Madeline and Dan sat at the dining room table, blowing on their spoonfuls of piping hot, warmed-up lentils.
“So, have you thought about when you’re going to tell your ex that you’re in a new quote relationship unquote?”
Dan’s spoon stopped in mid-air. He leaned all the way back in his chair. “Why in the world would I tell her that?” He looked at Madeline as if she were utterly mad.
It was Madeline’s turn to sit back in her chair. She scanned Dan’s face for some flicker that was not there. “Um, yesterday, you said you had been thinking about it. You said you thought you needed to tell her.”
“I couldn’t possibly have said that, because there is no possible way that I would think of telling her.”
That was the conversation — and the end of any further conversation– during last evening’s dinner.
Madeline was going over it in her head as she nuzzled her cheek against the top of Dylan’s head. She certainly knew by now that Dan had a seriously crap memory; but this seemed to go well beyond the usual. It had been one night before, as they sat in those same chairs at that same dining room table, digging into take-out food from the local favorite Chinese spot. Through a mouthful of Szechuan broccoli, Dan said, “I’ve been thinking about Nancy. I’ve been thinking that I need to tell her about you. I mean, even though the “relationship” relationship has been over for years, her friendship is really important to me. I think it’s the right thing to do. I need to tell her.”
Madeline had said something along the lines of “oh” in response, not actually caring one way or another if Dan told some ex-lover Across the Pond about their…whatever-it-was. Perhaps this would have mattered to her a great deal if times were a bit different, she thought. But when you had police knocking on your door – twice in one night – and child protective services filling out forms in your living room, priorities tended to shift.
A grim picture entered her mind. What if her memory was just as crap as Dan’s? What if she just happened to remember that particular conversation, whereas there were countless others that she did not recall. What if, God forbid, she and Dan actually had the same conversations over and over and over? And, if that wasn’t already the case, was that the inevitable future?
Madeline saw herself sitting in the chair that her parents let her take from her room at home to her room at college. The super comfy arm chair with the flesh-covered, bizarrely nautically-pattered slipcover. She ran her fingers along the welted seams while she read her way through her college years. The cover of the book was bright red. She had taken an anthropology course on Varying Meanings of Life and Death to fulfill some requirement or other, and had ended up fascinated, pouring over the descriptions of other lands and other people, regaling her roommates at the dinner table with tidbits she could not wait to share.
The one that bubbled up from deep memory just then was this: there was a society in Spain – she was fairly sure it was Spain – where the people believed that life and death are not moments, but rather processes. A person emerges gradually during childhood as life grows; likewise life retreats from a person gradually as they age.
When does that begin, Madeline wondered? Has it already?
Art, top to bottom: Paul Gauguin, Frida Kahlo, Paul Gauguin
“That was when you taught me about sex, Marie, remember?”
That’s what emerged from Savannah’s mouth just as Madeline entered the room. Savannah laughed a hearty, open-mouthed laugh. Her great round belly bounced up and down, requiring her to arrange it. “We were just talking about that time Marie told me all about SEX. Don’t you remember, Marie?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. This is nonsense,” Marie countered.
“No. It’s true. We’d been waiting for Mom for so long, don’t you remember? It was, like, hours and hours,” Savannah said.
“Waiting for her where?” Madeline asked.
“At the casino,” Marie said.
“What do you mean?” Madeline asked.
“Well, wait, let’s get back to the story here,” Savannah said. “I can’t even believe you don’t remember this, Marie. We were sitting on the curb, cause we’d already played in the car and taken turns playing taxi driver, and then you went all through your purse trying to find all the little crayon stubs, and you let me draw pictures on all the little scraps of paper you picked off the floor of the car and from the glove box, and you made a story up about every picture, and still we were waiting. So we went outside and sat on the curb, and you had me drawing pictures using just my toes in the dirt, and you’d guess what they were. And you were being silly and making me laugh, guessing that the pictures were crazy things like a bunch of angels gathered around a brand new baby elelphant singing it lullabies so it could sleep through the roars of the angry lions. I mean, I drew something like a circle, and that’s what you’d guess.”
