They peruse the seating arrangements, their Dodge Poetry pamphlets and chapbooks tucked into their complimentary NPR tote bags that they received in exchange for their generous contributions to public radio. Many of these women are married to men with confused-looking blazers and uneven corduroy pants, shirttails untucked and dangling over their embossed leather belts that they bought while vacationing with their wives in Uruguay. The men have gray or white hair, sometimes tied back in unfortunate ponytails, and sit beside their wives, both halves of the couple jotting ideas into little notebooks.
I am young, wearing eyeliner and my jeans from Banana Republic and my hair still brown and shiny and blown dry this morning, but you can see that it is only a matter of time. I am wearing a cute shirt from a trendy store in a mall, but the cardigan I have chosen to wear over this shirt would not look out of place on an eighteenth century widow in an oil painting. I am not wearing a flowing floral skirt purchased from artisan weavers in Panama, but if you look more closely at my jeans you will notice that they are almost four years old and rather than buying a new pair of jeans in whatever style is currently fashionable, I have chosen to mend the inevitable threadbare patches in the crotch area by sewing fresh patches of denim into the inside of the pants with blue thread. I am only a few steps away from wanting to build my own house in the middle of the forest, living simply with my composting toilet and my Annie Dillard novel. I am not yet one of these women, but part of me, the part that has always admired the clothing in Eileen Fischer catalogs, wishes I were. I am seven, maybe eight years from donating money to either NPR or the Helena Rubenstein foundation. I am beginning to like cats.
This particular talk we have come to hear is called “The Riches of Daily Life,” and the speakers are Rachel Hadas, Sharon Olds, Marie Ponsot and a gentleman named Jerry Williams who, from a distance reminds me of Jeffrey Jones, the actor who played the Principal in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, who was later arrested for possession of child pornography.
The three women on the panel mirror their audience in appearance and temperament. They are impossibly quaint, speaking (I assume) about the riches of daily life and how they utilize these riches in their poetry, but I am not listening for the first few minutes of the lecture because I have opened a package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and am eating them in a manner befitting a five year-old. I have proceeded to stick my tongue through the middle of each cup, pushing out the center, which is the softest part, and leaving me with the hard chocolate peanutbutter-less ring of the outside. I hold two of these up to my eyes like opera glasses but immediately realize this is immature and quickly eat them. And when I say, of course, “I immediately realize this is immature,” I realize that the whole business of eating them like this is immature—not just the holding them up to my eyes part.
Rachel Hadas has a gray, shoulder length bob and, I am almost certain, a predilection for herbal teas, and she reads a few poems by other poets and a few that she herself has written. They are ok. This is the part where I am not paying attention maybe as much as I should be, so I don’t know what it is that she reads exactly. She is saying something about how the world gives us so much to work with—how everyday experience is littered with blessings and I am looking at my hands which are covered in chocolate and thinking what an idiot I am that I did not think to ask for napkins. I begin licking the chocolate off each of my fingers, much to the dismay of the people sitting behind us who came to see poetry but are instead subjected to a girl licking chocolate off her hands like Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I get most of the chocolate off my fingers and then wipe my hands on the very bottom of my jeans, promising myself that I will wash them when I get home.
Sharon Olds reads next and when you first glance at her she seems old because her hair is long and completely gray, and because she has a cane and because the word “Old” is right there in her last name, but I listen to her speak and read the poems she has selected and she seems, more than anything else, like an enormous little girl who has been turned old through some sort of spell. Her voice is constantly filled with wonder, which is probably why they asked her to do this particular reading—The Riches of Daily Life—as she comes across as someone who still marvels at butterflies and little green worms and if you went up to her and said, “Hey, did you know the word gullible’s not in the dictionary?” she’d say, “It’s not?” with genuine surprise. If Sharon Olds had seen me staring at her through my Reese’s Peanut butter cup eyeglasses she would have thought it was endearing—she would have gone, “Oh neat, look at that!” which appears to be her reaction to everything she has ever encountered in the world.
Marie Ponsot, the third reader, is ninety-one years old and before the reading begins she says into her mic, “It’s too bright. Can we turn the lights down, do you think? Does anyone have a hat?” And several balding men in their sixties lift the caps from their heads and shake them, going, “Here, we have hats!” and Marie Ponsot goes, “Oh, just any hat to shade my eyes from the lights,” and one gentleman tosses his hat up on stage and she puts it on and smiles. That is probably one of the riches of daily life, I think to myself. When you are a ninety one year-old woman and your eyes have been worn out by time and cataracts and almost a hundred years of trying to read the fine print on whatever the hell it is the IRS is mailing you, it must be nice to say, “Does anyone have a hat?” and have all the men excitedly wave their caps as if you are the prettiest girl in the room. Marie Ponsot reads a poem about herself as a young girl, running around in her Sunday clothes which, she stresses, was considered highly inappropriate at the time. Girls in that era did not run. The poem ends with the line, “This is the day the lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it,” and Marie Ponsot smiles defiantly and for whatever reason I get a little teary-eyed. I remember that line being read aloud in church when I was a child but had never taken it to heart, as something they were actually telling me I should do. It was something that I remember hearing over and over, read aloud in a dull, lifeless voice like the words, “Amen,” and “The lord is my Shepard, I shall not want,” which always made me think, “I shall not want what? What is it I’m not supposed to want?” It was read in the same voice which, prior to coming to this festival, was the one which came to mind when reading poetry.
“This is the day the lord has made,” she says. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it." She emphasizes the word "glad," when she reads. Not effusive or perfectly contented or maniacally happy.
"Glad," she says. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
“Ok,” I say. “I will try my best.”
After Marie Ponsot the Jeffrey Jones doppleganger reads. I am jolted to attention during this reading— not by his poetry, but by the fact that he is on this panel at all, as he reads his poems like a disillusioned seventeen year-old skateboarder. He is full of irony and skepticism and self-loathing, while the women look on politely, smiling and full of encouragement. He is like a forty-something year-old version of every ennui-filled twenty-something on the L train to Williamsburg, sitting on a panel with three good-natured grandmothers. He is like Keanu Reeve’s character from “Parenthood” who has somehow wound up on the set of Little Women.
“I have no idea why they put me on this panel,” the Jeffrey Jones poet says out loud, to the audience. “Not that I don’t want to be up here, but really—I have no idea what they were thinking.” He looks to the other women and Sharon Olds smiles at him lovingly, the way she smiles at everyone.
I both like and dislike the Jeffrey Jones poet. I like him because he is funny and thoughtful but I dislike him because he too self-effacing, hoping his cynicism will mask his insecurity. I tend to like and dislike people for the same reasons I like and dislike myself.
He reads a touching poem about his family but reads it with the voice of a sixteen year-old who is trying to distance himself from his consistently embarrassing mother. He is a teenager, both in awe of and mortified by his three loving mothers who are sitting with him on the stage, watching him at his first big reading, wanting both to impress them and to somehow be better than they are—much better. And he finishes the poem and says something along the lines of, “Well yeah—that’s it,” and the women look on, encouraging, and tell him it was very good. He looks down at his feet, unsure of how to think of himself and I look down at my own feet, focusing intently on the worn leather of my boots. I do not want to be an old woman covered in doilies someday, but I do not want to be a teenager forever either. I do not want to have long gray hair and loose fitting sweaters but I do, actually. I want to have that and be ok with it—to like it, even—but I am not there yet. I am still blow drying my hair and buying cute tops from stores in the mall and making fun of people who wear orthopedic shoes, even though I myself both receive and excitedly look through the FootSmart catalog when it mysteriously arrives at my house.
Someone in the audience asks a question about what sort of riches of everyday life move the poets and Rachel Haddas says that only two days ago at the college where she is a professor she came across a small yellow bird that had died by flying into a plate glass window. “It was so yellow,” she says, “that at first I thought it was a post it note. And then I got closer and I could tell it wasn’t a post it note but I thought maybe it was a banana or a banana peel.” She pauses and you can see her becoming a little sad, the way all of the women must get when then encounter tiny dead birds on the sidewalks of their towns. “It was perfectly intact,” she said. “Just lying on the sidewalk. And I felt like I should report it to someone, so I picked it up and brought it in to the library. And I showed it to the librarian on duty, who said, ‘Yes, that sometimes happens.’”
