My niece's son. My sister's grandson. My boy. Of course he's a grown man now, old enough, whip-smart enough to take care of himself. A tiny worry fissure opened when my first husband––Antho's Uncle George who always knows how Anthony is––stopped responding to my messages. And then Anthony's sister, who keeps track of everyone in the family, said she didn't have his number anymore, and the tiny fissure spider veined. How could I lose him like an old sock? From toddler at home with mom and big sister to CASA to great grand parents to Aunt Dawn. Sitting at my kitchen table, head bowed like a wrongly-convicted prisoner. "Why was I the one that got sent away?" To high school not-quite-graduate towering over me in my garage, exhaust fumes scenting our mutual exhaustion, me sending him back to his mom. "God, Anthony, I don't know what to do with you anymore. Maybe your mom does." One last "love you" and "love you too." And me sitting at my kitchen table, head bowed. Collapsing in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. I failed him. Maybe one more school, one more social worker, one more therapist. Whenever he walked through my dreams, because they did not end in death or violence, I took the dreams to mean he was alright. I stopped believing in dreams. I need concrete evidence: citizen journalists with cell phones have been reminding me that young black men cannot be presumed to be okay. And my center where I used be clear as glass fractured into how do I find him and what if he doesn't want to be found and are you crazy it's always good to tell someone they are thought about in the middle of the night. I need to hear that bass voice, which I still decades after the fact cannot believe dropped from a kindergarten falsetto. Where are you, Anthony? Where's my boy?
My alumni magazine profiled Bill Keller, class of '70, Pulitzer Prize winner and "one of the most familiar and respected figures in American print journalism." Upon absorbing this information, my brain wept.
Keller joined an infinitely expanding throng of Pomona College alums whom my brain envied. Kris Kristofferson graduated summa cum laude before going on to … well … you know. John Whitney, Sr. fathered computer animation. Norris Bradbury worked on the Manhattan Project. John Cage (whose polysyllabic accomplishments I could not even pronounce, much less comprehend) pioneered interdependency in music, electroacoustic music, and non-standard use of musical instruments.
The Great All That Is sent me to a college of hyperactive overachievers. I graduated from Pomona highly trained in research, analysis, problem solving, and staying up all night to finish term papers. The Solver of All Equations prepared my brain for greatness. Why then did The Composer of Everything drop this highly skilled lump of clay into the slacker lifestyle of a writer? I am confounded that Big Smarty Pants in the Sky imprisoned my brain inside the head of a woman who lies on her bed studying the ceiling fan.
This puzzle cried out for the data processing skills of my eager cerebellum. I set to work deciphering possible reasons and trying to draw rational conclusions. The riddle refused to yield an answer. I felt sorry for my brain. Pomona taught it nothing about koans.
My husband went to the airport to pick up Victor and Nhien on their return from an overseas vacation, but they weren’t on the plane. He texted Victor. No response. Back home he triple-checked the itinerary. I phoned the airline and learned our friends had canceled their return flight.
I refused to submit to my initial nervous twinge. "Maybe he didn't get messages. You know––dropped calls."
As I tried to answer emails, butterflies stirred in my stomach. The airline gave me the wrong information.
The butterflies turned into bats. There's been an accident. Leathery wings flapped. They're in a coma––yes, both of them.
Half the time I knew they were fine, but concentration proved impossible, so I lay on my bed to visit with my fears. Heartburn commanded me to call the police. The quivering in my knees said, no, call the FBI. Call Interpol. I pictured Ben's worried face. He'd been trying to reach Victor for two days, and I'd only been involved for a few hours. I breathed in his anxiety and breathed out calm. How many other people had shown up at airports and train stations and bus depots, and were shaken when their loved ones did not appear as planned? I breathed in everyone's where-the-hell-are-they and breathed out they’re-okay.
One sleepless night later, Ben heard from Victor. He'd accidentally provided the wrong flight information and hadn’t responded to messages because he was out of phone service range.
Nothing had happened. Yet there was no denying my heartburn and wobbly knees. And no denying the relief: the exhale that relaxed clenched muscles, the sigh of oh-silly-me.
It was all in my head. And completely real.
Cow Epiphany #2
I’d completed the to-do-list. Writer chores, check. Housework, check. Yard work, check. I’d even reached beyond my loner self to schedule a lunch date.