“Angels singing to a baby elephant?” Madeline arched her brow.
“Whatever. Shut up.” Savannah said.
“We’d been waiting a really, really long time. I just remember being so sleepy. It was dark already. And then I said: ‘Marie, this girl in my school said her older sister is gonna have a baby. And my friend asked her sister where the baby came from, and her sister said that her husband stuck his wee-wee inside of her and went pee pee, and that’s where the baby came from. And I said, is that true, Marie? Is that where babies come from? Is that where I came from?’ And you said, I swear to God you said: ‘Well, that’s close enough.’” Savannah wrinkled up her nose and laughed loud.
“Nonsense,” Marie said. “Never happened.”
“Oh my God, you’re the worst,” Savannah said, picking up the sofa pillow and tossing it at her sister. Both of them burst into unfettered laughter.
“That’s what I thought for years, Marie. Years!”
“You were a little kid! What was I supposed to say?” Marie said.
“Like, how old?” Madeline asked.
“I don’t know.” Marie considered. “Probably 4 or so by then. This kind of went on for a long time.”
“This what went on for a long time?” Madeline asked.
“We’d all be out running errands, or getting food, or whatever, and my mother would just sort of…drive over to the casino and say that she’d be right back. And she’d leave us there. In the car.”
Marie’s tone was strangely untroubled, but her voice became softer. She shrugged one shoulder. “She was basically bringing me along to watch after Savannah. Savannah was pretty little when this started.”
“Little…like…?” Madeline asked.
“Oh, one and a half? At least one,” Marie said.
“So you were taking care of a baby inside of a car in the parking lot of a casino. By yourself,”
“Uh-huh,” said Marie.
“It was fun!” Savannah said. “Marie made it really fun.”
“How long would she be gone? In the casino?” Madeline asked.
“Sometimes not very long. You know, an hour. Sometimes…pretty long. That time Savannah’s remembering is probably the longest. I think my mom drove us there right after lunch. It was dark when we left.”
Savannah laughed. “It’s all your fault, Marie,” she pointed to her enormous belly. “You ruined me with that story.”
Within seconds of Marie’s butt hitting the dining room chair, Dan said, “The coffee’s probably near ready. Anybody else?”
“Seriously?” Kate said. “We just sat down. Finally! We finally all sat down.”
“Be right back,” Dan said.
Sure enough, the cantankerous coffee pot chose that exact moment to erupt. Rivulets of grainy blackish brew ran in multiple directions across the kitchen countertops, into the crack between the counter and the stove, down the cabinets and across the floor.
“Shit,” said Dan. “Total explosion.”
“You’re fucking kidding me,” Madeline said, leaping to her feet. “I’m coming.”
“Mom, Please stay here. Please.” The barely-contained flood of tears soaked Kate’s voice.
“No, she’s right,” Dan said. “I got this.” Though he continued to stand motionless, holding a dish towel and staring blankly at the outpouring before him.
“Dan, can you come back in here, too? Please can you come in here? Can we all just sit here, together, at the breakfast table for a few minutes?” Kate implored.
Dan did not respond, and Kate turned to her mother, “Can you ask him? Can you please get him to just come sit down?”
Without a second’s hesitation or a thought in her mind, Madeline turned in her chair and faced into the kitchen. “Dan. Please. I’ll clean it up later. Just leave it. Please come sit down.”
The house held its breath. Dan slowly put the towel on the kitchen counter. Slowly he walked the few steps into the dining room, pulled out a chair, and sat at the head of the table, folding his hands in his lap. No one moved.