The reading ends shortly after that, and that evening, as we walk through Newark on our way back to the PATH station I notice a small gray bird lying perfectly intact on the sidewalk. It is tiny—only the size of a sparrow, and I want to pick it up the way Rachel Haddas picked up her dead bird, but I have eighteen years of my mother running through my head, going, “Never touch a dead bird. You don’t know what it died of.” And by the time I realize that wait a minute, I do so know what it died of, it died of flying into the plate glass windows of the skyscraper that is directly in front of me—I have already begun thinking, “Well, don’t pick up a dead bird anyway because it’s gross.” And then I think, “What the hell would I do with it anyway? Carry it onto the PATH train? Take it home?” I leave the bird silent and unmoving on the sidewalk but think about it the entire ride home.
The next day we arrive at the festival early for a reading on Women’s viewpoints in poetry. It is, for the most part, the same panelists, except that the Jeffrey Jones look alike has been replaced by a woman in a trench coat who looks a great deal like Diane Keaton, and Marie Ponsot has not yet shown up. Her chair sits empty on the right hand side of the stage. Rachel Haddas sits to the left in a neon green shirt with a pink dragonfly on it and Sharon Olds sits beside her in a flowing black skirt and black sleeveless blouse—exactly the same outfit she was wearing yesterday. The woman who looks like Diane Keaton is wearing rimless eyeglasses and has brown hair with bangs and is dressed the same way I would imagine Diane Keaton would be dressed had she been invited to speak at a poetry festival, exuding a frumpy elegance.
The man in charge of the festival walks out and says that Marie Ponsot has been detained for some reason but that we should begin without her. And Rachel Haddas begins to speak but all I can think about now is Marie Ponsot’s empty chair and what it is that’s detained her. She is, after all, ninety-one years old. Just as I am resigning myself to the fact that I will someday grow old, owning unflattering sweaters and no longer remembering to shave my legs on a regular basis, Marie Ponsot is resigning herself to the fact that she will not be around for much longer. To be ninety-one is to realize that in the not-so-distant future you will be pushing up daisies and your relatives will look down at your gravestone, crying over the loss, and you will not be around to explain to them that, “Yes, this sometimes happens.”
Sharon Olds reads next and everything she reads is wonderful. I once listened to hear read something called “Ode to a Composting Toilet” and fell in love with it and with her to the point that I wanted her to be either my mother or my best friend or my congressional representative. Today she is reading her poem about being a woman—one of the thirty thousand that she has written on this topic—and Marie Ponsot walks out suddenly, with an enormous grin, as if she is someone finishing a marathon. She walks out onto the stage wearing white orthopedic shoes and black velour pants and a black shirt with some green writing across the front. She apologizes that she is late but says that she slept in, and no one is angry that she is late. You can’t be angry that a 91 year-old woman is late to anything. Anyone who routinely gets angry at 91 year-old women should probably be thrown off a building. Of course this is just my personal opinion.
Marie Ponsot sits down and tells us that bodies are metaphors and begins reading a poem about modeling nude in her youth. I want to remember the poem to write some lines of it here but I neglected to write it down at the time so just now I tried to find it by googling the phrase, “Marie Ponsot posing nude” but wound up with little more than an awkward mental picture and an uncomfortable-looking search history on my computer. I do not know what sort of a metaphor my body is currently but it is probably something young and invigorating and exciting in the process of realizing that it will not be young or invigorating or exciting for much longer. My body is a little bird that will someday fly into a plate glass window. My body is a tree where only one leaf has turned yellow. If when you are young your body is a beautiful beach with palm trees and crystal blue water, my body is that place next to the beach with the showerheads for getting sand off your feet—the place where someone’s mother is holding a cooler and has two beach umbrellas worn over her back like quivers of arrows and she is going, “Wash all of it off, please. Nobody track sand into the car.”
We leave the festival and lie on the grass outside the NJPAC center in Newark in the bright sunlight. Jon squints at my face and then says to me, “You have a hair.”
“Right here,” he says, taking my hand and placing it on the underside of my own chin. “Do you feel it?”
“I feel it,” I said. “I’ll pull it out.”
“You won’t be able to,” he says. I try regardless and he leans in, squinting at my neck.
“You curled it,” he says.
“Can you get it for me?” I ask and he sighs softly because he gets uncomfortable when asked to pull hairs out of somebody’s neck in broad daylight at a performing arts center in Newark, whereas I am unaffected by these actions. He reaches over gently, grasping the hair between his fingernails. It comes out on the third try and he places it in my palm.
“It looks like a cockroach leg,” he says.
“Gross,” I say, while noting that this description is accurate. "It's so long. It does look like a cockroach leg."
“I even debated whether or not I should say that,” he says. “I thought, ‘It looks like a cockroach leg’ and then I thought, ‘I wonder if I should say that out loud?’”
“I’m glad you told me,” I say.
“Ok,” he says. "Good."
I hold the hair in my hand before letting the wind blow it somewhere into the lawn, mingling with the inevitable discarded hairs of poets and security guards and women in their early fifties who support arts education. Jonathan and I walk hand in hand through Newark. He is smiling and talking about the festival, making elaborate gestures with his hands. His hair is dark dark brown with a little bit of gray in it. In twenty years maybe it will be all gray, and he will have more wrinkles around his eyes and wear ill fitting plaid blazers and pleated pants. In twenty years he will have circulation-enhancing socks and a neoprene eyeglass strap, but that is fine. I am ok with all of that, or I will be by the time we get there. But that is a long way away and right now it is a beautiful Sunday in Newark and we are walking hand in hand to the train station and the grass of the NJPAC center is a brilliant, surreal green. There are crowds of sparrows sitting in the holes of a chain link fence and a butterfly circles above the highway. As we walk I take a second pack of peanut butter cups and open them, taking one and pushing my tongue through the middle, forming a perfect hole. I hold it up to my eye, glancing through it at my surroundings.
“This is the day the lord has made,” I think, as I realize the chocolate is touching my skin and slowly melting onto my forehead. I look at Jonathan and then at the clouds and then at the garbage along the highway. I peer through my slowly-melting eyepiece at the horizon and the tiny dead birds on the sidewalk. I look at the people walking in and out of the train station and the sad-looking woman on the bench by Dunkin Donuts and at my own hands, young and energetic, with chocolate smeared along the fingertips. I look at the arriving and departing trains and the schedules and track numbers frantically posted and I watch a man eating popcorn.
“This is the day the lord has made,” I think. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
Your honeymoon is when things start. You are with a person you love very dearly—someone you may have met at a party or online or through friends, but who you liked enough to take home to your family and say, “Thank you all very much for raising me to adulthood, but I am going to go off and live the rest of my life with this person I just met a few months ago in a bar on 2nd Avenue.” And your family goes, “Sure, that’s fine,” as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do, which by the way, it is. And you plan a wedding with cake and flowers and you hire a photographer who promises not to let your face get shiny and a DJ who swears that she will not play the electric slide or the chicken dance. And the wedding happens over the course of a few hours and everyone goes, “Wow, that was wonderful, we had a great time!” And then they go home and immediately go back to their normal lives and you look directly into the face of the person you have married and go, “Ok, so what now?”
The beginning of a relationship is plagued by questions like, “Why didn’t he call me?” and “Is she bipolar or is it normal for women to act like this?” and “Should I say I love you or wait for him to say it?” And the second part of the relationship is when you realize you will spend the rest of your life with this person, whether or not either of you has verbalized this. And once you have verbalized this; once you have said this out loud to them, you begin planning some sort of wedding. And once the wedding is over, that’s it. You look at the person you have decided to spend your life with and think, “Ok, so now we’re in this together.” Your getting married does not change anything about the nature of life or the concept of time, or the universe in general—the minute you are born you begin to die, but now, at least, you have company.
