I’m inside a woman’s house, and I’m invisible, watching her. She’s holding a young girl captive in the attic, and I’m laying low, looking for an opportunity to rescue her. While the woman moves around her home, I have to edge out of the way and try to be very very quiet. It’s dangerous if she discovers me. She has a key that she keeps stashed someplace on her person. It’s unlike any key I’ve ever seen, narrow and tubular black plastic, but it seems to operate simply enough. Somehow I get ahold of it and am working to remove it from its casing when it makes a small popping sound. Her head snaps up, and I freeze, holding my breath. After awhile she goes back to what she’s doing. Now I’m just waiting for her to leave, so I can make the rescue. I’m moving out of her way and go around to the side of a table where I don’t think she’ll go. Suddenly she’s heading straight for me, reaching to turn out a light, and the back of her hand touches my face. A delighted smile dawns on her face, and it chills me, and I wake up.
I’m sitting in the library with two of my scholarly colleagues from grad school. They’re talking about their progress on their respective projects and about what it means to have two or three masters degrees. I get tired of listening to them and make an excuse and leave.
I walk down some broad stairs and through the school building, heading back to my room to get the right books for class. I’m trying to figure out how I can minimize what I carry, going through in my mind what’s necessary, key card, etc.
I’m in a room, and my old high school boyfriend comes in. We’re being cordial, but then he’s got me in an embrace and is holding on. He seems deeply sad and lonely and to miss me a great deal. And then he’s talking about how well he’s doing in school, how he will probably get some monetary award. I’m annoyed and ask him what he’s going to do after school. He surprises me by not saying what I expect– answer has something to do with going to Riverside in New York City with another schoolfellow. There’s some organization there that they’re going to work with.
I’m walking down a long hallway and see someone turn into a room. I know that a woman chef works in there with her retinue of apprentices. Someone lets the dog out, and it goes bounding down the hall. I call it to me and lure it back inside. It’s bright and friendly and good-smelling in there. There are lots of tables. She invites me to stay, but I say I have to get to class. I head toward the door but realize there are several. I skirt a table and head for the door I think I came in. At the last minute I realize it’s the wrong one, but I’m already going through it and stepping across the green green herbs that are growing up between the paving stones.
I’m in a post-upheaval bivouac with a bunch of other people. I am the newbie, learning the ways. We eat meals of goop and glop from modular plastic containers. Afterward we take the trash and recycling out. We have to separate it carefully, scraping out as much food as possible and then cutting the containers up into small pieces before throwing them in the bins.
Back at the bivouac someone’s been ransacking my clothes. They’re pranking me, but I can’t find a pair of pants to wear. I didn’t have much to begin with, and now they’ve taken half of it away. A bunch of people come in, and they’re rearranging the room and stripping down and retrofitting the computers. The programmers seem to have beds because they work through the night so much. I’m envious and wish I were a programmer.
There is an enormous jade plant stretching out in all directions from the middle of the room. I turn it so that the light will hit its other side and it will grow more evenly. I notice a bit that has broken off and hangs from a narrow strip and pull it off. It tears off the branch it’s attached to in a long noisy strip. I want to take it to keep and sprout my own plant. Someone says, Why didn’t you just take one of these? and shows me a dish of tiny seedlings. I say, It was already broken off.
We’re playing around with two long-handled lollipops I’ve pulled out of one of the pencil holders on the desk. There’s a pink one and a yellow one, and they have little faces or flower designs in the middle. My boss comes in in the midst of this, and I’m anxious about being caught goofing off, but it seems fine, everyone else is too. For some reason this business with the lollipops is hilariously funny, and, as the author of the humor, I have crossed a rite of passage.
I’m setting out on the table six or seven tupperware containers of food I’ve cooked. They had only had a couple of measly pastries, and this is a virtual feast. Everyone is a little stunned, and I’m embarrassed. I cook when I’m nervous, I say. Eventually we all start eating, sitting around the table. We’re talking about somebody, and the woman next to me is nodding knowingly. I’m thinking she has some inside knowledge and ask, Did you go to prep school? Did you play field hockey? She says, No but looks caught out. She says, I played ultimate frisbee and something else and something else. She says she went to Duke and is disparaging it for being small. I say I would have preferred to go to a smaller college, that Michigan was so big you could zing around in it like a rubber band.
