Talking to Sage

Children amaze me — they cut to the heart of social pressures they see in the world around them. They have no filter, and they fear no judgment. Some conversations I have with the 7-year-old girl I babysit are gut-wrenching. Although her name begins with ‘S,’ it isn’t Sage. Given her 7-year-old wisdom, though, it fits.

S: Do you have a boyfriend?

Me: Nope.

S: Why not?

Me: Because I don’t want one. I had one, but we broke up.

S: Why did you break up?

Me: It’s complicated.

S: Well, why don’t you try to get a new one?

Me: Because I don’t really want one right now. Sometimes, boys are the worst.

S: Yeah, I know, because sometimes mommy and daddy argue, and daddy yells and makes mommy cry.

***

S: Holding her short hair behind her head in a ponytail I would look better like this. If my hair was long enough for a ponytail, I mean.

Me: You think so? I think short hair looks cute on you.

S: Thanks. Pause. I wish I looked like you.

Me: What do you mean?

S: I wish I had light skin like you. This dark skin makes me look dumb. And I wish my hair was blonde like yours.

***

S: Do you want to be a singer?

Me: Not really. I was a singer for a little bit, but I stopped.

S: What did you sing?

Me: Opera stuff, mostly. Usually in Italian.

S: Sing one for me. I comply. S listens with wide eyes. That was good. I want to grow up to be a singer, but I don’t know if it will work out. I don’t really like myself. But we’ll see.

 

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Talking to Sage

#FreeWriteFriday – Things fall apart

8:54 a.m.

Scientifically speaking, we are never together. We lose thousands of skin cells every minute — they slough off as we ride the bus and walk to the office and sit in a cubicle. They fall through the cracks of the keyboards and remain there in caked layers of whitish dust.

Each moment, we fall apart.

It’s interesting, I think, to notice flaws that make people human: a bra strap sticking out, a wrinkle in a trouser that’s perpendicular to the seam, one sock pulled inches higher than the other. ‘Put together’ is the goal, but detail trips us up.

None of us is perfect.

I stroll down the street in the image of a corporate world: pumps click, tailored skirt swishes, red lipstick stains my latte. My curls bounce; my mascara does not smudge.

Then, the straw splits down the middle. It knicks the edge of my lip. Red lipstick turns to blood.

Were my outward appearance a reflection of within, my hair would be a snarl, to start. I’d struggle to keep my shirt tucked, and every three steps one shoe would slip off at the heel. Coffee would stain my blouse front and my skirt would have a tear. I’d be sobbing one minute and singing the next —  natural responses to thoughts and memories too strong or sweet or bitter to repress.

Scientifically speaking, we jump to conclusions. The amygdala and the posterior cingulate cortex absorb details about behavior and appearance to make snap judgements.

They presume too much. Sometimes, they are wrong.

9:15 a.m.

#FreeWriteFriday – Things fall apart

#FreeWriteFriday – On the bus

Every day I take the bus to work. Public transportation is a godsend, and an interesting context in which to gauge human interaction. Little things happen all the time — a crossed gaze here, a side-eye there. They stick with you. (Title inspired by this Vox Magazine story in which several of my friends participated.) 

9:10 p.m.

When he boards the bus, I am already seated. He walks with a limp and his eyes are ever-so-slightly out of focus. The front of his orange striped polo is dusty. So is the back. He peers through rectangular glasses and under the brim of a close-fitting baseball cap. I’m not sure, but I hypothesize that the backpack he totes holds all his worldly possessions.

I’m sitting at the front of the bus in one of the three seats that face each other opposite the aisle. He is diagonally to my left in a front-facing seat. When I look up from my book, I find him staring at me. Our eyes meet. I look down again, but not before I see him nudge the man next to him. He whispers something. I look up again and find he is pointing at me.

Eyes locked on mine, he makes a circle in the air with his index finger — a motion that traces the circumference of my face from five feet away. Then he winks and gives a thumbs-up. He thumbs-up’ed my face, I think, shocked and a little pleased. Whatever traces then gene pool has left there, he approves of them.

I smile back at him, blush, look down again.

