Suburban Summer

1.
Deep lawns,
fireflies’ flash and crickets’ song
fuzzes the greypurple light of dusk.
The birch silvers the evening.
I bite the tip off my lime sherbet cone.

2.
We sail on our training-wheeled bikes
through empty streets.
Shannondale pool beckons
in the heavy, thirsty air.
We will spend all day, pruning
in the blue and sun.

3.
Pickup baseball in the gravel-lined streets:
only occasional shouts of “Car!” interrupt.

4.
Dark falls so late.
We wait
on the screened-in porch,
safe from mosquitoes,
for lights out
to sneak off into the night
to Amberly Elementary’s playground,
or across the highway,
or just to a friend’s house
where we will whisper through the screen
in the glow of the streetlight.

5.
We climb the cathedral.
Though the wall is a ladder of bricks,
the way a friend gets swallowed up into the dark
as she ascends and straddles over the lip of the roof
forty feet up
makes my stomach go hollow.

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Language Learner

inspired by Sherman Alexie

Kindergarten

“Hello Sara, what word would you like today?”

What word? What word? Whichever word I choose, Mrs. Derhammer will write in her neat, circular kindergarten teacher’s script on a crisp, clean card. This will be my word to add to my collection of words. What word do I want today? Will it be cauliflower? Elephant? Maybe the word Joanne used yesterday; that was a fun word!

“Fuh-see-shus.”

“’Facetious?’” She prints it out carefully, spelling it as she goes: “F-A-C-E-T-I-O-U-S. Facetious.”

She hands me the card, and I grip it tightly in my warm, little hand, reading the letters over and over.

Fourth Grade

Mrs. Abbott herds us all to the back rug after recess to read to us. It’s my favorite time of the day. The girls sit together and play with each other’s hair, quietly braiding. Boys sprawl out on the floor. But everyone listens.

She’s been reading us a historical novel called My Brother Sam is Dead. The protagonist is a young boy who is caught in the middle of the Revolutionary War. Mrs. Abbott’s voice fills with intensity as she describes his hiding from a hoard of “Redcoats” who have taken over the street out front of his house. The British have captured a slave, a man who was charged with fighting for the colonists, and his allegiance and color offend the British. The author describes in gruesome detail how the British behead the man. Around me, the boys respond raucously: They laugh and cry out, “That’s boge!” I sit silently, staring at the floor; tears leak silently out of my eyes and splash onto the dirty orange carpet.

Sixth Grade

I discover a stack of notes thrown in the trash. They’re intricately folded in that secret way that girls have for letters for their friends or for love letters, and the handwriting is big and loopy. I am immediately enraptured with the mystery of finding this correspondence, and I harvest them all from the trash.

At home, I pour over these letters from Tammy Simpson to Blake Slaughter. Tammy is a tough eighth grader who once threatened to beat me up thinking I was my twin sister who was dating her “little brother” who she thought was too good for Stacey. Since then I’ve been half terrified of her and half in awe of her. She has brassy red hair that’s curly and teased up big and stiff. Her cat’s-green eyes are always rimmed in heavy black eyeliner, and her pegged jeans are artfully torn at the knees.  Blake is in my grade, but he’s always seemed older. He has always been the tallest in the class, and he had an earring way back in fourth grade. I’ve always thought he was cute, and we “went together” for a day in fifth grade until he broke up with me for being “too straight,” too shy to sit with him at lunch, too afraid to kiss him.

I can’t tell if the letters are love letters or break up letters. And I don’t know why they’re in the trash: Is their relationship over now, or was one of them just cleaning out a cluttered backpack? Tammy writes of how much she hates her life, how she wants to kill herself, how Blake is the only reason she doesn’t. She repeatedly, flirtatiously, calls him her “little prick,” which seems like an insult to me even though I don’t know what it means. She keeps telling him she loves him and she hates him.

I am enthralled by the intensity of it all. What is her life like? What must it be like to want to die? What must it be like to only want to live for love?

In a notebook that I buy just for this purpose, I begin to write a story, a book, I tell myself, with a central character inspired by Tammy. The story opens with the protagonist walking alone by herself along a nighttime road lit by the purple fluorescent glow of street lights. I don’t know where the story is going, but I know I want it to say something about loneliness and the pain of troubled families, and love, things I don’t truly understand. I never finish it.

