Friday, December 9, 2011

Running Away: Lessons from a Little Boy on a Piazza

It seems unlikely I’d see as sudden and aggressive a downpour, but it comes as my espresso does, changing every conversation in Como’s large umbrellaed restaurant courtyard. Each of us surely appreciated even more our choice to dine here, the piazza’s only covered terrace, though the rain exits almost as quickly as it entered. I’m watching a trio of young Italian boys poke each other and laugh, their relaxed parents a table away and completely unconcerned about their children’s doings.

A sudden reach across plates catches the table cloth, bringing down a glass to shatter our relaxed chatter. The eyes of the other boys focus on one, whose face now displays a child’s universal look of fear, chagrin, and a desire to run fast away. His face struck me as horribly familiar: the expression my husband wore when he heard my doctor dully proclaim I had a brain tumor.

I didn’t blame him for his reaction—I had the very same one. Our already fragile marriage would not survive the 100% certainty that I was not going to be a peach of a patient. A kind person who loved me despite my unlovableness, Jack would push his fear down and try to soothe me—me, someone incapable of accepting comforting words or gestures. He was sunk before the game began.

So instead of freezing in fear, like the boy who broke the glass, I gave in to the other instant reaction and fled. Fled to Italy, then France, then the south of Spain, and now back to Italy. Soaked my discomfort in bottles of homemade limoncello given to me by nice Italian grandfatherly types at the many restaurants I visited alone and quiet, drowned unhappiness in gallons of champagne consumed in bars and bistros and brasseries in Cannes and Alsace and Paris. Ignored calls from my doctor, asking, his voice holding a rough edge, when exactly I’d be returning for treatment.

And I fled the affectionate hand squeezes, the soft knee grasps, and the loving gazes I knew Jack would inflict upon me once he had time to hurdle his fear—fear for me, for our marriage, and for himself. Wasn’t it a gift to all, then, that I was here in Europe drinking myself away every night? Jack knows, in his heart, that he cannot save me, knows I may not want to save myself this time.

He met me three days after I was given the all-clear on my first brain tumor and was acting just that way: grabbing every opportunity, every man’s arm, every glass of champagne off passing trays…was squeezing the haphazard out of each moment and not really caring where I landed since I now knew I would land instead of disappear.

The boy who broke the glass felt something. And right now, I feel nothing. Last time, reckless—this time, careless. And somehow, there’s a difference.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

My Mother's Christmas Tree

The heat kicked on, and the hot air sent by nearby vents began to flutter the long needles on my mother’s Christmas tree. Oh, it was my father’s too, technically, but it was my mother who carefully placed homemade childhood ornaments, heavy beaded garlands, crystal icicles, and other accoutrements on each branch until it dripped elegantly. It was a work of art, that tree, every year a labor of love and pride. My father invited everyone in to see it, and the year I had my brain tumor and couldn’t travel to my childhood home for the first time in almost 20 years, it was the second thing he said to me during our Christmas morning phone call: “I’ll mail some pictures of your mother’s tree—another tall one,” pride mixing with worry in his gruff voice. I envisioned his dark fuzzy caterpillar eyebrows bunching together, like when I swung and (often) missed a softball in middle school.

My parents live in a small town—I’d say it was quaint, like a small town should be, but it’s more accurately labeled depressing—and calling upon one’s friends and acquaintances during the holiday season is still a treasured ritual. You show up with homemade baked goods (your specialty, if you have one). You sit for a pregnant moment if they’re elderly, or stand around the dinner table, scarf still tucked in to your coat, if they’re not, so you can get on to the next errand during this busy time. It’s the town where I grew up and where they still live, so despite its small size, there are many stops to make. 

During those stops, you see a lot of Christmas trees. According to my father, they shouldn’t even see the light of day, so violently do they pale in comparison to the museum-quality creation my mother makes each December. “It should be in one of those chateau castle things you like,” he tells me each year. He admires my mother’s skill in this and so many things. Were my husband to gloat about my talents (not with holiday decorations, sadly) as my father does about those of my mother, I’d be in a constant state of blush.

