She used to say that the main reason she wanted to be a teacher was to help kids find their centers before the world shook them up. She thought that she could help them be strong people, so that they wouldn’t feel such a shock when they got older—like she did. But what was it, exactly, that was so shocking? A commonplace divorce? An angry father? Get over it, for chrissakes!
I think she was a good teacher. I came in one day because she wanted the kids to meet me and for me to show them how I wrote, so they could see a different way of doing things. I watched her with them. She had them eating out of her proverbial hand.
Some of those kids’ lives scared me to death. One of them, a girl, had been sent to juvie because she had punched her mom. Another one had a rare degenerative muscle disease; he was dying, and happened to be the smartest kid in that class. One of them had been beaten and molested by her father. Another guy had a mom who was in jail for selling drugs and he had lived in foster homes since he was ten.
A lot of them were pretty normal though, and funny and sweet. Some were so painfully shy that they reddened whenever we asked a question to the whole class, as if they were willing themselves to disappear. I don’t know how she dealt with teaching for as long as she did—I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
Anyway, we’re all glad she quit, that job was killing her. All of the pressure, all of the responsibility. Even her therapist said that it was probably the hardest job you could get right out of college. It was just too much for her. I remember watching her sit up all night grading papers. Can you imagine having to slog through 100 papers quickly, written by kids who didn’t know how to spell or write a complete sentence or even care?
She told me that, in general, her students only had a third grade reading level and didn’t know the difference between a noun and a verb. What was she supposed to teach them anyway, for chrissakes?
And she was one of the ones who cared about what was going to happen to them. She used to come home, exhausted from the day, pour herself a glass of wine and tell me or Sam or whoever about this kid and that kid and how the system had failed them and how she didn’t know how they were going to get through high school but that they were getting passed on to 10th grade, anyway, by her principal, to make the numbers look good. She just couldn’t believe it. We tried to tell her that it wasn’t her responsibility. Sometimes she cried about those kids.
Last week, her first period class sent her a “get well” card through the school’s secretary. I found it in the mailbox, didn’t know what it was or I wouldn’t have let her have it, and when I handed it to her she took it into her bedroom. I came in when I heard the wailing.
It was filled up with their little notes. They wrote to her: “Come back soon, S.O.S.,” and “Help, we hate the sub!” and “We miss your laugh,” or “We love you, Ms. S.”
She couldn’t stop crying for hours. She just laid there, crying and heave-choking, over what exactly, I’m still not sure—but it seemed to be bigger than just being unable to teach the kids that wrote the card—it seemed like she was crying for something that mainly had to do with herself…
I told her to stop thinking about it. That she was she just beating herself up over having to break a promise, and that didn’t her therapist say that being too hard on yourself is a major aspect of depression?
I had to leave right at that same moment to go to class…I was taking a novella class as an elective—actually, it’s the class I’m writing this for, and because it was a workshop class I couldn’t miss it—but, of course, she doesn’t know I’m writing about her, so I couldn’t tell her why I had to leave.
So, I just left her there, unable to properly breathe, so that I could catch the bus on time. I told her to just call a friend, to go out and do something, to try and make herself stop thinking about whatever it really was that she was crying about.
My mom says, “perception is reality.” She told me that part of self-actualization is getting to a place where your whole evaluation of yourself can’t be just yours.
She said my sister and I need to learn to accept how others perceive us.
“Acceptance means a lot of things,” she says, afraid that we will misunderstand that as her telling us to just give in to others’ opinions of us. She says that part of our disappointment with ourselves comes from others’ perception of us.
Let me show you what Eve was like during college. She knew she had a problem even back then, too, even before our dad cut her off and she had to work so much harder.
I told you before that she had a lot of ideals, but I also didn’t tell you that we had grown up in a kind of suburban bubble—a warm sugary place where everyone had more than enough, and everything seemed to come so easily.
Neither one of us had ever had to work very hard, or want for anything. In fact, Eve and I always had the best of everything—dinners were filet mignon and organic veggies, we went to the mall to shop for new things constantly, our parents had a large home on a pretty big piece of property, they drove expensive cars, we always went on vacations.
