Introduction: And Turn Again
I expect that retirement is a major turning point shared by many, perhaps most, Persimmon Tree readers and contributors. Which means most of us have also shared the experience of an adulthood devoted in large part to work. Many of us, coming of age before feminism’s freeing second wave, had mothers who did not work; we were only too grateful to escape the long, thankless, seemingly boring routine that made up their days, even though that put us squarely in the first generation of full-time working women, searching endlessly for the balance that didn’t exist between wifehood/motherhood and the equally relentless demands of the job, the career, the office.
As the first generation of women to pursue equality in employment with men, and to suffer all the stings — and joys — of that pursuit, are we also the first generation to face that moment when work life ends and something called retirement takes its place? In a way, no. Our mothers, too, experienced various moments of retirement, the first when their children grew up and left home, leaving them without a large part of the work that had defined them, just as the morning commute had defined their husbands; another when those husbands themselves retired, suddenly at home — often, we are told by films and pundits, angry or resentful at being tossed on the shelf, at losing their own sense of meaning and identity, at not knowing what, if anything, to do next.
But many of us are among the first women to retire from a life of work in colleges or offices or on the tennis courts. Just as we were the ones who had to learn to navigate workplaces formerly the exclusive domain of men, now we have to figure out how, as women, we will navigate life after a career. Will we experience retirement as the surveys and statistics say many men who formerly held high-level positions do? Are we at sea, not knowing what to do next, slightly aggrieved to find ourselves no longer at a desk or in that coveted corner office? Are we now sitting in the sun, taking most of the day to read the morning paper because, hey, we can’t think of anything else to do?
For some women, maybe yes. But studies show it is not true for most. We do tend to retire with fewer assets and lower incomes than men, in large part because our pay scales were generally below men’s during our working years. That means that many more of us will find it necessary to continue to work, whether we want to or not, even after retirement. But most of us continue, well into retirement, to be active, to create, to work, either at paid or at unpaid jobs, not only because we need the income, but usually because we want to. We are ready for new adventures and challenges, eager to climb new mountains (both figuratively and literally). No matter how far past 60 we may be, we are, in Serena’s words, “super young.”
If you do a quick read, as I just did, through the fascinating, deceptively brief and tidy paragraphs that make up the bios of Persimmon Tree’s editors, writers, artists, and musicians, you will find that the women who gather around this magazine are particularly likely to have seized upon the moment (mistakenly called retirement) as the point at which they can turn from a long, successful, and usually satisfying career in one field to a new and very different working life. Lawyers become publishers. Social workers become artists. High school math teachers write essays and memoirs. Physicists pen short stories and novels. Diplomats learn to play the piano.
It is not retirement. It is a transition — as the bios at the bottom of this very page attest, a turning point. And a successful one, as evidenced by the thoughtful and thought-provoking stories, essays, poetry, music, and art not only in Short Takes but throughout this issue – which itself arrives on the cusp of a different kind of turning point. As the autumn equinox will announce this week, this Persimmon Tree issue comes to you just as summer wanes into fall. The year turns, an endless cycle of turning points, life preceding death preceding life. What better metaphor can there be?
A Story of an Old Love in Two Parts
Dad always chuckled when he told this story. Once, when he and Mom were newlyweds, they were walking up some stairs, me in front of her and my buddy right behind her and you know what he did?
Wish I didn’t.
He goosed her! She turned right around, and you know what she did?
Clocked the guy, I’d hope.
She just smiled.
Really? My mother? With her shrewd sniffer for disrespect? Her perfect pitch for mumbled snark? For me, the story shows the press of pleasantness, a young bride’s defense against seeming thin-skinned or (no, please, anything but) humorless.
For my father, the story was nostalgic; long before the stillbirth, before her heart disease and breast cancer and diabetes and imminent amputation, before the strokes that made her mean and then ended her life.
I’ll never hear her version of the goosing story, but when I was a child, I told my parents about Freckle Bully, a neighbor girl, older, with too-short bangs, a starched white blouse with yellowed pits, and ten talons daily deployed to raise welts on my shoulders on my way home from school. My father advised me to smile, to turn the other cheek; my mother said to “clock that gal.”
