Over the next few weeks, along with anything new I might be writing, I’ll be posting a series of “Old Favorites” — pieces of prose and poetry originally posted here which I removed when I published my book A Collection of Perceptions. For those of you who have been stopping by since the inception of this blog, they will look familiar to you. New or old, I hope as always they might touch you in places neglected and remote.
Leigh died last night, two weeks and 3 days after receiving a diagnosis of Glioblastoma (brain tumor). Until the end, he was funny, gentle, passionate and honest. He accepted his fate with courage and dignity, and while my heart broke to watch him die, it soared to see him fill these last ominous days with a genuine and abandoned embrace of life. He leaves a powerful legacy of love to those who knew him best, and to everyone, the vision, beauty, humor and imagination of his poetry and prose. His astute and often profound understanding of the human condition will live on.
They’ll pass you by, glory days
In the wink of a young girl’s eye, glory days.
–– Bruce Springsteen
When I was a young girl and my life was full of fresh ripe choices every which way I turned, I found myself almost incapable of staying anywhere for long. The year I graduated from college and moved to L.A. to take a job with a major airline, I moved seven times, from one end of the state to the other and back before flinging myself 3,000 miles away to see what other possibilities might await. Such is the glory of youth, the unwavering and compelling faith that each move you make in a new direction will be a better move than the one you made before; the perception that there are no wrong or bad choices, only adventures of one sort or another.
I traveled exclusively by car in those days for my domestic transitions, and got on a bus or an airplane only every now and then to visit my family. Traveling to Europe, though I would have loved to book a passage on the QE2 had my circumstances allowed, was undertaken necessarily by plane. I wonder now that it didn’t occur to me to find a wealthy old dowager who was preparing to cross the Atlantic in need of a companion, or a couple with children in search of a nanny.
Like most Americans of my generation, I’d seen movies about trains, read books about trains, and learned about the importance of rail travel during American westward expansion in History class at school. Trains, in my mind, were associated with romance, the wild west, old money, mystique, and of course, a criminal element. But rail travel, at least while I was growing up, was either too spotty or too expensive or both to make it a viable form of transportation for trips of any length. So it was while I was in Europe, tenderly and enthusiastically just turned eighteen, that I rode my first train; where it was and still is the preferred method of transportation because it is efficient, cost-effective and highly accessible. I remember zooming southward out of Paris on the TGV, the first of many train trips I would make over the next two months within and between countries, and wondering what lurid and mysterious situations I might encounter. You can’t read Murder on the Orient Express or watch Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” under the age of twenty and expect your first excursion on a train to be anything less than a potentially sinister affair. Mine, as it turns out, was more sordid than sinister. I was cornered in an otherwise empty car while traveling at 180 mph or so through a tunnel by a probably-drunk Frenchman in a business suit who simultaneously clapped a hand over my mouth and attempted to force his way under my skirt. I managed to free myself with a good bit of elbow thrusting and one or two well-aimed or just lucky kicks, and hurtled myself out of the compartment, down the passageway and into the dining car where I remained, skittish and hyper-alert, for the duration of the journey.
Undeterred, I continued to think of train travel as a desirous form of transportation, and still do. I have, since then, ridden on several trains both outside of and within the United States, and while nothing that I’d consider romantic has ever happened to me on one, I don’t discount the possibility that it might. Being both a writer and a nomad, my thoughts of trains tend to gravitate toward a previous era when the haves with lavish jewels and expensive champagne were onboard, in ordained and oblivious comfort, the well-lit and posh trains with sleeper cars and first class; while the have-nots were onboard without sound, without fanfare, under cover of darkness and without permission, the dirty half-empty freight, cattle cars, and cargo trains. I wish that I could say, as an old woman telling stories of her glory days to her grandchildren, that I had been both passengers, on both kinds of trains; that I’d been on both sides of the coin, the head and the tail, the heiress and the tramp, depending on the year, the circumstances, the companion.
These days I live in a town with regular train service daily, both passenger and freight, to points north and south, the Amtrak station sitting several blocks from my house on the southern edge of old downtown. When the whistle blows at night, I’ll sometimes hear Arlo Guthrie in the breezy aftermath, or picture the look on Gary Cooper’s face in “High Noon” as he anticipated the arrival of death. The high school which my son attends, the only one in town, is just across the tracks.
