The Last One

Back then, I lived adjacent to the HIV pandemic, as cells share membrane walls. In 1984, when I was eighteen and flirting with a cocaine addiction, I had a lover with saucer pupils and long white fingers who tripped on acid through Thanksgiving dinner at my sister’s house, staring at brown gravy as it dripped over his mashed potatoes. In bed, a dreamy expression floated over his pale face as he described to me the incredible high of injecting heroin.  He was telling me this just after we had sex without a condom. I think he had recently started sharing needles.  

That young lover, whose name I’ve forgotten, danced with me at a party in the basement of a run-down Victorian he rented with three other men on Capitol Hill. While we shimmied to Sheila E, an exultant grin bisected his face, and locks of lightning-blond hair shook into his eyes. I had briefly dated this man’s roommate, a sweetly insecure blue-eyed boy who bussed tables at my first restaurant job in Denver. After work, that boy and I rode the number 15 bus down Colfax and had unremarkable sex on the double mattress that took up most of the floor space in my tiny bedroom on Monroe Street. As fall turned to winter, I lost interest in them both. I disappeared from that house where the bedroom door of the drug-dealing roommate was sealed with a heavy padlock.

At eighteen, I knew almost nothing about the burgeoning epidemic of my generation or about how close I would come to contracting HIV. I had probably heard the term “gay cancer” at a time in my life when simmering resentment of my imperfect parents blocked out much awareness of the wider world. The link between heterosexual transmission and intravenous drug use was just beginning to be understood in the mid-eighties, as new infections in the US peaked. Oblivious, I graduated high school and took a one-way flight to Denver, my plastic pack of birth control pills tucked in the pocket of a hand-me-down suitcase.

I count, but I can’t, the times I could have been infected with HIV–had I injected with that lover, or the next one. Had I gone to just a few more parties or liked myself a little less, I could easily have gotten hooked on coke or heroin. But by luck or some genetic saving grace, I was pulled back from the edge just in time.

I count, but I can’t, how many of the generous gay men who made me welcome when I moved to Denver after high school must have died; waiters who stood with me in the biting wind and told me to get a real coat, to look out for myself. Strong men with gentle beauty who hugged me goodbye when I went on to the next restaurant job, the next lost boyfriend.

How many men whose tables I seated with customers must have faded away to nothing before tolerable antiretroviral drugs were finally developed? The server at the breakfast place where I was hostess for a few months, and his girlfriend, who wanted to marry him and was waiting out his fondness for sex with men:  did they survive? His face was marked by acne scars and hints of purplish bruises. Tall and patient, he would stand by the register with me as our shift ended, keeping me company as I tallied meal checks on a punch calculator and counted out my cash drawer.

Uncountable moments of grace saved me from the self-destructive life I courted and shielded me from addiction to drugs to or risky sex.  The kind words of the car salesmen on Colfax, whose lot I walked past every day, soothed my loneliness. The crystalline beauty of distant mountains dusted with snow gave me hope.  Luck and privilege combined to keep me HIV negative. My imperfect parents gave me love and also paid my rent one month. When I finally applied to college, at 20, Pell grants and student loans covered all of my tuition. I didn’t fight racism to get my restaurant jobs. HIV went on to decimate communities of color long after it became a more manageable illness for those who could access care.

A virus itself doesn’t discriminate, even if health care systems do. With highly-evolved opportunism, it simply proceeds through bloodstreams and airways, doing its work of replicating as efficiently as possible. No, a virus doesn’t think about the next pandemic, or the last one.

Pandemic Lawn Care

In 1987, when the husband and I were starting our life together in Denver, we rented a tiny third-floor apartment in a white Victorian on Lafayette Street. Our bedroom snugged into a former attic and had just enough headroom between its sloping walls for two average-height people to stand up without hunching. The love nest, we called it.

On Sunday afternoons, we would ride our bikes home from the Auraria Campus, feed our cats, then walk over to Zach’s, the fern bar a few blocks away. There, we cheered on the Denver Broncos and their new quarterback, John Elway. As we came and went, we’d see our next-door neighbor, Louie, kneeling down with a sharp pair of scissors, cutting his grass by hand. Louie was short and lean, with a full head of steel-gray hair. He had a ready smile and a distinct accent from his birthplace–Vietnam, I think. His front yard was about the size of two picnic tables pushed together, and he loved his lawn with an obsessive love. Every few days, he knelt and snipped each tuft of grass, then lowered his head and squinted across the carpet of green, making it level, making it perfect.