When most people think “romantic setting” they do not call to mind a volcanic plain covered in lizards, where a ten year-old in a life jacket repeatedly asks you to play cards. But that is their own problem, highlighting their inability to think outside the box. While the term “honeymoon” brings to mind images of twin beach chairs and poolside martini delivery service and private romantic bungalows with king-size beds, ours was spent in the matchbox-sized cabin of a boat that, when moving, recreated the feeling of trying to sleep while inside a clothes dryer. While we had intermittent periods in which we could lovingly gaze into each other’s eyes, we could also gaze into the eyes of an NYU Psychology professor and his boyfriend of ten years, an Asian family of five from Redondo Beach, two Ukranian physicists, two German biologists, and an Ecuadorian naturalist guide named, fittingly, Darwin.
The Galapagos islands are on a volcanic conveyor belt in the Pacific ocean, over a thousand miles off the coast of Ecuador. The islands are created by volcanic activity and spend millions of years traveling southeast. They inch slowly away from their point of creation, as if on an assembly line, becoming green and lush and developing diversified life forms—plants and bees and finches—bazillions of finches—will someone in design please put the finishing touches on the finches?—before reaching the end point and disappearing back into the ocean, being swallowed, I assume, by some sort of underwater trench. I felt bad for the elderly islands, so close to death, to being sucked under the water and destroyed in the bowels of the earth until I realized that the same thing will more or less happen to me some day, and I was forced to take my mind off my own demise by eating seventeen of the imitation Werther’s Original-like candies that sat untouched in the dining room.
The best thing about the Galapagos is the swimming with baby sea lions, but there are about a thousand million things all competing for second place. On our first day we take a short hike in which a yellow land iguana walks up to our group—walks right up to our shoes—and what you think first is, “It’s a fake iguana. Nothing in the wild would walk right up to us. It seems like an animatronic land iguana engineered by the people at Disney and it is going to say, “Hello!” and start talking to us about its lifespan and eating habits and hypothesize about how its species might have ended up in the Galapagos.” But it is a real iguana and it is, for whatever reason, curious. This is the only iguana on the trip that will do this. The rest of them will lie, indifferent, sunning themselves as you walk past, often with their legs splayed as if they had been dropped from a helicopter.
The iguanas are prehistorically beautiful and freakish. We see land iguanas and marine iguanas and one day after snorkeling we notice that a tortoise the size of a roll top desk is slowly wandering through our belongings on the beach, gazing at a pair of New Balance Sneakers that are sitting on the sand behind a pile of towels. Those are what you think of when you think of the Galapagos islands—the tortoises. They were hunted nearly to extinction by explorers in every century except the present one, which is not difficult to understand, given that their speed is only slightly slower than that of a nursing home resident walking waist deep through molasses. The turtle eyes the sneakers—perhaps imagining some updated version of the Tortoise and the Hare in which he has several corporate sponsors, his shell littered with Nike swooshes and Gatorade logos—and walks off into the brush. The NYU professor begins madly snapping pictures of its rear end as it wanders into the grass. That is something all of us do. We take rapid fire pictures of anything and everything. “There’s a flightless cormorant! A shark! There’s another shark! Penguins! Baby Marine iguanas!” The animals not being afraid, there is no real need for a zoom lens, as you can squat inches from anything living on the island and it will stare blankly at you for upward of thirty minutes while you snap two hundred pictures of it from various angles.
As much as you love the excursions you learn to love the boat that has temporarily become your home. This is not your real home—the post-honeymoon home to which you will return with 3 CDs full of photographs and restlessness and the vague desire to get a puppy. But for now, during your honeymoon, this is your home and your family. You are a newly married couple and if people ask, “Do you have kids?” you violently shake your head no, but if they ask, “Do you have two Ukranian Physicists, two German biologists, and an Asian family of five from Redondo Beach?” you smile with pride and say, “Yes. Yes we do.” You talk for hours with the Psychology professor from NYU and his boyfriend, the only people who live close enough that you might have kept in touch after returning from the trip, except that they are (go figure) moving to Abu Dhabi seven days after arriving back in New York. You play cards with the family from Redondo Beach as their youngest daughter (who is five) regales you with tales of things her mother has said she is allowed to do, using the word “actually” twice in every sentence and tugging at your pants when she feels you have stopped listening. She is tiny—just tall enough to reach the lightswitches, and has bangs cut straight across her forehead and is always laughing and smiling and running around the deck and talking in long, surprisingly complex sentences, occasionally using the words “endemic” and “ecosystem.” Her sisters are ten and fifteen. The eldest is in the midst of being a teenager, lovable but despondent and hopeful for attention, and the ten year-old is trapped in the inbetween. She is too old to be blissfully innocent—strangers do not talk to her without reserve in supermarkets anymore—but she is not old enough to know why her older sister is frustrated and upset. She is trapped in limbo between the joy of believing in Santa and the agony of hating your mother and her stupid goddamn haircut and why the hell can’t I stay out till ten thirty if everybody else is staying out till ten thirty? And there is always Darwin who stands at the head of the table, shyly answering questions, quietly explaining how they are trying to save the Galapagos ecosystem. He is always thoughtful and serious except that one time, when I am snorkeling far from the shore I come up to rest for a moment and see him alone on the beach, running back and forth, doing Scott Hamilton-style backflips.
The third day on one of the islands we are playing with baby sea lions. They walk after you manically on the beach as if you had dropped your wallet and they are desperately trying to return it to you. They are fat and happy and, there’s that word again, playful, except for one which is thin and tired and Darwin tells us that if the mother of any of the babies is killed, the baby will also die. He looks at the sea lion solemnly. Its head is cradled in the sand and it is curled, lying anxiously on its side, its ribs showing through its skin. This is one of the last days this particular sea lion will be alive, and the five year-old has particular trouble with this, as do I, as we do not normally live in a world in which it is ok for adorable baby animals to die. We tentatively leave the beach to resume the rest of our vacation but the three girls fall silent and even the Ukranians and the Germans peer over their shoulder at the baby sea lion, as if to say I’m sorry or pay their last respects. A few days later we come to an island where there is the carcass of a baby sea lion curled on the beach and it is sad, but not as sad as seeing a live one approach various mothers, needling them for attention the way the five year-old on our boat comes up to me, hoping that I will run around the deck with her. It is hard to watch the constant rejections from various sea lion mothers, one dismissal after another until the baby resigns itself to lying curled in the sand, waiting, possibly forever.
It is not that we don’t know about death. We come across the enormous skeleton of a Minke whale, the bones bleached white, and the five year old strikes a Vanna White pose in front of it, “Ta Da!!” gesturing to it as if it were something you could win. “This 2005 premium condition Minke whale skeleton, valued at 25,000 dollars!”
We know that things will die and we know that new things will be born. We visit an island heavily populated by blue-footed boobies and see, within the first five minutes of arriving, a mating dance, an expectant couple, the male switching and taking his turn on the nest, and a third pair with a hatchling in the process of crawling from the egg. It is like watching a living textbook—this is how baby birds are made. We look back and see the male booby still lifting his feet and extending his legs, hoping that the female will find this irresistibly attractive and want to “come up for a cup of coffee.” The psychology professor takes hundreds of pictures and promises to give me copies of them, as I have forgotten my camera on that particular excursion. His boyfriend takes photos of Jonathan and I standing by the cliff, the horizon stretched out behind us and says, “These pictures are really sweet.” And I ask, “Sweet like, endearing? Or sweet like, “that’s a sweet car,” and he laughs and says, “Sweet like endearing.” I kiss Jonathan on the top of his arm, in the place where people sometimes have vaccination scars.
We walk through the rest of the island talking with the psychology professor and his boyfriend, with whom we have a great deal in common. That part was unexpected. You arrive at the boat and look at the people you will be spending your time with and wonder what on earth you will talk about with a Ukranian couple in their early fifties who were physicists working during the cold war since you are a waitress at a French restaurant near the World Trade Center. But you remember, suddenly, that people do not happen upon the Galapagos the way you happen upon the world’s biggest ball of yarn while driving cross country—to come here is a deliberate move and anyone who is here wanted to come here very much. We hike together and return to the boat, all of us poring over pictures of fish we think we have identified. We crowd around Darwin and ask about the mating habits of different species and why turtle eggs will be female if the temperature is above or below a certain point and we look at each other and go, “Aha, that’s why!” and we are all genuinely excited. I realize at one point that I am able to identify all four types of Galapagos mangroves and am dismayed that this knowledge will in no way help me become a better waitress, comedian or SAT tutor. But we all know them. Black, white, red and button mangrove. The psychology professor points over the side of the boat and yells, “Puffer fish!” and all of us scramble to see them. His boyfriend stands at the front of the boat looking for whales and I stand with him and he and I several times scream out, “Whale! No…wait. Not a whale. Wave. It was a wave. Sorry. I’m an idiot.” And we finally do see a whale—its endlessly arched back topped with a diminutive dorsal fin—“Whale! Really a whale this time!”—and the German couple pull out a zoom lens for their camera the size of a roll of cookie dough. Everyone is giddy. We are like an excited first grade class.
