Are We Breaking Up Again?

What books can do

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Last night I didn’t keep a revolving appointment.  It was simply our weekly coffee get away.  A tradition that we kept through thick and thin.  A tradition that probably kept our relationship alive.  At the last moment, I found myself somewhere else completely.

It was an odd sensation being in a part of town I had not often frequent.  It was a bohemian sort of family orientated, blue-collar sort of place.  Small front yards with bright, primary-colored plastic toys and large trees shading the uneven sidewalks.  There were a few dilapidated unloved houses here and there but for the most part refurbished rambling old homes with attic apartments, to help finance the restoration, sat about in reminiscent glory.   Small factory woodshops and little Italian restaurants were tucked in here and there and on one corner an Irish pub with window boxes full of bright salmon-colored impatients shone almost fluorescently against the kelly-green of the shutters and awnings.   Next door to the pub was a well-kept little boarding house that allowed dogs, cats and curious, peering little cockatiels.  The evidence of the liberal pet policy was evident in the open windows; a large tabby cat was wedged up against the screen of an open window and two stories up the cockatiels whistled and gyrated as if performing for the people walking by on the sidewalk.    I didn’t see a dog but somewhere within the old, square, brown brick building, I heard the yap of a ferocious little dog who probably thought himself at least a Great Dane.

I parked my car in a small lot beside the used book store.  The bookstore had been there for years and when I was younger I would come often and grab a read on the cheap.  I would take the time to walk the neighborhood and wonder if I could find a house and rebuild it to its former glory while taking my kids down to the small park or making them sit up straight in the little Italian restaurant when it was all you could eat spaghetti night.

During our last coffee appointment, I had mentioned my desire to visit again the neighborhood and you said I should go when I had time.   I was embarrassed, not sure if you thought I was trying to cajole you into some sort of proposal by showing you how families lived or if you thought my old habits droll.

I Mechanically dug into my narrow but deep purse that you brought back for me from Ecuador.  The vibrant hand dyed colors and the texture of the hand-woven material enamored you to my heart.  We were early in our relationship then and the purse retained its shape and vibrant colors and I never tired of it.  I found my “smart phone; a small, glowing box that contained all my vital work and social appointments and I knew I’d be lost without it.

I muted the phone, got out of my car and walked toward the bookstore.

The bookstore was in a tall, thin looking building with narrow windows displaying all sorts of used and new books interspersed with board games, and wooden toys.  I realized that the building was built and intended for a retail store.  I glanced up and saw that the upstairs apartment was probably one of those high ceiling places with windows that allowed only so much sunlight in and an abundance of shade in high angles all day long.

I walked in and the smell of old books confirmed to my wondering mind why I had driven in the opposite direction of my appointment and left my coffee to cool and my usual seat empty.

Books take my mind off of all my preoccupations, you often have stated that once I begin to read nothing disturbs me.  When words don’t go right or a ridiculous annoyance comes up between you and me, I pick up a book.  Time and distance help smooth over the rumbling disturbance and we can look good together for a little while longer.

My first stop was history and the section on the U.S. Civil War.  I picked out the books and felt the weight of those tomes that had well-creased bindings and dog-eared pages.  I felt a vibration on my hip.  I knew then I had muted the damned thing rather than turned it off just to know I was annoying you.

Pathetic.  Standing in the midst of the burning of Atlanta, the March to the Sea and turning of a page in US history, I realized that I was pathetic.  I looked around for a quick distraction and found a brilliant display of old coffee table books.  I immediately felt the burn of tears.

The sight of the coffee table books saddened me and angered me.  My grandmother always had coffee table books.  Coffee table books were a sign of past times when people still wanted to see the world and was content to see it in brilliant colored photographs on high-quality paper.  They didn’t rush, for example off to Ecuador and prove to the natives that US citizens could live without ice cubes.

I didn’t have a coffee table and felt void, even bereft.  I had taken your advice to spare the room, don’t allow clutter, bookshelves were signs of a cluttered mind.  Instead, I had a very large modern art watercolor with brilliant colors offset by dark grays, not quite black.  Black shouldn’t be used by a true artist you always say.  Thinking of that piece of art while standing amongst all those books made me think of upscale hotels and high-priced prostitutes.

