Monday, November 23, 2015

It's the climb.

Everyone thinks writing that first draft is the steep side, the rough crossing, the hand-over-hand on icy terrain that rewards you with a view at the top. And -- that revising is the easy glide down the other side. When. in. fact. The opposite is true.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Let's remember this sky.

We were at her house when the light across the neighboring horse farm turned darkly beautiful. This, I said. This is the in-between almost-autumn that I wrote about in ONE MORE DAY. This always-cloudy never-rainy October sky. The still-green leaves that stubbornly won't change color. The metallic gray clouds that can't quite stop the golden slivers of sun. Remember this sky, I said to her. When you read my next book, remember this sky, and this day.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The best laid empty nest plans . . .

It's September. The empty nest is upon us. To avoid it as long as possible, we dropped off our younger two children in Massachusetts, and headed up to New Hampshire to see friends we've been meaning to see. To get to their house, you pass by a lake, twice, and I was dumbstruck each time by the sudden beauty of it, to emerge from the green forest and stumble upon all that blue.

A town fair on Saturday. A boat ride on Sunday. Exploring the inlets, the gulches and glens, winding through the water in a way you don't do in the ocean, was calming, like being in a canoe. We docked at another friend's cabin, explored their property, with its own jetties and landings, and a special sunset-y patio on the edge of their property, connected to nothing but waves and roots, jutting out into the water for dinner parties. A rocky landing just for dinner parties, with a tiny spit of sand a few feet wide, and a small dock for friends arriving to the party by boat. It was simple, and simply gorgeous, and seemed the height of empty nest fabulosity.

Looking for things in common in our marriage, for a new place to live, for activities that last and connect, I land on a single word: Harbor. I grew up in a small harbor town in Illinois. I lived the happiest five years of my life in a harbor town in California. We spend our summers, as much as we can, in another harbor town. The thrill of arriving, of stately marine traffic, the snap of sail and flag, the welcome of whistle. It's in my bones, and in his.

And every time I've seen a town like this, whether its Annapolis or Tiburon or Perth, I think: Home. And I think now, of the small craft my husband sold when the college bills started to come, and the upkeep outstripped our use. And I know, each in our own way -- he the navigator, the fisherman, the keeper of the tides -- and me, the observer, the dreamer, the chronicler of memories -- that we both are happy when we are in the same boat.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Objects in rearview mirror are larger than they appear.

The photo arrived innocently. A look-what-we-found-in-a-box. A reminder of a high school classmate who died driving to the bars just over the state line, where the drinking age was 18 instead of 21.

When strangers ask where I grew up, they're surprised when I say Illinois. They say they hear Wisconsin in my voice. That's how close that border was. We were blends, all of us, of those two states. We drove up to party all the time, sometimes smart enough, and flush enough, to take cabs. But not always.

The night Vera died, she was supposed to give me and another friend a lift home. I left early, with someone who seemed more sober. The snapshot breathalyzers, the cop-like calculations we all make when we drink, still. My other friend went home with someone else too. Plans came together and came apart easily at that age, when you never knew who you would meet or what would happen.

When the news came to me the next morning that Vera's car had collided with a tree, my other friend and I felt the horror and the relief at the same time. That we had made, accidentally, the right decision.

I was recently reminded of these choices after a story told to me by college girls. Listening to them talk, the morning-after forensics, reminded me how easily it is to lose track of one another, even with cell phones. How the girl code and "hos before bros" can melt away when you pour the wrong substance on it.

And the relief I felt about making the right decision that night in Wisconsin slips away from me now, on Memorial Day. Because how is it the right decision to leave someone else, impaired, behind?

I think of Vera whenever I see a roadside shrine, the balloons bobbing in the wind, the stuffed animals clinging to trees and rocks. Every makeshift cross reminds me of how the people who serve this country do so many things right.

It's not the girl code we need to remember, but the battle code. You don't leave the fallen behind.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Fan Fiction. For one I've loved and probably lost.

