? What will, finally, get you to go?

How do I evict you? You don't seem to be accepting the notice I've posted. And I haven't figured out who to contact to get it enforced.

What IS the unfinished business here? I do not understand. Really, now, some eighteen year old girl is getting her heart broken by someone just like him this summer. Just because he's dumb and young and without the ability to allow himself to love and be loved by someone who actually fascinates him in every way, whose view of the world and herself is infectiously redemptive but requires his equal engagement. He'd rather be with someone, or someones, who spread thick sunblock over his ego and id so that no light can penetrate. That's just the way he is, the poor fellow. Just because he's a sad example of a man, someone who didn't have a good man to teach him what it means to be one, to demonstrate the opportunities it presents for a life that's more interesting and rewarding than simply surviving. Wouldn't you rather have a fresh start, someone more willing to indulge all this drama and chaos? Go find some other poor girl who's just beginning the long roller coaster journey of loving someone unworthy.

I feel sorry for him now -- Does that help? Is that the goal? It seems like your goal is to make me feel sorry for myself -- do I misunderstand?

I've got such a better life now than I could ever have had with him. Why don't you want that?

Please answer. I want this to end. I want you out. I'm so tired of this. It's time for him to stay in my memory boxes, tucked away, an important chapter in the construction of me, but a closed one. He's a closed chapter. Can't we please move on now?

Sincerely yours,
The Increasingly Unwillingly Obsessed

Monday, July 19, 2004

An Exorcism, part 3 (the end)

Note: this story makes more sense if you read parts One and Two first. They're all nearly unforgiveably long. If you choose to read anyway, I ask your indulgence, and both apologize and thank you in advance. 

Among his Grandma’s things he found letters she had kept -- from him, from his Grandfather, from his own father. He delayed his return in order to sell the house and every night of the six weeks that he waited for her house to sell, he sat at her kitchen table and read.
His letters from his days in the Corps shocked him. He sounded cold-blooded and ungrateful. He had been, he knew that. He hated to read it, though. Occasionally he threw a kind or loving word away to her, and it pained him to imagine how much they’d meant to her. The letters from Philadelphia were equally painful, full of half-truths or outright lies about his life with Viv. Everything sounded so much happier, so much more normal than things with Viv could ever be. He wrote the most about the robotic projects he was developing, sometimes in tedious detail, and seeing himself through that lens, he knew that his Grandma had known he was unhappy.
He could barely get through his father’s letters, all of them blathering on cheerfully about his new family, the son’s newest accomplishments, his wife’s community service, with always a single question at the end, like an afterthought, or courtesy, “How’s Josh doing?” One night he realized his Grandma had never let herself love her other grandson the way she’d loved him, and he lay down on the kitchen floor and sobbed.
His Grandfather’s letters were the best, full of the love and respect he’d always remembered as part of his Grandfather’s presence as a child. He’d been a good man. And he’d been good to Josh’s Grandma, as good as she deserved. But for too short a time. He’d died when Josh was eight. His Grandfather’s letters were worn, clearly often read, and they threatened to tear without the gentlest handling. He also found letters from Thea. There were only two that he read more than once – the only two that mentioned him in any way more than passing. The first was before the war, the fall of 1990. It read,

“Dear Mrs. Kinkead,

“You know I’ll always love Josh and I know I’ll always love Josh, but he does not love me. I know you think he should and I love you for that. But for a long time, I think I’ve been resigned to the fact that he doesn’t and won’t. The same things you think means he loves me but is just too immature to recognize, mean only to me that he doesn’t.

“I hope you will understand when I say that for these reasons, I just can’t wait for him. I know that when you asked me to last summer, I promised you that I would. But it isn’t right for me to promise you that, as much as I wish it were that simple. I have to go on with my life.”

The other was in 1994, probably just weeks before Thea had written to him.

“Dear Mrs. Kinkead,

“It’s been a long time, huh? I miss you. I hope you understand that when I had to say goodbye to Josh, I also had to, in some ways, say goodbye to you. “I also hope this letter finds you well. I trust you would have let me know if anything had happened to Josh, so I assume he is also well. I hope he would let me know if anything happens to you.

“I have been happy. I’m getting married this summer to the fellow I told you about that afternoon long ago before you asked me to wait for Josh. It seems funny now, doesn’t it?

“In any case, I was wondering if you would be willing to send me Josh’s address. For perhaps no good reason, I’d like to let him know myself.”

Josh felt embarrassed by the letters. Embarrassed for his Grandma who had chosen for him a good woman he had refused out of stupidity and pride, embarrassed for Thea who knew she’d been refused and yet had been unable to accept it, and embarrassed for himself for not knowing -- or wanting to know -- and for not having spared all of them pain that could have avoided.

He didn’t use any of the house except the bathroom, his old bedroom, and the kitchen during his stay in his Grandma’s house. On days when he had to show it to an interested buyer, he felt choked by the memories in the other rooms. By memories and apparitions. One time he saw his father again, as he’d been that day when Josh had come home after the war, his father prattering cluelessly, unintentionally cruelly draping one arm around his new son who looked scared and sorry to be there, while praising Josh for risking his life and his soul in Iraq. Another time he saw Thea and his Grandma, sitting in the living room, their heads bent together, knitting together hopes as though they could hold.

He gave away everything and burned Thea’s letters, his own, and his father’s. When he returned to Philadelphia, he took only the proceeds from the sale of the house, some photos and his grandfather’s letters.

Viv was still in the hospital. When she was released six months later she was talking about divorce. At first he wouldn’t hear of it. After another six months of counseling and crying and hard, hard days, however, he had to admit it made sense. They were not happy together anymore. Maybe they had never been. It was hard to know.

That afternoon he had packed a suitcase and said goodbye to the dogs. He kissed Viv on the cheek and said, “If you need me…” She’d smiled a little and he knew she meant it kindly, but it struck him that she didn’t need him. Had never needed him. He’d taken his suitcase to the office, set it down next to the cot he’d already been sleeping on most nights of the week, and then had crossed the street to a bar he’d never been in before.

Which is how he ended up reminded of his Grandma’s lemonade, staring at the door, wondering what path he should have taken. He wondered what would happen if he called Thea now and tried to imagine what he would say if her husband answered. “Hello. I’m Josh, maybe you’ve heard of me, maybe not. I want to talk to Thea.”

Then he tried to imagine what he would say if she answered. He could tell her about his Grandma. That was a good reason to call. She would want to know, she had said as much. He tried to imagine telling her. He tried to remember her voice, the warmth of it. She would cry and he would be consoling. He would tell her that his Grandma had loved her. He would tell her that he had read her letters to his Grandma.