Tenth Grade

All of us have congregated in the upstairs hallway before school starts in our big, sprawling crowd, spread out on the floor. Andy comes over to relive the all-ages punk show at Club Soda that we were at the evening before. He bought a few zines, and he’s particularly excited about one called Fiat Lux. It was written by a guy named Lonewolf who was traveling with the headlining band, Once Again. He loans it to me, and I start to read it as I sit in my desk first period.

Ms. Jilek is taking role and getting the day’s lesson ready. All around me, students are chatting, but I find myself immersed in Lonewolf’s writing. The zine is a personal zine, all about how he has a terminal illness and will die young. He has decided that he wants to live a full life despite this. He dropped out of school. He traveled to Europe and hitchhiked around. He trainhopped all over America. He studied philosophy and read continually. And as I read, I feel a pit developing in my gut, and I feel myself floating away from this honors English class, away from Ms. Jilek and her matching earring/pin set and her denim jumper and her fluffy, curled, grey hair; away from students lamenting too much homework or talking about the parties of the weekend.

I suddenly feel very cold and very afraid. I have never lived. I will never really live. I have just been going through the motions. I have been going to school to get good grades so that I can have a comfortable life. But what will it all mean? In that instant, reading about a young man facing his young death, I know I will die. I feel it palpably, and I want to get up and run out of the classroom.

Of course I don’t. I sit and go through the lesson. But somehow this moment stays with me. It lives in my backpack tucked in with all the homework crammed in. It lives in my thoughts at night when I try to sleep. It lives in the poetry I try to write in my journal.

Twelfth Grade

It’s a beautiful spring morning, but I feel dreadful. I spent the night throwing up, feverish and shivering. Normally I wouldn’t go to school feeling like this, but I have no choice. It’s the advanced placement English literature test, the test I have been preparing all year for, and there are no make-ups. This is my only chance.

I drag myself to school, wait in line outside the library. All the students around me buzz with nervous energy, but my mind is a fog, and I feel queasy. We eventually are checked in, herded to our seats, and given our tests to begin. Several times throughout the test, I have to get up and run to the bathroom to throw up. (How can I still be throwing up? I can’t possibly have anything else in my stomach to heave up!)

Despite this, I fall in love with the short story we are to analyze, “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros. I make sure to memorize the name of the author and title of the book so I can buy it later.

Months later in summer, I get my score report: a five: the highest score possible.

Girlfriends Who Have Broken Up With Me

In sixth grade, my identical twin sister and I had to ride the bus to school for the first time.  Bigger kids–seventh and eighth graders–rode the bus with us.  No one ever really outwardly teased us, but we both knew that they were laughing at us behind our backs, about what I’m still not really sure.  I guess we weren’t cool in the ways that mattered at that age–we didn’t wear Guess jeans, and we were smart and good at school.  We carried our violin and viola to school every day, and we weren’t involved in all the gossip even though we all lived in the same neighborhood.

V rode the bus with us.  She’d been our friend through elementary school, as she lived on the street behind us.  She also carried her viola, and she also wasn’t particularly cool–she had buck teeth and was skinny and gawky, but somehow she seemed a lot more confident with the older kids, who were her immediate neighbors.

One day, my twin and I stopped at the drinking fountain on our way out of school to catch the bus.  V caught up with us and said, “Please don’t talk to me on the bus.  I don’t want everyone to know I’m friends with you.”

I vaguely remember agreeing that this would be the best thing to do.  It wasn’t until several minutes later, maybe even not until we got home, that it occurred to us to be wounded by this comment, but once we realized what she’d said, our friendship never quite recovered, even though we all ran in the same circles in high school.

 

Years passed between V’s breakup and the next significant one I remember.  The summer after my first year of college, I returned to Kalamazoo to live.  I still felt like Kalamazoo was more my home than Ann Arbor, and so I got a room in a filthy punk house.  I worked at the Subway Sandwiches a couple miles away.  I rode my bike there every weekday morning, and then after work, I spent my evenings at the local coffee shop that was started by a punk kid we all knew.  I carried my Royal typewriter there in a red wagon I had found and sat and wrote letters or worked on my zine.