Fine snow swirled off the ancient sedan in front of me, tiny glittery diamonds flowing down its trunk and onto the road in front of me, forming a smooth, thin river. If I believed in magic, I’d say it was guided by a wizard’s wand, so deliberately and perfectly did it move, a fantasy sequence from a movie. My car seemed to lap it up, a thirsty cat at a bowl of milk—it disappeared under the Chevy’s nose as I drove down the two-lane highway (though most East Coasters would hardly call it that).

As I headed away from my parents’ town of New Farnham, population 228, toward the airport half a gas tank away, I glimpsed through windows many Christmas trees, no doubt deemed inferior by my father, who had visited most living rooms in town. Having visited this year’s Christmas tree after missing last year’s, the healing incision on my head keeping me from New Farnham for only the second time in life, I felt as though I had set things right, though that feeling might end when my latest test results are back tomorrow. All hail brain tumors for providing that one-day-at-a-time mindset the unafflicted so often lack.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Thoughts on a marriage inspired by rain and sun in Como

Is the rain-to-sun transition so different here? Or is it that I’m rarely outside, or possibly failing to notice light when the rain ends, quickly or slowly, and the sun comes out, quickly or slowly, bringing brightness to the very places which glow the most? Stone buildings, marble statues, fountains who’ve already had their fill of water: These things light up like magic, as though a misguided Hollywood special effects guru has decided something as awe-inspiring as Bordeaux’s unforgettable horse fountain somehow needs a boost.

But right now I’m not in Bordeaux, though it’s my next stop. I’m in Como, of beautiful lake fame, and I’m watching the crowd while eating a surprisingly good pizza with a nice red wine. My lunch perch overlooks the town’s cathedral, constructed from stones of pink, grey, beige, and colors unseen in other buildings. I look across the piazza toward the art fair in a sunken area with arches but am distracted by my phone vibrating, a trendy technical intrusion jarringly out of place in this eternal site which feels so solid and real.

It’s my husband, from his office in New York, no doubt, politely inquiring as to my whereabouts. He is too frightened to ask for a divorce but wants one, as do I, but I am punishing him for his infidelity and will make him complete the bad-guy circle. As I wait, I have decided to tour Western Europe, easing my pain with copious amounts of wine, fondue, chocolate, pizza, and sex with handsome Mediterranean men. Here in Como, my last stop on a two-week self-guided lake tour, it’s myself I’m punishing, taking long walks in sun and rain, thinking of the many times I pushed him toward other women. Emotionally unavailable most of the time, from the very beginning I did things like withhold physical and verbal affection, sex, and kindness in general. I skipped every one of his family’s gatherings, though truth be told I did him a favor as I would’ve been cold to them at best. It’s surprising he married me, and I’m still unsure why I married him.

I warned him about the famous moodiness and aloofness of writers, of how those of us drawn to writing (at least, myself and everyone I knew) are not warm and friendly but crave solitude and basically dislike people. I told him I would not be a mother—ever. (I think he thought I would change my mind…a silly and dangerous idea, and yet the most common, held by many about to marry.) In short, I was a bad bet for an outgoing, warm man like Jack, but I win no prizes for being right about that. No amount of chocolate or one-night stands fills that empty silver trophy cup.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Book outline COMPLETE.


So now, a break from that--call it a palate cleanser...a literary sorbet--and back to short stories and flash fiction.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Did I ever tell you the one about... me and my boyfriend went to Yosemite, and I got sick right after the orange juice and missed our nice breakfast (fancy bacon!) at the Ahwahnee, but that wasn't the worst of it since he's more stubborn than anyone I know and thought he knew better than the ranger and decided to keep his new bag of peanuts in a zipper bag in the minivan we had rented ("I just bought them! I am *not* throwing them out. End of story.") resulting in loss of door (one) on said minivan due to A BEAR ATTACK?

Have I told you that one? No, I have not, because it has not yet been written. But it will be. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hey writers: Your craft and the drink

As I write champagne-tinged tripe (good lord, let there be as little tripe as possible), from the comfiest-looking chair in this hip lounge, I wonder how many writers will be watching The Rum Diary (quite sure I don't need to explain this one). How does the drink affect you? Do you swear off it when trying to write or pull the bottle when you get serious? 


Contest: 50-word story (my submission)

It’s the small things
by JJ Thorpe
(get it? irony! or maybe not…I always get that one wrong…)

The grey hipster fedora was wedged between the jersey barrier and a dented, shiny hubcap. Its perilous position sucking oily fumes, a strong breeze away from being blown into the fast lane and crushed, should’ve lessened its jauntiness but did not. I drove faster, encouraged by his small win.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Least you fear...

