How the house felt after the kids left for summer camp

Outside it was warm and the lupine stalks were bending down, some on their faces like mollusks gumming the ground but not making it very far, frozen mid-suck.

The dog smelled bad, a telltale bad like she’d rubbed herself in shit or the dead, or both: and it reminded me of what our captain said on the whale watching boat about wolves, you can smell one before you see it, they stink so bad.

The dog had eaten out of the litter box again but this time, she’d thrown up on the inside of the plastic cone she’s still wearing from surgery and it was stuck there, yellow and gloppy, and reminded me of what it’s like to care for an infant cleaning her off, how dependent they are, they really need you.

Taking the time to finally set up the record player in Lily’s room with her gone for camp now and dwelling there, looking at her things. All the gracelessness and beauty of growing up. Then later, finding the ring she bought for me in Mexico, I thought I’d lost. And wondering if it was a small sign of something inexplicable, this love for a child. How Charlotte expressed that for Lily in the one-page memoir she wrote for her school project—and called it “Changes,” describing the night she woke up and Lily had gone to the hospital, and what that felt like. And how she uses Lily’s name for her iPhone passcode, breaking it down into digits: 5159. “Lily.”

How I lay in bed with Dawn in the morning thinking our lives are so sweet right now, we have nothing to worry about. Though my work contract is ending soon, I’m taking the month of August off and my old job is asking me back, as if it was all meant to be.

The caterpillar on the side table by my chaise lounge out back, how it wiggles like a tiny finger with a fur coat, with a face on the tip. And reaches tentatively, to climb the metal rail beneath my arm but can’t. And winds its way around the edge of the table repeating the same task as though it’s forgotten, or thinks this time it can make the leap, to climb to my seat. How writing (or any leap of faith) can feel that way: like setting off from the comfort of the known into a space with no ceiling or floor, just belief in the unknowing. How frail that belief can feel. And yet it decides everything for us, for however much space we choose to cross in our lifetimes.

How the dog and cat sit looking at our new neighbors, as if they’re a threat to us: and I feel that way, too.

The fact that with no fences between us, our pets can roam free range across their back yard, the dog likely peeing and sometimes crapping: the cat, hunting and sometimes beheading small mammals. How they squeak like bath toys when they’re caught, and I have to intervene.

The neighbor kids are toddlers with imaginary dialogues and cartoon voices, and the dad is bent over a squealing power tool that stops just long enough you can imagine how quiet it would be without the sound, before resuming. The power tool is a beast pausing to catch its breath, to reload. It is a shrill, dry sound of blade cutting against rock. The tool shrieks and stops for a time, and far away a dog barks, a tree limb snaps, the dog stirs from her spot beneath the bush and you can hear the sound of bird song once more: the long collapse of day in rueful, joyous tones. The kids are laughing and rolling on a plastic moving thing, you can tell by the sound of the wheels lurching against the pavement, sometimes snagging, sometimes getting stuck. It is the sound of growing up in small increments and frames. The kids are out with their plastic shovels making it a play thing, beside dad and his power tool: like somehow they can all be together and coexist like that in a joyful, family balance. And it makes me miss my own.

Staying out back on the chaise lounge until the tops of the tall trees turn gold, the time when the sky turns pink. Playing old Fleetwood Mac and reminiscing about the Rosé we used to buy in France, the one that only cost 10 French Francs for five liters and came in plastic cubes with grape patterns; filling them like growlers at the local wine shop.

I stayed up until the bats came out and the clouds circled in, and put the patio pillows under the eaves in case it rained. The wind kicked up and the leaves sounded like applause and soon, I knew, it would be getting dark. Perhaps it was just the knowledge of it turning that made me feel cold.

That sense when the kids are gone that I can still hear them upstairs, a phantom nerve feeling like an amputee’s, the same as when Dawn and I would be away on a date but still feel their presence in the back seat: how much our kids define us, and help us reconcile our real, selfish selves: and maybe teach us how to be more than ourselves in the process, to leave ourselves behind.

