Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Chesterfield


I try not to lie, but one of the lies I find myself consistently telling people is that I once lived in Pittsburgh. I’ve nearly talked myself into believing it, too. I don’t have much foundation for saying this. I haven’t been there for fifteen years. Between 2001 and 2003, I went to Pittsburgh probably three times altogether. Knowing other people that lived there, I never had to learn my way around. I just followed them and hardly ever knew where I was in relation to anything else. Nothing significant ever happened to me there. I was just observing. But, it’s exactly this lack of significance that makes my memories of Pittsburgh mundane enough to believe I lived there. Visiting a place, you do things, see the sights, take pictures, but since Pittsburgh was the first place I ever went on my own, I had no idea I should be doing these things and spent all my time sitting on porches smoking cheap Pennsylvania cigarettes watching he summer evaporate on the uneven concrete slabs of the sidewalk.
I remember the first trip down the best and even those memories are hollowed out by a sense of routine. Matt and Josh were living in a squat on Chesterfield Street, which was a bricked street back then—maybe it still is. A flight of lumpy bricks, improbably lifting off the main street below and shaking up into the hills like a large, ungainly bird taking flight. At the bottom of the street, there was a bus stop and a decommissioned blue post office box on it’s side which people waiting for the bus sometimes sat on like a bench. As the street rose, the neighborhood must’ve gotten worse. Boards replaced windows and the lumpy street was covered in the fractured gleam of broken bottles. I don’t remember ever going up there but I remember the brilliancy of the broken glass shining up there in the morning when the sun lit up the top of the hill.
One night, we went to a party across the bridge and some other time we went downtown to see a band, but mainly, when I think of Pittsburgh, I remember sitting on that porch on Chesterfield Street, overlooking that sagging brick hill, the mailbox on its side and the people hanging around the bus stop; watching the city life go by below. It was like the first day of a class where you’re suddenly exposed to all these new people, without being introduced and, to get to know them, you have to find your way to meeting them, one at a time, but rather than people, it was things and places I had yet to meet.
I’d graduated from high school earlier that summer and I was finally free from constraint, but, now that I had no obligations, I had more time to think and all the thoughts I was producing were beginning to take on tragic aspects. So, I walked around, trying to dispel the guilt that seemed to be calcifying inside me like a gallstone. I went into cafes and parks and read and thought and wrote. My efforts weren’t leading to anything comprehensible, but it felt good to try to keep track of myself for once. There didn’t seem to be anything to do after high school but find a place in the world, which was really already done. Pay the rent, buy food, work, it wasn’t difficult. It was finding a place in myself that I didn’t understand.
I was reading a lot of Dostoevsky and when I was looking for a place in myself, I started doing what I called the ‘Nevsky Prospekt Promenade.’ This was an aimless, but intensely introspective walk, usually in a crowded place, caffeine-fueled. Back in Michigan, I’d been forced to Promenade in the malls, walking from Applebee’s to the B. Dalton Books, muttering to myself, trying to look beatific at the same time. In Pittsburgh, I found it was a little easier to imitate the narrator from Notes from Underground. There were a lot more people, everything was shabbier and I was living in a basement.
In early July, Bretton, Ryan and I left Michigan on a hot, still afternoon and listened to Bretton’s old tapes the whole way down. Too young to realize that the best part of the trip is when you leave town, we squandered it complaining about a friend of ours who could never seem to get things together. He was supposed to come with us, but, when we’d arrived he complained he didn’t have any money and refused to leave his place on the porch. We drove southeast, going under Detroit, towards Cleveland. Operation Ivy piped out of the speakers, drown out by the noise and wind of the highway. On the horizon, the flat, wooded landscape of southern Michigan melting together in the heat.
...
Coming out of the Liberty Tunnel that evening, the city thrust itself up from the river valley and went climbing up the hillsides. It looked bigger than any city I’d ever seen because it was all there at once and immediately we began our descent into the Allegheny, dropping down among the buildings and getting lost in the sunken streets which funneled us across the bridge. We drove until we reached the foot of Chesterfield where we angled the car up the impossibly steep hillside street and jumped out yelling before we’d even finished parking. We said our hellos, accepted beers, lit cigarettes and immediately fell into the lassitude of the place, sprawling out on the sagging porch, crashing into the broken couch; we took our places as if we were at home.
No one paid rent on the house on Chesterfield, but it was connected to utilities like water, gas and light. Some kind of deal had been worked out, but no one seemed to know what it was. There were a few people living there, coming and going. Among them my friend Matt and another guy from Michigan, Josh, who I’d met a handful of times. Hanging out with them that summer was the first time I had no obligations, no curfews, no check-in phone calls to make. I was an adult, doing adult things—if they can be called that. Sitting on that porch, talking about bands or graffiti writers, I was profoundly aware that I never had to go home again. This lent the world below, at the bottom of the street a new allure. I could be just as much a part of it as anyone else. We’d only just arrived, but I was anxious to see what else was in the neighborhood. It seemed like the whole world was out there.
After bullshitting on the porch for an hour or so, Matt and I went down to the corner store. It was the late twilight that only occurs in the summer, where thin bands of violet, gray and dark blue sit on the horizon, projecting screens of faded daylight onto west-facing walls and tree branches. The streetlights cast long shadows over this faltering light and after a few beers, the result was fuzzy and pleasant. As we walked, I took in the detail of the neighborhood, trying to focus on landmarks here and there, but I was consumed by the little differences, the minutiae of newness. A piece of graffito, an advertisement for Pyramid cigarettes, a port-a-potty, a newspaper rack, the headlines announcing the beginning of a manhunt for a little girl who had been missing for over 24 hours. Pittsburgh sits down in a bowl and looking up, I could see that hills that crowded the city, dotted with sporadic lights and beyond them, forests, coal mining regions, Appalachia—a wilderness to be lost in. I mentioned the lost little girl to Matt. It was the first he’d heard of it, but he shook his head, like the conclusion was foregone. We got lost in discussion and I’d forgotten to pay any attention to where we were. I walked alongside Matt, letting myself be led through the unfamiliar streets until we came back to Chesterfield and I could hear the voices of my friends above the clank of bottles and the snick of lighters.
The middle of that summer was murky and humid, like a greasy depression in the middle of a paper plate. After being in town a few days, we began to fall into a routine of sitting on the porch throughout the day, putting activity off until the evening when it would be cooler. Sinking into the gritty couch, smoking cheap cigarettes, drinking half-gallons of sweet tea and beer when it was around, things I had thought to understand were gradually being lost to the haze of too many hot, still Pittsburgh afternoons. My brain felt like it was evaporating in the beery haze, burning off like something I’d consumed the night before, leaving nothing but a residue of misplaced purpose. I meant to go off and explore, but something was always about to happen. There was a lot of waiting. In the evenings, people came over. People left. People I’d never met emerged from somewhere in the house and walked out into the night, down the declining row of streetlights to the main streets without saying a word. I had no idea how many people lived in the house. Some were only temporary or part-time residents. Some had girlfriends they stayed with part of the time. At the end of the day, when we’d been planning to leave, people came from the surrounding neighborhood to hang out on the porch. Paper bags unrolled, bottles clanked and a plume of cigarette smoke went up and hung around the ceiling, weighed down by the humidity in the air. We drank and coughed through it well into the night. Sometimes, I’d step off the porch to pee or something and see this unified whole of smoke, broken furniture and bodies wriggling along, whipping itself into a frenzy or sinking down on its haunches at the end of the night. By the morning, it would be gone, burnt off by the heat of the sun, leaving bottles and overflowing ashtrays. And we’d be there again, flipping through books, drawing on paper bags, planning on leaving, on exploring the city later in the day, after the sun went down.
Around noon, when the heat made even the porch intolerable, I’d go down to the corner store, listening to the smoke crinkle in the threads of my unwashed clothes as I walked, trying at once to clear my head and to ignore the thoughts that told me this was all the freedom the world had to offer. That the porch on Chesterfield was really all I had been missing when I was a kid and had to go home. Now, I could stay as long as I wanted, but, was there anything worth staying for? Consumed by these thoughts, I’d blunder into the air-conditioned, orderly world of the corner store, buy my stale coffee and stop at the newspaper rack to check the story about the lost little girl. Day 2 or 3. Girl still missing. Manhunt extended. Following the story was something as new to me as the dull freedoms of Chesterfield Street. I had never followed anything happening in the newspaper, but each day, I did the Nevsky Prospekt Promenade down to this place, to the coffee and to the headlines. As I walked back, I thought about the little girl and looked up into the hills. Was she in a place where she could see the distant haze of the lights of the city at night? What did she do all day? Wait out the heat in one place or try to find her way out? I know they say when you’re lost to stay in one place, but I can’t imagine anyone being patient enough to do it.
The main reason I’d gone to Pittsburgh was to see Matt who’d moved away after finishing high school a year ahead of me. It had drastically changed my outlook my last year in school to have a friend in another state. When his letters came, I left the envelopes laying around so people would see the Pittsburgh, PA under his name. When I wrote back, I wrote the city as prominently as his name, like they were of equal importance. In the letters I received in reply, there were allusions to crazy parties, new bands, basement shows, girls and graffiti—which was usually sketched on the borders of the letter: tags and throws in confident strokes of a permanent marker. They were exiting letters and they crowded my imagination with nights spend wide awake in a large city, jumping turnstiles, while simultaneously puffing a cigarette and tagging the wall. To a 17 year-old who’d invested everything into friends and goodtimes, the vision was a rhapsody.