...that fear is why I have not posted (or writer's block, or lack of time, or a runny nose, or another reason): It's not. Good golly, no. (Though, as the author who penned the story about fear and writers notes, and I like his thought, a little fear is a good thing.) 

My lack of posting is having too many stories in their infancy. Baby stories, bits of stories, so so so many tiny beginnings of stories. And moving those stories to the flash fiction stage, or the short story stage, has been happening, but happening slowly (in part, because of a runny nose).

But soon! Soon I shall have a great, wonderful story. Involving seagulls, though that's not why it's great. Though it helps. Or I may submit that to a contest and try to win some money, in which case I cannot post it but will instead post something else. With at least one animal.

And please do read the article about fear and writing.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

I'm sick

Sick sick sick. Sleeping a lot. Not writing.

But pulling it together this weekend...nope, sniffy cold won't get the best of me.

Lots of stories in Phase One just itching to be finished, about Christmas trees, first-class air travel, coon clubs, and prom.

(What? What do you mean, "odd array"?)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ground Zero card table

She lugged the cooler full of water bottles, which had previously been stuffed under her bed and in her tiny pantry, into the hallway and down the elevator. On her back was a pack full of granola bars and anything else she thought a dirty, sweaty rescue worker might want after patiently stepping over and around rubble, looking for survivors. She went back for the folding card table she used for Scrabble nights with her neighbors, back when neighbors still did that sort of thing, grabbing a table cloth (a pattern of grays and blacks, so it wouldn’t show the grime and ash which, a few hours after the tragedy, coated everything and was everywhere).

The deserted street was interrupted by groups of site workers going to or coming from what she’d later call Ground Zero, workers who were firefighters or EMTs or construction workers. Today they were all from New York, though in the days to come, when she ran out of food and water but still took down to her card table towels soaked in tap water, they’d be from Philly and Central Jersey and Stamford, Connecticut.

Some wanted to talk. Some were tired, eyes and blood and heart fatigued. They sat on the curb with her for a minute before heading back to the firehouse, where she imagined they’d sit in a stupor a little longer, a weary and heavy silence among the greater silence blanketing the city and the nation. She wanted her damp towels to wipe clean the grief which deepened every day, every hour, when they learned there would be no pulling of survivors every few minutes, no need for the blood drives people came to, arms at the ready.

She sat on the ashy curb every day, all day, and was tired, taking sadness from the workers. She never wondered what they saw, or what it was like. She sat with them and knew that knowing as they knew was too much.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

JJ Thorpe gets published

It's true. I'm published. (And on my first attempt...crazy lucky, I am.)

Papirmasse Postcard Issue

Thanks, Kirsten, for liking my work...and for being willing to publish a story about dog pee.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

My work in upcoming Papirmasse summer vacation issue

I am honored to have a story featured in Papirmasse's "What I Did On My Summer Vacation" issue, which is out in September and features postcards with art and stories.

What is Papirmasse? "For only $60 a year, our subscribers receive a new art print in the mail every month, with an image on the front and writing on the back. We showcase an exciting range of emerging talent from around the globe. There are no hidden fees, no added shipping charges, no tricks: $5 each for 12 art prints."

Pretty great stuff. I also recommend their Facebook page for short, entertaining bits.

Honored, I tell ya.

Deer meets Car in the suburbs

Main Street was busy for a Monday at 10:30am, and that was too bad for the deer. I was startled to see him cut across oncoming traffic, head down and loping clumsily. This stretch of road was very commercial and not a normal place to see a deer. I couldn’t tell if he was going to pass in front of the silver wagon two cars in front of me or get clipped, and I noticed half a beat later I was holding my breath. A long moment held, then he bounced straight up off the car’s front, twirling, legs stiff and extended like he was a blow-up doll. He tumbled end over end, unnaturally, popping off into the grass. All of us tapped our brakes as if a community, each recoiling and hyperaware. Another long pause, and the deer leapt up and loped back across the road to the small thicket from where he’d come. I was shaken, witnessing something so violent and out of place for my suburban town, and I mused about the effects of seeing real violence instead of an animal getting unnaturally knocked around.