Last week, sitting on a flat stone in my own front yard, I thought a lot about Louie. Like almost everyone, I was absorbing news of the pandemic and toggling unevenly between shock and grief. My lawn was scattered with two-inch dirt cores, left by the hollow metal spikes of a hand-held aerator. Pushed into soft earth at regular intervals, the aerator expels smooth-edged tubes of soil that lay about like large, stilled worms. As the sunlight lengthened and focused, I sprayed the hose back and forth over the grass, then gradually dissolved cylinders of dirt one by one. I watched the grains of soil melt back into the turf–each small, neat hole filling with muddy water that slowly drained away.

Lawn grass is a strict task-master; every chore has a non-negotiable order and season. Aerate, fertilize, water, mow. Repeat. How tedious! I used to think. How time consuming! But last week, instead of complaining as I used to about how growing grass well only creates more work, I thought, Wow, soon I’ll be able to mow again. That’ll take at least fifteen minutes. When you’re filling time, every minute counts.

The slow days I spend obsessing about my lawn are spent, in fact, waiting to see how quickly our hospitals will fill, how many more losses will be mourned in this neighborhood and around the world. The sorrow of these pandemic days is hard to fathom. In so many ways, I am privileged. All of my loved ones are fed, housed and–so far–well. Yet I feel as if a family member has died. Most mornings, I wake up and cry. I am confused about the smallest things, and I watch my mind attempt to sort the world into before the pandemic, and after. I need to do something. Wishing I could do much more, I work in my yard.

I water my lawn and think about Louie laboring hour upon hour, manicuring his tiny patch of Kentucky Bluegrass, far from his first home. Was Louie’s lawn so perfectly loved in partial response to his traumas, to the horrific loss of a predictable world? Standing in my yard, waving my hose over small holes punched into the ground, I wished I could go back and learn about Louie’s life before he came to Denver and started cutting his grass by hand. What happened in his long long life, before the oblivious young couple moved in next door? In our fragile human lives–where grief can never be measured–I feel the wisdom of his devotion to perfection, to one lush and comforting rectangle.

Tulip, planted pre-pandemic
Purloined pansies, thriving

Jammie Days

Saturday, March 14th

I fly home to Denver after an abbreviated trip to Washington, DC. My phone is loaded with pictures of the Anacostia River bike path and Degas paintings I saw at the National Gallery. Boarding my connecting flight in St. Louis, children are everywhere, spring breakers heading to Colorado to ski.  After landing at DIA, the concourse shuttle has a slowdown, and people press together like sardines as the train doors stand open.  A toddler with brown hair and sparkly pink pajamas sucks her thumb as she rests her head on her mother’s shoulder. The child stirs and smiles at me, then reaches out for the vertical hand rail I am also grasping. Her mother says Don’t touch that! But it is too late–her fingers are encircling the shiny metal post. Quickly, tenderly, her mother holds the small wrist still while another woman drops hand sanitizer on the child’s pudgy fingers. Her mother rubs it in, kisses her daughter’s cheek. A moment later, the thumb goes back in her mouth, and her eyes drift closed. The shuttle departs for the main terminal.

Winter sunshine on the Anacostia

Wednesday, March 18th

I am walking over to see my friend Pat, who had surgery while I was out of town. The sun is shining. I take long strides and feel soreness in my legs from biking the day before. Around the corner, my four year-old neighbor stands with her mother in front of a half-planted flower box. C has red hair and a piquant expression. Her mom and I say hello as I stand back and admire their purple and yellow and blue flowers.

Three dancers? Or one?

Look, I am in my jammies! C exclaims. I might wear them all day!

I think that’s a great idea, I respond.

On Pat’s shady porch, I drop a plastic grocery bag with half a dozen eggs and a few cough drops. I knock, then retreat to the sunlit steps.  She appears in the doorway, right arm in a sling and stylish gray hair parted on the side.  You look great, I say. You don’t look like you had surgery a few days ago.  She says, I feel pretty good, not having any pain. But, look, I’m still in my pj’s! They are lavender with a pretty print.

Friday, March 20th

Wet spring snow is plastered on the north side of every tree trunk and street sign, and the roads are rutted with frozen slush. I arrive for my Project Angel Heart delivery shift. They are short of volunteers. As I wait to receive my cart loaded with meal bags, I am arrested by the changed expressions of the bustling staff. Always kind, the planes of their faces today hold a determination and a focus that makes me straighten my shoulders and take a deep breath. There is no small talk today. Some staff and volunteers here today are surely veterans of the AIDS crisis–all dedicated to the giving of food as medicine.  