***

Now I’m in the front-facing seat and he’s in a sideways one. The little boy, that is. And he isn’t in the seat precisely. He’s squatting in his mother’s lap facing her and fiddling with the beads on her necklace. She’s talking to him, stroking his hair (done up in tiny braids) and doing her best to keep him entertained. Her own hair is in a slick knot on the top of her head. She looks tired.

I watch the two of them together, my eyes drifting in and out of focus. It’s early. Then, all at once, he’s looking back at me. Huge, calf-brown eyes stare into mine, scrutinizing me in the honest, open way of which only children are capable.

After a few seconds he remembers himself — remembers that, in our world run by social norms he is only beginning to learn, it is rude to stare.

He looks abashed and buries his little head deep in his mother’s sternum. For the rest of the ride I only see little braids.

***

While we were stopped on Congress and 11th, the ladybug flies in. It darts around the cabin for a bit and comes to rest on our windowpane. The man next to me jerks so sharply away from it that I’m afraid he’ll land in my lap.

I have the aisle seat; his seat is closest to the offending window. The insect appears to terrify him, although I’m not sure why.

“They don’t bite,” I tell him. He looks at me mistrustfully. “No, really,” I say, “watch.”

I reach up and deftly sweep the bug from the window into my open palm. The man shivers. “Be careful,” he says in heavily-accented English.

“It’s okay,” I say, “they’re completely harmless. They’re a type of beetle I think. I know they’re insects. They come in all colors: orange, red, yellow with black spots…”

He looks at me uncomprehendingly. Then his eyes fix on the cocoon I’ve made with my hands so the bug can’t escape. I’m planning to let it out when the doors opened at the next stop. From his attitude I am an insanely brave medieval knight taking on a full-fledged dragon without a sword.

The bus comes to a halt. I step lightly down the set of stairs separating the front of the bus from the back, hold my cupped hands out the open door and blow the ladybug into the air. When I return to my seat the man is slumped against the now-safe window, beads of sweat evident at his temple. He’s been watching me the entire time.

I feel positively heroic.

9:39 p.m.

#FreeWriteFriday – On the bus

#FreeWriteFriday – Smashing bottles in the street

12:06 p.m.

It was late in the party. Dark and sweaty in the tiny room and flailing bodies pressing in when suddenly he appeared at my elbow.

“Hey, want to see something awesome?” He held up a huge, empty glass bottle. A manic grin and we headed for the door and then we were

Outside with the cool night air rushing in,
sprinting through front yards, stamping grass into mud clots,
splashing puddles out of the way,
skirt aswirl ’round my legs, leaping retaining walls,
it was all I could do to keep up.

Finally, arrived on asphalt, we looked down the dark landing strip like pro bowlers. Wiggle of the hips, adjust the stance.
Then, the wind-up, a guttural shriek and, far away, the tinkle of shattered glass.

Our mutual fury, heartbreak, helpless, hopeless rage, something, exploding into tiny shards out there in the street. Blissful release is thinking of nothing but broken bottles and the blood pounding in your veins.

We stood, silent and transfixed, following with our eyes the arc it had made through the air.

He turned to me. “Want to do it again?” I looked at him. I smiled. I glowed. I soared, euphoric. “Yes.”

12:19 p.m.

#FreeWriteFriday – Smashing bottles in the street

#FreeWriteSunday – Forestry

Some advice about walking in the woods goes like this:
Be as quiet as you can. The birds will appreciate your
sensitivity.
Tread carefully. The earthworms will admire your
tact.
Do not trample the undergrowth. If you must at one point squeeze with great care between two saplings be sure to say
excuse me.

You are a guest in their house, now. But most of all follow the river.
It will not lead you astray.

#FreeWriteSunday – Forestry

#FreeWriteFriday – Walkers

5:17 pm

I drive past them often.

They troop up and down sidewalks. They carry bags or backpacks or books or nothing. They dress in hats and coats and scarves by which I define them — “the one in the red jacket” or “the one wearing a green striped hat.”

They are walkers. Some I know by name, others only by route or cursory glance. They stick to patterns I cannot distinguish but patterns nonetheless.

