Everyday the Christmas tree droops more, the hyacinth blooms topple farther. The air is laden with heat we can’t turn off or down. This morning I’ve cracked a window. It seems wasteful, but a little bright ribbon of cool weaves across the room.
My father’s cancer is back. We all got through the first bout in his tongue, but now it’s back in his neck and lymph nodes, and there are courses of radiation and chemotherapy scheduled. My sister leads the support battalion. She does much of it singlehandedly, driving him to and from medical appointments, making meals and doing laundry, checking on Mom. Chris and I were there at Christmas while she was out of town and helped with a few of those things. A lot of preparation for a couple of days. It was vacant-feeling holiday, my dad talking to the exclusion of general conversation, my mom not talking much at all. Nothing stays with me. I feel a great emptiness where my parents reside. I have no relationship with my father to speak of. My mother isn’t really there at all. She’s become like an irritable body without history or presence. I imagine I miss her before she’s even gone, but which her? I’m exhausted by the layers of absence.
My sister keeps busy with her family, her children’s lives, her care of our parents. She is harried and annoyed and stressed out but eloquent and largely gracious. My brothers are mostly silent until they descend with proclamations. I have no real calls on my time. Rebuilding my life feels monumental in these moments. The smallest things undo me. Today I will do laundry, and we’ll get rid of the damn tree.
We’re flying through the air, and I look out the window into the darkness and can just make out the ghostly outlines of tall buildings through the gloom of night and fog. I realize we’re descending sooner than I’d expected and turn away to prepare myself for landing. There’s a sudden lurch and then the feeling of accelerating descent. We’re touching down, far more gently than I’d feared but not at any landing site, in the middle of a city roadway. The big balloon comes down in flaming shreds several yards away. The cabin we’ve been riding in is unharmed, but we hurry out and away in case it’s pulled or catches fire.
We dash down an alley and around corners. I’m close on the heels of a young girl. We go into a cafe where everyone orders something to eat or drink. When I get to the head of the line, I can’t think what I want.
We return to the office to find festoons of gifts around the place. We get to the elevator and find a giant-size envelope taped to the doors with several names on it with little checkboxes beside each. My companion and I check off our names and look inside. There are gifts from our boss inside. For me there are three audio books, the first of which is The Artist’s Way.
I go down to the beach, or what little there is of it, with a couple of other people. There are long breakers coming in and rolling way up the shore. I say, I wonder how cold it is, and test the water with my foot and am surprised to find it so warm. I say I’m going swimming, and they tell me to hurry, that we don’t have long. I’m wading in and about to dive into a wave when something dark washes by. I follow it as it’s swept along for awhile until I can catch up with it. I pick it up out of the water, and we’re speculating about what it may be. It’s a piece of metal that seems to have once been a loop but was sheared away and broken. We wonder if it was part of a boat or dock.
I’m sitting in a loose circle of people in an institutional room with large windows. We’re getting ready to have a discussion, but there’s a long moment where it seems no one knows how to begin. I speak up and say, Could we identify a facilitator? Just then a woman who has just arrived says, It’s okay, I’ll take it from here. She starts going around the circle and giving each of our names and a little piece of trivia or humorous commentary about each of us. When it comes to me, I give my maiden name and then apologize and amend that to my married name. She makes a joke about how clear it is that I’m from the midwest.
I look out the window and say, That van is really on fire. A couple of people jump up and run out. That’s not their van, but a couple of cars down is theirs. As they pull out, I can see how melted and blistered it is from the heat.
We’re driving around a cluster of college and prep school campuses that are all mixed up together. I think I see Dartmouth up ahead but then realize it’s Duke. We come around a corner and there is Hotchkiss at an oblique angle.
I’m excited to visit, and we get out and go into my freshman year dormitory. There are signs of construction all over. I start to climb up a rickety pile of debris and then notice that there’s a staircase and go up that instead. Upstairs the doors are open to all the empty rooms. We walk into two or three and stand in the tiny spaces and look around. They’ve been stripped bare, and I explain how they all had dark wood paneling back in my day.
We go downstairs through the main building and into a kind of recreation room. There are people playing ping pong. I am indignant and say, There was never a ping pong table! Then I notice an old schoolmate of mine over to the side of the room. I somehow know that he’s suffered a great tragedy of some kind, and I walk over and wrap my arms around him. We stand there for a long, long time, holding on to each other. At one point I catch Chris’s eye and hold out my hand without breaking the embrace. He comes close, and I give him a reassuring kiss and then go back to the long hug.
Someone spills some kind of blue goo and wipes it up with towels and takes it outside and throws it in the lake. Apparently they’ve been doing this for years. I’m outraged and start shouting and carrying on about how I’m going to bring an environmental lawsuit against the school.
I’m sitting in a court room, listening to a case being tried. I’m sitting on some benches with a group of gay guys, one of whom particularly dislikes me. They’re being bitchy and rude. There’s a tabby kitten wandering around, and I pick it up and move to a different seat across the room.
We’re hauling things out of a big A-frame attic space. There is an array of fancy old fashioned pistols handed out one by one, big ones, little ones, ornate and primitive ones. And then there is a gigantic dog. I wonder how it has survived up there. It is a great big wooly thing, like an Old English Sheepdog but bigger and of no breed known on earth. Everyone else is alarmed, but I pooh pooh their caution, coo sweet words to it, and reach out to pat it. It chomps down on my hand, which doesn’t hurt exactly but scares me, and I realize I’ve made a grave mistake.