He dispensed with the excuse and indulged the fantasy of calling to tell her he was moving back. That he wanted to be with her now. That they both knew she had married the wrong man. For a minute, he wondered if his Grandma were sitting in the booth across from him, or whispering in his ear.

He laughed.

After another beer, he realized he was not going to call her, and that’s when he knew, really, that he wanted to. That’s when he realized -- for the first time -- that he had loved her, too. He walked back across the street and fell into his cot, unspeakably weary, and trying not to cry.

Thea and Josh met again at their twentieth high school reunion. Josh was remarried to a woman who was sane and pleasant, but not very smart or interested in his work. It was okay. He was happy most of the time. They had been at the reunion for over an hour and he was having fun, wandering through the crowded ballroom, sharing funny memories with people he hadn’t thought of since he’d left. Janet was having less fun, but she was being a good sport. He felt protective of her, and tender. He had his arm around her when he spotted Thea.

Thea did a double take. And then she broke toward him and he pulled his arm from around Janet and held it in front of her, a defensive habit -- as if he expected Thea or the tall man striding behind her to attack. Instead she threw her arms around him and gave him a strong hug and a kiss on the cheek. He returned them. “Josh!” she said, pulling back to look at him. She turned to look up at the man behind her, “This is Josh,” and then turning back to Josh, she introduced the man as her husband, David.

“I thought…” Josh said.

She laughed and said, “Are you going to ask about Brian? That lasted about five years. David and I are newlyweds -- well, relatively.”

David put out his hand, “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“None of it good, I hope,” said Josh, taking his hand.

“Then you’ll be happy,” said David and Thea laughed, which made both Josh and David smile.

“He’s kidding,” she said. David smiled and shrugged. Josh liked him.

“This is Janet,” Josh said, introducing his very pregnant wife.

“Hi,” she said to them with a wan smile and turned to Josh. “Listen, hon, I’m thirsty and I need to sit down.”

David looked at Thea. “Catch up,” he said. “I’ll get Janet something to drink.”

Thea leaned up to kiss him on his cheek and Josh looked at Janet, “Okay?”

She nodded and David winked at Thea as he took Janet’s elbow.

“So,” Josh said.


They looked at each other. “You seem happy.” “So do you.”

“Seems like a good guy.”

Thea looked across the room at David and smiled. “Yeah. He is. He really is. How far along is Janet?”

“Seven and a half months.”



“That’s great… You, a Papa. You must be freaking out.”

He laughed. “A little.”

“How’s your Grandmother?” Josh found that he couldn’t speak, he looked down. Thea nodded. “I figured,” she said softly. “I wrote to her a couple of years ago and didn’t hear anything back. I’m so sorry, Josh. I really loved --”

“I read some of your letters.”

Thea blanched. “Do you mean the ones I wrote to her?”

Josh nodded. Thea was beautiful, still. Her eyes were alert and deep, her lips were full and soft. “Huh,” she said.

“Uh, yeah.”

“What did you think?”

“I thought I was really stupid.”

Thea’s whole body convulsed in laughter. He found he was laughing, too, but he wasn’t sure why. “Thea, why are you laughing?”

“I… don’t… know.” They laughed until they needed to catch their breaths.

“That is so not what I thought you would say,” she said finally.

“What did you think I would say?”

“I don’t know. Just not that.”

“I loved you. I wish I’d known.”

“I need to sit down.”

“I’m so sorry, Thea.”

“Josh -- stop. I’m serious. Can we go somewhere to sit down?”

He lead her into the hallway, one quick look back at their spouses. They were not watching. They found some steps to sit on.

“Listen,” she said. “I did not know what to do. I loved your Grandma. I loved you. But you were impossible. And I think I started to love that more than you.”

“What if I hadn’t been impossible?”

“But you were. And now, it’s good that you were. For me. It was horrible at the time, but I did that to myself. I should have let go a long time before I did.”

“Or maybe I…”

“Josh.” He put an arm around her but it fell away as she stood up. “You made me crazy, Josh. I accepted things from you that I would never have taken from anyone else, ever. And I thought it was fine because your Grandma kept supporting my fantasy of you. But you were never who I thought you were and that was what was wrong.”

“I think I was -- I think I am -- who you thought I was.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“It’s not just that I loved you. It’s that I love you.”

Thea stared at him and then, gently, put her hand on his shoulder. “Josh,” she said quietly. “You don’t know me.”

He put his hand on her hand. She pulled hers away.  “I need to get back to David. I’m really sorry,” she began to walk back toward the ballroom.

“Thea -- "

She turned around and for a long moment met his eyes.  “I’ll always love the idea of you, Josh Kinkead. I promise. All my life." She threw herself in his arms and he held her tightly.

After a minute she pressed her wet cheek to his, pulled away, and strode back into the ballroom.

He watched her go and sat for a minute, stunned at what he’d said and done. He’d held fire in his hand and miraculously had no burn to show. He felt his Grandma’s hands pushing on his back. He went to find Janet and his unborn son.

An Exorcism, part 2

Note: This story makes more sense if you start with Part One. p.s. It's nearly unforgiveably long.