At night, from a pile of mattresses in the basement of the squat on Chesterfield, I remembered the thoughts of that high school kid and tried to match them to the reality. The heat in the basement was so stifling it had a presence, like it was something else in the room, something sentient and pervasive. There was only one naked lightbulb directly above my face. It was the type of basement that would be pitch dark even in the day and the only lightswitch was all the way across the room, at the top of the stairs. To turn it off and descend into the darkness seemed counter-intuitive, so I left it on, burning over me throughout the night, hanging humid basement shadows in strange contortions on the walls, over the piles of junk. It reeked of long established colonies of mold, probably in the walls, growing in tropical profusion in bushy green masses. The heat combined with the light made me feel like a drunk sprawled out unconscious on the burning sidewalk, which, in some perverse way, made it easier to get to sleep. Drifting off in the humid consciousness of all that trapped heat, I tried to reconcile my visions of independent life with what I was finding and realized that I must be doing something wrong to come up with such a disconnect between the two, but in the heavy, reeking atmosphere, I couldn’t understand what it could be.
Routine, more than anything, made me feel like I was living in Pittsburgh. After a few mornings, I was habituated to waking up under the still burning lightbulb, staggering up the stairs into the living room, which actually felt cool by comparison. Pushing aside the wreckage of the previous night, I’d open the door to the cataclysm of the beer bottled porch and the low morning sun spearing the improvised ashtrays and crumbled paper bags with dusty shafts of green and brown light. The morning walk to the corner store was the only time of day I was alone and lucid. I walked with a firm step, confident that something would come of the day; that today, the racing adventure which seemed to be playing out just beyond the confines of the porch would finally climb the littered bricks of Chesterfield Street, envelop us and break us loose from the padded moorings of the old, threadbare couch and milk crate tables.
Down at the corner store, the newspaper rack kept a running tally of how long they’d been looking and out in the street, posters had appeared. The posters had a desperate approach. They asked if anyone had any information. The word ‘any’ was used liberally enough to look like desperation. In every line of text, there was at least one ‘any’.
At the beginning, I had imagined the little girl, like any little girl, neat hair, pigtails, barrettes, big grin, missing front tooth just sitting calmly in the woods, but as the days went by, I imagined her hair more disheveled, her jumper smeared with dirt, maybe a shoe missing. Instead of glancing at the headlines, I’d begun to read the rest of the story I could without buying the paper and opening it up. I’d stand there holding my coffee in one hand, the front page in the other, talking to the pictures, which seemed to be getting bigger each day. “C’mon, little girl,” I exhorted her, under my breath to find her way back home. “C’mon little girl,” I whispered between sips. “We’re all down here. You can see the light at night. Come down here. Follow these crazy streets down to where we’re all waiting.”
At night, more and more often, I was leaving the porch and looking up the street. Matt, Bretton or Ryan would follow me and ask if I was alright, thinking I had just had too much to drink. I wanted to tell them about the girl, but, I couldn’t think of a way to do it without sounding mawkish. At night, it just never seemed like a good time to talk about it and we went back to the noise and smoke of the porch together and I tried to forget it, because I knew, that maybe, I didn’t care as much as I’d told myself I did. Maybe, I was just trying too hard to be a Dostoevsky character.
One morning, I came back from getting my coffee and reading the latest about the lost girl and found everyone up and moving around, a little more excited the usual. I could see something resolute had been going on. Ryan told me that they’d decided to leave the next day. “There’s nothing to do here. We’re sick of sitting around.” I agreed and when Matt woke up, I told him. He lit a cigarette and said “I’m just glad you got to come down, dude.”
We were all getting ready to settle into the couches and the milk crates again when Bretton declared that she was hungry and that we should all go out and get something to eat. Matt agreed. “Yeah, we cold go to Chinatown and get something to cook back here. You could see a little more of the city before you go.” Now that our time in Pittsburgh was limited, we all became more enthusiastic. We were no longer facing down some nebulous period of time sunk into the couches walking to the corner store and back. Suddenly, we were here, in Pittsburgh and it was exciting again. We became visitors and we got back in the car to visit Chinatown.
We ended up down by the river, with the highways we needed to merge onto crossing over us, as distant as jet trails in the sky. Matt never drove, so he had no idea how to give directions without crossing medians and opposing one-way traffic. After driving along the river a while we found our way out from under the tangle of bridges and ramps by following signs and ended up in Chinatown.
As there was never any substantial Chinese migration to the interior of the country, the hinterland Chinatowns are nothing like their coastal companions. There are no lacquered wooden gates, no street signs in Mandarin, no leagues of Chinese grandmas standing in food bank lines holding folded reusable bags behind their packs, no chainsmoking men slapping mahjong tiles down in from of a steaming teahouse. No. The Chinatowns in places like Pittsburgh, Chicago and St. Louis are—or even were, in the case of St. Louisdusty outposts of the Chinese community; a few shops, some old signs and a handful of quiet residents who would be bewildered to learn San Francisco’s Chinatown has it’s own library and community college. In Pittsburgh, Chinatown was a dusty relic, not a living neighborhood.
We bounded into the quiet neighborhood, reviving an exuberance for life that had seemed out of place on the porch on Chesterfield. The otherness of this brittle Chinatown made it feel like an attraction of some kind. We raced down the sidewalk and yelled after each other, like kids. We dropped all pretense and began to enjoy our lack of responsibility, perhaps in contrast to the drudgery of the lives of the neighborhood’s inhabitants who all seemed to be at work behind large dusty windows, just beyond the reach of the sun, which had faded all the displays of fortune cookies and zodiac calendars after having shielded the store’s interiors from the harsh, coal dusted rays of the sun for so long.
A motion sensor dingdonged as we filed into one of the larger Chinese groceries. In the back, past all the dented cans of lychee and the ageless and uncertain products with no expiation date, was a heavy refrigerator case, paneled in chrome with a window of thick freon-dimmed aquarium glass and a motor chugging away with the irascibility of a lawnmower. Under the current of the motor a radio played, barely audible, mumbling. A Chinese woman, slender, with her straight black hair spider-webbed with iron gray, got off her stool at our entrance and pretended to sweep around the shop. As we walked back into the aisles, the woman followed us, sweeping only for form’s sake. She didn’t watch the motion of the broom, or the floor ahead, but kept her eyes leveled at us, unabashed to stare directly. Confident in the knowledge that the moment she dropped her gimlet gaze, we’d be filling our pockets. We tried to shake her off—not to steal, only to get away from that accusing look— but it was her store and she multiplied herself, somehow following each of us in different directions down the aisles. Feeling lighthearted, I walked into one aisle, only to turn and walk into another the moment she joined me. The others were doing the same. I could hear their Chuck Taylors squeaking on the faded linoleum. We regrouped at the refrigerator door and went to looking for tofu. There was only one variety, but it was cheap and in a bigger block that usual. When the woman with the spider-webbed hair saw us coming up to the counter with a purchase, she assumed her place behind the counter with an air of complete indifference. I was surprised to note, as I got closer to the source, that the radio she was listening to was in English. The reporter speaking sounded like he was outside. The sound of ambient wind and voice washing in and out of the speakers. Helicopter blades. And, before I heard it, I knew. I stood there, listening and trying not to listen while my friends argued with the woman about putting the tofu in a bag. “Nine days,” I heard the voice say. She’d been lost nine days.
Our adventure ended quickly. Matt mentioned going to some place called the cork factory where all the good writers painted, but everyone was hungry and when Matt openly doubted he could remember the way, we decided to turn around and go back.
After we ate, when everyone was going back to the porch, I decided I needed a walk. I walked down Chesterfield, back to the Oakland neighborhood with its pizza places and sandwich shops with Grateful Dead bears painted above the tables. It was summer and most of the students were gone. In the heat of the afternoon, I was nearly alone on the sidewalk. I figured since we were leaving tomorrow, I didn’t have to worry about running out of money, so I went over to a cafe, bought a coffee and sat down. I didn’t have anything to read so I picked up one of the free papers by the door. It had come out a few days earlier and had a full-page ad for the lost little girl. I looked into her smiling eyes, her mom-combed hair and I felt something like humiliation, knowing that this face was still in every one of these papers up all over town, looking out from page 3, almost asking ‘have you seen me?’ I wanted to turn the page, but to do so seemed so final and cruel. I sat there a while, looking around the cafe and out the window. A police car went by, slowly, looking around. The tip jar jangled. Some one yelled “Barry! Man, I thought that was y..” out in the street. I started to fold the paper open to the girl’s face, but that seemed wrong, too. I flipped back to the cover and got up to put the paper away. A homeless guy, who must’ve thought I had a real paper tapped me on the arm as I walked past his seat with his backpack spilling out all over the table and asked “you finished with that?” pointing to the paper. I said sure and gave it to him. I started to tell him it was just a free paper, but I stopped. ‘Let him think he got a free paper,’ I thought and walked out the door.
Out in the street, hands shoved into my pockets, head down, I did the Nevsky Prospekt Promenade for a while, not walking, just going forward like I was on a conveyor belt. I was getting pretty far away when I sat down on a bench and lit a cigarette. I felt shaky with the effects of days of casual drinking and too many Pyramid cigarettes. One of my eyelids was jumping up and down, which I wasn’t sure whether to attribute to the oily coffee or to general fatigue. I sat, smoked and let my thoughts drift to all kinds of places when a kid walking by with a cubs baseball hat, 22 or 23, stopped and faced me. “Hey, you know how to get across the bridge from here?” he asked. I told him. We’d walked there a few nights ago, so I still had a pretty good idea. “How long’s it take?” I told him it wouldn’t take too long. He thanked me and walked off. The police car came back by, going the opposite way. I watched it go, smoking. Still young enough to appreciate smoking in front of cops. I finished my cigarette and started back toward the porch and one last night of living in Pittsburgh.