 

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Hero’s pose

We waited and waited but it didn’t seem like the marine layer would ever burn off. Lily had a date with a boy we hadn’t met named Colin, and I texted her to come outside so we could talk. And then I interrogated her about how she knew him, his precise age, what she liked about him. That was about it. I was happy for her, and said your hair looks nice (she’d curled the ends). And after she went inside I returned to my book, hoping it would be good for her.

It’s true what my friend Miriam says about the book: a real page-turner, but leaves an uneasy feeling, how it taps into some voyeuristic drive. The protagonist is a chronic cutter, it actually describes that, a kind of sensation that makes my insides turn. How did I go a good 40 years of my life unaware of this? How is it in our culture, where we live, that Lily’s friend group is doing that? And we have to be thoughtful about dispensing razors when she wants to shave, a kind of checkout process. Or consider the ethics of disclosing to friends’ parents when Lily shares information that’s distressing about their kids. Like how the neighbor boy stabbed himself in the thigh but missed. And if that’s even true, or exaggerated. Better to stay out of it.

But Charlotte is still a kid she says (I asked for how long, and she said 18), and just got exposed to Gary Numan, the song Cars, for her fifth grade concert. Before performing each song one of the kids would recite a write-up about the song: the year it came out, where the artists were from, fun facts. Like Cars: I didn’t know Numan had Aspergers, or that the song was meant to convey some insulated sense of safety that technology represented, by way of the car: a place to retreat, to hide.

Rain was expected so I cut the grass, the first time I’d done so in a good four years. We’d let the yard guys go to cut back on our expenses, and it took me some time to remember the inner-workings of the tractor. But when I got back on it I felt in control and powerful, sweeping back and forth across the lawn, back and forth until it was smooth and clean, and I’d collected every last blade.

I’d never had the impulse to cut, never wanted to learn about it even. But it provided a release that was addictive, maybe a kind of distraction from other pain the cutter couldn’t process. There was only one person I’d known who did that: he was the best friend of a girlfriend’s brother, both of them in the Marines, barely 21. He was sitting down by the river underneath a tree and waved us down to show us something, and by the way he held it in his hand I assumed he’d found a baby bird, he held it so tenderly: but instead it was his thumb, wrapped in gauze. I think we all knew that was bad, there was something worrisome about that, but it was too late for him. I’d never been to a 21-gun salute but that’s what they gave him, a couple weeks later.

So what’s wrong with me that I’m engrossed in this book about someone else’s pain?

Charlotte wanted to watch Beat It she said (another song she’d been exposed to), but I started with Billie Jean instead, as she hadn’t seen that. And here it was: a memory so vivid from when I was her age, would it resonate? But when I glanced over she was engrossed, like inside the screen watching him mouth the words, watching him spin and jerk his hips. Could we listen to Michael Jackson now and separate what happened to him afterwards, from this moment in time? How he was so clearly at the top of where he was going, right there and then.

It’s been a strange year of change: the kind of change you don’t expect and the kind you think should come, but doesn’t. The repetition of days and sing-song quality when it feels like I’m caught in an eddy, waiting for something to happen. I sometimes think about how I must appear to others, the ones who matter most. I don’t take a lot of time in the mirror. I do my 50 push-ups and sometimes more, finish with downward dog or hero’s pose. And then I have to consider that, whether it really is.

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The long descent through the quarry

I got down on my hands and knees in the shower with a toothbrush and some baking soda paste. The web site said if the drain had a musty smell that was mold, but if it was more like a rotten egg smell, that was biofilm. After brushing for a while it went from mold to eggs and back again, so I dumped more baking soda in, a whole box full, then vinegar, glug by glug, until it formed a series of thick, gray-black bubbles that hung for a while before they popped.

Charlotte only talks about getting a new phone, what happened when she was on the phone, or other topics all relating back to phones.

Lily was having a down day so Dawn took her for a drive. There was the sound of crying or laughter in the house somewhere, someone talking to someone on the phone, or a recording of someone talking that might have been live or replay.