So the best part is swimming with baby sea lions and the scariest part, aside from maybe the sharks, is leaving and realizing that you have your whole life ahead of you and that you are not entirely sure what you are doing with it yet. We spend the last night on the deck looking at a pelican perched on the boat, while the Ukranian and German couples try to locate the southern cross amongst the stars. We exchange e-mail addresses and the girls beg me to recite the Animaniacs song that lists all the presidents of the United States, but I refuse because I have already done it once that day—I explain to them that the other adults will kill me because having to hear that song more than once is annoying. The fifteen year-old says that she will try to facebook us and the Germans nod politely and smile at everyone and the Ukranians give a long, enthusiastic speech about how wonderful of a time they have had and how happy they are and how this has been maybe the most amazing trip of their lives. Darwin thanks us and says sheepishly that he will miss us, that we have been one of his favorite groups. And the next day at the airport we huge everyone goodbye—the Ukranians grabbing us up in enormous bear hugs and grinning and all of the girls saying goodbye and then last of all we are forced to leave the Psychology professor and his boyfriend who were our favorites, and as we hug them the phrase, “I’ll miss you most of all, Scarecrow,” runs through my head, and the psychology professor hangs his head and says, “I hate saying goodbyes. I’ve always been bad at goodbyes.”
And I silently say goodbye to the islands and to Darwin and to all the animals that I stepped over or walked past. I walk onto the plane with Jonathan, who I do not have to say goodbye to. He is the person who I met online who I took home to my family and said, “Thanks so much for raising me and everything, but I met this person on the internet and I’m thinking about living with him for the rest of my life.” I hold onto his hand. I will have to say goodbye to Jonathan someday, eventually, but hopefully not for a long time—four or five decades at least, if I am lucky. Eventually he and I will go the way of the motherless baby sea lions or the Minke whale, but there is a lot that happens between now and then, so there is no point dwelling on it.
We sit side by side on the plane, Jonathan and I, smiling at each other. The only souvenirs, aside from the photos we have taken, are two green T-shirts that say, “Parque Nacional Galapagos.” Jonathan asks the woman if they are pre-shrunk and she assures us that yes, they are. We head home, delirious, from our honeymoon. And nineteen thousand people ask us what our favorite part of the trip was. And both of us immediately reply, “Swimming with baby sea lions.” Which is true. The swimming with baby sea lions was the best part because first off, baby sea lions are adorable and have huge awkward flippers and enormous eyes. But also because they are mammals and, aside from the Ukranian Physicists and adorable five year-olds from Redondo Beach, they are the things in the Galapagos to whom I am most closely related. You cannot identify with a shark or an albatross, but it is easy to project your own feelings onto the sea lions—that they are happy, sad, thoughtful, lonely or curious.
We arrive home. Jonathan wears his Galapagos shirt the next week and a man on the subway enthusiastically strikes up a conversation with him. It is exciting, talking to other people who have been there. Who will say, “Yes! I know! Red, White, Black and Button mangroves!” And Jonathan washes his shirt and go figure, it shrinks, and he is notably upset. And I decide to surprise him by finding the shirt online and ordering him a new one, except that of course that shirt does not exist anywhere on the internet. There are shirts that have enormous sting rays and neon scribbles on them that say, “Galapagos!” and ones that say, “I heart boobies,” that are accented by a pair of blue feet, but we do not want those. I find a site for a non-profit—the Galapagos Conservatory—that sells some shirts that look similar to his and because I do not know what else to do, I write them a letter.
I have what feels like an incredibly vapid, stupid question regarding the items you sell online through your site, so forgive me in advance for asking it. Do you ever sell the Galapagos Parque Nacional T-shirts with the Tortoise and the Hammerhead shark logo on them? We just got back from the Galapagos and bought only one souvenir to remember the trip...a size Medium sea green parque nacional t-shirt. And though the woman said the shirt was pre-shrunk, no sooner did we wash it than it shrunk so drastically that my husband can't wear it without looking like a thirteen year-old transvestite prostitute.
And it's just a stupid shirt, but we were sort of heartbroken. I can’t totally explain why. I figured I would be able to find it easily online and surprise him with a new one but I can't find it anywhere. This site seemed to have things similar to it so I figured I'd ask if it's something you once sold or may sell in the future. Please let me know-- if I can somehow purchase one through the site I'd happily donate some additional money to the cause.
Thank you and sorry for the stupid question. I just don't know who else to ask.
And I sent the letter into the void, only to receive a reply two days later from someone saying, “I was touched by your letter, particularly by your description of your husband in his shrunken T-shirt. I will be visiting the Galapagos later this month for a meeting. Send me a picture of the shirt and I will try to pick you up a new one when I am down there.”
And I was somewhat floored but sent a photo attached to my next e-mail, and three weeks later we received a package from someone who I later learned is the president of the Galapagos Conservatory, with the T-shirt in a larger size and a note saying, “The next time I’m in Jersey City you can buy me a beer.”
The best thing about the Galapagos—you can say it by heart with me at this point, can’t you? The baby sea lions. I know. I repeat myself. But the second best thing is also the feeling of community. The camaraderie between other people who have been there and who care about it and who love it, even though their normal life has almost nothing to do with sea turtles or mangroves or flightless cormorants. Even though they sit in offices or on subways or in traffic, they have the memory of floating in the middle of the ocean, miles from anything, realizing that whatever it was they were worrying about is probably not that important in the grand scheme of things.
Jonathan and I wake up in our own bed. One wall of our bedroom is painted brown and our comforter is blue, like the ocean. Not windex blue, like the shallow snorkeling water, but blue the color the ocean is painted on a map or a globe. This is the bedroom we will wake up in for at least the next couple of years, which is fine. Jonathan will get up and go to work and I will get up and go to work and we will both do some things each day, occasionally in each other’s company, and will go back to the bedroom and go to sleep. Most of the time nothing exciting will happen, which is why it is important to marry someone you really like. Because most of your life will be boring, so at least it will be boring with someone you love and care about who will laugh with you about how boring it is. I think of the line from the movie, Hook, that goes, "So...your adventures are over," and wonder if that has become true for us. Our adventures are over. For the first few weeks after the honeymoon we will squeal the phrase, “Baby sea lions!” at each other, but after a while we realize that that part of our life is officially finished and that it is time to move on.
I have no idea what I am doing. My adventures are not over but whatever new ones I face will be completely unfamiliar to me and I will be wholly unprepared for them, even with thirty years worth of life and experiences behind me. I turn to Jonathan who is sitting at his desk sending an e-mail and ask, “So, what now?”
He does not know either. But he turns to me, with confidence in his uncertainty, and sucks in his breath.
"Well," he says, “let’s think about getting a puppy.”
When I read the article, I nodded critically through the first paragraph, which described a woman using an elliptical machine who was simultaneously watching TV, listening to her iPod and checking her e-mail.
“Not good,” I thought. “If I were on an elliptical machine,” I said to myself, “I would be content just to think really deep thoughts and be at peace with myself and not do any of that nonsense like the woman in the article.” Reading articles about people who are overly dependent on technology arouses a bizarre self-righteous streak, based on the fact that my iPod is broken and I have not gone to fix it—ignoring the fact that the reasons I have not fixed it have much more to do with laziness than with an aversion to using it. Also, I remind myself, the woman in the article is self-motivated enough to go to the gym and use the elliptical machine. Still, I think—I must be a little bit better than she is. Somehow.