Now it was Me Time. Have some fun. But how? Yoga? No, that’s therapy, not play. I paced from kitchen to living room. How about that hula-hoop in the back of my closet? Nope, that’s exercise. I tapped my fingers against my thighs. Read? Yes. What a luxury to escape into a novel. I found the iPad and curled up on my bed. From the looks of my collection, you’d think I was earning an advanced degree in marketing, creative writing, and spirituality. Not a single pleasure-read. I rubbed my neck. Music! My downloads library was medicinal: Hindu chants, singing bowls, Native American flute. Nothing to boogie with. My mouth tightened into a grimace.
According to her memoir, a pallor hung over Linda Shapiro’s childhood––her mother’s episodes of depression. Treatments in the doctor’s office turned her into a zombie, and then she inched back to motherhood. At the end of second grade, Linda’s teacher took her aside. “Have some fun this summer. You don’t have to be so serious.” Linda was puzzled. She knew how to have fun. Didn’t she?
Sometimes my mother sagged into blankness. Shuffled from day to day in the same housedress. While Dad watched, men in white pulled her from our house and escorted her into the night. She reappeared a week later. Nobody talked about it. Once, when the grown-ups were playing cards, I was in the corner reading and eavesdropping. My aunt pointed at me, “Why’s that child so serious?”
Me Time. I set the iPad on the nightstand. My temples throbbed. Time to get reacquainted with Mama.
Waiting for Keisha
Victor called my name at the open mic. My stomach went queasy. I walked to the stage anyway. My hands trembled. I read a story anyway. And then the audience shouted the Fearless Fridays Open Mic affirmation, which they did for all the performers. “Dawn Downey, you are fearless!”
They were mistaken.
I’m afraid of: ridicule, poison ivy, spiders, ticks, deer, police cars, water, tall men, cows, getting lost, yellow traffic lights, old houses, and new software.
I live with terror. I breathe anxiety. It’s the way I’m made.
When Victor calls my name at next month’s open mic, my hands might tremble again, because I’m not fearless.
Although … I’m not afraid of bees.
Cow Epiphany #2
Gangaji Said, "Stop"
You take the gold lame´ clogs down from the closet shelf again. You forgot to put them in the give-away box last month, and the month before, and the month before. Made in Italy is stamped on the insole. Ferraris for your feet. Hand-stitched metallic leather wraps around the shoe, even on the bottom where nobody else can see it. But you know you’re walking on gold. They’re as flawless as they day you bought them a decade ago.
You and your best friend were vacationing together. A weekend of shopping the sales in luxury department stores. She’d shown you what to buy and told you you were gorgeous every time you tried something on.
You turn the clogs over in your hand. Buttery soft leather. You felt a little foolish the last time you wore them. They’re a bit too dressy and a little too high. They turn your modest walk into a swagger.
Can you still call her your best friend, though you haven’t spoken for … my goodness … how long has it been?
You place the shoes in the give-away box on top of outgrown dresses. Your hand lingers.
That last phone call was awkward, you and she unable to fill long pauses.
There's no denying the shoes are gorgeous, but they no longer fit your wardrobe … or your life.
You wonder how she’s doing.
The closet shelf looks empty. Maybe you’ll wear them one last time.
A woman approached my car from across the parking lot. Middle-aged. Skinny. Shorts. My eyes narrowed.
She carried a drug store sack and was sipping from a fast-food cup. “Can you give me a ride to the other side of the highway? There’s no safe way for me to walk across.”
I didn’t want this stranger in my car, her shoulder right next to mine, but––familiar with the area––I knew she was right. Besides, you can’t leave a woman stranded. I grabbed my purse from the passenger seat, shoved it into the back, underneath my sun shield. “Okay,”
She climbed in. “You know where the highway is?”
“Yeah, I live on the other side. Miserable day to be out. Too hot.”
“Heat’s not so bad. My legs gave out.”
Awkward silence. At the light, I maneuvered to go straight.
“No. Turn right. Get on the highway.”
She directed me in the opposite direction from home. Police would have to track my cell phone signal to find my abandoned car. God knows where they’d find my body. “What’s your exit?”
“Get off here. Go to the stop sign.”
