The Missing Link

Dennis and I were married on September 30, 1995. It was a fun wedding (the bartenders at the Elks Club where we had our reception talked about it for years afterwards), but the date itself means little to me. It was the only day available that summer or fall at any of the places we looked into. But December 3, 1993, was an otherwise uneventful evening that became one of those moments Dickens refers to in Great Expectations when he says, “Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”

 

I drove to Salem because my friend Karen’s car was in the shop while she tried to figure out how to come up with the $2500 she needed for repairs. We parked a few blocks away from the apartment.  Hiding the car was as important to us as not appearing early, forgoing jewelry and dressing as inconspicuously as possible. We refused to offer clues to Gloria the Psychic.

We climbed the stairs in back to her apartment and knocked, not eagerly, not gingerly A knock revealing nothing. A man answered the door, wiping his hands on a dishtowel.  Before we introduced ourselves, he said, “Gloria!“ and sighed. I felt silly being here, pitiful. Karen and I had just turned thirty. How many hopeful not-so-young-anymore single women did he open the door for?

In a living area crowded with furniture and bookshelves, I leaned back against a confusion of pillows on a loveseat despite my apprehension. Karen chose an oak rocker and hid her bitten nails. In the kitchen, oil spit in a frying pan. When the door beside the kitchen opened, a small woman in khaki pants and a white cotton t-shirt emerged. She was barefoot and had her short dark hair pulled away from her face with a leather headband. She might have just stepped off a sailboat.

She raised her eyebrows at Karen who had stopped rocking when she heard the door. “Wow,” she said. “Bad car karma.”

In a room as narrow as a closet, I sat beside Gloria’s desk. She turned a light low and picked up her tarot deck.“The cards give me a direction,” she said. “Images flash by me as if I‘m sitting near the window in a train. Time is nebulous. I might predict things that have already happened, for example.”

 Since she’d begun with a disclaimer, I sat smugly, gave her as few hints as possible.

“Are you student?” she asked. I shook my head. “Something with school then.  A teacher?”

Maybe I had that white board marker smell on me. A stitch of ink across my forehead was not unusual. She said a few general things about my life in the classroom. No surprises. I considered everything else I might have spent my sixty bucks on.

She told me I’d recently been disappointed in love. Revelation. Then she said, “You’ll try it again with him, but that won’t work either.” After my phone call with him the week before, that much was certain. I bit the inside of my mouth, sat forward a little. “Actually, I’m seeing an older man,” she said into the Tarots. “Very tall, very thin. A runner’s build. I don’t know if he runs, but he looks like a runner. Something about a foreign accent. I rarely see things this clearly, but there he is. You’ll go out to buy a loaf of bread, something like that. A few hours later, you’ll come home and that’ll be it.”

When our session ended, I toted the cassette tape home with evidence to laugh at years later. Or sob over.

As we drove home, Karen said,“She was pretty general with my reading. But if you go to the grocery store next year and meet a tall, thin runner with a foreign accent, you’ll make a believer out of me.”

For the first few weeks after my encounter with Gloria, I paid attention to every detail of my being whenever I went so far as the drive up window at the bank. No way was I meeting Mr. Wonderful looking like my usual jeans and sweatshirt self.  After presenting himself so plainly to my soothsayer, how could I disappoint him by introducing myself unshowered on my way home from the gym?

Karen moved to San Francisco a year later, a move Gloria had not anticipated. On my first Friday night in my new apartment, I made several trips out to my car with garbage bags full of laundry. A week of painting, cleaning and unpacking had left me few things in my closet.  Finding an ancient pair of jeans in the bottom of a box and a turtleneck I sometimes used for dusting, I set out with a pile of essays on Macbeth to a Laundromat I’d spotted near the hardware store on Main Street.

While I monopolized nearly every machine in the place, one white-haired man in a navy pea coat sat on a broken washer, drumming his work boots against the metal. I settled myself into an orange plastic chair and resigned myself to spending Friday night with the Macbeths.

When another man walked in a few minutes later, I looked up. He was closer to my age than pea coat man, dark haired. He wore glasses. That’s all I saw before I put my head back down and said to myself, “Please, God, don’t let him talk to me.”

A dryer clicked off. Pea coat man collected an armful of things and headed out into the night. The other man emptied the contents of two machines into the mouth of a dryer and sat up on the folding table, legs swinging.

“Mid terms?” he asked.

I cringed. “Essays.”  This without eye contact.

“I’m a teacher, too,” he said.

I nodded over the compositions.  How was I supposed to get my underwear folded with this nut looking over my shoulder?

We taught in neighboring towns. One of his colleagues had just taken an administrative post in my school. I had met the man that day. We both wrote fiction, had fathers who grew up on farms. I’d lived down the street from him a few years before, attended a teaching seminar the year after he completed it, student taught at the high school he graduated from. We each had four siblings, all married with children.