There I befriended M who had recently moved to town from an hour or so away.  I’d known of her through the punk and zine scene, but at the Comet Café, we became close.  She lived down the street at another punk house, and I was so taken with her take-no-shit toughness and the way she cried easily.  She was an artist and a writer, and I loved her big laugh.

When I went back to college, an hour and a half away, we stayed in touch, mostly by writing letters.  She eventually moved from Kalamazoo to Olympia, Washington, and though we never lived in the same town again, I still felt a strong connection.

The spring break of my junior year, I was stuck in a kind of a rut–I was in a shitty relationship and needed to get out of town.  I found a very cheap flight to Olympia and decided to visit her and another friend I had there.

I was staying with the other friend, but M and I made plans to get together the first night I was there.  She had to work at the strip joint where she danced, but she said she’d call when she got off work.  Hours after she’d told me her shift ended, she still hadn’t called, so I called her instead.  She didn’t call back.  I tried a few more times that night and then again all the next day and the next until I had to fly home.  She never called back, and I never talked to her again.

 

S and I were friends in college.  We both volunteered with a group of folks who did arts in prisons, and she and I led a improvisational theatre workshop with incarcerated men together.  This work was hugely influential in my life, and the connections I made with people who also did this work were consequently very meaningful.

After we both graduated, we went our separate ways, I to California, she to New Orleans.  We kept up a bit through email.  We had never been intimate enough to have a regular phone relationship, but after I lost my first teaching job and wanted some kind of change, I had a passing idea that I’d move to New Orleans.

September 11th had just happened, and plane tickets were cheap.  I lived with a woman who’d just won a large settlement in a housing case, and she offered to bankroll a trip to New Orleans for the two of us and my sweetie.  I wanted to visit to see if it was a cool place to live, and my housemate just wanted to travel.  I asked S if we could stay with her, and she offered up a room at the big bicycle punk collective warehouse where she lived.

We hadn’t been there long when S started acting weird.  She didn’t make much of an effort to be friendly or catch up.  She seemed far more interested in her various projects, her job stripping, and the life of her household community.  The first night we got there, as we were cleaning up dinner, she turned to a man who lived there and, flirtatiously asked, “What are you doing tonight?” completely ignoring me, my friend, and my sweetie who were all staying there.

The three of us ended up sort of fending for ourselves, as she went about her social life without us.  We finally decided that, if we weren’t going to actually get to hang out with her, the cockroaches crawling all over us at night while we slept and the muggy, uncomfortable heat of our warehouse bedroom weren’t worth it, and my housemate decided to pay for a hotel room for the three of us for our remaining two nights there.

The last full day we were in New Orleans, S and I made plans to hang out alone, just the two of us.  I called her from the hotel room, and she didn’t answer my call.  I called several times, but she never called me back.  We left New Orleans a day later.

We are now casual friends on Facebook.

 

The most recent girlfriend who broke up with me is the loss that sits on me most heavily.  J and I were best friends through high school.  We’d started out as enemies in sixth grade, but, by eighth grade, we were close.  Though we had very different social circles, my intimacy with her was the most important friendship besides my twin.  We spent long hours at our favorite café together, where we shared the stories of our lives as we were figuring out the kind of adults we wanted to become, and we took various road trips together before we went away to separate colleges.  We promised each other that we would not become the kind of “best friends” her mother had–women who exchanged Christmas cards yearly but never really saw each other besides that.  We imagined living together, raising our children together, having the kind of extended family that we felt was lacking in our suburban childhood.

When we separated for college, we still talked on the phone regularly.  We also tried to get together whenever we could, which wasn’t often: She was in New York and then India and then Colorado, and I was in Michigan.

We had the kind of intense relationship where, every couple years, we’d have a major falling out, but we always managed to work it out to become close again.  After the last falling out, once we decided we wanted to make our friendship work, we went through a counseling process that a therapist friend of mine had given me, and it seemed like, once we’d aired all our old wounds and given voice to all the shit we’d been through in our twenty years as friends, our friendship was stronger than ever, especially when we eventually became new mothers around the same time.

This is why her breaking up with me just a few months ago seems that much more hurtful–it came out of nowhere and caught me completely by surprise.

Like most new moms, I’d been struggling with my baby’s sleep.  My sweetie and I had discussed various methods for getting him to sleep, including “crying it out,” which I felt–and feel–firmly opposed to.  I happened to mention this to J while talking to her on the phone one afternoon.  The conversation was equal parts asking for advice and venting how tired I was and how frustrating sleep was, especially given that my sweetie and I were in minor disagreement.

