A MORNING FROM YESTERDAY
On the early morning train to Boston I am hyperaware of my appearance and overly concerned with what’s around me. I worry I am wearing mismatched shoes although I know I am not. I can see my feet. I am wearing black loafers, one on each foot. I worry the zipper on my pants will break and I’ll be exposed. I worry the clasp at the top of my pants will pop off because the thread that holds it to my pants has worn thin, frayed, and threatens to snap. Even if my zipper does not break, without the clasp, I will be exposed. I worry. The only remedy will be to put on my sweater. But it is too hot for a sweater. I carry a sweater in my bag in case of emergencies, emergencies such as finding myself in an overly air conditioned room. America loves air conditioning. Office buildings love air conditioning. People love air conditioning. I do not. I love being hot. I like the smell of sweat, I like how it looks on my skin, how I glisten. I love the smell of soil in heat. I love the blue sky of summer and the warm breeze that makes me feel like a kid on break. Give me my summer reading. But I like most of all how the heat slows everything down and suddenly the world operates at a pace I understand.
My hair is still wet from the shower. When my hair is wet and I go outside it dries like a lion’s mane. It only dries like this when it dries in outdoor air. I wonder why this is. If I bought a beauty magazine I’m sure it would tell me, it would explain why my hair frizzes like a lion’s mane when it dries outside of my house and it would recommend products to buy to prevent this from happening. “Morning’s are stressful enough,” the ad copy would begin. “But that doesn’t mean you have to look like a lion. Be a woman, a real woman, the woman you truly are. Free your roar with Mane Away.”
Although it’s just mascara, I feel I’m wearing too much makeup. Made up like a clown on All Saint’s Day. Glowing like a proverbial idiot. And I know it. I know how I look. How a night without sleep leaves my eyes puffy, my face swollen, and for some reason my lips chapped. My body aches. It forces me into a contorted humpback posture and I emit the pungent mildew odor of old clothes taken too soon from the dryer, still damp from the wash.
I woke up this morning with a mosquito bite on my left butt cheek. It is unbelievably itchy and there is not a polite way to scratch your butt. You must go itchy. I worry I have EEE. Killed by a mosquito bite to the ass. The thought amuses me. I laugh. Then I remember where I am: The early morning train to Boston, do not make a sound.
Now I worry my computer will make a sound. It will start up a podcast or a song or one of my poetic recordings and it will play crystal clear through my laptop speakers and I will not be able to shut it off. I will apologize to everyone aboard the early morning train and tell them, I’m trying, I’m trying to shut it off. They will get more and more upset with me, they will turn and look and roll their eyes and shake their heads, Nobody wants to hear from you, they will say, Don’t make a sound. Be quiet. You’re an idiot. Shh, hush, pipe down, you’re disturbing things, you’re ruining everything. My computer will freeze and it will take a forced shut down to stop the sound.
The train conductor enters our car. He looks like a gray wolf. He does not like being ignored. He enters the train car and says, “Let’s try to remember, people, that we’re having an actual exchange here. Let’s try to remember that, okay people? Look up from your busy little lives while we have the exchange.”
One of the passengers engages. I think, Good for him! When the conductor reaches this passenger’s seat the passenger says, “Hi! Good morning!” It is loud and disruptive. It is 6:30 in the morning. It is too early for this. But the conductor is excited.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” the conductor says. “A little life never hurt anyone. You know I used to do this thing on Friday mornings, every Friday I’d do a Meet and Greet to end the week, and before taking anyone’s ticket I’d say, ‘Now turn to the person sitting next to you and introduce yourself. Say ‘Hello, my name is…’. One time these two guys did it, ‘Oh hi, I’m John’ ‘I’m Steve’ that kind of thing, ‘How long you been riding the train?’ ‘Seven years. You?’ ‘About the same.’ Two people riding the same train for seven years didn’t know one another’s name! I said ‘Sheesh, that’s unbelievable.’ Can you believe it?” The passenger nods along. The conductor continues. “You know, let’s try that out now. It’s Friday, let’s Meet and Greet.” Now I think, See what you started. I worry and sweat. The conductor raises his voice and says to the train car, “Good morning everyone, we’re going to do things a little different this morning. This morning we’re going to do a Meet and Greet. I want you all to turn to the person sitting next to you, look them in the eye and say, ‘Hello, my name is…” The passengers look nervous. They look about. They smile and they obey.