So, I moved quickly to the do it yourself, help yourself, forget yourself and there goes the vibrating smartphone again.

No, self-help was going too far and I was too old.  I realized I could make a change but I couldn’t go back.  I didn’t want a large house to refurbish but an old brick apartment with some bearded hippy, sporting a man bun stopping by installing quality bookshelves in every corner.

I stepped quickly to the classics, skipping the mysteries and the romance books in cheap yellowing splendor.  I picked up Middlemarch and let the pages fan my face.  The letters on the broad white pages danced in confusion, just before my eyes.  How I struggled through that book and how I wondered at its popularity when there was Jane Eyre or even Wuthering Heights.  While smelling the old cloth covered classics I couldn’t deny that some time while driving away from our usual appointment I had some sort of epiphany.

The phone vibrated again and mechanically, yet without dread, I dug it out of my narrow brightly colored reminder of you.

“You running late?”

“Where are you?”

“Are we breaking up again?”

 

Train

Short train rides change perception, rarely reality.

Our coffee cups, still in the sink, a few crumbs on the counter, added to the house’s feel of empty and ignored as I enter in what was just a few hours ago, familiar.  You tried to clean up before we left but I wanted to get started.  I have no idea why I was so anxious.

Actually, I do know why, both of us tired, the train trip back into the city seemed excruciating to me.  The night before we had the train practically to ourselves.  Oh, a few people sat in jolting, distant, silence, here and there within the train car we were in – an older gentleman, who thought you were my wife, sat across from where we stood.  I didn’t try to dissuade him of his notion.  You had your back to him but I watched him watching us.  Though your hair was pinned, somehow, high upon your head soft curling strands fell down upon the curve and back of your neck — small glints of silver gray, unashamed, glistened upon your temples.  Your eye makeup, slightly smudged from blinking and rubbing fatigue, only seemed to make your appearance softer.  You insisted upon standing, claiming you preferred it but we both knew you were simply fighting sleep.  I looked away from you to hide a smile and caught the old man looking at us — his expression, a sort of longing look, perhaps envy.

So I turned back to you, looked down upon your face, pale, sleepy, beautiful.

I opened up my arms, grasping the cold metal bars above your hands.  You blinked and looked up at me.  A small frown between your eyes and I realized you were questioning me.  Was I really inviting you to step forward, place your head upon my shoulder, lean in?  Gently I inclined my head toward my shoulder.

No sarcasm just rest. Trust me a little.

You did.

You moved forward and I lost sight of you but for the first time, beyond the casual handshake or the quick friendship hug, I felt you.

Your body against mine, resting.

For the first time in years, I was slammed with continuous, slightly frenzied thought.  I was terrified I would have an erection and then terrified I wouldn’t, then terrified I was having those types of thoughts about a woman who was diametrically different from me in almost every way.  And then I caught sight of the old man again, he winked at me and smiled and quickly looked away.

Was he afraid I’d try to explain?  Hey, she isn’t my wife, she’s the most aggravating, mind-bending, hawkish woman I’ve ever met.  I became conscious of your weight against me and realized I was the only one on the train stressing.  Stressing like some overwrought prom date.  So I lowered my arms along the bars to encase you further against me and I felt a small shiver move between us.  You seemed to radiate heat within my protective circle; a heat I was aware of but not consumed by, a heat that was meant for me to know of, but not to know.  A heat that so few women are aware they possess, that permeates their body when approached like the opening of a leaf when finally in sunlight long enough.  A power really, that is self-contained, yet subconsciously utilized.

I thought about saying that aloud but I could hear your scoff, your “masculine conceit,” argument and so remained silent.

I continued to watch nothing out the window, the flash of lights as the train moved quickly from the old city to where I lived, alone in the new housing.  I thought of the many times I had made this trip by myself, exuberant from a time on the town, ready for solitude and rest.  Would I feel that way again?

The train began to slow, our stop tonight, mine alone later.  I felt your reluctance to move so I moved my chin against your forehead, felt your soft skin beneath me.  I could feel the old man watching and I most desperately did not want you to thank me.  I felt myself stiffen as if waiting for a tight-fisted blow but you didn’t even look up.  You placed your hand upon the center of my chest as if touching me was something you did often, and softly pushed yourself away.

