Friday, August 4, 2017

I've Been a Hungry Ghost

Last spring, I sat in a room while my she-hero prowled between the tables and answered the question we were each complicit in not asking: How do I write a story? Start with the body, she said. Always return to the body.

She said start with the body, and this morning I woke up, but I woke up with that throbbing that’s too central to be heart and too high to be stomach, and I wondered again how much a pancreas weighs. Can I hold it in one hand or two? When I ache in that place, I take one palm and press hard, like on tv shows, how professionals will hold a scared child until that child stops thrashing. If I pin my pancreas’s little fists, will it stop punching so hard? Will it stop being a scared child, stop throwing tantrums. Will it grow up, grow out of this, become an honor roll student, be the sort of pancreas that never runs stop signs, and is careful not to overdrink or speak out of turn? Maybe my pancreas will earn a Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe my pancreas will find a cure for cancer. Or maybe my pancreas will explode while I sleep. You never know about these sorts of things.

This week, temperatures in Portland peaked at 107 degrees. It’s stupid hot, the air cloying. The air oppressive. The air holding us hostage. Holding us captive, like an audience. Like we’re an audience, this magician suspends our breath and sweat, look at this trick. Right before our eyes.  One sleight of hand keeps all that moisture in the air until we’re nearly drowning rather than breathing. So each day, as the heat wave breaks over us, I leash the dog and we stumble, totter, trip our way down the steep staircase into the basement’s blessed chill.

Self-fulfilling prophecy, I’m living exactly where I joked I would be.

There the dog spreads her bones out on the cool concrete and sighs. There she can breathe easy while I grapple with words. While I try to transform letters into dollar signs. While I empty my head to fill my bank account, and the heart goes on with its heady little woosh woosh woosh unnoticed until it misbehaves, like so many other things. At the end of the day, the first girl to see me inside and out comes down those stairs and curls herself into me. Last year she may have been a back alley apparition, but now she’s weight, and breath, and warmth, and soft; so much her to remind me what it is to feel like me.

Return to the body. Sometimes I get this electricity in my hands and feet that can only escape if I cry. Return to the body. I can’t tell the difference between sick and sad. Return to the body. There are days with too much gravity. Days when everything gets so heavy I have to crawl to get anywhere, so I just don’t bother. Return to the body. Some days I am sick with gravity. Some days I am sad with it.  Return to the body. I don’t want to want so much, but thank you for giving it. Return to the body. My body is going to betray me. Return to the body. Every time I drink myself blind, I think I am one step closer to dying. Sometimes that scares me and sometimes it’s a relief. Return to the body.

These long summer days I feel so transient that it is a strange thing to have a body. To be bound by its requirements. To eat, and drink, and sleep, and bathe, and be forced to confront the fact that even when no place is my place, I will still have this body with all of its complicated history and impulses and needs. So I eat triangles of honeydew out of the fridge with my bare hands and lick the cold sweetness from my fingertips, while sweat drips down the backs of my knees and I realize this too is what it means to be alive.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Open Letter Series: #8

To my silly clown car:

In retrospect it’s easy to convince myself I loved you from the first moment I saw you. If I’m honest, I didn’t. You were one of three cars I test drove that day, and your performance was less than exceptional. Everything about you felt flimsy, like driving a Go-Kart down the freeway. The way every sound and rumble of the ground underneath you reverberated through my body. How you needed the windows cracked, even though it was winter in Oregon, and probably drizzling. Choosing you was one of the more difficult decisions I’ve ever made, but you were affordable and I was desperate. I’d been car-less for nearly a year when I found you. After Seabiscuit, the ‘99 Dodge Neon blew a headgasket and bled out on the St. John’s Bridge, I turned to public transit. I tried to reason with myself, the usual Think of all the money you’ll save! No more car insurance, no more overpriced gas… You can spend that time writing, focusing on personal development, reading. No. These were all beautiful lies I told myself. First of all, a bus pass at the time cost $5 a day. Working five days a week, I was paying $100 a month to spend three hours a day coming or going. Second, if I focus on anything other than the ceiling of the bus while riding the bus, my insides try to become my outsides. Nobody needs the embarrassment of being a Public Transportation Puker. Still, I was broke. And again, being honest? Lazy. It took one supremely creepy gentleman nearly following me home from my bus stop for me to find the motivation to start looking for a new car. I found you after about a week of half-hearted research and number crunching. That first night, after jumping through what felt like miles of paperwork, I followed Henrietta the Fit home. Parked you across the street from A’s house. When I woke up for work the next morning, somebody had clipped your driver side mirror. Carrrl. This should have been a sign. Over the course of that first year you were towed and backed over by an F-350. You charged headlong into the bumper of a very nice family waiting in line for dipped cones at Dairy Queen. Eventually your simplicity won me over. There was no vast, space-era console. No backing cameras, no bells and whistles (or insulation, or even temperature gauge). Hell, there wasn’t even a stereo. You had a smooth and empty plastic console where the idea of a radio belonged, like genitalia on Barbie dolls. For as much as I loved you, I was also embarrassed by you. You were cheaply built. You constantly smelled like sweat and rot, and sounded like the cargo hold of a jet cruiser, even cruising slowly through residential neighborhoods. Inviting somebody to ride in you felt vulnerable, like asking somebody to watch your favorite movie and realizing halfway through they think it’s terrible. I wasn’t embarrassed by you, but by my love for you. Now thanks to a series of reckless choices and questionable decisions, you’re gone. When I told my friends and family about the accident, their immediate concern was for my physical well-being. I’m fine. But I’m coming to terms with the actual weight and significance of this loss. You were a symbol of independence, of taking control. A thing I did for and by myself, even if I did it poorly. And that’s what sits at the heart of this, I guess. Saying goodbye to you feels like saying goodbye to the me who was responsible for you. So: goodbye and thank you. Thank you for keeping me safe. Thank you for starting reliably every time except that one time. Thank you for transporting me and That Cat to this place we call home, which feels somehow pretend just like you did. Like it’s play-acting at real life.
This week, thanks to the generosity of a friend, I’ve been viewing the world from the vantage point of a Jeep Liberty. Even with the seat pulled forward, I have to slouch down low and stretch to pump the clutch, my shin knocking against the steering column. I feel simultaneously foolish and unimaginably powerful bouncing around in that beast. I’ve started searching for your replacement. This go-round I have time and insurance money, and a sweetheart that knows what she’s talking about when she’s talking about cars. I’m going to be alright. Rest easy, old friend.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Singular Beginning of Your Smile

my love is building a building
around you,a frail slipperyhouse,a strong fragile house

I grew up in small town Montana in the era of cats you didn't feed and dogs chained to backyard trees, which maybe is still the current era for small town Montana, but it's been a long time since I was growing up there.

I loved those dogs. Those half-wild things that would pant and pace in the house, more comfortable in the fenced half acre. How I'd quick, walk to buy them cans of Alpo on increasingly dubious credit. How Ken at the Market would fold his arms over his chest and joke, Buying dinner for your dad? and how my dad would always call him an asshole, but I didn't know if he was joking.

When I was seven or eight I worried about my dog, thought it wasn't right for her to be chained outside through the Montana seasons, sometimes all four of them in one afternoon, or so they say. I wanted to give her something. I wanted there to be something that was hers. So with all the haphazard industriousness of childhood, I cleaned out my old playhouse.

It was made of plastic, thick white double-paned plastic walls with a green plastic roof, designed to look like shingles. Plastic windows with yellow plastic shutters, and a plastic red brick chimney clinging to the side.

a skilful uncouth
prison, a precise clumsy
prison(building thatandthis into Thus,
Around the reckless magic of your mouth)

My little house had fallen into disarray. It was dirty and spider-ridden, all webs and dead leaves. Sweet smell of decaying leaves, thick dust and rain-river streaks of dirt. I dragged the garden hose into the backyard and spent that afternoon, that hot afternoon, scrubbing and spraying and transforming that little house into a proper shelter. When I was satisfied, I dragged it over beneath the tree. The tree where the dog was chained. Where the chained dog had dug out her dog-sized hole between the thick gnarl of roots, and spent her hot afternoons panting and snapping at flies.

Inside that house I put her water bowl, a heap of blankets, a bowl of kibble. Calling her over, she hesitated outside that red plastic half door, swung wide open on its plastic hinges. Come on, Mogwai. This is for you, a real home for you. She didn't trust that house, but she did trust me. I lured her in, patted the blankets so she would lie down and feel comfortable and know that I loved her. She inspected the blankets. Inspected her food and water bowls. Stretched out on the one bare patch of grass inside that plastic house, which did not have a plastic floor.