Spring, Texas, just northwest of Houston, our hometown, was rural and materially rich. The majesty of the pine trees, the forever-rolling cattle and vegetable farms, the woods, the silence, the space. Our area of Spring was called Champions, just to clue you in.
Eve and I, and the kids we grew up with, had parents who had achieved the best, enjoyed the best, and expected the best from us, as well. We rose to the occasion, for the most part, especially Eve…However, although she got into an Ivy for undergrad, she ended up at UT since our chrissakes parents spent most of their money on their drawn-out, total mystery of a divorce. She’s probably not over that stunt, either, come to think of it. But, like I think I said earlier, I was kind of an underachiever who didn’t graduate in the top 2% of my class like my sister did–so I was fine with going to UT….
Anyway, summers growing up were all clean air and sparkling Olympic size swimming pools. The daughter of one of the guys who started Compaq went to school with us, and she lived in a mansion that was practically inconceivable to us then.
It was a life of ease and plenty, if I’ve ever seen one. Anyway, that kind of set-up tends to produce kids who have their heads up their chrissakes—and, even though she had a lovely mind and was definitely my hero, I could tell that Eve’s head was further up her chrissakes than mine. Than most people’s, really. But like I said earlier, that was one of the reasons I really loved her. She lived in her own little world.
Anyway, back when we were both in college at the same time, she used to show me pieces of this long poem she was writing—she was so melodramatic, she called it a “cosmogony.” Anyway, here’s my best effort to show you what she used to be like—all roses and fog, you’ll see…
Do you know that quote by Thoreau? I don’t know which book of his it’s in because I was never into him like Eve was, but she’s got a quote of his on her desk which reads, “ I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.”
Eve told me recently about an event that happened to her while she was still at UT. She doesn’t remember now if she was high then, or just dreamt this event, but it reveals something significant about her psyche…
The cobalt sky kissed the gray wisps of clouds as they swam past the perfect ivory moon, or so she wrote in that journal. The orb’s halo pushed out in thick circumference, in an iridescent haze. They lay on their backs against the moist earth, eyes following the traveling clouds. It was midnight and the world was quiet, the sky an immense velvet blanket pressing upon their eyelids and stomachs, keeping their bodies firmly on the ground as Eve’s mind floated freely with the clouds. The sky seemed to sigh.
She raised her arms, pushing up to touch the universe. It passed over so languidly, as if it had forever to reach towards—because it did, of course. And the happy streams of gray slid through the navy void effortlessly. She had never spent so much time before staring at the night sky, listening to it; she was only nineteen, after all, had only just graduated from college. She opened her eyes wider to distinguish the shapes lost in the cottony mix above.
“That one looks like a fish,” she said pointing.
Jacob thought he saw a dragon navigating its way through a forest. She took her shoes off and pushed her warm feet into the crispy cold grass, her toes finding and entering the moist earth. Yesterday the rain roused her from a dream, tapping on her windowsill a kind of Morse code message that spring was near.
Green buds had spent all day drinking in the nectar of life. She wished to be a green shoot just breaking the surface, searching for the sun. She wished for simplicity and calm. She wished that the night would reveal its secrets to two small creatures lying under its canopy.
The wind changed and began to blow stronger. It swept the clouds past, stretching them out into long whimsical strokes, seemingly from a hidden paintbrush. What if the clouds are smoke signals from some god, she thought, sent at the origin of time? They’d be so old and would have traveled so far that by the time we see them, the ancient messages would be practically obliterated. We would be able to make out just the tiniest glimpse, the barest inkling, of their divine intent.
The sky could be this sheet upon which omniscient understanding is written, but for us to learn it we’d have to strain our imaginations to fill in the blank spaces between the clouds…
“Hey, Jake! Jake!” she nudged him, seeing that he had gone to sleep. “Jake!”
She pushed him. He smiled and rolled over, still asleep. She loved it when he smiled in his sleep. Her hand passed along the top of the new spring grass. A baseball bat seemed to float past. She was alone. The moon smiled down at her.
“I watch you people living…”
“What?” She looked up at the shining sphere.