Three hundred feet down the road, I grabbed eggs and arugula for the evening’s quiche and salad and passed the same way again. Why I thought to look toward that thicket, I don’t know, but there he was—had to be the same animal, standing very still under a tree, head facing the road, watching. I wondered if it was in shock, maybe experiencing internal bleeding and minutes from collapsing in death. That's as close as soccer moms like me get to violence and death, other than heart attacks and 9/11. Realizing that makes me feel weak and small, and I snap at my toddler, who prods me with a licorice stick from the back seat. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Childless, childfree, happy, and sad

I watch the child dance around the museum lobby. She wears a white tutu, matching headband, and rapturous smile. She is the fourth ridiculously happy toddler I’ve seen in just an hour here, my weekly torture. I want a baby. I cannot have one. Adoption and surrogacy are out, per my wife, though I’m not sure if she truly objects to those routes or is punishing me for my infertility. I’ve caught her looking at me with the withering, disgusted look one reserves for smelly drunks or boors in the supermarket checkout line, hating to share oxygen with me. I do my best to stay out of the house these days, visiting this museum, the park three blocks down, and the every-so-often coffee shop which is now my second home. I’m happy to have the excuse of being a writer so as not to raise a red flag with the owner, a gregarious hippy who stands behind the counter every moment of the day with her husband, chatting nonstop with her customers. She has taken a liking to me, telling me weekly with watery eyes how I remind her of her brother who ODed on heroin thirty years ago, a peach of a guy with an addictive personality and lousy friends.

These days, I speak more with her than my wife as she sits with me a few minutes every day, asking me about my book. She too is childless but seems happy as a clam, and I wonder if it was a choice or, like me, something put in her path for her to work around. If the former, it seems she made the right call, though I suppose one never knows: Will you suddenly decide you should’ve been a parent after all? And if it was the latter, she appears to be more than at peace with where she is today: happy—joyful, even—and fulfilled by her work, her lover, and her customers, those with and without kids, who rush in for her impressive candy bar, set low to the ground for easy drooling and grasping.

I hope I get to the peaceful place. I wonder if I will arrive with or without my wife.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

An enjoyable visual and audio discombobulation

Scene: my regular coffee shop

I hear the thunderous rumble of motorcycles and look up from my paperback. Through the coffee shop window, I see pull up on the sidewalk a red motorized scooter bearing a wizened old man wearing combat boots, jean cut-off shorts, a pristine white t-shirt, and thick glasses barely visible under an equally pristine ball cap. 

His hand turns the key to power down the scooter as the motorcycles simultaneously disappear into town.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Crillion

I strolled through the Hôtel Crillon’s sumptuous lobby and turned right, pulled into the elegant Winter Garden by the dulcet tones of the harpist I enjoy so much. I am a creature of habit: I stay here on each and every visit to Paris, and I take an espresso here every afternoon, enjoying the harp and the fine beverage and snack menu. But today, my habit faced a roadblock: A lovely woman, her back to me, showing off a narrow waist, was in my regular seat. I walked by her, discreetly glancing to glimpse her face. She didn’t see this, concentrating as she was on finding the largest of the crude lumps of dark sugar for her café au lait. I took a step to move past her but decided, at the last minute, to turn and face her, hoping I could summon a remark witty and charming enough to solicit an invitation to join her—or at least yield a “yes” when I asked to sit with her.

I did, and she did, and we passed the afternoon laughing and drinking—quickly moving on to champagne—before heading down the street to the Arc de Triomphe. We took pictures of each other up top, the Eiffel Tower looming gray in the background, then more photos trying on sunglasses at Chanel. We ambled and strolled, finding ourselves in the 16th district near a lovely family bistro, where we dined. Her room at the Crillion, she sighed just the right amount, wasn’t her usual room, and she didn’t love it. More champagne caused me to invite her back to stay with me in my room, and she did.

I cancelled my meetings for Friday, and after the hotel delivered her favorite breakfast of strawberries, fresh cream, and their buttery croissants, we continued to explore the city. We lunched at the Gare de Lyon’s elegant Le Train Bleu, marveled at the Arab Institute’s innovative automated window sun shades, and sat outside the Louvre, admiring art through the windows but never going in. That evening, after champagne at the Pavillon Elysée Lenôtre, we shared hot frites and a croque monsieur at Pasteur Café on the Left Bank, then strolled by the Sorbonne, the Panthéon, and the many cafes which grew literary geniuses like moss. 