I turn to the woman sitting next to me, but she does not look up from her computer screen. She does not turn her head at all. And from just a minute or so spent watching her work on her laptop, I learn a lot about her. Her name is Sarah. She works at the Museum of Fine Arts. She is listening to episode thirteen of a finance podcast titled Daring Dividends. She is having lunch at 11:15 with a woman named Cindi who signs her emails XO Cee. I think 11:15 is too early for lunch but then I remember I am on the early morning train and have been up since 5:30, 11:15 may be a perfect time for lunch. I decide to keep note of when I get hungry and when I eat my first snack. I wonder how early Sarah got up. Sarah’s hair is not wet like mine. Sarah’s hair is not turning into a lion’s mane. Sarah’s hair is dry and bobbing perfectly an inch above her shoulders. Her hair is black and I do not think it is her natural color but I cannot think of a better look for Sarah. Black is the color for Sarah. Sarah works in a museum, she listens to financial podcasts, and eats lunch at 11:15 in the morning. Sarah has black hair and uses keyboard shortcuts.
The two passengers in front of me are Karen and Rod. They are both attorneys but Karen is defense and Rod is prosecution and quite quickly their “So, what do you do?” conversation ends and shifts to baseball. This is an early morning train to Boston, it is September, the Red Sox are prime real estate.
I turn back to Sarah. Now she is reading a PDF in Chinese. Initially I find this pretentious but really I am jealous. I want to read in Chinese. I want to listen to a financial podcast on dividends while reading in Chinese. How brilliant! I want to work at the museum. I want to be Sarah. No! I want to be everyone, do everything. I want to embrace the whole world. But that is not me. I am the wacher. In fact, I pretend I am invisible and have done so for so long that I actually believe I am. No one can see me. I’m not wanted around. Git! You’re not welcome here, housewives shoo me away with broomsticks. Go on, git! I fly off front porches and am sprayed by passing cars speeding through puddles. The drivers yell, Watch it! The passengers add Loser! Freak! Dork! The world does not want my embrace.
I am upset today. Everything feels like a slice. There is a pain in my gut that’s been there since I woke up. It is one of those days where I just can’t settle in, know I won’t settle in. On the ride to the train station a man on a motorcycle swerved through a shadow and his face appeared in profile. He wore a red track suit and had on a white helmet that looked too big for his head. When he swerved it felt like he’d run over my ribs. A blue pickup drove by immediately after and I could smell its rusty bumper and feel the way it cuts skin when it cuts skin—dirty, sharp, acrid—a slit finger wound that heats up before it heals.
Sometimes I am afraid and I worry like this all day. It is a very suspicious fear that haunts me like a ghost, a night intruder. I fear a home invasion. I’m afraid of a man in the foyer closet waiting all day for me to get into bed, so he can emerge soundlessly from my closet, tip-toe to my bedroom and hurt me. And then, go further. He would do all he could to embarrass me, try as hard as he could to make me a dirty thing, a shameful thing, a stupid, ugly, weak, unwanted thing. A woman who dies alone because no one could stand her, could ever stand her, would ever stand her, I should be grateful for his attention. He would piss on me and punch my corpse in the face. He would pull out a front tooth for a souvenir and pull my pants down. He would drag me to the foyer and open my front door so in the end of summer heat my naked body would rot and reek as it is seen splayed, spread open dead for all to see, hate, discuss. Such is a woman’s fear, to be conquered by one man’s size. Sometimes I am afraid in the middle of the day when I am reading at home and my dog perks up from his window seat and barks at something I cannot see. Today I am hyperaware of my appearance and overly concerned with what’s around me so my stomach’s in knots and my mouth tastes like burnt breakfast.
A man behind me laughs like a receptionist in a therapist’s office. He tries to stifle it, it is inappropriate, it is too early for laughter, but he cannot. His laughter escapes, hollow hiccups that sound in threes. I imagine he has headphones on, earbuds, little white pods in his ears and he is watching a clip from a late night comedy show on his phone turned horizontally for best viewing. A woman in the rear of the car talks on speakerphone to her daughter who is just now getting out of bed. The daughter says she made an appointment with the doctor yesterday, but she thinks she should have made an appointment with a specialist instead. The woman on the train, her mother, tells her to start with the doctor, see what they have to say, then move on from there. But the daughter is worried. “It’s spreading,” the daughter says. “Remember how it was last night? Now it’s on my thighs.”
“Is it infected?” the woman on the train asks. “Is there pus?”
The speakerphone stops.
Sarah pulls lotion out of her bag, a black leather valise with gold clasps. Suddenly the train car smells of jasmine, a scent I can’t stomach. I know I’m to keep this complaint to myself. Everyone loves jasmine. They say, “How can you hate jasmine?” But I think it is too thick, like mothballs, it is the cotton of scents and reminds me of my first job, which gets me all heartsick and blue.