Today a woman on a bicycle rode past me—her phone pinned to her ear with her shoulder, having a conversation that did not even appear to be that important. I do not even listen to my iPod while I ride my bike because I would crash into a storefront window within 45 seconds, and I have never ridden my bike while watching TV and checking my e-mail, but again—I remind myself that I have done other things that might not be shown in a cycling safety video and that might be looked upon by my mother with displeasure. Jumping to mind immediately is my experience the other day riding my bike in traffic, which is dangerous to begin with, but I was certainly not helping matters by balancing an eleven gallon plastic garbage can from Bed Bath and Beyond on the tiny handlebar basket that was designed to hold quaint bags of locally grown Macintosh apples or fresh baguettes or impulsive tulip purchases.
And if you absolutely must balance a garbage can on your handlebars, let it be empty, rather than stuffed with your rain jacket and an umbrella and two packs of Ghirardelli peanut butter and chocolate squares and a bottle of shampoo and a toilet brush from the dollar store. There can be something romantic about a person on a bicycle, but the image of a young girl riding carefree down Parisian city streets is painfully incongruent with what I was attempting. I had placed the garbage can’s base in the bike basket and had tipped it back so that it was resting at a 45 degree angle. My hands gripped the handlebars, but my index fingers were outstretched in a feeble attempt to keep the garbage can from shifting side to side, and I was wearing my purple and blue Headwinds! helmet that was really cool looking when Pam got it for Christmas back in 1993, but which now made me look like a psychedelically-colored toadstool, struggling to balance the plastic monolith of a garbage can, navigating along a street with only slightly fewer craters than the moon.
This extremely precarious situation, which seemed as though it would end in a puddle of exploded shampoo and blood and Ghirardelli chocolate littered with plastic garbage can shards ended with me arriving home safely, incident free, with a completely intact garbage can in under 5 minutes.
Now here is another situation. I am walking out of the Brooklyn Bridge subway stop in the early evening. I am sending a text to a friend—so first off, there goes my claim at technological self-righteousness—I am walking while sending text messages that are not even that important. I am sending a text about how my tooth is falling apart, which is both true and painful and I don’t have much to say about it now other than, “brush your teeth, kids,” which will do nothing to persuade any generation of children to brush their teeth. Very few things will get kids to brush their teeth. Jonathan brushes religiously and never eats sugary candy and when I asked why he does that he said that when he was young he had a hot, blonde, Brazilian dentist who wore high heels to work and who made him swear he would stop eating candy after he needed 6 fillings over the course of a summer.
“When you’re a thirteen year old boy and your unbelievably sexy dentist tells you to stop eating candy, you just stop,” he explained.
So on a totally unrelated note—if you are trying to keep your children from ruining their teeth, there’s your answer. Hot dentists. After all the time and money wasted on promotional materials for Fluoride and high-end toothbrushes, the one thing that gets kids to brush regularly is a reminder from someone who looks like a Brazillian soap opera protagonist but whose name is followed by the letters D.D.S.
But it’s far too late for me and I was sending a text about how my tooth was falling apart and how much money I will have to spend in the upcoming years on dental work, and then following it with another text about the other ways in which I could have spent the money. (Vacations and real estate and large philanthropic donations to agencies that help children with cleft lip palates). And I looked up from the second text and put the phone away, in my pocket. But my mind was still elsewhere—that was the problem. My mind was still swirling through the future of my teeth and my dental work and the various types of pain I would have to endure and why it was so hard for me to stop eating family-size packs of Twizzlers when other people my age do not seem to be buying Twizzlers with the same relative frequency with which I myself purchase them. I was juggling all of this in my mind and was waiting to feel my pocket vibrate from my friend’s return text, and was running my tongue over my back molar in disappointment when, without warning, I walked directly into a man’s stomach.
I say specifically that I walked into a man’s stomach rather than “I walked right into someone,” because the experiences are different. To walk right into someone involves a bony, painful collision—a jagged tangle of the sharp-angled limbs of New Yorkers, but to walk into someone’s stomach is a softer experience—like being in a moon bounce, or like the comfort of your head hitting the pillow except instead of your head it is your whole body and instead of a pillow it is a man in a striped pink and yellow and white dress shirt who is ridiculously embarrassed because he was not really paying attention to where he was going either.
I remember exactly what he looked like, because he looked like a Japanese version of William Shatner, which was a jarring enough image to lodge itself in my short term memory. He had a jolly, rotund appearance, which are not adjectives that usually come to mind when I am describing Japanese people, but perhaps that was why he was walking through downtown Manhattan, distracted—he had been ousted from his homeland by a coalition of thin, severe, business-like Japanese people who forbade him to return until he had lost weight and adopted a less jovial outlook on existence. He was walking toward me, his expression happy but wistful, staring out at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. And I continued walking toward him, thinking, “He is going to move. At any second he is going to swerve to avoid hitting me, so I will just keep going straight. And we both continued walking toward each other at our constant speeds, like the trains in that math problem that left New York and Chicago at 1:05AM and 5:24AM respectively, and which are bound to meet in the middle at an undisclosed time. And when we were separated by a distance of no more than five feet he swiveled his head forward and noticed me but the shock of eye contact prevented either of us from moving off course at all, and that is when I walked directly into his stomach.
And one stereotype I have formed based on the Japanese people I have met is that they are extremely polite. And politeness being one of the few things my mother tried to teach me that took root (as opposed to, perhaps, not riding your bicycle with an eleven gallon garbage can balanced on the handlebars) I am also overly apologetic when I accidentally bump into people. And so I hit his stomach and began bouncing backward, away from him, and his face contorted with what seemed like unimaginable grief and he began crying out, “I’msoh-ree I’msoh-ree I’msoh-ree!” and I began saying, “Oh my god, I’m so sorry! Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” And he extended his open palms toward me, fingers outstretched, as if to demonstrate that he held no ill will in his hands and said again, “I’msoh-ree I’msoh-ree!” And I said “I’m SO sorry! I’m SO sorry!” and we both nodded and continued walking past each other.
And I don’t know that I learned anything from walking into him, since I’m certainly not going to stop texting while I walk. Emailing and listening to an iPod while on the elliptical—that I wouldn’t start since anyone who would do that is so obviously dependent on their devices and can’t just relax and enjoy the experience of being alive and it’s sad, isn’t it? For those people? But not me. I’m fine. I have no problems with trying to do too many things at once or with technology or with dependency. I’m totally fine. I bumped into one Japanese guy but that’s not a huge deal. But it was funny when it happened, which is why I decided to text my friend to let her know what had just happened. And as I texted I casually went through the turnstile for the PATH train, except that if you are busy texting someone about your funny encounter walking into a Japanese guy you will forget to swipe your card at the turnstile, and if you don’t swipe your card it is not so much a “turnstile” as it is a “vagina-smashing machine.”
And walking into a non-moving turnstile at full force is not like walking into a man’s soft belly. It is like someone hitting you in the genitals with a bat. Which is different. And painful. And may have done permanent damage. Although if you’re really worried about wearing out your body and doing permanent damage, the elliptical machine is supposed to be great for that—you can get a full day’s exercise with very little pressure on the knees and joints and if you’re so inclined you can go through your e-mail, watch TV, listen to your iPod, and check your text messages in case your idiot friend has sent you another message, telling you to guess what head-on collision she encountered today. You can laugh about it from your elliptical machine.
Some things you figure out quickly. Anyone who so much as walks in to the restaurant and asks to eat there, you already know they’ve got a decent amount of money, since it’s not a cheap place. If it’s a party of three people and they’re all men in white collar dress shirts holding laptops, they are business people—probably in finance—who are going to sit at their table going over whatever boring presentation they will have to stay at the office late to finish, staring at the same computers they will use later in the evening to kiss their children goodnight through a skype video screen. If it is two women coming in it is usually girlfriends who work at fairly well-paying office jobs. They will want to have a glass of wine if they think they can get away with it and will tell fun stories about coworkers that are scandalous and will laugh throughout their lunch date, making me wish that I were out with one of my friends and that I could sit down and have a glass of wine, and that I could wear classy wool dresses with matching jackets without constantly worrying that I would spill sauce or dressing on them. Most days a large, awkward man comes in by himself, with a tote bag emblazoned with the logo of a charity on it and eats a bowl of oatmeal by himself with a decaf coffee, and he is always very polite but always pays in cash so I don’t know his name. But I know that he is not a business person and that he is not meeting a girlfriend for a quick lunch, and I know that he clearly has somewhere to be because he is always politely in a rush and never stays more than fifteen minutes.
