The mid Westerners
The train glides me through time, and space. The sun is high and hot. The landscape plucks up married memories—cycling vacations, day trips, hiking trips, aimless swimming, barbecuing weekends on the river. It plucks then up and throws them in my face.
I’m not sure whether I’m floating or falling. Euphoric at being free, or terrified at being free; I can’t decide.
It’s the last weekend of summer. And it’s exactly six months since I found myself single.
A day to be got through, and that is all. That’s what I tell myself.
The train is taking me to the Catskills, sometimes shooting up the east coast of the Hudson River. Sometimes ambling. Sometimes stopping pointlessly in the middle of a nowhere in a way that only Amtrak seems to think is acceptable.
Can’t think why America can put a rover on Mars and yet not figure out train travel. Seriously?
But I digress.
The mid Westerners have a big house and big hearts. The Minnesotan picks me up at the train station and as we drive to the house asks me how I’m doing. I surprise myself by saying I’m still in shock. I didn’t think I was, but the dreamy train journey has teased me into the past. Has he really gone? Can it be so? Why did everything that seemed so solid six months and one day ago just crumble? And if that is true, what can I absolutely be sure of?
I’m in shock because I can’t let go. I know that. I aced Buddhism 101. A couple of times.
“Grief has no timeline,” she says. And she reminds me that the last time we had this conversation I described myself as ‘destroyed’. I no longer feel that way. I know that.
The mid Westerners’ weekend house has been a barometer of sorts for the state of my emotional health. I’ve been here four times in the past six months. The first time was in April when the pain was millimeters from unbearable. The mid Westerners gave me the key and told me to invite a bunch of friends.
I did. I chose the friends carefully. Good friends. Old friends. Call from Turkish prison friends. We played petanque, drank big, ate large, lazed long and bullshitted at quite competitive levels. In that respect, I run with a tight, tough crowd. It was as good as it could have been. Given the circumstances.
The second time was worse. The Minnesotan had planned a big birthday splurge and I panicked when I got there and realized I was the only person who had not thought to accessorize my outfit with a loving partner and two adorable children. I felt the same way a close friend who has fertility issues feels about baby showers. I can’t put that word in writing. It’s not edifying.
I texted a friend; “Hire a hit man, have him drive up to the Catskills and shoot me. Now.”
“You’re getting laid more than any of them,” he texted back, promptly, coolly unsympathetic.
His response was not comforting. It was a hard evening to get through.
The third time my heart was stronger. The Minnesotan and her husband, who is from Michigan (and I’m not sure what people from Michigan are called) cooked big meals and we spooned up plate after plate of peach pie. It was just the three of us, and their two kids. We sat in the yard and talked a lot about recovery and particularly the importance of getting all the way through the process. The Michiginian (?) is a wise and clever man and a careful listener. He’s one of the very few people I know who you have to be precise about what you say to, because he will not forget it. It will come up later, and so it behooves you to remember the context.
I felt grateful because although I danced at their wedding and I’ve known them both for more than ten years, it has taken this for me to really know them. As a result of what I’ve been through, we’re a lot closer and more relaxed. We joke more than we used to.
(The Minnesotan has asked me not to reveal what a good kisser she is, so I’m not going to. God knows, I never kiss and tell.)
I’ve borrowed their family. I lean heavily on them and yet they’re the ones who constantly apologize that their little group is dull. It isn’t. Their family is my gift. My lifeline.
This weekend there are other guests; two other young couples and a gaggle of children. We swim and sit around, gossiping and drinking Mexican beer. This time the other couples feel more like actual people and less like a symbolic criticism of my own catastrophic life failure. I realize that I like them.
Still, I listen to their conversation and I feel as if emotionally I’m still camping. My friends’ emotions live in safe and strong houses. My emotions are sleeping on the ground in a poorly insulated sleeping bag, covered by a leaky tent and wondering when the next big storm is going to sweep everything away.
Labor Day arrives. And something has changed. It’s still warm but light is no longer lazy, it has clarified. It has intention. I had planned to walk down to the lake for a swim, but now swimming seems part of the past. Summer has slipped away, as quickly and as unequivocally as a man who has ceased to love.
I sit in the new light with a book and alternately read and study what’s going on around me. Nature is my guide. She’s clicking through the gears, nudging me, inexorably into another season. Showing me in the fading green of the trees and the first wobbly leaf fall that nothing stays the same.
The most basic tenet of life, and yet the one that is the hardest to accept.
The mid Westerner’s oldest daughter, and my favorite four year old, wants me to stop reading. She persuades me to get up. She’s invented a game, which involves her standing on a tree stump and me attempting to throw a beach ball so it gets into her hands. It’s tricky, you’ll have to take my word for that. (Fortunately for me, we haven’t worked out the scoring yet. I don’t think the outcome would reflect well on me.)
The four year old is good people. She’s bright, yet not irritatingly precocious in the way that New York children can be. Later, while I’m sitting taking some notes, I encourage her to start writing, which is a difficult for her because although she knows individual letters, she doesn’t know what they mean when they are built into words.
She’s only four.
Her story starts, and ends, with the word ‘once.’
We deem it a solid beginning to a promising writing career. What story cannot begin with the word once?
“Tomorrow where are you going to be?” she asks, in that irrational and yet delightful ping pong conversational style of children.
Good question, bright, yet not irritatingly precocious child.
Facing my future is the short answer. Figuring out what to do with my apartment. Wrangling the mortgage broker. Getting the boiler fixed. Negotiating a divorce.
Tackling all the things that I have pushed away for as long as I possibly could.
Summer is over. The light is clearer. Everything changes.
It’s time to begin. Again.