When I was fifteen, after school and on weekends, I worked at a nursing home down the street from my house. I hung out with old people until seven or eight at night and then I’d go home and do my homework. I put away their laundry and served them meals. We played games, usually bingo, sometimes cards. Sometimes I did their nails. I’d soak their hands in warm soapy water then scrape out milky gray remnants from beneath their nail beds. I’d gently scrub their cuticles, then dry and moisturize their hands with a jasmine lotion I swiped from the nurses’ station. Once a woman named Millie cried. “Sorry,” she said. “I haven’t been touched like this in so long.” Then came the colors. I’d bring out the wicker basket full of polish, mostly ballet pinks, clears, a silver, and a few reds. But I managed to sneak in a few exceptions from my personal collection — Halloween Orange, Chimney Charcoal, and Superhero Shimmer, a cobalt blue with silver glitter specks. I liked when the residents choose these colors, the nurses did not.
I played taped episodes of Lawrence Welk on the dayroom VCR and danced with the residents. Camilla, who carried with her a stuffed cat named Elmo, loved Lawrence Welk. She’d bring her hands up to her face and hold her chin in her hands, she’d smile and sing along to certain parts in an ear-splitting falsetto. She’d comment on the outfits, how the women on stage looked. “So beautiful.” “Such beautiful girls.” “Such beautiful dresses.”
But usually I sat and talked with them. Mostly I sat and listened and they did the talking. They told me about their fathers and mothers, how they missed them. Anna told me about when her family got their first car. She and her sister got in the backseat, her mom sat in the passenger seat and her father drove. “Father was an excellent driver,” she said. “We drove to church and the whole time sitting in the pew I couldn’t wait to get back out and drive again. It was a beautiful Sunday morning. I remember watching the sun come through the stained glass, I remember watching it move in colors up the church walls. When Mass was over my sister and I ran to the car, and when my father got in he said, ‘How about we go for a drive?’ And we drove and drove. We drove all around. Through Essex, past the marshes, down by the ocean and stopped by the Clam Shack for lunch. It was so beautiful, the way the sunlight came through the trees, how it lit up the road. I remember thinking I can do anything in this car.” One day I walked into Anna’s room and she was crying. “It’s hard,” she said. “I am 96. I have buried my mother and my father and my sister, I loved them all so much. I have buried my husband and I have buried my son. I miss my family.” We were not supposed to touch the residents, but that day Anna and I hugged for a very long time.
There was Myra, a southern belle from Georgia who moved up North to live with her son and daughter-in-law in Boston after she suffered a stroke and lost the use of her legs. “They did not want me there,” she told me. “I knew it, I saw it coming. They had their own life going, I don’t blame them. Nobody needs an old biddy in their way. So they put me in here. They come visit every so often but they’re both very busy with their lives and I’m happy about that, really, I am. Watching your children succeed is one of the most rewarding parts of being a mother, of life. Anyway, what are you doing in here, hanging out with all these old people? Shouldn’t you be out chasing boys?” Myra liked to tease. “I’m just kidding,” she said. “But you should go for a run, one day you won’t be able to.”
There was Lucille who had framed photographs of her younger self all over her room. Lucille was bedridden and wore a wig. She kept her door closed and if you had to go in to put away her laundry or bring her a meal you had to knock three times and wait for Lucille to ask, “Who is it?” before entering. This was so Lucille had enough time to put on her wig, a styled beehive that sat on her head like a sleeping cat. It was enormous. It dwarfed her face, made her look shrunken, at risk of being swallowed whole by hair. It was not a good look but it meant something to Lucille and that was no business of mine. Whenever I walked into Lucille’s room her eyes lit up and she’d ask me about lipstick and the movies.
There was Beverly who smoked cigarettes and tried all the time to escape, eventually a nurse affixed a metal pole to her wheelchair so she couldn’t roll out the front door. There was Homer and Ruth who liked to make-out with each other in the front room because it was just out of sight of the nurses’ station. I was told to get a nurse if I ever saw Ruth sitting on Homer’s lap and the nurse would come over and separate them. I saw Ruth sitting on Homer’s lap all the time but I never ever told on them. There was Raymond, a former NFL linebacker, who told one of the nurses she was built like a destroyer. And there was Blanche who at 102 was the oldest resident. She was the youngest of seven children and liked talking about her childhood. She told me about the tire swing outside her parents’ house, how her older brothers would push her and push her and she would swing and swing and laugh and laugh. “When you are the youngest, everyone spoils you,” she said. Once I found her crying in her room, too. “Everyone I ever loved has died,” she said. “Sometimes I think God forgot about me.” I held her hand and rubbed her back and for a long while we sat in silence staring out her bedroom window at the hill out front and the tips of pine trees swaying in the wind.
