In memory of a dear friend and grandfather-in-law. We loved you very much.
Robert E. "Bob" Schmidt,
We will keep you close always.
From a letter August 28th, 2015:
Dear, dear Bob,
I am so sad to hear of Pat's passing, but I know she is at peace now, and watching over you with all her love. "Sweetest dreams," as our Andrew wished her.
I want you to know that I look up to your great, lifelong love affair with your beautiful bride. Your deep love and respect for one another will always be an inspiration to us, and a torch Andrew and I will carry with us all our lives. The world needs more love, doesn't it?
There is a beautiful poem by Rumi that I find comfort in. I hope now it can bring you some measure of comfort as well.
"Now that you live in my chest,
anywhere we sit is a mountaintop.
What used to be pain is a lovely bench,
where we can rest under the roses." -Rumi
Sweetest dreams, dear lovely man.
July 4th, 2017, Tuesday.
The glittering happiness, stillness of
all obligations slipped
adrift in the locusts, slatted sun
July 5th, 2017, Wednesday.
The gym is loud and I don't quite catch everything the old pilot says. We’re on machines, getting our cardio in. We’ve been on a waving basis for a while, have never exchanged more than jokes.
Today is different.
“After the war,” he said, “we took an old tiger biplane back to Germany to see the old WWI sites. Did that together all summer. He was a good friend- gone now." The old man looks down briefly and then goes on.
"You can still see them from the air, you know, those sites. He and I, we’re flying over one, we can see this glass box down there. I drop the plane down- you could put those biplanes down anywhere- and there’s a man's bones inside. A soldier, still holding his gun. They’d found him like that. Put him in that box, kept him where he fell.”
Stories are spilling out now, fast, the way they will when they need to be told, and everything around us falls away until we aren’t in a gym any longer.
"I’m driving down a country road after too many beers, following my buddy when his lights disappear. I have to turn around to look for him. I go back a ways, and there he is, sitting out right out there in No Mans Land.
This was out in the country, and what people don’t realize is the Berlin wall wasn’t more than a couple feet high outside the city. Oh, there was barbed wire of course- anyway, this was first time anyone had ever broken into the East side. So my buddy, he’s sitting out there with a cut on his head in that Volkswagen sobering up, and you’ve got the East and West Germans on either side, calling their superiors. And there’s me, standing in the road.
Nobody knows what to do.
So both sides come down and help push the car out. Fixed the wall and redid the wire, like nothing ever happened. Now how ‘bout that?”
He tells me about his neighbor, routed onto a train with her husband to one of the camps. She escaped and walked all the way across Germany back to Berlin. He did not.
“Never saw him again. Took her a year and a half to get home. Think of that,” the pilot said. “She lived right next door to me.”
We were standing between the machines then. I was holding my keys, my phone's alarm had gone off, once, twice.
“It is always so good talking to you,” I said. “I wish I didn’t have to leave. I hope you have a good day.”
“You have a better one.”
“And thanks, you know. For your service. It means a lot.”
He smiles. “I didn't have anything else to do.”
As I head out, he calls after me. “Now you spell everything right, y'hear?”
Then he laughs and waves me on, loose-limbed even now. White athletic socks pulled tall up over his lean calves.
For a moment I can see them, the glittering beauty of those two, half a century ago.
Young men looking into a glass box.
Men under the fields, facing the sky.
I wake up at 6, takes twenty minutes to persuade myself from bed. It’s still crushingly busy at work: I fell asleep on the warehouse floor at midnight earlier this week, while the boys kept humming on, til 1 am, 1:30, 2…
So sleepy. But this has been my plan: this is the morning I’ll ride my motorcycle in the street.
So far I’ve just been noodling around, practicing in parking lots. Scooting my Rebel along the greasy, cracked strip of asphalt back and forth behind our warehouse.
Almost running into ditches, parked cars, etc.
Goddammit I’m doing this. Because this is the day and this is my plan.
Unlocking the wheel, strapping my tank bag on. Wiping the seat off with a painter’s rag; embarrassedly waiting for the man sleeping in his van across the street to drive away before I hop on and duck-walk down our gravel driveway into the street.
FINE-C, sitting there warming up, watching the traffic. Lots more of it than I planned.
I’m suddenly so nervous I feel like I have to pee, maybe throw up, but when I don’t kill it on my first turn off the street suddenly I no longer give a shit about the cars, the people watchful inside them.
“You have a right to do this,” I keep saying- or hearing- in my head, and how funny that this is what it says to me, this voice I’ve never heard before- “You have a right to learn this.”
Killing the bike on turns; motoring happily around Hampton Park, taking up space at stoplights-
“You have a right to do this!”