They saw each other twice more before he left for boot camp. Two days before, he'd been packing up his stuff at his Grandma's, and his Grandma had asked, "Josh, why didn't you bring Thea back around? I like her.  I'd like to keep in touch with her."
"I don't know, Grandma." 
"Give her a call. Invite her over."
For some reason, he did. He felt free of her appeal and as though he could prove it so simply, and that it would be just one more thing put away before he finally really left. To his surprise, she was friendly and happy to come over. Thea and his Grandma talked for an hour over lemonade, nearly ignoring him. Thea seemed to be getting ready to go, when his Grandma said, "Now, dear. You and I will keep in touch, and we'll both keep our eyes on Josh."
Josh felt the blood in his face and watched the blood rise in Thea's. "Grandma..."
"Josh will be okay, Mrs. Kinkead," Thea said. 
"Especially as long as he has friends like you, Thea," Josh's Grandma said, patting Thea's hand. "Now you two should spend some time together before you have to go and I've monopolized you."
Before they could protest, she had left the room, and they sat, in his Grandma's kitchen, across the table from each other. "Thanks for coming over. She really likes you. You should keep in touch with her," he offered.
"Thanks. It's mutual. And I was planning to."
"You were?" 
Thea nodded.  "So, you head out this weekend."
"Yeah. I can't wait." 
Thea chuckled, "Of course." 
He smiled back at her.  "Want to take a walk?"
"Okay, a short one." 
They didn't say a lot, but they held hands as they wandered through the neighborhood. As they came back to his Grandma's house, he turned to face her and brush a stand of hair out of her face. "Josh, I'm sorry," she said. 
"Me, too," he said and kissed her, softly.
The last time they saw each other that summer was the night before he shipped out. He'd just left Amy's house. He had made the rounds to all his friends, saving Amy's goodbye for last. Somehow, he felt he owed her that much. He thought he had probably loved her at one time, but that for a lot longer he'd just been happy to have a free pass. He almost felt apologetic as he left, but he also knew Amy's feelings were shallow and her heartbreak was as much for show as it was true. She wrapped his arms around his neck and cried. "One more time, Josh?" But he didn't want to stay. He kissed her and said goodbye.
Afterwards, he felt restless and anxious about leaving for the first time. It was late and he felt like walking. At first he didn't plan to go anywhere, but after meandering awhile he knew where he was headed.  It was after midnight when he started throwing rocks at Thea's window. Her light was on, and she motioned him to the front door.
"I was just thinking about you," she said as she opened the door, yellow light spilling onto him.
"I leave tomorrow. At eight I have to be at the bus station," his voice felt hollow, and small.
"Do you want to come in?"
"Isn't it late?"
"Well, I guess, but I'm the only one here. Everyone else went camping."
It felt dangerous, but it was the only place he wanted to be.
They talked on the couch for awhile, but almost as soon as he'd stepped through the door he'd felt calmer and sleepy. When she asked if he wanted to stay, it was a foregone conclusion.
They held hands as they climbed the stairs to her bedroom. They kissed as they stood at the edge of the bed. She let him undress her, and then let his hands lead her to undress him.
"It might hurt," he told her as they moved closer and closer to a moment from which they could not return. "I don't want to hurt you." But she pulled him into her anyway and rocked with him as he climaxed.
"That's cool," she said, afterwards. And they laughed.
"Is it really okay?" he asked.
"It's the only thing that's okay," she said.
They fell asleep in each other's arms, and when she started to turn away in her sleep he pulled her closer.
He woke too late to stay for breakfast. She kissed him at the door and started to cry. He wiped away her tears. "I love you," she said.
"I know," he said. And then, "I'll miss you."
He ran down the street and looked back once, but she'd already gone back inside. He was on the bus to Camp Pendleton within an hour.
She wrote him funny, interesting, and affectionate letters while he was at boot camp. He alternately awaited them eagerly and was bored by them. He had so much to prove back then. He wanted to be a soldier. He wanted to be the best soldier.  He wrote back to her about wanting to kill people, wanting to be ready to kill people.  At one point he told her he felt he was becoming such a good soldier that he could kill her if given the command. He wrote to her about how he was hardening his heart and had decided not to love anyone.  That when he was on the field of battle he didn't want there to be anyone back at home he was trying to get back for. Afterwards her letters were more careful, supportive but increasingly distant than she'd been before.  He felt gratified by it.
He visited her at her dorm on leave before his first assignment in Hawaii. He'd felt superior and disdainful of all the "pussy men," and the "hippie chicks" he told her she lived with. He felt elated to feel unattached to her, to be able to push her affection away and watch the confusion and hurt on her face without feeling drawn toward her. Once he was back in Placerville, he gave a call to Thea's best friend and asked her out on a date. She'd declined, but he knew it was all he would need to do to get to Thea. She didn't write to him when he left for Hawaii.
Over the next few years, every so often his Grandma would mention a visit from Thea in a letter. For a moment he'd remember something about her, her smile, her lips, her laugh, but then he'd snort derisively at her persistence in maintaining a relationship with his Grandma. It was pathetic, he thought. Otherwise, he forgot.
After his first tour of duty was almost up, he agreed to a second and within six months, even before his second tour began, President Bush the First declared War on Iraq. He could hardly wait to go. By then he was in Special Forces Recon and had seen action, but war was the ultimate, something he and his Recon buddies had discussed with bravado, longing, and fascination. While he was home on leave before deployment his Grandma, as she did every time he was home, encouraged him to call Thea. "Trust me. She doesn't want to hear from me, Grandma."
"You’re wrong.  I know she does."
More curious than anything else, he gave Thea a call at her parent's place. After a quick hello to her mom, who was surprisingly friendly, he thought, Thea came on the line. He was shocked at how much her voice moved him. Her voice was full of the warmth and playfulness he remembered. "So, you're going to war, Corporal. How's it feel?"
She laughed and it pleased him. He told her he'd signed up for a second tour."Does this mean you are planning on a long military career?" she'd asked.
"No," he said, realizing it for the first time. "This is it. If I make it home, I'm out after this."

"Tired of the macho bullshit?" Her voice held a laugh and he smiled, imagining the look on her face.

"No, that’s the best part.  Tired of all the other bullshit."
"Ahhh.  So, if you make it home..." Her voice trailed a moment. "What will you do next?"
"Robotics, I think," again, the words surprised him, but he realized they were right. "What are you doing?" he asked her. He was starting to think it would be good to see her.
"I'm planning to teach -- elementary school, I think."
"Right this instant?"
"Well, no," she laughed.
"Are you seeing anyone?" he asked her.
"Why would you care?" He heard the smile in her voice as she asked and he smiled back. "Yes, actually," she said after a beat. "I'm living with someone."
He realized he didn't want to know any more and she seemed to sense it, too.
"Can I write to you while you're overseas?" she asked. 
He paused before saying yes. And she did write a few times, and he wrote back. But he was in a war zone, and she and her world seemed very far away to him. He did not think about who he was writing to as he described the infighting in his squad or the grueling danger of their missions. Of course, he barely said anything that really made sense of the chaos of combat and its equally surreal lulls, because he couldn't. So his letters were cryptic and scary, he supposed. She stopped responding and he did not stop to wonder about it.
He did make it home from the war and, for once, his Grandma did not encourage him to call Thea. He could barely even talk to his Grandma, much less anyone else. He was more tired than being home for six weeks would cure. At one point his father came to visit. He brought his new wife and their son and his father kept saying how he was proud of Josh for joining the Marines and fighting for his country, for making something of himself. As though that was all there was to say after all these years.  Grandma fluttered nervously behind him. Josh felt bile rising in his chest and an anger so violent he had to leave. He walked out the front door while they called after him. He went out to the car and sat behind the wheel, trying to remember where he used to go when he was young. Before he was a Marine. He tried to remember the feel of a woman underneath him. He started the car and drove by Amy's parent's house, but didn't stop. Amy was married now. Then he drove by Thea's parents' house. He didn't stop there either. He knew she wasn't there and it didn't matter if she was.
After the war he was stationed at Camp Pendleton again. He was assigned fewer field assignments so he could concentrate on his classes. He applied to college. He looked forward to civilian life. One night out with the guys at a rough and ready bar just across the border, the kind where they were sure to end up in a fight once they'd had enough to drink, a beautiful drunken blonde approached him, dressed all in black leather. "You're IT," she said.
Viv was wild and they were wild together. Partying with her, he barely made it through his classes, but he did. And well enough to enter college as a junior once he was discharged. The day he was discharged he moved into Viv's Mission Bay apartment. She came from money and parents that no longer cared enough about her to wonder how she spent it. He thought she was perfect for him -- the perfect blend of chaos and stability. He liked her unpredictability. It was comforting to him. He wouldn't do drugs with her but he loved the moods they put her in, and he liked scaring off the men who followed her home, having misunderstood her wild ways as an invitation to something Josh felt belonged to him.
He took her to Placerville to meet his Grandma, who was looking old now. Viv laughed at Placerville and his Grandma's deteriorating Victorian home. "Oh good lord, Marine man, no wonder you left."
Josh's Grandma didn't say much during their visit and Josh knew she didn't like Viv. He understood. But he felt he had to tell her. "Grandma, I'm going to ask Viv to marry me."
"She loves me and I love her. She's smart and she's fun."
His Grandma was silent for a moment, and then she said, "You have to make your own mistakes, honey."
"That's right, Grandma," he said, more resigned than angry.
It took another year before Josh could convince Viv to marry him. It sounded too boring to her and she wasn't interested in children, which might have made some sense out of the tragicomedy of marriage, she said. But eventually he threatened to leave her and she agreed.
Shortly after they had finally set a date, Josh got a letter from Thea.
"I got your address from your Grandma. I'm not sure she thought she should give it to me. I hope you won't mind. It might make no sense, but somehow, telling you feels like the last thing I have to do to be ready for this.