Kate picked up her fork to resume her Christmas breakfast, and with that, Dan shoved himself back in his chair and spit in a low, tightly-coiled whisper: “Do you feel better now, Kate? Do you feel better now that you’ve ordered everyone around and gotten exactly what you wanted? Even though it’s fucking crazy? It’s fucking crazy that there’s coffee spilling all over the kitchen, but you got what you wanted.”
Kate exploded into tears, exploded out of her chair, exploded from the room at a gallop, her mother a hair’s breath of explosion behind her, reaching out her arms and calling her daughter’s name.
The house split in two. In one part, two women raced through the living room and tore up the stairway in a rumpus of noise and limbs and sobs and entreaties. In the other part, three people sat in motionless silence, their eyes locked to their laps.
It was long past the time when Madeline made an entire village of gingerbread houses for each room of the first floor –gumdrop streets lined with gingerbread men and women, M & M rooftops with chocolate Santa’s waving from chimneys, forests of festooned trees, and front yards with cheery snowmen. Still, she thought to herself, this Christmas will not be a shit show. It can’t be.
Christmas Eve was always her favorite. The calendar wound relentlessly down to the shortest days, the barest amount of daytime to illuminate a bleak winter landscape; yet a day that seemed to stretch out with the bright promise of going on forever, as a day in the middle of July.
Dan had wandered off to spend some time with his family. Savannah had been holed up at her Aunt Carol’s with Dylan for several days, and Marie had left early in the morning to join them. The only ones in the house that morning were Madeline and her two children.
Madeline was finishing the frosting on the Christmas tree-shaped cakes that had been an unbreakable traditional for years. The tin foil pans had likely been designed for one-time-then-toss-them-away use. About twenty years ago. Each year, Madeline consulted her kids for Christmas Eve menu planning. Each year, she asked them what they wanted for dessert. With cheery over-enthusiasm, she mentioned a few yummy possibilities she’d been wanting to make for them. Even if the two of them were on the phone, Madeline could hear Kate’s face fall; she could see the tears that threatened at the corner of Kate’s eyes. Each year, Madeline babied the weary pans into a shape that reasonably resembled a Christmas tree, and filled the ever-increasing holes with scraps of aluminum foil so they had a reasonable chance of holding the batter.
Madeline hummed a medley of carols to herself as she swirled the finishing touches of bright green frosting. She imagined the conversation that was about to take place–
“OK, guys, the cakes are ready for you to decorate!”
“Come on, John!” Kate would say.
“Ah, you do both of them this year, Kate. I’m in the middle of trying to finish this (fill in the blank, critically-important thing).
“No no no no no no. Come ON! It’s your cake! Your CAKE!”
This would go on for a bit, John resisting, Kate getting increasingly filled with flustered affectionate pique.
In the end, John would create a masterpiece in a shockingly short amount of time. Kate would take her time, study, plan, go back to her work again and again for fine tuning. In the end, they would both be so pleased with their work that they would carve and gouge around their favorite bits of decoration until the last few bites at the bitter end.
Before Madeline could call out to signal her final flourishes, caught right in the transition between her humming of “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night,” the sound of Kate and John tuning up their instruments in the living room drifted in. “Yeah!!!” she said.
“Surprise!” shouted Kate. “Impromptu Christmas carol serenade!”
Madeline went into the living room with a knife full of frosting still in hand, holding it out first to Kate, then to John, as they plucked strings and turned pegs to tune.
“Let’s do ‘O Holy Night’ first cause it’s my favorite and Mom was just about to sing it,”
“OK,” John replied. “I don’t really know it, so you start, and I’ll come in and follow.”
“What do you mean you don’t know ‘O Holy Night?’ That’s, like, blasphemy or something.”
“Are we gonna have this conversation again?”
Madeline plopped onto the couch, happier than she could remember being in a long, long time.
“Oh man. This is the greatest. I suppose I should think about starting to get dinner ready. Did Marie give you an idea of what time she’d be back here?”
