Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Year of the Woman

In my last semester of my undergraduate program in 1992, I took a basic political science class, and wrote a paper on "1992: The Year of the Woman." 1992 earned its moniker when four women were elected to the United States Senate (two new to the senate; two reelected), who, when added to the existing two Senators already serving, brought the total number of female senators to six (five Democrats and one Republican).  SIX out of 100.  6% of Senate representation for roughly 50 percent of the population was lauded as "The Year of the Woman."  That was the world in which I was coming of age as a human being and a feminist.  I believed, as a woman in her 20s, that the pendulum was finally swinging our way, and in a few decades, opportunities for women would be radically different. I still remembered my confused dismay as a child at the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1979.  In 1992, I thought those kinds of roadblocks were clearing at last.

So it's been a few decades. The number of women in the U.S. Senate currently stands at 21; the House of Representatives has a similar percentage of women.  Progress has been made, but 25 years distant from my young self, what I assumed would happen in my lifetime - equal representation - feels increasingly remote, a fading wisp of smoke from a pipe dream.

Other countries boast better numbers.  Canada (my current address) does, but not spectacularly.  On the IPU's Women in Parliament list, Canada is #62 with 26.3% lower house (House of Commons) representation, and 43% in the (appointed, not elected) Senate. The U.S. squeaks into the top 100 coming in at #98 with 19.4% representation in the House of Representatives (http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm).

The top of the list, Rwanda, came as a surprise to me. In early 1990s, before the genocide of 1994, the percentage of parliamentary representation of women in Rwanda was under 15%.  As a consequence of the violence, when a million people, primarily men, were killed in a space of months and others fled the area, of the remaining population, 70% were women.  Women stepped into the open roles, and in 2003, the government passed quotas that led to the rapid changes.  (See article from 2014 here for details: http://harvardkennedyschoolreview.com/rwanda-strides-towards-gender-equality-in-government/). Rwanda is now one of only two countries whose representation is more than 50% women.

All is not rainbows in Rwanda.  There are suggestions that changes in term limits enacted in 2015 that allows President Kagame to be reelected and serve until 2035 mean that the government has cemented a devolution into a one party system (an example of one of many reasons I favor terms limits at the executive and congressional level).  Ironically, the anti-genocide laws of Rwanda are now being used as a means of squashing free speech and dissent.  (http://www.newsweek.com/2017/07/21/kagame-presidency-stability-rwanda-elections-635018.html)

To state the patently obvious: No one sane with any moral center views genocide as a preferred path for change.  No one wants a one party system (except the dictators and power-brokers themselves).  There's ample evidence worldwide throughout history that even the most warm and fuzzy, benevolent dictators seldom stay benevolent when their power is threatened.

My point in bringing up Rwanda is that all the talk about how change necessarily has to be glacially slow, and how everyone should be patient, endlessly, as we wait for the old guard of powerful men to get around to letting us gals into the clubhouse in equal numbers is, well, bullshit.  If we as a country, women and men, really wanted women to have equal voice in government, then we would make it a priority. Are quotas the way to do this, and if so, what kind?  I don't know.  Some 128 countries have some sort of quota for women in government though, so it's clearly not as outrageous an idea as some might have you think. (http://www.quotaproject.org/country.cfm?SortOrder=LastLowerPercenta).  I do believe that more rapid change can happen if we decide we want it.

For hundreds of years, men of the United States have wielded a stranglehold of power over the women of the United States, and I'm tired of it. You want to shriek about the unfairness of quotas, at the possibility of the best qualified person not getting the job, get back to me once there has been hundreds of years of equal representation and a true equality is the norm, not just a speaking point. Because I can tell you right now, the best qualified women are often not getting the nominations or the interviews, much less the job because there aren't quotas, because ingrained, institutional sexism limits them - they don't "look the part" in the minds of so many hiring managers, boardrooms and voters and politicos. If we reserve a specific space for the voice of women in government, we open a counterpoint to the many other places of power where men's voices predominate.  From the tiny percentage of women in CEO roles (http://fortune.com/2017/06/07/fortune-women-ceos/) to the pay disparities, it takes little time to note the continuation of sexism, and sometimes outright misogyny.

In 1992, I was young and naive, and I thought the better parts of humanity would prevail, that fairness would naturally lend itself to a better balance.  I thought I would see a better country a short time ahead.  In 2017, older, and much, much angrier, I realize change happens when we enact it.  Civil Rights did not wait for all the segregationists to decide they were done with Jim Crow;  people of conscience stood and protested and fought, started a national conversation; when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, it ended the segregationists' party early.  Racism did not magically end then, and is experiencing a dank and vocal resurgence now thanks to the new U.S. president. The end of the legally-enforced conditions of separation opened space for a contact that could more easily challenge racist assumptions, providing a social contact context for change.  The more varied the faces and voices at the table, the more the next generation can see themselves in those roles.  Elected representatives who are women and/or people of color and/or other minority groups should not be exotic novelties, but instead exist in numbers that reflect the diversity of our society.  In short, representatives should be representative. 

