The phone rings beside my ear. For a second, in my dream-like state, I thought it was the still the ringing of the concert from last night in my eardrum. I was sure my hearing from the year I’m going to be 79 was surely taken all in one night, and I was also sure it was worth it. I also decided I should wear ear plugs next time. I’m not as young as I used to be, and I keep catching my memories flitting off, no longer safely stored in the rows and rows of filing cabinets in my mind. Those are all filled now with how to file tax returns, Tuesday, December 13’s doctor’s appointment at 2 p.m. in unit 8B, the various deductibles from my sucky health insurance. I picked up the phone.
“Hello?” I was surprised by the raspy sleep-sound of my voice.
“Hey, I didn’t think you were going to answer. You’ve gotta get up,” Chris said.
“Why? What happened?” I put alarm into my voice in what I hope sounds like sympathy, but I stay in the exact same spot underneath my comforter. The air is cold. It’s probably something stupid, like it usually is when he calls.
“The coolest thing ever, Ru. The ocean. There’s a bunch of surfers out here, it’s like watching some epic game of cosmic golf…but it’s real.” Chris sounds genuinely excited.
“I have work tomorrow…” I start.
“You’ll regret it if you don’t come out. Seriously. This is a once in a lifetime thing,” he says, with that same uppity tone.
Hell, I’m still young.
“Fine, where are you?”
“The Shores, by lifeguard post number three. Text me when you’re close.” And he hangs up. That was rude; he never just hangs up on me.
I force myself willfully out of bed and pull on a hoodie. I’m not changing out of my pajamas and subjecting my naked bits to the cold, fuck that. Hopefully there’s no one cute there.
As I drive down the windy two-mile stretch to the beach, I crane my eyes to the ocean. Can’t see anything lit up over there but the occasional, methodical glow of a fog light. My car hits a reflective bump on the road, waking me up. Shit, better keep my eyes on the road. People die here all the time, and I can see their cars float off the cliff before everything shifts into slow motion, doors open, bodies, books, and clothes fluttering down to the water. The sickening ploosh as body meets water.
I pull into the parking lot, the only car. I text Chris, and after a few minutes I see the little light of his cell phone bouncing towards me in the air, an artificial firefly. It’s really dark out here. He opens my door and lets in a gust of briny, dead-seaweedy cold air.
“Fuck!” I scream, and pull my sleeves down over my knuckles, blowing into the nautilus curve of my hand.
“Come on!” He says, and he’s already jumping back over the fence that demarcates the beach from the lot. I rush to catch up, my body as stiff as a nutcracker’s. I pulse my hands open and closed to get some blood back into them as the cold sand crawls into my sandals and grinds itself in between my toe and the strap. My eyes have been glued to my feet and the sand so I can keep my face out of the wind, and trick my body into believing I’m still warm for as long as possible. I’m at the point where the dry sand becomes wet sand when I notice that the sound of the waves is suddenly loud, and lift my head. I see it, and then I see nothing else; the cacophony of the ocean, my body temperature, and the wet force of the wind become a backdrop to something out of a fantasy book…
To be continued
Once, in second grade, I peed myself sitting at my desk. I was too nervous to ask for permission to go to the bathroom, so yellow lines snaked down my white stockings. I put my sweater under me to sop up the urine and pretended it didn’t happen, while my heart quaked and my breath quavered. When the kids around me began to remark something was strange, I kept quiet. American school brainwashes you into being a robot: “Sit in your seat!” “Stay in line!” “Don’t backtalk me, young lady!” Because a teacher has 30 other kids to worry about, she only has time to teach by getting everyone to obey. We learn about rebels like Patrick Henry and Susan B. Anthony while we sit quietly, faces forward to the whiteboard, eyes on the teacher. We revere those who break out of the system while we’re stuck inside it and taught to like it, to appreciate it. Imagining seven-year-old me “pledging my allegiance” to a flag makes me think of heiling Hitler. I didn’t know what “pledging my allegiance” meant, but I was taught to do it. I didn’t know what America really was (except for the good guys!), but I knew I was supposed to love it, and I didn’t question that. I didn’t question that, while we shouldn’t have taken the land away from the Native Americans, now it was ours for-keeps-forever-no-take-backs. I didn’t question that Columbus founded the “new world.” I didn’t question our founding fathers. Liberty Cabbage was delicious and boys who die fighting for their country are heroes (not just low-income minorities). I didn’t question anything because I wasn’t thinking for myself. I sat silently in my desk and absorbed. My teachers always sent my mom report cards that read, “Very mature. Excellent student.” I thought getting good grades, being respectful, being quiet, meant I was a good person. I thought being a good Christian, going to church, confessing my sins to God in prayer, made me a good person. All that made me was obedient. And obedient is a word that no longer has a positive connotation for me.