And it’s not that you’re scrutinizing these people, but you have to learn about them as quickly as you can because it’s your job to make them happy and you’ve only just met them two minutes ago and the only question you’ve asked them is whether they would like bread and whether tap water is ok.
A bunch of people come in at once because that’s how it always is in restaurants and retail stores. It’s one of the unexplained mysteries of the universe. No one will come in for an hour and you will stand there, wishing you could finish the crossword puzzle you started on the train or read a chapter of whatever book you were reading or log on to your facebook account and type in, “is bored” as your status, and then seven parties will show up at the same time, all sitting down at once, asking why you are understaffed. In this rush there are two couples where the guy is clearly in finance, one mother with a new baby meeting a friend, two sets of girlfriends, two Europeans, and a family.
So right off the bat I get started—everyone gets water and the European couple get sparkling water because Europeans are biologically unable to drink non carbonated water—it will make them lose their accents and their sense of style and they will start forgetting current events and the names of various world leaders. Everyone gets bread and I run through the menu with everyone because there are some things on the menu that are very good and there are some things that are not so good and I want the people to order the good things so that after their meal they will go, “You were right! That was amazing! You are the best waitress in the history of time!” And I will say, “Thank you! Wasn’t it wonderful! I know!” and get all excited. And I will stand there, beaming as if someone has pinned a gold star to my chest.
Sometimes the people will say, “Is this appetizer with the olives good?” and you can’t say, “No, it’s terrible-- it will give you dry mouth.” But you can point out the things on the menu that will not give you dry mouth and strongly hint at those, and you can keep mentioning to the manager that we should really take the olive appetizer off the menu because every time someone insists on ordering it you feel overwhelmingly guilty, even though you are neither Jewish nor Catholic.
The last order I take is the one for the family—not because I save them for last, but because they were not ready to order for ten minutes or so. And I try to look at them and figure them out. They are all very well dressed, but you don’t really know what anyone’s like until they’ve talked for a little bit. And I walk up to them and say, “Hi” and ask how they are and the mother says, “We’re ready to order” without looking up, and then says, “Emma?” And the mother is not smiling and the young girl goes, “May I please have the burger and a coke?” And I say, “Of course.” And she says, “Thankyouverymuch,” and smiles at me because I am smiling. And her brother says, “May I please have the chicken, please?” And I say, “Absolutely,” and he says “thank you very much” and smiles, like his sister.
Both kids are smiling and I am making a sort of wacky ‘neither of your parents is looking at us so I am making faces at you’ face, and they both smile and laugh a little. And I say, “Wow—you guys are so ridiculously polite. I am so impressed.” Which is true. I am. And the mother says, “Daniel? Daniel?” to the father, but he is on his cell phone and holds up his hand to indicate that he cannot talk yet. He is wearing sunglasses at the table, and a light blue polo shirt and an artsy necklace that I can tell was very expensive and that he probably bought somewhere in SoHo but that looks very stupid on him. It was intended to make him look hip and like a player, possibly, despite his two children in tow, but it mainly makes him look very sad and it makes his neck look sort of fat.
“So the mother says, “Daniel?” and then sighs loudly and the little girl frowns and pretends to be very busy fidgeting with the room card key, since they are staying in the hotel next door. And the mother says, “You know what? Just get him this,” and she points on the menu to a description of a strip steak. “Just order us one of those and we’ll just share it.” And when she has made clear what she wants she immediately ceases to notice that I exist, and begins staring across the table at her husband with a blank, mildly irritated expression. I step away from the table, which is eerily quiet. Several minutes later I notice that the husband has moved to the table by the front door to continue his conversation and that the mother and children are still not talking. The little girl continues gripping the room key card.
Their food comes and the father sits back down with them. I ask if they need anything else and the mother says, “No, we’re fine,” and they eat in silence. And they ask for the bill and pay it and halfway through the process the father begins making another phone call, getting up to sit at the table by the doorway. And the mother gets up and goes, “Daniel, I need the room key. Daniel? Daniel, we need the room key, do you have the room key? Didn’t you say you were holding on to the room key?” And Daniel puts up his hand to indicate that this phone call is way too important to be interrupted and the whole time I am thinking, “Emma has it. Your daughter has the room key. Was no one else at the table paying attention? She’s been holding it for thirty minutes.” And finally the daughter pipes up quietly and says, “I have the room key.” And the mother takes it and the three of them walk up to their room and the father follows, ten minutes later, hanging up his phone and sauntering into the hotel.
It is always hard to see people who are so fundamentally unhappy and be unable to do anything other than offer them orange juice. Most people are just normal amounts of unhappy, which means they’re just tired or their hair looks terrible that day and they know it, or they have so much work in their inbox they’re thinking of setting their cubicle on fire and admitting themselves to the inpatient unit at a local mental hospital. And you can fix that—or not fix it so much as distract them from it or remind them (without actually reminding them) that it is not the end of the world. And they will laugh about it and drink their diet cokes and leave thinking that things will maybe be ok and that they will not admit themselves to the mental hospital just yet and will only set fire to a few of the things in their inbox.
But this is what got me today…the thing that is even harder than seeing people who are fundamentally unhappy is seeing fundamentally unhappy people with children who are still a little bit innocent. Because I always feel like I am watching a smiling seven year-old, confused as to why her mother will not look at her, and am giving her a death sentence. “Here,” I am saying. “Here you go, girl who smiled when I payed attention to her. Go live with this woman and this man for the next ten years and I promise when you’re finished you’ll have nothing left to smile about.”
There is something so difficult about watching and being unable to do anything. Obviously I cannot just pick up the kids, one under each arm, and say, “I’m sorry but you folks are doing a shitty job and I’m taking your two kids to live with me in my apartment so that they won’t grow up to be miserable people.” As a waitress you are not allowed to kidnap the children of your customers. That’s one of the basic rules of waitressing—right up there with, “greet people within two minutes after they are seated” and “always have your hair tied back.”
The European couple is done eating and a pair of women at table 10 are making a friendly motion indicating that they need more coffee. I go up to them to see if there is anything else they need. If they want dessert I will recommend the chocolate mousse, which is amazing, or whatever that peach thing is with the raspberries that we sell. I make a mental note to remember the name of it so I don’t have to call it “the peach thing with the raspberries,” in the future. The Europeans want lattes, they say politely. I wonder if, in addition to the lattes, I can convince them to adopt two sad-looking American children trapped in a horrible family but probably I will have no luck. American children have spent years drinking regular non-sparkling water right out of the tap and they don’t know the names of many world leaders and the Europeans would be unable to relate to them. Maybe the two women will want to adopt them, except probably not since they have to go back to the office after this and they have about 30 thousand hours of paperwork to go through over the next two days. They will feel bad about not adopting them, because they are nice women, but rules are rules. You cannot steal kids from a family even if you feel bad for them. You have to just keep doing your thing—whatever your thing is—administrative nonsense or waitressing or boring powerpoint presentations about projected profits for some stupid company. You cannot just take people’s kids away from them just because they are doing a bad job.
My manager tells me I’m cut for the day and I print out all my paperwork and tip out my busboy and my runner and my bartender and get ready to leave. As I walk toward the stairs the family re-emerges from the hotel, each with a rolling suitcase in tow. The doorman says, “Cab?” and the mother says, “Cab. Get us a cab,” and the father is still on the phone, ignoring everyone. I look at the little girl, who is gripping the handle of her rolling suitcase. She looks over briefly and I make a ridiculous face, which is even more ridiculous given that I am aware of the general unhappiness of the situation. I cross my eyes and pull my jaw to one side and stick my tongue out for an instant, making sure that her parents don’t see what I am doing.
And she smiles for a split second and then looks down at the ground immediately.
And I think, “I’m sorry that there’s nothing else I can do for you.” And if she could read minds she would nod and say, “It’s fine. Thank you so much for trying.”
And I would say, “That’s what I love about you kids—you’re so polite.” And she would smile, gently, without her mother seeing, and say, “Thank you so much for noticing.”