At 48 years old, I now spend time walking around a college campus with regularity since I am attending graduate school.  It is my hope that in 25 years, when this crop of college seniors are my current age they see in the United States a country that welcomes voices from every quarter, where representation reflects truly equal opportunity. My fear is that I'm just as naive in hoping for that kind of change as I was in 1992.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

You Can't Go Home Again

Simon pondering the
path ahead.  
The title of Thomas Wolfe's novel, You Can't Go Home Again, has been the refrain looping through my head over the last weeks. It's a book I have not read, know little about except its title and that the main character, a writer, has inspired ire in his hometown by writing about its inhabitants. But the phrase itself - being unable to return home, and the quest for home as a literary theme dating back to The Odyssey and before- gets me thinking. What makes a home? Is our first home the imprint on which all other attempts will be compared? Does nostalgia, loss, and the passage of time make us more or less likely to reach out for new homes? How does place define us, inspire us, imprison us?

In February, I sold my house in Florida, put most of what I possess in storage, put the rest in the backseat of my car with my cat, and started driving north. Next September, I will start a PhD program in English (Creative Writing track) at the University of New Brunswick, but until then, I have an unusual luxury of time to do a little traveling and exploring. As a single woman with virtually no commitments (for good or bad - my opinion on that fact varies depending on the day), my largest restraints lie in making sure my cat is both welcome and comfortable.

Given the (for a liberal Democrat) harrowing political times of early 2017, my first thought was to get out red-state Florida, and in fact, out of the whole country, and get at least a cursory feel for Canada, the country which will be my home for the four years of my academic program. Given that I will have ample time to explore New Brunswick and the Maritimes over those years, my plan was to head north to Toronto, a city with a well-deserved reputation of being diverse and livable. I'm writing this during my last few days in a very comfortable airbnb rental with my feline buddy snoozing on the couch next to me.

On the way here, though, in order to give both myself and my cat a break on the road, I spent a bit over a week staying just out outside of Washington, DC - the focal point of American political machinations, and also, my hometown. I grew up in Bethesda, MD, and over the years have lived in various parts of NW, NE, and SE DC, with a brief stint in Cheverly, MD, as well as two multiyear stretches in Takoma Park. Of the ten or so states in the US in which I have lived, the DC area is where I spent both the bulk of my childhood and large chunks of my adulthood.

During my recent visit, I caught up with many friends and family there. I was also near constantly reminded of other memories with other people as I drove through the city, rode the Metro, walked on paths that I'd walked over many time before, smelled the trees and the rivers and the dirt of my former home.  For me, DC was a memory minefield - I never knew what would blow up around the next corner when I was accosted by a familiar sight, sound or smell.

In some vital way, I could go home again.  The people that I've known and loved over years and decades continue to delight, inspire, and impress me. I basked in the familiar way my father told a beloved old family story. I laughed adrift in a sea of old jokes that came up when reviewing old wedding photos with a crew of dear female friends. The bride's daughter is now older (and likely wiser) than when her mother and I (her maid of honor) first met as teens. A former boss turned friend regaled me over lunch of travel adventures he had planned. Brunch with other friends acquired from one of my briefer forays into corporate America dissolved into snorting laughter but also had somber moments interspersed when reviewing difficult stories. I met another friend's crazily cute new son and witnessed some of his little boy's very first solo steps. I strolled a trail covered many times years ago with a friend who now had her son along for the hike, one who shares his mother's love of nature and dogs, despite being mildly dismayed by a soggy shoe from creekside slip. I wandered the Arboretum, the National mall and downtown taking photos and talking of art, light and very tasty ramen noodles. On my own, I wedged in visits to two museums and scrambled over the rocks on my favorite Billy Goat trail hike by the Potomac.

Some connections were missed - time was short, people were traveling, the stars don't always align. But in a short period of time, I saw a varied, lovely group of people and was reminded that I do indeed have beloved people in my life, even if I don't see them as often as I would like. In that people are home, in DC, I got to go home for a while.

But only for a brief time. While all those DC people were at home, I was not. I got to peep in on a tiny slice of their lives, but the day-to-day triumphs and struggles - I've no real idea.  Some emails, some phone calls, text messages and the funny pictures on FaceBook, sure, I know those, but I am more distant now, literally and figuratively. I'm less good about it than I used to be, but I do try to spend time keeping in touch from afar. But I've been away from DC for years now, and no number of emails will counterbalance that. I last lived in the area in 2012, a very different time.

In 2012, for instance, my mother was still alive. I drove by my childhood house, and would have loved to call her in Maine to report back on how it looked (I still can't abide by the blue shutters. They should be black. The front door should be red, as it was for 20 years - but it looks good other than that). But the phone lines don't reach across time, so I can't tell Mom much of anything, although I find her along with me on this trip more than I would have expected. You can never go home again, but you always want to tell Mom about your journeys, I guess.

