Saturday morning I got a text message from my sister: “Call me when you get this.”

My first instinct is to worry. Messages like this can only signal a death in the family.

However, ever since my grandmother died, and my sister’s and parents’ dogs, there has been nobody in the family who is both a candidate for dying soon, and a close enough to me to justify me calling home ahead of schedule.

So I told myself that probably the message didn’t sound so ominous when she sent it. Probably she wanted to know how to fix her computer, or what we should get our parents for Christmas.

I poured myself a coffee and called her. We talked for about a half hour, and when we hung up I bought plane tickets to go home.

Continue reading “Home”

Peaceful as a hurricane eye

Peaceful as a hurricane eye

When I was nine years old and convinced that I would someday be an astronaut, I lived on the twenty-first floor of a condominium placed snug against Luquillo Beach in Puerto Rico. It was a one-bedroom apartment and there were three of us, but all of the couches pulled out and became beds and so I slept in the living room in front of the TV and developed what was in retrospect a probably unhealthy relationship with MTV. (Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” which was a hit at the time, and New Order’s “True Faith,” which wasn’t but still seemed to get played quite a bit—these two invariably bring me back into that room, with all the thoughts and sensations of being small and helpless but eager and defiant. A bunch of salsa and merengue hits will do the trick as well—Sergio Vargas’s “Si Algun Dia La Vez,” Willie Colon’s “El Gran Varon,” pretty much any of Wilfrido Vargas’s soundalike absurdities, whether they were hits that year or not—but since I don’t live in a Puerto Rican community anymore, I only hear those songs when I deliberately play them on my iPod, so I’m clearly already in the mood for nostalgia. Madonna and New Order are more likely to blindside me at the supermarket.)

We actually lived in Puerto Rico for just over a year, most of which we spent about a mile away from the beach, in a small house in a neighborhood on a hilltop on the other side of the highway. From the top of my street I could see the Atlantic as a blue horizon and smell the salt air, though I suspect you can do that anywhere in Puerto Rico. It’s a small island, after all.

But for the last two months that we lived there were stayed in the apartment on the beach, and those memories are more vivid. Perhaps because I was nine, and my experiences were cementing into memories that I would carry with me for the rest of my life, instead of the gelatinous impressions that are pretty much all that is left of my earlier years. In many ways I suppose my life as Me began in that apartment.

Good memories: the balcony faced the sea. We’d leave the sliding doors open to allow in the breeze, and whether I sat in the living room or out on the balcony it still felt like I was sitting outside. There was nothing between the building and the beach except a small strip of patio; I remember the back door in the lobby leading straight out onto the sand. At night—and during the rare parts of the day when my family was quiet—you could hear the ocean washing against the shore as if you were in a giant seashell.

I once had a bouncy ball bounce over the railing and disappear. I ran down to the beach and looked for it, but it could have gone anywhere, up to and including alternate dimensions of time and space. My family asked me what I was doing, but for some reason I was unwilling to explain. It wasn’t a particularly treasured bouncy ball. I just wanted to find it again.

My teacher at school wanted me to belong to one of her after school clubs, but it meant me missing the bus. She asked my mom if she could drive me home instead, and somehow this was okay. I rode in the front seat without a seat belt. We talked the entire way home, though I can’t remember a single conversation. She drove a Toyota Camry and it smelled like coffee. She wouldn’t turn off the car, just pull up somewhere near my building and let me get out. Somehow this was okay, too. I must have made some kind of impression on her that she was willing to chauffeur me around; I can’t even remember which club it was she wanted me to join.

A teenage cousin made me a fishing pole out of a Pepsi can and a stick. He made himself one, too, and we went fishing in a creek near my building. I didn’t catch anything, but he caught two fish that we fried up and ate back at the apartment, even though when he gutted them some weird parasite came running out of the fish’s stomach and scurried down the drain.

Not-so-good memories: Not far from our building there was a line of crude shacks where fisherman sold the day’s catch, alive, dead, or cooked, depending on your preference. (I’m told that in subsequent years the Board of Health demanded that the shacks be replaced with proper sanitary structures, but back then these things were barely-standing, with hand-painted signs and live animals dangling in sacks above the counter.) We bought a bag of crabs and had a neighbor cook them for us. I didn’t let on that it bothered me, but I did quietly excuse myself when the crabs started screaming.