There was one thing we didn’t have in common.

“I’m a runner,” he said. “I’ve run every day since I was thirteen.”

Lots of people run, I thought.  And if he were Mr. Wonderful, wouldn’t I know it?

By the end of a couple hours cataloging things we had in common, I wasn’t convinced I wanted even one date with this guy. But I was motivated to give him my phone number when I imagined the conversation I’d have with my mother if I walked away from this one. I heard her voice amidst shirt buttons clinking in humming dryers: “What else could you possibly be looking for?”

I scribbled my name on the back of a doggie grooming coupon and walked out.  Just a few hours after I left my house to do something as mundane as buying a loaf of bread.

When I opened the door for our first date, the realization hit me as forcefully as if the door had been blown open by a hurricane force gale. Before me stood a very tall, very thin runner.  No trace of a foreign accent, although he had told me his father spoke with a thick brogue.  As if I wasn’t about to go on the first date with my future husband, the man who would make a good father to my children, with whom I would invest my life savings in that house in the country I’d dreamed of, I lifted my coat from the back of the sofa, and off we went into the future.

Mrs. Jacobs, I Am Saving Your Seat

Jabberwocky set up 74 chairs for Friday night’s Bewildered book launch party. When they were filled, people sat on the stairs. They stood in the hallway. My students held signs. My in-laws and my best friend, Lauren, braved what even what the we’ve-seen-it-all-Boston traffic reporters deemed a gruesome deadlock. My colleagues came, the woman who sold me my house 19 years ago. My neighbors and my book club members arrived. My friends drove from New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New York, Boston. My daughter’s coach stood in the back. My fellow soccer parents turned out. The two writers who were part of my first and only writers group came. Friends of Dennis’s who are now my friends, too, showed up. Even a few strangers straggled in. My own family called me before the big night to say good luck, to say they wished they could be there (though they will be at the next celebration). To express my gratitude at this crowd is beyond my grasp of the English language. Impossible to describe what it was like to look up from twenty-two years of putting this collection together and seeing how completely un-alone I am. I will never get over this night.

But no matter how many people are present in any gathering, there are always those who are missing. Mrs. Jacobs, for example. How I wish she could have been there, front row, peering at me from the same opera glasses she toted with her from her mansion in Watch Hill to ringside at the Rhode Island Holstein Show in the summer of ’86.

I was home from my freshman year at college and had just gotten my first job off the farm waitressing the breakfast shift at Paddy’s Wigwam. Mrs. Jacobs was in her eighties and had lost so much of her vision that, during her winters in New York City’s upper east side, she hired someone to read to her for an hour a day. At her summer residence, she sought the same, and my Aunt Nan, who managed her household, suggested her niece, the English major slash writer. So I went for what you might say was an interview. We sat on her sunporch, the overstuffed sofas as faded as her espadrilles. She wore a bandana like a headband, her white hair springing out from behind it.

“Come closer so I can see you,” she said. I did. “Yes. You look like your Aunt Nan.”

What book we began with, I don’t remember, only that it was strange to read aloud to anyone, let alone a total stranger who looked past me with her milky eyes. I do remember that whatever we began the summer with, we ended it reading all of Hardy. When she dozed off, I called her name softly and she stirred, laughed, took a drink of water. Out the windows behind her, a swan sailed across the brackish pond. In the kitchen, Anna the cook, banged pots. We were interrupted by deliveries of white wine and gin from the liquor store, by the barking of her equally blind and also quite deaf Yorkie.

We read together for several years. She loved non-fiction and I did, too, because she would stop me often to comment on the people whose stories we peered into. She had spent a weekend with Pearl Buck, had met JFK during her work on civil rights, knew everyone from Indira Ghandi, to Bowzer from Sha Na Na. After a few years, reading for an hour after my shift at Paddy’s wasn’t enough. She hired me full time. “We’ll call you,” she said, “my companion.”

We started our days in the sunporch where her housemate, Miss Kimbrough, interrupted the Times’ crossword puzzle to print out the day’s menu in a leatherbound journal. Their decisions determined the course of our mornings. We might drive her to the cheese store for cheese, to the fruit stand for fruit, to the farm stand for vegetables. At the grocery store, I pushed the carriage, handing Mrs. Jacobs packages so she could peer closely at the labels. Some days, I filled the car with women whose families had made their money in coal mines and railroads and drove them to chamber music concerts and musicals. I lifeguarded Mrs. Jacobs’ daily swims, helped her pick out birthday presents for her family. I drove her to drop her grandson off at sailing camp. “You’ll know what to say to him,” she said. I set up our chairs beside the bed of impatiens so she could water them as I read. When spring arrived, she told the gardener to leave the plants. “Italians have such a green thumb,” she said to me. “I’d rather you planted them.” She pinched the plants from their containers and tossed them where she wanted them and, dutifully, I dug, complimenting her on her throwing arm. When we didn’t have access to the car they rented each summer, I drove her around in my family’s old Impala. She didn’t mind that the ceiling fabric hung low over her head, sprinkling her hair with green fuzz. On Wednesdays, Alice the hairdresser would take care of that while I dropped the dog off at the groomers.