The next afternoon, Freckle Bully’s mother rang our bell. “Your daughter bloodied my daughter’s lip.”
“Just as I told her to,” said my mother, closing the door.
It was a rare and memorable occasion, her taking my side against another adult. I wish now that I could have been there on those stairs when she was young, long before I was born, to do the same for her.
when Dad told me that as a boy alone in the woods
one day, an angel appeared
to say Fate, take questions and doubt as signs.
I knew Dad had often argued with his father
about predestination and the Bible’s literal words.
So I thought I understood how the angel
countered his father’s flinty dogma
and maybe the nickname Fate, which likely arose
from country folks’ drawly way to deal with Lafayette
but also set a seal on a boy who wore a look of wonder.
Later, as Dad grew old, he changed his mind,
deciding his Scripture-quoting elder liked to wrestle
with his son over salvation and the Word
because when his father wasn’t serving customers,
he lifted a volume from the row of law books
behind the store counter, read a case,
and gazed beyond the shelves of neatly stacked dry goods
to weigh the arguments.
What brought my father’s angel to mind that day,
in my time of inarticulate confusion?
Dad often spoke obliquely and was wary of being too sure.
What I was sure of was that, like Jacob’s angel, Dad’s visitor
had marked a tender place he chose to show me.
In a few months I would make my mulish husband go.
Though stones are slippery in a roiling stream,
I found I could cross by stepping from question to question.
I hear the splash of water downstairs as you exit the therapy pool, your exercises done for the day. You think these workouts are slowing the progression of the arthritis, though we both know that life will do with us what it will, despite our best efforts to interfere.
The pool cover closes with a frummmp. I imagine you shuffling around, grabbing a towel to wrap around yourself before you head back upstairs, and now suddenly you appear.
You pause on the stair to look at me, and I, sitting in my chair reading, look back at you. A moment ago, you had not been there, and a moment from now, you’ll be out of view. We who are now so fully focused on each other live in the unsteady slippage of time.
Last week I watched you melt into an amorphous mass of people and packages at a metropolitan airport. We were between flights, and you’d gone to find some food for us to share. People were everywhere, every direction a clamor of colors, braiding and unbraiding like cotton threads caught in a crosswind. I sat alone at a table in that crowded food court, wondering if I’d ever see you again. I marvel that anyone ever finds their way back to where they belong.
But now you pause on the stair, and we look at each other. I hold your gaze as if to capture it for safekeeping. Some day one of us, then both, will be gone. Then what will this moment mean? Will the damp scent of you fresh from a swim, the whip of wind as you whirl around to face me, the coolness of the question in your eyes, fade away forever?
“Is everything okay?” you ask.
I inhale the breath of your hesitation.
“Oh yes,” I say. “Everything’s fine.”
I exhale, then slowly turn back to my book.
Observe: My old camp trunk painted shiny aqua, with large calligraphed gold lettering across the top declaring “Dianne’s Trousseau” (Realize that mother labored for weeks transforming this dull army-green trunk into this work of art).
1. Pre Wedding To-Do List:
- Find a caterer
- Find a florist
- Buy a dress—go with the one Mom loved
- Hire a band
- Fight over guest list (groom’s family had longer list)
- Cull down guest list
- Mail invitations including all from original guest list
- Seriously consider Dad’s offer to give us the money if we elope
2. Get organized for new life
- Buy new clothes (note: don’t forget sexy nightgowns, especially the one from Nana)
- Buy a heavy coat and boots for new climate
- Buy heavy sweater for poorly heated apartment and to wear over sexy nightgowns
- Hide photos of our tiny apartment in slum neighborhood that groom had thoughtfully mailed to prepare me
- Pack Education 101 text books for help with teaching a third-grade class
- Buy adapter plugs for all the appliances received at wedding shower
- Buy cookbook (don’t forget Mom’s favorite, hers when she was a new bride, now hopelessly outdated . . . you never know)
- Learn how to cook
- Stuff all into shiny new trunk
3. Have wedding
- Food was amazing (bride threw it all up getting ready to leave but everyone says it was fabulous)
- After throwing up, throw bouquet aiming for sister (missed as cousin trampled her)
- Climb into car (decorations compliments of the groom’s brothers)
- Smile and wave weakly (still recovering from puking), content that shiny trousseau trunk is blissfully resting on back seat
4. Start new life.
On my 60th birthday on a bleak February day, my friend Marta takes me out to lunch at Café Barbette. For some reason, the restaurant is full today, and we have to sit by the big windows facing north with the wind pushing its way through. To warm up, for dessert, instead of birthday cake, we get the chocolate fondue with angel cake and strawberries.