There was Sam and Mary, a married couple who shared a room. Mary was very ill and bedridden. Shortly after I started working there Mary died and everyone expected Sam to move out, he had no real reason to be there. He wasn’t ill, he wasn’t confined to a wheelchair, he didn’t even use a cane, he was there to be with his wife and now she was gone, but he stayed on. He stayed alone in the room he used to share with his wife. On nice days he went out on walks and sometimes sat outside on the park bench and read the newspaper. Sometimes he brought a cup of tea with him. During meal times he came to the dining room impeccably dressed in crisp button downs, pressed pants, and polished loafers. Every meal, before eating, he’d take out a newspaper clipping and a photograph from his breast pocket. He’d unfold the newspaper clipping, his wife’s obituary from the local paper, and put it down in front of his place setting. Then alongside it he’d place the photograph, a black and white photograph of his wife taken shortly after they were married. In the photo she wears a plain white dress spotted with small stitched flowers and she smiles, glowing warm like summer morning.
Sam sat and ate alone with a small vase of jasmine in the center of the table, the default tabletop flower. He never spoke and when he was done with his meal he got up from the table, pushed in his chair, and walked back to his room. One day I asked one of the nurses if I could move Homer to Sam’s table. They said, “Sure.” When I asked Homer if he would go sit with Sam at his table, Ruth got upset with me but I told her she could have fun and gossip with her friends while Homer talked with Sam.
For the first week, Sam and Homer sat in silence. Sam would unfold his wife’s obituary and take out her photograph and arrange both of them beside his place setting while Homer watched. They ate their meals in silence. Cottage cheese and fruit for breakfast, soup and sandwich for lunch, baked chicken, green beans and potatoes for dinner, custard for dessert. Homer sipped his coffee, Sam drank his tea. They did not speak and I thought my experiment had failed until one evening while I was pouring hot water from the urn into a tea kettle, I heard a new sound. I turned and Sam was laughing. Laughing so hard he leaned back in his chair and held his belly. Laughing so hard he took off his glasses and wiped the corners of his eyes with his napkin. Sam was laughing and Homer was smiling. From then on there was more laughter and eventually Ruth and her friend Betty joined Homer and Sam at their table and the four of them ate meals and laughed together.
People say I am wrong not to like the smell of jasmine. They say jasmine is romantic. They say it is summer. They say it is one of the most beautiful fragrances. But it is not these things for me. It is thick like a mothball and full of memories of my long dead friends.
Sarah finishes moisturizing her hands and slips the jasmine lotion back into her valise. She checks her phone. She is one of those fast swipers. Up, left, up, left, up, right, tap, close. I wonder if Sarah is a genius and for a brief moment I am in love with her. I imagine an evening when she comes home from work, from a long day at the Museum where she is curating an Asian art exhibit, and I am standing at the stove in our red brick loft apartment with a view of the Boston skyline. I am stirring a pasta sauce, a recipe from Sarah’s grandmother, Sarah says I am the only one who makes it just like her grandma did. Sarah pours out two glasses of wine and as I stir the sauce, Sarah hops up on the kitchen counter next to me. She sits with her legs lifted off the ground, her bare feet exposed, her perfect hair bobbing above her shoulders, and talks about the artist’s visual modality and the timeless transactional intensity of their art, which I do not understand but find fascinating nonetheless. Everything Sarah does fascinates me. How she folds bedsheets, puts on a duvet without cursing. Her confident parallel parking and unwavering decision making. She does not hesitate or falter or stand dumbly in indecision. No, not Sarah, no. Sarah knows what she wants and she gets it. People flock to her and she towers over them with transcendent superiority. I love her.
I fall out of love with Sarah when she turns to me on the train and looks me up and down—my blue t-shirt emblazoned with a giant fish, my brown pants about to snap, worn loafers, lion’s mane, mascara—and turns away. That is all I get from Sarah. All I will ever get. One brief glance-over. All Sarah will ever know of me. When we disembark at South Station she will surely walk away without looking back. But I am not disappointed. Sarah has a mole on her left earlobe. Her right eye is larger than her left. When her computer said it was due for an update she selected: Remind me tomorrow. I know so much about Sarah, we’ve already had a life together. I do not care that Sarah does not want to talk to me, although I do. Perhaps that’s what’s cutting inside me.
