Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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She sits in the kitchen with coffee and a view of the soft rain. This is her early-morning time alone and always the best part of the day, before he awakens and she must adjust to his moods, his needs. This, her hour of resolve — not to do anything in particular, but only to bear on through the morning.
Last night, sleep unable to settle her, she heard him pacing out there in the living room by the firelight, could almost hear him hyperventilating, all excited by drink and recrimination, huffing about, especially agitated. Earlier he’d added another log to the fire, asking her if that wasn’t a line to a song: Put another log on the fire. Trying to engage her, take her to his manic place. And so proud that he had kept the wood dry in the green-waste bin — all this rain and no letup — but also berating himself for not having thought of it last year. Oh, the wet wood of winters past, he said, and they laughed at that. So like him to tout his good ideas and then assail himself for not having had them sooner.
The wet wood of winters past was never a line from any song, so he was on then about the dried lavender cuttings he’d used as kindling and nostalgic about fragrance and then right away ajump to something else, excited for the sparks of green in the flame from the pitchy log. Had she seen it? Yes, she’d seen it, and she knew just then that he would ask if she’d ever seen the rare green flash a sunset can make over the ocean, the path of his associations so familiar to her. And when he did ask, she told him no, she had never seen that, and he said he hadn’t either, as if they’d never had this conversation before, and then he was off again about the natural world, its beauty calling us, as in the night sky just last week, Jupiter in cahoots with the new moon. Cahoots, he said again, mouthing it, and she could tell he liked the word, as he had liked it a week ago, coming in after standing in the street and staring at the meet-up of Jupiter and the moon, the cahooting of heavenly bodies, she at the window, watching a car slow down and the people inside it regard him as if he were lost, an old fellow adrift from his memory and loose in the night, staring at stars — and right they were in thinking so, if they were thinking it.
Last night she should have gone to bed after his round of cahootings, but he stirred the logs and hugged her in one of his whiskey hugs and was on about fire and its metaphors, talking Shakespeare, as if he’d read the man, and when she called him on it, he claimed he’d committed a sonnet to heart in school, and his teacher, Mrs. Kostelanetz, had helped him understand it, and, oh, how he’d declaimed it in front of the class so that the other boys took to calling him Shakespeare, saying, Hey, Shakespeare, their assigned poems easier ones, familiar chestnuts from Ogden Nash and Edgar Guest. He would have traded his sonnet for one of those, but Mrs. Kostelanetz had encouraged him to stay with the real thing. Had he ever mentioned her, Mrs. K? She’d known he would ask this. Not waiting for an answer, he was straightaway into a Mrs. K story: She was off this time to visit a dying friend in the hospital, stopping first in the old wing where the florist and the gift shop were, and, this being a night of hard rain after days of it, no letup — a night like last night — the roof drain in the old hospital had clogged, and the roof had collapsed. Such a tragedy, he said, three injured for sure, his Mrs. K killed, and the whole school attending the funeral, himself in his father’s black suit that almost fit.
But she did go to bed at long last, leaving him to prod the fire. Lately this was his pattern: Pace for an hour, likely more. Fix another drink. Then come to bed and the longed-for oblivion of sleep, a few hours at best. Then awaken to berate himself, replaying his memories, mouthing whispered regrets to the dark or the early gray light behind the curtains. Then drowse again until the struggle into morning, groggy and coffee-desperate. Very on the manic side last night, talking like a child about the stars and moon, the green flash — enthusiasms that wane by morning and then, drink-fueled, return in the evening, when she’s weary and so in need of calm and silence, herbal tea and sympathy. Put another log on, and he himself flames up. Not sure she can endure this, his agitations getting worse now. Most women wouldn’t; she’s sure of that. Won’t take his pills. Irrational about so much and full of these . . . libertarian ideas, as if, having lived this long, he credits himself alone with his survival, thinks vitality is the same as being stubborn. Bravado masking fear. As simple as that? No, nothing’s simple. Foolishness and bombast, and when he realizes it, then comes the self-berating. If he were a teenager, he’d be cutting his arms. She didn’t want to think that, and yet for so long she lay awake thinking it. The unintended consequences.
More light outside now, the rain steady. Coffee enough for her and a fresh pot when he wakes. Enough eggs and bread, but no hurry. Better if he can sleep.
Somebody’s law of unintended consequences. Adam Smith? Survey of Economics with the funny little professor who always stuttered except when he was lecturing, which was the reason he always lectured. Springtime afternoons in that warm room, sitting by the window to watch the trees urge forth their leaves. Their sap rising and hers. Give me that warm afternoon, she thought, and no mind for economics, what with the trees aroused and shirtless Frisbee boys on the green. The Frisbee a new toy that Eisenhower spring, everywhere saucering the sky, and talk of flying saucers, real ones, up there as well, people saying so and secretly wanting to believe, because it would be so exciting. Springtime and forsythia yellowing the arboretum, and how eager she was for summer, as if summer offered everything carefree. But it wouldn’t, never again, Father, and more so Mother, aging so suddenly. All her worries about helping them and somehow repaying them. No, nothing carefree from then on, not after the view from that classroom window that keeps its place in memory and lets her revisit it, the window inviting dreams of intended consequences, the hoped-fors, the Frisbee flights of fancy. Was she berating herself now? Hypocritical? Or only sifting through? Never one to dwell on the might-have-beens like he does. No point. But one can’t help imagining another life once in a while: A different man. Children. Visiting the kinds of places that real money visits, eating fine food, not those now-and-then restaurant indulgences she thinks exciting and regrets the next day. Probably need to be born into extravagance to manage it. Not born a cobbler’s daughter.
