Alfalfa shook her head as if she could shake out the demons with the raindrops in her hair. She’d been angry three times today already, and it wasn’t even afternoon. They were all stupid reasons, she thought, and now I can’t stop being grumpy. She was angry with herself. She thought she rooted out the worst of her self-hatred, decades of peeling that particular onion, layer after layer, until–she’d thought–there were only small pockets of it wedged in hidden places, sparked on rare occasions. Until now those remaining pockets felt like tiny eruptions, small squalls only, not the deadly storms that used to make her want to die. In recent days, though, these crazy short-fused bursts of anger were chased by strange backlashes of self-loathing, akin to what she weathered long ago and thought she’d left behind. Left behind like the cottage on the lake she and her father used to visit in the summers, her nose pressed up against the car window each time they had to leave, the cottage growing smaller and smaller as they drove away. She shook her head again, a softer gesture now, sadness deep inside her. She missed her father. Not his compulsive need for order, never that, but the kind of dance he did with life, the part of him that loved every inch of that lake and showed her why. He gave her her name one summer there all those years ago, and she let it stick, goofy as it was. She let people think it was some crazy hippie choice, some commune-loving naiveté. She didn’t say it was the magic whimsy of the man who showed her faces in weathered bits of wood, who made her fall in love with wet stones at the edge of the lake, the man who always let her feel like a person, who never treated her like a child.
[Editor’s note: timed writing, the prompt to include the words grumpy, dance, compulsive and raindrops.]
She crumpled up the paper and tossed it over her shoulder. She refused to look behind her, certain the sight of the heap of wadded up paper would make her want to crawl under the straw to hide like she and Devin used to do up in the hayloft of the big old barn when they were kids at their grandparents farm. She didn’t even turn around when she heard a small crash. The Buddha statue, she figured, the small pink one made of resin, the one where he’s the jolly traveler, knapsack on his hobo stick. At least, she thought, that one wouldn’t break. But she aimed the subsequent balls of paper lower and put a little less punch behind them. The truth was, she didn’t know why she was doing this. Why was she putting so much pressure on herself? Since when did she tear pages out of her notebook, begin again and again, rejecting her work like this? What was wrong with her? She heard the sound of a car on gravel, and her pen froze. Henry couldn’t be home already. Could he? In spite of herself, she got up and walked to the window. Who the hell was here, and what was she going to do with her big pile of evidence? She saw the orange Fiat in the driveway. Fuck. Worse than Henry interrupting her. It was Marge. No way was she letting Marge in. She ducked when she saw her getting out of the car. Ducking, squatting there beneath the windowsill, made her feel insane. She giggled. I’ll just crawl away, right? More hysterical laughing. She backed up, inched her way over to the other wall, hands and knees wading through the mountain of crumpled paper. How was she ever going to be able to explain this?
Hank shook his head and muttered under his breath. Then he shook his head again. He wished Sally was here. She’d know what to do, what to say to his leftie child, this daughter of theirs. Her daughter maybe more than his, but he loved her like there was no tomorrow. He just couldn’t stand to be in the same room with her sometimes. This living with them again wasn’t something he saw coming, but here she was, rearranging the kitchen cupboards, hiding his ashtray. Hell, yesterday he even found a full box of his Frosted Flakes in the outside garbage can. What was she thinking? And now she was on to his politics, chastising him for not trying harder, for not being willing to camp out with her in protest at the community center. He was too damn old to sleep on pavement in the middle of December. And she was too damn old to be living with her parents. When was Sally going to get back, anyway? How long could it take to get her toenails done, for Christ’s sake? Since when did she even have her toenails done? He muttered again, opening the can of dolphin-safe tuna Alexa had bought for the cat. It was probably her idea, the toe painting deal. His wife had been perfectly content with doing her own toenails all these decades, and now when she should have been here helping him deal with her damn daughter, she was off getting her toenails doo-dawed instead.
I move the curtain from the open window by the bed just enough to greet Venus in the eastern sky. I’m glad to see her there, glad to catch the scattering of sunrise-colored clouds, but I don’t want to be awake yet. I let the curtain fall and snuggle back beneath the blankets. Blankets, I think. I grin, so pleased it’s autumn now, and I return to blankets. I have a nine a.m. videoconference call this morning. And I want to remember to mention the aloe vera gel to my mom for these last stages of the wound that’s finally healing on her leg. I’m going to focus on building next week’s online classes today. I want to write a blog post, too, I think. I can’t believe it’s been so long. Is this the longest gap in over seven years of my commitment to posting? I must be a zillion weeks behind by now. I don’t even want to know. I can feel the tension mounting in me with each thought. For a little while I even replay all the well-worn reasons I believe I was wronged by someone years ago. I take a deep breath, smoosh the pillow beneath my head, settle down on my left side, close my eyes. I hear bird calls in the distance. I think of my two cats, dead now these two years. I whisper to them, send their spirits love. And then I let myself imagine them going back to sleep with me in this cool early morning air. They used to flank me, Sofia wrapping herself in the curve of my legs and Sable curling up against my belly. I know it’s unlikely I’ll fall asleep again, but I let myself drift, using my imagination now, reaching for memory. I remember waking in the middle of the night, their soft little bodies pressed against me, the comforting weight of them. It always made me feel like the luckiest woman in the world. Drifting, I wonder what that makes me today. But even in that dreamy place shaded by a longing for them, I know the answer. It makes me the luckiest woman in the world because I had that, their dear companionship, night after night for years. And because I get to love them forever.
