Monday, May 23, 2011

monday morning

Monday morning commute with Boo. Heading back to Palo Alto after long glorious weekend in San Francisco filled with friends old and new, sunlight, dog love, wind-whipped sand, golden pork buns, hot professional lezzies. Highway 101 South is a parking lot but I don't care. Blasting Erasure greatest hits all the way to work, windows down. Boo sniffs for a while, then tires and falls asleep. I'm wearing a black suit, white shirt for tomorrow's depo. I'm dressed like the border collie in the backseat.

I drop Boo off in the backyard of my parents' home and drive the remaining 1.5 miles to work. More slow traffic. Left arm out the window baking to a deeper color than the right, heart-shaped sunglasses, singing Erasure's cover of ABBA's "Take A Chance On Me" as loud as I can. Nodding and grooving. Day is bright in the valley, with fog at the top of the Santa Cruz mountains. Man in forest green SUV pulls short of the light so that our windows are aligned. I look down my sunglasses at him. He looks down his sunglasses at me. He drives off craning his neck backwards. We meet again at the next light. He rolls down the window. I'm singing, "If you change your mind / I'm the first in line / Honey I'm still free / Take a chance on me . . . " He shouts, "HEY DO YOU WANT TO GET COFFEE!?" I keep singing and shake my head and hold up my left ring finger. Wag it at him, smiling. Take an abrupt right on my street and never see him again.

This week is gonna be GOOD.

Monday, May 16, 2011

shakespeare's bed

When my relationship died, I took a hiatus from, of all things, reading fiction. Don't know why, but I just couldn't stand it. These days I seem to spend more time sweating outdoors and in with strangers than I do building my brain. To the extent that I consume any media, it is in the form of self-help books, news and variety magazines, science or business related podcasts, and a couple of choice Erasure songs on loop.

Yesterday, I hardly left my room. Still fighting with death cough. Nurse napped at my place post-shift, and as she dozed, I fished a book out of my pile and started reading.

The book is a collection of interrelated short stories by Lore Segal called "Shakespeare's Kitchen." I'd never heard of her until I heard her story on a fiction podcast C. recommended to me.

I love this book. Let me share some pieces with you. The heroine is a 30-something Vienna-born naturalized American named Ilka. She has recently been appointed a position at an institute affiliated with a private university in rural Connecticut. She is lonesome for people as intelligent and warm as those she knew in her pre-institute life. In the next two group scenes, Ilka has just met some people she likes and wants to impress, but she doesn't know how to make her personality known to them:
People were moving in from the porch. Ilka saw the new director momentarily alone, slipped out, and said, "I have a theory," and told him about the Egyptian sculpture. It seemed to take a very long time.

The new director said, "I understand that we've got you teaching in the adult program at the university."

"English for Foreigners. I'm a foreigner," said Ilka in despair: once embarked on this routine of self-conscious inanities there's no way back to good sense and propriety. If Ilka had met herself at this moment, at this party, she would have written herself off as an ass and walked away. The new director with the beautiful head and the English voice did not walk away and seemed not to be looking for some better opportunity over Ilka's shoulder. He regarded her attentively, without pretending to any peculiar interest. Ilka understood that she was talking to a patient man who might choose to distinguish between an ass and a person showing off at a party. Ilka said, "Talking to you makes people nervous. I wonder if my students feel like that talking to me?"

Leslie Shakespeare's eyes widened ever so slightly; he could be seen to be thinking. He said, "Probably so." Ilka was relieved and sorry when Joe Bernstine came to fetch his guest of honor. "Leslie, we need you to circulate. We need you to come in and eat."

The new director said, "Well then, that's what I'll do." He looked behind him, saw nobody, and putting his hand not on but just in back of Ilka's back, moved her through the door ahead of him: he was not going to leave anybody alone on the empty porch.

"It is possible," Ilka said to Martin Moses at the buffet table, "that our new director is a nice man."

And later, in the kitchen of Leslie and his wife Eliza, with a professor named Winterneet:
Sunday morning Leslie called and fetched Ilka in the car. Ilka walked into Eliza's kitchen and there was Winterneet sitting at the table smiling at Ilka.

Ilka was not some young thing; it annoyed her not to be able to keep up her end -- like Eliza, who could cut and slice, correct the seasoning, and perform last-minute maneuvers at the stove and keep the conversation flying like some high-wire act. Ilka developed a crick in the neck looking from a joke of Eliza's to Winterneet, who swung with it into a mutual reminiscence. Eliza, tossing and tasting the salad, elaborated a very tall tale that Winterneet topped with a deliciously nasty quip. Ilka wanted to play with them, up there, in the middle air, but the palpitation of her heart preempted her breathing. Ilka hunkered down waiting for the laughter to run its course before she took the running start to get her own joke airborne with enough breath for the punch line, but Eliza, removing her beautiful French bread from the oven, had started a story that grew naturally out of Winterneet's point, which Ilka missed, because it took off from what she suspected herself of not having recognized as a quotation. Ilka crouched to wait for the next opening in the hope of having thought of something that would fit whatever might by that time be under discussion.

