Sunday, January 17, 2016

signs of life

Thank you to those of you who still come here from time to time looking for me. I miss you, too. The last few years have been a lot of work and I didn't do any writing for pleasure for a long time. I didn't tell any stories. Lately it feels like whatever it is that makes me want to do that has been waking up again, maybe because life has a certain amount of predictability in it now within which it is comforting to remember stranger times.

For a while I really did want to wipe it all clean and start over, and I have found that this is disconcertingly easy to do, despite everything that's been revealed to us about the illusory nature of our privacy. Those of us who came of age in the sheltered garden of history between the Cold War and the War on Terror were encouraged to regard the digitization of our lives as a wide-open frontier of anonymity, ours for the taking, another iteration of our manifest destiny. We believed in free speech and the ripe possibilities of interconnection: tune in, log on, upload. How lightly we held the knowledge -- never hidden from us, only disguised as history -- that, like every frontier, this was a military project all along.

We wake up now as in a cold dawn, understanding with the gut-punch of the should-have-been obvious how easy it is to signal a cascade if processes, at first most likely automated, but perhaps slowly gathering an audience, triggering additional layers surveillance and collection: [caller, recipient, time of call, duration, location], camera in laptop flicking on, in-phone GPS cricket-calling into the cross-hairs. Data generating data to be reviewed, shared, commented on, analyzed by other frail humans with hearts full of ordinary brokenness and desire.

And yet despite all this, for me it's been easy to disappear in one place and appear in another by wholly ordinary means, and to begin a life as a contributing member of society, living a life that makes sense to other people so that they feel no need to ask more than the dinner-party kinds of questions. With all that it's possible to know, about me or anyone else, most people one encounters are not very curious.

Lots of people must have this same experience, although not everyone takes their living of a double life so literally as to create other names, other histories. Not everyone has to re-learn to introduce themselves by the name on their birth certificate. I have a tendency to take things pretty far. But many of us must be in some way doing this all the time, trying on and then shedding identities with and without an intention or a purpose, going new places and shaking hands with strangers like nothing ever happened, piecing together the rules for fitting in, curating a collection of stories that will and won't be told.

I'm not going to cop right now to anything as sad or self-eulogizing as saying that I have regrets about the new life or the old one. I've always fought against that streak of self pity in myself. My life is ordinary in the best of ways. When I wake up in the morning, I have an idea of what to expect, and to enjoy that is to enjoy a privilege. And still I am unable to forget all that I've had a chance to learn about the darkened rooms and the things that go on there, the splendid variety of ways the human soul (if you'll forgive me that word, in context) presents itself to another when it believes no one is looking on.

I have to try, like all of us do, to protect myself. I ought to keep to myself anything that might constitute identifying data: names, dates, locations. I supposed it might be wiser in cases to describe events parallel to history rather than overlying it. To lie, in other words. It would keep me safer. And then on the other hand again, I suspect the frisson of danger might just be what some people always liked most about me anyway: the idea that, if they wanted to enough, they could hurt me. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

lost at sea
without words
only wave after wave
like blank lines
i can only name the color: gray

somewhere the wind is sweeping
long strands of hair across my face

 tell me

there is nothing to tell you

if i lie still enough i think i can keep
my balance a little longer
how many people have told me,
i always thought by now i'd be dead
it turns out it takes more than that

no answers
for people i used to know
on the behalf of ghosts
ghosts have their own answers
i have silence
and sometimes
a sentence or two that comes from nowhere
like these:

Watch the horizon
and don't grip too hard
to the wet wood; salt and slime
under your fingers
will betray you. Trying to survive
is dangerous

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Carrying boxes across the yard; sweat crawling into my eyes. I always seem to end up moving in the summer. Just a few more rounds of sweeping and sorting and throwing away.

I put aside some things I think the little girls next door might like: an empty china salt-cellar shaped like a dancing pig, a small stuffed donkey, a rubber frog, a lizard carved out of wood. Things just pile up on you if you live in a place too long, things you never wanted. Things people give you, or leave with you, things you just find somewhere and hang onto for no reason.

I take the little box of things across the yard to the neighbors' house and knock on the door. Mary waves me in from the kitchen. The girls are falling all over the floor in their little flowered dresses and I sit down with my back against the cabinets to show them what I brought. I give Sophie, the oldest, the china pig. She holds it against her chest and then runs off. Penny and I play with the rubber frog.

"We can't believe you're leaving," Mary says. "I don't think the girls even know what that means. You've been here their whole lives."

"Sophie wasn't even born yet. I remember you out in the yard, pregnant as the day is long."

"I was up on my porch drinking red wine and thinking, do I really want to have a kid?"