She was stretched out there, panting, looking at me in a way I took to mean Thank you when I noticed some spiderwebs I'd missed. I didn't think, I just slipped out and grabbed the hose. Turned that water full blast onto the plastic side of that plastic house, where the dog was still chained to her dog-chain tree. I can’t imagine how that blast of water must have sounded from inside. What I do know is I realized I'd made a mistake almost immediately. What I do know is she burst out of that swinging red half door screaming.

my love is building a magic, a discrete
tower of magic and(as i guess)

Lately I've been feeling a lot like that dog. Like I want something nice but don't trust it. Or lately I've been feeling like that child me, wanting so hard for everything to be perfect that it ends up ruined. A spotless but still vacant house. I was never able to talk her back inside once the damage was done.

when Farmer Death(whom fairies hate)shall
crumble the mouth-flower fleet
He’ll not my tower,
                        laborious, casual

where the surrounded smile


Thursday, June 1, 2017

Make My Limbs Your Crazy Meal

My culinary habits are like a mausoleum of love.

From childhood I learned how to fold Crisco into a batch of sour cream and chive biscuits, how to resist the urge to mix it smooth because sometimes less is more.

My mother taught me you don't just glaze a meatloaf-- you fold an equal portion of honey and ketchup into the meat, eggs, and breadcrumbs with a heavy dose of salt and pepper. Taught me to bubble the corn tortillas in a cast iron skillet of hot oil, because singed fingertips are a small price to pay for a perfect bastardized batch of enchiladas.

When was I taught that you toast each piece of bread before hollowing out the center to stabilize the egg, fried in butter? Eggs in a basket, toad in the hole. I know when I was young, I learned that even cabbage is best when fried in butter. Still the secret to grilled cheese is Miracle Whip, spread liberally on the outside of each piece of bread. Something about sugar content. Something about caramelization.

The secret ingredient in the family marinade is Chinese mustard. Spaghetti sauce? Worcestershire and brown sugar. Ask me about Louisiana taco salad, I'll tell you about potlucks and picnics; the night we tried Frito Scoops instead of the originals and the proportions were all wrong. How every innovation is an opportunity for regret, but you fill your stomach and feel glad anyways.

From first love I learned the art of free-styling. How to fashion a feast from mushroom soup, how to feed on the scavenging of a parent’s well-stocked pantry. Not mine, but hers. Green beans and macaroni. Our one botched batch of corned beef. With you I survived the cereal and beer diet. Discovered Tomato Delight. Knew intimately the taste of wanting more than your means.

Next came the romantic era of experimentation. My chicken vindaloo was dry and too spicy though I had painstakingly followed the recipe from that fine dining magazine. You ate every bite anyhow. Remember your bow tie noodles? The soggy chilaquiles with too much broth, not enough lime? I remember that even though you were a vegetarian, you made me that pot of chili that summer. I don't remember how it tasted, because it didn't matter. Butterscotch pie and fresh bananas. A recipe I'll never be privy to. After you, it took me a full two years to realize a single package of mushrooms could be stretched through up to three meals.

Next, the girls who cooked meals that never left me feeling full. Still I won't forget you.

Then. Penzeys. Bacon wrapped dates. Carcinogens in baked sweet potato skins. The versatility of Trader Joe’s sausage. She texted me once that since dating me, she'd changed the way she cracked her eggs and I thought Maybe that’s love. Maybe that’s enough. Thank you for teaching me the art of baking bacon. I swear, my life will never be the same.

And finally from you. The giant jar of garlic in the fridge, pre-minced so I don't have to dirty my hands. A new affection for fresh herbs. A new desire to let things develop their own flavor. Slowly. Slowly. Darling, there is so much I want to learn from you. So much I want to share. When you wander through the mausoleum of my cooking, I want you to taste the unravelIng thread of love leading me to this: you in your sleeping shirt, dicing vegetables in the hallway of my kitchen while the sweet potatoes fry into a string shoe crisp. How we wrapped them in fresh tortillas with black beans and slow-scrambled the eggs. The habanero sauce overwhelmed our mouths, which we pressed together anyways. We used slices of fresh avocado to cool the bite.

I want you and I to be a new recipe. Let me mix this ketchup and honey into your meatloaf, laden as it is with leafy green treachery. Or maybe you can teach me the secret to that dairy-free hollandaise you studied up on. I'll teach you the hard earned ingredients of my peanut sauce decade. How rice vinegar offsets the richness of soy sauce and brown sugar. Let our love be plump and well-fed, like my heart has been since it discovered the taste and texture of your affection. Let it be flavorful and bursting with our past experience and new discoveries.

Please, be the fragrance of new in this mausoleum of cooking. It may take some time for the flavors to fully develop, but I swear this fusion of our lives will be worthwhile.