Down stellar stream

The rain is hypnotic like the static on the black and white TV I used to fall asleep to growing up. it was my first digital-assisted relaxation, when the programming ended and the Star-Spangled Banner played, and then it all went to hissy snow. Maybe they played the Star-Spangled Banner because they really thought it would end, or it just seemed like the right thing to do, last call…

Because it’s spring, the rain feels good: it’s making flowers, turning things electric green. It’s not the toxic, soul-eating rain of the fall or winter. This rain feels wholesome, restorative.

There is so much hair on the floor from the dog’s spring shedding, it collects on my wool socks like a Jim Henson character. I cradle fetal style on the couch against a seam of hair that feels like a beard. Hair gets into my wine. You can gather it by the handfuls and throw it out, but what’s the point? The kids pull it off the dog like cotton candy.

Drops collect on the edges of the new leaves and slide off, making the leaves wag like dog ears. Everything outside is sighing or lapping in the rain. Our old clock chimes, and the last toll rings out the way a ripple might, gradually thinning until it disappears back into the same space it disturbed. It seems the rain has stopped too, and the calendar says the moon is full, but we probably won’t see it tonight.

I step outside on the stoop in my socks to smell it: moss hangs thick on the eves like cartoon eyebrows. Everything good that’s happened to me is already gone. Anything ahead is ambiguous, and unknown. I bought an Irish wool cap at a store in a town called Mauch Chunk and told the clerk I lost the last one I got in Skibberreen, have you ever heard of it? She nodded, but I think she lied. The night guard I wear in sleep makes my teeth stick out and mouth pucker up like Freddy Mercury’s, and I lie there thinking that anything’s possible if only I believed.

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Call me rapture

All those sweet, heady blooms of spring came back, and outside it was warm and had just rained, it felt clammy and moist, so I got a beer and a lawn chair and collapsed into both. Dawn accumulated three heads of cauliflower in the vegetable bin bigger than most human brains, so I cut them into florets and made the fabled curried cauliflower soup, and felt at once like my mental health had returned from a two-week stint. I sautéed an onion in olive oil with flour and curry, turmeric root, added some chicken broth, boiled it for 30 minutes and then hit it with the handheld mixer, added butter, let it cool. Even the kids liked it. I served it with croutons I made from a stale seeded baguette and tossed the rest outside for the birds. Our cat was sniffing around and so were two eagles, and I thought back to an exhibit on raptors I’d seen, how they crush the organs with their talons…and what a way to go like that, carried off to some witch’s castle, some stony nest high above the earth. We celebrated our 15-year wedding anniversary at an Italian restaurant in Redmond and pledged to do it properly when we could, next month. When I woke the next morning I was sad it was over, and remembered what I could from that time on my walk to the lake but then went back to thinking about work, got Charlotte off to school, decided this will be the day I don’t take a shower, felt good about being a contractor, found a recipe on my phone, the arugula they call rocket in the UK, wrote a post on my phone, decided I’ll call it rapture.

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Outside the frame

I made plans to see friends I hadn’t seen in about 30 years, since high school. I took a Lyft to the bar and sat in a table by the front, and sent one of them a text:

Pat fell for it, and called Steve: do you think he’s serious? It would have been better if there had been a woman by the window and you sat at the bar when we came in, he said.

Then Pat texted me our class graduation photo so we could reference people while talking about them, but the resolution was so bad, I couldn’t make any of them out when I stretched their faces. It was like my memory when I tried to zoom in, it squeezed to the sides.

We drank beer and talked about our kids. And each of us went back to high school, in different ways. How much did we have beyond that? How long could it sustain us?

They remarked that it seemed like any time they came over to my house, my dad and I were always fighting; he was yelling, or telling me to turn the music down. And I saw myself through the eyes of our daughter Charlotte, and wondered how much the command and control parenting style was working with her, how she saw me.

My counselor observed, there’s a lot of anger and disappointment when you talk about your dad. She thought I should confront him on some topics when I went back to visit, and I wanted to be a good patient, to prove I could.

I sent my dad a text that I was running early, and picked him up out front. We drove the country roads through Pennsylvania Dutch farmlands to a town called Leather Corners, a Dutch bar where they play bladder fiddles (aka ‘boom-bas’) alongside the jukebox with polka versions of songs like “Let’s Go,” by The Cars. You just beat the boom-ba on the floor and hit a cow bell with a stick, and there you go: music!

