Why this?

The occasional poem of my own and a generous helping of work by others that I find inspiring. Site is named for a beloved book by one of my favorite writers, Italo Calvino, whose fanciful work lights--and delights--my soul.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Conduit

Laura leaned over the kitchen table, the balls of her shoulders hitched up and pushed in towards her chest, pin-thin forearms bearing her weight. Her eyes were on the maples that framed the backyard. It was well into November, but these trees held onto some last leaves, leaves still obscenely pigmented. She mentally replayed a lesson she’d given her class recently—

During winter, there aren’t enough resources for photosynthesis. In fall, the trees begin shutting down their food-making factories and the chlorophyll—the stuff that makes them green, remember—goes away from the leaves. As the bright-green fades, colors like yellow and orange appear, and actually, traces of these colors have been in the leaves the whole time. We’re just not able to see them in the summer months, because they’re masked by the green chlorophyll.

“Made bright by the absence of something.” She spoke out loud, laughing in a particular way over how easily the words had come and wondering why she didn’t slip into this sort of thing more often.

Rolling an empty Coke can on its side and taking a seat at the table, Laura thought more about the trees, trees that predated her little family’s arrival to their Whidbey Island home by decades. They were old and fat, though not old and fat like the sugar maples of her Northeastern childhood. Those trees, thick and sticky and a hundred years strong, they were true kings. And whatever was going on around them, they were in all likelihood still there. Thinking this was a small comfort to her.

Squinting past the leaves, she saw anatomical maps, brain anatomy maps, in the branches, and she was back in the exam room with Mom—two weeks earlier; Lake Union stretching glassily below, the better portion of its body captured in the neat square of the top-floor window. But those maps, they’d been the primary objects of Laura’s attention—a show of twists and turns and folds with a blend of predictability and intricacy that stunned; her breath had caught momentarily, inexplicably (why now?)—trumping even the words of the doctor, which, considering it was the third time in, didn’t require a whole lot on the part of the listener. “I hate to break it to you, but.” Ritual words, she’d thought.

She spied a flash of color beyond a dense clutch of pines—there, gone. She guessed it was her husband Ben, or maybe just more leaves, stirred by the wind. Ben was out there somewhere, she knew, with Macy their retriever, chopping wood or clearing brush or something else. Something, somewhere she wasn’t.

She considered going out to see if it was him. She could bring him some coffee, or a beer. Two years before, she would’ve thought about putting together an entire meal to take him—fruit salad, squiggly straws, checkered tablecloth tucked into a picnic basket, everything.

But she stayed put, lacking the energy it would take for one such multi-step, non-required action. She decided to call her friend Stephanie instead. Steph, whose trademark curls were fresh in Laura’s mind following their joint visit to the hospital the day before.

As she waited for an answer, Laura saw that it was definitely Ben on the other side of the glass. He’d almost cleared the trees, and the sleeves of his bright flannel were streaked with dirt and bunched at the elbows. Evidence of work done; proof he knew how.

“Hey, Steph. So listen, I wanted to talk to you about my cousin. Steven. I know he’s not the type of guy you usually go for, but I talked to him on the way home from the hospital yesterday and he told me he’d really like the chance to do some city stuff with you. He mentioned meeting you in Seattle for art shows and concerts and interesting food and all the other things you like to do.”

Laura was talking fast. She was keenly aware of this, and the sped-up words sounded strange to her, tight. But she continued.

“And you know, he’d love to take you on hikes and scenic drives up the mountain. He even talked about teaching you to fish, if you’d just give him a chance. He said he had a really good time the other night.”

She struggled to contain her irritation as Steph protested this latest. “Fishing? He said that, that he wants to teach me to fish? Oh, Laura.”

“Steph, please, just give him a chance, let him take you out next weekend. Think about it—it’s not like you’re seeing anyone else right now. What’s there to lose? If you go out a few more times and decide it’s just not there, then you’re no worse off. If you just give it another date or two, I promise I’ll drop it. I wouldn’t be pushing this if I didn’t think you guys could really have something.”

A few minutes later Laura hung up. She was frustrated at Stephanie’s resistance. Steven was a good guy, and she didn’t want to have to turn around and tell him Steph wasn’t interested in a second date. Especially when she’d already suggested otherwise.

Then Ben was at the door, shaking off his gloves, preparing to join her inside. She thought again of trees. Trees as static, silent, unreadable.

Her husband kissed her on the forehead, gave her side a squeeze, and walked toward the fridge. Seconds later he’d be on the couch with a beer and the paper. As he had always done. As if nothing were different, everything well enough.