Friday, May 25, 2018

Maytag Deal Customer

Last night, MDC was playing. A band that I’ve been reading about since I was about 14. I never had any of their records, but I knew of them and I always meant to get around to listening to them. Apparently, the name stands for Millions of Dead Cops which was incredibly cool-sounding to a high school punk kid. It was something I would’ve liked on a shirt. But I never bought the record. I never asked someone to make me a tape. I never even heard MDC.

Nearly 20 years after I’d first heard of MDC, I was living in Thailand, teaching English classes at a provincial university with a government program when one day, online, I noticed something.

Hey,” I called out from the living room, which was really just a table that had been there when we’d moved in and a mattress we’d put on the floor to simulate a couch.

What?” Gina answered from the other mattress in the bedroom. It was so hot in that place that, often, you found yourself having to go lie down in the middle of the day to keep from passing out. Also, we took a lot of cold showers. I say cold, but the water was only cold for the first five seconds then it warmed up, almost like the heat from your body had traveled up the flow, into the showerhead, down into the tank and heated the water. It was so hot it felt like that could happen.

There’s this new venue in Arcata. Looks like they put on some good shows.” I yelled from my place on the floor mattress. Arcata was where we met and where Gina was born. For years she’d been trying to get me to move back there, but I could never quite convince myself that there was anything worth moving back for. I liked Arcata, but it was small and largely dominated by the university that makes up nearly the whole eastern side of the town. We’d lived there once before and I’d worked at an industrial-output level flower farm. For a few months, it had been alright, but it wasn’t something I wanted to spend any significant amount of time doing. The way I saw it, there just weren’t many options in a place like Arcata. Not much for jobs, you could work a minimum wage, part-time job or go to the university. Other than a movie theater, nothing much for entertainment and a couple of mediocre taco trucks was all the place could boast of for food. Still, Gina kept me in the loop as to any new developments, knowing from experience that my opinions were, by no means, permanent.

I told you about that place already,” she yelled from the bedroom.

I knew she probably had. Even in Thailand, nothing happened in Arcata without Gina knowing via the Lost Coast Outpost, an online paper that she read religiously, even when she was living in places like Thailand or Paraguay. Lately, I had been trying to get her to be interested in some other place. The mountains, the desert, somewhere back east, I wanted her to feel at home when we went back to the States, but I wanted to find my own home, a place that would be ours. I studied maps and job postings, but the best thing I could come up with was Monterey, which looked:
A: expensive, not San Francisco expensive, but still expensive and
B: touristy. I wanted to go find the Monterey beyond Cannery Row, which I’d been to a few times already to visit the aquarium. When I learned there was another town, away from the Row with its taffy shops and chain seafood restaurants, I wanted to see it. The bay looked incredible, kelp forests, seals and water calm enough to get into and snorkel around once in a while (with a wetsuit). I’d tried to convince Gina that Monterey would be worth moving to. I talked about the place so much, she finally had to agree. It wasn’t a battle easily won, but finally she’d agreed to check it out when we got back. And now, here I was, sabotaging myself, expressing interest in this new venue in Arcata. But, reading about the place, I couldn’t help but to think about the quiet, easily walkable town surrounded by all kinds of natural splendor. Maybe, with the addition of this venue, it wouldn’t be so bad to live there after all. Living in a place like Thailand where the daytime temperature never dropped below 87, certainly made the temperate Pacific climate seem more desirable.