"I don't know if you even remember, but the last time we talked I mentioned I was living with someone -- Brian. Brian and I are getting married this summer. He's a good man and I'm lucky.

"I just want to tell you that I learned so much from you the summer after high school. I learned what it feels like to love. And now I know what it feels like to be loved. But you helped a girl become a woman, with all the grace and strength and heartbreak that entails. Despite all the distance between then and now, there is a block of real estate in my heart that will always belong to you. I hope you are happy. Love, Thea"

Her letter made him happy for reasons he could not have articulated at first. Days after he'd sent a happy chatty reply about his own happiness and plans to marry Viv, he realized what it was. He felt forgiven.
He finished school and got a job in Philadelphia. Viv hated to leave San Diego. She threatened to leave him and might have, except that he threatened to put their dogs to sleep if she did. At the time he believed it made sense: she didn't work and he did. It would have been a bad life for the dogs, somewhere new, alone all day without her; or here, alone with her and her craziness.
Without her drug connections, Viv got clean in Philadelphia, which made it possible for the doctors to diagnose her bi-polar condition. When she was on lithium she was dull and listless. When she wasn't, they'd have high times -- until they didn't. On a nearly annual basis, she attempted suicide and they went for another round of counseling. It was the sixth year before a counselor pointed out to him how manipulative the ploy with the dogs had been.
The seventh year they were in Philadelphia, Josh's Grandma died. It was a terrible time.
Viv was in a depressive state and Josh didn't know what to do. For the first time since her diagnosis, he agreed to have her institutionalized so that he could go back to California to settle the estate.