Midway through my route, I place three meal bags on a porch, ring the doorbell with my gloved hand, and stand back to wave a quick hello. A sleepy man comes to the door in tan sweat pants and says, Oh thanks!  We both smile as he pulls the bags inside the house. Instantly, though, he is serious. In a gruff voice he asks: What in the world are you doing?! I’m startled for a moment, but then he adds, Put a hat on your head—it’s cold out there!

Wet spring storm

Katzel and Kinnell

Galway Kinnell’s slim poetry volume, When One has Lived a Long Time Alone was Printed by Knopf in 1990. Tracy L. Katzel—or someone else—tossed her copy in the dumpster behind my house over twenty years ago. Her signature slopes across the inside cover in faded blue ink. I found my first book of Kinnell’s poetry atop a pile of trash at a time in my life when I was a stay at home mom who didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I knew how privileged I was to have the option of delaying finding a paying job, but I was also afraid of claiming a more defined life of my own. Overwhelmed, I was lost in the tedium and the transcendence of raising three boys.

I soon memorized a poem by Kinnell titled “Prayer”: Whatever happens. Whatever/what is is is what/I want. Only that. But that. I journaled and read Kinnell in the bathroom. I went to therapy and scraped dried playdough off the cracked linoleum of the kitchen floor. Wait, Kinnell writes. You’re tired, we’re all tired, but no one is tired enough, and the need for new love is faithfulness to the old. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, what I loved besides my family life.

I worked part-time for a temp agency, then for a non-profit. I thought about divinity school, but instead chose a graduate program in counseling.

Jotted inside the back cover of my dumpster-found poetry book is a phone number I called to ask for an internship at a substance abuse agency. I was turned down, but called again a few months later and found someone willing to supervise me. That internship became a paid job. I’d gone from wondering what I wanted to stalking goal after goal—a degree, credentials, experience. I savored time with my clients, unwinding their stories together, listening as they engaged with their own heart-held wisdom. Within a few years, I was hired full-time at the university counseling center where I had trained. It was my dream job, with an incredible team. So much waiting, fulfilled.

Returning to work from a funeral to find flowers and love on my office desk.

And then. Then I learned in a different way that dreams come true and change shape and give way to other dreams. Almost five years ago, I stood by my desk with my cell phone pressed against my ear and my pulse racing—another family health crisis, out of the blue. At the same moment, a colleague appeared in the doorway, alerting me that it was time to help our new batch of counseling trainees with role plays. From the middle of my forehead down through my torso, I felt pulled apart. One arm reached toward my office door and the other kept the tearful voice of my loved one pressed to my ear. In that moment, I knew I was leaving that job. At 49, I resigned my position, and began the long round of goodbyes with clients.  

I had no plans to write, just a commitment to a more balanced and peaceful life. I savored open days of reading, of geriatric dog care and of waiting for my youngest, a high school senior, to walk in the door. One of my son’s teachers asked me, So, you’re just a housewife now?

Geriatric poodle of old.

I bought a used copy of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening at the Tattered Cover book store. I’d last read it as an undergraduate and had never forgotten the term “mother-woman,” Chopin’s phrase describing women who offer not just their lives, but their very selves to their children. Caught up in the story of Edna Pontellier coming to her senses, I turned a page and saw a speck of black between the pages, a hard crescent of sunflower seed husk. I smiled at the startling artifact of another reader’s concentration and pleasure.

Kinnell woke me to poetry when I was a mothering woman (if not the self-sacrificing “mother-woman” Chopin disparages). But the desire to write came to me slowly after I left the formal work world. It was consistently fed by those years of reading Galway Kinnell. He died in 2014. A few years later, a hefty tome of his complete works arrived at my door–a gift from a writer friend whom I had told about my dumpster-found treasure. As I wend my way through Kinnell’s body of work, my love for the healing power of words continues to grow.

Whatever what is is, is what I want. Thank you for that prayer, Galway Kinnell. And thank you Tracy L. Katzel, wherever you are.

Winter Pelicans

Nanny and I sit together on a bench at the Dunedin Marina, watching pelicans. Sailboats tied to a wooden pier move slowly up and down as a metal hook clangs against a mast. I breathe in the fish and tar smells that the wind has mixed into something deep and full. I am four and don’t need a sweater. As we look out over St. Joseph’s Sound, Nanny’s loose dress flutters. She smiles at me, and I rest my head against the soft powder of her arm. I want to always, always be here with her where it is warm, where one whole person pays attention just to me.