When we came back to the States, we juggled the options of San Francisco, Monterey and the areas in between before deciding to move to Seattle. We flew into San Francisco, just because it was the place we’d left from a year earlier and the pull of inertia was too strong to ignore. We stayed in the area a few days before heading north. The plan was to stay with Gina’s folks in Arcata for a few days, collect our stuff and continue north to Seattle, but, after a few days in Arcata, I no longer felt like going anywhere. I couldn’t imagine doing better than Arcata. The little college town was peaceful and, because I’d been there so many times, it felt familiar. In the early morning, I’d make coffee and ride my bike to the beach. In the late afternoon, I’d walk back into the forest, or down to the marshland by the bay. It was as anodyne as you could get after the noise and heat of urban Southeast Asia.

There was also more to do now. One of the theaters downtown was under new management and now played more independent and foreign films and there was the new venue I’d noticed that day on the internet. The place seemed to have a show almost every night with interesting-sounding bands. I envisioned myself going there about once a week and getting to know everyone, making friends.

After a week in Arcata, I went back to San Francisco for a job fair. All the California Community Colleges were hiring English teachers for the next academic year. I’d been applying online for all these positions. I figured I’d get a job anywhere I could and that acceptance of the place I lived would follow. I didn’t want to live in a suburban area, but all the places that were hiring seemed to be just beyond the pale of urban settlement. There were schools near Napa, San Jose, San Diego and Palm Springs. I applied for them all, thinking I’d increase my chances that way.

We left Arcata around noon, which, given that it takes about 5-6 hours to reach San Francisco is the worst time to leave. We cruised through the redwoods for a few hours, almost completely alone on the highway, but, as we neared Ukiah, the traffic began to increase. We didn’t even make it to Santa Rosa before we were bumper to bumper. We crawled into the city, through a haze of red taillights. It took a few hours and, by the time we went over the 580 bridge, I had to pee like crazy. In the East Bay, we hit more traffic and it looked like it stretched all the way down to San Jose. I looked out the window in a kind of wild desperation and saw, on the looks of my fellow commuters: the most bland type of utter resignation. Everyone looked like workers before computer screens in an office under sputtering florescent lights. I’d had to contend with the traffic of the Bay Area before as a delivery driver, but I’d never been so irritated by it then. After spending days walking along the quiet streets of Arcata, the excess of humanity, packing itself in, was not something I found exciting. It was an irritant and nothing more, which happens when you have to pee as bad as I did.

Sunday morning, I woke up, put on my suit jacket, combed my hair, picked up the folder with my resumes and made my way to the BART Station. Early in the morning, there was no one around and the train was almost empty. I watched a damp morning Hayward drift past the windows. Every area along the tracks that wasn’t a crowded neighborhood, was filled with tents or a construction site. People were living everywhere and they were still packing them in. Even this far from the City, one-bedroom apartments were renting for 4,000.00 a month, hence the tents which, in a sense, were free.

I got off at Colosseum and waited for the shuttle to the hotel hosting the job fair. Another enterprising woman was waiting with me in a suit that looked tailored. We both looked a little desperate: Sunday morning on San Leandro St. constantly looking south for an arriving bus. We used the situation to have the empty, practicing talk one has with fellow job-seekers before an interview, both of us using the opportunity to sound ourselves out, to tune our voices to professional amicability, not listening. It was exactly the kind of conversation you expect two people in suits on Sunday morning to be having.
The morning fog burned off and the day warmed up. I checked in at the hotel and got my name tag. I was surprised to see it had a barcode on it. I hadn’t expected to need a barcode for anything. Inside the conference center, lines of tables were set up, each with a different banner on a board behind it and a pile of free pens or mints. I went to each one advertising for an English or ESL position, thinking maybe I’d gain some insight as to why we were all there. Obviously, these colleges had plenty of applicants. There were many more people in the room by nine o’clock than there were jobs being offered. Why did they need to have this job fair? No one I met actually worked in these departments, in fact their jobs were just to promote their college at these job fairs, they knew very little about the jobs they promoted. I thought I’d have an edge given that I’d already applied for the jobs online. That way, I thought, I’d look serious and no one could brush me off by telling me to go home and apply. But, when I approached each booth, introducing myself and saying I’d already applied for the position I only received bland encouragements and free pens and then they’d pull out the scanner to get my barcode, never asking my name. I’d hoped to meet relevant people and make connections, but I was only having more of the type of conversation I’d had at the bus stop; empty, full of false encouragement. We were all looking for a way in, but the room was full of petitioners, no gatekeepers. It was like a Kafka story; we walked around the dim room, asking if anyone had seen the key, but there was no door, let alone a key to open it. When I left, the sun was shining and the day had grown warm. I took of my jacket and had a conversation with a fellow job-seeker about our Peace Corps experiences. It was a real conversation and by far the most poignant thing I took away from the experience.

That afternoon, driving back to Arcata I felt like I was escaping a palpable cloud of indifference. Moving north, as the population thinned and the rents went down, the sense of competition decreased. The spaces between buildings grew until the buildings themselves became unimportant and scuttled by under the immensity of the landscape. The first time I’d made the drive from SF to Arcata, it had been the opposite, the immensity of the landscape unnerved me. The trees and the hills seemed to swell with desolation, moving north, I felt more and more despondent. When I reached Arcata, I felt lonesome enough to cry. It was summer and the town was quiet, almost ghostly compared to SF. I parked by the marsh and walked a few blocks, watching my feet, hardly looking around. I was full of sighs. I left after an hour or so and felt relief to be returning to the city. Now the situation was nearly reversed.

When I came back after my vocational sortie down to the Bay Area, I felt the familiarity of returning to the place in which one lives. I wasn’t just in another place, I was back where I lived. Exiting the highway and driving down the quiet streets that had once so greatly alienated me, I now felt at home. The feeling didn’t really surprise me; I guess I’d been expecting it.

About a month later, we found a nice apartment where the town fades into the ocean, broken up by diary farms and large, flat parcels of land. I took a job working as a delivery driver for a bakery while I looked for teaching work. I was able to wrestle a part-time position from the university’s International English Language Institute just before it was closed down to accommodate budget cuts. The hours at the bakery were mercifully flexible and I stayed on, working the weekends. My weekdays were mellow. I woke up early, drank coffee, watched the clouds pull back from the mountains in the weak morning sun. I went to teach my class and then stayed half the day planning the next lesson. Sometimes in the evening, we’d bike out to the ocean and watch the sunset. A few times we tried to go out to do something in the evening, but the best I could do was a movie. The fatigue from waking up early would start to swell under my eyes and pop in my joints by about 10. On the weekends, I was getting up much earlier to drive the bakery delivery truck. My alarm went off at 3:30 and even though I got home no later than 1, I was usually inept for the rest of the day. I couldn’t nap, but I looked forward to bed with the vigor of a man who is functioning at half-capacity and wants to restart the day, hoping for something better. It was under these circumstances that MDC came to town.

I’d been working at the bakery for a few months. The brief job at the university was coming to an end. I had a little more free time and didn’t feel so pressured. Of course, the show was on a Sunday night. One of the disadvantages of living in a remote place is that you know the band is stopping over between SF and Portland. The shows are always on odd days, Sundays, Wednesdays, Mondays. I had to work early on Monday, but I’d let this serve as my excuse too many times before. Looking at the MDC flyer outside the co-op, I told myself, when the time came, I was going to go. Thirty-five wasn’t too old. Only a year or two before, I’d been out closing the bars, howling at the moon. Maybe I wouldn’t stay out all night, but I could certainly make it to the show. It started at 6:30. It’d probably be over before 10. There wold be no good reason not to go.

After working for a few days at the bakery, I woke up early Sunday morning. I started to make coffee in the kitchen, but watching the sunlight spread out from its perch at the top of the mountains, I decided to wake Gina and to get outside. When I’m working a lot, it’s hard not to be aware of the stopwatch ticking along beneath the quiet of a Sunday morning.