Chris and I are looking out over the map toward Huron Mountain, using some newfangled GPS device. The thing transports us over the leagues. We’re aiming for the club and end up at Lake Superior just a bit west of it. We start walking east along the rock shelf. W can tell we’re not on club property because there’s graffiti on the sandstone cliff faces.
We come to some beautiful old row houses built right up over the water and are walking past when I am tempted and turn in to one of them. We can tell they’re empty, and some of them are boarded up. I’m heading for one with boards on the windows but change my mind and turn toward the one next door. The door is ajar. We go in, and the place feels and smells old. It’s creaky and none too sturdy, so I’m going cautiously. We climb up an elaborate open staircase, winding up to the third floor. I’m looking out for soft spots in the wooden boards.
We walk through a doorway at the top of the stairs and find signs of habitation. There is a row of beds down the long room, and we make our way slowly along it. There are people lying in the beds. There is a caretaker of some kind who is talking to us about the place and the people in the beds. They seem to trace back over a hundred years or more, as if they’re all the people who have lived in the house, trapped there in slow time. We’re fascinated, but I have a growing sense of unease that we should leave. I’m afraid time is passing abnormally slowly here and speeding by in the world outside and that we’re being lured in to be trapped as well. Finally, with an effort of will, we pull ourselves away and go back down the stairs and out and away. I feel saturated and haunted by the place and can’t seem to shake it.
We go back again and the place is full of people, adults and children, in the midst of a celebration with games and races, and the enchantment is broken.
I’m going down a street in New York when a woman collapses at an intersection. I stop beside her as do a few other people. She’s lying on the ground unconscious. I lean over her to check and say, Somone call 911. A woman on the other side of her has her phone out, and I think she’s going to call 911, but then she’s fiddling with it, texting a friend, taking pictures. So I whip out my phone, exasperated. I’m just starting to dial when a garage door goes up, and I realize we’re right in front of a fire house. We take her inside into an exam room. They put her on a table and tell us that she’s pregnant. The collapse either resulted from the pregnancy or endangers it. I have two big babies under my arms. I’m lugging them like firewood, and the doctor tells me to take them home with me.
I’m in the kitchen of an apartment I’m living in. Someone has been refurbishing it piece by piece. There an old pump that’s been replaced. There’s debris all over the floor, and I start pulling it all together. I realize it’s all pizza boxes. I’m stacking them, and underneath are piles and piles of broken down box pieces. The linoleum is in bad shape and doesn’t go all the way to the walls. I’m considering replacing it, but I only rent and know the management company will never pay for it.
I follow some people into a house and up some stairs. There’s a kind of swooping orchestra pit in the ceiling with a few musicians playing across the way. The people I’ve followed are gathered around the railing at the top of the stairs to see down into the living room below where singers are performing. I slip past and sit on the sloping floor but begin to slide down the slope. I inch my way back up carefully and then peep over the ledge to see briefly into the room below, full of people. At the set change a bunch of folks shift, and the people on the stairs go down to claim better seats. I stand up and get a better vantage point and realize the singer is someone I know from Iowa, and then another and another. The group of women is touring, singing living room shows of old timey music. I catch their eyes one by one and smile and mouth Hi when they recognize me. And then one of them is my friend Laurel. She’s wearing loose country girl braids and sitting on the couch with the other women.
I go back downstairs and turn down a hallway into the kitchen, looking for the bathroom. There are doors everywhere– to closets, to nowhere– old ramshackle country doors– even the floor of the hallway is constructed from old wooden doors painted over. There’s a little handpainted sign that says To the bathroom with a hand pointing outside, so I follow it out.
Then I’m walking back through the yard, through several yards with a bunch of people from the house show. Laurel lives here with her family, and they’ve been working on changing it. We come to a wide open area, and there is a lake. Little boys run and jump in the water, splashing and diving like slippery little fish. The lake is full of people swimming and enjoying the beautiful water. At the edge the grass just disappears underneath, as if the lake just suddenly came up on the lawn. There are trails of bubbles rising up near the edge from trapped air. Someone asks if the caves are down there. I think it’s a joke, but someone hands me the little town newspaper folded back to a picture under the water of an old flooded part of the town. There is an old fashioned hotel and an assortment of other old buildings way down under the surface. Laurel’s boys are running around, playing on toy structures they’ve built. I go looking for a copy of the newspaper in and out of buildings with screen doors, past softball games and people everywhere having a good time. It feels utterly neighborly and wholesome, and I’m struck with a pang of envy for this life my friend is living.
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.
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.