“I have been watching since before you noticed me. So many of you, and still I don’t understand what you search for.”
“I don’t know. I have been looking for what to look for all my life,” she said.
“You are so tiny,” it said to her from far away. “So am I. You used to think I was as big as the sun, long ago when you only used your eyes to see. Now you can judge distances and measure space, and you think of me realistically. I remember when I held secrets, long ago, for you.”
“What do you see, from where you sit?”
“Time. After enough has passed, I pull the ocean toward me; then, it pushes itself away again. It has always been so, since before you all. The ocean and I began together, but it drifted away because that is its nature.”
“Did you bring us here?” she called, searching through the haze for its face.
“No—I am not the one…When I came to see, I was not the first. I don’t know who began the chain that led to you. I am sorry for you all, though—you have the capacity for understanding, but no understanding. You see everything, but can’t distinguish meaning from nonsense.”
“But we make meaning.”
“Perhaps that is the problem,” it chided, falling behind the shade of the clouds.
A flight of blackbirds drifted across her vision, returning to nip at the infant berries just peering from the trees. It reminded her of her childhood—leaning against the pine trees painted chartreuse with pollen, waiting for the wind to blow. She wanted to forget her mind, to wade in the breeze like a bird; but, she could not fly. She wanted to forget that she could not fly.
She wanted to travel back to the body that she lived in before she could speak, before she understood and answered yes or no; when she couldn’t see her body, or herself, realistically, or in any terms at all. When she crawled, grasping table legs from the ground, gazing up from the windowsill toward the tips of the rain that splattered the glass…
…When sound was free to bounce off of her skin, free from dissection, spilling and pounding like cotton balls against her face. Why can’t we remember that peace, find that peace in all of our strainings to recapture just a bit of its free-wheeling serenity?
She wanted to remember what must have been a solemn moment of silence between her entrance into the world and her first ball-fisted howl denying that this was the only world she’d get.
She remembers when her baby blanket, once an all-encompassing field of buttery flannel with its never failing conscious-snuffing embrace, first failed to reach past her toes. She had cried, knowing she would never again savor its perfect protection.
Half asleep, she would still reach for it instinctively in the night, convinced in a searching dream that this time it would again cover her completely. Jolting upright in her sepulchered room, with its dense choking night stifle, she would hear only the thundering silence of a peace that seemed forever beyond reach.
Last night, in her grown person’s long bed, she dreamt of water swaying her sleeping body. It rocked her so gently that she lost awareness of the connection between her torso and legs and arms, forgot about her neck and spine, about her soft hermit brain encased in its bone skull, feeling only the sloshing, warm Gulf water passing over and under everything.
She floated, allowing the water’s will to guide her below its surface, to pull her deeper into its embrace, saw the sea bottom’s opalescent shells gently refracting light from above. Fireworks, she mused, the universe’s version of Fourth of July: explosions larger than the sun look to be only shiny seashells from down here. She closed her eyes, still able to see small pulses of white light in the inner darkness of her lids.
Her thin cotton sleeves absorbed the afternoon sunshine; she stretched her arms across the table and exhaled.
Winter’s coming, she thought to herself distractedly—winter’s coming, and then the sun won’t shine.
He began to laugh, shrugging with a quiet grin, because he found her amusing and she was so young sitting there. He’d seen winter from cab windows and limousines, and even on foot. It’s chill no longer mattered to him, but he found her refreshing—a bit of springtime she’d probably be during this Austin winter, he could tell. Reminded him of…
But, ah, she still hadn’t noticed him leaning against the iron fence that enclosed the cafe, his arms crossed comfortably against his chest and his long legs stretched out underneath the table.
Her gaze had become fixed across the way, presumably on the Trading Company’s display window.
“You look like the kind of girl who’d wear those purple boots,” he uttered in that raspy drawl, slowly blowing a ring of smoke over his shoulder towards the Company’s glass.
Her lips curled at their corners and she felt no surprise at his presence. Instead, she kept her eyes on the tall, slender violet leather and the sweeping suede fringe; she imagined herself spinning, spinning like a purple ballerina upon sand and up against shore.