The dog had a cone on her head from the surgery and leaned against my ankle so the plastic on the cone bent and her chest rose as she dreamt. And as she did, I thought back to a dream where I imagined myself flying and how it felt on the edge as I dropped down and lifted up, then sailed over a wide body of water.

Outside the fox glove blooms were all bent over sad, like they knew it was time to go: some yellowing with blooms on the ground like deflated balloons. The party was over for spring, and with summer here now, each day we’d lose a little more light.

I played my music on my laptop, but this time it was all native, local files: no cloud-based stuff. And how intimate it felt, the knowledge that these were all local files. How we’d been reduced to that, the new warmth in digital media, “local.” Like I had more control over what I played.

I thought back to a time I could remember feeling more, being actually thrilled, even animated, by the sound of music, and how sweet it felt. And the newfound distance from that, that filled other parts of me with a space that was more empty than it was open, or something you would call deep. A descent down the quarry with the hopes of something more meaningful at the bottom.

At the airport bar I watched two fighters on the screen, one 25, the other 39, wanting badly for the older guy to win but knowing he didn’t stand a chance.

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Fifty-fifty clown

The crow’s wings are magician hands

that flap and disappear

through the swirl of animal

souls and the gray marine layer

of morning.

The lake is gray too,

ribbed by a breeze

or by paddle boats,

the same each day

though changing.

The solace of anglers

on the edge of the dock:

one with a catch

that plip plops from the water

onto the deck,

goes silent, then still.

And I realize that I

have gone gray

on the insides too,

a color that illuminates

others.


Title taken from the Cocteau Twins song, 1990.

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Broken clouds

Charlotte starts therapy today at the same time as Lily, which means by late afternoon the three of us will each be talking to different counselors in separate rooms, with Dawn waiting in the lobby with her book.

It’s afternoon already in Germany, and Eberhard is coming to take my mom to an airport hotel in Frankfurt where they’ll probably make a mini vacation out of it, overdoing it a bit, sending me bad photos later. In the morning mom will get on a plane for Seattle and land by noon, and I’ll get her at SeaTac then go to a bar in Issaquah where we’ll celebrate the start of our visit, and try to stay up as late as she can, probably 7.

My work contract now ends in July, and because we have family trips planned for August that means the soonest I’ll start work again is September. I’ll go to Las Vegas for a conference in a couple weeks and again, in July—likely the last times this summer I’ll need pressed shirts.

Outside, the cottonwood blooms have stopped and for the past couple weeks I’d sit out with my beer watching them fall, dubbing it ‘springtime snow.’ I tried to write a poem about the pattern they make going across the sun, linking it to a number of seemingly random pursuits (like blogging, or life) but it didn’t pan out.

The house to the east of us was vacant for four years, sold to auction with the intent of a tear-down followed by three new houses, but that didn’t pan out either, so the owners have finally resigned themselves to moving in to the existing house, and now they park their cars out back on the grass.

The grass had gotten so high that one day I spied an adult deer bedding down in it at dusk, and tried to capture the way she folded her legs in on herself and settled in, how the filtered sun through the trees made her face look calm and glow in the golden light. I wanted to feel that way, too.

A low is setting up shop off the coast from Alaska and we need to close the windows at night, or it will get cold. The fox glove are in full bloom and I’m starting to sleep in until 6. The other house to the north appears vacant now, a rental, so we worry what will come of the new residents.

We stopped our lawn service but extended them by one month, agreeing to pay cash vs. doing a contract and got the tractor serviced, followed by the generator, for fall.

Now I sit with my back to the large pine between our house and the new neighbors, the tree we’ll need to take out because it’s making the concrete patio buckle, disturbing the balance of the hot tub. And because we don’t have a fence between us and the neighbors I now have to be discreet about my manly habits: the belching, bottle-throwing, peeing on the shrubs or the side of the shed. All our excess. All our phones, tablets, apps, and counselors…and how badly I just want to head out to the woods and forget.

