"Some books and magazines I skimmed as though I were flying over a landscape, and as I did I was aware of already knowing what was written in them. As though a single word could summon back a thousand others, or could blossom into a full bodied summary, like those Japanese flowers that open in water. As though something were striking out on its own to settle in my memory, to keep Oedipus and Don Quixote company. At times the short circuit was caused by a drawing, three thousand words for one picture. At times I would read slowly, savoring a phrase, a passage, a chapter, experiencing perhaps the same emotions sparked by my first, forgotten reading.
It is pointless to speak of the gamut of mysterious flames, mild tachycardias, and sudden flushes that many of those readings gave rise to for a brief instant, which dissolved as quickly as they had come, making way for new waves of heat..." -Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
Wonderful article: Your brain on fiction
In other news, I'm in love with this vibey pair. They remind me of something Ada would wear, or what a conjure woman might wear if you invited her to tea...
March 26th, 2013.
Feeling better, except sick. viral infection, aching eyes. Home visiting in KS, had to go to dad’s office today for erythromycin ointment. Thick stuff, a filmy screen over your eyes after you put it on. 4x a day for 10 days. Bleahh. I did some work for him while I was there. Periodically one or another of his staff would come over to kvetch. People seem to want someone to listen to them more than they ever want a solution. I tried 80% listening, 20% solutions offered, think that went over well.
After work went with my dad to Plaza Three, we sit in a corner and have shrimp. 3.95 for four shrimps, each one the length of a hand. They’re good, firm and sweet, served with remoulade on a fluffy bed of cheap lettuce. Extravagance. Good conversation. Plans. Mom. My fucked up brother.
There’s a seventy year old tranny at the bar, huge confused eyes, wavering voice. The bartender talks to her about Julie Andrews. I’m drinking tea, talking to dad. Nice. Quiet moment, wood paneling. Kansas City steakhouses, there’s nothing like them anywhere else.
Periodically I check stats on this site. The journal excerpts are by far what people most respond to. It’s hard though. Exposing myself, relationships, private ideas.
But journaling is a useful tool. So important to keep it up, so quickly it slips away. And there is a beguiling semi- permanence in what is written down. Seemingly captured. At least I can’t forget or re-imagine the nuances. But what exactly is this for?
So I can be honest with myself, fierce with myself? To capture time? To think more clearly, write more clearly, perhaps?
My ultimate goal, endgame, is to be be a full-time novelist. Farmhouse, orchard. Why? Freedom. So I must work at making decisions daily that take me closer to that place on the map.
I’ve been watching House of Cards on the treadmill at the gym: Claire Underwood. Admiring her character’s silences, her fullness in waiting. Feminine and powerful at once. Why, because no children? Her marriage is her child. But when it is gone there is nothing left. She said as much.
Portrait of a friend-
Her glossy long hair, shifting black-brown in the light. Oval face, tanned skin, laughing always. The tentative, sensual gestures. I’ll call her Mary-
Mary falls into beds the way other people start dancing when the music plays. “If I could i’d just drink wine and do yoga, sail on boats all day,” she says, and its true to her nature, somehow, not at all a laziness. Because the point of Mary is enjoyment.
She is open handed always- in friendship, wine, everything that she has. She’s successful without clinging to success: enjoying the sheer sport of it.
But she’s lonely, never in a relationship. She says she’s never been in love.
Although we’ve found a good crowd out here- seekers, thinkers- in Charleston’s over-culture, there is this pervasive materialism. Selfishness, sexism. More women than men, and many of the women are desperate. They make their exteriors perfect- they bleach their hair and teeth, they bake their skins in the sun. Eating disorders, cocaine, matching outfits. The desperation makes their voices wheel and crack, terrified to be alone, and the men know this-
There is a terror of commitment in the men, a terror of solitude in the women. They skate in packs through the bars, clubs, beaches, chasing and repelling each other like magnets. 20 year old women, 40 year old men. Round and round they go.
So Mary is alone, although in any other city she would have been swooped up ages ago. Her knight in jeans and a polo shirt. It’s her fondest hope. I hope she finds a good one.
After our trip to Colorado I drove back to Kansas with my parents. Stayed for a week. I work remotely anyway, so it makes no difference where I’m located. Solid work-week, and then a blur of a weekend, visiting.