Leslie, leaning back in his chair, observed his wife and his friend with the air of a man eating the best bread and butter, and listening to the best conversation, in his own house, at his own breakfast. Eliza had glided two coddled eggs onto Leslie's plate when the doorbell rang. Leslie looked regretful, got reluctantly up, and went to answer the door. He came back. He said, "Dear. It's Una."

Notice that in that passage you don't know the topics of the conversation, just the mood and pace, and there is not a drop of dialogue, but the scene is so vivid you could probably supply the lines yourself. How does she do this?!

And when she does dialogue, it's so sharp and perfect. Here Una, the unwanted guest, is at the Shakespeares' door:
"Tell her no," Eliza said.

"She's come straight from the airport," said Leslie. "She has her bags."

Eliza said, "I recommend the Concordance Hotel, corner Euclid and Main, a clean, well-lighted place."

Leslie went out.

"You can't do that! Can you do that?" asked Ilka in an excited whisper. "Can you tell someone to go away?"

"Watch me," said Eliza. "Or watch me tell Leslie to tell her."

"But I mean - imagine having just arrived from New York . . . "

"From London," Eliza corrected her.

"What can you say to her?"

"You say, 'If you bother me, I'll set the Concordance police on you.'"

Leslie returned. Eliza gave him back the eggs she had kept warm for him and said, "I make Leslie go and do the dirty work."

"Yes, you do," said Leslie.

Ilka said, "What were the actual words you said to her?"

"I said, 'There's a nice enough family hotel on Main - medium priced.' I wrote the address on a piece of paper and hugged her good-bye."

"You hugged Una!" cried Eliza.

"Yes," said Leslie.

"She's Paul Thayer's neice, no?" asked Winterneet.

"Niece by marriage," Leslie said. The doorbell rang again. Eliza took Leslie's eggs and covered them with foil.

When Leslie came back he had his jacket on and the car-keys in his fist. "Her driver has driven off. I'll take her to the hotel."

"She's driven her driver off!" said Eliza. "Our little Una likes Leslie to drive her. Una is always having to be driven. Una always needs picking up."

Ilka said, "You must have once liked her?"

"Una is a chilly English schoolgirl who came to America and caught the sixties."

"Why isn't that a good thing for a chilly English girl to catch?"

"Because she had to work so hard at it. Have you ever seen a hedonist with gritted teeth?"

"Poor Una," said Ilka.

"Poor, poor Una," said Eliza. "Like the baby kangaroo in Pooh Corner who keeps jumping out of its mother's pouch, saying 'Look at me jumping!' Una jumped into everybody's bed saying 'Look at me screwing!'"

"But you have to imagine having been born chilly. What was Una supposed to do?" Ilka looked at Winterneet for acquiescence. Winterneet was eating Leslie's coddled eggs. Ilka said, "Don't you think there's something gallant about warming yourself up by your own bootstraps? What do you want her to do?"

"Go back to London," said Eliza.

When Leslie returned from driving Una to the Concordance Hotel, he drove Ilka home to the Rasmussens'.

So elegant and spare. No words wasted on descriptions, no perspective jumping to explain what Leslie did between going to the door the second time and returning with his keys in hand. You're just getting to know all the characters, but right away you can sense that Leslie and Eliza trust one another but that there is also some history behind Eliza's dislike for young, clumsy, flirtatious Una. You get Ilka's worry that she is Leslie and Eliza's new Una - the clever foreigner girl once welcome in the house, later shooed off the porch - and her attempt to express mercy for Una without chiding Eliza.

I woke Nurse to read the above passages to her. She said, "I'm as interested in the writing as I am in why you chose to read me those particular passages," and fell back asleep. That was so fucking deep it left me speechless - her scrutiny from my bed of my empathy for Ilka's empathy for Una's desperate, slutty socializing in the face of Eliza's scrutiny. Which is just as well, because Nurse was unconscious by the time I parsed these subjectivities, so I had nobody to tell my thoughts to anyway.

hawaii with D.

D. says there are eighteen phonemes in the Hawaiian language. She says one incredibly boring way to spend a date is to go on a walk and read street signs aloud. In a diner in Volcano where the waitress cannot stop singing - Guantanamera first in a high key, then in a low key, then another song, and another - D. tells me a horror story about the roommate who sang loungey adaptations of songs like "Zippity Doo Dah" morning to night. "I don't know what it is - I just love the sound of my own voice!" he said when she confronted him.

Then D. spends car rides singing and pronouncing street signs using only Hawaiian phonemes. "Walmart" becomes "wa ma" which becomes "gna ma," and then "gna gna," and eventually D. is just making babbling noises. She pronounces "snorkeling" with a pirate accent so that it becomes "snarrrkeling." She says "island lava java" with an accent that is an indeterminate hybrid of Jamaican and - Irish? She particularly likes the sound of herself saying "I wanna banana" while keeping her tongue against the roof of her mouth.