Mary's hair is long and dark, with lovely lines of gray. She was 43 when Sophie was born and had lived a rich life. I like to think of this. When I was living on my own in the leaky west side of the house I used to watch their lit windows at night, catching glimpses of the children's round, smooth heads at the dinner table, what seemed to me like the perfect rhythm of life contained and safe.

Sophie comes back in the kitchen with a small stuffed cat. "This is for you," she says. "This is your goodbye present."

I hold the bubble of a laugh in my throat. A gift for me when I am getting rid of things -- please god, no more things to remind me of people I won't see again -- but of course I take it. I say thank you, and the bubble of laughing turns into crying. I knew it would.

Mary sees my face knot up. "Look girls," she says. "Our neighbor is leaving." She sits down on the floor next to me. Penny crawls into my lap.

When we moved off the farm when I was twelve I felt like this, like I'd never really loved anything or anyone enough. There are the people you say goodbye to and the people who you never say goodbye to, who were part of your life and never even knew it.

"You're going good places," Mary says. "I'm almost jealous in a way. I've been watching you pack, thinking about the last time I packed up and left a place. It's great to see people move on when they're moving on to something good."

I think so, too, and I'm not unhappy, just sad.

So goodbye, people I never knew, you intimate, reoccurring strangers. We went to the same bars and the same coffee houses and the same shows, we rode the bus together and watched each other get older, never speaking. You cut your hair and you look like a lawyer now, and you, you still walk around with your hands in your pockets, getting wilder and wilder.

Goodbye to things that never happened. Goodbye, nostalgia for a perfect future imagined in the past. Sometimes I still catch a whiff of you, unplaceable and unmistakable, like a perfume bringing back the skin of someone whose face you don't remember.

Goodbye, mistakes I never fixed, quarrels I never righted, opportunities I never exploited, places I never went. Some failure is to be expected.

I don't stay too long. You can't sit on the floor in someone else's kitchen and cry too long, and besides there's the last rounds of packing left to do. I stand up and lift the girls up in the air one at a time and hug and kiss them and say goodbye forever to the idea that they are somehow mine, my secret, imaginary daughters. I say goodbye to their first days of schools and their first loves and everything of theirs I'll never know about.

I know that when the last boxes are in the truck and the door is locked for the last time with the key left underneath the mat, I know the road will wind out as smooth as thread off a spool and the crest of every hill will open up the sky into endless horizons. It's time, anyway. It's been too long since I left everything behind. Which you can never do, of course, but you can try.

Thursday, June 09, 2011


My lover is the owner of a huge hotel, but it is more like a fortress, full of tracking devices and booby traps. I admire how perfectly he controls his environment, how imperviously he is defended, until it is time for me to go and then he traps me between two walls and slits the vein in my throat.

I see him come toward me with the blade in his hand, small and serated like a steak knife. I know it will hurt, and it does. My throat ticks blood.

We have a long conversation while I bleed. We laugh a lot, and sometimes I forget I am dying, but my eyes keep trying to close.

He tells me I should call a doctor.

I know. I know. I try to think how I will get up. I don't know where to find a phone.

I ask him to hold me. He does. His shoulders are broad and for a second I feel safe and warm but then he pushes me away. I don't trust you, he says. You tried to leave me. I can never love you now.

I tell him I'm sorry. I am so tired now. I ask him again to hold me.

I can't, he says. You're covered in blood.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dreaming about tornadoes, I wake up and think: I ought to tell you that I love you now because the world is ending but the world is always ending. Tornadoes are everywhere. I grew up in tornado country and I know about bruise-colored clouds with funnels hanging down like dirty little fingers poking out of the sky. I dream about them more and more.

They are the perfect food for nightmares, so violent and fickle and specific. What other disaster picks its victims up with such malicious delicacy? They'll rip your neighbor's bedroom out of the ground and spread it over the next two counties and leave your kitchen immaculate, with the cat food in the bowl and the teaspoon in your favorite coffee cup. In the nightmares I'm always doing something else that seems important -- packing to leave town, arguing with a friend -- but once I see the tornado there's only the tornado. It's far away and then it's close and then it swoops down and slaps the glass out of the window like a hand to a face.

Wheatsville, yesterday, lunchtime, eating quinoa salad and hippie rootbeer outside on a bench. Two women are crossing the parking lot, bare legs shimmering under their skirts in heat of the first really hot day of summer and then there's that funny moment when you see that the stranger you're staring at is someone you know. I stand up and say Amy Jean's name and she and her friend walk over and that's also someone I know. Her name is Callie. The three of us lifted weights together for a while one summer.

