Contradictions

My parents are like children. They are not so old yet that their hands shake when they move and not so young that they have all their memories still neatly ordered. They spend a lot of their time sorting through the supermarket coupons in front of a reality show about cooking or carpentry. When I visit them, I throw out the expired coupons and take out the trash. I make sure they’ve paid all their bills and check that the cat’s still alive. I’ve been living away from them for only two years and already I can’t remember their house feeling like my home. It’s the place where I remember being a child and the place where I am suddenly, wearingly, painfully too adult for my age.

The last time I was at my parents’ house, my mom wanted to make macaroni and cheese for me, to celebrate my being there. It was my old favorite dish when I was young and so she thought it would be special. She left the pot on the stove for half an hour after it boiled and the water had shrunk away while we weren’t watching. She had forgotten to buy extra cheese. She didn’t preheat the oven until eight. I stood in the kitchen and practiced my methodical patience. No, it’s okay, Mom. I got it. Don’t worry, it’ll start cooking while the oven heats up. That dish will be fine, we’re only three people, you can just stick the other half in the fridge and we’ll make it tomorrow. Okay, sure, I’ll grab a container. I’m perfectly calm and using my most tolerant voice so that you won’t accuse me of all the seething that itches under my skin.

My dad sat at the kitchen table and read a magazine for the two hours that this went on. I brought him a beer. He nodded without looking up. When we finally sat down, my mother had to ask him twice before he would look up from the pages and realize, bashful, that we were only waiting for him. While we ate, my parents asked me chipper questions about the job I’d left four months before.

I don’t remember anymore if my parents were grownups when I was small. I couldn’t have noticed, in the same way, if they brought the shopping list to the grocery store or if they ever got back into the car without unhooking the gas pump. Everything was funnier then, anyway. Now I take it seriously and it makes me want to laugh. What else can I do?

I try to visit less and then I worry that they can’t get on without me. If they’d never had a child at all, I wonder if they’d be able to take care of themselves. I wonder how they ever took care of me, or if they did. Now when I go back to the place where I am a child, I take care of my parents.

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Disclaimer

I want you to know what you’re signing up for. What you’re getting into, that is. I don’t want you to think that what you know of me is all that I am. I love that you love me, for all that you do, but you don’t know me as well as you will. If you find out who I am, if you know me thoroughly and fully, and you still love me, then that will be true. If not, my heart might break. I want to know as much about you as I can. I want to know what you look like when you’re waking up in the morning with your eyes still half-lidded and dreams clinging to you. I want to know how you sound when you shout and the pitch of your voice when you murmur. I want to know what makes you worry and what makes you laugh. Do you want to know all these things about me? If you don’t, then there can’t be any love that is true. If you want to be with me, here are some things you should know.

I want you to want to know about me, the good and the bad. You will learn the way I tilt my head when I’m listening with all my attention, and the way I nibble on my lip when I’m anxious or distracted. You’ll find out that I love to sing, even though my voice can’t reach all the notes, and that when there’s a song on that I love and I’m alone, or almost alone, I will dance and jump and swing my hips around like a crazy person. You will know my curves and angles, the movement of my shoulders when I crowd close and the way I curl up with my feet folded under me. My moods jump from ordinary to gleeful at unexpected times, and I sometimes surprise myself with my own happiness. When we sit together, I will lean my head into the round of your chest, below your collarbone, and press my skin to yours. I will make ridiculous jokes and let off peals of laughter at myself. Sometimes they will actually be quite funny, because I can be clever when properly fed and rested. When I’m hungry or tired, I’m more silly than witty. I will look at you the way I look at nobody else. I am kind to people as much as I remember to be, and I think about it a lot. I smile at strangers. I hope you will love me for this.

When I am anxious, I am irritated by everything, and I snap under my breath at what you do; that is, I will, when you know me. When I am tired, sometimes I am wandering in my wits and you will find it funny, but sometimes I am spiky and angry because all I need is to sleep. Occasionally I take offense to what people do or say, and the reasons won’t make sense. I can be thoughtless and selfish. I need reassurance more often than you might want to give it. I will go into long rambles at times about my work or my family or my dreams last night, and I will expect you to listen. Pieces of my body cause me pain and I complain about it, and I’ll expect you to accept that too. I’m embarrassed by my singing voice, but I want you to pretend it’s okay, and when you’re around me a lot you’re going to have to deal with listening to me. Sometimes I don’t bother to shave my legs for stretches of time. I have a gastrointestinal system, and I don’t want to ever talk about it. I am prone to getting sick, and I will demand soup and somewhat unnecessary solicitude. If you don’t love the television and the books and the movies that I love, I’ll be annoyed at you about it. I am defensive when I feel that I’m being criticized, and sometimes critical without thinking. In the mornings I am almost always grumpy. There is nothing you can do about it, but I will want you to try anyway. You should make me tea, but I will probably not have time to drink all of it.