Brian, Before

He was nobody special. None of us were.
There were seven or eight of us at college, mostly sophomores, some juniors, who kept running into each other in the same places – the bakery near the White House, the cheese shop, the ice cream stores -- pretending we weren’t there for the free samples.
After Labor Day when I went down to the blood donation center I saw him coming out, sipping the telltale orange juice, the money safe in his pocket. It was 1981, and his hair was unfashionably short, his blue jeans not faded enough, his button downs worn at the elbows. His sleeves were rolled up, as if he’d been hard at work at something, and his forearms shone with golden hair. He held the door for me with his free hand, and said, “Hello, Robin,” in a way that made my name sound prettier than it was. I still don’t know how he knew my name.
I saw him again in late September. It was still hot in Washington and there was a line at Baskin-Robbins but I went in anyway, wincing when the door jingled, trying to look nonchalant. My hair pulled up because it was nearly ninety degrees -- and because I didn’t want to look like the same girl who had been there yesterday, pretending I’d never tasted butterscotch ripple. He made no such attempts at subterfuge. He was already at the counter, greeting the staff by name. He asked Rebecca for spoonful after spoonful of different flavors, and she deftly obliged him while taking orders from other people. I was fifth in line, and had no money in my pocket. Not a dime.
Finally the manager came out and took a long glance at the cluster of spent pink spoons in his hand.
Great, I thought. Now he’s going to ruin it for the rest of us.
“Jesus, Brian, why don’t we just give you a free pint?”
“Well, Gary,” he said, handing the spoons back to Rebecca to throw away, modulating his voice down to a practiced whisper, “if you have any pints that are close to their sell-by date, I’d be happy to take them off your hands.”
The manager motioned him into the back room. My stomach gurgled with hunger and my face burned with envy.
I couldn’t ask for anything when I was nineteen.

* * *

The mint-chocolate-chip was still lingering on my tongue when I walked outside. He stood near the curb, the pint in one hand, two full-sized spoons in the other. He stepped forward and handed me a spoon. Up close I saw his eyes weren’t completely blue, but held a little green, and there was a boyish scattering of tiny freckles on the bridge of his nose, but nowhere else. His teeth were good but not great; like me, he hadn’t had braces.
“Free ice cream,” he said.
“Free expired ice cream.”
“It expires tomorrow.” He opened the lid.
“What flavor is it?”
“Baseball Nut.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Nuts?”
“What’s wrong with nuts? An excellent source of protein.”
“I don’t like embellishments. I don’t want to stop and chew.”
“Ah, but there are chips in mint chocolate chip. Which is your favorite.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m a journalism major. Being observant is part of the job.”
“Being accurate is a bigger part of the job.”
“Are you saying mint chocolate chip is not your favorite?”
“No,” I said. “I’m saying the chips melt in your mouth, and require no chewing.”
“Not if you’re in a hurry,” he said.
“Are you in a hurry?”
“Yes,” he said. “Always. Perpetually. Now . . . have some Baseball Nut before it melts.”

* * *

We were both on part scholarship. We both had loans. I worked in the library ten hours a week, and he worked at a pancake house, where at least one free meal was guaranteed. He took me there and the waitress slipped us cokes and orders of hash browns. He used the pancakes like bread, sandwiching his eggs and sausage and peppers in between them. Like so many adolescent boys, he was hungry all the time. Hungry all the time, and broke most of the time, was a terrible combination. At least I didn’t have his hunger.
Washington in the eighties was a great place to live if you had no money. There were always festivals, free concerts on the Mall, and beautiful places to walk. We walked everywhere that autumn, watching the colors change in the trees down at the Tidal Basin. He loved traipsing over the bridge to Georgetown and sitting on the lawn as if we went to school there instead of GW. He told me simple stories about his hometown in New Jersey, about walking through backyards with his dog, passing beneath the trestles wrapped with lilacs and honeysuckle. It seemed like the most restful and charming place you could ever imagine. I was stunned, years later, to pass through it on the way to New York and find a rusty city clinging to the edge of the train tracks as if it didn’t want to be there.
We didn’t hold hands. We didn’t kiss. That first month, we walked, and I wasn’t sure if I was there to listen, or learn, or wait for more. Was I an audience? I didn’t know which of us was auditioning, or for what. All I knew was that I fell asleep remembering the stories he’d told me, and carried the memory of his blue-green eyes like a pair of lucky marbles.
He found an old theatre that showed classic black and white movies in Dupont Circle for a few dollars. He knew all the bars that had free appetizers, and we’d split a beer and eat eggroll after eggroll, mini hot dog after mini hot dog. He seemed to know all the hidden places, and shared them with me. He noticed details and when he spoke, he used evocative words like ‘fragrant’ and ‘lush’ and warmed them further with the whisky of his voice.
When I think of him now, that’s what I remember most, not his earnest eyes or strong forearms but his voice. I think of how things spilled out of him, his willingness to share, to share just a little too much.
I told my roommate Talia I couldn’t tell if we were friends, or heading toward something else. She did not approve. “He’s just using you until something better comes along, something he’s more sure of.”
“How do you know that?”
“He’s like a penny that’s too shiny,” she said. “Sooner or later, he’s going to tarnish.”

