In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I grew up on a farm in the Mahoning Valley of northeastern Ohio. Our house was at the bottom of a small hill. Each morning in summer, my father and I would walk up the hill together into the rising sun, and each night we would walk back down toward the sunset, looking forward to a shower, some lemonade or ice cream, and a little sit-down time before bed. The sun would paint the western sky as we matched strides, speculating on the next day’s weather and discussing what needed to be done.
I felt in touch then with the rhythms of the land and the quality of the air. I was conscious of belonging to something, of having roots in that place, and I was amazed at my sensitivity to subtle changes in the weather. My father and I would often comment that it felt like rain, and plan accordingly as we walked down the hill under a clear sky toward a cloudless sunset. Our plans were seldom in vain.
It’s snowing when I arrive at the clinic for work at 7:30 A.M. I’m the first one here. Inside, I push the waiting-room thermostat to eighty and switch on the fluorescent lights. I fix coffee in the forty-cup urn and unlock the door for the early arrivals, who are grateful to be out of the cold.
Mr. White is here. Old and frail and stooped by arthritis, he’s a regular at the clinic. He runs a hand over his cottony hair. I hand him a wad of Kleenex for his running eyes and nose. He has no specific complaint, only needs a place to be after leaving the shelter. I bring everyone coffee before I have my own.
I give out numbers, but they don’t mean much: bleeding, screaming, groaning, or vomiting patients are seen before the rest, as soon as a doctor is available.
By nine o’clock, the phones have begun jangling. I put every call on hold and answer them in order. The waiting room fills up, and I ask Mr. White to give his chair to a woman holding a wailing baby. He takes up a position against the wall, near the heater. A teenager brought in by a school security guard is having an asthma attack. An obese woman complains that she’s broken her ankle. The phone rings. Patients inquire about their turns. Two women yell at each other in back of the room; a father slaps a teenager; babies scream.
At noon the doctors leave for lunch. Trying to ignore the phones, I get out my lunch, pour my third cup of coffee from the machine, and invite Mr. White to sit in the chair near my desk; he’s been standing an hour. I share my sandwich with him. He nibbles daintily with his few teeth.
The afternoon is even more frantic: a scorched arm, a nosebleed, a drug-overdose victim carried in by scared friends, a hemorrhaging girl who’s attempted an abortion on herself. Fewer than half the waiting patients have been called at closing time. I tell the remaining group they can see a doctor tomorrow. Most leave quietly, knowing the routine.
When the last doctor departs, I turn off the lights. Mr. White is still here. He’ll never get to the shelter in this blizzard unless I drive him, and it’s miles out of my way. I’m tempted to let him spend the night, but I know I can’t.
So at the end of the day, we walk to my car, Mr. White and I.
Los Angeles, California
I am pushing sixty, with arms like I remember my grandmother having. I have a husband who is older than I am; I have a lover who is younger. I float on his cock in the Jacuzzi, wondering at this gift from the gods, at the ease with which I have taken off my clothes. “I love your arse,” he says. Has anyone ever said such a thing to me? I smooth the wet hairs on his chest, then run my tongue over his nipple. I haven’t felt this safe since I was five and lay on my father’s chest.
Later, when the sun is going down and I’m alone, I sit on the edge of the bed and hug my knees. “Our Father who art heaven, our Mother who art earth,” I pray, “hallowed be Thy names.” I pause, then continue. “I know what I have done is wrong, maybe not in all cultures, but at least in this one. I have sinned.”
Is this the penalty, this sadness that I feel? Or is it part of the paradox? Is he a gift from the gods, or should I have finished my days never having experienced this?
The end of the day for my children, when we’ve come in from our flashlight walk and are putting on pj’s, is the beginning of the day for my friend who works the overnight shift at the zoo. When my kids are kissing me goodnight, they often remind me that their aunts and uncles who live in Kyoto, Japan, are just starting to boil water for their morning tea. The more I think about it, the more I see that time is an artificial concept.
This April the kids asked me why everyone set their clocks ahead one hour and then pretended it was an hour later. I wanted to tell them it’s just pretend, a make-believe game we all play, except people in Arizona.