And in leaving Florida, as I have in the many other places I've left, I've created another home to which I can never fully return. The friend's toddler daughter who was just learning to say my name and connect me as that goofy lady with the cat, her knowledge of me is already fading. Her family, who often welcomed me into their homes and holidays, are building their day-to-day life around those still in the area. Another friend's daughter is now, startlingly, old enough to start to drive, but I will only witness her mother's gradual release from chauffeuring duties and understand the specter of an emptying nest from a distance. The tides send some people out to sea and toss others up on the shore, and we adjust as we must to the ebb and flow.

New beginnings are built on endings, of course. Nothing new there. I know that, and yet some part of me sees the branching pathways over decades and spends too much time wondering: "what if"?  What if I had gone right instead of left? What if I had tried a little harder, stayed a little longer, been more uncomfortable, or conversely stayed more comfortable?  What if I had left [fill in the blank state] the year before or the year after? What if I had been a little nicer?  Or maybe more direct and meaner? What if I'd never taken that job? What could I have done differently in that job or friendship or tiny moment on a Tuesday in April? What if? What if?

I take probably too much comfort in the multiverse theory and think, well, in some simultaneous alternate reality, I did do that, or didn't do that, and life is unfolding in every possible way...somewhere.  Just not here. That the possibilities exist and are real in some theoretical physics ways provides to me with what people of more religious faith may translate to, well, it's all part of God's plan. In the meantime, (religious or not) we march on with our current chosen path, and see what bounties and boulders are thrown in our way.

In some multiverse, I never left DC any of the times I did leave DC, and so I accumulated a whole different life built on time in one place. In my head, I think there would be a continuity and intimacy in that, one I crave at times, although as I think on it, there is nothing to say that all of those multiverses where I stayed put would necessarily have more of that intimacy. I could have (and have in some times in some locations) stayed a cat lady with limited romantic prospects and varying friendships that fade out or fail to quite achieve lift off. You could make an argument that some of my friendships survive precisely because folks aren't stuck with me all of the time. I'm not unaware of the fact that while I can be kind, I can also be difficult. And my self-sufficiency and reticence can be a barrier to the vulnerability needed to connect.

On the day I sold my house, I spent the morning tidying up and saying goodbye to my first attempt as a homeowner. And while the house looked great, clean and bright, it no longer felt like home, as (warning: cat lady moment ahead) my cat had already been relocated. That day, that little furry beast was my home, my day-to-day companion who every morning continues to wake me up too damn early for breakfast. It was a comforting revelation on what I had feared would be an overly bittersweet day.

Home then is not only about location but company - it resides with the people (and critters) with whom through a combination of choice and circumstance we share our lives. As I have moved, I have witnessed other people's moves from place to place. And movement or not, I've also noted their homegroup of people change, as mine have too. Many have partnered or married (and sometimes, divorced, and sometimes again, re-partnered), and oftentimes many are now raising children. Friendships burst open and some flare out and others burn on. Some relatives have required care, and some parents and friends have passed away. Being long unpartnered and childless, I remain in some ways perpetually adolescent. This isn't as negative as it may sound, as it also leaves me open to new experience and with greater latitude to explore, which are some of many reasons why I will be starting a graduate program in the fall and am sitting in Toronto right now.

I move. And with each move I learn, and gain from that learning. But I also lose. The people that stay with you, day in, day out, over years and decades are in some ways the only people that fully know you. Having no current home and no long-term (non-feline) partner, in an in-between transition time, the allure of that depth of connection probably speaks to me more loudly than it does at other times when, as many will note, I have tended in the other direction, to have felt boxed-in or stagnant, strangled by ideas of what I am "supposed to be."  The truth is, over and over, I have chosen to move, I have chosen to leave, I have chosen some disconnection and dislocation in exchange for adventure, have foregone intimacy in the interest of possibility. As noted, at times I think this is a flaw, at times an asset, but if I put aside the strident need to judge, in the end, it is just who I am -- for now, in this moment, in this multiverse. Changes and choices continue every moment ahead. Who knows what kind of multiverse home you or I will slide into next?

You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.
-- Thomas Wolfe 
I dwell in Possibility –
-- Emily Dickinson



Saturday, February 4, 2017

Anne Frank and Hope

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.
 – Anne Frank
I looked up Anne Frank’s famous quote today, as at this moment in my life and this moment in American history, I am having a difficult time believing that people are really good at heart. Like many others, I am spinning at the edges of an existential crisis.  If there is no inherent goodness to human beings, should I really be rooting for survival of the species?  At what point do we cross over into becoming the villain in the larger narrative of the planet?  