Last Saturday was the first football game of the season, and his first ever. He’s a wide receiver — though there is nothing remotely wide about his reedy, sinewy frame. I say this with a wry grin and the chosen ignorance of someone who knows as little about the game as it’s possible to know. I envisioned him snapping like a twig under the weight of a full-on tackle and forced my thoughts elsewhere as my beloved and I ambled over to the stadium on foot, confronted when we got to the tracks and our usual shortcut by a passing train, with old rusted near-empty cars that had ladders running from top to bottom of each. It slowed as we stood there, and for a few moments we watched it silently, each of us lost in our own thoughts. We looked up and down the tracks but it was a long train and we couldn’t see the end of it in either direction, and as it grinded to a halt, he turned to me. “Want to hop the train?” he said, grinning. I looked up and pictured myself scrambling up the ladder of the closest car, scooting across the top, lying low and out of sight to the other side, then shimmying down the opposite ladder. Or would we stay on top of the car, our bodies pressed hard and flat into the warm metal surface until the train passed out of this town and into another, then jump off before it came to a halt? “Yeah,” I said, smiling back at him. “I do,” wondering as I said it what I would do if it was the latter idea he had in mind. After all, he is a nomad, too. But it was neither. He jumped up on the iron bars between the two closest cars, treading carefully along the metal yoke toward the inside till he got to the halfway point, and turned to face me. He braced himself, then held out a hand in my direction. I took it, he pulled me up, and I followed him across to the other side. He jumped down and turned around, putting his broad hands around my waist. As he lifted me gently to the ground I closed my eyes and saw the coin again, saw myself in cashmere coat and black hat, black silk gloves to the elbow and cuban stockings with a seam down the back, cigarette holder in one hand, a martini in the other; flipped it over and saw the furtive chase, the raggedy, tattered clothes and duffel bag, the hands-out climb aboard, the musty darkness, the squeaky breaks a wake-up call, the need for imminent, albeit stealthy departure.
As we walked away from the tracks and toward the football field, I glanced back at the train, now moving again, slowly but gaining momentum. My glory days are behind me, I thought to myself. And yet if circumstances were different, I might have truly and literally hopped that train.
Someday, I still might.
I don’t want love in
Or little ripples
Lapping at my ankles
I want a tidal wave
I don’t want embers
Ashes or coals
To ward off a chill
I want a bonfire
I don’t want pastels
Dulled by too much
I want a screaming scarlet sunset
I don’t want halfway
Now and then
If, when, or but
Absolutely and purely
I can’t live without you
With all my heart
Don’t ever leave me
There could be no other
I don’t see how you can
Any other way
Those were the days, though I didn’t know it then of course, the happiest days of my life; the kind that fall in our memories between hard and harder like a single mismatched white lace curtain hanging in a row of heavy black drapes; the kind that signal endings and beginnings, that serve as a reprieve from the shit and fortify us for more. They began that summer when her son was out of town, visiting his father in Atlanta, and for the first time we were completely alone together for an extended period of time. We talked about taking a road trip but we were broke, we were so fucking broke we were on food stamps and I took every extra shift I could get driving cab so that for days on end my biological clock was frozen in a.m. when it should have been in p.m., and vice versa. So broke that we continued to live in the tiny one-bedroom cottage she’d rented before we got together, not daring to move into something bigger for fear we wouldn’t be able to come up with the rent each month. So we hung out in our cramped pad when I wasn’t working and watched movies on the cramped little loveseat and took walks and engaged in philosophical debates. We made up crazy, funny stories about strangers we saw on the streets and smoked weed out in the open, rather than in the bathroom like we had to do when her son was there. I pranced around the place naked after my shower, reveling in our aloneness, in the familiar freedoms that come from so many years of aloneness where you can do what you want when you want and how you want because you have no one else to think about – sacrificed to be with her and now fleetingly re-acquired with her and even more blissful in the intimacy of her company.
One night I couldn’t sleep for thinking how it would soon be over, how her son would return and we’d all be on top of each other again and how, even though he was a good kid overall, he was a kid nonetheless, and I had for my entire adult life avoided kids. I had nothing against them, I just had nothing for them either. Yet all of a sudden I had one, by proxy anyway, and it was hard, Jesus it was hard, to adjust.
I remember that night because it was so hot and we were awake later than usual, tossing and turning. Then quietly, almost stealthily, she sat up next to me, then straddled me with her legs and laced her fingers into mine. She leaned down and kissed me, tenderly and slowly, and I could hear her breath even before I felt it as if she were taking in as much of me as her senses would allow. She glided down my chest, barely grazing my bare skin with her lips, then sat up and tossed back her head. Her hair was long in those days, almost to her waist, and in the pale moonlight it glowed like scattered cornsilk as her head fell forward onto my belly. I closed my eyes and felt it, just felt it, that soft, sensuous pile of tresses traveling from side to side with the movement of her dance. She wrapped it around and around me, then as it slipped away I felt her mouth in its place and my pulse quickened in anticipation. I knew what was coming next and yet I remember feeling as if I were about to experience something brand new, something exotic and unforeseen. I remember thinking, right after I exploded and we were both completely still, that even though I didn’t believe in love, that I knew it to be a lie, I was living it, for the first and only time in my life.