 

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Stopping to pay the toll on the road to self

At times there seemed to be so much beauty I couldn’t convey it, and at other times it evaded me for weeks or for months, for what seemed like forever. I sensed a link between my seeing the beauty and feeling inspired to write, and a form of depression that either prevented me from seeing it or became the only output when I could not.

There was the pattern of wrinkles on my skin that had changed where my thumbs bent. The sound of birds singing mixed with a jazz trumpet near dusk, and the calm of knowing I didn’t need to be anywhere. The ticking of an old clock, or the taste of grilled chicken. The smell of charcoals when they catch and the sense the grass would stay green for weeks, then the knowledge that even after it goes brown, it would green up again when the rains return come fall.

That all this around us will continue well beyond us, and maybe we will, too. That we might be relieved of this round of living with another go. That most things you can just burn and return to the ground, and in most cases it’s good for the soil. That one night out of the month the sky is devoid of any moon, but only 30 days later it’s full again. That kids leave the house one day (in theory) and return, if only to do the laundry or for holidays or to impress their friends. That no matter how bad we fuck over nature it seems to come back again if only we get out of the way and let it be.

I had the sense that something was wrong with me, and had been for a long time, but when I wrote and relaxed into the world the world relaxed into me and I was spared of myself, had even elevated to more of myself, to something more than what I could have imagined, as more a rendering than a physical form. An abstraction, that’s often more appealing than the actual account. The hope and belief in a soul that endures us well beyond us, that you could call self, that requires some paying attention to notice, and perhaps the occasional toll.

 

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Moss petting in Portland

I went back to Portland, and it was the same as it always was. We got behind the quadriplegic at the neighborhood wine take out and the clerk put her bottles on the back of her buggy in a basket with a fake daisy. In the mornings we took the cloudy walk through the nearby park looking for the barred owl. She had a nest in a dead tree with a bunch of young. Loren looked up spirit guides to see what the owl meant, and it was a sign of breaking old habits, of finding new paths. But the owl was nowhere to be seen. Because Loren’s brother was up from San Francisco we went to the strip bar, this time The Devil’s Point, on Foster. They said if you sit at the stage you have to tip. I had no cash but agreed to buy drinks. Loren and Alan dropped ones at the end of each song and the dancers scooped them up and traded them in for bigger bills and then people asked for singles which the bartender traded for 20’s, and it all just recirculated like that. When I returned to our table one of the dancers was sitting in Alan’s seat, right next to me. She asked me for my name! We made small talk but I couldn’t hear her so well I explained, it was my bad ear. I had to lean in. Her name was Trixie, but even she didn’t believe it. There wasn’t so much to talk about. I had to struggle for topics, and was supportive without being weird, that was my goal. I’m new to strip bars and didn’t understand she was trying to get me to buy a lap dance (I thought she just wanted to talk). I asked what year she was born but she didn’t answer, I guess that was a Forbidden Topic. She said well, I have to freshen up now. “Freshen up,” I thought! On the street we decided we had one more stop, still. There was room for us all at the bar so I got down on the floor and did 40 push-ups. I normally do 50, but all I had in me was 40. One of the servers came around the corner and almost tripped over me, I could see his sneakers but held my ground, and didn’t flinch.

Loren and I fell asleep on the couch to ambient records and low light. I brushed my teeth and put my night guard in, caught myself in the mirror and thought man, you look pathetic. In the morning we walked down to the park and this time the owls were out, two of them. People were starting to gather with their cameras and kids and dogs, pointing. The owls liked it, they knew they were on camera. One kept eyeing me with its dark sockets, and I stared at it so long that when I closed my eyes, I still saw its face.

It was a good three-hour drive home, through the clouds and rain. I thought, if I live to be the same age as my father-in-law or step-dad, that means I’ve only got about 20 more Christmases in me. But I was going home, and glad. I stopped at a McDonalds for a Big Mac but it was hard to eat with one hand, and only made me hungrier when I was done. At home it was raining and felt like stew weather, so I made a beef carbonnade with Belgian beer and turned the heat on. Sometimes it felt like I’d lived forever. Like there was so much already, why did I need more?

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