We walked down 11th street to the bagel shop, where we squinted into the sun and drank steaming coffee. It was only us and the workers at the bagel shop. The rest of the town gradually woke up and stumbled down the hill in the same slouching way we had. Soon the patio was nearly full of other patrons drinking their own steaming coffees, but most of them having been smart enough to bring sun glasses.

The coffee began to kick in and as the patio got crowded, we walked up the hill just to take a walk somewhere. At the top, I stopped and looked back toward the bay. “I’m going to go to that show, I think.” I told Gina and myself, in case there’d been any doubt. With her hand over her brow, shielding her eyes from the sun, she looked at me and asked “What show?”

I reminded her about the MDC show. She said it was great if I wanted to go, but I could tell by the way she said it she had her doubts I’d be able to maintain my dedication all day. I responded shaking my head, as we walked back home. No, it wouldn’t be hard to do. Instead of winding down with a book at 5:30, I’d put on my jacket and walk the 7 or 8 blocks down to the venue. When I got there, the opening bands would be starting and maybe I’d even go over to that pizza place and get a beer. There wasn’t anything difficult about this, but just to be sure, when we got back home, I made some more coffee and stretched out on the couch with the newspaper comics, reasoning that the relaxation and caffeine might keep up my motivation.

After lying around and reading for a while, I got up and we took a walk around the neighborhood. Despite the coffee, I was already starting to feel tired, but I was relaxed. We walked past the farmyards with pens full of languorous calves and returned their mooning looks. We stood by the fence long enough to cause some of the more inquisitive to take a few steps toward us, but none would come up to the shock of sweet green grass that Gina held out coaxingly. The sun was coming down to the horizon and the light was dampening with the hulks of wet-looking clouds coming down from the mountains. Insects and frogs were beginning to chirp and the distant sound of traffic in town was fading as the grocery store parkinglots gradually emptied out and the cars returned home with Sunday-evening groceries consisting mostly of snacks, as no one wants to cook on Sunday evening. The lights came up in the houses we passed, as boxes of pita chips and sleeves of cookies were opened and cardboard lids were peeled back from clingy pints of ice cream. The blue flame of television sprang up in otherwise dark windows up and down the blocks, burning through the cotton fog of the evening.

Our shoes scuffed on the damp tufts of grass sprouting from the broken panels of sidewalk as we drifted back home, leg-sore after too long a walk, but content to have spent the late afternoon in a meaningful way. The need for a washing machine had been reintroduced into the conversation. It was a topic that had been frequently revisited, but with no result other than the nagging feeling that, at some point, I was going to need to go and buy a washing machine, an activity that still seemed so impossibly adult to me. I had a difficult time believing I’d be able to pull it off. I imagined going to a department store and wheeling the thing up to the counter.

Can I help you, sir?”

I’d like to buy this.”

First I’ll need to see your ID.” Confused, I’d hand the clerk my ID, thinking maybe you needed ID for large purchases only to be told: “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll have to ask a sales associate to return the washing machine. K-Mart has a strict 37-and-up policy for all adult appliances such as ovens, dishwashers and, sadly, washing machines. I’ll have to ask you to leave it there.”

I knew I could buy booze, rent cars, buy plane tickets and fly around the world unaccompanied, but somehow, buying a washing machine just didn’t seem like something I’d be allowed to do, perhaps just because it never would’ve occurred to me to do it.

We’d been talking about buying a washing machine for weeks, but I was finding it really easy to put off. ‘I’ll have to measure the door,’ I’d say, making an excuse for why we couldn’t just go buy the damn thing. I hate making any kind of large purchase, not necessarily because I’m cheap, but because I always feel like I’m going to get the one that’s broken and then I’m going to have a 400-dollar mess on my hands and still no way to wash anything at home.

We batted these thoughts back and forth as we walked home in the rarefied light of a clear and breezy evening. The wind had picked up out in the ocean and seemed to be blowing a halloween-orange light across the sky, back toward the mountains, pasted against the sky like a cardboard cutout.

I guess I’m not going to the MDC show,” I sighed as we turned onto our street. As I said it, I felt relieved. I’d been so worried about copping out, I hadn’t spent much time wondering if I really felt like going. I realized now I didn’t have much desire to walk over to the venue and wait for the show to start, trading commonplaces with whoever happened to be standing next to me. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found it very difficult to strike up meaningful conversations at those things. There’s too much focus on the stage. Even before the bands come out, everyone’s just waiting and people get nervous and fidgety when they have to wait. At least I do.

Back in the house, I kicked off my shoes, tumbled onto the couch and listened to competing internal voices of relief and disappointment. I knew I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t quite forgive myself for it. I’d known this was going to happen and still I couldn’t avoid it. I was also thinking about how I needed to get around to buying this washing machine. Here I was, Sunday night, neither enjoying myself nor accomplishing anything, just sitting on the couch feeling tired as I so often seemed to do.

The hell with this,” I suddenly announced, getting to my feet. “Let’s go get this damn washing machine.” I went over to the closet and grabbed the tape measure that had been there all along. “31 inches,” I said measuring the door. “We can’t get anything over 31 inches wide. Let’s go.” I threw the tape measure on the couch.

So, Sunday at the end of April, 2018, instead of going to see Millions of Dead Cops play just down the street from my house, I found myself standing in the K-Mart appliance department, talking to the sales clerk—who was probably a good 10 years younger than me—about washing machine warranties. He didn’t seem to know if there was a warranty or not so, at some point, I shifted my line of inquiry, asking instead if we bought it, if he’d help us put it in the car. This he was able to agree to. “Good enough,” I announced, feeling like a millionaire on a spree. “We’ll take it.”

The clerk went and got a dolly and helped up wheel the thing to the front of the store. The place was nearly empty, like, I suppose, most K-Marts these days, but there was a Mexican couple, walking around with their smartphone on a video call. As they waved the phone around, I could see a face watching intently from a dim room, presumably in Mexico.

Mira este,” the man exclaimed holding the phone to a stuffed animal. “Un osito; ocho dolares.”

Ay!” his wife yelled grabbing the phone and bringing it over to a display of jewelry. Que lindo, verdad? Veinte-cinco-cinquenta.” Gradually the couple and their satellite guest moved deeper into the store, all the while, pointing at things and saying how much they cost. Mostly. They went for the high-profile end-rack items, the blue-light specials of yesteryear, but occasionally, they’d reach into an aisle and pluck something out to coo over and say the price of the item like some kind of incantation necessary for owning it. Watching their excitement over retail, over K-mart fer God’s sake, I felt better about throwing my money away on the washing machine. “We’d spend more than this in a year of going to the laundromat.” I announced to myself and let the clerk wheel the washing machine into the check-out line.

No one asked for my ID. No one even seemed to be interested in our enormous purchase. We paid and led the clerk out to the car, where he and I stuffed the box into the hatchback. The wind had died down and the orange haze was spreading out over the sky, extinguishing in the cold mass of violet clouds scudding in the from the east. I started the car and thought of the Mexican couple, by now they’d probably made it to the back of the store where all the appliances were. They were probably holding their phone up to the floor model of the washing machine I’d bought and exclaiming the price. Somehow, this thought gave me the confidence to drive away and take the thing home.

There are few things as anticlimactic as removing the blank white, metal cube of a washing machine from its box. I’d like to tell you that I put on an MDC record as I unwrapped my adulthood, but the idea never even occurred to me. By the time I got home and got the thing in the door, it was already late and I still had to get up in the morning. I pushed the washing machine against a wall and tossed the shreds of cardboard out of the way. Just down the street, kids were flailing around and slamming into each other through the opening acts of a show they’d remember for the rest of their lives and I was going to bed.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

A Dog's Heart

It’s amazing I’m able to get up. I’ve gotten so accustomed to hearing the alarm at 3:30, I jump up and try to turn it off before it wakes Gina up. I think I’ve made it, but after I stumble out of the room and shut the door to get dressed in the kitchen, I hear the door open behind me. She starts looking in the cupboards.