Know, please, that this is an incomplete list. You’re thinking of entering into something that isn’t certain, and I’m not all cataloged. I hope you will spend a long time reading the fine print.
Sign on the dotted line

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Castle in the Sky

The castle in the sky where Annie lived wasn’t made of pink cotton candy or gumdrops. It wasn’t spun out of wistful fairy tales or princesses with impractical hairstyles. That’s not what a castle in the sky is. It’s simply a dream, or a wish, or a hope that’s been held close for too long. Annie’s castle wasn’t made of anything but longing, and so it was a frail and brittle castle, stretched too thin as it braced against the whipping wind above the clouds. She stayed inside, mostly, and didn’t venture too close to the windows for fear of heights. Looking out through the glass to the dizzying pinpricks that were houses below always made her sway and clutch at the wall.

People didn’t often come to visit Annie in her castle where she lived most of the time. It was a long and lonely trek to get there. It always is, to reach somebody else’s hope. Her very best friends would brave it, and they would huddle with her inside her castle built of longing, because they wanted to be with her there. They spoke in whispers, as though they were afraid that their voices would echo against the slender walls. They spoke to Annie as though they were afraid to injure the silence that reigned in her castle. She was always glad to see them there, because it meant she didn’t have to be alone for a while. They left eventually.

Annie had to leave the castle in the sky at times too. She liked going out, most of the time, for a short time anyway. Dropping backdown to earth meant that there were no heights to pull her brain to bits of vertigo. It wasn’t as lonely back on the earth as it was in her castle. She could see people’s faces there, and hear their careless voices. Eventually, though, the faces started to seem strange to her, and she had to go back up. The castle was always waiting. She returned with a twinge that now everybody real was too far away to touch. There was relief in it too, though. Her castle was cold and it was empty, but it was familiar. The rooms fit her like a shawl she could wrap around herself, its touch cold on her skin but comforting and soft. The castle is beautiful, because it is built of longing. Wist makes for lovely decorations. The rooms are narrow and stretch forward before her, and the hallways wind in a maze. It is made for wandering.

For now, Annie spends a lot of time in her castle in the sky. She doesn’t like to, exactly. The chill in the air and the distance from the ground brings a shiver of foreboding to clasp at her. She does not like to be lonely. The emptiness does not make her happy. But she needs the castle right now. It’s like a drug, and it fills her veins with an ache that she craves. She comes back to it, makes the ascent, settles into the rooms of thin frigid air and sinks away behind the gossamer weave of stone walls that veil her from the clouds and the world. Someday, the castle might not be enough for Annie. It might no longer pull at her. Perhaps she’ll simply stop coming, because she will gaze up at the sky and realize that she doesn’t need to leave the earth anymore for longing. The rooms will get dusty and birds will perch on the sills of the little windows until the castle crumbles and falls from the sky.

Annie might also come back to the castle and stay there until she knows that she has to leave. If she does not know on the ground that she isn’t able to live in longing anymore, she might realize it while she’s still there. It’s possible that she’ll walk closer to the wall and put her hand to the stone, feeling the pits and cracks that threaten to break the whole place apart. She might look down and see the world far below, her castle sitting on a cloud, and the two homes of hers so far away that she can never live in both at once. Annie could realize that she can’t live in the sky anymore in a castle made of longing. She may not be able to let it collect dust in the sky while she lives in the world and forgets she was ever there. Maybe she’ll jump.

Stranger Stories

Nadia told herself the stories of strangers. When she walked to the grocery store in the afternoons, she passed people going the other way, not meeting her eyes, people going about their business and thinking about their own lives. The man with sand-colored skin and dark eyes leaning against the wall watched her walk by, his fingers pressed together in front of him. She told herself that he was the sort of person to watch the world happening around him, to take it in, to be overwhelmed by it. He once went on a grade school field trip and sat in a canoe on a vast lake with his second-best friend. He put the oars inside the boat and leaned back, just as he is now against the wall, but instead of the crag of brick in his back there was a flat splintery board and water beneath it going down an endless way. He was, Nadia thought, just the sort to float and feel the way the waves against the sides of his boat tugged and shoved it back and forth but couldn’t touch him, could only lap at his feet in the puddle sloshing around inside the canoe while he closed his eyes against everything.