Once a kid on the bus grabbed my lollipop and threw it out the window. An older kid in the back caught it in midair and gave it back, and on the way home I ate my lollipop and cried at the same time while half the kids mocked me and the other half stood ready to defend me. I don’t think I was the smallest kid on the bus but I was probably the easiest to pick on.

The fingers on one of my hands were swollen for most of that year in Puerto Rico, because a cousin of mine dropped a cinder block on my hand. It wasn’t his fault, we were trying to redecorate my grandmother’s garden and, well, that wasn’t such a good activity for small children, as it turns out. Cinder blocks are heavy, and he was either six or seven years old. The block tore the skin and fingernail clean off my middle finger. I don’t remember any of the adults being especially upset. They wrapped it up and told me stories about relatives who had lost limbs doing weird things. Amazingly, they had quite a few examples to share.

Memories, neither good nor bad: The day before we left a cousin trapped me in the kitchen and asked me if I felt sad about leaving. I said no, because I honestly wasn’t. Her face, mean-looking at the best of times, turned vicious and she insisted that I would be devastated without her. Then she stormed off. We didn’t see each other again for twelve years.

A big storm passed over our city. We ate in the living room and watched through the sliding glass doors as the sheets of rain streaked across the sea. It wasn’t hurricane season but my cousins—there were always relatives in our house, at least in my memory—said it was anyway, and the adults told us and each other hurricane stories. The previous summer my cousin—the mean-looking one—and I had played in the street during a tropical storm. We were both small enough that we could almost swim in the rain-swollen gutters. I’m pretty sure we tried, anyway. I very quickly conflated their hurricane stories with my own tropical storm playdate.

I spoke to my mother this weekend, and as it always does the conversation turned to Puerto Rico. I haven’t been back since I left nearly thirty years ago. My parents keep in touch with their siblings, though, and my mom always tries to tell me about them. I listen, and can mostly keep track of the names and goings-on of these increasingly distant relatives. This time I listen, though. It appears that they’re all giving up. Buying the next available seats on flights heading to the States, no caring about the day or even really the destination. Some are staying behind to sell their houses or pursue their insurance claims, but right now, at least, none intend to stay.

In my lifetime immigration has become a hot-button issue. As Americans our point of view assumes that people from around the world are eager to come to us. Some see it as nefarious and others as a blessing, but the underlying belief in America-as-magnet is unquestioned.

Puerto Ricans aren’t, of course, immigrants. We are Americans, and are simply relocating from one part of America to another, just as people from New Orleans moved to Houston after Katrina.

But I understand that for my family, moving from Puerto Rico to the mainland isn’t that simple. It is immigrating. It’s a permanent change, and not one that they had wanted to make. It was something that people did a hundred years ago, or that they did today from remote war-ravaged countries.

And now it also happens at home.

And I have to wonder, will it stop there? The Europeans who came to America in centuries past didn’t stop in New York or Boston; they kept going, into parts of the world that appeared as little more than blank spaces on a map.

When we can’t take care of this group of Americans—or the next group, if there is a next group—what happens when Americans start looking for a fresh start? Am I looking for a fresh start?

I don’t think much about Puerto Rico—my mean-looking cousin was almost absolutely wrong. We used to go every summer, but after that year we stopped. My world has grown a lot since then, and memories of the apartment on the beach are mostly, though not entirely, consigned to that fuzzy bin of early childhood memories. For all I know the apartment itself has been consigned to a rubbish heap after the storm. And the seafood shacks, building codes and all, are probably gone. My grandma’s finger-destroying garden, all the other places a nine-year-old would scamper, chasing and being chased by other floppy puppychildren. What is left, and where do we go now?

Zolzaya and the Apple Thieves

Zolzaya and the Apple Thieves

By the end they were in her dreams, too. She felt herself taken along by a warm current, a tug that seemed to come from inside of her somehow, first playful but then urgent and frightening, and finally a hard surge that forced her farther into the limitless blue void. At first she felt free, and the ocean carried her like an expecting mother; then her throat closed in terror and her muscles from her legs to her chest clenched tight and the sea dragged her down to the cold darkness of the Leviathan.