Something odd keeps happening to me. It is unexpected, feels a bit unreal, almost dreamlike. Again and again in recent weeks I am visited by sadness—swift, keen, quick to pass. I am washing dishes. Or I am walking to the bus stop, scarf over my bent head, concentrating just to move through the hard heat of a July afternoon in this desert town. It isn’t even as if something else sparks a thought of you, the more ordinary path. And I can’t tell if this might have begun because my book, this story about the two of us, is close to being finished, this third time a charm. (Touch wood.) Or if it might be only that the time has come all by itself, a natural ending, a kind of completion of big loss, even a final letting go. I know I began to write this book much too soon, have said this before. In what is happening now there is this flicker of feeling, this sense that now is when I might have more properly begun this book. Only now. Or maybe a little bit of time from now, when this time, too, has passed. What I do know is this sudden sadness comes, piercing, bittersweet, as though I am only just now losing you for good after all these years. It makes me want to buckle at the knees, fall to the sidewalk, cement hot against my shins, quick sword thrust of sharp grief. But at the same time, in a way that makes no sense to me but that my body seems to understand, the grief is fleeting, even quiet, softened, like the regrets of our youth at the end of a long and happy life, riches beyond deserving.
I live in the palo verde in the woman’s courtyard. I have waited seven years to be up in this green tree, high above the moist earth that was my home. I sing to summer, cicada sounds in me. Summer serenade, stealthy buzz, begin and end, sudden, sultry, magic. I am a magic cicada. I can turn summer into fall, drive humans from their beds, angry shouts in the night, the slamming of windows. So now I like to stay where I am wanted. This palo verde likes me in her arms, rocks me in the breeze. I am more than a little in love with her. Serena, the woman calls her. She says it like a word in Spanish. She asked the tree’s name when she planted her and saw the word in her head, scrap of paper in her mind, words from an old typewriter like letters from her father when she was a little girl, the name Serena popping out. I didn’t think I’d ever love a tree like this, much less a human. But the woman likes me. She really likes me. And after all those angry windows closed against me in the dark, it is like heaven, like cotton candy, like marbles in the moonlight to feel the woman’s pleasure when I begin to sing. Ah, cicada. I hear her whisper, feel her cherishing my song. If she saw my bug body, I don’t know if she would be able to embrace me as wholly as she does my music. But I know she would honor me still, protect me in every way she can, bug body and all. It makes me want to cry, sitting in Serena in the early dusk, so lucky here in the warm desert sky, feeling the woman’s gladness as I begin to sing.
[Editor’s note: This is a slightly revised version of an 11-minute writing in response to a Natalie Goldberg prompt to write a “waking daydream” that I wrote downtown with Stef on Wednesday in the late morning with the misters on.]
Being a writer can be kind of weird. And writing a blog or a newspaper column can be even weirder. I once had an email exchange with one of my favorite columnists for the L.A. Times who pointed out to me we are dependent on what happens. It sounds crazy obvious now, but I’d never put it together before. There’s always the interior world, too, of course. But when we can “hang” that inner world on a scaffolding of outer events, when there’s enough happening both within and without to make connections between them, the possibilities seem endless. This is my eighth year for writing a blog, and I seem to either have endless “Blog?” markings on the pages of my notebook, or I have a dearth of ideas. It feels like a long time since the floodgates were open. Yesterday, I was so glad to have something happen I could write about. But then the weirdness peeked around the corner. I meant to show my ugly bias arising even in the midst of it all. But a sneaky voice hisses at me after I post. “It sounds like you’re trying to pump yourself up, like you’re trying to make yourself look good.” Does it? Really? I only wanted to tell the story the way it happened, so glad there was a story to tell. Maybe, I think, I should’ve explained more about the connection I was making to the day I found out my father was dead, how this time I got to be the stranger who wanted to help. That day all those years ago I let the policemen inside my father’s apartment and wait outside on the concrete landing. One of the women from the place next door comes out and asks me if there’s anything they can do, anything I need. “Do you have any beer?” I ask. (I remember feeling foolish asking.) I’d already found out he was dead. I’d already asked the policemen if there was any beer in his fridge. (That would remain a lingering regret, that he died without any beer in the fridge, without any cigarettes. What was I thinking?) Instead of bringing me a beer on the porch, the woman brings me inside, sits me at their dining room table, hands me an icy bottle of St. Pauli Girl. She and her two roommates gather round. They tend to me through that long afternoon, the lazy Memorial Day holiday, 1985. And then in the fall of that year I dream about my father. “What are you doing here?” I say. “You’re supposed to be dead.” I remember the shock of that first dream. I must not have learned yet how the dead can return to us, living again and again in our sleeping dreams.