The train stopped and the rattle of the doors opening and the cold air of late night, early morning, coursed into the car.  I glanced back.  The old man was watching, again his look of envy or remorse upon his face, but he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking at you.  We stepped toward the door and your hand was in mine.  You never held my hand before and I did not feel incredulous but suddenly concerned for you.

The doors shut behind us and we began moving away from the platform, toward my house, my small world I had let you invade, on my invite, for a few days.

“Do you think he rides just to pass the time?”

I looked away from your face, your sad voice but re-gripped your small hand in mine and said nothing.  I did not realize you had even noticed the old man.  Rebukes flooded my mind.  What did you care, you who feel overtaxed, and burdened by the world, what could you care about one lonely old man.  I remained silent and we continued to walk because your rebuke would make sense too.  Why was he alone, when could society take the place of an individual’s touch?

The street was dark, my house darker.  My hand trembled as I inserted my key into the lock and opened the door.

I stepped aside and let you in first.

You walked down the long hall toward that narrow entry room that separated the dining room from the drawing room.  I watched you.  You placed your hand deep within your hair and pulled out the magic that held it aloft upon your head all evening.  I watched your hair cascade down and brush your shoulders.  You placed the magic absent-mindedly upon the small narrow table that belonged to my Mother and seemed destined for this narrow tall house, deep within this bohemian, suburban, sprawl.

Your back still to me, your hands went up and rubbed your temples and I could imagine your face, eyes closed and worried about the old man on the train.

I wanted to man up, wrap my arms around you, fight your hair ‘til I found your neck and place wet kisses there, feel the tension drain away and hear you sigh.  I wanted to work every inch and curve of your body against mine.  Maybe you were right, there might be a God, and He had a hand in making things fit.

The moment passed, I allowed it.

I let it pass and I let you walk to your room, close the door without saying goodnight and I sat up the rest of the night with very expensive wine and as far away from God as the day I decided He didn’t exist.

You told me not to stay with you at the airport, that you’d be fine and I honestly felt that you meant it.  You seemed relieved to be there, to be boarding a plane back to your beloved Chicago.  Dark circles under your eyes and your hair disheveled and sexy, the waiting area for your flight suddenly seemed to lift your spirits.

I thought seriously for a moment about leaving.  We were adults, behaved like adults, and didn’t have a thing to worry about or remember tonight.  But to your annoyance, I stayed and I wanted you to take my hand and I wanted to put my arm around you while we waited but you read your book and I paced the floor.

A call to board.

Why had I waited for this moment?  What did I face now?  A quick, friendly hug, a joke, a laugh –next year in Chicago.  But you had caught on, hadn’t you?  You straightened your back, shrugged your bag higher up on your shoulder, and waited for me.  For one moment, one glorious moment, I thought, yes, I surrender.  I surrender and there is no way in hell that you can stay but I don’t care the enormity of pain watching you board that plane will be worth one honest square moment.

I asked you what the weather was like in Chicago.

The weather.

You didn’t say anything, smiled a small smile, gave me a quick kiss and was gone.

And now I’m standing in this house.  Sunlight streaming into the windows, dust motes floating in the air and the sound of a distant city on a Sunday afternoon.

I waited for the telephone to ring, had visions of you at my front door but the house remained quiet.  I told myself, as I settled in and cooked my evening meal peace and tranquility had settled back into my house.

I preferred to be alone, admired from a distance, known for my austerity and non-hypocritical friendship, I was a haven for my friends.

Darkness and I still waited for the telephone to ring.

I broke down, washed your coffee cup from the morning, and placed it away with the others.  I went upstairs and entered the guest room.  I could smell your perfume, knew that I would.  I told you to leave the bed that I’d wash the sheets for the next guest.  I pictured myself naked chest down upon your sheets, shook my head and roughly pulled the bedding up ignoring your sent and stumbled out the bedroom door.

I washed everything.  My small machine and I worked.  I sweated hanging your sheets in the basement to dry, smelling now like laundry detergent.

No one at the door, no telephone ringing, I grabbed my keys, locked the front door and started walking.  An all-night coffee house down the street.  I took you there a couple of days ago.