Dad and I sat near the edge of the bar, that formed a square around the bartender. Though it was afternoon with good sun out, it was dark inside and they had Fox News on. There was no way I could confront my dad about anything, here. It seemed like my childhood, that thing we once shared, was better left in the past.

I told my counselor that when my parents divorced, it felt like all my childhood memories got deleted. When I went back to the physical places, the apartment where I grew up or the park across the street, the memories came rushing back. I wanted any excuse I could to feel something, so I could write about it. The worst was when the days went by unused or unnoticed, and didn’t feel like days I’d lived. And they were piling up.

How does a memoirist write memoir when you can’t remember much? Looking at old photos, like the one from our graduating class, didn’t help. It actually made the memories harder to apprehend. No, childhood memory is more about the feeling. And if you can get to that, there may be a story hiding in the feelings, outside the frame. Memory is in the sense, not the words: in feelings of joy, hate, and fear…rarely caught on film.

My friends and I said goodbye, and I caught a Lyft to another bar before heading home. It used to be an Irish place called JP O’Malleys or something, and the last time I was there was 1998. I couldn’t remember any of it. I was the only one there and got the sense they wanted to close. Outside, it was warm enough I could walk but wasn’t sure I knew the way, or if it was safe. Places don’t remember you, and the sentiment goes only one way. We are all just passing through. Best to be kind to everyone you meet, if that’s how you want to be remembered.

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What was left

What was left in Charlotte’s bowl wasn’t worth saving. But I ate it on principle, so it wouldn’t go to waste. And there was an analogy in that, to going back to my hometown for our annual visit, gumming the edges of my childhood. The look of the sentimental, the look of ‘wist,’ that reeks of regret, scant life. It’s the look of an empty glass, a bowl of dead roses, what’s left.

I stank bad when we got on the plane, really bad. I felt swollen and fat with bad hair, and needed a shave. My feet stank, my arm pits stank, and my breath stank from airport beer and fish tacos, Baja sauce. I felt old and flabby like I needed a wash, but nothing I could do would make me feel clean.

We touched up from Newark and looked down on the canals like earth worms below, like brain segments, intestines. Baseball fields, seaports, ribbed water, tug boats. I had no sentiment for it. Lily sat next to me reading, bouncing her legs, chewing gum, wearing a beanie and headphones, happy. I looked at the drink card trying to decide what to get. And played back the days, a hierarchy of stops hurrying from place to place, trying to make up for lost time.

My mom’s 81-year-old brother Dave, a three-hour drive smack dab in the middle of the state, possibly the hardest ride to keep awake, even during the day. Dave’s blind poodle Casper, eyes red and zombie-like: better to get them sewn shut, the doctor said. Dave microwaving hot dogs for the four of us, butterflying them down the middle, offering three choices for dessert, whipped cream. And just like he did when I was a little boy, he gave my kids a 20 on the way out.

My other uncle Jim, my dad’s brother: alone in a trailer home near the state park where he once worked. Calling Jim to confirm our arrival time, the care with which he gave directions even though I told him I’ll use the navigator. Don’t deny men in our family their right to give directions. No navigator can be as precise, or loving in detail.

Jim’s trailer is a tribute to my grandparents with the poster board of my grandmother from her funeral still featured, a set of gloves and hats on the coffee table my grandfather wore as if they’d just been used. Jim says that men are more prone to getting sentimental with age, more emotional, and we all nod in agreement, and say no more on the subject.

I find the most recent photo with our family, wearing a shirt I still have though the photo must be several years old. The queer acknowledgment of time’s toll on us, how deep it cuts. Dropping my dad off at his house, and catching him in the rear view mirror as I pulled away. Going back to the apartment where I grew up and walking across the field where we kicked the soccer ball, feeling nothing: perhaps, at last, it’s time to move on.

Lily asked if we could go to the Starbucks on our last morning, and if I could drive around so she could see more of Allentown. I said this was one of the first alternative records I ever got, when I was about your age (“Gene Loves Jezebel”). She smiles politely, and I let it go at that.

When we’re back in Seattle, the kids go right to their rooms but I stay up with a beer and a candle, playing the classical radio station. I’ve reset the clocks and turned the heat back on, checked if any of the plants need watering.

In just a week away, spring has brought the leaves on with heavy rains and longer days. Our sheets smell musty from disuse, but I imagine the house is happy to have us home. There’s the sound of bath water running in the morning, and music from one of the kids’ rooms. So much left, I remind myself. Time to make plans for the day.