I hug Amy Jean and Callie hugs me and everybody sits down. Amy Jean is at that point in being in love with someone wonderful and amazing where it's all she can really talk about, so we talk about it for a while. "It's crazy," says Amy Jean, who two years ago was getting divorced and buying a house and losing her stepfather to cancer. "I mean, I totally would have told you before that I knew what love was. I really thought I did, and this is just so much more incredible than I ever thought anything would have ever felt." They're moving to South America at the end of the summer.

This makes me hurt and smile because this is what you say when you're really in love, every time you're ever in love. It's always the first and the best and the last and the always. It is the best, always. It's supposed to be.

"I mean, I did tons of drugs in art school and none of them ever made me feel this good," Amy Jean says. "I feel totally not afraid and totally sane. Like really not afraid of anything. Like anything could happen, and I would still be good."

I say I remember that feeling, when C. and I were first together. "I remember thinking -- it was weird -- but that anything could happen. If he left me, even, I would be fine. I was that much better for ever having been in love like that. Before that being in love was always something really desperate and scary."

"Are you still together now?" Callie asks.

"Yeah." I've decided to keep the answers to these questions simple. I don't know if I'm being avoidant or polite or both.

"How long?"

"Almost eight years, I guess. Yeah."

"Are you still in love like that? I'm sorry, I guess it's a weird question. I just wonder lately if that's even possible. I don't know if you know, but my husband is leaving me."

Now I remember, yes, her hug was a little longer and tighter than I would have expect, a little skin-hungry. I say I'm sorry, which is still, after all these years, the only thing I know how to say.

"He left me for one of his students," Callie says. "One of his former students. She's twenty-two. I know, it's really bad. I'm that person. I never thought I'd be that person. My life is this dumb cliche."

I get that too. If love makes everything always new, heartbreaks make everything stupidly the same, even the fiercest of them, sucking the color and the shading out of everything. I am a stick figure, you are a stick figure and here we go its this bullshit again.

"I have times when I feel really good," Callie says. "Sometimes, like today, I think it's totally going to be OK and I'll find someone else and it will feel really good and this will be over."

"It will be like that," Amy Jean says, still lit up inside with new-love-true-love oozing over and she reaches across the table and touches Callie's hand. "It totally will be. You're going to find someone great and you're going to feel amazing."

Callie looks at Amy Jean and then at me.

"Well, I mean," I say. "It isn't like that all the time. It doesn't stay like that forever. But it's not like somebody pulls a plug in a bathtub and it all drains away either, you know? It has its cycles. It dies back for a little bit. You can have a bad season, a few bad seasons. But hopefully there's something under there, like a good roots system, and it comes back over and over and actually it is pretty amazing. Yeah."

Amy Jean is nodding and smiling and drifting away. You can't really hear this kind of thing when you're in love and everything is new. You're not supposed to. All that oxytocin is wiping your brain clean like a wet cloth on a chalkboard so you can bond and have tons of sex and raise babies. She excuses herself and goes into the store and Callie and I sit on the bench a while longer watching the parking lot shimmer like it's all a mirage or else something projected on a sheet that any second could be whisked away to show us what's behind.

"It's been hard, honestly" Callie says. "It's been really hard. Some days I feel alright, but other days are just, whatever. What kills me is thinking, you know, we are still actually married. I am his wife. I don't even know where he's staying. He's with her, wherever they are. Driving around inmy car, that I paid for."

"That is really awful."

"I am so sad."

"You have a right."

We sit for a bit and then I start telling her about this book I was reading on shamanism, this part about initiations. There was one initiation ritual -- I want to say it's Siberian or Inuit, somewhere really cold -- where they take you out and strip your clothes off and leave you in the snow to die. What they tell you is that demons are coming to eat all the flesh off your bones. And they make a prayer for you that all the demons come and every part of you gets eaten. You freeze almost to death and then they come back and get you and thaw you out and if you make it back you come back with all these powers but only over the demons that ate you. Because you can't heal any pain you haven't felt.

"That makes sense," Callie says.

Amy Jean comes back outside and we talk for a while about something else. Everybody stands up to go.

"Hey," Amy Jean says. "I heard you were moving. I completely forgot."

"I am moving."


"A few weeks. I'm feeling good about it. This town and I are in a dry season."

"It's beautiful there, right?"

"It is. The river is about five minutes from my new house."

We all hug goodbye for who knows how long and we all promise that they will come to see me and we will go rafting. I hope it works out.

Friday, April 29, 2011

I get home from work in the afternoon and open my door the sound of a power drill. The house was foreclosed on in the earlier part of the year, and it's been sold twice since then, disturbing my quasi-legal squatting arrangement in the west unit, considered uninhabitable due to the leak in the roof, the holes in the floor, and the mold. Somehow I lived there for two years; it went by very fast.

