Polaroid #124

There’s something to be said about the day before.

The day before, you never would have thought, I didn’t think my life would be this way.

No – you would pull on a sweater, your favorite pair of jeans, and head out the door to buy parmesan cheese, basil, garlic, from the supermarket. When you look at the recipe and halfway to the car you realize oh – you forgot eggs – you throw your hands up in the air to signal, “woops, forgot something.” Even though there’s no one watching. You don’t want to look like an idiot.

But as you drive your Volkswagen down the highway, a smile dances on the corners of your mouth. And you realize it’s too late – only fools fall in love.

The recipe calls for two sticks of butter and you reluctantly add them to the pot of cheese. That’s a lot of butter, your mother would say.

From the view of the kitchen window, framed by white checkered drapes, two little girls are making daisy chains on the lawn. The one with the red painted fingernails laughs and puts a daisy crown on her head. The laugh sounds like snapdragons shaking in the wind. You laugh too.

7:00 and the dish is on the table. You’ve cleared off the sticky vinyl tablecloth as best you can, and you can see the heat rising from the creamy green pesto in the folds of the pasta.

Hours later, the heat has stopped rising.

You don’t pick up the bowls and the dinner stays out all night, the cheese hardened into stiff curds by morning.

There was happiness in your eyes. The day before you found out he was gone.

Quiet Time

I have a confession to make – the essay I posted prior to this post was completely ripped from this, but there’s also some stuff in here that’s cool, so. This was a year ago today (going to the mountains again this weekend, woo), so probably another quiet time post to come.

I want to run on greener pastures, I want to dance on higher hills.

A few weeks ago that song came on my iPod in the car, and I almost had to pull over to the side because despite my best efforts I was almost blinded by the tears falling from my eyes.

Well right now I am literally on higher hills because I am here in the mountains, but I still don’t feel like dancing.

And my soul is getting restless for the place where I belong

I ask that question when I feel lost – is this the place where I belong?

I think that this could be a place where I belong. We’re having quiet time but I’ve never been able to keep quiet for very long. Quieting my thoughts just means turning down the volume. There’s nothing I can do about the speed at which they constantly race around my brain.

It’s quiet here. The hills are rolling against the skyline, freckled by trees and not roaring freeways stuffed with cars.

There’s ants crawling on my toes. I don’t care. They’re having quiet time, too. Their whole life is a quiet time.

The little yellow leaves are falling one by one by one and the breeze is pushing them across the sky, the thinning tree branches stretching to the wisps of clouds left in the sky. Winter will be here soon, they say. Clothe us.

I came up here because I’m running from something and when I go back I will still be running from it. Even in my stillness I am running. I never get away because I think I am running from myself. I wish I could leave myself behind.

I can’t leave myself behind in the quiet spaces because in them I think about the places and people I’ve left pieces of myself behind in, and how that’s why I’m broken now.

But just for a moment, when I look at the fragments of stars in the sky, I lose myself. I leave myself behind in them, with a bunch of broken pieces I could never be whole without. It’s not the kind of sadness that rips right through you. It’s the kind of sadness that can be addicting if you’re not careful, the kind that you can’t escape no matter how much you smile it away. It’s the kind that’s seeped into your veins, pulses to your fingertips. Deep. It’s the kind of profound sadness that I wish I could share, but the beauty of it, the reason that it’s sad, is that I can’t. I can’t articulate it. It can only be felt, in my core, in my bones, in puffs of breath, vapor on the blackness of the sky.

The stars are so much more beautiful here than they are in the city, scattered across the sky in infinite broken shards. It sit in my backyard and look at them and wonder if someone is out there, too, thinking that life is vast and infinite and terrifying and how in this terrifying world will I ever meet them. Hoping it’s in the stars. Hoping we’re in each others’ stars.