Nadia walked past the man who may once have sat in a canoe. In the grocery store she stepped around an old woman who was hobbling down the bread aisle behind her shopping cart. The woman’s mouth opened and clamped shut, but if she muttered something it made no sound that Nadia could hear. That, she thought, was probably something this woman was used to. She had a husband who lost his temper sometimes and told her off in a stern voice as if she were a child, and she learned that when he left the sink running or the clothes on the floor it was better to complain inside her head, to keep the words clogging her throat. The woman’s brother called once a week like a dutiful sibling to check up on her, but he was hard of hearing. He yelled into the telephone, “Speak up, I can’t hear you,” and she whispered back “I’m sorry.”

Nadia felt that it was a serious task to tell the stories of the people she saw, even though she only told them to herself. Of course they were false, only figments, half-waking dreams that didn’t mean very much. Who would ever correct her? The sand-colored man didn’t know that she thought he had once sat atop a lake, and he couldn’t tell her otherwise. Nadia liked to tell stories. She wasn’t going to see most of these strangers ever again, but she could mostly remember their faces to illustrate the stories she made up for them. The versions of them that she told to herself lived in her head, occupying places she invented for them. But then, where else could they live?

Writing in Real Life

The man at the counter at Starbucks did not have the kind of face you would recognize. He was all straight lines, droopy eyes, neatly combed brown hair. Most people could have turned away from him and been unable to describe him. They would have mistaken three other people for him without walking half a block. Robin had never seen him before, but she recognized him. At least, she thought she did. She thought she had seen his forgettable face before, but she didn’t know where.

After she bought her coffee she settled in the corner with her laptop. She had a weekly tradition of coming to Starbucks to write. It got her out of the narrow office that held her most of the time. Her husband knew she was in there by the clacking of the keyboard and her mumbles. She didn’t emerge often. He had occasionally sidled in, afraid to bother her but worried, only to find her sagging in sleep with her head tucked into the crook of her arm. On Tuesdays she stayed at Starbucks for hours, letting herself be distracted by the hipsters and businessmen around her, half-listening to the conversations about lovers and deadlines. It was buzzing and busy in all the ways that her office was not, papered in drafts and stained with the rings of many a mug.

The woman waiting in line for the restroom wore an expression of perpetual boredom and impatience, her thin lips pressed together. Robin’s gaze rested on her. The woman looked like somebody, but she was not sure who. Bored, thin lips, blond bob, chewed fingernails– “oh my God,” Robin said aloud to her laptop screen, “It’s Cara Selman.” Cara Selman’s name was hidden in the lines of text on Robin’s screen. She had just walked into the scene where Doug was leaning closer to his secretary, and Robin hadn’t decided yet what she was going to do. Cara was sort of loosely based off of Robin’s sister-in-law, but she was trying to make the difference imperceptible enough that she wouldn’t get in trouble with her brother for it when the book came out. The woman waiting for the bathroom to open was still there, studying her nails, and Robin turned her eyes away.

That was where she knew the dull man in line. He was Doug. Of course he was Doug. He was probably off now with his mocha nonfat latte to flirt with his secretary all day, because Robin was toying with the idea of making him a bit of a slacker at the office. He wasn’t her favorite character in this book, but she thought she might be able to do something with him if Cara got really angry. Judging from her expression as she stood glaring at the “Occupied” sign on the restroom door, the woman needed something to get worked up about. Robin thought that possibly Cara liked plunging herself and her husband into high-flown dramatics more than she actually liked her husband.

An old man sitting at the counter by the window turned and bent down, creaking, to pick up his newspaper. As he straightened his eyes met Robin’s and sent a spasm of electricity down her spine. Mr. Hilgood was at Starbucks too. He didn’t look happy. His jaw was tight and his hands shook. The wrinkles trailing from the corners of his eyes deepened when he clenched his teeth just the way she had imagined them to do. Robin’s stomach dropped. Last week she had written him into the doctor’s office and she knew that he had gotten some bad news. She didn’t think he was going to tell his wife, who was going to find it all out too late. Poor thing, Robin thought. She ached for the old man stooping to pick his paper up from the floor where it had fallen. He was a lovely man, and he was never going to get the chance to make amends with his children.

The Starbucks was too full of people who had, before, only populated her mind. Susan might show up, and Robin didn’t think she could bear that. She packed away her computer, her hands clumsy, and nearly dropped her bag as she stood. The smell of coffee was starting to make her feel light-headed. As she blundered toward the door, she knocked into Mr. Hilgood’s chair. Robin ordered her eyes downcast, away from his face. “I’m sorry,” she said to his shoulder, and then she left.

The Old Future

In the old future, Sandra waited until the very last moment and then she called Will. She sat at home, festering, the rotten anger building up inside her and heating her through until she burned with it. Everything in the house was infuriating. The art on the walls, the stack of unopened mail on the end table, the mug from his coffee that morning when he’d drunk it, scarfed down breakfast, and left. All without talking to her. Mornings had been hard lately. In the old future, things changed.