Cards and calls from friends and family.
From him, no word, no nothing. I finally realize fully that there will be no change. The tree that had been lightning-struck many times before could not withstand this last hit and split in two, each half crashing to the ground.
Three Hundred Twenty Days… and Counting
It was all going swimmingly, until it wasn’t. The X’s were being added to the calendar each day, a satisfying means of counting down the days until Medicare eligibility. But now those X’s were joined by check marks—every day for twenty-one days — to note that the appropriate dose of Prednisone had been taken.
How the hell had she thought she could do it alone? Stubbornness came immediately to mind. All the heavy lifting, all the loading and unloading, all the schlepping? They’d taken their toll, and she found herself sitting, speaking to a young, male, ridiculously athletic orthopedic PA at a specialty urgent care clinic on a Sunday morning. She explained the timing, the tasks, the purpose of the move that had landed her there on an examining table, writhing in pain: Her horse had to move from one boarding facility to another, a mere ten-minute journey up the road. She might have referred to herself as “stupid” more than once… when she wasn’t groaning.
The x-rays of her spine had shown “significant” arthritic changes, disk compression, and on and on — the expected barnacles on the ship of life. But there were a few things “of significant concern”—the diminished strength and reflexes in her right leg, a compression fracture. And so came the first MRI, scheduled for the very next evening. And then came the results appointment four days later. And then came the panic as the reality set in: the words tumor and syringomyelia were bandied about. Yet another MRI was scheduled, with contrast — but not for another three weeks. Googling ensued. Further panic set in.
Three hundred twenty days until retirement and Medicare eligibility, with 24/7 access to a horse she only saw on weekends. Now, suddenly, the possibilities were flying about in her head: Will I still be able to ride? Will I still be able to walk? Hell, will I still be alive?
And it hit her: The total lack of control over her destiny, the betrayal of her best-laid plans by her very own body, the uncertainty, the unknowns, the fear. These things simply weren’t worth the wasted energy. She could control her attitude, her ferocity, her — yes — default stubbornness. And she would.
For perspective, she did the math: Twenty-three thousand, three hundred ninety-nine days. She’d had a good run — so far — with a few hiccups and speed bumps along the way. But she was loved by a partner of thirty-seven years; she had a roof over her head (finally paid for); she had a grown son living an incredible life; she had an elderly, but feisty mom; she had a job that paid the bills and gave her access to excellent healthcare; she had a horse, for crying out loud. How many women could rattle off all those things?
So, when those three hundred nineteen more X’s were added to the calendar, she would see what she had. Expectations took a turn; she would still be here, though, of that she was certain.
The Other Shoe
from Marla, my almost step-mom who really
really likes me, according to my dad.
A riff of excitement plays down my arms,
– maybe the box holds the secret of Marla,
Marla’s shimmer and style – for me!
Inside: one sparkly spike-heel shoe
coated in golden glitter that rubs off
on my hand, litters the rug.
The glitzy shoe is piled with hard candies,
the whole offering sealed in cellophane —
the last-minute gift you grab at the drugstore
for the music teacher. Sweets for the sweet, Marla says
while Dad beams. I scour the box for the other half
of the gift I am certain is buried beneath the glitter.
Nothing, except one syrupy cinnamon candy
escaped from a tear in the transparent wrap.
I drop the shiny shoe in its box, deciding
I know Marla twice as well
as she knows me,
and like her half as much.