I go chilling through a series of neighborhoods, azalea blooms fallen electric in the street, smashing through sleepy mirrors full of nothing, house after house with its eyes closed beneath the draping branches of wandering oaks,
and then manage to kill it somehow right in the middle of the (thank god empty) road. Swedish-looking middle-aged woman walking by with her tiny dog. Fussing my bike into movement again, I grin over at them: “I’m gonna do this!”
She flexes her muscle at me, smiling a little- “You’re gonna do this!”
And then I do, I ride away, very slowly, haha, down the block.
I don’t hit any cars and no cars hit me.
My Rebel 250 is just a gloriously sexy scooter, really; and I don’t look cool on it, not with my cat glasses, my big silver spaceman helmet, dorky braid hanging down under the back. Killing it dead and motoring around slow as a tired cow-
but I feel the tickling edge of something that must be freedom.
Ah, this muggy, lovely morning, and the air full of water. Sitting with coffee on the porch watching the sky turn blue, and my bike in the driveway grinning back at me.
Oh hey there, Thursday.
PS. still saving up for a camera. Almost there.
We’re standing on the train tracks out back of Logan’s warehouse, he’s opened it up to the night and everybody’s dancing, spilling out into the grass. Costumes, party cups, pretty lights.
“What’s your name again?” this guy says.
We’d been introduced earlier, and I didn’t actually feel like talking anymore, it was so beautiful and clear and starry- so I said one of those things you say to try to end a conversation. “Names don’t matter,” I said.
He turns at me, interested. “Oh, so we’re there, huh?”
I’m a bitch with a bone. “No, you don’t understand what I mean. They don’t matter; names are a social construct. To organize people. But names aren't any more real than societies themselves. Civilization, legislation, the idea of time. None of these things are real, consequential. I mean, we can call a mountain a mountain. That doesn’t mean it actually is a mountain. Right? You don’t need a name if you know who someone is.”
“Whoa,” the guy says to Logan. “She’s on the good drugs.”
In a long white wig and white rubber cat suit, and unable to resist a storyline.
“The beautiful thing about rationalization,” I said, pleased with myself now, sweeping my cup of champagne around, “you can rationalize absolutely anything!”
“I don’t know man,” Logan said to the guy, “she’s a writer.”
“Wish me luck, man,” the guy said.
“Fft, I’m married, it isn’t like that.”
“But we do need to organize people,” the guy said, ”or we can’t have a society. And society’s been pretty good, overall.- I mean-”
“Has it? I think America’s falling into decadence. I think we’re a failed experiment. Culture as an idea is lovely, but the majority of people, I think they’d be happier in migratory hunting societies.”
“Well, I just want to help animals, anyway,” he said.
“But it’s funny, right? How we feel empathy for animals because we think, oh, they’re innocent, they’re subject to the predations of man-”
“But for so much of humanity, it’s exactly the same thing. People are innocent all over, too. They suffer to the predations of those at the top. Everybody needs help, don’t they?”
“I guess, man,” he said- not realizing, I realize only now, the reason why we do need names.
Also why, maybe, sometimes you just answer the fucking question.
We miss the turn to the taco place, talking about dreams.
Earlier, after the meeting, I’d asked the guys if their dreams were ever… weird.
“I mean, like, narrative dreams, but ones that have nothing to do with you or your life. Sometimes I have these dreams that are like bizarre movies about other people, I can’t figure them out.”
Lane nodded. “Sometimes I’m outside my body, watching. But I’m always me.”
I fiddled with my shoe. “Last night I dreamt I was a man. With these two kids, and we were standing in this dark waterway, and somebody shot one of them. And then, while I was trying to save him, the shooter stole the other kid.”
“You know, in Freud and all those guys, everything in your dreams is a symbol. Even if they don’t obviously have to do with your life.”
Down on my knees in that dark water, weeping.
My love and my art.
Chase two birds and both will fly. Is this true?
“Isnt it amazing,” Lane says in the car, “how those early psychiatrists first came to analyze dreams, to understand all the symbols? I guess there's certain things that are true across all cultures. But discovering that- being the one to put it all together- wow.”
Andrew pulls up next to us at the stoplight. He's on the motorcycle, all in white, wearing sunglasses against the wind and his long hair flying wild. My husband looks as happy as a bird with a french fry.
“This place is nine minutes away, my ass!” he says.
I reach out to pat Andrew’s head through the window. “Ssh, ssh. All right then, fuck the tacos.”
So we go back to Lane & V’s, and the boys make us chicken-fried rice. It’s been weeks since we’ve all been together. It feels wonderful.
V settles back into the sofa with a sigh. “My family!” she says, smiling around at us. My best friend, radiant in pink pajamas- wadding up and throwing little balls of paper for the cat to chase. Andrew falling asleep on the sofa between us, Lane tipping back in his chair, telling stories. Family. Yes.