In the old future, he answered the phone. He said her name and his voice was soaked with relief. She let it bleed into her, holding the phone to her ear and sagging in the comfort where everything was okay. They both said they were sorry in a rush and laughed, words tumbling into each other, their voices woven on the phone connection, both their forgivenesses tightly spun in the air between the house and his work. He came home at once, didn’t even stop for the usual drink with Mike before he got on the train. She picked him up at the station instead of letting him take the bus. In the car he put his hand on her knee and even when they got out and walked into the house she could feel the heat pressed to her skin, the print of his hand still warming her.

In the old future they got into another argument in the kitchen, trying to decide what to do about dinner. Their voices, so recently entwined, knocked and hammered at one another again. Finally Sandra cried. She was so tired of hearing her own shrillness and seeing his face crumpled in frustration. She never cried, but now she did. He melted when she did. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, shoulders shaking, and he knelt in front of her. His fingers lit on her arms, tentative, pulling her to him. When she looked up there were tears on his face too. “It’ll be okay,” he said to her. “We’ll be okay. We don’t need to fight.” She cried harder from the torrent of wonder, just imagining that things would change. They would be okay.

In the old future, they skipped dinner. They clung to each other and undressed each other and dissolved into each other in the kitchen. They fell asleep on the floor and Will was almost late for work the next day. He kissed her before he left, leaning over while he pulled on yesterday’s pants, his lips holding hers. After he left she could still feel him on her. She spent the day in a daze. Long minutes passed while she stared at her cereal, or at the papers in front of her, or at the blank black screen of the television. Her whole body was lighter now. She nearly floated.

In the old future, Will came home and nearly crushed her in an embrace. They ate dinner in bed that night, flicking crumbs at each other. Laughing.

In the old future, everything was okay. They lived together and they loved each other. Maybe they had some children. Only sometimes did they have moments of passion, but they always forgave each other.

In the old future, Sandra called Will and he picked up the phone. Everything was okay. The old future might have been true until he didn’t answer.

In the new future, the one that is true now, Will did not pick up the phone. Maybe he saw her name appear on the screen and he clicked “Ignore” because he wanted more time to mull the fight over before they talked. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Maybe he was already with Mike at the bar. In the new future, he went for a drink with his friend and then went home with Mike to sleep on his couch. He woke up in the morning and left for work. He was probably short of sleep from sleeping on the lumpy couch with snores drilling at his ears, and that’s why he didn’t look when he crossed the street toward the office. The driver of the car that hit him didn’t stop. They called Sandra from the hospital. She’d been angry that Will had never come home.

In the old future, everything could have been okay. The old future will always be okay, because it isn’t true. Sandra lives in the new future now.

Keep Going

Go go go don’t stop don’t look back. If you look back they can get you, the demons, the shadows, the ones who never slow down. Keep running they’re catching up. They’re always catching up. You said to me once that the truly terrifying thing, what makes you prickle cold with sweat at night and shakes your bones all day, what scares you is that you can go a long way pretty fast but they go slower they do they plod on but they never ever ever need to sleep. You slowed down and they got you.

If I keep going fast enough they won’t get me. If I keep running I’ll be okay. That’s what you told me. Your words go in my head keep going keep going keep going run run run and one syllable with every time a foot hits the ground so I’m saying the words as I go even when I’m walking because my legs might fall out from under me. Those words keep my feet forward, keep my bones working and my blood churning and my face turned up and ahead of me so I don’t look at the ground so long that I just sink right onto it. Sometimes the dirt looks so inviting.

There’s no way I give up, you have to know that, you might be gone to me but I can still talk to you in my head. It’s not like there’s anyone else to talk to either and I’d always rather talk to you than anyone. You know. You always know. Now when I have to do all the knowing when my brain has to work all the time and my body has to go go go all the time and I’m without you and all I have is your words that keep me going because I have to keep going. Now that it’s like this, I still talk to you in my head. I always did and always will. There isn’t anyone better to talk to. Even if there was someone they wouldn’t be better couldn’t not possibly because you’re always you even though you’re not here you’re not with me you’re still you. When I ask myself questions because I’m so so so tired sometimes I can hear your answers because I know what you would say. Sometimes I ask just to hear the answer you would say come back to me and I can pretend for a little minute there that you’re telling me how to survive how to be how to live and it’ll work and because of you, your words in my head, you’re gone but I have your words and so I’ll be okay.

Do you think I’ll ever be able to rest? No don’t stop run run run never stop.