We think more for ourselves as we get older; in high school, some allowances for having your own mind are allowed (within the boundaries of the school gates). Yet grown students in the system still have the foundations of an obedient primary school experience. I used to write a political column in high school, because I was so amazed by what I was learning in my Government & Economics class. I used to think that voting for a third party was the only way to go. Then, my teacher dropped a bomb: By voting for those third parties, I was throwing away my vote. Only a Democrat or Republican would win, so I should choose the lesser of two evils. He changed my mind, and I shared that new view with the world. Now, out of the bubble of high school, my mind’s shifted back. Yeah, maybe I’m not changing anything. But if more people catch on, it could. It’s not unheard of in our history for a third party to win, we’ve just lost faith in the system. Young people don’t vote rather than put their votes toward either of the party leaders. Voting doesn’t work for us, doesn’t change anything. School from 8 AM to 3 PM, university, full-time work from 8 AM to 5 PM, retirement at 65, Florida, golf, nursing home, death.
Capitalism gave me the wrong idea about what life is supposed to be for. “Making it” isn’t actually how much money you obtain, but the amount of love and happiness you reap from what you do with your life. It’s difficult to remember that when your waking hours are taken up by what it takes to survive. Corporations reward exploiting the lesser man; Wal Mart wastes gas on their traveling trucks, exploits outsourcing, and then gets consumers to support this system because it has the cheapest prices, and we don’t have expendable income. Big wigs get rich by exploiting our plight, and the only way to change it is to change the way we live. Buy local food, live green, live kindly and symbiotically. Growing up, I was taught that commies were the enemy. Now, I see that communism was just another system exploited by the power-hungry. Capitalism is the only thing that has “worked” because it rewards base human needs: greed, comfort, survival. As capitalism and “democracy” take over the world, I can’t help but wonder if it’s really for the best. Trees are cut down to make way for highways, tenements, and skyscrapers. Big Business. That’s not a world I want to live in.
We should all be working to change the world, but instead we’re all trying to get by, to “make it,” so we don’t have to worry about those base needs anymore. We live for our own comfort rather than for making the world a better place. We’ve barely changed anything. Women can vote, maybe homosexuals will be able to get married soon, while we live in a box in a concrete jungle? That’s progress? I read a few days ago that there are plans to put a park over the 101 freeway in Los Angeles. The plans horrified me; it’s a short-term solution to a rapidly down-spiralling long-term problem. Rather than bulldoze some old buildings, or spread people out of the very center of the city, we’re just going to build a park over the smog-producing, carbon-monoxide smoking, car-whizzing, truck-blaring freeway. My mind flashed forward to the year 3000, when Los Angeles is several layers high, with the lower income residents living on the bottom layer, the only light eking out of the occasional skylight that cuts through the layers, parks lit by artificial halogens on the dark ceiling.
It’s been a while since I’ve written. It’s easy to put off the things you love when the things you hate take up so much of your time. I find myself making excuses: I’m tired, I’m an adult so I can do what I want, I’ll write when I have the actual time and drive. But working full time has definitely taught me something: you’ll never have the time and drive. During the Summer of Unemployment, I couldn’t write anything because nothing was inspiring me. These days, I get little bouts of inspiration, but my ideas look thin when typed up, like they’ll lift off the page of their own accord, letter by letter, floating off like dandelion seeds to someone who will do something grand with them. Or, actually do anything with them. It’s like having a huge assignment looming; the massive size of it crushes you underneath so you can’t even type one word or make one step. When you start, you’re committing yourself to the Giant Thing and there’s no going back to procrastinating free time. James was telling me he was feeling anxious because of the massive amount of work he knew he had in his near-future, studying for his nursing certification tests. I gave him some sage advice, “Just give yourself tiny little deadlines. Say, today I will finish this one chapter or master this one concept. That way, you’ll meet goals every day and get to feel good about it. Baby steps.” (This coming from the girl who did all her studying the whole day before the test, or the whole paper the day before its due date.) One of the cool things about being in a relationship is that you can tell the other person what you know you should be telling yourself, and you’ll come off as wise and supportive instead of self-deluding. At least I’m doing one thing right. Writers all say the same thing, “Force yourself to write or you won’t write at all.” It feels good to know there’s a network out there that has the same fear-cum-procrastination as me. It’s like starting a diet or an exercise regimen; you just have to be your own bully. I want to follow the write-one-page-first-thing-in-the-morning system, but I can’t see myself actually doing it. I guess the only person who can force myself to do anything is me, right? One can only forcibly change oneself. I heard this Kaiser commercial on the radio a little while ago, and a comforting woman is saying, “So you slept in this morning instead of doing that early work-out. You ate the extra piece of cake… It doesn’t matter, you can take two steps forward and one step back, and that’s still progress.” So maybe that’s what I really need to do for now; not become a bestselling author right this minute, just write a blog post. Patience. Baby steps.
There is a red string tied to my finger
I did not tie it there.
