the gathering kind {part 4}: the nobility of living a quiet life

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It must be very beautiful to be finished. When the train rushes into the station, to let the wind blow into your face. Suppose your whole life surges back to you. I try to believe that Harris summoned all the beauty of his life. — Sarah Manguso, The Guardians: An Elegy

Over a telephone line my father tells me about his life. It’s been five years since the day I dropped another line and sprinted twenty blocks to a train to a taxi to a farm where my father nearly lay dying. I remember his face the color of a bruise and the gash still raw from where he smacked his head on the pavement. Standing in his home painted yellow, where swords and feathers festooned the walls, I shook a bottle of pills in my hand. Why didn’t you take them? What do you mean, you forgot? Who wakes up after thirty years and forgets to take their pills? In a small voice, I said You’re killing me. Furious, he told me he didn’t need them anymore, that he had a new plan. He was drinking wheatgrass every day, you see. He was a fit fellow even though everyone around him was dying. And hadn’t he collected me from the train station in Locust Valley — when the sky was a blanket of black and the squirrels ravaged through the trees — and put me into the car when I couldn’t stand from all the drink? Didn’t he put up with the wine lips all those years? My mother, me, difficult women on the road to ruin — he shouldered all of this. A year sober, I leaned against the wall as if it had the ability to buoy me up and I wondered if this was the very definition of retribution.

Sorrow never hides, it just lies dormant. It festers, metastasizes and spreads like sickness. We’ve been here all along, it torments. Here’s our card; we’re in the business of reunion. That night I dreamt of a woman with moths for eyes.

This was the year his boss’ heart stopped and all the horses were sold, when my father was forced out of the home he’d known for ten years. In that moment, when his face was all swollen and his apartment barren, I felt the shackles clasp tight around my ankles. And my body went cold, as if all the power had gone out. There goes the moths fluttering out of your hair. Rewind the tape and I was back to where I’d started: parenting a parent. Mothering without a map. Having to clean up the blood and pack the bags in the car. I needed to say goodbye to all that, so in a restaurant in Long Island I told my father that I was done being a parent. And we didn’t speak for five years. Until now.

It occurs to me that my mother and I had abandoned our cats. Funny the things that linger.

We start by exchanging words between our telephones, not picking up from the place we’d left off but going somewhere new. We both have new jobs and we talk about my mother, how she has a new family now. How she’s a mother to a daughter who has the name I was meant to have. We don’t tread in the waters that were those lost years; we text in present tense.

When we finally gather, it’s like old times. We take comfort in the stories that used to make us laugh. He takes new pills now, blood thinners, and they make his legs hurt. After a few moments I wonder aloud if he should be taking them. We laugh cautiously and press the sentences on. He tells me about his new life, a home beautifully made on a new farm with a family who adores him. When I tell him about Paris, he proudly talks about the aftershave his boss wrapped in tissue. Smiling, I nod into the phone and ask him if he’s happy. My father’s life is uncomplicated and quiet, and this pleases him. And part of me wonders if he aches for the world and everything in it, or if this, this life, is all he ever wanted. Whether he’s content being a man who works on a horse farm, lives in a warm home and takes wheatgrass in the mornings.

When I hung up I realized that there’s nobility in living a quiet, dignified life. My father is possibly the most honest man I know. He is the embodiment of good, and sometimes I feel small against all that goodness. That I was always the ambitious one — I was the savage who wanted the world and every single thing in it. And maybe I judged him for serving as a mirror to a flaw in my character. Maybe this is why we lost all those years. Maybe he and I will talk about it one day.

What I do know is this. When he asked me about my writing, my baking, my life, when he asked me if I was happy, I remember not answering the question. I remember changing the subject. The hand that shook the bottle now shakes the head no.

Remember the photo that your mother took? The one of you with the whisk? Remember that? my father asked once. You looked really happy. When I hang up the phone I whisper to my pop that I’m getting there.

Last week, after French class, I was exhilarated. Practically levitated all the way to Smith Canteen. Ordered a pile of delicious (delicious!) food that I knew I couldn’t eat because it was SO. MUCH. But it felt like home to me. The flaky crust that caved into the sweet pumpkin, the sage mayonnaise on the turkey sandwich and the peppery bite of the sausage biscuit gave me shelter during a time when I’m starting to climb my way out of the betweens.