“Um, I’m not sure she’s gonna make it back for dinner,” John did his very best to sound casual, but his head remained turned and his eyes on the floor as he answered his mother.
“What?” It was nearly a whisper.
“I don’t think things are going real well there. At Aunt Carol’s. I don’t think anybody’s in a very good mood.”
“What’s going on, John?”
John sank into a chair and ran his fingers through his hair, still looking at some point on the floor, then at the ceiling as he combed his fingers through his hair a few more times and let out a big, audible puff of breath. “I guess I mean that Savannah’s really, really down, so Marie is really down, too. Because her sister is. You know?”
“What’s up with Savannah?”
“I guess she’s spent all this time out there with her aunt thinking about how it’s Dylan’s first Christmas and how important that is, and well, she’s gotten more and more convinced, every day, that her mother was going to be able to get it together and have Christmas with all of them together.”
“Yeah,” said John.
“Well, what’s happening now?” Madeline asked.
“I don’t know. Savannah just really convinced herself that her mother would be there. Every day that Savannah’s been out there, every day since she left here, I guess she’s gotten her hopes more and more wound up. Now everybody has been calling Billie all day long – they started this morning – and she hasn’t picked up. They’ve texted about a hundred times, too. Anyway, finally Uncle Bob drove down there because Carol was losing her mind not knowing what was going on with her sister. So Bob gets down there and the apartment is totally dark. No lights. No nothing.”
“Perfect,” Madeline said.
“The poor guy is walking around the outside of Billie’s apartment peering in the windows and tapping on the glass. On Christmas Eve. Anyway, when he got back home, Savannah crashed and burned. She got really, really down and went pale and handed Dylan over to Marie and hasn’t said a word since then.”
Kate looked John square in the eye and said, “Do you want to play a few more, or go decorate the cakes now?”
John met her stare, held it. “So like I said, I don’t think anybody out there is in a very good mood.”
“Seems like that would be rather an understatement,” said Madeline.
“Marie is trying to talk Savannah into packing up Dylan and coming here. But I don’t know if that’s gonna happen,” John said.
“Well, what should I do about dinner? Should I hold off starting to cook?”
“No, don’t hold off,” Kate broke in. “We told them what time dinner was going to be.”
Both Madeline and John looked at her. “It’s Christmas Eve!” Kate said. “If they make it for dinner – great. If not, they’ll be here later on.”
“Well,” Madeline said, “looks like it may be just the three of us for dinner!” Her children knew her well enough to glean the carefully-disguised elation in her voice.
“Make a lot of food anyway, Ma. Please? They might be hungry when they get here.”
“If they get here,” Kate said, with unapologetic accurately.
Madeline watched two squirrels chasing one another across the top of the fence in her yard. They knew in their squirrel way that winter was coming, and what would have been playful frolicking a month or so ago had turned to ferocious rivalry over the last seeds and acorns that could mean the difference between a thick padding of pudge to burn for a whole long winter, or a skimpy layer of fat, and a squirrel that was cold, shivering and desperate long before the frozen world melted away.
She remembered the day when she had been sitting in the same spot, looking out the same window, at the exact moment when a squirrel lost its balance and dropped like a shot from the branch. “Arrogant acrobatic bastard,” she said aloud. She would have expected a frantic scrambling of legs and claws and limbs as the squirrel plummeted, but it immediately assumed the spread-eagle position of a sky diver in free fall; and in that same position it landed with an abrupt stop, right on top of the fence, where it lay panting and dazed.
“Oh for god’s sake, squirrel bastard, are you really gonna do this? Are you really gonna make me worry about you?”
All afternoon, the squirrel lay atop the fence, all spread out, the ends of its limbs dangling. Madeline checked every hour or so. The squirrel seemed to be panting less, she thought; of course, maybe that meant that he was dying.
Just as the sun sunk low enough to cast the juicy, sumptuous golden glow she loved so much, the squirrel stood up on all four legs and walked the length of the entire fence as if nothing in the world had ever happened. When he reached the end, he scampered down and hopped across the yard and back up the tree.