And yes, I know, that wide a view can make people uncomfortable, and can make me sound like I’ll be retiring to a mountain cabin to scribble out my manifesto on cocktail napkins and staple it to pine board walls.  So to be clear: no, I’m not suggesting in any way to hurry along our species’ removal from the top of the predator ladder.  The philosophical view over centuries and millennia and eras is not the same approach as day-to-day life.  In day-to-day, short-view life, I vote, I protest, I advocate nonviolence, and when I can face it, I argue for the tenets that I believe best serve equality and health. In my judgement, those arguments are seldom if ever fruitful, and more often now, I just sigh and walk away, preserving my own skin (Americans are, after all, so very well-armed), and to some extent, sanity. And then I feel bad about humanity, about the intransigence and illogic of things like, say, racism and party-loyalty over ethics, and my own cowardice in persevering in the battle for fairness. I am the embodiment of the guilt of the liberal elite.  I know I should be doing more, but I feel helpless in the face of mobilized, enthusiastic fascism.

Women's March, St. Petersburg, FL, Jan. 21, 2017
The (overly) short view of the Republican party with focuses on things like Lock ‘Em Up! Lock ‘Em Out! Make Them Pay! Build a Wall! Fracking and Pipelines for Fun and (mostly) Profit! Shoot ‘Em Hands Up or Down! Send Non-Christians Straight to Hell! Grab Those Pussies and Force Those Pregnancies! looks to me, in my gloom and doom frame of mind, one that fosters violence – notably against minorities, immigrants, women, the LGBT community, non-Christians, and the environment – and has the potential to lead us into war. Given that the lead diplomat and commander-in-chief has thus far appeared capable only of self-aggrandizing ranting and bullying, often in a preferred format of 140 characters, hope is well buried under a barrage of alternative facts and the blind panic that he has the nuclear codes.  On the up side, the uber rich in their bulletproof compounds will likely accrue some nice profits for a time as deregulation of, well, just about everything, “frees” the market. On the down side, spending will drop if destruction of the environment leaves the planet inhospitable to human life. Sorry about that, kids.  Hope your gutted public schools can still provide enough education for you to put some quick fixes into place in time.  

Getting back to Frank’s quote, however, unlike me, she seems to find comfort in the long view. She knew that her personal survival was unlikely, as it was for millions of others during the Holocaust, that thundering systematized genocide would destroy them.  But also, she believed that Good would rise again.  From the ashes of human corpses, she believed that “peace and tranquility will return again.”

I am much less sure that a peaceful and tranquil world includes human beings.  I agree that there is no way to build hope on “a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death,” and sadly, that’s what I see blossoming further under the Trump regime.  To quote Yeats, “the worst /  Are full of passionate intensity,” a fury of competitive, mercenary self-interest that fails to recognize the rights of others.   And so I begin to think the cruelty that needs to end for tranquility to flourish is a cruelty inherent in human nature.  As noted, I am not at my most optimistic, and life did not work out well for Anne Frank.

With or without us, the planet may well continue to support life, and if it does, sturdy cockroaches and perhaps a multitude of mammals, insects, reptiles and such will as well, and perhaps something newly miraculous will crawl out of the primordial soup next. Who can say?  But I’m not so sure that in the long, long view, I don’t want human beings to go by the way of the dinosaur so as to give peace a chance.  And I may spend some time thinking on that in a mountain cabin -- in Canada.  Because on the level of day-to-day life, a country recently ranked as the most tolerant in the world with a prime minister that self-describes as a feminist and that has had publicly funded healthcare since 1984 sounds like the promised land, a place where hope in human nature could be restored.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Mascara

Digging through old stories while packing...This one (below) was one of two submitted with my MFA applications 'lo those many years ago. While still a little bumpy here and there, it seems an appropriate time to post it what with Valentine's Day just around the corner.