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the gathering kind, part 2

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What is the meaning of life? That was all- a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one. ― Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

You were once our own private storm. Lone black wave on the beach curling in on itself, folding all the darkness within until it became too much to bear, and then you crested and collapsed onto the shore, devastating everyone in our wake. You didn’t know it then, but you combed the beach determined to ruin. Felt the crunch of shells and bottles underfoot. But you never winced, bled and certainly never cried, as that was against the rules. Over the years the ocean had become something of a house and you were its tired, listless tenant wanting to break the lease, wade your way out, but everyone seemed to love the storm that was you. Boys called you their miniature hurricane, wrestled their fingers through the thicket that was our hair. Miming fear on their inevitable drowning. Girls barnacled themselves to you because back then being a sideshow act in the hurt circus was the height of literary sophistication, and you with your storied childhood gave everyone a part to play.

You were an ocean and a telenovella all at once, and everyone lived for next week’s episode. But you were tired and had so much pain. Where do you put all this pain? Can you store it in the house and swim away? Or do you become the one who becomes engulfed in it, so much so that the undertow brings you further away from the light.

But one day, seemingly out of nowhere, the wave changed shape and form and then it was the past and there you were in a room miles away from the ocean.

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In Russia, you couldn’t sleep. You wandered the city with strangers watching the sky, wondering when it would ever fall to darkness. Come twilight you passed the time with a girl from L.A. who smacked gum loudly and talked about a heroin addiction that made her come undone. Like soldiers out of battle, you traded your drug war stories and joked about scoring pills in TJ until everyone stared — forcing the two of you into a corner. Her constant gum-smacking, her sing-song voice and erratic way of speaking unnerved you. She was irritating in the worst way but you wanted to be around her. Amongst the thieving gypsies and men hawking pirated DVDs on the Nevsky Prospekt, you kept finding your way to her. Bumped into her in the Summer Gardens, passed her between classes, and you joked and laughed because the two of you, a friendship?, made absolutely no sense. What was this acerbic New Yorker, with her clipped walk and obsession with order, doing with a girl, wearing shorts way too short, from East L.A.?

And so it goes. As the years marched onward, she would become a great, enduring love. You often talked about how you were two halves made whole. Apart you were puzzle but together you were terrific symmetry, finishing each other’s sentences, practicing our respective mimicries. You determined that your friendship would endure because you were so different. You shone so bright, always, and she was content in her quiet. Bound by familial hurt and a history of self-medication, we often mused over the story that was us and we each scurried home to write our respective books. You held her head in your hands during a heartbreak and she was the one you called when you decided to quit drinking, for good. Back then you thought this: there was never a friendship such as ours. We were impenetrable. Nothing could break us.

Never did we think that we would be responsible for our ruin. We were our own wreckage. Did we know it at the time, or only know when remembering all of it?

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Lately I’ve been reminded, albeit in a roundabout way, about friendship and love, and how the two are inexplicably bound to one another. There are those friendships where you only glide across the surface of one another. You have your cozy dinners and kiss-kiss on the cheek and then you fade into the recesses of night, only to do it all over again in six months. And there are other friendships that swell and crest — you friend and love furiously and recklessly — but in time inevitably fall because of the weight of itself. Who knew that gravity could undo so many? And then there are those quiet friendships that ebb and flow and we sometimes take them for granted because they aren’t of the telenovella kind, but these are the ones that endure. Those are the friendships that do not alter.

Today I spent a three-hour lunch with an old friend at The Fat Radish, and we spoke of the great love I’d lost, the ones I never really had, and the one who remains a constant. While I’ll never really know why my friendship with S faded, I’m honored to have gathered with her for the time that we had, and our fissure and break allowed me trespass to a whole host of beautiful friendships worth cultivating.

And all this time was the constant harvest. The one friend who has shared eighteen years of my life and we endure. We gather in her home and on the phone and any way that we can come together. Sometimes I like to think of us as two waves in the light, glinting, magical, coming together and pulling away when we need to.

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