* * *

Where was his response? Stephanie stared at her phone, expecting a beep, a text from Clayton. He’d called off their relationship three months before but the texting marathons were still routine.

It rang instead. And it wasn’t Clayton.

“Hey, Kari.”

Kari, her best friend since grade school, when it had been Kari, Laura, and Stephanie—all the time, everywhere. Kari had left Seattle at the beginning of the year, following the boyfriend to Florida where he was soon to start school. The two of them, she and Kari, had done a decent job of staying in touch over the years. All three of them had, in fact, even with Laura’s straight-out-of-college domesticity: the husband, the house, the kids.

“I’m okay. You?”

Still nothing from Clayton. Stephanie thought about texting again.

“So, I visited Laura’s mom yesterday,” she said, falling back on her bed, hitting pillow. “The surgery went as well as they could’ve hoped, and Ruth actually looks better than I’d expected—more rested than Laura, who’s been at the hospital every hour she’s not at work or running the kids around. I told her she should take a day off.”

Even lying down as she was, Stephanie’s head felt tired and heavy, like a burden. Following words of agreement from Kari, she continued.

“Laura’s dad and brother were also there. We all grabbed lunch at the cafeteria: Laura and I and the two of them. And, um, Laura’s dad ate all my French fries. It was weird. I asked if he wanted some, and you know, I assumed he’d take two or three. But he grabbed a handful, put them on his plate, then when he was finished he started helping himself to more. He was eating straight off my plate. Sometimes that family’s so weird. I’m sorry, they just are.

Stephanie looked down at her stomach. Was it flatter than usual? She thought maybe it was.

“That reminds me, Laura’s trying to get me to go out with her cousin again. She refuses to let this go. But the thing is, I feel weird saying no, because of her mom. I just feel… bad.”

As she said goodbye to Kari, Stephanie continued to watch her stomach, to cautiously admire it. No Clayton-text, but at least there was this.

* * *

Laura pulled into the driveway of The Little Gym, where her four-year-old daughter had started tumbling classes a month earlier. Grant was at the kids’ daycare, so it was just the two of them, mother and daughter. Lila, decked out in her new purple leotard, jumped excitedly out of the car, anxious to greet the giant trampoline she’d been talking about nonstop. Once inside, Laura chose a comfortable-enough chair near the balance beam and pulled out a magazine.

Minutes later: “Mommy, look! Watch me!” Laura glanced up to see Lila poised on the long red mat for a cartwheel, right arm up and out, little brow intent. She looked like Ben when she made that face, Laura thought, smiling faintly.

After a while, the kids, about a dozen in all, retreated to the back of the gym, away from the beam and where Laura was sitting, where they watched as the instructor demonstrated the day’s routine. Heavy on the somersaults, Laura noted.

As she flipped through an issue of Child, her thoughts drifted back to Saturday morning, to the hospital, to her mom, her mom’s brain cancer—

The surgery, the latest of three, and all in the last two years, had gone reasonably well, Mom’s doctor had explained. They’d gotten all they could of the tumor given how close it was to the tissue required for speech comprehension. Next: looking at Mom, looking for a sign, a “this is it, no more fiddling, in the clear once and for all” indication. But Laura hadn’t found anything of the sort, receiving instead the impression of a woman—her goddamn point of origin—whose patchy hair and heavy eyelids mocked Laura’s memories of girthy, glossy ponytails and clear blue prisms. Her mother’s. Mom’s. She’d put on a happy face, of course, insisting she felt “worlds better” than she had after the last surgery—“just a run-of-the-mill headache, honey”—but the escalated dose of pain meds she’d furtively requested of a nurse told a different story.

At home later that same night, Laura had sat with Ben on the couch while two-year-old Grant, who on seeing his grandmother’s shaved head had burst into tears, which had given way to a complete meltdown in the hallway outside the hospital-room door, lay sleeping in front of the TV, his rosy little half-naked body draped across the family dog, also sleeping. How she wished for her son’s capacity to forget. Out of sight, out of mind. Not in any kind of lasting sense; just long enough to get a decent night’s sleep. To repair.

“Mom’s doctor sounds optimistic,” Laura had told Ben. “He says that if Mom can just stay dedicated through the rehab process, there’s no reason she can’t regain at least some of her agility. And I really do feel good about this new hospital.”

“Yeah. That sounds good.”

Ben had been rubbing her back, and the pleasant shivery feeling partially countered Laura’s annoyance at his choice of words. That sounds good?

“How did your dad seem?”

“You know Dad—he’s still keeping up the whole denial thing. Stephanie was there, and suddenly he starts talking to her about how much he’s looking forward to their trip to Ocean Shores next month. Next month! You’ve seen Mom—she can hardly swing a trip to the bathroom, let alone the goddamn coast. Unbelievable.”