I do not care what the train conductor thinks of me, although I do, I care very much. I have always wanted to be remembered but that is not me. I went to the same cafe for a year and every time the baristas told me where the milk was. “Milk and cream are just over there.” They did not remember me or notice I drink my coffee black. I went to the same bar every weekend but instead of being called a regular I was called a drunk. I went to the Boston Public Library, Bates Hall, religiously for two years and when I entered the guard would always remind me of the hours. “We close at nine,” he’d say. I am not the type of person people remember, I am not the type they notice or want around, and I do not know why but I think it may be because I am a witch.
I believe I am a witch. I am terrified of fire and terrified of starting fires. Only fire can kill a witch. Recently I have taken comfort in the fact that I am a Scorpio and a Scorpio is a water sign. Horoscopes tell me I run deep. Scorpios tap into the deep cool stillness, the darkness below. As a Scorpio, I am not afraid of darkness, of going deep into darkness, I have deep reserves, my horoscopes tell me, I can tap into the interconnected wellspring of time and that is my power. This supernatural fiction comforts me. When I am rejected, when I am forgotten, when I am ignored and insulted and afraid of catching fire or starting fires, I say to myself, Remember: You are water, water kills fire.
I turn to the window to the early morning light on the marshes and backyards, roadways and factories. It is a good light, a fine light, it captures what is left of life, the red orange of the sugar maples still clinging, the red holly now getting its due, and the blue sky before winter’s interminable gray. The green firs and swatches of grass not yet burnt brown await white death. The orange train cars pump rust to the scene, crisscrossed with swooping neon blue graffiti scrawl. Yes, there is still life there pulsing around the granite and gray cement the wooden pegs of recently stripped trees left alone to stand outside gnarled and knotted for winter. Waiting for winter, for when the snow resumes and falls in quick daggers, the tips of spears, as wide as leaves hurtling toward earth splattering a frigid paste like windblown ash from a forest fire. What’s done is done, this has sealed the deal. The confectionary sugar atop a doughnut or cake. Then, it stops. And the world, seems still. The water budding on tree branches begins to drip and freeze, the upturned silver spikes of the seasonal arboreal ridgeback.
My brain ticks. I used to calm myself down with the memory of the last man I loved. I’d use him like a lullaby to relax but I stopped all this months ago when I learned he was engaged. Marriage. Every generation thinks it'll be the one that lives. Now using him as a lullaby feels perverted, which only inflames my panic. Lately I have tried accepting the reality that there are no comforts for me. I have tried to accept this and be okay with it, to acknowledge the reality that I am alone and that is that. What’s done is done.
Last night, I talked to myself for a good long time. I talked about my age and disassociation. How can I exist? I wondered. If it does not matter if I stay or go. I can disappear for weeks because I do not matter. People who exist matter every day. Woman, atom, particle, quark. Reduce, reduce, lesser than and there I’ll be. Our world, my world, the world we see, requires just two quarks yet scientists have found six. Have we found all we need to find or will there be more? Imperceptible, just barely hanging on, that’s me. I was getting worse and I wondered when my brain would snap for good. I looked in the mirror and noticed a sag start in my cheeks, the way my grandmother’s had and recently the way my mother’s did. I noticed the puffiness under my eyes, like my grandmother’s and recently my mother’s. I noticed how my hair did not fall wavy like it used to, light with golden curls, wisps they called them as a kid. “Little paintbrushes,” they said. Now my hair fell straight and fine, wired and flat, dry and brown, its lifelessness a seeming defeat, a hands-up white flag waving to emotional poverty. Even it had given up.
Last night I could not calm down. At two a.m. I drew a hot bath and listened to the radio and watched the sky through the bathroom window, a dark canvas quilt. Music from the radio began as lost pop songs from the 1960s then switched to Motown and people were dancing I could feel it, see it, sequined dresses, floor lengths and minis, and then the music switched to heavy metallic trance zoning, zoning, zoning the grey rooms, the dark rooms, the basements and garages, the tapestries and neon bulbs, the bulging eyes, bobbing heads those rounded shoulders flash of green slash of white and lost kids everywhere. I fell asleep in the tub.
This morning a dust ball in the corner of the kitchen upset me. It moved as my dog entered to sit down by my feet. Just yesterday I swept and now I must sweep again. Maintenance upsets me. The keeping up of appearances. The doing away with decay. What is decay? A reason not to eat sugar or buy cut flowers. How far can it go? Far. How deep can it go? Deep. What does it feel like? Sticky, claustrophobic, sealed in. The weight of a cave crumbling, its interior shrinking, oxygen depleting. Why do something you’ll have to redo later? “Because that is living,” they say.