The next day brought more of the same: more champagne, the richest desserts, the most stunning art and architecture, and the most beautiful Hermès scarf I couldn't resist buying her after hearing the squeal its silkiness on her neck elicited. I blush now thinking how pleased I was to please her.

The third morning, I found her gone upon awakening, the remains of her beloved croissants littering a plate on a cart I had not heard enter the chamber. Noticing her small bag was missing, I was mildly concerned and inquired with the efficient front desk clerk, who had no record of a guest named Olive Snell.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Part of a day in Bellagio, and views of Lake Como

Bellagio inspires chivalry in men and adoration of their men in women. It moves couples to hold hands. There are no singles here. Even on motorcycles, there are pairs. The riders walk the esplanade, helmet in one hand, lover in the other.

Big honeybees are an orangey yellow which match the pollen weighing down their interflower flights. I amble back from a walk through Villa Melzi’s gardens, sit under a nearby magnolia tree set back from the path, and inhale. As always, I have a book. My brother always chides me for reading whist surrounded by natural beauty—“you’ll surely miss something extraordinary with your nose buried in the pages.” I lift my head from time to time, always lucky enough to see a small sailboat pass picturesquely or a mother kiss the top of her child’s head.

A bench opens up on the water’s edge, and I scurry to claim it and its unfettered views.

They take off awkwardly, as expected—ducks seem to do nothing, save float, with grace. As they turn away from Bellagio, their underwings flash white as the sun I seek comes out. A small sigh escapes me, a rare acknowledgement my brother was right. I read on, distracted only by a gelato craving and a rotund brown Dachshund fascinated with my feet.

Swallows undulate above and below the alley’s plane trees with increasing frequency as dusk approaches. Some would say I’ve once again wasted the day.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What's different on weekends

Steps away from my hotel is tiny Menaggio’s Piazza Garibaldi, or what we’d call the town’s main hub, though there are villas here on Lake Como with larger terraces. It’s been the place this and last week where I’ve had more than my fair share of red wine, sitting outside with a book (several books, at this point) to take in the scenery and overhear as much Italian as possible in my attempt to improve my language skills with minimal work. During the week, the scene is tourists and any locals who happen to take an espresso next to you at the bar, though you probably don’t choose the bar over a table unless you’re running late, but it’s vacation, so you’re not.

Weekends have regular rhythms too, but these involve the town residents. On Saturday evenings, very close to seven, tiny Italian women fill the piazza, grasping each others’ arms in what seems both a greeting and a way to steady themselves. Their husbands trail behind, shuffling with what is neither delight or sadness. There is a buzz in the piazza missing from weekday evenings, when tourists, happy but tired, talk low. Saturday night brings meetings and greetings and a cheerful excitement, and then without a rush but not slowly, they move toward restaurants.

I follow, momentarily forgetting that my two weeks here has meant I’ve now eaten at every establishment in town, even with day trips to Bellagio, Varenna, Lecco, and even Lugano. Recalling this as I pass one of the town’s many gelaterias, convinced I can smell the dark chocolate flavor I crave, I step inside and remind myself my trip is about to end, so dessert for dinner is wholly acceptable. My friend behind the counter agrees and greets me, for we are not strangers at this point.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Scene: Dining room, Grand Hotel Victoria, Menaggio, Lake Como

I'm upstairs and have just transcribed what transpired at dinner earlier this drama, yet full of sounds, smells, and moments which lent lovely texture to my experience.

The old but gorgeous and very grand hotel, with walls over two feet thick, is currently host to a small but loud wedding, which I find odd since this is a Wednesday. The wedding vehicle is, surprisingly, a tiny Ford Fiesta, adorned with nothing but a small white bouquet on its modest nose. I follow the hostess through the elegant bar—it really should be featured in a movieback to the far dining room, hoping the quality of the karaoke emanating from the adjoining terrace quickly improves.