An Exorcism, part 1

Note from the author: Telling this story is an act of exorcism. While it is based on something true, it is fiction. But it's the worst kind of story. It's the kind that visits at four o'clock in the morning when you'd rather be sleeping and insists that it really happened, the kind you almost believe is true, the kind that won't let you go back to sleep even once you're finally awake enough to know it's a just a more appealing version of a larger story that is much more painful. My hope is that by telling this story it will, finally, just leave me alone. p.s. It's nearly unforgiveably long. 
The first time he realized he'd loved her all those years ago, was one afternoon much later, as he sat in his booth, lonely, staring at the door of the bar in a city thousands of miles away from home. He was picking at all the loose ends in his past, wondering if life could have been different, and feeling awash in an uncharacteristic wave of homesickness. He and his wife had called it quits and this time he thought it was finally final, and overdue. The city they'd been living in for the last eight years felt foreign. The door to the bar opened and the noise and smells of Philadelphia poured in. He longed for the quiet hills of El Dorado County, and the familiar crawl of small-town Placerville. He tipped the cold bottle in his hand and held the beer in his mouth for a moment, moving his tongue through it, reminded unaccountably of his Grandma's lemonade, and with it a flood of forgotten memories of Thea.
He and Thea had been in classes together for two years, but they did not speak to each other until the last month of high school -- until their history teacher put them on a debate team together. They knew of each other, had friends who were friends, and had taken note of the other's visual appeal. But there had been no outside energy pushing them past recognition into knowledge until Mr. Whiteneck forced them together. Josh was surprised by how funny and smart she was and he liked that she thought he was, too. She had long dark hair and deep dimples and shining eyes when she smiled. They had very different views of the world, and harassed each other about their conflicting opinions. The month they'd had to work together on the final debate, they had flirted constantly, without flirting.
At the time he was still dating Amy, his girlfriend of two years, but he had plans to free himself up for his last "hurrah," as he'd begun to think of the coming summer. It surprised him, the first time he wondered what it would be like to kiss Thea, and afterwards, that he thought about it a lot.
After he broke up with Amy, he started calling Thea everyday. They kissed for the first time the night of graduation. They'd spent the day together, she at his family's celebration, and then he at hers, ostensibly as friends. She was going to drive them to the ceremony and they left the party at her house early because they were going to go climb an oak tree first. They'd been discussing the plan for a week, at Thea's insistence. They needed to do something, she said, that made the day real. There was a perfect tree in a back field of Thea's uncle's horse ranch. They crawled up as high as they could and, perched amid rattling leaves, passed a beer back and forth, talking about the impossibility, it seemed, that high school was finally over and all that might mean. Afterwards, they had rushed to the school and ended up sitting with each other at the back of the auditorium, because they had arrived too late to get into line with their other friends. She drove him home afterwards, and while the engine idled, he'd asked to kiss her. Her lips had been even softer than he'd imagined. And when she kissed back, he felt like he'd fallen through a plate of glass. She left town the next day for four weeks, a long visit with family back east. They planned a date for when she got back.
Also as planned, he fooled around a lot while she was gone. He was joining the Marines at the end of the summer. His recruiter had promised that he'd find it "a hit with the ladies" to be a Marine recruit. And he'd been right. Josh had plans to explore that effect to its fullest that summer, but missing Thea was distracting. After she returned they saw each other frequently, more than once a week. They talked more than that, but not too much to disrupt his plans for the summer.
One afternoon after Thea had returned, he and his Grandma were having an unusually long and good afternoon together. They were sipping lemonade, talking about all that was about to change now that he was "a man." His Grandma had raised him after his parents, who had never married – they had been so young -- had both left him to seek their own lives. He saw his mother a couple of times each year and she was too much a gypsy for Josh to long for her very often.  His dad had a completely separate life. Josh barely knew him. His Grandma asked him who he thought he would keep in touch with now that high school was over. The list wasn't long. As he thought about it, he was suddenly distracted by thoughts of Amy. Although he had ostensibly broken up with her several weeks earlier, Amy was no stickler for such things, which worked well for him. Her parents were away for the week, and he'd been over just the night before. He felt a surge of power at the thought of her body under him, his blood coursing more swiftly. And then he thought about how she'd whispered in his ear, "You and me, Josh, you and me, you and me," over and over, and felt uneasy.
"Grandma," he said without thinking about it. "Who do you like better Amy or Thea?"
"Oh, Josh, honey," she'd said. "Amy's too empty-headed to care about anything but shopping. Thea is a real person. I love Thea."
At first he'd laughed. "That's not fair, Grandma -- Amy's not stupid. Besides you barely know Thea."
"You knew the answer when you asked, Josh. Don't pretend you didn't."
"Well, I doubt I'll be keeping in touch with Thea," he was suddenly angry and almost aware of the irrationality of it, but only enough to feel more irritated.
Thea had become a problem for him; he'd known that. He described her as "a great girl" to the friends who knew enough to ask. He enjoyed her company. Her kisses were soft and sweet, and sexy in a different way than Amy's. Thea, he thought, didn't even know she was sexy, that was part of it. She was a virgin, but something else, too. Paradoxically, she withheld less than Amy. He never got the feeling that Thea was thinking about something else when he was with her, or manipulating him to some purpose of her own. And she didn't seem to want to own him the way Amy did. And, just when he was sure he knew what she would say or how she would react to something, Thea would surprise him.
"I can hardly wait to get to boot camp," he'd said to her the other day as they drank coffee under a big umbrella at a downtown cafe.
"Yep," he waited for her response. He thought she'd say something girly, like she was going to miss him, or something like that. Or she'd say something lefty and liberal as she had before, about the macho bullshit of enlisting in the Marines.
"Makes sense," she'd said. "You'll be a great Marine."
Was it an insult? Was it a compliment? "I just hope I get to go to war," he said, hoping to roust her intent from behind the screen she'd set.
"Yes, well, I wouldn't expect you to say anything else."
"Don't you have a problem with that, peace-girl?" he'd said, half-laughing.
"Look, I don't hope you get to go to war, and I certainly don’t want there to be a war you’d go to, but you're a different thing than me, Josh. I think I get why you want to go. It makes sense in its way."
"Why do I want to go?"
"Oh, you know.  It's some sacred male ritual to be there and survive it.  You've got something to prove to yourself, and so be it."
She confounded him. He had explained to her that this summer, no one girl was going to get too much of his time.  He knew she'd been upset, but she wasn't clingy the way other girls were. Amy had threatened - emptily, as even he knew at the time - never to talk to him again. But Thea said she didn't care about other girls as long as she didn't have to see it, as long as he didn't pursue any of her friends. He knew that she did care, or that she should, but he also appreciated that she made it easy to come and go without the histrionics that almost made the sure thing Amy offered not worth it.
Ultimately, though, that is how he'd hurt Thea. And why she'd hurt him back.
Years and year later it still made him feel like a balloon with a slow fatal leak, the memory of her with Zach. Zach and Thea were good friends and he knew from both of them that they were not involved romantically. Zach and Josh were friends in a way that Josh believed was the beginning of the kinds of friendships he was going to have with his fellow Marines. They were friendly, collegeial, and aggressively competitive. They tried to out-think each other in conversation, out-match each other in sports, and Zach got around. He had the hottest girlfriend in the school, and it was commonly believed among the guys in their class that Zach was preternaturally able to seduce anyone he chose. It was an openly discussed goal between the two of them that Josh planned to outbed Zach that summer. They kept score -- the same girl multiple times counted only half as much as someone new. They went to parties together for the sport of the hunt.
At one point Zach had asked Josh what the story was with Thea - did he realize Thea was in love with him? Did he know she was a virgin?  Was he going to hurt her?  Zach warned Josh against using Thea for their bet.  “She’s special, man,” he’d said.
Josh told him that Thea knew about the game, and was cool with his plans for the summer, and the rest was none of Zach's business.  But Zach's protectiveness of her made Josh angry and out of his peripheral vision, he could see it was because he knew Zach was right. It wasn't fair to Thea. Josh should have made a choice to see just her or not at all. He was unwilling to make that choice. And when he'd said as much to Thea, putting upon her the responsibility to call it quits if it got too painful for her, she'd just repeated, that she didn't mind, as long as she didn't have to see him at his game.
At some point things began to feel too claustrophobic at home and Josh went to San Francisco for several weeks with a friend -- his oldest buddy, "the other Josh" -- whose dad had issued them a standing invitation. The other Josh's dad was never at home. He had a new girlfriend just a few years older than they were, and with a robust elbow to the ribs he'd joked about the boys having a better time without him and vice versa. The other Josh's dad was an embarrassment to both of them, but they thought nothing of taking advantage of his hospitality. 