She lay beside me on the pillow and I kissed her, then she wrapped her arms around me and pulled my head into the hollow of her neck. “Sometimes you feel exceedingly precious to me,” she whispered. “That’s bad, isn’t it?”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you should be exceedingly precious to me all the time,” she said. “Not just sometimes.” She sounded so sincere and contrite, and so very, very young.
I laughed softly. “That’s the way life is,” I said. “We get busy, and distracted. Other things compete for our energy.”
“There are so many things I want to do with you,” she whispered. As I tipped my head back, a drop of warm liquid slid down my forehead into my eyes. I put my hand to her face and her cheeks were wet with tears. “Why are you crying?” I asked, unfurling myself from her embrace and propping up on one elbow to look at her.
Her gaze, glowing and intense, dropped. “I’m afraid we won’t get to do them.”
I wished then, as I do now, that I had met her when I was in my thirties, my twenties even, that we’d have had that many more years together. Then I wonder if we really would have had more joy in that extra time, or if it would simply have been more time. I would have died for her then and I would die for her now, but it’s the difference between desperation and resignation, and I’m not altogether sure I could have borne it if the transition had come any earlier than it did. The former lasted a long time as it were, far longer than I would have predicted, in and out of houses and jobs and the comings and goings of her son. Out of fears and into memories. Would more time, hence more memories, have made the accumulation of Age’s vestments easier to bear? When she looks at me now she doesn’t know me, except for the rare “good days,” and her doctors don’t expect that to change for the better. In her mind she’s young again, she’s a carefree girl with nothing more serious on her plate than what to wear to school today and who she’ll sit with at lunchtime. Some days I’m her brother, some days I’m a neighbor or a boy in her class. I play along for the most part. Last week I was the king of a small principality in the Middle East. But I cherish the “good days” when they come along, knowing the end of them will mean the end of me as I know myself to be, so inextricably am I tied into her, and not being quite ready for that. I treasure the moments when she remembers as I do; when the white lace curtain flutters behind her eyes; when those days are these days too, and we are lucky enough to know it.
I sleep on his heart side. Even when I’m in bed alone, I don’t cross over the invisible boundary into that space where he would be, where he will be, hours from now. I count them down, even while I sleep, as my own heart stops and starts again in irregular, unpredictable intervals. In my dreams I’m waiting for him, looking for him, pacing the floors, the streets, the skies. At last his face floats into view and I relax as he comes toward me. I smile and turn my face up to his. Mi corozon, I whisper. He kisses me in reply and I surface like an erstwhile, reluctant swimmer from a cold and murky depth into the warm, aerated embrace of life. I breathe in deeply and exhale his name. For a moment my eyes flutter open, just long enough to take in the sight of him, then close again as I drift back to sleep, this time to dream that he’s here beside me, memories and shadows and ghosts unseated by live, scented, sense-evoking flesh, enfolding me, freeing and cherishing me, all traces of boundary released and soon, so soon, forgotten.
I wear a silver chain around my neck bearing a Chinese character; the year of my birth. I don’t take it off to shower, or sleep, or jog or even when I mow the grass, which is after dark. Long after everyone else has put their lawn care products away and retired to the sanctuary of porches, living rooms, and television screens.
I mow quietly, my push reel mower making only a low, humming sound, and as I mow, I talk out loud to someone who isn’t here. I ask him questions and tell him just exactly what I’m thinking as I feel my way across the yard, around the edges and trees. “Love is a tightrope,” I tell him. I can see him in my mind balanced precariously, and I know if I love him too much, he will fall off, just like he will if I don’t love him enough. This is a test, and I wonder if there is a way to cram for it. I wonder, too, if it’s the kind of test you can re-take if you fail, and who decides these things.
By the time the moon is high in the sky I am finished, sweating in spite of the cool night air, sitting on the front step with my fingers wrapped around the necklace: caress, release, caress, release, like a dance or part of a rosary bead benediction. It strikes me that life is like mowing after dark, feeling your way as you go, with the likelihood you’ll run over something sharp increasing the longer you’re out there.
It represents something, this necklace, which is why I never take it off. Not a promise, or a dream, not even a wish for what might have been. Some might call it a memory. Others folly. Patience is a virtue, while stubbornness a sin. Is there a difference? I call it hope and it lives in a place between two hearts, where the grass only grows after dark.