“Yeah. I guess he just doesn’t want to think about it.”

And… silence.

At this point, the back rub had stopped feeling good. Or, more accurately, her husband’s hand firm on her low back had felt as good as her heart and head felt bad, which only confused Laura, and scared her even more.

Back in the moment, the gym: Why did he offer so little? So the man she’d fallen for back in college hadn’t come with a great degree of emotional transparency, but didn’t her mom’s situation warrant words with more heart than banalities like “that sounds good”? Still flipping pages, she reached “Inside a Colic Clinic: The new thinking on how to treat babies who cry (and cry and cry).” She was afraid that if Ben didn’t come through soon, her whole idea of him would irrevocably shift, completing the turn that had started around the time of her mom’s diagnosis. If this happened, she didn’t know what she would do. They had kids.

The oldest of whom had resumed screaming her name—”Mommy! Mommy!”—as she was launched repeatedly by her beloved trampoline into the air.

Such sweetness, Laura thought, clapping at, and vaguely jealous of, such easy happiness. Lila’s grinning face looked positively radiant, her cheeks a full pink, her forehead wet, shiny near her delicate hairline. The abundance Laura saw there on her daughter made her ache from somewhere deep.

Her phone was ringing. It was Kari.

“Hi, you. … The surgery? Yes, it went alright. Mom’s just resting up now. She’ll be in the hospital a couple more days before she’s moved back to the rehab facility.”

Kari started talking about a friend of hers, a friend whose dad had gone through “something similar” the year before. Laura, though, wanted out of this line. She cut in—

“Hey, Kari, so has Steph said anything to you about my cousin? You know I’ve been trying to get them together. They went out once and it sounded to me like it went well.”

Lila was still bouncing away, landing on her back, her side, rarely her feet. She was giggling, and it seemed to Laura like she’d never stop.

“Yeah, well, I’m not giving up. They’re both single and they’re lonely and it can work.”

Around her, a few parents had begun standing up and pulling on coats. It was almost time to go, though Lila, whose face had grown so bright as to evoke in Laura a strange, low-level nervousness, appeared nowhere near finished.

The next thing she knew, Laura, who wanted to get in a quick trip to the hospital on the way home, was feeling her chest constrict with a thick shot of panic. She sprung up and strode fast towards her daughter, not caring that her pronounced action had drawn the stares of several parents. The only thing she cared about, the only thing she was even really aware of besides Lila and the need to get going, was a word—two words as one, really—that had emerged low and chant-like behind her eyes. Timecap.

* * *

Later that evening, Ben and the kids in bed, Laura sat with a glass of wine in her favorite chair—a worn-out rocker from her own childhood. One of her earliest memories was of this chair, of her mom (“let’s pretend we’re in a little boat in the middle of the ocean, just the two of us”), her mom’s arms securely around her, a certain Johnny Mathis song crackling through the record player. Even today, she knew the composition less by its actual name than as, simply, “the Laura and Mommy song.”

Ben had disappeared into his workroom immediately after dinner, as he’d done most nights recently. He’d mentioned an especially busy week at the office—a field office of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife where he’d worked for three years as a biologist, researching and implementing habitat restoration policies. She could hear him typing in there, an irregular clacking of keys.

Tipping the chair gently back and forth, Laura thought about that old song and wondered how it would be to listen to it again, so many years later. Closing her eyes, she thought about—she felt—her mom’s hand in her own. Hours earlier. Quick trip, way home. Breathless on arrival, she’d found things as usual, as she’d last left them: Mom, Mom drained, mustered smiles. Laura had squeezed that hand for everything, immediately overcome with guilt at the sheer volume she’d extracted over the years. Feeling utterly exposed, she’d squeezed a second time, squeezed for everything in reverse, squeezed against premonition, against a daughter’s knowing.

Then, remembering the laundry, she stood up and left the chair to rock itself.

* * *

“Hey Kari. Listen, I need some advice.”

Stephanie was at the grocery store, phone wedged between ear and shoulder as she sifted through overripe bananas. The store was crowded and she wasn’t in the mood.

“Laura called me last night, and the only thing she wanted to talk about was her damn cousin. She just kept pushing, talking about how we should hang out as friends at least. I wanted to say I didn’t want to be his friend, but she sounded like she was getting choked up, and I sort of panicked and said I had to go.”

Narrowly dodging a cart manned by a person half its height, Stephanie wondered if she might get away with cracking open one of the nice chilled beers in her own cart.