My kids are fascinated to think that some people work all night while we sleep, that the sun has just set in Japan when our day begins. We shine a flashlight on our globe and turn the globe slowly, and it becomes very clear that the day has no end.
It’s late. Your day ended hours ago. Still, there is another load of laundry in the basement and the evening dishes to wash before I can think of relaxing. I’m going now to pick up today’s paper from the living-room floor, the mail from the dining-room table, the baby’s toys from around the house, and the stray bits of food from around the dogs’ dishes. Even they have ended their day; one is asleep at the foot of the bed, the other nestled up against you.
I check my mental task list. I should write those notes that I’ve been putting off for weeks. I should take a chicken out for tomorrow’s dinner. I should write a check for the phone bill. I might get to these things tonight.
But first I peek at Annie in her crib. Her day ended with a crying jag and my impatient admonition: “Daddy is trying to sleep, Annie. Be quiet. Relax.” I take out her journal to write an entry for the day: Her play with the dogs and the toys. Her refusal to eat carrots. What she wore and whom she saw. How I’ll miss her.
The doctor says I need more rest, but I want life to be the same as it was for us. (Of course, I’d like my cancer to be gone, but that’s a dream.) For the most part, my days are the same — except now, between loads of laundry and dishes, between papers and bills and keeping Annie’s journal, I stop. I look at you asleep and fall in love again. I sit down and write you a love letter each night.
Now I go in and kiss Annie again. You and she will have a lot of pain to get through together. I hope her journal helps. I check on the cats. Then I turn out the lights and slip into bed beside you and wait for the dogs to change position to accommodate me. I say my prayers and ask God to be good to you and Annie, to be swift with me, if this must be, and to help release me from my anger. I say, “I love you, babe,” and you grumble in return, as you always do. And I close my eyes and hope I’ll dream of running and laughing.
The novelist Tim McLaurin says he expects the climate of heaven to be “like Carolina between six and eight in the morning,” and so do I. Still, I have a special place in my heart for that time near dusk on my Piedmont farm, when the light is changing moment to moment and time seems to fold in on itself and breathe. I hear the mourning doves, watch a buzzard’s last flight of the day, stop to admire the yellow cat asleep under the vines, slowly put away the garden tools. My last reward is the first barred owl’s call: “Who cooks?” she asks. “Who cooks, who cooks for you all?”
My old friend Charles loved the end of the day. He told me so once after we’d been drinking Scotch at a bar in town. I was about to leave when Charles stood up as if to make a speech and said, “All that I require of life is a west-facing window to drink the sun down. It has been my habit for so long that I don’t believe it could happen without me.” Then he ordered another Scotch.
At light’s end, I linger at the doorway, waiting for something. In this long moment, the stars arrive, and fireflies appear in the mist between me and the fruit trees. I stand there. Just a few more minutes. Just a few more minutes outside.
Silk Hope, North Carolina
When I was a kid, my house was dirty and messy. We ate at diners a lot because Mom didn’t like to cook. When we ate at home, she would just open a can of corn and put it on a plate, or fix TV dinners or cereal. The TV was always on and, unlike my friends, I was allowed to stay up watching it as late as I liked. It was even fine if I fell asleep with my clothes on and wore them to school again the next day.
My parents had lives of their own. But when I was younger, in the years before I could stay up watching TV, there was one special thing that they did every night before I fell asleep: they would come in with a little white leather book with gold printing on it, and they would read Hebrew words from it until I was able to memorize them. I wanted to know what the words meant. It was the Shema, they said, a prayer to say at the end of the day to thank God for the day that had passed and to ask Him to protect me while I slept. I liked the idea and made it a point to say the Shema every night.
Today I’m not sure what I believe about God, but when I feel scared or alone or weak, that simple prayer comes to mind, like an ancient telegram from ancestors who cared.
New Haven, Connecticut
My husband and I had been on the island of Flores, in eastern Indonesia, for a week. One day, after breakfast, we set out on the ten-kilometer walk to the village of Ngella. Though far from Bali and other big tourist destinations, Ngella attracted an irregular trickle of Western visitors because of its beautiful and distinctive weavings.