Plans to visit my Nana.
Driving these roads. Flesh memories take me. So much happened here. Fifteen years old, driving to muck out the barn. Seventeen years old, parties on 550E. Cars on fire in the ditch, boys in the hay.
Barns, fields, fences. There’s the tiny airport for the gentlemen farmers, old horses standing by the road. Here, people salute hello when they drive by- raising their hands on the steering wheel, a small nod. Their dogs next to them. When they eat at a drive-thru they probably buy their dog a hamburger, too. My dad always did.
(Man, I always know when I’m flying home to the Midwest. The nicest, humblest people you’ve ever met.)
Anyway, I woken up early, gone for a run, had a quick work day- the plan was to visit my Nana, then have dinner with Andrew’s sister, O, and then visit the Nelson Atkins with my parents.
I’m driving to Nana’s, distracted by my thoughts. I can’t settle them. They’re selling their place, moving into town, where they’ll be closer to family, friends. This will likely be the last time I’ll drive these roads to see them, roads I’ve driven for more than a decade. One of the final red threads to my past.
I know its silly. Perhaps its an inherited silliness. When they first moved to the country, my mother bought the house they left behind, the one on Alvamar Drive, rather than let strangers live in it. It was the house she’d grown up it, and it became the house we had our adolescence in.
Oh, my Nana. We’re talking. She’s vivacious, so pleased to see me, and she looks well.
A lovely afternoon. Tea and needlepoint, chattering. Her little dog, Winston, watching us from the cushions. My heart hurts that I can’t be with her more often. We talk on the phone regularly, and I send letters, but there’s no substitute for hugs, tea together. It haunts me, the knowledge that she- that everyone- won’t always be here.
GVG talking to me about the banality of loss- “It’s strange, when you think of it, how mundane loss is,” she says. “I mean, everyone on the planet loses everyone they love. Absolutely everyone loses everyone.”
Papa comes back from his meeting, same as ever. He’s excited for their trip this summer to Scotland. They’re going to stay in beds and breakfasts and poke around with another couple. He pulls up their itinerary and then pictures, giving me a play by play. I can’t remember when I’ve seen him so delighted about something. And he’s a happy man.
“I don’t give a hoot about it,” Nana says, brightly. “I’m just excited to come home again.” She picks at her chips. “That’s my favorite part about traveling. It ends.” She grins at me mischieviously, so does Papa. What a pair. The exact same thing happens every time they travel.
I drive back to Shawnee, the city where my parents live and work now, and meet O at a Mexican place near my dad’s office, since the plan is to meet in his parking lot at six. O is lushly beautiful, with newly shorn dark hair. She looks extraordinarily thin in a long grey skirt and grey boots, a drapey top. Her hair tousled, smiling. We hug tightly. My voice has suddenly become so raspy it sounds like another language. “Are you all right?” she says?
“Just a cold,” I say, “and maybe too much talking.”
In the restaurant we have a surly waitress whose bracelets match the pens in her apron. Her heart-shaped plastic earrings are oddly attractive, and we both comment on them, but decide not to mention them to her because she’s so grouchy. In the end I can’t help but compliment her pens, and she beams- ah, it would be so much better to bond over anything but what a person has chosen to wear, but that requires a good guess at what secrets are important to a person- anyway- before all that-
we’re talking. Modelo Especials, O trying to jam her lime down into the bottle. “This is emblematic of everything in my life,” she says, laughing- her slow, thoughtful voice- “spreading myself too thin!”
“No, that’s not it at all- you’re forcing things to work. Get it in there!”
Chips and salsa. She’s younger than me, my sister’s age, telling me about her plans to study abroad in Florence, to go into fashion purchasing. She’s self-possessed and strong, and at the same time hasn’t quite been out entirely on her own yet, and so she resents anything that seems to cling- parents, boyfriends. Hasn’t yet realized these things can be buttresses, or, anyway, a friendly horizon- but maybe that is a realization that requires time, distance.
One of her friend’s mother’s died recently of H1N1 complications. 39 years old. From Lawrence, my hometown. As she talks I realize I knew this woman’s daughter. I nannied for her sister-in-law in college.