I barely sit before I am brought a piece of bread—not a basket but a single roll, so as not to spoil my dinner—and sweet butter. I summon my most polite and proper tables manners and look around discreetly as I break open my bread and ready it for butter. To my left, there’s a squat, silent couple in their 50s who throughout their meal fail to say even ten words to one another; I eventually discern they are British country folk, she desperate for them to fit into the posh scene. Their discomfort, especially his, seems to cause physical pain, and their silence contrasts sharply with the two German couples to my right, running through bottles of rosé.

Ahead are an Italian threesome who seem to be having a business meeting, though there seems to be too little talking for much to be accomplished. Behind me is a table with an unknown number of people of unknown origin—so softly do they speak I’m barely conscious of their presence, though my dinner is delicious enough to distract me from many things. A young, gorgeous, monied couple fight in the corner: She is sleek and angry and silent, and he in his mustard-colored linen suit is doing his best to make her laugh.

In the corner, nearest the terrace and dreadful singing, is an old man, probably 85, slowly making his way, alone, through a three-course meal. After dessert, he begins to check his watch every thirty seconds or so, compulsively. His bright pumpkin sweater contrasts with the lemony yellow dining room walls. He finally arises. He wears a thin gold band, and I wonder about his wife as he walks, not as steady as I sense he used to but with the same air of confidence, past me and out with the server, who banters with him in playful familiarity.

At this point, I've run out of excuses to stay and watch the German couples and the fighting young couple and rise, reminding myself to move quickly before the nearly gelato stand, serving a dark chocolate flavor so creamy a cone cannot contain it, closes for the evening. That texture is a fine one on which to end my evening. I fear my hotel room upstairs will seem dull and flat when I return.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The squeeze: Trapped

Her regular coffee shop smelled of many things that afternoon: burnt toast, a hippy’s patchouli, fresh coffee, and the new potting soil in the anonymous houseplant perched on the handpainted side table to her left. She was pregnant, and each smell brought on a new wave of nausea, but she couldn’t read at home since her mother had taken up residence there after leaving her father. And now something—humidity, air conditioning, bad luck—had filled the place with flies, which disgusted her even more than the stank of the young hippy. And so she gathered her paperback and the magazine she brought in case she bored of her spy thriller and pulled herself out of the ugly brocade couch. She was not showing, nor would she for probably another month or so, but she could already envision future lumbering exits from deep sofas. She saw herself slowly climbing up or down stairs, hand widely grasping her low back with the other pushing or pulling on the railing. Her sad reverie was broken by the silent buzz of her cell phone, which she knew would be her mother. Week 9: unwanted roommate, unwanted baby, and her world continued to close in more and more tightly.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Snow sounds, angry birds, & the silence you want

The ancient trellis behind me, heavy with snow, suddenly and for no reason dumps its bounty. The sound is the swish of a full skirt made with yards and yards of fine silk. As I awkwardly turn, bundled tightly as a toddler sent out on days like today, I see the angry jay who’d been screaming all morning. He sits alone on the lowest branch, hard to miss in the white winter wonderland formed in mere hours. Below him flutter nervous, dark juncos snacking on the nearby feeder’s refuse. I will them all to be silent so I can hear the dense snowflakes cut the air, one of the few reasons I like returning to my grandfather’s farm outside St. Louis. Snow falls with uncharacteristic aggressiveness here.

As the jay is not cooperating with my request for silence, I thread my way between broken-down farm implements down the hill to the catfish pond. Here, childhood summer days were spent tossing dry dog food onto the pond’s surface with as much quiet as children could muster. Then we waited, fishing pole at the ready, for those huge catfish mouths, surrounded by slick, thick whiskers, to emerge from the pond’s depths, silently gulp the food, and return to the cold bottom waters. Today, the pond was frozen over, as it likely had been for weeks, ice rough from winds stopped by the nothing surrounding the farm.

I continue past the pond, heading into the thick woods where childhood Me had found arrowheads and deer scat and geodes waiting to reveal brilliance or dullness. I move with less certainty than l‘d like. I pass my grandfather’s favorite tractor, now rusted and nestled in leaves and snow, which he placed here with a slightly jovial announcement so we could all visit it after it failed to start one fall Saturday. His small attempt at comedy didn’t fit with his normally sad, humorless demeanor, and it left the cousins and I confused and a bit scared, as children become when steady adults act unpredictably.