Such an old-sounding word, cobbler. Simple work, handwork, even now the machines for stitching and buffing hardly changed. All his sacrifices, and she was too ashamed to say what her father did. Apparel and accessories was her answer, so as not to stretch the truth too much. Wooden boot trees hanging in the shop like prosthetic feet, ready to stretch leather that had gotten wet and dried too quickly. Some good-smelling oil Father used to soften it and make it pliant, then the boot trees inserted and ever so slowly leveraged with the twist knob to expand, and all this so sexual to her, just back from college, helping out in his shop, everything everywhere so sexual, the bloom upon her, Freud in her head now, not Adam Smith, Freud and his dirty secrets before he was ushered out of the textbooks. Her parents’ sex life a mystery, but Mother likely one of those shrunken boots that took all the cobbler’s patience to make supple: his big, gentle hands, and his eyes — how they listened, those eyes. What if she’d married someone like her father? No guidance there from Adam Smith — and too much from Freud. Married a talker and a dreamer instead. But, please, no regrets. Not a regretting time, now or last night, the hard rain then and now the soft. Only revisiting the haunts, the neighborhoods of memory, as she did last night, lying there as he paced. Had he been in bed and calmly breathing, she could have slept, but he was poking the fire, deep into his whiskey bottle, wearing a path in the rug, nerves all ascamper like a squirrel’s, every move abrupt, all here and there and back again before the hearth. She knew this, without even a look.
And yet in the early days he was so appealing, so flattering, anxieties all covered up. Not like the other college boys, so stalwart and dull, wooden and monotone and sure in their cigarettes. What potential there seemed to be in him, a fine package of a man, and even the sex in the beginning — the legal, Mr.-and-Mrs., after-marriage sex, not like nowadays — even that was full of surprises, so frenetic but finally no depth to it, no searching in it. No meaning. Does sex have to have meaning? What was she hoping for? To understand herself? And how could she hope to understand it if it was something she never knew enough of? Too small a sample, as they say of the medical trials. Blaming him for not providing the experience. There’s blame enough for me, she thought. Berating herself now, no surprise. Like him. Couldn’t have lived so long with him and not taken on his habits. God strike me. It’s a life, and good came of it. I’ve showed a happy heart and am not through showing it. People know that about me. He knows it, knows it down in his gut, cankered as it is. If that’s the word. It’s a word that sounds right, at any rate, here in this morning kitchen, right-sounding if not lovely like ululate and gloaming and cerulean and sempre, sempre, sempre, like her grandmother would say, Italian rolling out in threes, si, si, si.
Like daffodilic. That day he took her to the meadow, timing it just so for the full flowering of pink spirea and thimbleberry and cow parsnip and more, if she could only remember, could only summon. And how it all conspired — the place, the time, the sun-chased day — as if in a painting, a Renoir with a proper picnic basket and him in a straw boater and herself with a skirt to swirl in, because it was warm enough, mid-May and daffodilic. When the dirt road, the last bit of it, gave way to ruts and washaways, they parked and carried the basket, the rains that had urged the flowers still puddling in the dips, and all about those dips the little blue butterflies, dusky and delicate, glassy blue butterflies hovering, flitting at the muddy edges and alighting to sip: the gray of their wings when closed, the shimmering color when unfolded. Silly, sweet wine they’d chosen to go with the bread and cheese because they’d known no better, and when a tanager, clowned out in orange and yellow, flew from the mountain ash, she saw it, and he complained of missing it, and it flew back then, as if called out for an encore. All that is not nothing.
Regardless. Regardless: her word for the sobering slap. You don’t know growing up that regardless will find you and put you in your place. Imposing she is, coming at you in her sensible shoes and watching over you till you clean your plate, swallow all the unreal hopes for how it could have been, and she’s still there saying her name, Regardless, so that you will soldier forth, hers the philosophy of making a go in spite of, the mantra of muddling through, the old code of carrying on, the asterisk next to untoward glee that takes you down the page to the inescapable regardless.
Did she differ from him only in degree? In the way she dressed it up to herself? I regret and don’t admit it. Less honest, less revealing than him. Realism shores me up in the end. And it’s killing me. His moods, his dervish-dancing moods and dodges, defy the real, the very way of the world. And it’s killing him.
He asked, Isn’t that a line from a song? Saying it as if he’d never said it before. And Mrs. Kostelanetz making her return last night. She’d been under wraps for a while. Hadn’t she been a beloved housemaid in her previous outing? Killed in a plunging elevator on the way to make her mortgage payment — the last payment, so she was carrying it in person, and, yes, she’d been directed to the wrong building. And then there was Mrs. Kostelanetz the neighbor, as dear as family, done in by a collapsing bridge on her way to a fundraiser for an orphanage or some such, and — always the kicker — she’d been given the wrong date. He’s so tortured about something, about someone. About the way of things. Mrs. K in all her renditions. You have to wonder: Is she some memory he can’t face? Or is the past simply a draft he keeps rewriting? He digs down like an archaeologist and plants what he wants to find, plants something to conceal what’s really there, to conceal what won’t be consoled. And I can’t face up to asking him. That’s my dodge, she thought. To go along.
We manage it, the past, for years we do, and then it’s back, probing and sticking. Does this hurt? the doctor asks. Tell me when it hurts.
It hurts at night, on winter nights.
Before sleep she heard him out there in the dark hallway, at long last removing his shoes so as not to disturb her. Poor fellow, eventually to manage sleep in his resistant way, granting Mrs. Kostelanetz a bit of peace, wherever she is.
Abide him. We must abide.
He would be up soon now, and the day would seek its syncopations, and the rain, by all accounts, was likely to continue.