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Song for April, the draw down

How the sky draws down, this time of year, when it’s newly spring: there is no urgency to its ending, not like fall or winter: it is the start of the long days of haplessness, the spooling out of light, and all that comes with it. And here as I sit a storm front moves in, the warm and cool air doing a dance, a street fight, the clouds furrowed brows: how much like a storm it can feel to us on the insides, how much we are one with the season ourselves, bound by it, though we call it “disorder.” The only order’s nature’s order. It’s not clear why the sky draws down like that. I just sit and feel like I am one with it.

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Happiness is easy

Two weeks ago, we went to brunch at the local ale house and I tried to nap before going to the airport. In a moment of clarity, Lily deleted all the data on her phone and gave it to Charlotte, her sister. In the two weeks that passed, Charlotte broke that phone and dropped another one in the toilet. I’d never heard her cry like that, a bottom-of-your-soul cry. In a moment of retail therapy, Dawn, Lily and Charlotte bought two new XR’s for the price of one at the AT&T kiosk. Dawn explained how the promo works (you pay for the phone and they discount the cost back over 30 months), but it was too complicated and I didn’t care. Charlotte was pressuring me to get one too, so she could claim the free one. Then, all four of us would have the new XR’s and could whip them out in public.

Sometimes Dawn and I fantasized about packing up and moving away. Selling the house, traveling, a simpler life. But we were in our peak earning period and weren’t sure how much we needed, for how long, if we could still get work. It would remain a fantasy until we got the kids through school and out of the house.

Lily was feeling down so Dawn and I both slept in her room, and next door Charlotte had a friend over (Anna), of eastern European origin and small stature, who also has an XR. Because the XR is larger than most smartphones, it makes Anna look even smaller. They were still awake at 4 in the morning giggling each time I went to the door to tell them lights out, and I realized I should have taken their phones away but I wasn’t thinking right.

We all had strange dreams and replayed them in the morning, Lily, Dawn and me. Lily thought she’d passed through hell but realized even though it looked like heaven, it was still hell. There was a voice in black gauze following her, she said. We made plans for the day and I walked to the lake, then lay on my back looking at the sun coming through the trees, making strands of spider webs reflect in the air, the ‘silver lining.’ And I went back to my comfort and self-soothing music, a record called The Colour of Spring.

“Happiness is Easy,” and “Life’s What You Make It.” 

Though I looked older I still felt the same on the inside. My face had gotten rounder, flatter, more lines. Before, my face had sharp edges to it but now it looked like a raw egg splayed out in a pan. I had to regard it those rare times on FaceTime. FaceTime was like a confession I never made, having to look at myself in a small box. I looked like my dad and he’d always looked older to me, probably because he was my dad. I’m sure I aged him too, weighing him down like branches on a tree, making it stronger in places but closer to breaking too. Maybe that’s love (a form of dependency), swinging on each other’s arms, getting taller each year, the roots holding everything in place for when the wind blows and the heavy snows weigh us down.

In the dream my beard had gone solid white with no color left, and reminded me of that scene with Gandalf and the Balrog in the pit where Gandalf disappears for a time, for the battle of his life against that evil wizard, and returns whitened and elevated, reborn. I had to think that was possible for us still too.

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Real time

Probably the most comforting thing I could do was drink in bed. When I quit drinking I wrote a list of all the things I pledged I wouldn’t do when I started drinking again and one of the top 3 was drinking in bed. I rarely drank in bed, like once or twice a year. But when I did it was like smoking in bed, combining two favorite pleasures into one. I sat and watched the lawn guy cut our grass from the bedroom window, trying not to let him see me. I worked from home in my bedroom, the same place I slept. Mom thought that was a bad idea (no separation) and she was probably right—but there isn’t any separation. I watched him pick at something on the ground and talk to himself, mumble. Both Dawn and I wanted to quit our jobs, we were having a really hard time with the kids and it put a pall over everything. It followed us around, how depression and anxiety can. I took a long sip from my drink like I was playing the flute, blowing a bubble backwards. Self-soothing. Ginger had a fatty mass that needed removed, it would interfere with her walking. It would interfere with our wallets, too. Lily and I walked to the lake and said it felt like spring. She was getting to the bottom of it, what was ailing her. I felt considerably older. I felt exactly like my dad looked and he had just turned 70. I was just a few production models behind him, in likeness. There was no time to fix the flaws, they just got passed down and I was doing the same to my own in real time. Outside the first night frog croaked, and then a whole bunch followed suit. The sky softened and I sunk back and thought for a while, things are alright.

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