Pam and her husband Joe. The "normal ones in the family."
Too Famous. No pictures.
Ew, gross. Kissing.
There were dinner rolls...
...and confusion about how the camera worked.
And as "they" say (whoever "they" are), "All's well that ends well."
When your cousins eat half the flowers out of your centerpieces, the wedding is considered a success.
I stand by the top of the escalator, waiting but wanting to run, wanting to be home, doing this horribly impatient thing I do where I keep looking up and going, “Maybe the rain has stopped now? No… now? No, now?” And there are only 3 or 4 seconds between ‘nows,’ as if I am hoping god will notice that I am anxious and will go, “Oh, Raquel, I am so sorry! Let me make it stop raining for you!”
This is a thing I do a lot lately, I find. I will be anxious and check things again and again. Lately if am trapped in the house for a day with nothing to do I will occasionally update my Facebook status and then look back to see if anyone has commented on it. And then look back again. And then look back one final time, and no one has said anything or even ‘liked’ it and I go, “Ok, I guess I am worthless then,” even if it has only been seven minutes since I put it up.
And I know I am not worthless. Many times I feel so insanely not worthless I wonder if I should poke holes in my overly-inflated ego, but there is something about saying something that no one is responding to that makes you feel as alone in this world as you actually are. The problem with talking to people online is that you occasionally feel like you are having a conversation and you realize that sometimes you are just standing there, talking to yourself like an idiot.
But anyway—I am at the PATH station, anxious, and a little bit wet from the rain that the wind is blowing horizontally. I am standing under the gazebo-like thing that covers the PATH station and am going, “Make it stop raining so I can go home!” I can see my bicycle from where I am standing, chained to a tiny tree and there is water dripping off the handlebars and the seat. I start putting on my bike helmet with the thought that, “In the time it takes me to put this on, probably the rain will slow down,” as if it takes more than seven seconds to put on and fasten the strap of a bicycle helmet. And the rain, as if to laugh in my face, becomes twice as intense. “Now not only are you stuck here,” it says, “but you are stuck here looking like an idiot in a bike helmet.”
I grumble and bite my lip and pull out my Blackberry and decide I will check my e-mail. Fuck you, rain, I needed to check my e-mail anyway and now is the perfect time—standing under this beautiful gazebo, surrounded by the pattering of rain. Thank you so much, rain, for this perfect e-mail checking opportunity. I smirk at the clouds, but I am not fooling anyone and glance briefly at the sky. It is still raining. Obviously. Obviously obviously it is still raining. I open my yahoo account and there are three e-mails about the wedding—the wonderful, exciting, beautiful, but ridiculously complex wedding that I am both thrilled about and tired of planning. The problem with planning a wedding is that it is difficult to plan anything else and you begin to feel as if the wedding is the end of your life. You will have a great, exciting wedding and that after that nothing will happen—it will just fade to black and maybe the credits will roll, but all of the things you have worked so hard for will be over. And you have asked your friends if this is normal and they say yes, it is normal, everyone feels like this in the weeks before their wedding.
I look up at the sky and it is still raining. I am trying to remember what my life was life before the wedding nonsense, before the engagement, and I remember enjoying it. I remember that there were good parts and bad parts, which is the same as my life is now. There are still good parts and bad parts…they are different than the good and bad parts before, but the ratio is mainly the same. I respond to one of the e-mails—it is about seating charts. I responded to three today that were about cocktail hours and music and something else…at this point I can’t remember or care. They are all about planning. Planning for a day three weeks from now that will be fun and exciting and then almost immediately will be over.
And then, I think…what? What happens when it is over? Every movie I have seen stops there—when the couple who have had so much trouble finding true love find true love and then they get married and then the movie is over. They never show what happens the next day. Maybe the entire earth evaporates. Probably not, but maybe it does. They never tell you. But I am rushing toward it—rushing home to fall asleep and wake up and be one day closer to the day I find out what happens. It can’t all be wonderful. I know that because nothing is all wonderful, but I want to get there already—I want to have it happen and then be over so that I can find out what the rest of my life is going to be about and I can throw myself into it, two and a half weeks from now, when it starts.
I stand there, like an idiot in my bike helmet. It is still raining and I am sighing loudly, as if that is going to accomplish something. I close out of my e-mail and suddenly re-notice the wallpaper on my Blackberry. It is a picture I had taken in the 23rd street PATH station of a travel poster that said, “SMILE! You are in SPAIN!” except that someone had crossed out the final “s” and it read, “SMILE! You are in PAIN!” When I took the picture I thought it was wonderful and for weeks I would read it over and over again, but it had been almost a month since I had even really seen it…like everything else, you stop noticing it after a while, the same way I stopped noticing the picture of a sunflower I had as my wallpaper before that. I read it again, “SMILE! You are in PAIN!” and I smile.
I walk out from the gazebo. It is raining so hard I can hear it bouncing off the plastic of my bike helmet and my pants are already soaked before I have even reached my bicycle. I unlock my bike and sit on the dripping wet seat and water flies into my eyes from all directions. “Smile!” I think, “You are in pain.”
And I begin pedaling home. I am moving fast again, because I am anxious, but halfway through the trip I slow down. I am soaking wet. I am not going to get any less wet by speeding through the trip. I crouch down over my handlebars and coast down the middle of the street, the rain hitting me like bullets. I arrive home after 3 minutes and walk my bike up the stairs, leaving a trail of water in its wake. I am home—the place I had wanted to be so badly. I change clothes and Jonathan dries me with the hairdryer in the kitchen until my knees are scorched and I am not cold anymore. We talk for a little while and eat something together, and then he walks off to work on a submission letter for one of his poems.
I sit down at the computer, exhausted and there is another wedding e-mail sitting in my inbox. I sigh. They are never-ending, like the rain that is still coming down in sheets outside the window. I know that I will have to deal with it eventually but not now. For now I sit at my computer and open a Microsoft Word document and type down all of this nonsense that happened an hour ago. It is not particularly well-organized, but it feels good to do it.
I am almost always writing things in my head and then, if I have the chance, getting them down on paper. The other day I was buying an Italian Ice off the street and the vendor didn’t have lemon and I wrote out in my head, “I am buying an Italian Ice from the vendor next to the elementary school and he doesn’t have lemon. And I think, 'maybe I could buy the Rainbow flavor and just eat the middle, lemon-flavored part,' but no, that would make me look like an idiot.”
I was running up the escalator stairs and in my head I began going, “I am running up the escalator stairs, passing people on the right hand side of the escalator.” And I came home and wrote this down, not knowing why exactly some part of my brain had imbued it with importance. I will open the wedding e-mail tomorrow, or the next day. There is no rush. I don’t know why I am rushing all the time lately. It feels good to do something that is not wedding-related—something that you did before the wedding and will continue to do after.
I get a glass of milk and drink it slowly. "Smile! You are in pain," I think. I am smiling. I am not in much pain anymore—just tired. But I am finally able to relax, which is nice. I sit back and ignore the responsibilities that I will probably have to address tomorrow, and write an essay for no reason.
When I am finished writing it I check my Facebook page. Seven people have responded.
"But they might charge more."
"Yeah, but it's a good idea," Pam says.
My cake idea was to do away with the idea of a wedding cake, since I was not particularly enamored of most wedding cake designs, and to replace it with a series of different types of cakes that I loved: Mousse cakes, cheese cakes, cookie cakes. If there were a way to get a Fudgie the Whale cake smuggled into the wedding, I wanted that too. I had been told by the kind but somewhat confused woman at the bakery that having a bunch of cakes wasn't technically included in the package, and that the wedding venue might charge us extra for it, so I had spent the next 10 minutes getting used to the idea of just having a regular wedding cake.
"I wouldn't mind having a regular cake if..." I stopped myself. "Ok-- this is the first idea that popped into my head, and I can tell you in advance that this is a horrible idea and nothing mom would ever allow me to do."
"What is it?"
"It's really bad."
"I'm sure it's really bad," Pam said. "But what is it?"
"I would have a regular wedding cake," I began slowly, "if they could do a normal size cake with a bunch of tiers, and then on top instead of a bride and a groom they had two lovebirds or doves or something-- a boy dove and a girl dove..." I paused, hesitant. "And then all over the cake they could put realistic-looking birdshit. And obviously it wouldn't really be birdshit-- it would be icing designed to look like there were these two lovebirds that had shit all over the cake."