I stop in the woods expecting silence but instead hear the rattle of birch leaves, like my grandmother’s old, ill-fitting windows during a storm. I shift to the left to peer at the stream below me but stop as my parka’s whispery rustle drowns out the faint rattle of the leaves. The ivory birch leaves are thin, and a narrow scrap of sunshine lights them from behind as they sing in the wind.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Just A House: A Short Story

     Even my cousin merely floating the idea the beach house might someday be sold outside the family caused the donut to get stuck in my throat. I knew full well no one in my extended family made enough money to purchase what had been a savvy and fortunate purchase by my grandmother back in the 1940s of a tiny beige house two lots from a beautiful section prime Jersey Shore boardwalk. The fact my cousin was even verbalizing this potential scenario was cause for significant alarm, for it was his mother who now owned the house after my uncle, who grew up in that house with my dad, passed away. My dad’s claim to it was limited to its role as family portrait background and time capsule for rare days with his father.
     Growing up with both my parents working in schools, leaving summers free, that house became our summer ritual—the only Midwesterners in our town to take vacations, basically, and certainly the only ones to travel beyond 200 miles—and the spot for connecting with my dad’s side of the family. The trip out, usually my father driving straight through to avoid a pricey night in a hotel, was filled with more rituals: learning the CB radio codes, prepping ourselves for the lack of radio signal in Pennsylvania, and bonding with my dad as we smugly mocked my mom and sister for their tiny bladders. Pulling onto Hortense Avenue in the summer-swollen town of Ocean Beach, I would simultaneously hold my breath in anticipation of what awaited while trying to breathe in the sand, salt, sun, and ice cream just moments from my grasp. Cousins, too—cool cousins. Cousins I loved, with their hip clothes, perpetual tans, and easygoing confidence—relatives I wanted to be like, unlike the cousins in Missouri, who smelled of farm. 
     Back in Ohio, there were no beaches, or ice cream trucks, or outdoor showers. The typical evening in my little town was homework after dinner and Lawrence Welk, waving my dad out the door as he returned to school to oversee an evening function. But in New Jersey, we sat outside around a fire, or curled up in a corner of the sofa reading a book, or watched the adults play cards. Dad was relaxed and in his element, Mom was Mom but just a shade more outgoing, flirty even, loving the hostess role but hating to admit it. Hearing the surf after settling into bed on that magical first night reminded us the coming weeks would not be—not at all—like Ohio.
     The house was built when my father was around age ten—old enough to know you laid down your palms in wet cement to make your mark on the world when given the chance. Memories paired with my five senses spring to mind whenever I approach the squat, sickly-tan house: scents of suntan lotion and sea spray, the feel of hot sand under my feet and waves slapping my face, the faint clanging of the ice cream truck bell meshing with screams of happy children, salty mouthfuls of ocean water and roadside sweet corn, and squinty views of wide blue horizons dotted with clouds, far-off freighters, and sailboats.
     And now, in this diner, across from me and my donut, was one of the cool cousins, telling me the small shelter which symbolized my carefree childhood and my entire relationship with him and his siblings was quite possibly going to be liquidated so his mom could retire.
     It was as if his utterance caused a physical separation from my cousin and his family, so close was the bond that house created—the difficult pulling apart of a grilled cheese sandwich when you wanted to confirm the cheese was truly melted. Unable to speak, I excused myself to the bathroom and stared at my watering eyes under bad fluorescent lighting and mauve wallpaper with a mallard duck border. For the past fourteen years, my parents had been spending the fall at the beach house, which often sat empty after the summer crush. The house once again became the place we reconnected, now with war stories of our own children, work woes, and middle-age pains of the low back variety. That now-sacred six week block of September and October, with days still warm and nights becoming cool, would end. 
     I rejoined my cousin at the table, feeling the unease and lack of understanding in his stare.
     No preamble: “But it’s just a house.”
     Me: “But it isn’t. It isn’t just a house.”
     And my stomach churned at how he didn’t get it, not even a little, this cousin with whom I shared hot, sandy afternoons watching fine salt dry on our shins after swimming and body surfing. How could he not relate to my pain, not see this was the equivalent of a direct attack on our familial attachment? 
     It’s never just your grandmother’s favorite crystal vase, or just the pocketknife your dad used when you went fishing as a child, or just your mom’s high school class ring. Or just a house.