All of us piled into the station wagon to drive to Florida for this winter visit, my sisters and I taking turns asking Daddy questions about the Spanish moss hanging from tree branches like heavy green tinsel. But my sisters are already home in Maryland and back in school–Mamma and I are staying extra nights to keep Nanny company. Nanny’s voice drips citrus honey when she talks to me about birds. We like to see ducks at the little pond near her house, or watch cardinals eat seeds from the feeder under the orange tree behind her house. Those blue jays are bullies, she tells me. They won’t let the other birds have anything!

I like watching the back-yard birds, but pelicans are my favorite, standing on the dock like wobbly clowns to beg fishermen for snacks. When they stretch themselves out to fly, their big heads are straight as arrows while their strong wings push them up. Look! They use their necks like a net to catch fish, Nanny tells me. We watch them climb, then dive straight into the shining water. They bobble on the surface with full pouches, then shrug wiggling fish down their throats.

How can they eat the fish without cooking them? I ask my Nanny, but she can’t explain it. I feel sorry for the fish in the darkness of the pelican’s tummy without room to swim around, and having to die to be someone’s food. I try to think about how hungry the pelicans are and how hard they work for their supper.

In a few days, I will get on a big grey bus painted with a running dog. I’ll hold my pretty Mamma’s hand, and sit next to her for hours and hours, dozing through stops as we ride north, back home to Hillcrest Heights and to me being the youngest again. We ride back  to waiting for the warmth of spring and for all the things I can’t have just yet.

59840924535__48059005-33e6-42ab-bd03-ddaea02fceb7Almost fifty years later, I will forego all my Christmas traditions and take a trip south with the family I’ve made. At a Mexican resort, I will drink coffee with the husband every morning while we watch light come up over Banderas Bay. A pair of pelicans will display their awkward beauty as they skim reflections over the water. With perfect grace, they dip their wing tips almost to the surface, then ride the sharp hill of wind cast up by the surf.

Waves will crash on the crescent beach, then sigh their way back home again as my grown boys feast on onion rings and hot peppers from the buffet. I won’t miss shopping or decorating or meal planning. I will float on my back as the solstice sun hangs in the sky. I’ll open my arms wide, winging gratitude to the pelicans over my head. I will bask in thankfulness for having everyone and everything I need, right here.

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Cha Cha Cha

On this drab December day, heavy patches of snow shrink to reveal brown grass and gray pavement. I look away from the window and contemplate a photo of my oldest brother Issi’s wedding in Iceland in 1969. The bride’s parents stand in dark clothes with serious faces angled slightly down and away from the camera. My new sister in law, Arndis, wears a Cheshire grin and a lacy white dress hemmed well above her knees. My brother’s face is eager and thoughtful, hair cut short around his broad forehead. The buttons of his dark suit nearly burst with contained energy. My mother alone wears color—an emerald green dress and matching satin shoes. Her brunette hair is swirled into a luxurious bouffant, and a half smile plays on her lips. Tense beauty and unpredictable fire shine from this photo.

What was she thinking that day? At 43, she was mother to seven children and lived far from her island home. She traveled from Washington D.C. with only her youngest children–me and my four-year old sister—to attend two weddings. Just a few weeks after Issi’s small ceremony, my brother Finn had a big wedding. My sister and I gazed at this other bride, all elegance and grace in her satin gown. Her name, Alla, was easy to say and confirmed what we suspected, that she was everything. She hugged us and spoke to us with a clipped accent. During the reception, my sister and I drank our very own bottles of coca cola and ran shrieking down long hallways. These brides and my grown-up brothers were almost mythical beings to us, wild creatures living in the distant land that was my mother’s first home.

As clouds hang in the winter sky, I contemplate the stillness in Issi’s wedding photo, the retrained movement. Arndis wears a white veil, a soft fold of lace over her dark hair. Mamma’s green dress has a faint checkerboard sheen and long sleeves that widen, kimono-like, around her arms. Shining earrings dangle half way to her shoulders. A hint of tension in my mother’s fingertips suggests a delayed impulse to reach up and smooth her hair.