But if something that beautiful can get even more beautiful the higher up you are, the closer you are to reaching it, well maybe that should give me hope. In the city you can see them – lights in the sky. But here you can see them too. They are up there all the same but brighter. From the new vantage point, clearer. The city lights fog them up, pretty distractions from what we’re really meant to see.

It seems like there are so many more stars here just because we can see them better. They’re with us down in the city, too, but the pretty little distractions are blocking our sight.

But they’re up there, whether we see them or not. Stardust, fairydust, shimmering. A promise that I’ll got up and down sometimes and won’t be able to see them sometimes even when things get dark. They’ll be there. Whispering to all the little broken parts of me. We’re broken, too, but we’re beautiful.

Big Bear, Big Sky

Two weeks ago I went to Big Bear on a club retreat and ran into a lamppost and a stop sign and more than a few trees. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Sometimes people ask what your favorite place to be is. The garden, cooking in Grandma’s kitchen, Disneyland. I usually answer with the beach because that’s basically true, and it might take an essay to describe my actual favorite place, the place where I’ve never failed to find a connection. However, we are in luck because what we have here is an essay. So let me explain.

Lately, similar to every twenty-something’s existential crisis, I’ve been thinking I don’t really know where I belong. I’ve drifted through this city my whole life, never really giving thought to where I’m supposed to be. Yet when I look up, I know something bigger’s out there and it’s beckoning me to come away with it, because no matter what that great blue blanket will always be there over our heads.

“This city” is the city of Orange. I grew up in Orange, got taller and skinnier and maybe smarter and watched people come and people go around me, watched things change. When everything was changing, I could always count on the sky to remain the same.

My obsession with the sky and in particular the stars used to drive my mother crazy. I realize now that I too would be upset if I happened to check in at night on my darling angel asleep in her bed and she wasn’t, in fact, asleep in her bed at all.

“But mom,” I protested at the time. “I’m just outside, ten feet away.” Which I was, sitting on a blanket after my bedtime watching the sky.

She would then heave a sigh, a gesture I now understand to mean something along the line of “Why did God choose to bless me with one of the few kids crazy enough to sneak out of her bed every night to sleep in the backyard just to stare at stars?” She tried to explain to me why I must not sleep outside. I ran a high risk of dangerous bug bites. It was cold. I got dirty. Thanks to me my mom became the champion of grass stain removers.

So I eventually stopped slipping out of bed at night and falling asleep under the Orange County sky. But I never got my head out of the clouds.

People say that everyone is at different places in their lives. Although that might be true, we’re all in the same place if we stop and look at what’s above us, a place that we all have in common. Just sometimes, depending on our perspectives, it might look different from where we stand. When someone asks, “That’s a great photo, where was it taken?” It could be taken at the zoo or the farmer’s market but no matter what, it’s under the sky, too.

During the day the sky I know is usually cloudless and blue, that good old no seasons  California weather we all know and incessantly complain about.

That cloudless blue sky has watched me grow up beneath it, when the times were good. When days stretched long and easy, sun wafting onto me and my best friend’s lemonade stand and games of hopscotch on the sidewalk. We counted the planes overhead and how many bunny rabbits we could make out of the clouds.

That sky also watched when the times weren’t so good, when mom and dad yelled at each other long into the night after they thought me and my brothers were asleep. When I was less scared of the dark than where my next meal would come from. The sky got a little darker then. Sometimes it would even rain. I was grateful to it for that.

I don’t think the sky will ever stop watching me grow up because I’ll never be done growing up, and two weeks ago me and the sky got a bit closer. About 8,200 feet, to be specific.

Yes, back to Big Bear. You never thought I’d get there, did you?

I never thought I’d get there either, because driving up the mountain all four of my roadmates’ Google Maps lost signal and we went twenty-two miles off track. But that’s another story.

When we finally did get the to the camp, the hundred or so other people on the retreat for the weekend were already in the common room, so we grabbed our duffel bags and jumped out of the truck.