The desire for the world to be a certain way and rationalize to make it true exists in all of us, because of the belief that there is still more human in us, that there is still something left, something to exploit, a last breath to extinguish or defend, somehow we believe there is still something to go down fighting for. What will be the final breath? The final us? The final something human? What will be the final human piece? What will it look like when all that’s real has been denied, wiped out, and replaced by a caricature of a caricature of a caricature at nauseam? No longer created and defined, but shapeless, formless, muted and extended, a personless being masquerading as human, incapable of life, incapable of love, bound so tightly around a now that it does not exist because it cannot exist without an audience. When the rise of base pleasure gets to be too much, will good sense return? And with it come dignity and grace? Or will a new vice play out? The eternal spiral replays. Life is hard. We are responsible for making our own fun. It is our duty to rebound from trauma, to preserve ourselves through suffering, there is no shame in an easy out. Be your best self. Treat yourself. You only live once, make sure everyone sees! The prescribed human does as any good prescribed human does and returns to spawn another generation of caricatures. What is more life affirming than life itself? Breed! Go on, breed! From the maternity ward the infant cries its cartoon wail and the mother coos exhausted, monosyllabic, with wig and makeup on. Cut to black. Music up with a swell. Credits roll. Cue voiceover: Stay tuned for scenes from next week’s show and a special look inside the episode as the cast debates the merits of being the last extinguished self.
I am starting to spiral.
I have to get off this train.
I must turn around.
I get off at the next stop, cross the tracks and wait for the train back. I wait and I wait. I wait one hour and sixteen minutes. That is okay. It is hot and it is still early, the longer I wait the hotter it will get, the better this will be. I send a message to my client from my phone saying I won’t be at the weekly meeting round-up (which is the only in-house meeting I ever attend) because I am very, very sick.
On the ride back I think of egrets and herons, the swoop of their chests, the length of their legs, powerful queen pterodactyls. The muted lime green of the grasses with burnt edges, the water sparkling behind it, royal blue. Sand, a distant lighthouse, and sky. A certain elegance to it all. The train arrives at the station. I try not to run but run to the parking lot for my car and once home I change out of my fish shirt and brown pants and loafers. I put on my bathing suit, jean cutoffs and a black tank top, grab Henry, and we get in the car and drive to the beach.
At the beach the wind is there. And instantly I am better. The wind comes off the ocean and over the tall reed grasses over a hill and pushes me in the parking lot. It is perfect. The A/C in the car died a month ago. The rising sun burnt my chest through the windshield. My thighs were starting to stick. A man from New York parks beside me. I saw him on the highway. I like reading the plates. He drove a dirty white Volvo 940 Wagon probably a ’94. I drove behind it on the highway then on the road to the beach I saw it again by the golf course. It tried to pass a golf cart but got stuck before the stop sign. He pulled back in the lane and then I was directly behind it. I remember thinking at the time, “That person has beautiful hair.” And I thought at the time that person was a woman.
The man from New York gets out of his Volvo and that’s when I realize the person with the very beautiful hair is a man. He looks like a mermaid, a merman. I get out of my car and let Henry out. I open the trunk to get my backpack and Henry goes to sniff the merman. The merman says, “Hi, pupper.” Then he says, “Rare day!” and I’m not quite sure how to respond, because I think he is right, it feels like a rare day. It is near the end of September and 80 degrees, but I’m not sure if that’s rare, I haven’t lived here that long, I’m unsure of the historical average, so I just smile and laugh and the merman smiles back. Soft eyes. Kind. Everything seems appropriate. I whistle for Henry and we leave the parking lot for the beach.
On the walk through the field we see a golden retriever on a leash held by a man in a green t-shirt who walks beside a woman in a black t-shirt and a paisley pink skirt who smiles at me, so I smile back. The man does not smile. He seems irritated by his dog. In the field Henry takes a shit, which I thank him for because that means I will be able to throw it away before entering the beach instead of carrying it around with me at the beach.
We walk through the field and through the tall reed grass, their bushy mop top heads delight me. A couple of them have bent at their stalks so I run my fingers through their tops. I wonder how they stay so soft, they never feel dirty, even when wet they’re delicate.
I start running. Henry chases. He gets ahead of me. I say, “I’m gonna get ya!” and then I tickle his butt.