* * *

My dorm was planning a marathon dance for charity, and everyone signed up for shifts. The more popular girls had boyfriends, and the rest of us scrambled to find someone willing.
On one of our nightly walks, I ask him if he’d be my partner, and he said yes, then asked for the date and time. It’s two weeks from Friday, I told him, and he nodded.
“Good, I’ll still be here then.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve been meaning to tell you – I’m leaving after this semester.”
I blinked. I told him he was being short-sighted, foolish. That if he needed help with his homework, I’d help him. If he needed another job, I could vouch for him at the library.
He smiled at me without showing his teeth. It’s how I knew he was being serious. A boy who is trying to get everyone to like him always smiles, but there are different smiles.
He said that with or without a degree, he knows he’ll end up on radio, or who knows, maybe on television. You don’t need a degree for that, he said, just an audition tape. “Plus I already have an internship at The White House in January.”
“How can you have an internship if you’re not in school?”
He said that he didn’t get it through the career center, but through someone he met at the cheese shop.
“But -- where will you live?”
“I’m still working on that.”
I thought of my narrow bed, my small closet, Talia who was never there at night. I wanted to offer, but didn’t. That is the one thing I didn’t do.
“You can’t leave school without kissing me,” I said suddenly.
“What?” His smile was wider, and I wondered if that was his plan all along – make me ask. Make me want it.
“You heard me.”
He leaned in without using his hands. His lips were soft but thin. I could feel everything behind them, the ridges of his teeth, his tongue, every word he had ever said to me.

* * *

At the dance marathon, I had an enviable shift -- 8pm until 11. Not too early, not too late. I laced up my sneakers and walked to the gym, wondering if he was a good dancer. I imagined he was -- he walked lightly and quickly. I think about whether he knows any specific skills: how to moonwalk, how to two-step. I picture his mother teaching him the waltz in their narrow ranch home, the two of them smiling matching smiles.
In the gym I watched the other dancers shuffle through disco songs that were beyond the reaches of their ability. The twirling silver lights cast long shadows across their exposed skin and I realized they were probably tired. I glanced at my watch. I’d told him to meet me at 7:45, and it was two minutes to eight. He’d never been late before.
At eight o’clock a chime went off and the dancers came off the floor. The coordinator asked where my partner was and I said he was running late. She told me to let her know when he gets there. I waited an hour, pacing at the gym entrance, my mind speeding through the scenarios, before I decided to walk to his dorm a few blocks away.
I buzzed his door and his roommate answered, sounding muffled, and said Brian wasn’t there.
As I walked back down the block I heard him call my name behind me.
“Robin, wait,” he said.
I turned, frowned. “You were home? He said you--”
“I can explain.”
I let him. It came out in a swirl, a paragraph of phrases tumbling over each other. I had to meet a professor for a recommendation and he was running late and then he suggested a drink and I couldn’t say no and I had no way to reach you and then.
“And then what?” I said.
“And then,” he said, taking a deep breath, “then the White House chief of staff came in the bar and of course I had to introduce myself.”
I blinked at him. This was my fault, I realized later. I had asked for it, the embellishment, the thing neither of us needed to make it more wrong or more right.
I turned on my heel and went home, knowing he wouldn’t follow me, knowing he wouldn’t call, knowing I wouldn’t run into him again.
His days of free samples were officially over.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

In my virtual travels.

I "go" places a lot more online these days. Thought I'd share a few "places" I love visiting every week.