On a hot July day, Miriam Jensen found herself in the canned vegetable aisle at Kroger. Two cans of lima beans, peas, green beans, sliced carrots, and succotash. She used both hands, a trick she’d learned to avoid problems caused by her right hand’s tremor. Two hands on her coffee mug. Two hands for each can. Did she have everything? Yes, the cat litter was under the cans. That nice young man with a purple streak in his hair helped when he saw her tugging on the bag. She leaned into the cart’s handle and pushed her way to the check-out lanes. She chose the one with express written in all capital letters.
When it was her turn, she bent over and slowly pulled the ten cans from the cart, one by one. Several people behind her changed check-out lines. Miriam smiled when she spied Life Savers in the candy display. She put five rolls of the multi-colored ones on the conveyor belt as the cashier manually entered the price for her thirty-pound cat litter bag.
“That will be thirty-two dollars and forty-four cents.” Miriam put her patent-leather pocketbook on the counter. She pulled out two lace-edged hankies, a broken comb, and several playing cards. “Here it is,” she triumphantly announced, holding out a bright orange library card. “Can you tap it on the machine for me? Quickly? So I miss the snow?”
Security noticed the note pinned to her jacket. I am Miriam Jensen. If needed, please call my daughter Patsy at the number below.
“Mom, are you all right?”
“Tell them I need everything in my cart.”
“Okay mom. Just wait with the cart and I’ll be there in ten minutes. Let me talk to the security guard.”
Patsy paid for the groceries and the cat litter, even though they hadn’t had a cat since she was a little girl. She led her mother out to the car, buckled her in, drove the two blocks home, and settled her into the armchair in front of the television.
“Mom, you promised you’d stay home.”
“I wanted to make you a nice supper, dear, but you didn’t have the ingredients. Can I watch the Little Mermaid?”
Patsy turned on the TV and inserted the DVD. “This is the one with Ariel. Your favorite.”
Collapsing on her desk chair, Patsy stared at her mother. Tears slowly seeped down her cheeks. Her fingers gently touched the sterling silver frame holding her favorite photo. Her mother and father at Niagara Falls, well before all this began. When everything started to change, he lovingly became her caretaker. But he’s gone now. “I’m so sorry, Dad,” she whispered. “I know I promised, but I can’t do it anymore.”
She scrolled through the contact list on her cell phone for the number. An efficient voice answered her call. She gulped and stammered, “Yes, this is Patsy Jensen. We’ve spoken before.” Then more assertively, “I’m ready to bring my mother in for an evaluation.”
my high school history teacher,
glances furtively down the
grabs a razor and stuffs it
into his coat pocket.
Like a robot, I continue to stock
shelves while processing the scene.
I’ve nabbed shoplifters before—
but they were kids.
I close the door to the office
I just saw Mr. Wilson steal a razor.
Dad looks up from a line of figures,
his long finger holding his place
but says nothing.
You know about it? I ask.
He nods. Glen takes things now and then.
My carefully prepared words vanish and I gape.
It’s called kleptomania, he continues.
People who don’t need to steal—just do;
but Glen’s a good man, a great history teacher.
So, we just let him steal from us? I demand.
No, Dad says. About once a month, I visit with
him, tell him he seems to have forgotten to pay
for a few things and give him a figure. He says,
‘Yeah, that sounds about right,‘ and pays.
At school the next day, I take notes on
Mr. Wilson’s D-Day lecture. My friend, David,
raises his hand. I’ve heard that some Americans
actually made money off the war and got rich.
Mr. Wilson nods somberly. Sometimes
things happen that shouldn’t happen.
David and I walk to our next class,
talk about football and girls,
while a razor slices through
my black and white world.
On a summer evening just before 9/11, I sat on the therapist’s couch where I’d spent most of that summer whittling away at my marriage. Though I was certain it was beyond resuscitation, here I was pretending otherwise, attending weekly marital counseling. Something felt amiss. Unlike the previous weeks when each of us arrived promptly in separate vehicles, my husband’s red sports car was absent from the parking lot. Now, fifteen minutes into the appointment when he still hadn’t appeared, I became concerned.