In San Francisco, he and the other Josh, who known each other since kindergarten, had combed the city for chicks. There'd been plenty. They were both young and handsome, charming in different ways. When they didn't feel like looking for girls, they drank the other Josh's dad's beer and listened to music and talked about their long past and their uncertain futures. The other Josh was off to a liberal arts college at the end of the summer. They recognized that a day was coming when they wouldn't be able to talk to each other.
Hanging out in San Francisco with the other Josh, Josh almost forgot about Thea. And he did forget about Maria, Zach's girlfriend. Zach wasn't Josh's best friend, and Maria had come onto him, so Josh was disinclined to feel guilty about it. But when the first thing Zach said, as he exploded out of Thea's car, the day they came to see him in the city, was, "You fucking asshole! Fucking Maria??" Josh had a moment of concern.
"Not in front of Thea," he'd said quietly to Zach.
"She knows, you mother fucker."
When Josh had looked at Thea, she looked away for a moment, then looked back at him, and she was still there, behind her eyes. But when he stepped toward her, she shrugged.
"Fuck you, Zach," Josh said to him.
"Yeah, whatever."
And that could have been the end of it between Zach and Josh, except that Josh felt something more coming. The air was thick with too many things no one was saying.
That night the other Josh went off with other friends and left his father's apartment to Josh, Zach, and Thea. They took BART into Berkeley and went dancing. They rode BART, back the three of them, one tangled web on one seat. Thea was spread between the boys, all of them with limbs draping over one of the others. They were riding an electrical current generated by all that was unspoken between the three of them -- talking about everything and nothing, but not saying anything that would let the charge out of the air. And then at a late night diner, Josh put his head down on the table in front of him, saying he was getting tired, and Thea poured sugar into his hair. He was livid. He stalked away from the table afraid he would make a scene, and from outside he looked back in at the two of them laughing. Thea looked toward him, and in retrospect, he realized he'd seen the moment in her eyes when he could have averted what was to come. All he had to do was smile and accept this minor humiliation in exchange for all of the humiliation she must have felt to learn about him with Maria, to know about all of the others. All he had to do was let her know she was special somehow, that she wasn't wrong to feel that she was different to him, not like the others. But he'd also told her he couldn't make any room in his life right now for that kind of thing. That it wasn't personal.
It felt personal, though, when, as they got ready for bed, each boy on one of the only two mattresses in the room, and Thea climbed into bed with Zach. Josh had not invited her into his bed. Zach had. Josh had not spoken to her since the sugar -- with some part of his childhood mind he thought it was a fair test of her.
They were drunk; he knew that. But he heard them moving toward and into each other, and in what dim light of the nighttime city crept through the curtains, he watched them groping for each other. He watched Thea let Zach do things with her she'd never let him do. He knew this is what had been coming all night. At one point, Thea's eyes met his for half a second. He hated her then. Hated her more than anyone. They stopped soon after, and he was sure they didn't have sex, but Josh did not sleep afterwards. He was sitting in the kitchen as the sun came up. Thea came in shortly after daylight had fully taken hold.
"I watched you," he managed to croak. He couldn't look at her.
"I'm sorry," she said. He was silent. "I'm surprised you care."
He glared at her. "No, you aren't. You knew I'd care. That's why you did it."
"Actually, I really wasn't sure you'd care, Josh." "Don't play that fucking game with me, Thea."
"Is there some way I was supposed to know you cared? You didn't even tell me you were coming to San Francisco. I didn't even know you were gone until I called your Grandma. You just disappeared."
"How could you let him do things to you that you wouldn't even let me do?"
"Oh, Josh."
"Yeah, I saw."
Thea was quiet and Josh felt gratified to have turned the tables on her, except then he thought about the sight of her with Zach and his stomach tightened into a knot. "I feel sick," he spat. "I just can't believe you'd do that to me, Thea."
"Don't be such a hypocrite."
He looked up at her and she was crying. It made him angry but he wasn't sure at who. She met his eyes and he looked away.
"Josh, you didn't want me," she said quietly.
 He thought about the fact of that and something steely entered his veins. "Yeah, that's true," he said.
She got up and he heard her leave the apartment. He told himself he didn't care and good riddance. He told himself she was just like every other girl after all -- just as expendable. For the remaining three weeks of summer he shut her out of his mind as best he could.

Friday, July 16, 2004


The Preacher put up a post today that has my heart on fire with gratitude.  AJ concluded a 10-part post today that has me wanting to touch life lightly and lovingly, with exquisite sensitivity, as though with my fingertips. Inanna's had a couple of posts lately so powerful that they're breaking chains on the ankles of women who can't say it yet themselves. Morgan's quiet, perhaps out on his own stroll. And Queenie, as a mom, makes me happy for the future.

I don't have much to say today except that it's a nice feature of the internet that one can choose one's neighbors.

I also wandered into some of the neighborhoods of my chosen neighbors, or their neighbor's neighborhoods --- in plainspeak, new blogs (for me).  Split a gut laughing at Todd Vodka's jet ski adventure, and would have offered a book deal to Sloth for her post about abortion (except that I don't own a publishing house).

Wednesday, July 14, 2004


As she sat down on her bags on the train platform, having been careful to find a place without a blood-red pool of beetel-"juice," she pulled out a journal and uncapped a pen. From yards away, she saw the boy approaching.

Earlier in her travels, after a conversation over a long dinner with a journalist friend, she'd agreed that giving money to India's begging children was not a moral good, but only quick personal relief. A way to buy oneself out of the discomfort of staring into the face of abject need. The journalist had discovered that most children only took the money back to whatever adult had sent them into the street and rarely ensured them a meal or even a safe place to sleep. Plus, he argued, they would otherwise continue to be dismissed by the government as self-sufficient as long as begging were viable. The moral action, they had decided, was to find a truly effective humanitarian organization who was making a difference and give the money to it. Over a good meal, across the table from a man she knew to be deeply compassionate and more traveled than herself, it had sounded so reasonable.

As the boy continued his approach, she noticed that none of the locals were giving to him. In a rash moment, she decided not to even look at him as he moved closer, soon toward her to get her attention. "Money? Money?" she heard his soft voice and continued to keep her head bent over her journal, pretending not to hear, pretending not to see.

She knew what he would look like if she raised her eyes. He wouldn't be taller than her shoulder if she stood. His shirt would be too small --- a belly smeared with dust and oil revealed at the top of pants also too short, and frayed. His face would be streaked in soot, saliva and mucas. His eyelashes would hold bits of drying sleep. And under all that she'd see his soft boy's skin to match his soft boy's voice, pouty full red lips and deep, dark mesmerizing eyes. He'd be adorable, in another setting. In a place where he was loved.

"Money? Money?" He put his small hand between her face and her journal. The dirt, as though left behind in a drained bathtub, formed a ring around his palm. She knew without having to see it that the back of his hand would be mottled with the tan and gray dust of the train station, nearly blended to make his brown skin seem much darker.

She held her breath and he moved away. She blinked back tears.

Someday, she wrote in her journal, I will be safely encapsulated again -- all of this will be invisible, this open and oozing wound of human degradation and despair. It won't be gone. But it will not sit next to me, tugging on my sleeve. I will have to remember it on my own. "God," she wrote "make my heart break and keep it broken. Please don't let me forget."

As she read the words over, she was reminded of several days earlier, when a child had grabbed her pants as she was hurrying across a busy, noisy street. "Please!" he'd cried, fingers digging into her thigh. In a flash of sudden anger she'd slapped the hand away, hard, and was immobilized immediately after with shame. But turning around, the child had disappeared. She hadn't thought of it again until now.