MASCARA 
Somewhere outside the women’s restroom at Miami International Airport, probably near the security gates through which I must pass before boarding my flight, Gary is looking for me.  Minutes before, I’d spied him stumbling down the terminal hallway with the foot-dragging sloppy walk he gets when he’s tired, and so I had dodged into the Ladies while hiding behind a gaggle of flight attendants. 
I stare at my face in the mirror, shutting first one eye, and then the other, noting how bright the whites of my eyes look in contrast to my sunburned face.  The remains of mascara have settled into tiny wrinkles blooming under my eyes, tracing maps to new territories of age.  I stretch out my tongue as far as it will go and waggle it around. My face glows a stunning, skin-shrinking, two-days-tourist red, closely matching the shade of my outstretched tongue.  Against the stainless steel of sinks and stalls and mirrors around me, I feel like a canned tomato – pulsing with red juices, trapped among metal.  Will I still stick out my tongue when I’m 40? Turning 30 ten months ago obviously didn’t stop it.  My immortality evaporated in a poof of smoke, but there’s my tongue, still zipping through the air, stained redder by a cherry-flavored Tootsie Pop. 
When I hear the door opening behind me, I retract my tongue and put on a grown-up face.  A middle-aged woman with sensible shoes and a heavy gait stomps by me heading toward the stalls.  Several other women follow her; another flight must have landed.  I dig in my bottomless beach bag, pushing aside sunglasses, a still damp bathing suit and my boarding pass until I find the bar of hotel soap.  I need get the rest of this mascara off my face.  It’s so just not me.  I rip the paper off the soap and lather up, thrilling to the feel of cool water as I rinse the suds and mascara and Florida sweat. 
Although I suppose I should worry about wrinkles and skin cancer, I’m smugly pleased with my sunburn.  Just at the turning point of pain, it makes every movement through the air feel a delicious, breezy relief from the furnace of heat pouring off my body.  The whispering of nerve endings enflamed by the sun feeds a tactile need, as the light seeping under my skin nourishes the soul (if, OK, also damages the body).  People need vitamin D, I kept saying to Gary on the beach yesterday.  Gary, currently wandering out there in the sterile airport hallways, can go back to DC pale as a ghost, free from the cancerous lesions on which he persisted in lecturing.  He can haul that umbrella and lawn chair and baseball hat and sunglasses and long sleeve shirt and sunscreen and sit cowering under the boardwalk like a vampire fearing the wrath of daylight.  Red is quite becoming on me just at the moment, at 8 a.m. at Miami International.  Maybe that’s something else that’s changing. 
Gary is milling around out there, standing between me and the airplane that will take me back home.  Knowing Gary, he’s got my engagement ring tucked in his jacket pocket, not so much because he wants to shovel it back on my finger, but because he is convinced that the moment he leaves the hotel room, the criminal element comes rushing up to riffle through his things, as if the big spenders bring their crown jewels to stay at the Sea Esta because the free donuts in the morning are just that good.  He paid good money for that ring.  How often have I seen that look in his eyes? 
The first thing I thought last night when I realized Gary was proposing was, well thank God, I’m wearing mascara.  I’m not one usually prone to wearing make-up – part of that awkward group of women who never learned how to apply it properly, and so end up looking like we’re a) not wearing any makeup or b) streetwalkers – but since Gary and I had gotten dressed up to go out to dinner, after pouring myself into the flowered skirt and the tiny black tank top, mascara and a little Fire & Ice red lipstick were de rigueur.  I did, after all, know he was walking around with a ring in his pocket.  (Is that a ring in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?)  I’d spent an unusual amount of effort trying to look sufficiently girlie on our Florida vacation. 
The setting was romantic; I should give Gary credit for that.  We stood on a deserted moonlit beach in South Beach, strolling along by the Atlantic after a fancy meal and wine at a trendy Cuban restaurant.  The waves crashed to the shore sending mists of spray into the air.  A brisk breeze stirred the sand and lifted little whitecaps on the ocean.  The landscape was straight off the cover of a Harlequin novel, although Gary is no flexing Fabio and I’m not known for my heaving breasts. 
The downside: the surf roared so loudly, I couldn’t hear what Gary was saying.  And, truth be told, I wasn’t paying that much attention.  Gary tends to repeat himself, so I often tune in and out to see where he is in the midst of his particular harangue.  I’ve become good at inserting appropriate comments that re-state his last emotion sympathetically.  “Wow, that must have been tough.”  “I can see how that would make you angry.” “I know how stressful your job can be.”  However, I’ve found I can free up a lot more mental space if I don’t attend to his every breath.  I can float along on the flow of tone of voice without getting too hung up by the minutiae.  Gary is a sales guy; he can talk.  He’s got that charming patter down. The first run of one of his stories can send me rolling in the aisles with laughter.  But the day-to-day complaints about Larry and Jane and Jeanne and the rest of his superiors and how much better things would be if he were in charge – it gets old fast.  Sadly, vacation doesn’t interrupt his thoughts on the general lack of appreciation for his special soul. 
So on the beach, the scenery had captured my attention.  In a humming, wined and dined way, I was standing with the waves weaving around my calves, splashing the water around with my toes, a windy tune playing through my mind.  Gary came up and would have taken my arm, but I was holding my shoes, one on each hand like a flipper.  I shrugged him off to frolic in the sea foam, to wave my arms (and shoes) and spin under the moonlight.  He chased me down with that particular brand of forced hilarity, caught my arm just a bit too hard and installed me under his shoulder so he could steer me up the beach, away from the water.  
We flopped down on the sand and he said “I feel like I’ve eaten a whale and then been splashed by its mate” while picking at the soggy laces of his shoes.  I nodded without comment.  Party-pooping, whining about wet shoes and being too full to walk, came as standard fare with Gary
We watched the moonlight reflect off the water.  Some clouds were rolling in from the south, blocking out most of the stars in a haze.  Once I finally put down my shoes, he took my hands and started to speak, looking deeply and slightly to the left of my eyes. 
At this point, the wind blew a blast of sand straight into my cornea.  I pulled my hands away from Gary and spent a few minutes struggling to remove the small boulder from underneath my contact lens.  Gary pinched his mouth up in that way he has, as if I deliberately meant to blind myself.    He cracked his knuckles, staring out over the water.  After the waves of saline tearing out of my eyes slowed, I rubbed off most of the raccoon effect of my running mascara.
Once I had settled my eyes, I said I was sorry.  For what, I’m not sure.  Gary smiled graciously and then latched back onto my hands.  He started talking again, speaking quickly, as if he had an appointment to keep.  Finally, I realized: good god, this is it, he’s actually proposing.  And I started to cry. 
I couldn’t have seen that crying coming.  What rolled toward me was this: here’s this man that I’ve shared a bed with for the last year, here he is, sitting on a moonlit beach, talking about how much he loves me (and god knows, it’s nice to hear you’re lovable) and how he wants to marry me (he chose me! someone chose me!).  I just caught the mood and burst into tears, the happy contestant.  Maybe I’ve spent too much time as a bridesmaid – three weddings in the last year.  Marriage spreads like a disease, an easy fever to catch.  Or maybe it was turning 30. 
In any case, I had the mascara on anyway, stretching my eyelashes out to abnormal clumpy lengths, so I felt a certain obligation to follow through with the pageant.  Through some sort of miracle, I even lucked into the pretty kind of crying, where the tears just slid down my face like (of course) diamonds, not my usual yapping, gasping, snotty sobs where I end up a swollen mess. 
Gary said all sorts of generic things about why I’m a fine person (kind, thoughtful, fun, sexy), and added a little speech about how he wanted to move the relationship to the next step, because he knew how that could be important to a woman.  After some rustling in his coat, he pulled out the ring.  The fuzzy gray box popped open with a chipper little snap, revealing the sapphire and diamonds in white gold.  Platinum was simply too expensive for our budget – his sales are down this year, and I don’t make squat as a word processor.  The diamonds flashed a little in the moonlight, but the dark swallowed up the delicate blue the sapphire, leaving it just an inky lump, flat and dead against the pseudo velvet.
Gary slipped the ring on my finger.  Somewhere in there I must have said yes. 
Which is interesting when I think about it, since I spent a great percentage of the last six months thinking about how to break up with him, how, even when we were sniffing around jewelry stores, I was thinking, eventually, I’m going to have to stop this, I can’t do this forever.  But sometimes it’s like the tide carries you farther and farther down the shore, and you start to forget just where you wanted to swim to at first.  I bet drowning is like that, where you forget that you have to swim.