Zolzaya woke with a start and gripped the sheets hard enough that her fingers hurt. She still felt the swells even though her eyes insisted that she was home in her bed. All of her muscles, even her jaw and her toes, were clenched.

She had to make a decision, and in the still clarity of the early morning she forced herself to draw a deep, burning breath and decide.

With trembling legs she rose from her bed and got dressed, not at all calm but still somehow reassured. Her fingers shook as she buttoned her shirt. They’d been shaking for days, she realized as she looked at them. Bones rattling under thin skin. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail and got started.

Continue reading “Zolzaya and the Apple Thieves”

The Children’s Empire

The Children’s Empire

Alan Smalky, ten years old and sporting a fresh sunburn on his cheeks and shoulders, came in through the back door with a juice box he had taken from the cooler on the deck. Lanky and graceless, a bit of a mouth-breather, he came into the living room and plopped down on the armchair near the sofa.

Jonathan Smalky was on the couch, not watching the news on TV and not reading the paper on his phone at the same time. His wife Karen was curled up next to him with her head resting on his thigh, either half-asleep or trying to be. At this time of year the sunlight poured onto the couch for a few hours in the early afternoon, and it was rare for them to be able to sit and enjoy it together.

Neither one noticed their son’s presence for a few minutes, and since he wasn’t doing anything to draw attention to himself they didn’t feel any particular need to acknowledge him, either, but eventually the child’s continued silence became a provocation in itself so Jonathan mumbled something that sounded vaguely parental. Even a second later he couldn’t remember what he’d said, but it was enough to prompt Karen to try again.

“Where’s your sister?” she asked dreamily without opening her eyes. It was a question that implied a command: “Go play with her, leave us alone.”

Alan didn’t answer her. He just burst into tears, and his parents’ pleasant afternoon came to an abrupt end.

Continue reading “The Children’s Empire”

The Wishing Stone

The Wishing Stone

“Would you like your table now or would you like to wait for your party at the bar?”

Lisa started to ask for the table, but then crinkled her nose and pointed to an empty stool. “I better wait at the bar.”

And wait she did. Wait and wait. First with a wine, then with a second, and after that she let herself graduate to a cocktail. The first in order to have something to do with her hands, the second to give him a little more time, and the third because even though she didn’t even want him to come it still hurt that he didn’t.

And then he came.

“Sweetie, I’m so sorry.” He used his sad voice, the one with a little whine and a choked little tear. “Were you waiting long? Of course you we were waiting long, what am I saying? I’m sorry. Are you in a hurry, can we still do this?”

She sighed. “Sure.” Lisa motioned to the bartender and reached for her purse.

“Oh no, let me.” She didn’t protest, and in a fraction of a second decided against making a comment or even a face. He was already in the hole, and would probably dig himself further in before the evening was over; she didn’t need to pile on. At least not at first.

The maitre d’ showed them to a table for two by the window. Lisa sat where she could see the front door. It gave her the option of planning out escape routes if she needed them.

“Hi, my name is Derrick, and I’ll be your server today. Here are your menus, take your time. Can I get you something to drink?”

“Hi, Derrick. I’m Tom. This is my daughter Lisa.” His charming voice. Tom Grand was a man of many voices. He toggled through them with ease. “Water for the table, and I’ll have a Diet Coke.”

Lisa downed the rest of her cocktail and arched an eyebrow at her father. “She’ll have another one of those,” her father chuckled. Derrick the Waiter chuckled, too. When he was gone Tom leaned forward, playfully, conspiratorially.

“I don’t want you to think I’ve gone religious or AA on you. I just figure it’s been a long day, I probably should focus on rehydrating tonight.”

She hadn’t thought about his choice of beverage at all. At that moment she had been thinking that she probably didn’t need another drink, and that although she had been very hungry not long ago she suddenly didn’t really feel like sharing a meal with her father or anyone. She just wanted to go home. Barring that, she should probably switch at least back to wine.