The previous night we’d gone to dinner together. His behavior had confused and worried me. “Let’s take the kids out of school and go to Spain. For good,” he’d suggested, his eyes skittering wildly.
“I don’t think so.”
He persisted. “Why not? We’ll start over. I’ll be a new man. I promise.”
“I don’t think so,” I’d repeated flatly.
Now, 24 hours later, I veered toward panic. Had he committed the unforgivable act of suicide? He’d be capable of such cruelty; my father had committed suicide some 40 years earlier, almost to the day. Just as I was about to explore this hideous possibility with the therapist, my husband appeared in the doorway, mumbling apologies. He dropped his body onto the oversized couch opposite the therapist’s chair.
“I’ll do the talking tonight. By the time I’m through, she won’t want anything more to do with me,” he announced. “About two years ago I began treating a patient. She became my lover a year and a half into treatment. I tried to end the relationship, but she insisted we stay together. When I told her it was over, she threatened to report me for sexual misconduct. I tried to talk her out of it, but yesterday I found out she’d gone ahead with her threat.”
My breath turned shallow as his story unfolded. My stomach clenched. “You son-of-a-bitch. How could you have done this?” I screamed.
Then I remembered a piece of mail from the Board of Registration of Medicine. I’d handed the envelope to him minutes before we’d left the house for dinner the previous evening. Suddenly his talk of running away to Spain for a new life began to make sense. Now my thoughts raced to keep up with the words spilling from his lips — a report filed by the spurned patient, an impending hearing, possible loss of his medical license.
Cradling my throbbing temples, I cried out, “My children, my children, how could you have done this to my children?” As these wretched words filled the room, he dropped his face to his lap, sobbing.
“You’ve waited a long time to be in this place, haven’t you?” the therapist half-whispered as he placed a hand on my husband’s shoulder. Realizing we’d need more time, the therapist excused himself to cancel his next appointment.
In his absence, my husband and I sat in the silence.
When Finally You Hear Me
I’ve told you that I’m leaving tomorrow,
and you are angry and slamming doors
all over the house. I don’t understand your
surprise, this has been foretold for months
weeks and now days, and you were mute.
You must have noticed my things disappearing:
that desk from the bedroom where I wrote
my sad poems of loss. The spaces in the closet
where my winter jackets hung, gloves and hats.
Didn’t you miss that old TV and boom box
from the bedroom that you so seldom entered,
sleeping on the living room sofa for months?
Now you seem surprised. I expect you thought
I’d capitulate as I have so many times
during these twenty-five years. Every time
I threatened and tried to get you to talk of it.
Every time, you apologized and promises
were made and laid aside. Too late now,
cat box clean and in the trunk, suitcases
and plants there, too, just the final
words of one more try to go
and I will go this time,
To begin with, Todd tripped on a crack in the sidewalk and broke both his arms. The PA in the emergency room said, “You have a serious case of osteoporosis.”
“What’s osteoporosis?” Todd asked as he struggled to sign credit card forms.
“It’s where your bones become hollow.”
Todd had a tendency to get silly when he was stressed. “Maybe I’ll turn into a bird. They have hollow bones.”
“Maybe,” the PA said.
“Or perhaps an insect.”
The PA shook her head. “No bones. Insects have an exoskeleton. We’ll prescribe you a supplement to strengthen your bones, and stop the sunscreen. You need Vitamin D from the sun.”
The prescription made his skin thick and waxy. Shower water rolled right off him.
Todd told his priest that he might be turning into a bird or a bug, but the priest shook his head, “God is good. He wants to make it easier for you to fly when you get to heaven so he’s taking weight from your bones,” he said, with good Christian logic.
“I throw my salad across the room if the lettuce isn’t crisp,” he confessed, but the priest said not to worry. Jesus came to pay for such sins, and being mean was likely one of the few pleasures he had left.
Todd’s wife drove him for a follow-up visit to a nearby clinic.
“Put some lotion on that skin of yours,” the PA said as Todd lay on his back on the wrinkled paper covering the exam table, his arms and legs twitching.
Birds gathered around in increasing numbers when his wife pushed his wheelchair to the flower garden. Instinct told him they were not his friends.