My parents had been in town for a few days that week.
Showing them around Charleston, all the thousand little things I’d known for years they would love if they could only see them.
And having them with us, seeing them love it all-
I can’t catch the right words for this.
There was a moment in one of the gardens, my mom smiling up at the trees, that I hope I’ll remember all my life.
Saying goodbye to them outside our house, I started bawling.
33 year old woman bawling like a kid, barefoot in the street. I’d felt it coming on, how hard it was going to be. To not know when we’d all see each other again- and may not ever here, ever again, in this place where they’d been so happy.
How lucky to have such love in one’s life, that saying goodbye should be so hard.
And how fucking painful.
I remember the first time I came across Buddhist thinking. My horror at the idea that one should renounce all intensity of feeling, as everything is but a dream. So that you don’t cloud your mind with the pain -or the wonder, either- since it is all for naught.
Truth is Not a Toy. That was a great headline in the NYT this weekend.
Those Buddhist truths-
I know I let myself feel everything too much. That this is a choice.
But I don’t want to change. I like cherrypicking from wisdom texts, and living my life by them- for a while- but at bottom, let’s be honest, I don’t ever have any intention of withdrawing from the edge, of trying to protect myself from the pain of feeling everything, of experiencing everything. Even though I know it’s all meaningless, really...
Making one’s own meaning. I wonder. Does that make a toy of the truth?
No one honks when you take yourself a dog’s age fishing at the stoplight. We all got nothing but time.
Trading recipes with the clerk and other people in line at the grocery.
Saying heya and how are you to everyone you pass on the sidewalk, meaning it. Both of you slowing down to smile & wave as you go by.
Bumping into friends, everywhere, all the time.
The unblinking acceptance of eccentrics and quirks; the embracing thereof.
Old trees. Puppies.
The constant, delicious frisson of high and low culture, lushness & decay, wealth & poverty. We live in the richest, most fragile of soils. Charleston is a hothouse flower indeed.
My gorgeous, lustful, hothouse flower Holy City. Give us our sins again.
Brutal days: full-on busy season, and we’ve just swapped warehouses in the midst of it. 15, 16 hour days. Sand fleas, dropped beams, lost keys. Thank god for music.
If you give up on absolutely everything outside work; if you just work til you drop- eventually you surface into sunlight, you look around, and by god you finally fucking got it done. We’ve almost completely settled into the new place, should be more or less operational again. We have lost scarcely a workday, while tripling our footage!
Tomorrow he leaves for a conference in Africa, I’m manning the monster while he’s away. Which is fine except that ....
I think too much. My trouble, when there’s not a chance at the border of the workday to write, is that inevitably I turn all David-at-the-dentist- “is this forever? Ah, I’m wasting my life!”
Because when I don’t write, I start to panic that I’m giving up, giving in.
But there isn’t any way out of this but through. If I can just turn off my brain for a while and fucking grind. Things will slow down again in August or so. A person can do anything for half a year. And of course, I'll find the time to work on stories. I'll make the time. I always do.
And I shouldn’t worry. It’s a cowardly thing, anyway, worrying.
Now I’m worrying I worry too much.
Andrew slips into bed next to me. “They’ve got another one on the way-”
I can hear the smile in his voice, I curl up against him. “Oh yeah? They must love having a family, that’s great.”
“You think you’re ready for kids, beem beem?” he says, teasing me; he knows I’m not quite ready yet.
If we started a family, unless I was making enough from my books to justify writing at least part time, my little obsession would go out the door. There just wouldn’t be enough time.
Oh, my sweet love: I want to give you a family, I do, but my heart’s blood goes cold at the idea of giving up. I don’t know who I’d be, what I’d be, if I gave up. I don’t think I have it in me to give up.
But at what cost this selfish, stupid obsession? It’s a folly of course. It isn’t even real. He is real. The warehouse is real.
I think about college athletes. The ones who didn’t make pro, but who tasted it just the same. You can’t ever forget that taste.
And yet... even if I can’t be an artist, I can live my life as a work of art. I could do that much.
My Andrew does. He does this like breathing. This boundless generosity in him; this lust for life he has.
But me, at work, somehow I allow myself to feel so beholden to tasks; I hardly remember to breathe. It’s just grind, grind, grind. End of the workday: shower, we make dinner, fall into bed. And that’s it. A whole day, gone. Weeks, months. Y----s. Oh, it’s the scariest thing.
What a brat I am, to want more, when really we are so lucky, so safe, so healthy. Etc, etc.
But this fifteen year old girl in me. When will she die?
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
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Stalker: A Gothic Thriller
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