She sounds like a fascinating person, a magic woman. O tells me about how she believed fiercely in the spirits of things. O would go over and visit her, hanging out in the kitchen, listening to stories.
The woman believed people could be possessed by demons. (what a saying: ‘what possessed you!’ ha) One of her children struggled with addictions, criminal history, and she swore up and down that when she was a young woman, sleeping with him as a baby in her bed, she woke one night unable to breathe, and looked over to see an old man in tophat and trenchcoat stepping on her baby boy’s chest, binding him up with twine.
A top hat and a trenchcoat. “The thing is,” O said, embarrassed, “I’ve seen him, too. In my dreams, in the doorway once when I was a little girl. She thought he came to young people and old people, people in danger of being lost. I looked it up- he’s all over the internet, a shadow man.”
I go with my parents to the art museum. My gentle father. He still moves heavily after his stroke. Stiff-armed, stoic face. It was his left side; the foot still drags, the arms still hangs. He’s always buried himself in work, utterly uninterested in rehab therapy.
We have dinner in the museum’s courtyard. There’s a fountain, marble tiles, music playing, my mom complaining. She's tired on Fridays. Afterward Dad quietly gets into the wheelchair because now this is what we do at museums. I remember the first time we did it. He was resistant then. And then- the relief for both of us- him quietly motoring through the exhibits. Freedom again. I wish he’d do his rehab, but on a Friday night visit to the art museum- night outside, quiet-lit paintings, echoes, halls- things should be simple, we should be happy to be together.
It is strange to see strangers pity your loved one. As I wheel him around, they look at him. Or worse, don’t look at him- as if it’s bad luck, as if they might bring bad luck to themselves.
If they do look, they see a large, impassive man, with intent blue eyes. Intelligent eyes, swollen folds of flesh. A limp hand, and indifference to his body. He is a father, doctor, son. A self-made man. His mother was born in a log cabin in Missouri, named after the only book in the house: Sibyl.
He began picking up odd jobs when he was seven to get out of the house, away from the abuse, the religious craziness. Putting himself through pharmacy school, medical school, utterly without any guidance from family. All he has ever done is sacrifice himself to pave the way for others.
Think of it. This man, before you, sprawled in his wheelchair- all that he has done and continues to do. Sometimes patients pay him in firewood, or half a cow, although that is less common now than it was when he had his practice in Lawrence. He works ten to twelve hour days, always has. When I was a girl, my only memories of him are from vacations, once a year.
I worry he will never learn to be able to relax, enjoy things. I want to take care of him-them- to assure that when they retire they will enjoy their years as I have enjoyed mine, thanks to his sacrifices.
And yet, driving them home from Vail- he wouldn’t relax with someone else at the wheel, couldn’t sleep, kept leaning over to check the odometer. Family! Exasperating. I love them so much.
March 30th, 2014
__ ½ Massachusetts, Apt C.
It’s two rooms. Stamped in ceilings, french doors between. There’s a small kitchen off the first room, and an old bank vault for a closet in the second. Two windows I remember all too well- the tiny window over the kitchen sink, where we used to climb out onto the rooftops of downtown Lawrence, and the big window in the bedroom of the other, where we lay in sunlight or snowlight on so many mornings.
We’re in my old apartment, my sister, my friend John, and the stranger who lives in it now- Sam.
Ten minutes ago we were walking past it, me all foggy with nostalgia.
I’d just downed a rather large hot toddy from an empathetic bartender. My voice is scratchy-raspy as a wool sweater. “I wonder who lives there now… I half want to knock.”
And of course they said do it, of course they were excited. What would happen next?
I stood in the little tiled doorway and pushed the button, just as I had years ago when N and I were looking for a place- and just as a lanky-bodied man came down the stairs then, one came down now. Smiling, affably confused.
He did not recognize us, ah, but he’d grown up in Lawrence, and Lawrencians open the door.
“I used to live in your apartment,” I said. “I know this is kind of strange, but would you mind- would you mind if I saw it again?”
“Just you?” he said- short, thick eyebrows and a handsome face, oddly familiar. He looked like N, but with an entirely different affect. Open shoulders, comfortable in his skin.