She heard the train pulling in and lifted her head to look around. This boy was gone, too. She closed her journal. "May God save us both," she whispered to his ghost.


There were moments when it came back to her in a short, stabbing, keen memory: the smell of incense and ash on the muddy river breeze; the sound of great flocks of doves flying in graceful arcs overhead; pushing through dense and fragrant hot bustling crowds at market; the still and sacred courtyards of mosques and temples; the cacaphony of colors on women, on children, in store windows; the leaden humidity; the shouts of children and touts; the call of the muezzin; the horns blaring and easy laughter; the chatter of monkeys; the dust and blight; the lush and the stark grandeur.

Sitting at her computer, in her private air-conditioned office, a peaceful view of the tops of her city's tree canopy, stacks and binders of paper in front of her, the work that must be done, and the silence of an office at work --- a whole world away --- occasionally she remembered her months in India.

It was a kind of moment that put her outside of herself, an observer. Where is the mark of India on me now? she would wonder. How is it I was there and now am here and no one would know?

It should have changed me. It should have changed me more.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Waking Up

I woke up from a long dream this morning about a weekend getaway with an old friend of mine named Erik. Erik and I go as far back as I go. We moved so much when I was a kid that it wasn't until I was a teenager that I felt I could exert enough control over my life to maintain friendships past the next move.

I met Erik the last month that I was in high school in Indiana. We went out with my best friend at the time (and now another one of my oldest friends) and Erik's best friend at the time. Erik and Kurt were in love with my friend Susan. They sang Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young" to her and wrote her long, tortured letters, and deep down accepted that she was not going to choose either of them anytime soon, but I think also deep down believed that ultimately she would fall in love with one of them. She didn't. But their crushes, especially Erik's, persisted for a long, long time.

That night we first met there was a moment when he and I were talking in the backseat, while for some reason, Susan and Kurt were outside somewhere. In the lamplight strained by a dirty windshield, and the shadows of the bucket seats in front of us, Erik and I argued about whether or not there was a god, and as he talked, he twisted a wire coat hanger that had been discarded on the floor. At the end of the evening he handed it to me. "Modern art," he said.

His crush on Susan was an often revisited topic in our early letters, which began when I'd moved back to California. I've had other of Susan's suitors begin correspondence with me but there was no mistaking that those were intended specifically to woo her. Erik and I, however -- despite the early topic -- started as and continued to be correspondents writing to each other --- at first out of curiosity, but quickly in recognition of our own connection.

Throughout our junior and senior years of high school we wrote each other long letters at least once a week. We'd fill pages with our "Very Deep" angsty-adolescent thoughts about life and writing, god and love, drugs and music, friends and enemies --- and flirt and rant and prattle. Erik typically wrote his letters to a soundtrack of Lou Reed, Bob Dylan or David Bowie. I wrote mine to Depeche Mode or Howard Jones. (Though, ultimately, his musical taste rubbed off on me, and not vice versa.) On days when my intuition told me a letter would be arriving, I would skip my 5th period class to go home to get the mail. I was always right.

Over the years we each fell in love with the other a few times, usually whenever the other was in love with someone else. We only messed around once (though we'd written and talked about it ad nauseum before then), and once we did it was clear it wouldn't happen again. But what we lacked in physical chemistry, we've always had in emotional and intellectual chemistry. I love him fully and easily and enough that my husband D. is sometimes uneasily aware of Erik as different than any of my other male friends, though he rightly perceives no threat. I don't know how Erik's wife feels about me, but it's clear from the times we've spoken on the phone that she does not consider me her friend. She's always friendly, but the connection is unmistakably Erik's and mine, not one between our families.

Erik's and my friendship filled with long silences during my prior marriage. My ex was too jealous to make room for an Erik in my life. And not only that, I wasn't willing to be as honest as I would have needed to be to maintain my connection with Erik while I was with B. That kind of honesty would have prevented the marriage, and certainly have broken it up earlier. Early on, Erik didn't like B. -- didn't like the sound of him, I should clarify, since Erik never met him. (B. had avoided his one opportunity to meet Erik.) It's obvious, in retrospect, what kind of omen that should have been.

Well into my marriage to B. I remember having seen Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" and sinking into a deep melancholy for days afterwards which I finally recognized was an artifact of missing Erik. I wrote a pitiful letter, worried we'd lost each other. He wrote back with calm reassurances. And even though it was a while yet before we fully reconnected, afterwards I felt his friendship, holding me, again more of the time.

It was towards the end of that marriage that Erik and I really found each other again. I was on the other end of the phone while he -- in Germany, now -- battled depression and alcoholism. He was on the other end of the phone while I grappled with the end of my marriage. I was so grateful to have been back, a larger part of his life again, when he met his wife. I remember the email well, so innocuous, and yet so full of "the signs." It took all I could do not to send back congratulations, to tell him he'd met "the one" (he didn't know it yet).

Erik wrote me a poem for my first wedding about Saturn's moon, Phoebe. I remember when it came in the mail, how I sat on the bed and read it over and over, crying. Again, in retrospect, the loneliness that poem engendered in me as I contemplated marriage should have been a sign. It was beautiful. And it was full of love for me, of knowledge of me --- and I knew my soon to be husband would never have understood or appreciated it. It's just that I thought some choices were just the ones life asked of us. And maybe they are. It's likely I would not have met D. if not for B. and I really wouldn't change my life, or who I am now, to spare any of the pain of the past.

In any case, something about waking up from that dream about Erik this morning made me want to go read the poetry I wrote when B. and I finally separated and were in the process of divorce. I stopped writing while I was married to B. And from the very first morning I was on my own, I started again. It poured out of me --- poetry, journals, letters, fiction -- as though I'd uncorked a bottle. But the poems were the surprise. I thought I'd stopped writing poetry in some kind of final way while I was in college.

The Divorce Poems are evidence to the contrary. I have ten or fifteen poems I really like from that time --- and a few more that I may someday try to get to the point that I like them.

I'm not sure why dreaming of Erik --- of a long weekend of being just with him, talking, reading to each other, walking, holding hands -- something we've never had and most likely never will --- why that would reawaken the poet in me this morning. But I've a feeling it has.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Public Privacy

I've been thinking about blogging a lot lately. Mostly about "the why" of blogging. Why I blog, why others blog. I've been so deeply affected by other people's blogs. I spend so much time thinking about things they write, the power of this way of meeting another person, and specifically the power of the interaction... I think part of it is the fulfillment of a long-time fantasy of mine: being able to interact with my favorite writers, and/or the characters they present. I am at odds with the impulse in myself, alternately indulgent and critical, because it's a way of exercising the impulse to write, because it is so anonymous, because I am so unwilling to reveal my blog to my closest friends, because its very public privateness is a remarkably powerful forum for self-discovery and identification with others. I am uneasy with it and yet released by it.