The hell are you doing?” I ask, not sure if she’s sleepwalking.

Do we have any snacks?” She asks the cupboards. I go back to making coffee and feel relieved she’s so genial when woken up in the middle of the night. I don’t think I’d take it so well.

I’m not taking it too well as it is. The first day of 5 hours of sleep is usually fine, but by the second day, it’s hard to come up from sleep and even after being awake all morning, I find myself driving around, delivering bread feeling like I’m slightly less substantial than the rest of the world. I’m awake, but I feel like I’m dreaming certain details. Those distant bird calls, this shoe on the sidewalk, the appalling stillness of everything, all these details seem to radiate from my tired mind and not from the organic order of things. There’s no way it’s this windless so close to the coast.

While the coffee steeps, I go out to the living room and take out the letter I started three weeks ago. I’ve written the whole thing between 3:30 and 4:00 just to see what that looks like. I read it over and find it, somewhat, disappointingly common. I add another few sentences and then I run out of paper. It’s 4 am anyway, time to get ready to go.

In the early morning, the streets are wet and still. The streetlights, placed at long intervals, peer down into wet puddles of light. The houses are closed up and sleeping. The only sound is my own ragged breath in my ears and the creak of the straining bicycle chain.

The bakers are already at work with the lights blazing and the music going. The bakery, at this hour, is the only building in town with any activity, besides, maybe a party, winding down somewhere. I automatically begin my tasks, completing the floury work without thought but with muscle memory. I shake out the mats, move the racks, open the door and begin bagging the bread that will go out for delivery.

Every job brings a difficult coworker. Someone who is harsh in their opinions and doesn’t get along well with the other workers. This job is no different. A few minutes later she walks in barely saying ‘hello’ to me. We bag the bread in silence until Rodger joins us. The three of us work out of night, into the morning. I, usually the least awake of the three, saying little, pausing long enough between baguettes to add a comment. But, I usually find myself trying to talk over the bread slicer, as the irritable coworker always seems to be just about to turn it on when I start speaking. Coincidence, I tell myself and mumble the rest of my comment to myself, deciding for the third time that morning, that I just won’t say anything at all.

Out on the rounds, things are better. The sky is the color and texture of deep blue construction paper, pocked and opaque. As I drive, I watch the permanent colors fade into pastels and clouds like cotton balls that have been used for removing bright nailpolish, the washed out color smeared across them.

I see an older, gray-faced dog being taken for a walk. He’s looking back fawning at his walker, like he’s asking permission just to keep walking. “I have the heart of a dog,” I hear myself saying to the empty car. I’m not sure why I’m saying it, but it makes a lot of sense. I have the same blundering qualities dogs have. I speak without thinking and I’m always pulling sorry dog faces, asking permission to keep walking. I want, perhaps too badly, to be liked by everyone. I think of my negative coworker and try to think of the right thing to say, but, really, despite our overlapping schedules, I’d rather just avoid her.

The morning looks good for gamboling around and despite the clouds and their pressure, I drive from store to store with the grin and the inane blandishments of a deliveryman. I talk to other workers about business and weather, a mutual sniffing, I guess, but, like any good dog, I enter into the negotiation of noses and butts with tail wagging.

I finish my deliveries early and ride home with a loaf of foccacia under my arm. At home, I turn in a long lazy circle, considering reading and eating before finally just deciding to lie down. It’s dimmer in the bedroom, so I go in, hoping the lack of light will make sleep less illusive. My eyes are filmy, my skin feels hot, I long to sleep, but it’s something I’m not able to find my way into when the sun’s up, no matter how cloudy the day. I lie there reading and then I hear a wild fluttering coming from somewhere inside the house. At first I dismiss the sound as something happening close to a vent on the roof. A pigeon scuffle next to the oven flue or something, but when the sound repeats, a minute later, I hear the desperation in it and know in my craven dog’s heart, that something is trapped somewhere.

I throw off the blankets and walk through the still, afternoon house. I strain my ears toward the vents and the seam of the wall and the ceiling, but there’s nothing. I try to lie back down, but it’s futile, no sooner have I picked up my book when the sound flutters to life again with a heartbreaking insistence. I throw my shirt on and go outside. I walk around the house, scanning the eaves and the little pvc pipes poking through the shingles. I can’t see anything, but I know there’s something beneath all of it.
I call my landlord, who lives next door with a ladder, a bunch of tools and more knowledge of the structure of this place than I have.

His phone rings so loud, I can hear it from where I’m standing in the yard. When he answers it, I feel like a kid calling across the yard on a walkie-talkie. I tell him there’s something caught somewhere in the house. I can hear it fluttering in the walls, or in the ceiling. I can’t tell which. He comes out from his own Saturday afternoon, wearing sweats and looking like he’s been taking it easy. He’s a nice guy. We talk a little while we look up at the roof of the house, squinting against the harsh, gray cloud-light and speculating where something could’ve gotten in. An eave, with grass growing out of it, presents itself as a likely point of ingress. He opens the ladder and goes up to take a look. I stand below, shielding my eyes and straining to see what’s going on.

Ah-ha,” the landlord exclaims from the roof and I look up in time to see a little egg come rolling down the shingles. “There’s yer nest,” he tells me. I look at the narrow gap and realize, if the bird’s in there, it’s in the wall and not coming out. As if in confirmation, the landlord announces he’s just going to seal the whole thing off so nothing else can get in. Of course, this way, nothing is going to be able to get out either. Other than knocking a hole in the wall, there doesn’t seem to be anything to do. The landlord wedges a few pieces of wood into the open seam and when he folds up his ladder, I go out to skateboard, hoping the fluttering in the wall will be over by the time I get back. I don’t relish the opportunity to listen to the death throes of something perishing in a dark and lonely place.

The cloudy, mild day is ideal for skating. I go through the school, trying to warm up, but continually slapping those clunky ollies with my nose coming up too high, the tail, not enough. The skate across town is nice, and the music in my headphones gives it purpose. It’s nice to be out and moving around. At the skatepark, an expanse of gray concrete on a gray day, I meet a kid named Peps and we talk about the obscurity of nicknames until he skates away to study for finals. I leave soon after, skate through another school and head home again.

I enter the house carefully, straining my ears to listen. The walls are silent and I hope that the bird just somehow found it’s way out. It’s easier that way. I’m in the kitchen writing when the fluttering starts up again. It’s in the wall just behind the stove. I try to ignore it, but it’s a plea and it’s also sporadic and annoying. I get up and stand by the stove to listen. Damn, it sound like it’s right behind it. I pull out the drawer at the bottom of the stove and, here’s a bunch of feathers. At first, I think somehow I’ve gained entry to the inside of the wall, but then I realize, it’s just where the wall meets the back of the stove. I look up, I look around where the oven meets the counter. There nowhere the feathers could’ve come from. This bird is behind the oven! It’s shocking but joyous revelation. I grab the door of the oven and start to pull, getting a grip the only place I can, but rather than bringing the stove away from the wall, the damn door, flies off the hinges sending me reeling back through the kitchen. I’m left holding the oven door, which, I already know, down in my dog’s heart, I will not be able to put back on.

It looks simple enough, but the springs won’t engage and the door won’t line up. I try a number of ways to get the door to line up, but it’s hard to do alone, shifting the heavy and awkward oven door around, trying to get it to line up with pins I can’t even see. Meanwhile, the bird is flapping away behind the stove. I give up and call the landlord again. When he answers, I start trying to explain, but the situation is so bizarre and there are so many thing to address, I give up and ask him if he can just come over and see. He agrees and I step outside to meet him, apologizing for the catastrophe he’s about to walk into. The drawer is pulled out of the stove, the door is off, there’s crumbs all over and the panicked, fluttering continues. I show him the feathers.