There is an Indian family visiting, and we’re having a celebratory meal, all of us distributed over two floors of the house, the young ones downstairs and the elders upstairs. Downstairs I’m struggling to prop up a computer on the squashy surface of the bed so that two of us can sit side by side before it. There are overlarge speakers and too many monitors, and I start disassembling things. I go upstairs where all the aunties are sitting with slices of pie to clear away the empty dishes. They’re telling me in great detail how to arrange the garbage cans in the driveway to accommodate so much extra refuse.
Our Christmas tree is stripped of ornaments and garlands and lights and stands neglected, still perfuming the air of our apartment with evergreen. We’ve stopped giving it water, and its branches droop pathetically. The hyacinths Chris’s mom gave me for my birthday throw a gorgeous scent into the air. The apartment has grown stiflingly hot, radiators in high gear. I need to check that they’re wound down. True winter took its time but is finally upon us with temperatures in the single digits. Everyday I don my snow books and throw my heavy clogs in my shoulder bag to carry to work.
Yesterday on a crowded train a sitting man stood up, and I sat down. He said, I was giving the seat to the lady. I said, Oh, and got up and gave the seat to her and then stood there for the rest of the ride wondering what made me less of a lady.
I’m running through an attic where rain comes through in patches. I come to a room where college-age students are working on experiments involving scientific devices.
I’m in a restaurant with low tables and step over one and inadvertently damage the sushi of two women sitting there. I stop and apologize and offer to buy them new sushi. They are very haughty about it and proceed to enumerate every single dish they have ordered, not merely the sushi I’ve knocked over. I debate with them and eventually get angry and tell them I’m not going to pay for anything at all and stomp off. I stop by the front office and explain what has happened. Unfortunately, they’ve already heard about it from the two women, who’ve cast me in a bad light.
I’m sitting in an open room that feels like a hospital waiting room, but it is filled with desks and people training to become doctors. An established doctor comes into the room and is asking questions, and different people are taking turns answering them. I speak up with a piece of information, citing that I work for the American College of Surgeons, but the doctor dismisses me and moves on.
I’m supposed to be in a wedding in Las Vegas. We’re in a big complex with hotels and shopping centers. I’m in one area and trying to figure out how to get over to another area to shop for things to wear. There are tram lines, but do I have time? It’s getting very late. Then I have a car, a little convertible, and I’m considering whether to put the top up to keep the wind from messing up my hair. I end up not taking the car at all. I’m trying to navigate the parking garage and shops by escalator but having trouble finding the shop I need. I end up going down when I need to go up. I need to find better shoes, but there isn’t time, so I decide to wear my everyday clogs. I need stockings and go through my drawer and pull out several very old unopened packages of stockings. Most of them will not do, but one looks like a possibility. I pull them on, and they seem to work. Then they’re falling down, and I realize that there’s virtually no elastic at the waist. I ask someone for safety pins and find only paper clips. I make do and push them through the fabric, and miraculously they hold. I stop at a full length mirror on my way out. I’m wearing a deep midnight blue fitted dress and notice in horror that there are great big pink patches of some substance all over the dress. I brush and brush at the patches to make them go away but keep seeing more.
There is a basket of kittens, and everybody claims one. We put them in the cab of a truck for safekeeping.
I’m driving a station wagon filled with all of my worldly possessions covered over with white sheets. I’m in an unfamiliar town and turn off the road to pull into a gas station but stop when I realize that the driveway I’m pulling into is only for the mechanic and is blocked off from the fueling area. I can’t see how to get there.
We’re staying in a ramshackle motel or inn and leave the room for breakfast. When we return two ladies are cleaning the room and have packed up all of our stuff. I go past them to the bathroom. I’m trying to keep everything orderly, but the toilet has been moved. Someone tries to come in while I’m in there, and I pull the door closed again.
I’m dozing in a chair in a sitting area with a bunch of women I don’t know. One of them asks if I’m looking at her, but I let my eyes glaze over until it’s clear I’m falling asleep. I’m toppling over in my chair. The woman starts talking to the other women in the room and showing them the fistula she has in her breast. She tells them she can reach in all the way down to her knee and then demonstrates. I get up and move to a chaise longue that’s been vacated so I can sleep more comfortably. I’m holding a kitten and set it down before I sit. It takes over the seat, so I sit down anyway and make it give way. It does so only grudgingly, so I’m half-sitting on it and trying not to crush it. It’s long-legged and has silky fur. Another kitten is on the floor and reaches up and is playing with mine, then a third comes over– but I realize it’s the mother cat. She’s a big tabby– one kitten is black and white and the other is grey and white. She gives them a sniff over and then walks a few feet away and flops down gracefully with her back to us.
I’m visiting the home of a friend, and we’re going through the house, trying to get everyone settled. All the bedrooms have pairs of twin beds with different colored, matching spreads for each room. The rooms are reached by climbing up bookshelves. I have to carefully plan my route up the articulated face of the wall, and sometimes I get it wrong and have to go back down and start up a different way. As we go up floor by floor, all the rooms seem to be occupied by family members, and we never reach the room where I’m supposed to stay. I look over to the side after scaling a particularly challenging wall of shelves and see a staircase that’s been there the whole time.
I’m trying to gather things I’ll need. My toiletry bag is spilled out over the floor on the other side of a table. I crawl under it to reach the stuff and grab a few things and then back out from under the table, my forehead low to the floor. I look back and can’t see how my head possibly fit through because the leg support crossbars are so close to the floor.
I’m walking our dogs with another woman, and we come to a big road. Floyd runs out, and I have to call him sternly back to heel. There are cars way off in the distance, none so close as to be concerned, so I start across. But the road is wider than I realized– it goes on and on, and I have to break into a run to get across ahead of the cars. On the other side there is a rocky hillside. Somehow I’ve fallen behind. The other woman stand way up above, peering out and looking to see where I’ve gone. I pick up the dog to carry him and start up the hill.