She had no idea why he was there, but she loved him. She had no idea why she loved him, but it still prevented her from being shocked that he had come at last.
“I could never picture you sitting down,” she replied, running her hand through her long hair and leaning back against the carved iron chair. Then she locked her eyes on his—and his eyes danced, spun and spun without moving. Why aren’t I surprised to see him? she vaguely wondered, a calm already floating onto her, into her.
When the waitress brought Eve a cup of coffee, he asked for a beer. Then he leaned over to Eve, whispering, ” silhouetted by the sea, circled by the circus hands, with all memory and fate driven deep beneath the waves…” and he produced an orange slice and squeezed its juice into her cup, faintly smiling and smelling of brine and verbena.
“…let me forget about today until tomorrow,” she finished softly, her senses all at once exhilarated and numb.
“You thought I meant that you should, but I was saying that you shouldn’t, you silly thing,” he said to her, sliding his fingers down her left cheek and smiling compassionately. She didn’t understand.
Everything has a cost, his body’s stance seemed to say; and she began to open her mouth to ask how much those boots would cost, but instead she found herself saying,” I told my landlord again that I would go and get her wings clipped, you know, she keeps escaping out when I open the door to leave for work, flying into the hallway and getting in everybody’s way. I can’t bring myself to do it, but I know I should schedule the appointment…”
“Birds are like that, always flapping around. But, man, don’t clip her blue feathers.” Years of cigarette smoke, drink and various other drugs had refined his rasp, strengthened his off-key murmurings. Or weakened them. Who was to say? He was young and old, fresh and faded. “We all had wings once, and you know how much it would take to have that violet fringe.”
“…But the dancing child in the Chinese suit, I spoke to him, I took his flute. You know, I wasn’t very cute to him, was I?” she asked him in a soft anger at her place.
There, at the table, she sipped her coffee and swallowed an orange seed. Why was she so beside herself with grief and fear? What was the real problem anyway—that’s what she wanted to know.
“You did it because he lied,” he reached out to place his hand next to her on the table, “because he took you for a ride, because time is on his side,” he emphasized this by gently pounding on the table with his fist, “…and because I…” he trailed off smoothly.
She sped-read the look in his eyes, finding concepts there like the cost of forgetfulness and the reality of pain. She didn’t understand what these concepts meant, and could not even guess why he would be saying them all together like that.
He was a cad for making fun of her by pretending to be a teacher. But she was afraid to be mad at him, because what if he wasn’t teasing her at all? She felt so small and lost.
“I can’t understand any of this—” she flared her arms wide, as if gesturing to the whole world, forming a new equator with her hands and activating the black map lines to run like keg powder in opposite directions until they would eventually meet on the other side of the world.
She had divided the world into two sections: the lost and the content. Her mind separated all thought into fragments of time. She knew in that instant, everlasting moment that there was no God, that whatever was happening to her began during her parents’ divorce, and that the only thing that mattered in her life was trying to figure out, once and for all, why nothing ever seemed real to her and instead seemed so confusingly sad. She would piece her soul back together this way somehow—but, why was it so fragmented to begin with, that’s what she wanted to know?
“The pumps don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles,” he called over his shoulder, and she realized that he was walking away.
His black button-up shirt and worn jeans were immediately drenched by a sudden downpour. What about his harmonica, it will probably rust, she thought.
Her mouth opened to call to him, but lightning flashed instantaneously upon not Robert Zimmerman but a smiling one, a silent one, sitting in the chair beside her with his hands resting patiently in his lap. She was looking right at him, but she couldn’t see his face at all. Frustratingly curious, how things are right there and we may as well be blind sometimes. She was afraid of him, for some reason—who was he?
Thunder boomed, crashing more solid sheets of pelting rain upon them, pushing the soggy cigarette through the iron holes in the table, sloshing her coffee.
Her open mouth began to taste his strange kiss. When she put one hand against his neck and the other against his palm, her body was flung outwards and she spun around to find herself standing in a very old graveyard. Her skin and clothes were dry, and when she turned around she saw more of the same unending headstones under the rainy sky.