We stop running when the tall grass colonnade ends and break way to dunes and land grasses, there are seagulls above and there ahead is the beach and ocean. The sand at the front is soft and yellow. The sand by the water is rocky and dark. Henry runs to the ocean then runs away. There are several people there. A man in red shorts lying on his back reads Proust. A girl in a blue and white bikini is in the process of sitting down on her towel. There is a couple huddled together on lawn chairs. There is a woman with a brown dog. I take off my sneakers and Henry and I walk away from all of them. We walk a good two hundred yards until there is no one near us and no one up ahead. I take off my shirt and take out my towel and lie down on the sand.
Henry finds a stick, a piece of burnt firewood. Charred black on one end. Henry barks at the stick and brings it to me. “Drop,” I tell him. And he drops the stick. “Sit,” I tell him. And he sits. “Stay,” I tell him. And then I pick up the stick and toss it into the ocean and Henry runs and swims after it.
We do this for a good twenty minutes. During which time the merman finds his way from the parking lot to the beach and sets up shop about fifty yards away from us. I appreciate his courtesy. The first thing he does after putting down his bag and kicking off his shoes and taking off his shirt is dive into the ocean. His long majestic merman hair floats behind him. He is everything magnificent.
A boat drives by and comes ashore about fifty yards up from the merman. By this time Henry is digging a hole to cool down in and I am watching him do it, saying things like, “Nice work, Henry” and “Good job, Henry.” I turn to the boat and for a long time I have no idea what the people on it are doing. A woman with two dogs walks by and one of her dogs runs onto my towel and sits down, which irritates me only because she doesn’t say, “Sorry about that” but instead says, “Come on, Knix. Let’s go.”
The people on the boat are pulling things off the boat onto the sand. I can’t see what they’re doing, I lose interest and turn back to Henry. We play the stick game again. The waves are choppy. Henry is not afraid. He sticks his chest out and does a little hop each time a wave comes close to splashing his face. He is perfect. He spots the stick and wades in. He hops over the waves, and swims a little. He grabs the stick in his mouth and swims, walks, and wades back. He brings the stick to dry sand, drops it, then shakes the water off him. Immediately, he barks. He barks at the stick and growls at the stick. I tell him to drop it then sit and then I throw it in the ocean for him again.
The sky is a hazy blue gray. In the distance the shoreline and skyline are granite etchings. There is a lighthouse shape. Several distinguished houses are tucked in the woods like enclaves. There is a small boat on the horizon. Seagulls take flight from the marsh and dunes, they take off and soar like kites. A few of them stay behind and pick at a fish carcass that washes up on shore.
The merman emerges from the water. He is beautiful. I decide my love for him is maternal, not romantic. He is proud and beautiful. He walks confidently but softly. He smiles. He says nice things to strangers and doesn’t shy away from dogs. He knows his place in the world, he does not set up his blanket right beside yours he gives you your space, he respects space and I respect that. He smiles when he walks into the water and dives perfectly, his arms above his head his back arches, muscles glisten then stroke, stroke, stroke then float. The merman does the dead man’s float and bobs in the water staring up at the hazy sky his long hair submerged below. I want nothing bad to happen to the merman. I want him to dream.
Now it is clear what the people on the boat are doing. They are kiteboarding. One of them has unrolled and launched their kite. It takes off into the air, a terrific pita parachute. The person walks with it toward the water. There is time spent harnessing and attaching and bobbing in the water and then there is time spent shifting the kite until it pulls the person outward and away. They crisscross back and forth across the beach pulled by a giant kite, going farther and farther out into the ocean as they go. Sometimes they jump, sometimes they seem to get lifted up then fall. Sometimes they fall backward on their back and I wonder what happens if the kite falls into the ocean. But this does not happen. The other person on the boat has unrolled their kite, and now they start the process of harnessing and attaching and capturing the wind, and soon there are two kite-boarders on the horizon. The shadow of the kite scares Henry when it passes over our towel and he takes off running, chasing after it. I call him back to me and reluctantly he comes, letting out a few disproving barks as he goes. When the kiteboarder passes the next time they say, “I don’t thinnnnnnnnk…” their voice trails away with them as they zip by and then pivots back and returns to finish their sentence, “your dog likes meeeee…” their voice trailing away again as they goes.
Henry returns to digging his hole. I sit down on my towel and Henry plops down in his hole. A group of four people walk by. A woman in a red dress, a woman in a blouse and dress pants, a man dressed all in black, and a woman carrying a camera with a telescopic lens. The woman in the red dress seems to be the leader. She carries a small black canister in her hands. The woman in the blouse and dress pants walks alongside her, the man in black and the woman with the camera trail behind. I decide to lie down and watch them through my sunglasses like a spy.