The coffee house was expensive but good.  I took no book, no electronic gadget, I just watched the quiet Sunday evening world move by.

And oddly enough I didn’t look for you.

You are gone.

I looked for the old man.

I saw my partial reflection in the depth of the coffee cup.  I saw my reflection, dimly, in the darkened windows of the shop.  I tried to look beyond myself, out to the suburb and city I know, but my reflection was in the way.  My hair, silver, my expression somber, my shoulders still broad, not stooped, not yet.  What would we look like sitting there together?

What did we look like sitting there?

My hand didn’t tremble at all when I pushed the key into the lock and shoved open my front door.  The door did not creak and the floorboards beneath me did not moan.  The house was dark; I switched on the light and stood in the long hall.  There where you left them, were the magic hairpins upon my Mother’s table.  I picked them up and held them in my hand.  Smooth, warm, small; how could something so compact help defy gravity?  I placed them back down on the table, arranging them how you had left them.  I walked up the stairs, into the barren guest room, laid down on the bare mattress, smelling faintly of your perfume.

If I Entered Hell

My Beatrice would be a monk with whom I would never confess I was in love with

If I became the female self of Dante

I would hope that Hans Rookmaaker would be my Virgil.

Hell then would be a circular art gallery, a gradual, seven story spiral ending in an ice box.

And within the ice box perhaps Monet, paint brush in hand.

Frozen in the act of painting light, a perplexed look on his face.

“Where is the sensation?” — his eyes would ask; sensation being the only reality of life

for him.

I would ask my guide if I should tell him that he is dead — and my guild would shake his head,

no.

‘Monet lives at last, he feels the cold of his encased death.’

And my guide would pity me, and take me to my Beatrice — a monk who writes the classics and beautifies the deep well walls of knowledge.

There I would stay never saying I was deeply in love with him.

 

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

 

It’s Not Difficult

You can enter my mind through my heart

Just so you know, staying up late is not good for me, I’m a morning person.

Weary, I’ve stepped out on to my high tower ledge and found the big dipper just overhead;

Close but not touchable.

So, I point the momentum North and ride the will to survive into the icy cold.

The bay is rocky smooth, Superior ice blue and now I feel safe away from you.

Odd, I don’t fear the scythe-man and am terrified of you.

A vulnerability is impossible to live with.

The levitation is sudden, the atmosphere heavy, ripping down my body as I move up

No nest is a temptation from this lofty spot where I see the seas spin deep frothing white.

The ghosts step along the streets their staffs diamond willows that no one but a few knows exists.

Sit down across from me and answer my questions

Answer me

Love is what you’re best at, that is obvious while I ponder the ideology of believing in death

And not God.  So answer me, what has the world come to?

To each their own, to each their own.

To the west, to the east what was once frozen has dropped upon my front door and taken

The Limberlost

No, no she has simply gone deep as the stars have gone just out of reach

Don’t be afraid, I won’t ask any questions you can answer

You can get into my mind through my heart.

Please answer my question.  It’s not difficult.

 

Photo by Alfonso Ninguno on Unsplash

I Shall Not Reenter That Prison

Yet, I’m completely calm as Huron raves, slinging her water spout and waves.

Longing and yearning are simply not tortures I put myself through

There was a day, not too long ago, I would allow the heart to ache

Until I read Keats and was truly unimpressed and admired only his words.

 

I was born in the century where hell came through the school room floor

It expanded into large gymnasiums and Olympic-sized pools

History became a way to demoralize my faith and mathematics, God.

 

Can you hear me?  Can you hear me shout from atop my high mountain?

Down here where the seas storm taking down the souls of poor sailors

Yet, I’m completely calm as Huron raves, slinging her water spout and waves.

 

Oh beauty, if you could only feel the numbing cold and sharp water

Feel the hurt of winter and hear the cry of gulls

To feel the shock of warmth standing naked before the fire

 

Don’t you see?  Can’t you understand?

It’s the burden of inhibition, the burden of self-preservation that separates us

I’ve shed the pretense of beauty, I shall not reenter that prison.

Missing Shakespeare

He loved her and deep down he still loved her.

“Let slip the dogs of war.”