Her happy blue bird was dead on the ground in a clearing ahead, its lifeless body just in front of those purple leather boots, the ones that she recoiled now to be able to wear. And the hand she had been holding snapped its fingers and became a pile of salt in her palm. She touched her tongue to the evaporated brine and tossed it over her shoulder…She wanted to die, but first burn those boots into a pile of ash.
Eve’s arm brushed against the wall, her fingers scraping against cold plaster. She rolled over, pushing her pillow back beneath her head. Her limbs felt weighted against the cotton sheets and the aging flesh of the night.
The moon’s fingers softly pushed through the velour blinds, as if to remind her of the beauty she had missed by her slumber. She rose from the empty bed, pulling the flannel blanket with her, and walked to the balcony where Lee sat facing the moon’s path.
He held a pen, and Evelyn smiled at the scratching it produced against his notepad. She kissed his neck, and glancing down at his words, she whispered, ” A new song? I was just dreaming about a songwriter…”
“Was it me?”
Eve laughed, thinking him daft, and embracing his shoulders, she rocked him softly. “How long have you been awake? I can never sleep through the night either, because I know you’re out here.”
“Oh, awhile—I had been watching you sleep, you were curled up against me with the most earnest expression on your face, and I wanted to come out here to finish something I’ve been working on.”
“Sing it to me,” she asked gently.
“Oh, it’s not a song—it’s a poem.”
The wind had rested its silky tresses against their skin, stirred by the pearlized exhalation of the sky. Eve’s face rested against Lee’s neck; Lee cleared his throat, and they both laughed.
“Do I sound like a poet?…Anyway, I wrote this for you:
“Her voice is a symphony of euphonious harmony
that holds me tightly in her mercy forcing me
to surrender my entire being
at the softest sound from her lips.”
She reread his words, drawing in the draughts of love. He was telling her that he loved her, and telling her how she affected him. It was abstract, this relationship, even though they thought it was so tangible.
The thought of him surrendering made her want to laugh. She loved hyperbole, especially when it came up when Lee’s idea of himself clashed with her idea of him. The very thought of him groveling for anything was ridiculous! He could have whatever he wanted, because he was fine enough to earn it.
Her chest felt dense with emotion, heavy like trees after a rain. She ran her fingers through his hair, whispering that she loved him.
He smiled, leaning back in his chair. “What were you dreaming about?” He watched Eve’s face become serious.
He had awoken earlier because she had been talking in her sleep again, talking to her dreams; he hadn’t wanted to disturb her now by telling her she had been unconsciously violent again. They didn’t realize that having sex was hard work, but they already knew that sleeping together was a tricky business. When she was restless, it woke him up. When he was restless, she couldn’t sleep either.
“When I was little, and I’d have a bad dream, I would go and wake up my dad and tell him all about it and that would make me feel safe again.
“I used to have these nightmares that I was being smothered, and then I’d wake up all sweaty and haul chrissakes as fast as I could to my parents’ room and my dad’s side of the bed. I used to miss that. But now I can come to you…
“This was a bizarre one—I had a bird that was caged that died, I was sitting in the rain, and Bob Dylan walks up and starts talking to me about how I’ve got to buy this pair of boots…The feeling of it, though, was that I’m just so confused; what am I really doing?
“I keep dreaming about these confusing, disoriented things—or, having these awful nightmares about of all people, my daddy—and maybe it’s because I feel like I’m losing my sense of control. I can’t make heads or tails of something that I can’t even describe to you. Something’s wrong with me.
“I want things to be simpler, so that I can be happier, less strained, you know?”
“Yeah. I know what you mean. I have no idea what I’ll end up doing with myself, either…if my music doesn’t pan out soon, I might have to give it up. But I have you, and that calms things down. You know what we should do? Go on a…”
“Road trip? Yeah, I would love to…But I don’t have any m—“
“Don’t worry about that…we’ll just save up a little—it won’t take long. We’ll really go this time—it’ll be you and me and the road and the sky. After a week or so, we might have things in perspective again, huh?”
“Yeah, I hope so. I think so.” And they walked each other back to bed.
So innocent. A week or two. How about a lifetime?