The whole thing was so utterly bizarre that Madeline wondered for a second if it really happened. She would have been the only person, among the billions inhabiting the earth, to see it. It was an event, a moment, that belonged to her and her alone. But really, it was the same with everything, right? She was the only one who saw from behind her own eyes. Every one of the times she had looked out the windows of this room, every daring squirrel, blowing branch, falling leaf, every play of light and shadow, every every every thing was a vision, a moment of her life, that was hers.
“Hey MadMad,” Savannah called from the kitchen, “how much pain do you think a baby really feels? Like if I wanted to get him a tattoo, for instance? I mean, they cut the ends of their penises off, right?”
Marie is poking at a few hundred cloves of garlic she is roasting in the oven when Madeline comes into the kitchen.
“Are you mad at me?” Madeline asks her.
“No,” Marie says, in a tone of voice which successfully imparts the following: “I’ve considered whether I should be angry at you; and whether I really am angry at you but am fooling myself into thinking that I’m not; and whether I have a lot of very complicated feelings but none of them seems to be anger. So – no.”
“Is your sister mad at me?”
Marie pokes at the garlic. “You know, Madeline, everyone has told Savannah her whole entire life that she can’t do stuff. That she’s not good enough.”
“She’s been made to feel like such a piece of shit. From day one. Bounced back and forth.”
“I know,” says Madeline, feeling like a piece of shit.
“It felt like more-of-same to her. Like you’re just one more person who’s telling her that she’s a total fuck up. That this is yet another thing that she can’t do.”
Madeline considers for a moment just how much Marie is talking about her sister. “But she can’t do it right, Marie. Not because she’s a bad human being. Because she’s fifteen. Because no fifteen-year-old can do this.”
“She really really believes that she can.”
“I completely agree that she really really believes that she can. I agree that she really really wants to. With all her heart. She believes that this baby will land in her arms, and she will magically be able to give him every single thing that he may ever need in his whole entire life – that’s what I know she wishes. But she is fifteen fucking years old.”
“Well I for one am going to do everything I possibly can to help her.”
“Runaway train never going back/Wrong way on a one way track” – that’s what lurches through Madeline’s mind as Marie says those words. Great, she thinks; on top of everything else, fucking Soul Asylum stuck in my head.
“And I think we should all be completely committed to that,” Marie adds. “All of us. To help her as much as we can.”
“There isn’t enough help in the whole world, Marie, not enough to make this work.”
Photos from the film “Stand by Me” (top and middle)
Who was it who said: writing is what one does when one has thoroughly exhausted all possible ways to procrastinate.
A couple of weeks back I had what I thought may be a serious AHA moment. I had put aside the novel I’d been slogging away at for nearly a year for a whole lot of good reasons – I wasn’t sure I had the desire/energy/wherewithal to complete a story that possessed me deeply for a time, then, well, didn’t any longer. I was no longer sure if a good story was even there, or if I cared enough to have those characters continue to possess me.
Putting it aside was the right thing to do.
Meantime, I wanted to keep writing something, and didn’t have a fleshed-out idea for a longer, novel-length work. As you have read in these blog posts, I turned my attention to whatever was in front of me – thoughts about the opaque creature who happened to be my mother, and my reluctant return to the world of health clubs after a blessed 15-year absence.
The AHA was thus this: the gym stuff was fun, and funny. That was precisely the idea, and nothing more. The mommy stuff? Well, it dawned on me that those vignettes might actually be a part of the original novel. Perhaps I hadn’t put it aside after all. Perhaps I had (unknowingly!) meandered down a side road that turned out to be connected to the main artery.
Perhaps. If I can figure out how the heck to do it.
Or even where to start.
It’s currently 5:38 pm. I set aside the entire afternoon, save for a half hour dog walk, to find an inroad for the task at hand. ANY inroad, just a start.