On our twenty-two mile detour it had grown dark and I’d barely noticed because I was too busy positioning my phone at every humanly possible angle to try to get a signal. But when I stepped outside the car, the moment my gaze turned to the skies I was that little girl again who used to sneak into her backyard during the night to look at the stars.

Before we even made it to the common room I ran full force into my first tree because I was staring straight up, looking for the little dipper.

That night I was sorely tempted to sleep outside so I could find the little dipper and more, and may have succeeded in doing so if I had not been driven inside by temperatures so cold you could not only see the puffs of your breath but they stuck around long enough for you to have a conversation with them.

Despite sleeping inside the cabin, I still did get some quality time to stargaze when I was not busy bumping into inanimate objects. And I’m sorry to say, city of Orange, that the stars up in Big Bear are so much more breathtaking than they are in your quaint streets.

Sure, I used to sit in my backyard and think star-inspired thoughts, think that life is vast and infinite and terrifying, and wonder if someone else is out there too, looking up, thinking those same things. If I’ll ever meet them. If it’s in our stars. Well, up there on that first night, with those stars, I felt it could be true.

The morning of the next day, after waking up to the sound of twenty girls in my cabin blow drying their hair and cracking open makeup cases – I attributed my irrational anger about them caring for their appearance to the 8:30 AM wake-up time – we went hiking. I made the adventurous decision to go with the group that wanted to take the more challenging route, not realizing that ‘more challenging’ was apparently hiker code for the most dangerous possible path where at any turn you could trip and plummet to your death or impale yourself on a inconveniently fallen tree.

Two hours and three layers of shed clothing later, though, we arrived at a lake hidden in a recess of overhanging trees, cradled by the curve of the mountain. Although we had endured nearly vertical rock cliffs and downward slopes even the deer were avoiding to get there, it felt right that it hadn’t been easy. If it had been easy it wouldn’t have felt so rewarding to see the lake reflect the sky, both so blue and shining that when I looked across it I couldn’t quite tell where the stopping points were – where one ended the other began, where one began the other ended.

Yes, the sky was watching me where I was watching it, the seashell blue lighting up the day. I ran into the lamppost trying to figure out just what color blue the mountain sky was.

The day was pretty and all, but I’m going to have to apologize to the day too, because sorry Big Bear but your nights are what really captured my attention because – you guessed it – the night has stars. Flashing their smiles and winking with twists of light, both sad and happy, reminding me why they are my favorite place.

They are so much brighter there, fragments, shards in the sky safe from the pollution down below – smog pollution and light pollution. I always thought that was a funny phrase, light pollution. Down in the city, all the lights on the ground make it harder to see the ones up above.

So maybe I’ll never know where I belong or maybe I don’t have to because I’ll always belong under the night sky. It will follow me wherever my feet choose to go.

And two weeks ago it followed me to Big Bear to show me that there are so many more stars there than I ever thought I could see, just because I travelled up a little closer.

Stardust, fairydust, shimmering, expanding across black canvas. A promise that I’ll go up and down and sometimes won’t be able to see them as clearly, but they’ll be there. Whispering to all the little parts of me that are scattered across the city I grew up in. We’re broken, too, but we’re beautiful.

Windowsill

I always liked the little one in the dresses best. She was the one who named me. She called the bigger one with the large belly daddy.

    Each night I sat on the windowsill and watched as her daddy pulled her in his lap on her favorite pink rocking chair. He looked at the black and white pages of a book as they rocked gently back and forth. I heard words and saw the light in her blue eyes as he read. Words, words, cat, blue, orange, grass, food, happy, sad, daddy.

    The years passed and things changed. The windowsill was dustier. She didn’t fit so well in his lap anymore, so she sat cross-legged on the floor. His stomach was bigger and the pink chair had faded. She still wore dresses and the light in her eyes was the same as she listened.

    Then, as I watched the sun set yellow and orange, the chair was empty. Sooner or later, it was most nights. More nights. Every night.