“Why do you put your nose so deep inside the flowers?” his wife asked.
“I feel compelled,” Todd said.
One sunny morning his wife wheeled him out to soak up some Vitamin D. She returned to find his dead body. Neither she nor the birds noticed a small caterpillar crawling toward the house.
He made his way to his old bedroom where he attached himself to a curtain rod.
He flew to his wife when he hatched, but instead of admiring him as you’d expect a wife to do, she shooed him outside.
He joined a kaleidoscope of monarchs who were preparing to fly to Mexico for the winter.
One afternoon his wife’s friend Martha called her. “Get out here,” she said. “The tree beside the barn is covered with monarchs.”
When she arrived the two women commenced oohing and aahing and snapping photos. Todd’s wife slapped her neck. The mosquitoes had found them.
Todd had always admired the mosquito mothers who risked their lives to get blood to nourish their offspring. “Welcome, dear mothers,” he called out in a language decipherable to no one.
The women hurried inside to find some insect repellent. They sipped some tea and ate some cookies. When they returned, the butterflies were gone.
Mozart’s Sonata in B-Flat Major
The lure of a distant train
Someone, something is going somewhere
I can’t see the road, the goods, the destination
But I know a process is in motion
There is an elsewhere to which things—people—go
And a way to get there.
Already elsewhere, the low slow tug
Rope of dusty, muted sound
Curls around me. Going but not gone.
I hear the whistle, a farewell, a summons, a sigh.
Must I go, must I go
Go I must, go I must
Go, I must.
Surely, my sister Carla knows that Valerie and I are lesbians? She hosted us for Christmas one year, giving us a room with a double bed, not even a queen, when other sleeping arrangements were available. Yet here I sit in my small dining room in my bungalow in Wichita reading a letter from her that implies this is new news. Valerie and I got married in a Boston church. My nephew Richard, one of Carla’s three children, attended, along with 12 other guests, including Valerie’s three sisters who came from England. Now Richard is getting married.
Carla writes that as the mother of the groom, she has responsibility only for the rehearsal dinner. Richard and Margaret will be married just outside of Chicago in a Catholic church. I am invited to the dinner but Valerie, who represents my “homosexuality,” is not. This recent objection from Carla is on the heels of my own marriage. I didn’t want to wake up on my wedding day without my family knowing, although many gay people have done just that. I wrote to them all, Carla, her husband Jim , and their three children, telling them that they would receive an invitation to our wedding but could ignore it. Carla and Jim ignored it as did my niece Caroline. My nephew Sam wrote to tell me that he didn’t want to expose my relationship with Valerie to his children, both of whom were under three at the time.
I don’t go to the dinner. We attend the wedding because Richard wants us there. Valerie buys a new suit that turns out to be a little tight. We get dressed, me in a black silkish outfit with pants and she in her beige suit. Sweating, she says that she looks like a dyke and can’t look otherwise. This is true.
The Catholic service includes the priest’s warning that only Catholics can receive communion. Valerie had threatened to go up anyway, but doesn’t. We sit away from the rest of the family in a long dark wooden pew and wait for the end, although I cry a little when I see the boy whom I have loved since his birth embark on another chapter in his life.
About 300 people embellish the reception room. Valerie and I are seated in wedding Siberia, at a table with Jim ’s distant relatives and Carla’s not quite friends. We mingle first and I discover that Jim ’s two sisters, whom I have known since I was 13, are friendly and normal to us, asking about travels and work. They are surprised that we weren’t at the rehearsal dinner. I don’t explain. They sit in front with the family and the priest. In the hinterlands, a man bends Valerie’s ear endlessly, and I think that we should have been paid to come. We do not dance, as Richard requested, but leave as soon as is polite, way too late for Valerie’s inclinations. The next day we go to Chicago’s Pride March.