Here’s what I’ve done so far:
played several games of Scrabble against the computer (my winning average is 51.8%)
texted pictures of my new haircut to several friends
browsed the websites of 3 different furniture stores for new living room chairs. The ones I have were bought on Craigslist for the sole purpose of “staging” my house when I thought I was going to sell it. Eight years ago. Still here in the same house. Still have those same chairs.
thought about every conversation I’ve overheard during the past couple of weeks to see if there was any good material I could just steal outright.
looked at my vacation pictures a few more times.
vaccummed, for godssake.
trimmed my eyebrows.
Oh good! My friend Rita just texted me that she’s on her way to pick me up for dinner!
When Heidi went into heat the next time, my parents arranged to have her spend a number of days with the breeders where we got her. They had selected a mate for her. We all drove out to drop her off. The house lay at the fringes of land that were well past the suburbs, but not quite rural. There seemed to be dogs everywhere, some in large cages set around the enormous yard, and others who roamed the house freely. I wondered if the same dogs always got to live inside, or if the breeders rotated them inside and out, following some schedule. Their immense pride in their dogs was evident. Both the man and the woman went on at length, telling me each of the dog’s names and several of their predominant character traits. I got the feeling that I was actually supposed to remember all this, because of their joy and the weight they gave to every detail they imparted.
It was a confusing mess to me, despite the good cheer. I wanted to know if Heidi would have to be outside in one of the cages, and I was told that she would, because she and her new male friend would need privacy and time to get to know one another. I could not understand the convivial good spirits everybody seemed to share. We were abandoning Heidi with strangers who were going to make her live outside all the time.
The body of a female dog makes a complete puppy from the original fertilized cell in about 63 days. The average size of a litter is 5-6 puppies, although the variation is enormous. It’s rare to have just one puppy in a litter, but it does happen. A couple of months after we fetched Heidi from her exile, my parents once again got the wooden pen ready for her in the basement. The same old blue bedspread and dingy pink blanket that her first litter had been born onto lay on the floor. Heidi occasionally scratched at the blankets, rearranged them with her nose and paws, and circled around and around as she waited.
One afternoon, Heidi squatted down in a corner of the pen and stayed in the same position, motionless, and staring straight ahead. She looked like she was trying very hard to poop. I wanted to ask my mother if this was true, but she had already told me that I needed to stay completely quiet if I was going to watch. Heidi let out a long, low moan. She inched her rear end closer to the floor, so slowly, and out came a translucent thick balloon with a puppy inside of it.
There was only one puppy, which was an enormous surprise. My parents decided that we should keep her, and that she should be named “Elf,” the German word for eleven. She was to be the 11th dog that my family had. They counted the dog that my father’s nurse had gotten for us unannounced. We visited him where he was chained at the far end of our back yard until my mother couldn’t stand it for another minute. I’m not really sure what happened to Toby. They also counted the black puppies that had not been viable.
I don’t think my parents realized that Heidi had been a relatively compliant, trainable dog until Elf. Looking back, I think Elf was most likely just dumb as a box of rocks. Even in photographs, she has a wild, glassy look in her eye – an animal with unbridled enthusiasm, absolutely no comprehension, the brute strength of an ox, the stubbornness of a mule, and a bad bad case of ADD.
I thought having two dogs was great fun.
My grandmother (the good, good one) was visiting us, and my mother had planned a big dinner. An eight pound beef roast sat on our kitchen counter, thawing out for the upcoming feast. My grandmother heard a commotion, and walked in to find Elf with the giant slab of meat clenched firmly in her jaws. My grandmother shouted “NO NO NO,” and reached out with both hands to rescue the meat. Elf snapped at her. My grandmother called out for my mother, who came running into the kitchen and immedaitely understood the situation. My mother spoke firmly to the dog and reached for the roast. Elf snapped at her as well.