    She still wore dresses and called him daddy but I had to look close for the light.

    One night as I watched from my windowsill I saw them on the outside steps.

    I wondered why he was holding her shoulders, why the sky was getting darker and why her eyes were, too. I wondered why he kissed her forehead and how the big metal thing he drove away in went so fast. Why she flounced onto the grass, staring, pulling up the grass with her small fingers like she was pulling up all that was right in the world – happy. Sad.

    Why her eyes could look so blue and perfect and sad when she stared at the black road.

    I heard two words that day. One was goodbye. I heard that one sometimes when the taller one that looks like her leaves the house or when people pass on the street outside.

    The other one I heard was daddy. I’d heard it many times before, but I never heard it again.

Looking Glass

Dr. Fischer went to the local pet store and bought the angelfish and put it in the tank in his office on August 2nd.

    The angelfish was bred and raised to be put in tanks like these, so it didn’t know what it meant to feel the way the sun cuts the ocean surface or how the currents brush the water. The fish saw lots of things from its glassy outlook, like on August 11th when it saw Dr. Fischer whispering into his secretary’s ear, but it didn’t know what that meant, either.

    There were two other fish in the tank. They were boring but the only other two fish the angelfish ever saw, never the terrifically odd sunfish or the tiger shark or neon clownfish. It did see Dr. Fischer remove the golden band from his finger every morning he came into his office and slip it into his shirt pocket.

    On August 18th the fish felt the vibration of the office door slamming as Dr. Fischer and his secretary left the office at night, just the two of them. It never felt the vibrations of a tuna fish swimming by or the warmth of a sunbeam on the crystal water.

    The angelfish died on a year later knowing what it sounded like for a man to speak into a black rectangular box attached to the wall by a spirally cord and say, “I’m leaving” but not what it sounded like to hear the wind upon the waves.  

Breaking

I don’t see the world in black and white.

But I don’t see it in rainbows either. No, that was momma, chasing rainbows to the bottom of the hill and never finding her pot of gold.

No, I see in sunsets and the color of wildflowers and ocean salt spray. If I lived in twilight, running after rainbows and wishing after shooting stars like momma, I’ll end up like her. A washed up housewife who just keeps getting older and wishing she were young so she could do the things she always thought she would do when she was still a dreamer. Before Dad left and never came back and the world was still big and round with all the possibilities of life.

I think that was part of the reason she never wanted me to go. And as I sit cross-legged by the window seat and watch the peaks and valleys of the countryside pass me by, I think that’s part of the reason I’m going back.

I can’t help the smile that tugs at my lips when the train passes the old Smithson barn. The blue paint is still chipped in all the same places and the white picket fence is still broken where Maysie the cow once made her daring attempt at freedom.

If I tried I couldn’t count the number of nights we’d spent there in high school, me and JJ and Emily and Karina and anyone else who’d wanted to come over, drink a Michelson or two and talk about our futures among the hay bales and sleepy cows. Sometimes we’d lie on the roof and stare at the stars, the sweet smell of hay in our noses and the gentle clucking of roosters in our ears. That was where Davy kissed Laura and Laura told me the next day, her cheeks flushed the bright red of apples we’d picked from the orchard down the road. Long nights blended into summer days on the farm, until everything started to become moments of lasts. Last first day of high school, last time we’d go ice-blocking down Sander’s hill, last dance. We’d gone to the barn after homecoming, too. I smile again. Homecoming. How appropriate.

The last day of lasts, we took to the roof of the barn again. Laura, going to film school. JJ, off to be a dentist. Davy, studying abroad in England. He and Laura agreed it would be best to call it off instead of trying to make things work long distance, but we all knew they’d try anyway. Karina and Emily, both headed to Georgetown in the Fall. All my friends, all going to different corners of the world, their futures as bright and scattered as the stars blinking back at us in the sky.