I know it sounds crazy, but I think it’s gotten behind the stove somehow.” I explain.

Yeah, you know, maybe it came in when you had the door open and started nesting.” He agrees, but both of us are standing there scratching our heads, not really able to believe what we’re saying. What the hell would a bird be doing behind the stove and how long could it have been back there before eliciting notice? There’s no way we wouldn’t have heard it until today.

We set to work pulling the stove away from the wall. Both of us are waiting for the bird to explode out in a flurry of feathers and behind-the-stove grime and dust, but nothing happens. We peer cautiously back. The fluttering starts up again.

It’s still trapped in something.” I say.

Sounds like it’s in the stove. It sounded like it was hitting something metal.” The landlord adds, shaking his head in disbelief. We start examining the back of the oven for any niches the bird could be in. There’s a panel held on with about 50 screws. Both of us are leery about taking that off, but the more we pry around, the more it looks like it’s going to be the only way. While we think, I get the vacuum to clean up the pile of feathers behind the stove while it’s pulled away from the wall. I switch it on and, instantly, something that looks like a dirt bird whirrs up the vacuum hose. I shut it off. The landlord says, “there’s your bird.”

It couldn’t be,” I respond, already taking the cover off the vacuum to get the bag out. “That pile of feathers has been sitting there immobile since we pulled the stove back. We both heard the bird flapping around. If it was in that pile of feathers, we would’ve seen it move. Right?I pull the bag out of the vacuum and feel around in the clotted dirt and carpet threads. My fingers grasp something solid, I pull it out, a little bird bone. I feel around, there’s more. “It was a bird,” I say. “But one that’s been dead awhile. There’s no way the one we just heard has already been reduced to bones.” I kneel down to inspect the area where the pile of feathers was and it becomes clear to me. Behind the feathers, is the bottom of an outlet which the stove plugs into. With the feathers removed, I can see there’s a small gap between the bottom of the outlet panel and the wall. The bird really is in the wall, and she’s not the first, there have been others and they all tried to get out this way. I turn on the vacuum and put it up to the gap, sure enough, a steam of birdbones and feathers spins out, down into the roaring vacuum hose. “Yeah, she’s in the wall after all,” I say.

We step back, considering this new situation and, as if in response, a small bird peaks her head out from under the panel and tries to wriggle out. The scene is so affecting. It’s the first time either of us has seen the bird. We both spontaneously start to cheer for the little bird. Yelling encouragements like ‘c’mon little guy!’ and ‘you can do it.’ But the gap is just a little too small, even with the stove pulled away. The landlord gets a screwdriver and removes the face of the outlet, but it doesn’t do anything to widen the gap and there’s an immobile metal box inside that’s bolted into the wall. We watch the little bird make a few more attempts to pull herself out of the wall. My landlord starts to talk about having to try to get her with the vacuum. I can tell he doesn’t want to do it, but can think of nothing else.

If only we could widen that gap a little,” I say. “She’s almost out. It wouldn’t take much.” The landlord steps out and returns in a moment with a crowbar. He bends the metal box a little, widening the gap and we both step back, expectantly. A minute goes by. Another. Our expectation is becomes breathless as the beak and the head emerge again. There’s a pause, as if the bird is considering this change and perhaps wonders at having not noticed earlier how easy it would be to get out of. She hops out and, in a moment, is standing dazed on the window ledge, after flying straight into the window. I go to collect her and she darts into the living room. Where she’s already hit another window. It’s under the couch that I finally get my hand around her. She’s so bewildered, she just lets me pick her up. Her tiny claws wrap around my finger, à la Snow White. I go outside and we regard each other, dustily, in the gray afternoon light. At first she moves very little. The landlord comes out to see. We watch her slowly comprehend that after a very long day between the walls of a house, she is outside again, under the open sky. Her head begins to tilt, her tailfeathers flicker, her claws tighten around my finger and, when the understanding comes rushing down upon her, she flies off. My dog’s heart leaps at the joy of this movement.

We go back in and it’s sweaty half hour of screwing with the oven door before it finally finds it’s niche again, a niche as small, distant and narrow at the gap in the wall, behind the stove, the bird had been seeking and so many others, less successfully, before her. Tomorrow, we’re going to caulk up the gap in the roof and the next day, I’ll get up at 3:30 again, reread my tired letter and crawl into work to watch the dogs and the birds and the whole extraordinary movement of life and gradually, I’ll begin to wake up.



