A Week In Autumn

It began as bleak as anything could be. Going on day four of solitude, alternating between pacing the room, writing down everything frantically for posterity, for clarity, for any idea of what to do next, then curling up in a fetal position under a pile of down blankets, I was running empty on my own resources. I wished myself no harm, nor others, I just wanted everything to. go. away. But no amount of fluffy bedding could muffle the sound of the cat’s worried mews, of the hellish symphony of construction next door, of the ominous howl of the wind through the drafty window, of my own racing thoughts. I had to get out of this noisy apartment.

 

It was a quiet, grey Tuesday afternoon in October. I exited the Jarvis el stop, lit a cigarette and held my head up high. I was there to meet a friend, a friend who had always been there for me like he was there for me today, whom my former beau had informed me only kept my acquaintance because he wanted to get into my pants. I didn’t have the luxury of debating if men and women could ever really be friends at this point though and resented that I was going to have to explain why I’d been ignoring his texts. I saw him waiting for me. Chin up. He gave me a hug, and I burst into sobs. Sobs I’d been holding back for days. In silence we walked down the sidewalk, tears streamed down my cheeks. We sat on a wooden bench overlooking the beach at the end of the street, I offered him a cigarette, told him everything, every dark and confused thought, every fear, every way I had fucked up, every regret. I sat looking straight ahead, across the horizon, eyes scanning the small hill of grey stones, the smooth sand, the dark, turbulent waters, the overcast sky, the lilac clouds in the distance giving way to those promising rain. An icy wind scalded our cheeks and threatened our cigarettes and snapped me out of it. After a half hour of crying and confessing with abandon, I gathered my composure and dug about in my bag for something to wipe the mascara and mucus from my face while he doled out advice and shared stories of his own screw ups and struggles. “I care about you, as a friend. Do you understand? I have no ulterior motives.” “I want to believe you, but it’ll be a while before I can trust a man again. Or myself.” “I know.” The wind kicked up, assaulting us with sand, water, leaves and bark, and we headed inside. We warmed ourselves with black coffee at the dining table and chatted about work, vacations, life while two cats vied for our attention. The sky grew dark, and a small lamp in the corner cast everything in chestnut tones. “You seem better now.” “I feel better now.”

 

By the following evening, all hell was breaking loose. Outside, pedestrians were losing battles with umbrellas. Inside, I sat in a booth drinking a “pumpkin spice latte” and picking at a whole wheat “bagel” with “hazelnut cream cheese.” I had no appetite, but needed to get the manufactured, cloyingly sweet taste of pumpkin goo off my palate, and I had to keep drinking the coffee to stay awake. The evening was not going well. I’d just been given a lecture on how my lack of interest in marriage and a family, along with my penchant for sleeping with artists, must mean I enjoy being miserable and unstable. As if people with spouses and children have inoculated themselves against misery and instability. As if my ambivalence to the institution were not a consequence of my own miserable and unstable family. As if I had ever dated an artist before. As if I’d plans to do it again. As if I thought it were helpful to speak of people in stereotypes. I’d left the office shaken. What the fuck was wrong with people? I hadn’t even gone there to discuss relationships. I needed paperwork signed. Doctors should really stick to doing what they know, like paperwork, and not try to analyze people they see for 5 minutes every 2 months. In the coffee shop I tried to read. Well, his wife is dying. I should not take that marriage stuff personally. Still… Jesus, this latte is disgusting. I was supposed to be meeting someone for coffee. I texted, called, nothing. Well, traffic was a mess, and I was in no hurry to venture out into the gale. I wrote a bit, tried to read. I’d been in a boring normal appropriate relationship for 8 years, and that made me miserable. What the hell did he know? I thought if I took another sip of my seasonal concoction I’d puke. Still no texts. Things were getting chaotic out there in way that encouraged me to leave sooner rather than later. “Hey, L-, it’s T-. Not sure where you are but I’ve been waiting for you forever and I am not waiting any longer. I mean, I hope you’re not trapped under a fallen branch or something.” I left, wrapped my trench coat tight around me, gave up on the umbrella, tugged my beret down over my head, found a doorway where I eventually was able to light a smoke. The night out there was wet and black and slick and wild and everyone was either running or holding on for their lives. People enjoy being miserable and unstable my ass.

 

Storms departed, leaving warm orange days in their wake. Friends poured wine. Family phoned. Ex-therapist e-mailed. Cat stopped behaving upsettingly (except when I caught him watching a slasher flick, his eyes dilated and bulging from their sockets, all cartoon-like.) I cooked, slept, did yoga, wrote, paid visits, read a bit about Buddhism, read a bit about Fascism. I picked up a Reader and put it back down. Fuck all, he’s probably sick of himself at this rate… I gathered myself. I watched a documentary on Catholicism. God is love. But what the hell is love? Continue reading

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Pilgrim Weather

I have this memory.

 

I don’t know if I dreamt it, or if it is an event that actually happened.

 

It was a pilgrim weather day, but I don’t know, it could have been in March, it could have been in December. My Kindergarten class took an excursion to see a cow. But it seems to me we were not told the purpose of the field trip until we arrived, and perhaps not even then. Outside it was dark, but who would take little children to see a cow at night? It must have been in the afternoon, when my Kindergarten class usually met. A dark afternoon, bleak, wet, cold. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Blair, being frustrated or confused or something, something wasn’t going right, though I couldn’t divine what exactly, just the air of mismanagement and possible danger. This exacerbated the already eerie feeling provoked by being on a farm in the dark in the rain, of having been ripped from civilization and parents for perhaps the first time in my life. The wind was whistling, the sky was overcast. we marched through black mud and into some kind of manger, where a cow was lying down, lit only by a lantern. The cow seemed sad, or scared. I suspect that it was having a baby or had or was expected to presently. Because it was a huge to do, and why would you drag a group of 5yr olds through the mud just to see a regular cow not doing anything but lying in a barn?