He heard it first in a Star Trek movie years ago – he couldn’t remember which one.  He stirred his coffee and decided he couldn’t remember which Shakespeare play the quote was from either.  He just knew that whenever he thought of that quote now, he thought of his ex-wife.

He loved her and deep down he still loved her.

He didn’t take that fact out and play with it very often.  When that wriggling little black mass of goo started forward he took the dog out and tossed the ball until they were both exhausted.  He worried because old Fido (his actual name by the way) didn’t want to run and play fetch as often or as long as they used to.  That was a problem because lately that mentioned black, mass of destruction was surfacing more often.

He knew why, his second marriage was failing.  He married her on a whim.  She was there, he was there, a need was met and he thought he might as well continue meeting that need.  It was fine for the first six or seven months until she decided she was in love.

He dress appropriately, was even happy on the day but now…

Now his coffee was stale and over cooked and the nice neat-as-a-pin house he lived in seemed to be layered in a very thin coating of dust.

She wasn’t lazy, she worked.  She couldn’t cook and that was fine, it was just the two of them and he enjoyed cooking.  She enjoyed reading and at first that was fine.  They enjoyed walking down town to the used bookstore, he would walk away with an edition of Scott he couldn’t believe he had the good luck to find and she would walk away with a bag of paperbacks.

At first it was fun.  She tried everything on him – everything.  He even flipped through the books but when he came across some of the descriptive parts of the male anatomy he thought he’d leave it up to her.

They had been married about a year when he found himself wide-awake beside her.  She was softly sleeping and he was puzzled.  What scene had they just played out, what plagiarism in bed did they just perpetrate?

That’s when the face of his first wife drifted in front of him and he sat bolt upright.  What if he slipped, what if he got so caught up in the current rush of love making but uttered in ecstasy his first wife’s name?

His first wife read Shakespeare.  Loved it.  She read and re read the plays.  She looked so lovely during the festivals they attended.  They were young, inexperienced and let slip away the teachings of commitment.

Where was she, what was she doing?  Did she garden?  Did she teach?  Did she read and study and whisper to her husband what she had learned that day, her new insights and word play?

He stirred his coffee and watched the dust motes on the windowpane.

 

She Still Loves You, Sir Walter Scott

“The only thing I’m saying is that if you want a good example, for your class, of what an oxymoron is, use ‘nice guy.’” She felt that sinking, suffocating sensation that she always felt when around him and wondered why she wasn’t home reading.

He was seven years younger than her; tall, slender, with large amber brown eyes, and a wooly but trimmed beard. They were employed together by the Jefferson County School System. She taught freshman English as a way and means to write literary prose on her fall, winter, and summer breaks (when she was in elementary school those breaks had titles such as Halloween, Christmas and thanked God, it’s summer vacation). He taught fourth-grade with a concentration in Mathematics. They were aware of each other or rather she was aware of him because he always sat in the front row of the Teacher’s Union meetings. She sat in the back and graded papers that lead her to seek professional help.

That’s where they met. He was walking out of his therapy session with Dr. Monroe while she was walking in, deep in thought and wanting to purge the sick feeling of guilt she felt for reading Ivanhoe for the fourth time in three years. She was startled by the fourth-grade teacher’s appearance, and he smiled at her.

“Do I know you?”

She blinked and felt her nose begin to itch and the inevitable wetness that sidetracks all social discourse. Frantically she looked in her purse for a tissue, “Um no, sorry,” she sniffed. He took a tissue from the box on the receptionist desk and handed it to her. She took it gratefully and spoke over the fourth-grade teacher’s shoulder, to the receptionist. “Sorry I’m late, will she still see me?”

“Yes, Ms. Miller.”

She turned back to him who had stayed and was apparently looking her up and down. “You know,” he said, “I think you look familiar.”

“I teach at Jefferson High. Freshman English. I’ve noticed you at the Teacher’s Union Meetings.”

“Ahh, because I sit up front.” He smiled and adjusted his backpack across his shoulders. “Will you be at the freshman basketball game tonight?” She looked at him as if he had grown three heads, “No. I don’t care for basketball.” She turned around and walked toward the Doctor’s office door.

“Wait one minute Ms. Miller; Doctor is not quite ready.” She huffed at the strident demand of the receptionist. She turned, the fourth-grade teacher was still standing there. She wondered if the ‘Doctor,’ wasn’t recouping from some wild tryst with the young man in front of her.