I didn’t see any of this. I came in at the part where my mother told me that my grandmother was going to be in charge for a little while, and that she would be back soon. She put Elf on a leash and left. When she returned, Elf was not with her.
The only thing that was ever said about it was this: “I will not have a dog that snaps at its owner.”
We sat around the dinner table that night as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, though my father seemed unusually quiet.
I understood that we were not supposed to talk about it, but I was sick with sadness and confusion. I remembered the time when Elf was brand new, her eyes still closed tight, her body squat and furrowed with newborn puppy wrinkles. I was sitting inside the pen holding Elf on my lap, and somehow she slipped off. I picked her up, horrified at my clumsiness, and saw a tiny bubble of blood at the side of her nose.
After dinner that night, after my mother had finished the dishes and turned off the kitchen light, I said, “Mommy, do you think it’s all my fault? Do you think Elf was such a bad dog because of the time when I dropped her when she was a tiny puppy?”
My mother loved to tell the story of when I was sick with the chicken pox. I came downstairs in my pajamas, miserable with pain and itch, wretched with a high fever. I stood in the kitchen and cried.
Our beloved family dog Heidi had recently birthed a litter or eight tiny, squiggling black puppies. My father had built her a small pen in our basement, and filled it with old blankets, so she would have a place to birth and raise her pups.
When she heard my sobs, she left her pups in their basement pen and came up to see the situation for herself. My mother never stopped delighting in telling how Heidi nuzzled into me and began giving me gentle but insistent pushes towards the basement staircase. She was trying to herd me down the stairs, so I could join the rest of the babies that needed her.
Heidi did love me best of our family of four, but I thought it was mighty generous of my mother to say so, and to delight in it, considering that she had done the lion’s share of the hard work of housebreaking, and training, and feeding and slogging the big dog inside and outside since the day we had brought her home. I was three years old then, and therefore instantly and deeply in love. I held the sleeping puppy for hours. I examined every square inch of her as she grew, so I would know her dog body as well as I could. Til the very end of her life, whenever I would sit on the floor in front of a heating vent in order to shake off winter’s bitter chill, she would lie down next to me, resting her head in my lap. I spread her ears out across my thigh and stroked them, and reveling in their unequaled softness.
I have no memory of the chicken pox incident myself, but I heard it so many times growing up that I have formed a clear picture of it – Heidi’s expression of alertness and concern, my flannel pajamas with faded yellow flowers all over them, so small on me that my 5-year-old belly showed in the space between the tops and the bottoms. My only memory of the chicken pox is watching my mother pour nearly a full box of cornstarch into a steaming hot bath and telling me that it would help with the terrible itching. It didn’t. She told me that I had an unusually bad case. In a state of scientific wonder, she decided to count the pox on my face one day, but she stopped just past the bridge of my nose, when she had already reached 100.
I was past the worst of it. The pox were scabbing over, and though I was still sick, I felt so much better than I had that I was filled with a kind of giddy exhilartion when I woke up that morning. I bound into the kitchen and told my mother that I was going to the basement to play with the puppies. She turned from the kitchen sink to face me, and told me that one of the puppies had died during the night. “Why,” I asked.
“You never know about these things,” my mother replied. “So many things can be wrong that we can’t even see.”
“Where is the puppy?” I wanted to know.
“It’s gone,” she said.
“Gone where?” I wanted to know.
She didn’t answer.
“Was it a boy, or a girl?”
“It was a boy.”
The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual. My mother stood in the kitchen, wrapping a tiny, still black thing in a sheet of newspaper.
“You’re up early,” she said. “Another puppy died last night.”
“I want to see it.”
She unwrapped a corner of the newspaper, and I could see the fat, adorable-looking puppy that I had held and played with the day before. It was completely limp, like a rag doll. But otherwise – perfect. “How do you know it’s dead?”
“Because I know,” my mother said.
Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
Every night, another puppy died. My mother said that Weimaraners were special dogs. A highly pure German breed. We had intended to breed Heidi with a carefully selected male, but she had gotten knocked up in the back yard before my parents were sure that she was in heat. My mother explained that often times, when Weimaraners bred with other breeds of dogs, the puppies were not viable. It was a new word. Viable.
One puppy remained. A male. Each morning I woke up, and he was still alive. I studied him, trying to figure out what possible magic he possessed that allowed him to live. My parents found a young man who wanted to adopt him. My mother told me that he was going to come to our house in a couple of days and take the one remaining puppy to grow up and live with him.
“Are you sure he’ll be able to stay alive,” I asked. “Are you sure he’s viable?”
“I’m sure,” she said.
Now that I know the truth, I sometimes try to picture it. I wonder how my mother made her decisions about which one she would choose. I picture her carrying a wriggling puppy in her two hands, up the basement stairs and into our darkened kitchen. I see her plugging the drain, and running a sinkful of water. Or did she run the water in advance, I wonder. Warm, or cool. What goes through your mind when you are cradling new life in your hands, feeling that life drain away, watching for those last tiny bubbles of air to rise to the surface.
If you had told me, ever, that there would come a day when I sat in the privacy of my own home and watched instructional videos on YouTube where former Olympic coaches discussed the proper technique for the freestyle swimming kick, I would have been sorely tempted to administer a mental status exam right on the spot. You know, where a caring and concerned professional asks certain basic questions to determine whether you have lost your orientation as to person, time, and place – which is a fancy clinical way of saying that there are some very big holes in the screen door, the lights are on but nobody’s home, bats have taken over the belfry, the deck is no longer full, and you remain permanently with the fairies. Can you answer such simple questions as: what is your full name; what is the day of the week today; who is the current president of the United States of America. Of course, it’s most likely that there are members of my immediate family who could not answer at least one of those questions. Let’s say, perhaps, a family member who I gave birth to. Honestly, it’s highly likely that this person would miss 2 out of 3 of those questions; and the third could lead to a lengthy philosophical discussion about identity, power dynamics, and the assumptions we bring to bear on our understanding of such concepts as “life” and “self” in the first place. She’s a graduate student.
ANYway, I am getting ahead of myself. When we left off, my brand new Speedo was still constricting the blood flow around my knees.
Once I have had my trip down memory lane regarding the gym locker room, it then occurs to me that in order to cadge this wonderful, zero-gravity swimming experience, I will have to actually wear a swimsuit. In public. With the very real possibility – no, certainty – that I will run into the people that I see in my private practice of therapy. While wearing a Speedo. Don’t get me wrong. The people who come to see me possess the motivation, and the courage, and the sheer guts, to examine their lives and themselves in the service of having it be better. They are my heroes. But mostly when we are all fully clothed.
Let me just mention that I am doing battle with my little black Speedo right after I have come from a Gym Workout. I have had all kinds of helpful digital readouts telling me that I have successfully maintained an average heart rate of 138 beats per minute for 40 minutes. Lights flashed at me regularly, alerting me to the digital opinion that I was overdoing it, and was approaching the heading-for-the-light zone. Still, by the time I manage to wrestle, wrench, twist and tug the Speedo, and install the material so that it is mostly covering those body parts that are supposed to be covered – well, I am lying on my bed, spread-eagle, drenched with sweat, in a state of exhaustion that 40 minutes on a treadmill could never hope to duplicate.
Once rested, I am so damn proud of myself for having gotten this swimsuit on that I immediately take some selfies. Which exactly two people will ever see. My daughter, a longtime swimmer who knows the drill, and my boyfriend, who has seen it all before. I’m so lit up with my accomplishment, and so not-ready to even consider what will be involved with getting the Speedo off again, that I decide I will just hang out in my house and do some pretend swimming, going from room to room demonstrating what I have learned on those helpful YouTube videos.