 

The whole event spooked me.

 

It sounds like a dream, but I am certain this happened. The memories of small children are basically the same as dreams. Something is going on and, lacking vital information, you cannot make sense of it, so you create a narrative in which it is comprehensible. And add a mysterious animal.

 

When I was little, I was afraid of the Pilgrims. Even before I was old enough to appreciate their religio-capitalist occupation of native lands, their pastime of witch-hanging and generally creepy Protestantism, I feared them. Pilgrims were never depicted as being creatures of whimsy, romance or creative temperament. They were decidedly stern, self-loathing prudes who saw the world in the same black and white as their weird Pilgrim clothing. Who would want to spend Thanksgiving with this lot? Also, how obnoxious is it to thank God for the abundance you reaped from colonizing a foreign land? God didn’t give you that stuff, you took it! Anyway, I think part of what terrified me about Pilgrims was the weather associated with them. In my little 5 year old mind, every day of a Pilgrim’s life was as grey and bleak and spooky. They were like vampires, unable to coexist with the warmth of sunlight or the scent of blooming flowers. And mid-November was like their midnight. And also in my 5 year old mind, they continued to live among us. Oh sure, maybe the bulk of their society had disappeared, but there had to be some stragglers. Just as today there are still Amish, in 1980 there were still Pilgrims. Lurking in the woods, in their olden days dress, muskets slung over their arms, lying in wait for an Indian, a witch or an unwitting 5 year old girl on a field trip. I could see the Pilgrims before my eyes. No, they were not exactly malicious. But, like the inhabitants of my small town, their simplicity, fake kindness and prudishness put me on alert. I didn’t know what they were up to, but it was surely straight out of a Stephen King novel. Continue reading

Ghost Stories

“Toscha, I think we have a child ghost,” my brother confided in me after a recent move to St. Charles, MO. I have the kind of family that has ghosts.

I’m not trying to convince anyone that ghosts do or do not exist. I don’t believe in God. Or angels. Or monsters. I do believe in ghosts. I was raised by a crazy Irish woman. My belief in ghosts may inspire accusations of idiocy, but I think there is enough evidence to the contrary. My belief in ghosts may inspire accusations of an overactive imagination and romanticism, but you don’t need a ghost story to know that about me. It seems a pretty harmless belief to have. No ideological agenda. No evangelizing, no political lobbying. Ghosts neither confirm nor undermine my worldview, no more than bunny rabbits or paintings hung on a wall. They are part of the deal. Bad teeth and ghosts.

Of course it is natural for you to want to challenge such beliefs and offer up alternative explanations for the events I am about to recount. In general I support the scientific method and rational, objective attempts to understand the world around us. But the following stories need not be true or untrue. The point is, I have them. Largely against my will.

 

The Intersection

Growing up, my mother and brother were quite fond of recounting stories of ghosts and felt a combination of annoyance at my rigid intellect and pity that it limited my repertoire of experiences. Whole other worlds I was cut off from, out of sheer stubbornness. Apparently part of their special “gift” included the “knowledge” that I was secretly like them, just less self-aware. I was dragged to psychic readers who nodded in agreement. Oh I had it. It. I was just too busy hating the world and sticking my nose in books. This was all discussed in the way old women might sit around a bridge table mewing on about how Pearl’s granddaughter who works at the soup kitchen could be a real catch if she just put some effort into her looks. Full of unrealized potential, but too myopic to realize it. Well, I pitied them in my own way too. I spent my childhood agnostic and became a professed atheist at the age of 9. And they were still praying. As if that is how things got done. Pathetic.

One night, dark, a bit wet, I sat in the front seat of my father’s truck as he drove me home from a friend’s house. We came to a stoplight and sat chatting. It wasn’t a rural road. It wasn’t the city. It was one of those depressing arteries that run through what we might now call the exurbs, lined sometimes by undeveloped land, sometimes by fast food joints, the occasional mall or church. Not enough traffic to create lively atmosphere, but enough so that if a person walked out into the middle of the highway someone would notice. I turned my eyes away from our discussion and back to the intersection to find a man standing right in front of the truck. The moment I realized someone was standing in the street, looking me in the eyes, the light turned green, and before I could scream for my father to stop, he hit the gas and … we didn’t hit anyone. My father continued talking while I sat there in shock. What had just happened? Traffic had moved normally, no thud, no horns, no screams, no sirens. Maybe I’d imagined it. Obviously I’d imagined it! No one dresses like that nowadays. A floppy wide-brimmed hat. Overalls? Maybe it was just the traffic lights and rain playing tricks with my eyes. No. This was not a figure, not a shape. I can still see the expression on his face, feel our eye contact. Soon my father noticed I’d stopped talking. “What’s wrong? Hey, you look like you’ve just seen a ghost. [For real he said that.] What’s going on?” I began to cry inconsolably but couldn’t form any words. We got home and walked in the door. “Toscha’s upset about something and won’t talk to me about it. Maybe you can find out what’s going on with her. Cried the whole way home…” my father pronounced to my mother. For hours I could not speak. I could barely breathe. I could only nod “no” during the following interrogation. No, nothing happened at my friend’s. No, no one had done anything to me. No, it wasn’t school. No, it wasn’t a boy. Eventually I gathered myself. “But it’s stupid. … There was a man in the intersection. … And we drove through him. … I mean, you know, through him.” I sat on the ottoman opposite my mother’s chair, collapsed into her lap and resumed sobbing.

“Well, these things happen,” my mother consoled me. Continue reading