So now I am living in the east side of the house with C. again. We are wary but friendly, two refugees crowded into the same tent. All the other tenants are leaving, one by one. The vegetable garden we all shared at the front of the house is torn up. The new owner wants xeroscaping. She's making improvements. No one could blame her. The place needs improving.

She hired a guy named Luis to rip down the walls in the ceilings in the west unit and make it all new again. He's been at it ten hours a day for the last few weeks, the hardest working guy in show business. I always wave at him when I go past. I wave at him today.

"Almost done," he says. "You want to see?"

You always want to see the place where you used to live. We go inside and walk through the rooms, looking at the smooth planes of fresh plaster, the shining white paint and dove-gray trim. For a second I feel like I'm dreaming. Everything is familiar and everything is different. A place I used to live, a long time ago.

"Wow. It looks amazing. Good job."

Luis wipes his forehead with the back of his arm. "It was a lot of work," he says.

"I bet."

For a minute when the house went on the market I thought maybe I should try to find a way to buy it. Then I thought, right. Buy this place I've been trying to get free of for the last god knows how many years. Buy this leaking roof and these mold-infested walls, this compromise, and spend the rest of my life trying to make it into something that I want. But that's not how the wind is blowing.

We go out on the porch. The yard out here used to be a wild place, a tangle of knotty shrubs and flowering weeks just barely pushed back enough for a few rows of chard and tomatoes and basil and sunflowers. It's all plowed down to the roots now and there's nothing wild about it anymore.

"Is she going to have you do the outside next?" I ask.

Luis shakes his head. I like his face. All the lines in it go up. "After I finish in there, I'm going home for a while. My son is getting married at the end of the month, back in Mexico."


"And my other son is graduating from college."

"Hey, that's great. Congratulations again."

"I have good kids," he says. "My son that's getting married, he's a lawyer."

"Wow. You must be proud."

"All good kids. All my kids go to college. Except for my daughter." He squints out over the yard, into the sun. "My daughter was in college, but she throws it all away to get married. I told her not to do it."

"Well, there's always time, right? She'll be OK."

"I think so. I think so. But I always tell her, you've got to do your school. Because for a woman, I think it is a lot harder. Do you know what I mean?" He looks at me earnestly. He has the kind of eyes that look like they're really looking at you. I nod. "Because you and me can do the same job," he says. "And I'm always going to get paid more for it. So I think it is harder to be a woman. I think a woman has to try a lot harder."

"I know what you're saying."

"What about you? Are you in school?"

"I'm going back."

"Congratulations," he says. "So we are both doing good."

We shake hands.

I unlock the door into C.'s place, our place. I am doing homework when he gets home. After a while I look out the window. There's an unfamiliar quality to the light, and then I see the storm cloud, colored orange by the end-of-day light.

"Baby, look."

It hasn't rained this spring at all. It hasn't rained since anybody can remember when. We are staring down the barrel of a 50-year drought and it's so hot already. It's so hot, and it's not even May yet.

C. and I go outside walk down to the end of the street where we can see it better. It is enormous, roiling, and coming fast. Other neighbors are already on the corner, staring up. I recognize the girl from across the alley. "You heard the governor prayed for rain this weekend, right?" she says.

"Sweet Baby Jesus," C. says. "Who did he pray to?"

"I guess we'll find out." The neighbor girl shivers and wraps her arms around herself. "We ought to get inside before that hits us," she says.

We go back to the house and I go back to doing my homework. Once in a while I reach up and turn down the buzzing SC unit to see if I'll hear rain, but I don't. Later I lie in bed, fantasizing about water from the sky, running off the eaves and filling the creeks. I dream of mud puddles and dams over-flowing, but it's no good. In the morning when we wake up the ground is dry as a bone and it's a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


In a kind of hotel room with my parents. My father is telling a joke. Earlier we were going for a walk next to cliffs made of sand. The joke my father is telling is, It's like rape or bad weather, you can't do anything about it, so you might as well lay back and enjoy it.

Stop saying that, Dad. That's not funny. Stop it.

What are you, the word police around here? It's a joke.

It's not funny.

My father turns around and starts telling the joke to my mother. She starts laughing. I pick up everything I know will smash and throw it at the wall --

It's a joke, my mother says. It's just a joke. All you have to do is laugh. It's easy, see? Watch.

But it's not funny. It's not funny, right? It isn't.

--tea cups, cocktail glasses, framed photographs. The last thing I throw is myself out the door.

This is one of those weird dream hotels: hallways of hallways, rooms spilling into other rooms. I hear their voices everywhere. Punch and fucking Judy. Staircases that don't go up or down, just around and around. I run, ripping open door after door after door looking for one, just one, one goddamn door without you behind it.