She sent me home for a three hour lunch. “Go write something,” she’d say. We’d end most days in her bedroom, she reclining on her bed, resting before a night of cocktails with the neighborhood widows, dinner served by my aunt and her staff, me reading beside a window opened to the salt air. “Now,” she’d say when she’d decided it was time to dress for dinner, “go see your young man.” I’d drop the book on her table and she’d add, “And make sure he’s your intellectual equal.”

I visited her in New York one winter where she treated me to lunch at the Cosmopolitan Club. She did come, ringside, to watch me show my cows at the Washington County Fair and, when I took one of the 1200 pound beauties over to meet her, she peered as closely at the cow’s face as she had mine that first day.

Part of one summer was spent re-organizing her library. She wanted one section reserved for books written by her friends. That was more miraculous to me than her four hundred year old dining table, the window into the summer home crowd of people who shared bloodlines with presidents and corporate icons. “You have potential,” she told me often. “Don’t squander it.” I wanted my book to be on her shelf one day.

The last time I saw her, she was summering with her son in Northeast Harbor, Maine. I hadn’t written much, had published only one poem (“Oh dear,” she had said, when I told her I was going to graduate school for poetry. “I had hoped you would write something that would allow you to make a living.”).

The almost twenty years that elapsed between that meeting and the publication of my first book, I thought of her often, wondered if I had somehow let her down, wasted all the opportunities she had given me to go home and write. And maybe it did take me longer than she thought it might. But the key is, she believed I would do this. Why wouldn’t she? So many other people she knew were writers, why not this awkward farm girl with whom she spent her final summer days in Watch Hill?

So, yes, I wanted her there last week. And, of course, she was there. She is another one of those people who will accompany me always.

Maybe Darwin Was Onto Something

I went out for the track team when I was in high school. The first day, we “ran” three miles. (I could also put we in quotes.)The coach called out to those who looked promising, who looked the least likely to need her encouragement: that was not me. I limped by her as invisible as bacteria. How did those other kids do it? Take off and keep going as if the assignment was to run out the front door and retrieve the mail? The second day we did something called the thumbscrew or the rack or maybe just ladder sprints, a series of 200’s, 400’s, 800’s and then back down the gallows, I mean ladder. On the third day there was no resurrection, only me trying to get downstairs without bending my legs to turn in my warm up. I wanted to be part of that locker room, that team bus. I wanted to see what a uniform looked like up close, but that world I hobbled away from might as well have been one of the moons of Saturn.

It is always a surprise when my house is full at the end of the school day, when I walk in and am greeted, not by the cats who have been sunning themselves on the porch or by the dogs who have been racing around the yard desperate to get to Dennis in his garden, but by the sounds of the television or the smell of a freshly toasted bagel. Are other humans actually present? Well, for a few weeks between seasons, yes.

Justina’s youth soccer career ended first, two weeks ago when the cold rain and wind gusts of a Nor’easter cancelled her final game. Beatrice’s cross country team travelled to the divisionals Saturday morning and completed their season. Apphia’s soccer team lost in the tournament semi-finals. We washed uniforms and that was that. Another season with all its glory and its heartbreak in the books. I have the afternoons to myself now. I can post to Facebook! I can re-pot plants! I can cook vegetables! In other words, I’m incredibly, incurably bored.

Am I a soccer-slash-cross country mom? I drive a van. I’ve succumbed to heavily perfumed laundry soaps to battle the stench of athletic wear. I use Google calendar specifically to keep track of practices and games/meets. I bought an ankle length down coat to keep me warm on the sidelines despite the fact that it looks as if I’m appearing in public in a sleeping bag. I guess the answer is yes. But the reason goes back to my own athletic ignominy and my daughters’ impossible abilities, the absolutely dauntless way they navigate a world that was so inexplicable to me.

I had hoped that, through my involvement with a team, I would make friends. Belong to something. Regain the kind of confidence I exhibited playing games at recess in elementary school where I was competitive and not completely inept. In my next incarnation, perhaps. But in this life, I am relegated to the sidelines, to the stands, to baking cookies and frosting them blue and white so that my (embarrassed) daughters can distribute them to their teammates on the long bus rides home. And I’m happy to be there, astonished, really, that these are my girls.