As we entered the village, we were quickly surrounded by smiling, laughing women of all ages and ushered into a low hut. Weavings were fetched from houses throughout the village until there was no room left inside the hut to sit, and sarongs and shawls were handed in through the window. We selected one rust brown shawl — a modern pictorial piece, woven for Westerners — and settled on a price of twenty thousand rupees.
When we declined to buy anything else, we were led to the raised bamboo porch of another house, where an elegant woman with graying black hair graciously served us a lunch of rice, spicy cooked beans, and sardine-sized fish fried to a crisp. Our hostess was kind and motherly, and I liked her.
After lunch, more shawls and sarongs were brought and we felt obliged to buy another. I liked one with an abstract floral design in warm shades of indigo, orange, and brown, but our hostess would take no less than thirty thousand rupees for it — more than we had left. After an awkward pause in the bargaining, another woman approached with an older sarong of the same pattern, one that she had been wearing. It was not unusual to buy a weaving that wasn’t new, but this one was still warm from the body that had taken it off! It had a few small holes near the bottom and felt as soft and pliant as a well-worn T-shirt. We quickly settled on a price of fifteen thousand rupees.
Afterward, our hostess demonstrated her primitive backstrap loom. Then, surprisingly, she offered to let me try. The women stood around, laughing and cheering at my uncoordinated attempts.
Later, after the sun had fallen low on the horizon and the women had wandered back to their houses to begin preparing the evening meal, we relaxed comfortably on the porch, eager to discover more about this place. A few women who apparently had just arrived back in the village came and greeted our hostess in Indonesian:
“Sudah beli?” (“Did they already buy?”)
“Beli” (“Yes”), our hostess answered.
“Ibu sudah menenun?” (“Did the woman already weave?”)
The women smiled wanly at us and left as quickly as they had come. They had assumed that we spoke no Indonesian. We realized then that our enjoyable afternoon had been carefully choreographed. We had participated in the ritual exchange of Western money for a moment of exotic otherness, and now we were overstaying our welcome.
I am cooking dinner and watching TV while my stepchildren are off in their rooms, also watching TV or doing homework. There are four of us and we have five TVs.
The afternoon talk shows come on after the soaps, and I grow angry at the asinine comments and talk back to the TV. I reach into the refrigerator for a beer and cover the top with a dish towel to disguise the pop when I open it. By the third set of commercials I’m on a roll and open another.
When my stepdaughter bops down the stairs to ask what’s for dinner, I slide my can behind the toaster, angry that she is invading my space. We talk as if nothing is wrong, but my annoyance is apparent. She pretends not to notice, then leaves. I finish my beer as she slams her bedroom door.
The dogs cry. “Daddy’s home,” I tell them. They greet my husband with howls, tails wagging. A six-pack under his arm, he slips me a quick kiss and plops on a stool.
I talk nonstop for the next twenty minutes. Drinking a beer, my husband stares silently at me. Figuring it’s now officially happy hour, I publicly reach for my “first” drink.
My stepson enters the kitchen and greets my husband with a high five. I feel angry, unappreciated, and isolated. Dinner is served. Our kitchen is small; the three of them eat at the table, and I pull over a stool and eat from the counter. We settle in with our twelve-inch portable just as the network news begins.
Now, four years later, I am divorced. I live alone with one of the dogs. I have been sober for three years. My ex and I occasionally talk on the phone. My stepchildren are off in college. My new perspective on life seems to leave them feeling isolated and angry.
Tonight I came home to a quiet house and didn’t turn on the TV. I rarely do anymore — I find the silence comforting. I did, however, feel the need to talk. So I picked up the phone to call my stepdaughter, with whom I haven’t spoken in more than a year. But I breathed a sigh of relief when she didn’t answer. I didn’t know what to say.
Like many dutiful daughters in the fifties, I was initiated into the Sacred Order of the Kitchen. At the very heart of the order was washing dishes. “Young lady, you may not be excused until the dishes are done” was the principal tyranny of my young life. I ended every day elbow deep in greasy water.