 
Now I’m cowering in the Ladies Room.  After I finish rinsing my face, I give my hair a cursory comb and peer at myself in the mirror.  Do I look any different having been engaged?  What is the opposite of engaged?  Disengaged?  Unengaged?  What do I call Gary now? The person formerly known as my fiancé?  Hiding in the bathroom, with Gary out there with the ring, probably isn’t a good time to think about this. 
There’s a good chance that Gary wants an explanation, which I had been rather hoping to avoid until I could formulate something better than “I just can’t do this any more.”  All I know is that I woke up with a start at 6 am, went to the lobby to get our free donuts, came back, ate half my donut and then sat there watching the weather channel.  Gary stumbled toward the shower.  The weather, as predicted, is flawless outside; it always is the day you leave.  I watched the woman in front of the weather map while she waved a hefty 2-plus carat diamond in front of a cold front.  I looked at her hand and then I looked down at my left hand.  The sapphire, properly lighted, showed its translucence, that ripe color of deep twilight that moves in right after the sun sets.  This woman, with her fashionable suit and perfectly coiffed-hair, and I, were part of the same club, women of substance, women with men attached to them like anchors.  
I licked the sugary donut goo off my fingers and walked over to the dresser, looking for a napkin among the flotsam of spare change and ticket stubs.  I found one from the bar last night.  They had given us a free glass of champagne when we came in bubbling with our engagement news.  Later in the evening, Gary had been explaining something about sales ratios – the napkin was covered with graphs and numbers.  I wiped my fingers, and then noticed on the other side of the napkin Gary had doodled a big goofy rounded heart and written my name – with his last name – in the center.  I stared at the heart for a long time.  On top of assuming I’d take his name, he had spelled my middle name wrong. 
I listened as Gary fussed around in the bathroom, blowing his nose, flushing the toilet.  I heard the clank as he pulled out the mirror he brings with him so he can shave in the shower.  I heard the rattle of the curtain rod rings as he pulled the shower curtain aside to turn on the water and set the temperature.  He likes the shower set so hot that it is virtually impossible for us to shower together, although early on, we tried.  We couldn’t find a temperature that didn’t scald me and freeze him.  When he finally stopped trying to muscle his way into the shower with me, my showers stretched from 10 to 15 to 25 minutes until he started complaining about the lack of hot water.  I liked to stand and let the water wash off my thoughts in privacy, no applause necessary. 
The weather lady with her flashy diamond walked off camera.  I tired to imagine her at home, swearing at her husband like a harpy sent straight up from hell.  But all I could see her doing was folding laundry, sorting socks and putting them in neat piles, having used the correct brand of detergent and stain removers. 
I took off my ring and rolled the band between my fingers.  Then I buried it into the remaining donut half until only the sapphire poked up out of the glaze.  I put the donut back on its Styrofoam plate and left it on top of the TV.  Abandoning the rest of my luggage, I grabbed my beach bag, took the key to the rental car and slid the door closed behind me as quietly as possible.  I ran down the stairs, started the car and squealed out of the lot.  Although I knew Gary was still in the shower, sudsy and unaware, I skidded to a stop at the first red light and checked my rearview mirror to see what pursued me. 