There is an awkwardness to them. Something is not being said. At first I imagine they are all new in town and one of them thought it would be a good idea to check out the beach, it was a nice day, why not? Then I think one is showing their friends around town for the day. I think maybe they are siblings and they have not seen each other for a long time. I think maybe one sibling does not get along with the other siblings, and it’s that sibling that’s showing their siblings around and those siblings are secretly judging their other sibling, which the other sibling knows but of course does not say, everyone is just trying to keep it together.
Then I think perhaps they’re the outsider remnants of a wedding party. Or perhaps they are the wedding party. The woman in the red dress could very well be involved with the woman in the blouse and dress pants, they walk close to each other and sometimes hold hands. I decide they are the newlyweds. The woman with the camera with the telescopic lens is the wedding photographer and the man dressed in all black is the brother of the bride. I decide he is drunk and does not like weddings because he can’t have the love he thinks he wants and so therefore all love’s a sham.
I decide on this scenario but then they huddle together in a circle and bow their heads like a seance and it’s confusing again until the woman in the red dress breaks the huddle and walks toward the ocean with the black canister. She opens the canister, sticks her hand in, pulls her hand out and then throws something into the wind. She throws ashes. The wind catches the ashes up like a cloud. The ashes move together like a cloud until the wind changes direction and whips them, spews them, separates them in a mid-air explosion. Whisk! It is unreal. That was a person. The woman in the red dress throws several more handfuls of ashes into the wind before passing the canister, which I know now is an urn, to the woman in the blouse and dress pants.
The woman in the blouse and dress pants does the same thing as the woman in the red dress. She walks to where the ocean meets the sand, then reaches her hand into the urn, pulls her hand out and throws a handful of ashes to the wind. The wind catches the ashes, the cloud forms, wind whips and spews, then comes the mid-air explosion. Whisk! It is unreal. Whisk! That was a person gone backward in wind. Away from the ocean, into the sand, toward the marsh. For her next toss, the woman in the blouse and dress pants bends down low and tosses the ashes like she’s rolling dice or throwing a frisbee into the direction of the water but the same thing happens, the wind catches the ashes and pushes them together like a cloud that blows toward the sandy shore up and out and whisk! erupting like a firework over ground. The woman in the blouse and dress pants hands the urn to the man dressed in all black.
The man takes the urn and takes a different approach. He walks fully clothed into the ocean. He walks and walks into the water until the water is up to his shoulders. He holds the urn above the water, reaches his hand in and pulls out his first handful. He tosses the ashes above the ocean, the ashes soar for a moment then sprinkle into the water. They fly like a cloud with the wind and when they break up and explode in their mid-air explosion they do so over water. He does this again and again and again and when he returns to land he and the woman in the red dress hug for a very long time.
The last person to throw the ashes is the woman holding the camera with the telescopic lens. She seems the least enthused and only throws two handfuls. She draws them quickly. I imagine her fists tight and clamped, little fingers grabbing only a tablespoon or two.
I reconfigure their relationship. I think the woman in the red dress and the man dressed all in black are siblings, the woman in the blouse and dress pants is in a relationship with the woman in the red dress, and the woman with the camera with the telescopic lens is dating the man dressed all in black. I think the woman with the camera did not know the deceased very well, perhaps does not even know the man dressed in all black very well, but she is there to photograph the occasion because she is a photographer and the deceased was her boyfriend’s parent, probably mother, who is also the parent and probable mother of the woman in the red dress.
Then I change my mind.
They are all siblings. Then I think they are all friends and the person who died was their friend. Then I think they are all friends and the person who died was their teacher, who was also their friend who did not have a family of their own. Then I stop. Sometimes I do this thing. I pick and pick and pick and pick until I forget where I am. I have to stop. And sometimes, like now, I have to say it out loud, “Stop.” I have to say it so it happens. “Stop.” To really do it, I have to say. “Stop," I say out loud.
The four people begin a second round of tossing ashes to the wind. I look away and don’t look back. Scattering ashes takes a long time. I know a guy who carries his dad’s ashes in a coffee can in the trunk of his car, he has been spreading his dad over America for months. My dog is asleep and snoring. I close my eyes and fall asleep.
If there’s a dream, I don’t remember it. I wake up and the group of four have gone and so have the kiteboarders, the merman is reading a book. I am sweating and my thighs are burned. I can feel the sweat at my temples. I walk to the ocean. Henry barks and comes after me. I dive in. Henry follows. I swim out, dive under, pop up, and float. The blue sky muted eggshell in summer haze. Body cool, brain stops its tick.