Was it on that trip, and in that green dress, that she taught me to cha cha? Did she kick off her shoes to dance in full, fluid motion?  Her hips swayed as she counted for me, one-two, cha cha cha. I glued my eyes to her until my ears and feet started to work together in imitation. She swiveled toward me, then away again. Leaning over, she tugged my fingertips to the music until my feet began to listen. Then she dropped my hands and danced by herself in a cloud of perfumed happiness.

Forty-five years later, under the fairy lights at Denver’s Mercury Café dance floor, a partner asked me, do you cha cha?  I don’t know, I replied.  I do know that I was taught once. He led me in the cha cha, and I followed without thought or effort, my mother’s lesson still alive in the bottom of my feet. And though her ashes were scattered in the Gulf of Mexico years earlier, there was Mamma, sitting alone and resting her elbows on a small round table. Her lips were tinted mauve, and her eyebrows penciled into supple surprise. She looked at her bubbling diet coke, then back at me. In the music, I heard her tinkling laugh, the erupting happiness that sometimes made her cover her mouth with the back of her hand to hide her imperfect teeth. Soon, I was laughing, too, as I danced and danced.

Stealing

Shoplifting is danger. Shoplifting is defiance. Shoplifting is compulsion, and it is satisfaction. You steal without thinking or feeling, but you wonder later if you might have been angry, if there was some sign you missed, something you shouldn’t have been feeling that made you do what you did. You hate yourself after, not for the peppermint flavor of theft on your tongue, but for the privileged certainty that you won’t be caught.

A therapist might think that you steal to manage anxiety or as a quirk of disordered neurology. But you think you are clever, putting one over on the system. You get a bad flu along with half of the city and suffer because your opiate cough suppressant is out of stock. You spend three days sleeping in half-hour dozes, propped on pillows as a humidifier puffs steam into the cold living room. Your upper lungs ache with every inhale then erupt like miniature fireworks.

You go back to the pharmacy and give your name to a woman in a white smock over tangerine leggings. Blank-faced behind her name tag, she tells you that your prescription is ready, but their network is down. She announces with a shrug, You can wait if you want to.  You don’t want to. You crave solitude and rest, not this ugly florescent display of knee braces and chew-able calcium.  Keys in hand, you pace outside under the leafless trees as cars skim down Broadway, then step back in, under the shining corporate logo. You wander the aisles and pick up a small tube of Red Dahlia lip balm, its weight like a talisman in your palm. A hazelnut chocolate bar makes it way to your jacket pocket. Sitting on a plastic chair, you listen to other sick people complain. After a wheezing cough, you tint your lips and feed yourself soothing squares of dark chocolate. You press hazelnut crumbs slowly between your teeth until the system comes online again, and you can go home and sleep.

Another year goes by. At the hardware store, you eye wilted yellow pansies so leggy and forlorn that they are on sale for fifty cents each.You pay for three sets, and see yourself taking more. You are not thinking about the sadness on your son’s pale face as he looks out at the world. You are not feeling tired for him, for everyone. In the sunshine, you lift flower packs into the back seat of your station wagon, counting one, two, three, four. At five, you smile your mother’s smile and drive away.

Her stealing smile is mine. Her flowers and her hands are mine.

In her late sixties, my mother’s thieving was done with remorselessness and with grandmotherly confidence. 5 foot 2 and a hundred pounds with her coat on, she embodied a sweet charm and a don’t-mess-with me toughness.  She flew from Florida to Denver to help when each of my three babies was born. Sober and happy, she cooked dinner every night and caught us up on laundry. Once when I thanked her for all of her help, I added, And thanks to Dad for letting you come!

Her face clouded over, eyes dark as night. Then she snapped: Nobody lets me do anything. Truer words were never spoken.

Mom was never questioned when we left the checkout line at King Soopers and picked up sun-loving petunias on tall racks outside the door. As we placed flower after flower after flower in the warm dirt, she said, Aren’t they pretty? And I only paid for two of them!  She laughed the shiny laugh of a girl. Her eyes sparkled.

Mom! You stole! I was terrified that she could have been arrested. I was barely thirty and still getting used to being people’s mother.

Mom and me at stove

They can afford it, don’t worry, she replied, her smile impish and satisfied. There has to be a “they,” who can be outwitted. The thief in us knows this and feels satisfied.

Nobody lets me do anything.

The pansies I stole this year would have been thrown away by now, tossed in a dumpster with that first early snow. Instead, I’ll plant them in my fall garden over daffodil bulbs. They will survive the winter, content under a blanket of mulch. Their yellow and purple blooms will glow in the spring sun. Again and again, they will fill me with surprise.