I hadn’t figured on him making it to the airport so quickly.  His flight, our original flight, doesn’t leave until 2 pm.  After returning the rental car, I had to keep myself from sprinting toward the ticket counter.  I switched onto the 9:25 am flight, which, mercifully, had seats left.  If you get to the airport early enough, they let do things like swap flights.  The airline representative had been happy to help, and even made a joke about how I surely didn’t need any more sun. 
Maybe the vitamin D went to my head.  What am I doing?  I’m too old to be a runaway.  I’m too old to be hiding in the bathroom.  It’s just cold feet.  I’ll have the rest of my life to work things out with Gary.  The rest of my life.  Until now, I’ve drifted through my life, bobbing along on the currents of other people’s desires.  I can continue to float, numbly, and wait for decisions, life rafts or sharks, to tell me what my life is. 
I stare at my red face and listen to the rush of water down pipes as another toilet flushes.  Whatever I do, I need to get out of this bathroom. 
I push open the restroom door and immediately see Gary coming out of line at the coffee stand, coffee (cream, 3 sugars) and croissant in hand.  I hesitate to approach him, even on good days, before he’s sufficiently caffeinated.  But today, the best defense is a good offense. I crunch my legs into motion and jog up behind him.  I tap him on the shoulder and start speaking before he even turns.
“Fancy meeting you here.” 
Gary jumps and turns, yelping a little as coffee sloshes on his hands. “I was so worried….what are you doing here?”
He sets the coffee and pastry down on a table and pulls me into an awkward hug.
I stand stiffly, arms at my side and answer, “getting coffee.  Oh, and returning the rental car.”
“Coffee.  Ha ha.  Very funny…what the hell, I come out of the shower, and you’re gone. All that’s left is half a donut with the ring stuck in it.  How the hell am I supposed to take that?”  His eyebrows pull together and his nostrils flare like a bull. 
I knew he’d find the ring; Gary loves donuts.  I bet he ate the other half.
I shrug.  Right now, I can smooth this over.  I can apologize.  I can make this work.  I can put the ring back on and I can be Mrs. Gary.  We get along.  We have OK sex.  Our families have met.  I’m 30 years old.  This is what people do.  Grownups don’t have scenes in airports.  Grownups don’t expect perfection.  Grownups understand that you’re not in love every single minute.  Sometimes you just have to go with the flow, follow the path that’s laid out in front of you.  As Gary always says, relationships necessitate compromise.  I finger the shredded remains of the napkin in my pocket and say, “I had a change of heart.”
Gary pauses for a millisecond and then laughs, his eyes crinkling up and relaxing.  “You nervous brides.  You’re not going to leave me standing at the altar.”
I have a flash of Aztec sacrificial altars, radiant virgins roped down before anointed priests.  “I’m sure you’ll manage to find a suitable replacement.” 
He lifts one eyebrow and studies me briefly.  “Now I know we need to talk.  Something’s really not right here, is it?”
I shrug. 
“No, really, I can tell you’re upset.  I know you.  I can always tell.  I’m good at being able to read people that way.  I can tell you’re upset.  I know I’m upset.  Imagine me, getting out of the shower and finding nothing but a ring.  I was worried, I thought maybe something had happened, I didn’t..” Gary babbles when he’s nervous.  I call it his sales guy tic.  Usually, I let him wind himself down to a comfortable rut. 
“You ate the donut, didn’t you?” I interrupt.
He stalls for a minute, startled out of his routine. “Uh, yeah.  I ate it on the cab ride over.  Which wasn’t cheap, by the way.  Definitely not in our budget.”
“I can’t marry you.”  The words hang in the air.  I think if I reach out I can almost trace them with my fingers, glowing in a neon green.  I suppress a giggle as the words, liberated into sound, break apart and scatter like Day-Glo sparrows.  There, I’ve said it.  There’s no going back now. 
Gary laughs.  “You’re going to leave me over a donut and a cab ride?  Fine, I’ll pay for the cab.  Seriously, Maddie, I know we need to talk.  And we will.  Just give me a minute to absorb the shock.  I can’t believe you just left me standing in the hotel room.  I didn’t even check out – we’ll have to go back for our luggage.  I just had to make sure I found you and that we’re OK.”
I cross my arms in front of my chest and squint my eyes.  “You know, Gary, that’s interesting.  How did you know I’d be here?  Why didn’t you think I’d just left to walk on the beach?”
“Well, you left the ring…and took the car.  I just assumed that…”
“…that I was leaving you?”
“Well, yeah.  And if you were leaving, I thought you’d go to the airport.  So I came to find you.”
“To stop me.”
“Yes.”
“From leaving you?”
“Yes.  Look, Maddie, what’s with the 20 questions here?  I’m here now, and you’re not leaving, and we can talk this out.  We’re good at talking things out, like we have before.  You know you just get ridiculous some times.”
“So, you knew this was coming, but you figured, hey, you’ll talk and I’ll stay?”
He shifts his weight from foot to foot, and then picks up the coffee cup off the table, taking a sip.  “Well, yes, that’s the plan.” 
“Why?”
“Christ, Maddie, because we’re getting married.  Because I told my parents last night.  Because it’s what people do. Because I need you.”  He pauses, and then adds, “I love you.  Of course you know that.”
“You need me.”
“Yes.”  He sighs out a noisy exhale and rolls his eyes. 
Gary, what’s my middle name?”
He leans forward, shoving one hand in his pocket, while he waves the coffee cup with the other.  “Your middle name? What is this a pop quiz? What has that got to do with anything?”
I grab the coffee out of his hand and shove it in the trashcan next to us.  Our eyes meet for a moment, equally aghast.  “Just answer the goddamn question!  WHAT IS MY MIDDLE NAME?”  Over at security, a guard looks up at my raised voice. 
Gary, a flush creeping up his neck, responds, “Anne.”
“With an e?”
“Yes, with an e. OK?”
“Wrong.  There is no e at the end.  There has never been an e at the end.  For the last year, we’ve been dating and you don’t even know how to spell my name.”
“Jesus, Maddie, it’s a little thing, I forgot.  It’s been sort of a tough morning, running around in cabs after my crazy fiancée.”
“The whole last year has been a series of little things.  I bet you can’t name my job title.” 
“I can too, dammit.  You’re the Supervisor of Form Creation.”
“Forms Production Team Leader.”
“Jesus, Maddie, you’re nitpicking.  An ‘e’, leader, supervisor, it’s all the same thing. You really need to relax. Our relationship is not about an ‘e.’”
“No, it’s not.  But it should have been.  All along, I should have said something.  But I just stood there and nodded like a bobble head doll.  My god, I’m an idiot.  This is all my fault.”  I pivot on my heels and swing away from him.  My eyes skim over the bustle of busy travelers until they land on the digital clock between the board of arrivals and departures.  I am 30 years old.  I am running out of time. 
I turn back to Gary.  His hair is combed and still wet from the shower.  On his jaw line, a cluster of hairs stick out where he missed them shaving.  And at the corner of his mouth, his million-dollar smile waits to burst forth with generous forgiveness for the excess of my foibles.
“I need to catch my flight.”  I heave the straps of my beach bag farther up my shoulder.  Gary’s eyes widen and bulge as his hand comes up to grab my arm.  Then his eyes flick over my shoulder to focus on the movement at the security desk.  His arm comes back down and hangs with his fist clenched at his side. 
“Bye Gary.”  I turn and start walking.  Behind me, I hear Gary sputtering, rooted in place, “Flight!  You can’t do this to me. You can’t just walk away.  It’s not fair.” 