crying, lamb, confidante I hold in bed on the twelfth floor, ninety-sixth street Manhattan, water-tower-silhouettes like top-hatted golems watching me through the open shade. I can’t sleep. My
mama’s asleep in her room. My father’s asleep in his room. My grandma died tonight — night. I tell you, lamb, my gramma’s dead. It’s long after dark. I tell you and tell you and tell you, Gramma with
black hair unbraided down to her knees, hair they chopped off when mama sent her to a nursing home in New Jersey where she died at dusk. I’m telling you, lamb, my gramma is dead, all
water-towers watching me night. I’m ten. Maybe I’m eleven. Once, my father cut off all my hair. My Gramma who has no down to her knees hair anymore is in her bed in a nursing home in New Jersey
and dead. — I’m a woman now. Not ten. Not eleven. No lamb. A woman of a certain age, aging badly, someone said, aging solo in a foreign bed. Three times divorced. Awake in the middle of a
night when news says war is beheading, is butchering, again. There are dead limbs of god and no lambs of god, there will be too many. I’m telling my animal. Telling my dead gramma, Telling my
now gone mama. Lost now, once-upon-mine lamb. Remember when gramma died and I held you all night? Remember how I felt for my once curls my father chopped off, fingers stroking your dirty
white pelt and whispering dead? Remember how you hissed something back to me in the no nightingales no sounds dark? What did you say, loved lost animal of mine just soft enough to hide in
my arm crooked between neck and the breasts I hadn’t grown yet? What did you say to push me through that night like a needle? Songs of war are on our own steps now. Not there. Here. Here in
our heads. In our breasts. On our steps. Everyone says so. Tomb steps. World steps. Woman in her bed tonight steps. Tell me—. I didn’t know they were slices from poems like bits of skin. You told
me, I am the tree that trembles and trembles.1 Told me a child who walked in bare-branched woods with her mother finding a small dead thing on the ground—how it was a Thanksgiving then and how she
told her mother, I’ll name it delicate.2 You told me The quieter you become the more you are able to hear.3 Told me while I held my breath until the heart would stop. Told me poets could say such words. Right?
Lamb, tell me those again now and make me quiet. Right? Because tonight has to be the quietest night of my life.
I slipped the letter out of his pants pocket, unfolded it gingerly. He was in the bathtub and had left his pants draped over a chair. The letter was addressed to Susan, whom I knew slightly as someone with whom he played tennis.
My hands trembled as I read. He was complaining that, ever since my surgery for the ectopic pregnancy, he’d had to drive me around. This was the first time I knew he talked about me with other women. It seemed the worst betrayal. I had convinced myself that, no matter what, he at least didn’t talk to his sex partners about me. I believed I was special, unique, that I wasn’t just another one more lover in his life. We lived together. We had a child. I felt not only betrayed but stripped of any pretense I had been holding on to. All our friends probably knew; they thought I was dumb or oblivious or, worse still, they pitied me.
My legs gave way and I sank to the floor with the letter in my hand. I leaned back against the bed, too weak to hold myself up. The bed where we made love, where our daughter was conceived. The words in the letter seemed to go black, as if my eyes refused to see what was there. The whole room faded, as if it were dissolving into nothingness.
This persona that I had been holding on to didn’t exist and everyone knew it. The narrative I had told myself was a fabrication, as full of holes as mesh webbing. It was like I had fallen from a high wire toward the net below, but the net had been pulled away. Or perhaps it had never been there. And I knew that it wasn’t only he who had lied. I had been lying to myself. This fragile structure of our relationship could no longer hold me up and I didn’t know if there was anything or anybody that could.
I confronted him with the letter. He told me to stay out of his business. It was after that that I made him leave for good.
in my empty narrow-ruled tablet
I write Fundamentals in Counseling Psychology
and wait for instruction.
At 40 I’ve taught adolescents English,
built a stone house, birthed two boys.
What mad impulse has dropped me here
for a master’s degree?
I’ve heard of Freud and Jung,
but I’ve never taken a psych class.
Should I leave? Will the college return my money
when it discovers I’m counterfeit?
The burly bearded teacher
perched on a stool in front of the class
begins slowly and carefully,
as though he’s holding a fragile rose,
recites a poem. Rilke — love the questions.
Before I can catch my breath,
he speaks another and another.
Rumi – wounds and light – e e cummings – I carry your heart.
My pen is still. This is the heart
and the art of therapy he says.