Me? I went off from my small town to the big city, New York, New York – to study journalism at NYU. Over the years my friends and I stayed in touch, met up during breaks, but naturally strayed out of each others lives, with so many new places and other people drifting in to them. It was a clean break, a natural dissolve.

The same can not be said for momma.

I hadn’t told her I applied. I hadn’t told her I accepted. But when I told her I was going to travel 1,000 miles across the country for the next four years and God knows where after that, everything had blown up.

The shards of her favorite China plates smashed all over the wooden floorboards were still sharp in my mind, the words we flung at each other still heavy on my skin. The slamming door vibrating, the grumble of my Volkswagen engine. I could hear the disgust in my voice as I yelled the words I hate you as if I had said them yesterday.

“You can’t go,” she said,

“You can’t stop me,” I said.

I went. And I never really looked back. Until now.

No one writes letters anymore. It’s all e-mail, texts, Facebook. I guess this makes sense though. I never told her my phone number or gave her my e-mail address. I haven’t talked to her much besides – what is my social security number? I’m sorry to hear great grandma died – in five years.

I don’t see the world in black and white, no. Which is funny because now I work for one of the world’s largest newspapers and my name appears in black on the white pages just about every single week.

Anyway – the letter. I never would have gone back to my old apartment if I hadn’t been chasing a story for said newspaper. Six cases of the new avian flu, right by my old place next to the college. One near death experience. Easy, go in, get the interviews, go out.

So it was a sunset moment, living in color, when I decided to stop by my old place to see what it was like now. A lot can happen in two years. Junior year. I’d been going with Andrew and on Friday nights when he didn’t call I was really missing my momma, even though I never would have admitted it.

Dear Trina, the letter said. Mixed up with other mail, the girl with glasses and a braid down her back that lives there now had kept it, just in case. She said it looked important, personal. It’s postmarked from just a few months ago.

I am not sure if this is your correct address still, but I have been sending letters to the dorm until I found out about this one. I have some news I thought you should know. If you could write me back or phone the house, you know where I will be. Stay safe out there, love Mom.

I’d gotten a few of her letters here and there throughout the years. I called back a few times. This, though, was different. Mom said she had news. Maybe she’d finally started something for herself, stopped living by counting stars and got her feet back on the ground, understood why I had to leave.

The train stopped off right at my old house. Train tracks have a smell that’s like nothing else, like rusty rain and late night showers. It reminds me of home. Of home-cooked lasagna and making daisy chains in my backyard.

I tiptoe past tumbleweeds as I make my way up to the front door. It’s the only house around for half a mile, our neighbors houses visible in the distance on the flat hard land. I can just make out the pale blue of the Smithson barn to the east.

Everything is just as I remember it. Our third front porch step still creaks, the bannister could still give you a splinter by just looking at it. The rocking chair is there next to the window, but there’s a new yellow blanket draped over the wooden frame. Odd, since my old quilt used to match its pink paint perfectly.

I realize my palms are slippery as I’m about to use the lion’s head shaped knocker, and I wipe them on my jeans. I breathe in, breathe out, then rap the door twice.

It doesn’t take long for a woman to answer. The woman has blonde short hair and crows feet around her eyes, a baby girl on her hip. The woman is not my mother.

“Can I help you?” she says to me. She is polite, but questioning.

I falter. “Um, yes, is Teresa Geller here? I’m looking for…I mean, I’m her daughter.”

The woman’s eyebrows knit together.

“You’re looking for Teresa?” There is a catch in her voice that causes my stomach to sink, shadows to drop. “We moved in a few months ago. You know, when she passed?”

Mom had news. I never thought exactly what the news might be. Me, the successful reporter, never even bothered. It never even crossed my mind.

As I stand on the porch, not able to say anything back, I think that maybe after living in uncertainties and possibilities of the past while her daughter never believed in chasing rainbows, maybe there was something beautiful about how the woman with her head in the clouds finally lives among the stars.