“I teach fourth grade, with a concentration in mathematics.”

“Yes, you’ve mentioned that in the meetings.”

“And you’ve remembered.”

She felt herself reddening slightly. She wasn’t sure if he was referring to her age and therefore her weakening faculty of mind or if he thought that he had made an impression on her. So, she only smiled without meaning it and said, ‘yes,’ in a long drawn out breath.

Her rudeness didn’t seem to cause any self-examination regarding his manners. “Well, we should have coffee together sometime and compare notes.”

“Ms. Miller, the Doctor is ready for you.”

“Sure, we should do that.”

She didn’t realize that she had committed herself. On the afternoon, just before the long winter break (that would be spent preparing, for the principal and three vice principals another plan for teaching freshman English and a dissertation on why grades were so low), she looked up to see him standing at her classroom door.

“Hi!”

“Hello.”

Did you receive my emails?”

She thought for a moment that she would feign complete ignorance and check her spam, but she was too tired and only said: “Yes, I did.” Annoyed at having to confess her remissness she thought wildly of asking him why he didn’t ask for her kerchief or go gallantly out in her name to right wrongs.

“Didn’t want to answer me huh?” He looked a bit crestfallen, and guilt crept along her neck and wisped about her ankles in a cold little chill.

“No, I didn’t. I’ve been kind of busy.”

“Yeah, the rumor is that you really do try and teach Freshman English. That must be burdensome. Why don’t you let me buy you a cup of coffee? We can go to the teacher’s lounge…”

“No.” her disdain was evident in one word, and she rose from her desk as if she was rising to command Nelson’s ship Victory.

“Excellent then let’s go over to a nice little coffee shop I know.”

She looked outside, the clouds were low, and it had begun to snow in earnest. She felt tired and longed for her little apartment uptown above the yoga center. The landlord had made a deal with her on the rent three years ago, because of the late hours and the weird music that came up from the old furnace vents. She didn’t mind because she kept her classical music plugged in and the heat low – it helped her write.

“Why don’t you come to my apartment and I’ll make us coffee.” She was hoping he would refuse, but he readily agreed.

They had coffee. He left in time for her to order a medium plain pizza with cheese in which she ate three-quarters and then made herself sick. Something she hadn’t done since she was a teenager and had fallen in love with Sir Walter Scott of Waverly fame. She tested transcendentalism in hopes of eventually uniting with her writing icon which sent her parents running back to their Catholic faith.

She was looking at him now wondering what and who a ‘nice guy,’ really was and if he had married someone else and was tripping over kids and wondering what happened to her.

“Do you think we should start a relationship?” he asked.

“What?” She shook her head; she wondered if she had been falling asleep.

“I spoke to Dr. Monroe about the two of us, and he said an older woman (not too much older, mind you) might be a good experience for me.”

“An experience.” She said, deadpan and weary.

“You never know,” he said shyly and smiled, “it might last.”

She took a deep breath, letting herself for a moment breathe in his perceived freedom and open minded aura and felt within her throat and lungs the sharp pain deception.

“’Nice guy,’ young man, is not an oxymoron. I’m too old to be your girlfriend is not an oxymoron, and I’m not going back to that shrink who agrees with you that everyone on has a commodity status…”

“No, that’s not what I mean. I didn’t…”

“You didn’t ask me out for a cup of coffee so that you could lose your virginity, I know. You are so predictable you know, despite being told all your life that you are unique.

“So is Sir Walter Scott,” he said hotly.

“No, we just haven’t come up with anything original since. We’ve only managed to redefine words, concepts, and morals to appease our insecurities. We’ve done it until we’ve come up with a human like you, who believes there is no such thing as an oxymoron. You don’t, you know, you don’t even know enough to be honestly self-deprecating.”

He sat and stared at her for a moment. She could see he was struggling. He stood, “Well, I’ll just take care of this bill and when you feel like you can speak to me with some respect, let me know.”

She gave him no reply while he hesitated and then left. She ordered another strong coffee and felt cold. Perhaps a priest would understand her love for a dead novelist and poet better than a psychologist. Sipping her coffee and watching the fourth-grade teacher walk away.