They have taught me that soccer is not only a game of speed and finesse, but that people hit you really, really hard. And my girls? They hit back. Through their examples, I have witnessed that practice really does make you better at something, that retreating to the safety of your bathtub after two days is what quitters do. My daughters are not quitters. Games under the lights don’t scare them. State meets. Rain. The kind of heat that drives the birds from the sky. Competitors much bigger than they are.

Maybe other people are in this for some kind of vicarious glory or for the hope of a scholarship somewhere down the line. I see my own beauties, these powerful young women, as proof of evolution itself. The miracle is not in the trophy case or on the resume; it isn’t a name in the newspaper, or the attention of a college scout. It’s in the tenacity and pure muscle it takes them to get out there every day and push themselves in a way their own mother could not. They run, kick, jump, throw, ignore me on the sidelines, but I can’t take my eyes off them.

It’s the Kind of Day That Makes Me Think of Riley

Riley

Today was that kind of day. Some color left on the trees. More on the ground. The grayscale backdrop that I love about November. That I didn’t always love.

I love to walk now, too, to leave my busy classroom, my busy house behind and head out mindlessly on my route. It’s another of those journeys you embark on only to look up a few miles later at your destination to ask yourself: How did I get here?

It’s the kind of day that makes me think of Riley.

It was November when Riley and I set out every day from a house that was so quiet, I should have been happy to leave it behind. But I wanted to hunker down that first fall of owning a dog. I wanted every light in the place blazing. After a last ditch attempt to salvage our relationship with a weekend away, the man I loved had said good-bye to me at a gas station on the Massachusetts Turnpike. From beneath the fluorescent bulbs of that indifferent place, I climbed into my own car, cold from having been parked all weekend in the lot of a shopping mall and knew: it’s over. What I wanted least in the world was responsibility and yet I had a puppy waiting for me at home. And not just any puppy. I had a Jack Russell (mix) before I knew what that meant. There was no getting Riley to cuddle up and be the furry pillow I could sob into. There were balls to chase and Rottweilers to terrorize, squirrels to decapitate, a whole world of backside-tucked-in-for-maximum-aerodynamics running to be done.

We lived in a tiny house on a street so narrow, it should have been a dead end. Across from us — I am not making this up — was a cemetery. To get to the ball field where a fence would corral the kind of feral creature Riley was off-leash, we had to cross a busy street and then move through neighborhoods of the kinds of houses I wanted one day and that seemed impossible: one hundred year Colonials with front porches, yellow squares of light illuminating the passing shapes of families coming home, coming out of the cold and into a place where someone might be cooking dinner, asking about their day. Riley was oblivious to anything but the scents ahead. He was his own sled dog team, 30 pounds of will tugging me forward into the gathering darkness. While he zipped about the ball field, I hunkered down on a bench and became some sort of goal he careened towards and then zoomed away from. His joy filled me with nothing but sadness. Impossible to imagine it, but there it was: I wanted to enjoy him, but winter loomed, an unforgiving season in which to heal.

A month later, dashing away from me just as we packed to drive to Westerly for Christmas Eve, he was hit by a car. He lay motionless on the street. I scooped him up and drove onto the sidewalk to pass cars on my way to the vet’s where he was pronounced miraculously unscathed. Sure, part of the tissue in his face later atrophied from the impact. He also had surgery for a cyst on his ear, and tore out the stitches from getting neutered. Then, he turned one. I threw him a birthday party and invited his vet. Despite that Riley was wearing a cone after yet another surgery, he chased his sister Betty around the yard until he crashed into a citronella candle and coated his face in it. He paused to try to shake it off and resumed his celebration.

Riley and I lived in two more houses together before settling here where the animal control officer, a patient man, stopped by only twice in response to the complaints of those whose dogs Riley victimized on their way past. Once we put up the invisible fence, Riley mostly stayed put. He was content to figure out how to unzip my father-in-law’s cooler to sneak out a turkey sandwich or to disembowel the girls’ stuffed animals. He could run anytime he wanted now and did so with the kind of abandon that had always possessed him.

Turns out, once he could be trusted to be out of a crate (he gnawed through two sofas while I showered; was capable of the kind of four foot vertical leap that would have earned him the notice of NFL scouts had he been human so no counter was safe from him, especially a counter with a one pound chocolate sneaker atop it), he was cuddly. Arranging himself via several mad rotations at the foot of the bed as soon as the lights went out, he wormed his way up the rest of the night until by morning, his head was on your pillow, his four legs firmly pushing you off the mattress.

I’m happy we made it here, to a house full of noise, to a fenced in yard that still allowed him his exuberant sprints. He is buried here beneath a granite marker that, by design, I can see from all the back windows of my house. The trunks of the birches around him are stunning against the November sky.

To keep Riley from leaping out and attacking dogs on leashes all those years ago, I bought him a seatbelt so he could ride up front with me in my convertible. He was a front seat kind of dog, and we drove together, he and I, through that painful November and towards the next, and much happier, thing.