“No, no- this is my sister, and this is my dear friend-”
“Oh, okay. That’s fine.” And he led us up. The door fell closed on Mass street behind us as we went up the carpeted stairs. Fixed recently, I guessed, there used to be soft spots in places, stains-
on the landing at the top of the stairs was a cluster of doors. The musicians lived here, the gambler lived here. The breadmaker lived here. Here was the place he’d left us a loaf of warm bread in welcome, and here was where I left him a pile of Now and Laters in return. Here was where I scrambled between them, my cat zipped up in a backpack, banging on doors one early green morning, because a tornado was coming-
and here was our door. We’d had a little poster, trinkets in the window, but now it was blank.
That made my stomach dip. I took a deep breath, feeling not quite in my own skin. As I followed the boy, handsome stranger, into my old rooms.
Julia and John following us, I’d almost forgotten they were there- in the room, pot smoke heavy in the air, our host grinning at me. He had a few hangings on the wall, he’d replaced one counter with a sort of makeshift table, and the walls were painted some normal color.
In my day one of the walls was a bright, almost garish blue, with a yellow hammer and sickle stenciled in one corner. We’d left it that way for no real reason- because it was there.
Now I stood with my sister in the room. Dazedly saying things to this stranger, who knows what I said. I looked at the counter, I could still remember my friends sitting on it. Cross-legged, music, wine. Climbing out the window, climbing into the bed. Fights, making up, making tuna melts.
He opened the doors and we went into the bedroom. His bed was on the floor.
How many beds have been on that floor, how many mice have run over the pillows, since-? It is the kind of apartment where your bed must go on the floor. Big rooms, high ceilings, a pleasant shabbiness. I lived here most of college.
“There was a lot of sex in that closet,” I say.
Sam laughs, startled and then pleased, as I glance inside it- sneakers, shelves. In a former life, these apartments were a banker’s office, and the closet was his bank vault: the door is hand painted with a pretty black and yellow seal. The door itself is a foot thick, and its gone one of those turnie-closie things, like something you could use to steer a ship.
There was a lot of sex in that closet. And micro-parties, sleepovers. Fights. Secret writing.
Sam drifted into the first room to sat at his kitchen table, and we stood. There was only a chair for one.
“So what was where?” he said.
“There was a big red velvet sofa there, on that wall. You know, one of those amazing ones from the thirties? A huge desk ran along that wall. Our bed was like yours. There wasn’t much else... the sofa, one time? My ex was mad at me about something, or he decided he didn’t like the sofa. Something. I came home from school and he’d thrown it down the stairs into the street,” I said.
I really loved that sofa, but I didn’t say that.
There was an awkward pause. Sam said he was thinking about going out to California, he was actually maybe looking for someone to take over his lease. Julia lit up. “I’m looking for a place!” she said. “Only I’m going to Europe in June. I’m not sure I could cover both.” Right now she lives at home, with our parents.
“If you decide to sublease it, and Julia decides to take it, I’ll come back and pay the rent for June.”
Sam is pleased. He's a pleased kind of guy. He and Julia exchange numbers. He’s one of those people you immediately feel comfortable with, as if you’ve known him a long time. After we leave, it happens that one of his friends stops by, who happens to know most of our family. One degree of separation always, in Lawrence.
Then again, we’re a big messy family, and its a small college town.
Out in the street again I’m dazed, Julia is chatteringly happy. It would be so perfect that its almost unthinkable- her living there. And what symmetry- I rang the doorbell for the first time years ago, and the tenant at that time said he was thinking of maybe moving on, too, and that’s how it all began.
A boy runs up to us as if he’s going to grab our hands. “Can I talk to you guys a second?” he says. Dark-haired, slim, frantic.
“What do you want?”
“It’s just, I’m practicing pick up lines and I want to know if they’ll work.”
Oh, for fuck's sake. But I can't resist. “Pick up lines never work,” I say, trying to walk past, “Just say hello.”
But in spite of ourselves we get sucked in for a few moments more. Trying to persuade him to drop the pick up lines. But he’s so sure that pickup lines are the way to go. He tells me a terrible one.
“What is it about women that you think you need formulas to talk to them?”
He cocks his head.
I try again. “How do you make friends?”
“I have pickup lines for them, too.”