Monday, April 16, 2018

Blood and Coffee

It was around last June. We were in Thailand, out riding our clunky bikes around in the evening, the only time it wasn’t too hot for outdoor activities, listening to the singing frogs who had found their way down, between the houses into the wet areas full of mosquito larvae and the kids out, kicking soccer balls barefoot in the street. A few days earlier, I’d complained about what it would be like if we were going to have a baby. I’d been saying I’d wanted one, but then, when it seemed it could be real, I’d started complaining. We were out then, too because we didn’t spend much time in the apartment when we didn’t have to. We were walking in this relatively quiet neighborhood. It had just gotten dark and I sat down on a corner where a set of stairs led up to a closed shutter and bitched the way that I do, soliloquizing, really. Gina listened to me for a while and then told me how awful it was for me to be so wishy-washy. How could she trust anything I said? I spent the rest of the night explaining I hadn’t really meant what I’d said and pointing out dirty stray dogs I thought would improve her mood. Now it was a few days later and we’d decided to pick up a test.
She’d been late once before, right after we’d arrived, but after worrying for a day or two about what childbirth in a provincial Thai hospital would look like, it turned out to be nothing and I went back to work with a clear conscience.
All the drug stores in Thailand have big signs out front that, in Thai script read: ya-ya. ‘Ya’ is the word for drug and, given the complicated nature of Thai orthography, it was one of the only words I was consistently capable of reading as we rode around town. We stopped into the ya-ya and bought a test. The first time, after we’d first arrived, I’d been nervous, but this time, I felt calmer, ready to accept the results, whatever they may be.
We rode back down our narrow street, between the women out talking to each other and the stray dogs happily scratching themselves and sniffing each other. I kicked off my rubber slippers at the door and walked across the tile which, despite the darkness, was still warm, like the well-trod area around a pool after a long sunny day. I stood in the bathroom door and watched the results come up. A giddiness came over me and like all giddiness, it felt awkward and superfluous, like a ballerina costume I suddenly found myself wearing. I was afraid of saying the wrong thing, so I kept repeating ‘wow,’ like a moron and I went over to the kitchen to pour out the last of the Fernet we’d found recently in Cambodia.
Gina was sitting on one of our small and uncomfortable pieces of furniture, holding the test strip like a mom holding a thermometer, trying to wave the mercury back down. I took a swallow of the Fernet and told her I was happy. Until I said it, I wasn’t sure I was. Even now, I don’t think I’d call it happiness, but I was definitely not unhappy. My voice kept doing that thing where it wanted to laugh and each thing I said sort of tripped out of my mouth with a chuckle. It would seemed irreverent, but, given our lack of preparation, residence out-of-country and all that, Gina didn’t mind. We knew that we were obviously in a difficult place, but that it would be an interesting place to try to find our way out from. I paced back and forth and sipped the Fernet, which was very bitter on its own. We discussed possible names for a while and, not being able to decide on anything, went to bed.
The first week was hard. We calculated the baby would be born in March. My contract ended in November, by then, Gina’d be five months pregnant. I had to give up on the idea of stopping in Armenia, and all those other places, on the way home. Then we started to talk about where we’d live and I had to admit that everything I had planned, considering the addition of a baby, was untenable. The prospect of moving back to that tiny town, so far from the city and living in baby obscurity was daunting. But I supposed that I had signed up for such a situation and tried to keep my complaints to myself, still, I’m a gregarious guy and everything I’m thinking eventually finds its way out to spoken expression and gradually I tried to convince Gina to at least make a stop on the way home in Europe—we could stay at some nice places. We wouldn’t even walk around much, besides, I argued, it would break up the trip. She began to budge, going so far as to even look up ‘babymoons’ on the internet, which apparently is when people travel before having a baby. And if that was an established thing to do, I started to think having a baby could actually fit into my lifestyle. We’d even seemed to have solved the issue of where we’d live.
Things were going well. I liked my classes at the university where I was teaching. I was busy, but the work was, for the most part, enjoyable. Gina and I had started taking Thai lessons to improve our ability to communicate and we’d finally found a place to walk around in the evening away from the constant whine of motorbike traffic. We began to settle into a routine. The new apartment became comfortable and embraced me with it’s familiarity before and after work. We got bikes and became slightly more mobile. Occasionally we talked about what it would be like when the baby came, but that was months, years away. It wasn’t anything to think too much about. In the meantime, what was important was finding decaf coffee. Since, I guess pregnant women shouldn’t drink the regular stuff.
One evening, after I had come back from working in Bangkok, there was a little bit of blood. The internet said not to be worried; it was normal. But I found myself feeling anxious. Although initially, I had been uneasy with the idea of having a baby around, I realized it was something I wasn’t capable of wrapping my head around. The more I tried to think about it, the less I had an understanding of what it would be like. I went through the whole paradox of contemplating my own uselessness as a dad before I had the chance to be one. A bunch of ‘impending’ and new dad blogs told me just to be a good person and to help change diapers which seemed obvious. I resolved just to wait and see what happened and, gradually, I came to like the idea and I started thinking about all the Halloweens I’d missed since I stopped going trick-or-treating in 1997. I gradually began to conflate the idea of ‘having a child’ with all the best parts of childhood I was going to experience again. Only, the anticipation wasn’t for myself, but for someone else who was going experience fireworks and birthday cake for the first time. I wanted to be fun and this made me feel looser than I had in years. But, now there was this blood and I didn’t like the look of it.
A few weeks earlier, I had been riding home from work, passing a Chinese cemetery with it’s customary headstones that rise from the ground in half-circles, sort of wrapping around a given grave’s visitor. The cemetery is picturesque for being one of the few green places along a long, sunbaked and dull road. Beyond the cemetery were acres of rubber plantations with their cooling shade and smaller, less busy roads. As the only green thing around, my eyes always hung onto the cemetery, resting on the familiar color before turning out to the rest of the hot, concrete ride home. I was riding along the shoulder of the road, looking over the large, lacquered gate when I noticed a woman, laying on her back, down by the reedy stream that passed between the cemetery and the road. She was lying on a blanket with her shirt pulled up over her pregnant belly. There was a man behind her, supporting her head. I looked away. I didn’t want to stare. It looked like she was in labor there at the edge of the reeds, in front of the cemetery. I only knew a few phrases of Thai and nothing of obstetrics. It seemed improbable that I could offer these people any help. I continued riding home, but the image of a woman giving birth in front of a cemetery stayed with me, though I tried not to think about it.
When the blood appeared, I realized how invested I had been in the idea of having a baby. The little heartbeat we had seen on the monitor, the vague outline on the ultrasound was our kid who would have some kind of nose and such and such eye color and would be vaguely familiar in an atavistic way. The kid would have a personality independent but dependent on ours and would say unscripted, spontaneous things. I liked the idea of having someone else around, just for the extra company. We went to bed feeling vaguely anxious, but by the next afternoon, sitting together on a hospital bed, watching the construction crew on the roof of the building next door, it was over. I filled the void trying to plan the trip we were now going to be able to take after leaving Thailand, but knowing what I could’ve had instead, it was hard to really throw myself into the task with the same intensity I was accustomed to. We didn’t talk much about it after the first day home, but from the sporadic tears, it was obvious we both still thought about it.
We left Thailand about 4 months later and sitting in a café somewhere on the trip back home, Vilnius, Tbilisi or Stockholm I looked at Gina over my coffee and told her I still thought about the baby sometimes and that I guessed it would always make me feel somewhat sad. We agreed that it would be alright to talk about it, since neither of us had really spoken about it since the day we’d come back from the hospital. We went back to our coffee and the blue gray window of shingled and cobbled Europe.
Back home, in the States, the scenario was much less dramatic. For a few days, Gina had been feeling tired and had a greater appetite than usual. We waited a few days then went and bought the test. On the lead that they had them at the dollar store, (it’s just a little strip that detects a hormone. The whole ‘applicator wand and the digital readout are unnecessary), I rode across town, but they only had drug test kits—and those, I couldn’t help but to wonder at the effectiveness of.
When Gina got off work, we went out to run a few errands. The first store didn’t have pregnancy tests, the second did, but they were in a glass case and, after waiting 20 minutes for someone to open it, I gave up and we crossed the parking lot to the pharmacy where we bought the least intricate one they had. I couldn’t help but to mention that the one we bought in Thailand was about a buck. It had been simple, but it certainly worked.
We were going to wait until the morning, when we thought the test most accurate, but the instructions said if you’d already missed your period, it didn’t matter when you took the test, it was going to be accurate. I stood in the doorway of the bathroom, unable to respectfully wait somewhere else for Gina to tell me what it said. When she finished, nothing was yet apparent. I crowded in closer, trying to discern some change in the little white boxes. Gina doesn’t like to be crowded, even by her boyfriend, so she put the plastic test on the floor and told me that it had to be level to work, the way a mom will tell a child they need to be quiet before something can happen. I took a step back and stared down into the floor. The two windows began to cloud with blue, not the solid, unmistakable lines I would’ve preferred, but with vague, wistful tracings, like a vein under pale skin. There was one a line in each box. I hadn’t consulted the box. I had assumed it would be obvious from looking at the thing, a plus or a minus. But, two lines, “what the hell did two lines signify?” I practically shouted. Gina was double-checking the box. “I means I’m pregnant.” She told me.
I’m 34 years old, still working a part-time, entry level job paying a couple of bucks over minimum wage. I’ve got a little saved up, but the rent is expensive. I’ve got a little Honda, which is the first car I’ve ever owned. I guess I’m more prepared for this than I’ve ever been before, but still woefully under-prepared. But I suppose the adage may be true that no one is ever really prepared for this sort of thing and it had to happen eventually, or else it probably wouldn’t have happened at all and the way I’ve come to see it, that would’ve been kinda dull.
At the onset of adulthood, I set out to experience as much as I could and, as a result, I’ve had some great and varied experiences and I feel like I can move on to the next kind of experience, one that I know nothing about. When it comes down to it, I’m tired of relating to everything through myself. I’d like to have another means of experiencing the world. I want to see if this is going to stir up some primal feelings which, otherwise may have gone untested, unfelt. I’ve never been able to obtain a clear answer from my friends with babies. I’ve seen their tired, hanging faces, but I’ve seen the sense of purpose they seem to carry; they seem less afraid somehow—of what I don’t know. Death, I guess, ensured as they are that their genetic material will be passed on. But, there’s more to it than that. When it comes down to it, I really just want to know what it’s like and there’s no other way to ever know. The kind of person I am, I’d spend the rest of my life wondering, no matter where I went or what else I did.
After the Strum und Drang of the first test, the second was easy. We didn’t really even talk about it much. We returned to whatever we’d been doing before, careful this time not to rush things,.