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In Adam’s fall we sinned all, the old rhyme says, but sometimes Jaime believed that he had shouldered an unfairly large portion of that burden. He was sitting on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, just a few feet from the sign forbidding people from doing so, talking morosely about some horrible experience in his life while Jaime listened attentively and finished off the last of her gelato. It was pretty chilly, a November kind of day, and he thought her silly for bothering with ice cream; her nose was already red from the weather, and her ears–only the tips of which were visible from under her grey knit cap–were also red, contrasting sharply with the little white earring studs she wore that day. As Jaime spoke he avoided looking at her, feeling that staring off into space would make his words seem all the more dramatic, as though he were speaking through that un-self-conscious fog of memory that dimestore novelists often have their more dramatic characters speak through. Jaime also knew that looking at her would distract him and break his mood: even in her present half-frozen state Jaime was by far the most beautiful person he’d ever known, and the sight of her dancing eyes would only make him happy, and happiness was not the effect he was going for here. Happiness would ruin the mood.

With the carefully mannered and thoughtfully articulated cadences of someone who wants to be taken seriously, Jaime spoke. “It would be easier if I knew what I wanted, then maybe I could figure out how to get it. But I feel like I’m just floundering about, rudderless. I miss who I was, but even more so I miss the prospect of being what I wanted to be.”

Through a mouthful of waffle cone Jaime replied, “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” She stood and dusted herself off, munching as she walked over to the trashcan to throw away her wrapper. And with that the matter was settled. Jaime was always quick with a comment, and being so vastly superior to Jaime intelligence-wise and otherwise-wise, her comments often had the effect of shutting his self-deprecating musings up. She moved quickly, with the easy gait of someone that knows and understands herself, and when she spoke she did so in her sleek and pleasantly lilting voice that served as the perfect conduit for her wit, which always roared.

“You’re in Italy, homebelly,” she offered when she returned, “cheer up a bit.” She extended her hand to help lift him from his illegal perch and he took it, dusting off his rear after standing. They made an unlikely pair, the coincidence of their names notwithstanding. Her eyes were blue and her hair mousy-brown; his were the other way around. Though he towered over her, his evident lack of self-respect diminished his stature somewhat; Jaime often called him the littlest giant she’d ever seen. She herself was rather small, especially in relation to him, though she adamantly insisted that she was of average height.

Continue reading “Jaime”

Peter Mays Goes For A Walk

Peter Mays Goes For A Walk

Too old for this. Same mistakes. Tell her again. And again.

The ceiling fan only blows the heat around. Pillow too flat. Sheets all a mess.

Too old and too stupid.

It got to the point where he couldn’t breathe anymore and there was no use staying in bed. She was tossing in bed, too, and he wanted to ask her if she was mad at him, but he didn’t want to to acknowledge that she had a reason for being angry. She clearly was, but wasn’t saying it, so maybe he could hope that she wasn’t.

It was all so stupid, and he couldn’t believe that he was here, tossing in his bed, over the same stupid shit yet again.

Every step of the way could be justified, but the end result was always the same, and somehow it was only he who ended up here so he had to face that it was him, entirely him.

He wanted to die. But not quite. Death would leave grieving, accusation, disappointment. Wounds that would fester in his children. It would make her wonder if she had been wrong to be so angry, and she didn’t deserve that doubt. She was right to be angry. Again.

He didn’t want to die but he wanted to stop living. To stop being. Cast a spell and erase himself from the world and from everyone.

Impossibilities, he knew. Peter got out of bed. He used the bathroom for the fifth time that evening, had a glass of water, took an Advil for a headache he wasn’t sure he had. Instead of going back to bed he went to the couch and turned the fan directly onto himself. When he couldn’t cool down he knew it wasn’t the heat. It wasn’t that hot tonight.

The idea came to him that he needed a walk, and so after debating it in his head for an hour or so–now well past midnight, with his alarm set to wake him in just over four hours–he got up and got dressed.

He left his phone but took some cash–maybe he could get a coffee somewhere–and stepped out into the night.