I’ve always lived in venerable, old apartment buildings, long on stairs, architectural detail, and space, but short on modern conveniences. I never had a dishwasher until I moved into a condo last spring. There it was, tucked neatly under the kitchen counter, ready to serve. I loaded the dishes directly from the boxes. When I returned later, I found the drain clogged and the dishwasher filled with standing water.
There were, however, other marvels: the washer and dryer, and central air conditioning. For weeks I did tiny loads of laundry at odd hours. On summer nights, I bundled up under layers of winter blankets and sank into air-conditioned oblivion.
After my first electric bill revealed my gluttonous appetite for kilowatts, I followed the energy-conservation route out of sheer necessity. Since then I’ve been on an energy diet, turning on the air conditioning only when the temperature soars above ninety degrees, and washing large loads in cold water.
On Mother’s Day, 1994 (which was to be my mother’s last before she died, her mind wrecked by Alzheimer’s), the Sacred Order of the Kitchen gathered at my sister’s house. After dessert, Mom instinctively sprang up from the table and announced, “I’ll do the dishes, girls.” At that moment, the aching confusion of Alzheimer’s was suspended. She needed help everywhere but in the kitchen.
More than a year has passed. My dishwasher is still not fixed. Washing the dishes in the evening is a steadying daily ritual, reminding me who I am, reminding me that we are all bound by dirty dishes and dirty laundry.
Judith L. Day
There is a certain slant of light on winter afternoons, when darkness comes early. Where I live there are no electric lights outside to counter the heavy gray falling over everything. It’s the hour when kids get cranky and parents switch on Sesame Street; but my kids are grown and live elsewhere. Sometimes I turn on the radio just to hear another voice, but often the news stories of people being killed only amplify my sense of the dark pressing in on me.
Sometimes I just give in, turn off all the lights, and lie down on the couch; stare straight into the face of that mean sky, watch the light bleed out of it, and feel how darkness wants me then, how it comes in for the kill. Not even the stars are out for comfort. There is no one here but me, and I am not enough.
As a child, I was certain my grade-school teachers couldn’t be real people. There were little things that gave them away: the way Miss Richardson rocked back and forth while she read the Twenty-third Psalm; the forest of exotic plants Miss Wooden kept on top of the piano, full of insects she fed. Miss Lula, who came once a week to teach us to sing, had a huge space between her teeth and a strangely colored lock of hair that fell over her face like a quail’s head feather. Miss Sturmburg also came weekly, to teach us to draw. Her hand shook constantly, yet her circles were always perfect and her lines straight.
Most revealing of all was the fact that, no matter how early I got to school or how late I stayed, they were always there. Not once did I see one come or go. But they couldn’t live there, I knew — there were no beds or TVs.
Each classroom had an enormous closet — a vault of crayons, scissors, colored paper, gallon jars of tasty paste, and sweet-smelling mimeograph machines. One day, I got to school so early I had to wait for the janitor to let me in when he arrived. As I entered my classroom, I saw the closet door open and Miss Wooden emerge. That was it! At the end of the day, after all the kids had gone home, they simply backed into the closet, shut the door, and turned themselves off for the night.
We’d bought eleven acres, my new husband and I, optimistic that this would be our life, even though it was my second marriage, and his third. It was a grand ambition. My children, ages eight to thirteen — two girls with a boy wedged between — would enjoy a rural life. We would have chickens for fresh eggs and a pasture to raise beef. His young son, the same age as my eldest, would be there, too.
Each year, at the summer solstice, as the sun set at a break in the line of trees that surrounded the pasture, I would take a picture. I have ten of those pictures now — ten solstices, marking ten years of a life.
Year one: We have begun the house and moved in. The interior work isn’t done, but we love having our own place. The only bathroom has no door yet, but the huge, barnlike structure will someday contain everything that each of us wants. The picture I’ve taken of the sunset isn’t sharp, since I’m using a point-and-shoot camera, the only kind I can afford.
