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.

These Wounds Won’t Seem to Heal

[This is a snapshot from the summer of 2005, when I was on my way around the world. Hunter is not the truck driver’s real name.]

These wounds won’t seem to heal/This pain is just too real/There’s just too much that time cannot erase….

I hear a woman’s cutting soprano keening these words, as I stride past the back entrance of a dull brown building just off the main quadrangle of the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Inside a concrete-and-cinderblock utility room is a thirty-something Hispanic man, lounging against the wall, smoking a cigarette, listening to the music. Or perhaps not listening—perhaps counting the hours left in his shift, perhaps wishing the radio would switch to a tune not quite so bloody with heartbreak.

I met Hunter when I was hitch-hiking from West Virginia to Arizona, in the fall of 2004. I had just been kicked out of the cult I had devoted myself to for five grueling years, and was more completely adrift than I had ever been. He was a truck driver—unhappily married, with two teenage daughters. He seduced me, in the cab of his truck, on the Texas/Oklahoma line. I did not resist.

He was torn, and I was torn; he by his allegiance to his family, I by mine to the cult. I was willing to fall in love, but only with a man who would leave me crying, and thus prove to me that lasting romantic relationships were impossible—for me—in the outside world.

Hunter complied. After a couple months of weekend trips from Arizona to California and back, he disappeared. The last time I saw him he gave me a CD he had burned for me, titled “Something Soft.” It began with a woman pleading: Take me by the hand/Take me somewhere new/I don’t know who you are/But I—I’m with you. It ended with a man warning: You gotta leave me now/You got to go alone/You got to chase a dream/One that’s all your own/Before it slips away. Somewhere in the middle was the wild pain of that wracked soprano voice, grieving her loss that time could not erase.

* * *

I hurry on, past the dull brown building, out of range of the radio. I am headed for the main library, where I will meet a friend—recently accepted into graduate school at UH—with whom I used to work on an organic farm in California. After spending a few hours with her, I will take the bus to the airport, to board a midnight flight to Auckland. As I flee the siren’s song, my internal soundtrack segues from desperate lament to ironic encouragement: You can’t run away forever/But there’s nothing wrong with getting a good head start.

Trapped in a Forest of Little Chairs

[In spring 2006 – back when I was Helen Newman – I worked for a semester as an English teacher at a Korean cram school in Bayside, Queens. This is a record of a moment from that spring.]

Trapped in a forest of little chairs, I turn gingerly from Salina to Seule. I monitor my movements as I maneuver between the two rows of students, so as to avoid collision with heads or eyes or desktops, which all lurk far below eye level. The seven ten-year-olds in my Monday-afternoon English class insist on cramming their desks into the front half of the drab but spacious classroom. Which means that I must practice grace and agility, as I sidle from one desk to the next, checking written answers on worksheets.

As I pivot from Salina’s desk to Seule’s. Henry twists back and upwards to catch my attention.

“Miss Newman, what do you call animals who eat plants?”

Henry is a quiet, thoughtful child, with a slow but twinkling sense of humor and, often, a hint of a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. He plods through worksheets, while others gallop; he deliberates over his responses, printing them in careful, crooked letters. If Salina and Seule are racing ponies, Henry is a good-natured draft horse—accepting of the plow he’s harnessed to, and determined to turn over every square inch of the field he pulls it through.

“Herbivores,” I tell him, and then spell the word out, at his request.

“And carnivores are the ones who eat other animals, right?” he asks.

“That’s right, carnivores eat animals.”

My students’ task, at the moment, is to come up with an example of how plants and animals help each other. Salina says that sometimes animals carry seeds stuck in their fur, then drop them on nourishing patches of ground. Seule says that insects pollinate flowers. I move on to Catherine, who’s in the back row with the other two girls. Again, Henry twists back towards me:

“Miss Newman, you didn’t check my answer yet.”

“I know, I’ll be there in a minute.”

My response is automatic. It’s what I would say to any child importuning my attention when I am involved with someone else. But the moment slows…. I pause a beat longer on that sweetly serious face, alight with the luminous glow of ten-year-old childhood, before zits and adolescent truculence have taken hold. I note the straight black hair, the dark brown eyes, the smooth beige skin on this little human who is literally looking up to me. An intelligence close to my own slips into me, bearing the certainty that soon I’ll be gone; once the semester ends I’ll move on. Cherish these children, it says. Treasure them now, for their lilting exuberance, for their truths that surprise you, for their shrill, frank squeals of complaint. Give them your loving attention, while you’re here with them.

* * *

After I finish with Catherine, I head back to Henry. I am delighted to find that he has encompassed the entire cycle of life in his answer:

“Herbivores eat plants. Carnivores eat herbivores. Carnivores feed insects and bacteria when they die.”

“That’s a great answer, Henry,” I say. “Good job.”