I walk forward toward the guard who has watched our conversation, politely, from the corner of his eye.  He’s a tall man, a little round around the middle, with a feathery blond mustache.  I can feel Gary watching me and the guard watching me walk away.  The windows show blue sky without a cloud.  A plane floats by, suspended in the air, leisurely climbing to altitude away from Miami.  On the plane, I will think about packing up, about calling my mother and calling off the engagement party she started planning last night.  I will think about growing old alone, about the prospect of being a cat lady with a propensity for stealing the neighbors’ baseballs when I’m 80.  I will think about all the things I should have said, to Gary, and Rick and John and Matt before him, and my father and his belief that “children should be seen but not heard.”  I will sit on the plane and think about how much easier it is to make a change than to anticipate that change for so long.  I will think about cutting my hair, because I’m a woman, and that’s what we do when we lose a man, through accident or design.  I’ll sit in the window seat and think about these things.  But as I pass through security, all I want to do is gain the good grace of the guard, his blessing for my flight.  As I hand my boarding pass to the security guard, I grin up at him and say, “Great weather for flying, isn’t it?”  He nods his head slowly, with the hint of a smile around his eyes and says “Go on ahead, Miss.”  And so I do.  

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mild Painting Renovation

Since I am busily stalling on writing (too caught up obsessing on whether I will be accepted into a graduate program), I spent part of New Year's Eve day messing with another old painting.  It's from a crowd of old geometric-y abstracts, probably from several years ago (New Mexico era, perhaps?). I'm still not in love with it, but I like it better - the addition of more reds punches up the contrast, and some details give it a richer depth - so I will take as that progress. It will likely go through further transformations.

Happy New Year!

Triangle Renovations