I want to thank you, Queenie and Inanna, for writing your blogs. Even when I do not feel I have the time to write for myself, I stop by to visit you. Should I always leave a comment when I do? Sometimes I notice the intimacy with which your other readers address you and I know I am just a stranger, passing through. Though I am always an appreciative reader and often, moved deeply by your words, I still am careful of being an interloper. I don't
want to crash the party. Though, occasionally, I can't resist. I've been learning from you -- about the power of blogging, and even more about the power of expression, and honesty, and plowing fallow fields to reclaim them for use. Again, thank you -- or that is to say, "thanks" (with a wink to Queenie's #68).

I also want to say thanks for reading my blog. As far as I know you're the only ones who have or do, and I feel honored, and not just that, but indebted. Although I do not understand this alchemy, the power of having you as readers is that my words land deeper within ME. Somehow, especially writing about my weekend to Indiana, became not just a writing exercise, or catharsis, but transformative in some way. And I am so conscious of that effect having been aided by the evidence of your witness. Thank you. Those words seem strange for the feeling I mean to convey to two cherished familiar strangers, but for now, they'll do, and I think I need both.

Friday, July 02, 2004

New Mown Hay and Moonlight on the Wabash, Part 3

I seem to have lost steam for recounting my weekend trip to Indiana. The upshot was that it was great and yet full of the kinds of moments that drove me crazy, and still drive me crazy. For example, my step-siblings decided a gift from the kids would be nice. Couldn't agree more. And their gift selection was perfect: nice new stereo, which my dad and step-mom have needed for probably the whole 25 years of their marriage. It just seems so obvious to me that, then, they should have asked my brother and me if we wanted to contribute. Nope. The gift from "the kids" was very publicly from my step-mom's three. Then, there was the typical: as my step-mom introduced us at the anniversary party, all my step-sibling and their spouses were introduced as "our" kids, while I was my dad's daughter. (My brother skipped the event and that's just a whole separate thing altogether. I spent a fair amount of my time fending off questions about his absence. It's taken me a long time to decide not to be his keeper.)

In a way, it's all okay, just because it confirms that I am not just neurotic to feel that I was outside of my father's family -- that there's truth there, too. And I really did come to a new peace about that on the drive to his house on Saturday. But in another way, it still prods at tender bruises and leaves me achey.

But there were really two other big features of that trip. One was Indiana itself. It's an interesting club to belong to: those who left Indiana. When two people who come from Indiana and no longer live there realize they have this in common, a certain kind of conversation is certain to start. First there are the self-effacing hayseed jokes. Then there's the discussion of loyalty: IU, Purdue, or Notre Dame. Then, there's the wistful communion about the beauty of the cornfields, and the taste of corn. And invariably, at least in California, the conversation ends with a statement along the lines of, "I could never go back." Pressed, most people will explain that statement with a politically neutral statement about the brutality of the winters. I think there's more than that, though, too.

Clearly -- as evidenced by the fact of it -- there are people for whom this is not an issue, but Indiana was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. To those of us for whom it is an issue, there's a kind of deep embarrassment in that fact, and an awareness that it's too easy in Indiana, still, to see that legacy -- not just in race relations, but in a kind of "us" and "other" mentality that pervades the social hierarchy.

Plus, Midwestern life is just not for everyone and it isn't just the winters. It's also the anti-intellectual, forced march Bible-thumping politeness.

Is this everyone in Indiana? Absolutely not. My family doesn't fall into this category. And my father's even a Methodist minister (have I mentioned that yet?). When I was in high school in Indiana (where I went after insisting to both of my parents that some part of my life had include time when my father was my father), my friends did not fall into that category and we lived in the smallest of towns.

Two of my longest-time friends, without whom I really would feel rootless, are from Indiana --- they remain, even as our lives have taken radically different paths, people who ground me not only in the past but in the moment, intellectually and emotionally.

But, see, this rant is classic. I am defensive for Indiana, for my family and friends from Indiana. For the land itself, which truly, as I've said before, is the landscape of my soul.

There were fireflies and crickets, bull-frogs and the sounds of rushing creeks in the night when I visited this weekend. The skies filled with dark clouds and for a moment I felt the electric anticipation of a thunderstorm, though we only got a little rain. And the drives to and from the airport, with their long stretches through deep woods emerging into the heavy golden drapes of sunlight on cornfields.... I love that land.

But I couldn't live there.

The other great aspect of the trip was seeing my dad's siblings. I probably see them once or twice every 5 years or so (while they're also all from Indiana, now they live all over the country). And everytime, it kicks me in the teeth: There's no missing to which side of the family my genes belong. I am my father's daughter in many senses of the word. And my father's four sisters, most of whom are now in their late seventies, headed into their eighties, are KINDRED. I know who I am and who I will be when I am with them --- completely beyond the fact and myth of my own self-constructed identity, I see WHAT I am. And there are some disadvantages: we are all what I've heard others call low to the ground voluptuous women. Not a one of us is over 5'5" (my height exactly), and unless we starved ourselves to the point of obvious and unattractive emaciation, we'd never get below a size 8 --- at our most fit, we're likely to be size 10s or 12s, but unless we're working at it, we're more likely to spread to size 14s or 16s. It's just a build issue.

But they're also all beautiful -- inside and out. They are fully engaged in the world, funny, smart, accomplished and fascinating women. I aspire to be like them -- to be as fully, palpably present in such a gracious and loving way as each of them are, now and especially when I am their ages. Plus, they all love me and like me. I can't remember a single moment, my whole life, that I've spent with any one of them alone or together when I didn't feel, most of all, truly loved and treasured. Not in a spoil-you-rotten indulgent way, but in an appreciated way. Every child, dear God, should be so lucky. Truly. It's a crime that anyone gets through life without at least one person who loves them like my aunts love me.

So, it was that, too, this trip to Indiana: Both an experience of alienation from my family and feeling my way along a rocky path on bruised soles, and an experience of complete kinship and exalting in the joys of feeling at home. Go figure.

It surprised me, because it's been such a long time since it's happened, but I cried for a long time as I was leaving. That old familiar song ran through my mind, even as I sailed the wind across the continent:

"Back home again, in Indiana
And it seems that I can see,
The gleaming candlelight,
Still shining bright, thru the Sycamores for me.

The new mown hay sends off its fragrance
Through the fields I used to roam.
When I think about the moonlight on the Wabash,
Then I long for my Indiana home."