“Okay, buddy, good luck.”
“Was that a frat hazing?” Julia wonders. “So odd.”
“Very odd. But he did end up talking to us. Maybe he didn't have anything else to talk about.” We get in the car, head back to the parents. Tonight there’s an engagement party for one of the cousins.
“Can I tell you something?” she says, as we drive. Falteringly, and then in a rush, she confesses how hard it is for her to be with me sometimes. She feels thrust once again into the role of little sister, even though now we’re both adults.
“I always have this feeling of being overlooked, dismissed. Or of somehow missing out. People don’t see me when I’m with you,” she says. "I'm shorter."
“I think you’re devaluing yourself.”
Later, after the family party: “See, there I felt it again,” she tells me. “It feels strange even to be holding a beer with the rest of you. Like I’m too young to be there. I feel almost guilty for it.”
It’s something I have trouble even remembering to relate to. I can’t imagine being the youngest. I’m the eldest child, was always one of the older kids in my class. When we are with our family, always we take these long-ago assigned seats, roles. She is forever the younger sister, one of the little kids.
She’s had more conventional success- a new car note, a concrete job. So it must be strange to feel thrust back in time whenever I come around. Little sister.
I said she was devaluing herself, but she wouldn't leave the topic.
“Let me ask you this,” she said. “Has there ever been one guy you liked who never noticed you?”
I finally managed to turn the tide of the conversation, got her to talk about this guy she’s interested in, a writer. Man, I wouldn't wish dating a writer on anyone. Or an artist- I had to take a vow. No more artists.
She talked about how she was pursuing him.
“You should be more mysterious,” I say, after listening, in the way of older sisters.
Seduction. It’s a curious thing, isn’t it? Human magnetism. The echolocation of awareness;
the awareness of someone else’s location in the room. Throwing and receiving coded gestures, infinitesimal. What a dance.
Before I met up with her in Lawrence- before we saw the apartment, I had a fun lunch with Andrew’s parents at a Greek place. Afterwards picked up my youngest brother from the dorms and wandered around together, talking. David. He’s a good one. We've had some fantastic conversations. I took him to Astro Kitty, the comic book store.
Always so lovely and complicated and strange to be home.
Julia and I head into the party. Intercept one of my favorite cousins in the driveway- he’s leaving, always leaving. One of those people who is always slipping out the back door. Beautiful, sculptured Kelly. He's pursuing his PHD in religious studies or philosophy, I can't remember which. Wearing a button up and tie. He's always taller than I remember.
“I didn’t know you were in town!” he says, “We’re always missing each other!”
Me, am I smaller than he remembers? The conversation we've only half had, that we never are able to quite continue- my faltering atheism-
Standing with him in the driveway, bear hug. Memory of another wedding. A warm night in St. Louis. He and I wandering through a park, shoeless. Wet grass, the moon high above the Arch.
Again- places, and the memories ghosting them. Traveling with Andrew & Stuart across the country. The Arch on a sunny day, crowds, picnics. And the Arch at a time before that, as a little girl, with all my cousins, the lot of us maybe thigh high. Our parents were all so young then, laughing, best friends. Innocent. Before divorces, betrayals, disappointments.
Inside, its humid. Papa toasts the cousins who are getting married. It's loud, my ears are ringing. Everyone with drinks in their hands, but I behave and drink water, because of this terrible, endless cold. I think maybe people can’t hear my voice over the happy roar but nobody seems to mind. Smiles and hugs and secrets.
Nana gets tired. She and Papa are the first to trickle away. Then Julia and I are leaving- leaving for an hour and a half. My family always takes a long goodbye. They’re almost always the best part of any evening, these rushed intensities.
Julia and I escape into the brisk dark, and are quickly just another of the cars on the highway, looking for our exit home. That was my day.
Pauline West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
Pauline West's books on Goodreads
Candlemoth: A Holy City Romance
ratings: 27 (avg rating 4.04)
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Candlemoth Volume 2: How To Spend It
ratings: 10 (avg rating 4.40)
Candlemoth Book 3: A Twist of Fate
ratings: 6 (avg rating 4.17)
Stalker: A Gothic Thriller
ratings: 4 (avg rating 4.25)