Two seconds ago,
There was no red string tied to my finger.
I sat in my hard desk, facing the teacher, eyes on the window
Beyond the hazy window
And the autumn tree
And the blue sky beyond that.
The string tugs at my finger,
Lifting it slightly.
My brown eyes follow the string
Across the classroom
Under the door
And then I do, too.
The string goes all the way out of the heavy, metal school door
The front gates, locked
And to the street beyond
So I go, too.
Leaves crunch under my feet
Wind dances with my hair
As I follow my finger
Attached to the red string
I follow it down a few blocks
To my house
To my car
And get inside.
My arm stays out of the car,
Elbow resting on my window
My finger points east, so
I follow the red string
To the airport
The airplane floats along on the wind, jumping from cloud to cloud
I follow the red string
To Ann Arbor, Michigan
I follow the red string into a taxi
That smells like saffron
And then the tug on my red string stops
So I stop the taxi
My breath stops
The end of my red string is sewn onto a blue flannel shirt
Down the sidewalk
That a boy is wearing
Flannel smiles at me
As my finger pulls me forward
“A Chinese proverb says an invisible red thread connects those destined to meet, despite the time, the place, despite the circumstances. The thread can be tightened or tangled, but never be broken.”
A little note on the poem “The Red String.” A friend of mine, whose awesome music you can listen to here, was being berated by his other friend about his lyrics. And after listening to that going on for a while, I chimed in, “I love your music. It’s simple. Great music can be simple.” Some of the best Beatles music was the songs they made in the ‘60s, simple, unadorned. And the same can be said for poems. Poems like this would have made me gag a couple years ago, but after falling in love, they strike me right in my heartstring. Simple can be powerful. Simple can be more difficult than complex. Simple can be scary. I was inspired to write this poem by this tumblr‘s post, and my boyfy James :} And btw, I wrote it as I listened to this.
Pale light sifted through the shutters, never quite reaching the undersides of their fat, catching in the wrinkles. She step-tip-toed into the silent room, hearing her every breath catch with each footstep, as if her step was a small alarm that could wake the two sleepers, and even exhalations were suspect. Patients Patricia Wheaton Fletcher and James (Jim) Fletcher, wife and husband. They never usually got a pair in the same room. From her view under the doorjamb, their faces were obstructed by thin white cotton sheets stretched over two people-shaped mounds, like trick-or-treat ghosts.
They were both oddly naked, and she couldn’t help but glimpse at her body’s future. The woman’s skin was covered by a layer of dust; she dragged her fingertip lightly across the swollen belly. A little snaking trail was left where her finger had passed. She couldn’t see her fingerprint on the end of her index through the thick brown film. She lifted it to her nostril automatically; it held that indescribable scent of old people. The woman’s breasts sagged like over-filled water balloons — surely they would burst at that capacity? — but they reached lower by the year, longing to reach the final solicitude of the ground. The woman’s eyes opened languishly, and in them she could see her youth, these eyes she had carried around with her always, which had seen sixty-two more years than her. Pale irises just barely peeked out, obstructed by pages of hanging skin, paper-thin now, like the day she was born. The nurse could almost see the heaving difficulty of her pumping veins just underneath the skin’s surface, clear as milky bath water, pipelines obstructed by lime and rust and years of wear, but a thin trickle of blue blood still pushing through to her softly quaking heart.
The woman’s eyes questioned, silently, but closed without caring for the answer. She’d probably never be entirely cognizant again for the small remainder of her life. The nurse hoped that she had told the stories she had to tell to her family, that they had gotten their weeping good-byes. She was supposed to be impartial, get used to death gazing hungrily at her patients over her shoulder, but these trespassing thoughts always slipped through her mind nonetheless. She looked down to the woman’s raisined hand and saw the translucent spots where teardrops had fallen on the sheet. So they had got to say good-bye.
As her eyes had about had their fill and her brain had just completed mapping and cataloguing the woman, the sound of rustling sheets came from the next bed. The second mound was moving. The white sheets were wrapped around the man’s entire body, as if ready for the final labyrinthine passage through the hospital halls and down to the stainless steel gates of the morgue. But through the sheets, she could make out the shape of two arms wrapped around his chest. In his twitching sheet cocoon, stretched now up to the ceiling, he was preparing for his next reincarnation. She wondered what he would look like when he emerged.
Her eyes pulled away from the sight with difficulty, as if they were trying to swim through gallons of leaden water. The old woman was lying back still, her skin flaking off in translucent beige pieces. Soon there would be two people-skin shells littering the floor, and she would have to be the one to sweep them up. It seemed wrong to just clear away a piece of somebody, though. Maybe she would crawl inside the woman’s shell for a few hours, and see how much smaller she was than her. No, it would probably break the person-shape, and surely someone would be in here looking for her in a few minutes. She had other patients to attend to. Why had she been in this room for so long?