Weakness Leaving the Body

[At Zendik, Cayta (not her real name) often played the hanging judge to my cowering victim; we all had our roles. But she could also be kind, and when I think of her now it’s with admiration, and love.]

In fall 2002, Cayta and I sold the Big Spring jam together, in Huntsville, Alabama. Late one morning, biding our time till we could sell under crowd-cover, we roamed over to the booth manned by Marines recruiters. Its main attraction was a pull-up bar on which you could test your strength for prizes. Men had to do twenty pull-ups in a row to win the highest prize; women had to hang from the bar – arms curled under it, chin thrust above it – for sixty seconds. Hoping the challenge would prime me for a power selling day, I stepped up to the bar.

I pulled the ammo from my pockets and gave it to Cayta, along with my backpack. I grabbed the bar.

The first fifteen seconds flew by. The next quarter minute crawled. By the time the Marine with the stopwatch barked me past the thirty-second mark, my triceps were trembling and I was gasping for breath. “You can do it, Hellion!” Cayta yelled. “You’re a warrior! Sing a song!”

I don’t know why Cayta told me to sing. Maybe I’d told her how songs had kept my spirits up during lonesome nights on the highway. Or maybe she’d heard me sing my way through some other hardship I’ve since forgotten. She’d known me for almost three years by then.

In soft, ragged phrases, I started “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The first verse and refrain nearly pulled me through to the end of the minute. When I released the bar, at second fifty-nine, the Marine in charge chose to grant me that last second. With a congratulatory nod, he handed me the highest prize – a black T-shirt bearing, in gray letters, what could have been a defense of input: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

Cayta took a turn at the bar too, and hung for sixty seconds. She too won a T-shirt. Knowing I wouldn’t wear an ill-fitting guy’s shirt, I exchanged mine for a CD case (Marines logo, no slogan). Cayta kept her T-shirt. She might sleep in it, she said.

More Than Ninety Days

[I wrote this on July 21, 2006, when it was hot and muggy in Brooklyn and I had not yet met my husband.]

Today we waited for rain. Now it’s come, and that last crash of thunder sent my heart hurtling towards my throat. There used to be a tree at my window; it fell in a storm. So nothing shields me from the sun these days, no leafy green. My room is messy also, momentarily. My royal blue folder on the floor, the unkempt remnants of comedy scattered beneath it. The goldenrod tax proposal still languishes atop the bookcase to my right—what can I say? I don’t get it. It doesn’t breathe.

Always I long for order, always I want the cleanest simplicity. To tidy, I dump all out-of-place objects on my bed, then sort the pile according to where each will go. This clump to the closet, this to the box under my futon, this to the recycling basket in the hall, this to the drawers of the dresser. Once each item is in its proper place, I am—as Abraham would say—“complete.”

This current mess has lasted longer than most. I have had little to do, these past two days. I have been wallowing in lack of work, lack of class, lack of commitment. My mother’s friend Della knows a Buddhist in Queens who prescribes physical activity for depression. I have not walked my ration today. I am not just compulsive; my bones know their movement leavens my mood.

It has been so hot. I do not say that to complain, but to shape the landscape. Here—this feeling—this air smothering down upon me—this is Brooklyn in summer. This is what I remember from childhood, from high school. This is the weight that sent me scurrying west every summer, once I was old enough to go.

I’ve sworn, more than once this month, never again. Next July will find me in Stanley, or Ketchum, or Crested Butte. Somewhere other, with cool mountain air. A place where you freeze in the mornings, where you cuddle up under a comforter at night. Stanley amd Truckee used to vie for the lowest low, back in my dishwashing days. At Redfish it snowed in August. And you only had to climb a few thousand feet to find all the solid white you could handle. You could go butt-sledding on drifts, on summer afternoons.

If I can’t stand the weather, can I ever stay? Fall and spring I love, but I have never adored anyone’s winter. Ideally I suppose I’d live in Stanley in summer, in Tucson in winter, in the northeastern forests in spring and fall. But if you flit from place to place—if you flee the heat, or cold—you never get to see the galaxy of fireflies, in June in North Carolina. You miss lightning cracking outside your fifth-floor window, on this hazy day seeking redemption. You lose the full cycle. You do not watch the seeds you planted bear fruit. No matter what the packet says, it takes more than ninety days.