Year two: We have four bedrooms and two bathrooms. The windows and doors need trim, but the place is looking nice, even with no carpet yet. We are putting most of our money into the construction company we have just started. Our household includes two cats, sixteen chickens, two Great Danes, and three steers. My husband works ten-hour days. The picture of the summer solstice, taken a little late, shows only the afterglow of the sun beneath the horizon. I am still using the cheap camera.
Year three: We have carpet and I have a new camera. The construction company is doing great. There’s an extra car in the driveway — a birthday present to my sixteen-year-old daughter. My stepson is here, with his motorcycle. I’m not too pleased, but I must try to understand. One of the cats has run away, the other has had kittens, and I suspect that the female Great Dane is pregnant. I can barely make out the solstice picture, which I have taken through the hummingbird feeder. What was I thinking?
Year four: We have a huge barbecue at the house for the whole construction crew, who don’t leave until all the liquor is gone. Afterward, my husband and I have our first serious argument, and I will sleep on the couch. His son left a week ago, saying he missed his real mother. My seventeen-year-old spends her time in her bedroom behind a locked door. The doors and windows still have no trim. In the picture, the setting sun radiates colorful lines: I’ve used a sparkle filter.
Year five: I take the picture the day after the solstice. We’ve just gotten back from San Jose, where we fought a child-support battle with my husband’s first wife; the judgment will take four years to pay off. My elder daughter wants to go to Bible college in Los Angeles. Another child has turned sixteen, and there is another car in the driveway. We have computerized the business. We still have no windowsills.
Year six: I almost forget to take the picture, but the kids remind me. In December, my husband decided to extend the house by forty feet so we could have a real office, a master suite, a playroom, and two more bathrooms. My daughter has moved to Los Angeles. My stepson is back, working on the crew, and he has wrecked two of our new trucks. The chickens are gone and we are down to three cats (from a high of twelve). The steers are gone, too, and the pasture grass is long and lush.
Year seven: In February, my husband fell and hurt his knees. He still wears the tools, but is drinking a lot. My youngest is now fifteen and will soon be gone. My eldest is still in Los Angeles, saving souls, and my son will soon go on to college a thousand miles away. Interest rates have almost halted business. Our crew consists of my husband and his son. I’m thinking that we will have to sell the house. The solstice picture is nothing special, even though I’ve been alone for a week.
Year eight: My husband has gone to Alaska, and I’m crying a lot. The house is up for sale, like every other house in these parts. I know in my heart it won’t sell. When I speak to him on the phone, it’s like he’s in a different world. (I can’t find the picture for this year; I’m not sure I took one.)
Year nine: This solstice picture is taken over a glass of wine. I’ve passed the real-estate exam and the house has sold. (The sale will fall through next week.) My husband is now in California. My younger daughter and I rattle around in all that square footage with one cat. I’m not sure what she feels. In a month I will begin divorce proceedings.
Year ten: We are packed, having sold everything that could be sold. My last act is to go to the back deck and sit, camera in hand, waiting for the last solstice I’ll ever see here. I sit until the sun reaches the midpoint between the trees, then lift the camera to snap one last picture. And then I leave.
We’d taken the train into the city. Now it was near twilight, and we were on our way home. We were engrossed in the newspaper — T. in the front page and I in the comics. Occasionally I’d look up to see who got on and off. I took particular notice of a man wearing a seventies-style black jacket that looked like leather, but must have been Naugahyde. I went back to the comics.
“Psst. . . . Psst.”
I looked up. The Naugahyde man was staring right at me. I gave him a quizzical look that bordered on a warning. He turned his gaze to the window behind me, and I returned to my paper.
Annoyed, I challenged him with a glare. He pointed out the window behind my head, and I turned.
The sky was ablaze with crimson and orange, the buildings engulfed in the fiery colors, their windows like sparks and embers. The inferno was crisscrossed with jet trails of magenta, and lavender slowly seeped in.
The man in the Naugahyde jacket got off, and as the train left the station I crossed to his seat for a better view of the sunset. Looking back, I could see him on the platform, transfixed by the sky still.