Continue reading “Peter Mays Goes For A Walk”

The Father and Daughter at a McDonald’s in Ashland, Virginia

The Father and Daughter at a McDonald’s in Ashland, Virginia

Observe the detail on the bumper of an eleven-year-old Subaru Outback: “Proud Parent of a Terrific Kid,” two of the corners peeled back slightly, one of them torn. Bumper stickers don’t come off easily, and whoever tried to remove this one gave up rather than leave a papery mess for all to see.

The man wore a lightweight brown coat over a maroon sweater. He rubbed his hands together and then stuffed them into his coat pockets. He didn’t hurry but didn’t dally either.

The girl was already out of the car and halfway across the parking lot. She wore a dark coat and a purple scarf and a whimsical knit cap with matching gloves. Underneath the coat she wore a sweater and two T-shirts, and leggings under her jeans. She wore canvas sneakers, which was a poor choice for this weather, but she had on two pairs of socks. She walked quickly with her head down and her arms across her waist, not looking back to make sure he was following.

Just inside the door, though, she stopped and turned to watch him come. Bundled under yards of cotton and yarn she was an echo of the obedient child she had been not long ago.

“I have to use the bathroom,” she said quietly when he entered, and walked away without waiting for acknowledgment.

“Should I get you the usual?” he asked her, and in reply she shrugged her shoulders.

There was only register open, and the customers in front were to a one very indecisive about their orders. The man studiously read the menu while waiting his turn. From time to time he checked to see if she was coming back. If he was annoyed by the slow service he didn’t let on.

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Me and the sea

Me and the sea

For years I believed that I loved the beach because everybody I knew loved the beach and insisted that I did, too. They longed for it and sang its praises and daydreamed about escaping to the beach, and not just in the cruel dead months of winter. Like Basho longing for Kyoto even in Kyoto, my family and friends would lie on the sand and do nothing except celebrate their being on the beach.

Some waxed poetically: all life begins in the sea, be it the primordial waters of our newborn planet, or the smaller sea of our mothers’ wombs.

Others more prosaically celebrated not being work.

Still others took pleasure in showing off their bodies, or observing others who showed off their bodies, or both.

Too young to appreciate poetry, have a job, or experience the thrill of public near-nudity, I simply agreed, and insisted that I loved the beach and hoped that nobody would press me further on reasons why.

Reasons not to love the beach were obvious: sand. Sand in my shoes, sand in  my hair, sand in my body somehow, sand all over the potato chips.

And salt. In my eyes, in my mouth, and eventually enough would work its way into my skin to make my nipples hurt.

And the sun. Burned skin, a lot of squinting, fighting for shade or else gallantly giving it up.

And the sea. Relentless, punishing the shore and those along it, concealing threats like sharp rocks, angry crabs, and deadly currents.

And in later years, when we moved far and the beach became accessible only for a weekend a year, I listened as everyone around me lamented their fate and long for the shore, but I stayed silent, content to be dry and cool. In time I was on my own to plan my vacations, and I finally began to admit to those around me that the sea simply didn’t pull me the way it did others. Although everyone was shocked, it was a relief to be able to admit that.

But that wasn’t the whole story.

I do love the sea.

When I was nine years old we lived on the twenty-first floor in a building whose lobby opened directly onto a clear strand of Atlantic beach. I had a bedroom but I preferred to sleep on the couch because I could leave the door to the balcony open and hear the waves down below. The salt and sound engaged all my senses, and my body, though I lay still on my side, struggled happily to find equilibrium amidst the shifting of the currents, reacting to the phantom memory of the water.

Those nights are among the most precious of my memories.

This past weekend we went to the beach for a wedding and rented a little cottage just a block from the shore. The days were consumed with wedding activities, and when we weren’t doing those there was obligatory socializing with relatives who had come from far away, and meeting people who were now, however tenuously, new relatives.

And I spent most of the time waiting for the moment when I could escape and walk the block to the beach by myself, and walk along the strand, quiet and alone.

At last the wedding was over, and the bride and groom went away, and the relatives old and new soon followed. My parents plopped down and admitted they were too tired and happy to do anything but sit, and so I excused myself and took the short walk in time to watch the sun slip off the glassy sky and disappear to the other side of the earth.

I walked along lazily until it was dark, trying to live in this moment and that other moment from years ago, even on the beach longing for the beach.

Because I do, after all, love the beach.