I stick to patterns too. I am a driver. A cozy shell of toyota camry ferries me from place to place. Open the door, turn the key, buckle the belt and I’m off. It’s quick, systematic and, aside from the occasional “hello darling” I throw at the camry when it beeps to unlock, completely impersonal.

Walking is different. It is trusting that your two legs will carry you where you want to go. It is self reliance and self confidence and sometimes misery because the wind is blowing or the rain is pouring but mostly it is freedom.

It is traipsing the streets with a mind that is not afraid to wander.

My mind, safely packaged in a metal box, travels pointedly from place to place to place. It does not wander. It does not get lost.

I envy the walkers.

5:38 pm

#FreeWriteFriday – Walkers

#FreeWriteFriday – Icemen

Sometimes #FreeWriteFriday and Valentine’s Day coincide. Sometimes you feel that this, in itself, is a sign from the Universe to be brutally, embarrassingly honest.

9:15 am

Rob parked his car next to mine but left it running. We would need the heat. I opened my driver’s side door to cross the snowy lot. Halfway around the hood of his car I tripped and slid on invisible ice. Uggs are not made for traction.

My arms shot out reflexively and I grabbed the frozen metal grille in time to keep from falling. I laughed at myself, got up, opened the passenger door, slid into warmth.

Rob was there to tell me why my relationship had ended.

Not with him, of course. With his roommate and best friend. He was the mediator – one of the best I know. He can take a tangled, twisted situation and make sense of it. He can pick apart snarled threads until something like the truth unravels, even if it’s a truth no one wants to face.

But I’d rather truth than empty words.

***

I teetered on the edge of the wooden deck, afraid to step into snow with my slick-soled leather riding boots. They were the black ones I’d worn out. The sparkly top, half-teased hair and smeared makeup were also souvenirs from going ‘out.’ I’d been ‘out’ for two days and two nights. In the middle of being ‘out,’ I’d gotten snowed in. I clutched a quilted coat around myself, my only source of warmth save the warm sweatshirted body behind me.

That body took a half step forward, kissed me on the top of my head, hugged me from behind and stepped back into the heated hallway.

“You can do it, Texas girl.” His voice was half teasing, half exasperated. I looked back into his smiling face, uncertain.

It was February of my sophomore year, and this was only the second or third time I would walk in snow. A deep breath and I started forward. I made it across the deck, down the stairs with much clutching of the handrail, through the front yard and halfway up 5th Street before I slipped. There was nothing to grab. My feet slid out from under me and I landed, hard, on my tailbone.

I scrambled up. The back of my leggings was soaked. I looked hastily around to see if anyone had seen – if he had seen – but he’d already disappeared back into the house. Back into his bed where I’d slept for two nights. Back into the world in which he only had to think of me occasionally.

Fraternities are not good for love. They are loud and unruly and testosterone-driven; they are full of the push to prove yourself to your brothers.

He did not love me there. But I loved him.

***

Rob and I were meeting on Thursday. I’d spent late Monday night and Tuesday and half of Wednesday at his house. We’d been snowed in together, the three of us.

We’d made nests on couches and dents in books and I’d watched them slam through games of solitaire though they were never alone, not in that tiny apartment with one extra inhabitant.

We had all escaped the confines of the walls for a few precious hours. Rob had walked one way and the two of us had walked the other, down snowy lanes to meet neighbors and their dogs and to chase plump robins to the edge of wintry underbrush.

On that walk he’d kissed the top of my head from behind too, arms wrapped around my midsection. Not until a particularly sleepless night did my racing mind make the connection between this year and last.

And during those days all cooped up together I’d fallen hard for him. His thin sentence underlines in black ink and his Michigan sweatshirt and the way he always asked if I wanted coffee or tea. At night we kept warm in his tiny bed and blanket mound.

If anything was off, I didn’t notice.

***

Two days living in a fraternity house had gone over well with me. I’d adapted. I’d borrowed a sweatshirt and braided my hair and been perfectly content watching round after round of FIFA, beer in hand. I’d bummed smokes on the back deck and listened to the boys’ gossip (yes, boys gossip) about girls. Occasionally I’d even chime in with a remark that made them all laugh. They liked me, I think.