The day I land, I get a terrible cough. Must be all the stress leading up to the vacation, the crush at work, the hysterical collection of time with new friends, the lack of sleep. I clean the pharmacy out of medicines with the word "mucus" portmanteaued into their names. By day two I've lost my voice completely. Neither of us can sleep at night because of my death rattle. First, D. expresses sympathy. By day four, she is mocking me. She coughs theatrically whenever I cough. "A-hwuh hwuh hwuh," she says. "Hwuh hwuh hwuhhhhh."

I give her my extra rash guard. A rash guard is a spandex shirt you can wear while swimming so UV rays don't permanently destroy the elasticity of your skin's collagen. D. insists on calling these nipple guards. "It's not guarding my rash," she says.

This is how a day goes. We wake up when we wake up. I get up and turn off the white noise machine D. has brought with her to the Big Island. I put contacts in, brush teeth, wash face, and I am dressed and ready to go in ten minutes. D. is still in bed, wearing the eye bra that blocks out the harsh, low-latitude sunlight. I do push-ups and sit-ups while she gets ready and I cut a mango for us. She apologizes profusely for making me wait, but I don't care. We drive ten feet to eat breakfast somewhere. Me egg whites plus fatty meat, her vegetarian and healthy. We drive to a beach. Nipple guards go on. Drop in the water face down. Float for an hour looking at coral reef five feet from our faces, teeming with shining fish. Burn backsides. Return to car. Drive to lunch. Drive to new hotel. Drive to scenic spot: volcano, beach cliff, amphiteather valley, mountaintop, museum, inside of a yoga studio. Snap a million glamour shots, many of us pretending to eat or hold or hug the scenic spot. Talk about boyfriends and girlfriends. Talk about our on-the-job leadership lessons. Talk about that annoying boy with no life experience to share who would respond to stories by talking about Nietzsche. Talk about the 100 essential wardrobe items every woman should have. Argue about whether I could find black knee high boots suitable for my gender presentation. Get into a horrible argument involving crying about whether "person of color" is a useful demographic category. Drive to dinner. Buzz on half a drink. Drive to hotel. Lay in bed eating mac nuts from a jar, reading maps. Write postcards. Make fun of postcard images. Sleep. Cough. Make fun of coughing.

D. loves plants and birds. She makes me pull over on the road to Kohala so she can investigate wild morning glories by the shoulder. I sit in the car and eat carrot sticks while she does this. She explains the experiment she and A. ran on their morning glories to see whether they actually bloomed only once. They did.

That's a flirty little hibiscus, not a morning glory.

On day seven, in Hilo, termites descend upon our room while we are out for the day. First I spot one on my bed. "Yuck!" I say, and swat it away. Then I notice the floor is moving. The bottoms of my flip flops look like a fly strip after I walk across the room. Termites everywhere. We had left our bags open. Termites on my contact lens solution, in my shoes, in my bikini bottom. I revise my opinion and prefer the dry, sunny Kona-side of the Island to the seamy, jungley, termitey Hilo-side. The hotel owner gasps and says we can take another room. We get to work and don't talk to one another. My method of coping: shake out article, stomp on floor until all termites shaken out of article are flattened. D. says, "It's so against my religion to be killing these things." I say fuck that, we dominated Termocalypse 2011. Wish I had photos, but we were so focused on cleaning house we couldn't pause for the disgusting photo op.

While snorkeling, we catch each others gazes underwater and gesticulate toward cool things. Big ass fish! Sea turtle! We hold hands and flipper-kick out to where the reef drops off and the ocean becomes an imperceptibly deep, profoundly terrifying blue nothingness. Our grips tighten. It's the kind of scene where in the movies a shark suddenly materializes out of the blue (is that where that phrase comes from?) five feet from your face and gnaws off your arm. But no shark materializes, and we float around like otters holding hands for a few minutes, circling the bottomless depth, looking wide-eyed at each other through our snorkel masks, before kicking back over to the safe known world of the reef.

We look at the world underwater. We look at the world's volcanic insides. We go to a 14,000 foot mountain and look for Arcturus, Hawaii's most important star. At the observatory, a video tells us Earth will one day lose its magnetosphere and we will all be broiled to death by a solar flare. D. and I split a bag of mangosteens while watching this video. I eat a teriyaki chicken musubi.

D. says I enable her. She doesn't want to jump off the cliff at South Point, but I do it, so she does it too. She doesn't want to put on her wet swimsuit, but I want to go snorkeling, so she does it too. She says it's good, because she would tend toward passivity without me.

But I tell D. she is the ultimate enabler. She emailed a month ago to say, "I'm going to Hawaii. Come!" It was all her idea. I wasn't planning any vacations but I'm of the mind these days to say yes to every invitation. So I said yes.

And that is how I spent nine days on the Big Island, listening to D. say, "I wanna banana" over and over and over again.