“That wasn’t even the end of it. I got an email from her this morning, and she actually asked me to call Steven and tell him I don’t want to date. Because she doesn’t want to be the middle man. I mean, what the hell? This whole thing makes no sense. Should I just call him? For all I know, she could’ve told him I had the time of my life the other week.”

She grabbed the remaining items on her list and headed toward the checkout. Kari was saying something about displaced emotion—“mom so sick... frustration with Ben... setting you guys up... wanted to birth something successful and new”—and there was a moment of recognition before Stephanie’s attention was drawn back outward, to a familiar striped pattern on a shirt up ahead. Sure enough, it was Clayton, and his arm was slung casually around some girl’s waist.

“Oh, shit. Kari? I’ve gotta go. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”

* * *

The call came three days later, while Laura’s third graders were tracing around their hands in pursuit of paper turkeys.

It was her dad: her mom was dead.

He kept talking, but his voice was strange and wispy, and she had to step out of the classroom to be able to hear. Even then, she wasn’t getting it all. “Internal bleeding... complication of the surgery... too much, too fast...”

As she leaned against the wall of the empty hallway, phone at her ear, Laura closed her eyes. Timecap. Time, capped.

She felt a vacancy in her own looping hallways, her interior dim and scooped, nothing to land on. Next lesson, class: “Made dark by an absence of something.” What’s that, too easy?

She called Ben; she called the school principal. Then she got in her car and drove home.

She heard the music faintly from their front stoop as she fiddled with her keys. The water in her eyes was making everything slosh and it was hard to see what she was doing. But this was okay, because as if on cue, the door opened, the music clearly audible. Her purse was taken from her and she was led inside, the door closing behind her.

The tears had started running down her face and she still wasn’t seeing clearly, but it didn’t matter. The arms around her were warm and permanent, and the combination of this and the breaking feeling inside her and the song, wherever it was coming from, worked.

* * *

Predictable: the clock kept ticking. Minutes gave way to hours, hours to days, days to weeks. And one of these weeks, days, hours, minutes, Laura’s husband, whose compassion in the wake of her mother’s death had revealed itself quietly, cautiously, uniquely, led her into his workroom. There was something he wanted to show her, he said.

They stood in front of the old drafting table in the center of the far wall, where Ben would sit and replicate whole ecosystems, mapping vegetation, animal life, all kinds of ecological data… Though it was what he did for work, Laura had always found the results beautiful and she used to wander in routinely as he drew, commenting on the careful attention he’d given a particular eddy or sediment cross-sectional. It was art pure and simple, she’d told him; he could sell it if he wanted. And how full her heart would feel, looking at those detailed renderings, watching him at work, his hand as it slid across the faintly gridded paper.

But here now, what awaited her was different. Not replicated but created. New-world plans, she saw, Ben giving her a chance to survey his handiwork before starting in with an explanation.

There were trees—three of them, forming an obtuse triangle and recognizable as trees behind the woodshed in their backyard.

What wasn’t familiar, what wasn’t possible to recognize, was the thing drawn within them. It was a house, and it had curved walls and a four-sided roof and two porthole-like windows like the kind seen on old ships. It had Dutch doors fastened with four hinges, and it had a circular deck and a rope ladder and a firemen’s pole. It was colored red. It was as pretty a house as any she’d seen.

“Remember how, just after Lila was born and we’d only been here a few months, we talked about a treehouse, about how perfect a spot those three old maples afforded?”

Ben was standing behind her, their clasped hands held tight at Laura’s sides. Her head was at his chest, and she liked the way his front felt against her back. She closed her eyes, opened them.

“I remember that.”

“Well, I figured, why not now? She’s old enough, and Grant’s not long away, and the neighbor kids…

“Anyway, I found this great website, and I picked up a few books on treehouse construction, and this is my first draft. Pretty preliminary; I’ll obviously need to sit down and hammer out the finer logistical points, but I think I can make it come out pretty close to what you’re looking at here. I was even thinking, you know Lila’s pirate obsession? Well, one of the books details a sort of trap door feature that looks easy enough to pull off.”

Laura heard the confidence in her husband’s voice and felt buoyed by it. Still amazed at what he’d created, and moved by the love behind it, she admired the acuity of the bark on the trees, in her head seeing him late at night—it was clearly what he’d been up to in recent past—hunched over his desk, with his mechanical pencil tracing the most negligible of lines, lines like veins. Next, a vision of Ben’s confidence as resin: tooth-strong and binding each of the five years they’d been together—life sap flowing, fixing, root to crown. Rhythmically, events spanning their relationship flashed through Laura’s mind, and they were events of no particular significance, just things that had happened. Markers. And as she stood there, looking, leaning, she let something go, and it was like nothing and everything at once.

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