We were in a rural neighborhood, overgrown trees, no sidewalks. Her boyfriend would spring out of the woods waving a gun. “What stop sign?”
Around the bend, foliage gave way to a sunny intersection––and a stop sign.
“Thanks for the ride. Have a good day.”
Still tense, I headed home. Was she afraid of strangers when she asked for rides? Wait a minute. I was the stranger.
I've got to tell you, that proved to be far less scarey than being me.
1970. A coed scrambles to finish a term paper due in three hours. Her American Lit professor had assigned it six months earlier; she'd begun writing it the previous week. Because her father says Cs mean failure, she maintains a B minus minus minus average at Pomona College. Cigarettes. Cold pizza.
1980. A (wannabe) designer manufactures reasons to call in sick. Two years after graduating from the Los Angeles Institute of Fashion Design, she labors in a sweatshop an hour's commute from her studio apartment in the ghetto. Fabulous wardrobe. Factory job.
1985. A wife (double-income-no-kids) gulps aspirin to tamp down a hangover after the previous nights attempt to anesthetize herself––downing wine at a smoky blues bar. Husband's beer bottle next to her plastic cup, his chair angled so she'd seen only the back of his shoulder. Two-car garage. Credit Cards.
2000. A divorcee pauses in her kitchen doorway. She fills a kettle and catches her Mona Lisa reflection in the window above the sink. After the pot whistles, her hands close around a steaming mug. Wool socks. Chamomile tea.
2005. A seeker lies on a narrow bed, on the final morning of retreat. In the nightlight's glow, yesterday's dharma talk seems to flicker across the ceiling. … biggest impediment to awakening is the belief there's an impediment …. Zafu. Yoga mat.
2015. A woman opens her bedroom window and leans into winter. Above the patio, a half moon hangs in the navy blue sky. The air smells like new snow. It is bracing, against her breasts. Wrapped in the gentle snoring that drifts up from her bed, she pads downstairs for breakfast. Bare feet. Birthday oatmeal.
On the way to the mailbox, I leaned over to pull out dandelions popping up through the cracks in the driveway. I grabbed sturdy leaves in a bunch, my knuckles scraping concrete, and I yanked. Another plant seemed to pop up every time I plucked. They were cartoon dandelions, each tap root connected to the top of another dandelion in the ground beneath it, whose tap root was connected to the next, an endless chain all the way down to China. That's it. Time for reinforcements.
Give me fungicides, pesticides, herbicides, and any other cides on the market.
The idea shriveled up, dead on the vine. A sensation I'd never felt before crept across my sweaty palm, informing me I would not be using any weed killer. It stopped my bomb-'em-back-to-the-stone-age plans as effortlessly as a red light stops my car.
I quit using chemicals in the yard a couple years ago, because of the environmental impact on ground water and pollinators. Blah blah blah. This new feeling didn’t give a hoot about all those fancy words. It was unimpressed by my intellectual prowess and unconcerned with ecological issues. It simply zapped away the distance from between Dawn the Gardener and Betty the Bee.
I'll pull weeds by hand. Spraying poison would be shooting myself in the foot. Lesson two: disarm.
How To Make Peace With Nature: Part I
"My brother Michael said, “A cousin you probably don’t remember wants to call you.”
“Keisha’s mother and ours were half-sisters. We have the same grandfather.”
I perked up. I longed to learn about this particular grandfather, who died before I was born and whose name I’d never learned.
Michael asked, “Can I give out your phone number?”
Mama's father had been a bootlegger. That summarized his whole identity. It was as though he’d sprung to life full grown during Prohibition, but I’d heard stories. As a little girl, Mama’d adopted a stray kitten, but he’d snatched it away and killed it in front of her. When she’d earned the only high school diploma among his four children, he said it was a waste and did not show up for the ceremony. He’d cursed her on his deathbed. I didn’t know what that meant, but grandpa sounded like the devil.
Was he the reason Mama sometimes retreated inside herself? Did she see him in the distance when she stared out the window? Had the specter of my grandfather caused her to be sent away to a hospital when I was a kid? I worry that Grandpa Evil haunts me, too. Will this new cousin shed light on the darkness that sometimes closes down on me?
Today I’m waiting for Keisha. She’ll either bring closure … or open up a can of worms.