Because when I bugged them to escape the house they obliged. Rising with groans from I-don’t-want-to-know-what-that-stain-is-from couches they bundled in layers and trudged out of doors.

He wore scrubs tucked into Nikes and rubber banded around the ankles. To keep the snow out, he said. We stole trashcan lids and tried to sled, but they sunk into the soft powder on the hill. There was a snow fight instead. He tried to shield me, but a chunk sailed over his shoulder and soaked my right ear.

At night I scoured his iTunes library. We reveled in middle school throwbacks and he sang Blink 182 out loud. We watched trashy comedies and horror flicks. I drew pictures on his dry erase board and shed my hair all over his black sheets.

If anything was off, I didn’t notice.

***

That morning I left the house giddy and glowing and sure of myself. Weeks went by. We talked, but not every day. That was fine, I told myself. Normal.

Then came months. I worked Dance Marathon and went to New York and got sick (mononucleosis) and turned 20. He fell off the face of my earth. One day, fed up, I pressed for closure.

We met on the concrete steps in front of the library. It was April; the snow had long since melted. I arrived first. He walked toward me, not quite meeting my eyes, and sat down at my side. Our conversation was a series of short, quick stabs to the gut.

He knew how I felt. It wasn’t enough.

***

Rob had music playing. Rob nearly always has music playing.

He sat in the driver’s seat and looked at me. I couldn’t take it. I curled into a ball. In a series of halting words I asked him to explain. He tried. In the end, it boiled down to a familiar story.

He knew how I felt. It wasn’t enough.

Rob watched me dissolve. He listened and listened and added sentences of his own when there was a pause. He gave me an ugly pillowcase from the backseat to wipe my nose. This was a luxury – so much space. A foot of fabric in place of the tissues we’d both forgotten to bring.

I would move on, he said, and I will. This I know from experience. It’s the stretch of time before the moving on that’s painful.

An hour later I opened his car door again and circled back to mine. For a second time I slipped on the ice, but I did not fall.

Snow will not lull me again into a false sense of security. It will not lure me again into the arms of men for whom I am not enough – enough to overcome distance or time or second guesses or the uncertain, fast-approaching Future.

I am enough. I am ready for spring.

10:17 am

#FreeWriteFriday – Icemen

#FreeWriteFriday – shouting in libraries

Thus begins, with all suitable pomp and circumstance (read: none), my inaugural #FreeWriteFriday. Yes, I’m posting it on a Saturday… only 11 hours late. As it’s the first one I see this as plenty of room for improvement. Moving on.

Garrett Richie (full-name status) explains the concept of a Free Write Friday quite eloquently here, but let me offer a summary. Short pieces produced in a limited timespan are given only cursory editing and posted. Why? Because doing something like this stimulates the creative brain. For too long I’ve struggled with blog posts, wondering what should I write about next?

With #FreeWriteFriday the answer is: anything.

***

9:42 a.m. 

We are obnoxious, the four of us. Talking loudly, attracting glares, but the manic light shines in our eyes and we can’t stop.

He wheels away from the desk toward our table: large, white, scattered with papers and half-highlighted words and note cards and stress.

“A word game,” he says. We three look up from our slouch-shouldered studies. “Every sentence has to end in a word with more than three syllables. Ready? Go.”

We
participate. The stress sloughs off like a discarded
exoskeleton. We are
illuminated.

We keep it up, staring across into another person’s pupils, trying to trip them up, laughing when something sounds ridiculous, delving deeper and deeper into our respective
vocabularies. To ourselves we are
ingenious. To those in a 5-foot radius we are
ridiculous. But we are also
intertwined.

The unspoken truth: we belong to each other irrevocably, if only for that one ephemeral
moment.

Two syllables. It’s over.

Back to the table, back to the notes. Drifting ever so gently back to reality and to the realization that our exam begins in 20 minutes. Our mild escape is
terminated.

10:23 a.m.

#FreeWriteFriday – shouting in libraries