Later that evening, J sent me email after email about why I shouldn’t allow my baby to cry himself to sleep despite the fact that I’d repeatedly told her that I was also opposed to this methodology.  Somewhere in the course of this email back and forth, I’d expressed that we hope our son grows up to be independent and self-sufficient.  J told me that she thinks “independence is bullshit,” and I expressed to her that this felt like an unfairly harsh condemnation of a value that we hold for our child.

Her response to this was to write me a long email telling me that she can’t be the kind of friend I need her to be, that she can’t spend so much time engaging with me, that her energy needs to go into her own family. She said I could write her back if I needed to for closure, but she would not respond; we were done as friends.

This was four months ago.  We haven’t spoken, and I am still not entirely sure what happened between us.

 

I think about these women now.  I’m getting older, and it seems like it gets harder and harder to find the kinds of friendships with women I had growing up.  Though I am thankful for the women I am deeply close with, I still feel sad about how hard it seems to develop the kind of intimacy I want in female friendships, and I mourn the loss of some of these relationships.  Many of my best friends live far away, and I still worry about becoming the kind of friends I once promised myself not to become–the Christmas card exchangers.  Raising a child and working full time is a challenge, but, for this reason, I feel like I want the groundedness that comes with friendships; I want the mothers who are going through it too to be able to share their experiences with me, and I want to feel like I have women who will listen to me and be there for me.

Right Now and a Memory

August 3, 2014, 1:30 am
My infant son is sleeping fitfully next to me. I find that every time he stirs or struggles, I am roused, awakened. Maybe it’s a curse for all parents—this worry about everything that could happen. Terrible things flash through my mind of all the ways he could be hurt or worse. So, when he stirs, I do too, and now I am awake.
He woke me up at one, am straining and fussing for a nipple that wasn’t there. I can only guess that, in his baby mind, breasts just appear from out of his slumber, filled with warm milk…so he always surfaces from his sleep—usually not fully—looking, searching for it, eyes closed, grunting and turning his head this way and that. He’s begun to strain so much he inch-worms himself in his little co-sleeper. He’ll end up perpendicular to where he started, just his head in his bed and the rest of his body in ours. Or worse still, one night he came rolling into me while I was asleep. He only did that once, and, as far as we can tell, he’s not actually rolling yet, but this is just one more thing to worry about—he, swaddled, rolling over, and, because his arms are pinned to his side, being unable to hold himself up.
Hence I don’t sleep well.
So I’m lying here, unsleeping, remembering. I remember this:
This really happened:
I’d driven to Chicago from Ann Arbor. It was summery, and the city held on to the heat. Even after the sun went down the pavement released its trapped heat of the day, and the buildings and smog cradled it, holding it: a muggy, Midwestern summer.
Nighttime, we set out walking. I don’t remember now if we had a destination or if we were aimless. But we walked for hours. We ended up in a place that felt to me, someone unfamiliar with the city, as the edge of town: factories, train tracks, warehouses. There was a chocolate factory there that my Chicago friends knew about.
As we got close, the smell of chocolate took over the night. The sky glowed pink with the lights of the city. Chicago isn’t ever truly dark. The factory was silhouetted black against that pink, and in front of the factory, parked on the train tracks that bounded the factory, was a train car.
A long tube or hose stretched from the car into the factory. The car was pumping its goods into the factory to be processed, but coming out of the top of the car and then falling back down like snow to coat its roof and the ground around it was sugar: sugar falling like snow. How could we not climb the ladder up, dance in the falling sugar, eat handfuls, not caring that our hair and insides of our shoes were sticky, not caring that we were covered, like the top of the train car, in sugar?
Afterward, buzzing and sticky, we went to the river. A bridge went over the river with several lanes of traffic for cars. But the bridge also had a pedestrian walkway with places where we could crawl down underneath the bridge and sit on the platforms made of girders. From these nests, we could hear the whir and thump of traffic, and we could watch the boats with their points of light guiding them under the bridge.
We breakfasted at IHOP at six am and stumbled back to the apartment in Logan Square where we fell asleep in our clothes with sugar still in our hair.