"It would be funny," Pam admitted.
"But gross," I said.
"And no one would be able to eat the cake," I admitted, "but no one really cares about wedding cake anyway. But it would be memorable."
"Definitely no one would be able to eat the cake," she said. "But the thing that's holding me up is the birds. What do you mean 'a boy dove and a girl dove?' Is one of them going to have long hair or a moustache or something?"
I sat in the car, silent.
"I don't know," I admitted.
We drove in silence for several seconds.
"Oh, of course," Pam said suddenly, unprompted. "Testes. We'll give one of the birds enormous testes."
And with that she turned back toward the road in her high ponytail and enormous Ann Taylor sunglasses, as if the matter had been settled. And the words my mother had always said to me growing up-- "someday you will be so happy you have sisters"-- reverberated throughout the car and out into the streets.
1. Ross breaks into the church with a crowbar.
2. Ross is wearing one black sock, one navy sock.
I had unearthed the notebook as a child, coming across it in the downstairs closet while looking for pads of drawing paper. I treated it as a great anthropological find, being that the list was dated 1977, three years before my birth, and that it solidified the fact that I knew in my head but not my heart—that my parents had existed before I was born.
I carried the notebook up to my mother, holding it as though it might at any moment crumble to dust. It was from 1977 and I considered anything from before my birth to be very, very old—as if perhaps we had saved this notebook from the library at Alexandria or found it alongside the Dead Sea scrolls, storing it (for safety) in the closet next to the typewriter equipment.
“Where did you find this?” my mother asked.
“This is a list of the things that went wrong at our wedding,” she said, running her finger down the page. She is smiling, and highlights the first item with her nail. “Your father and Reverend Matos showed up at the church and the doors were iced shut because it was January. They had to pry the door open with a crowbar.” She continued down the list with her finger, occasionally rolling her eyes. “Never get married in January,” she said.
In the photographs from their wedding my parents look very happy but my mother frowns when she looks at the pictures because her face is shiny in some of them.
“If you ever get married,” she said, “hire a professional photographer who knows what he’s doing. If people’s faces are shiny, the photographer is supposed to tell them so that it doesn’t ruin the pictures.
“I think your pictures are nice,” I told her.
“Yes, but look at my face,” she would say, frowning, and I would look at it and think that her face looked very beautiful.
My mother got married in January of 1977 after meeting my father in March of 1976. They had met on a blind date, set up by her friend Chickie, who was one of the Spanish Language interpreters in the courthouse where my father worked. My mother was 29 and my father was 30 and they got married at the Fort Hamilton Officer’s Club on a January day cold enough for the doors of their Brooklyn church to freeze closed. And my father, who loved my mother and wanted to marry her very much, chipped away at the ice with a crowbar he kept in his car for emergencies, wearing one black sock and one navy sock with his tuxedo.
* * *
I am sitting across from a woman who organizes weddings on what I will call the Blippity Bloop estate. She is wearing a charcoal suit and a pastel shirt with an eggshell-colored ruffle around the collar and I am wearing nice jeans and a top I ironed without being asked. I am holding hands under the table with Jonathan, who a year ago I had not yet met—had not even known existed, and the wedding organizer is going, “Here at Blippity Bloop, you have the option of the big room only, or the small room for cocktails and the big room for the reception. And if you’re using both rooms, we offer the Bleepity Blart package, which includes an entire waterfall of appetizers, and a roast duck for everyone, and live, dancing lobsters, and scallops wrapped in five-dollar bills, and magic and happiness and clouds. That’s the first option. And if you don’t want that,” she continues, “we have the Bloppity Bleek package, which includes everything from the Bleepity Blart package, except no magic and no clouds, and only a few of the lobsters are dancing,” she says, “but not that well.”
Jonathan and I look at her, saying nothing.
“And we also offer a very basic Blankety Blink package,” she finishes, “which is only one butler-passed appetizer. One pig in one blanket on one tray and immediately after someone eats it, the wedding is over and everybody goes home sad.”
“How much is that one?” I ask.
“Which?” she asks.
“The Blankety Blink.”
She opens a folder and pulls out several sheets of paper, pushing them across the table toward me and placing the tip of her pen alongside prices.
“The Blankety Blink,” she says, “is a million billion per person.” She pauses momentarily as we process the information, sliding her pen down the page. “That’s for an evening wedding. If you’re doing an afternoon wedding it’s from 11AM to 4PM and it’s only nine hundred thousand per person, but an additional $40 a head if you’d like the bar to serve anything other than rubbing alcohol.”
We had mentioned to the woman that we would like to have our ceremony on-site and she had shown us to a room with a fireplace at the hearth and had said that my bridal party and I could enter from one of two ways—either through what appeared to be the door of a small linen closet, or descending from a staircase eerily reminiscent of the Carol Burnett “Gone With the Wind” Parody, which I would have considered only if my wedding dress had a curtain rod thrust through the shoulders.
“Thank you very much,” I say to the woman, and she rises from her seat, placing one of her hands on the dark mahogany table to steady herself, leaning over to shake both my and Jonathan’s hands.
“Thank you,” she says, and I am reminded of many of the dates I went on before meeting Jonathan, where you part from the date civilly but are secretly thrilled to be ending the encounter, knowing that you will never see the person again and will think of them (from this point on) with an involuntary shudder of relief.
It is the third wedding hall I have seen this week.
* * *
Jonathan proposed before we had known each other a year. He was tall and smiled a lot and was a Spanish Interpreter for the court system and spoke four languages but did not mind that I spoke only one. He had climbed Mt. Fuji and been to clown school. He wrote poetry and could dance and when I found spiders in my apartment he would trap them under a glass and set them free outside instead of killing them. Jonathan had wanted to propose in Venice during our three-week trip to Italy but was unable to wait that long and proposed in Rome, on the Ides of March, two days into the trip. I had never wanted an engagement ring and so he had knelt and presented me with a Valentine’s Day card of the sort you distribute to your third grade class, on which was written,
“Will you marry me?”
And it was very shy and sweet and reminded me of the notes passed in study hall asking,
“Do you like me? Check yes or no.”
and I wanted to pull a black pen from my shoulder bag and check off, “Yes, off course I will marry you. I would be honored to marry you. You are the greatest, most wonderful person I have ever met.”
* * *
This time the wedding coordinator has long, brown hair with side swept bangs and reminds me of a corporate version of a girl from my high school English class. She uses long, extended-arm gestures to show me the property, grinning, as if I am constantly winning a new car on a game show.
“This is going to be your ceremony site,” she says, “So you’d walk down the aisle toward the river—do you want to do a practice walk?” she asks, and I can tell from her voice that there is an incredibly large percentage of women and girls who say yes, they do want to do a practice walk. During my sister’s wedding, her fiancé had suggested that she sprint down the aisle, followed by an Indiana Jones-sized boulder, and that he would swing in on a rope and rescue her and my mother had said, “No—you’re supposed to walk down the aisle very slowly,” as if the sprinting had been the part of his suggestion that had been the most ridiculous, and on which she should offer clarification.
“Slowly,” my mother said. “Imagine there are people in front of you,” she offered, “and you’re waiting for them to move,” and I instantly imagined myself standing in the aisle for 40 minutes, hand on the hip of my wedding dress as I tapped my foot and glanced at my watch. In my right hand I would hold my bouquet and in my left, the crumpled forms needed to renew my driver’s license.
“So you walk down here,” the coordinator says, still gesturing with her arms, walking me through the ceremony as if she is choreographing a musical, “you walk down through this area, which can easily accommodate up to three hundred and twenty chairs—we’ve done it before. Ok? So three hundred and twenty chairs, and if you’re doing an evening wedding you’ll be saying your vows around sunset, so the sun will be going down, which is beautiful for the photographer. And you kiss, and then you’re going to walk back toward here,” she says, as I follow her, “entering through this door,” she swings open a glass door and waits for me to walk through before she herself enters, “and then you’re here and its your cocktail reception, Ok?”
I nod vaguely, wondering what happens in act two.
* * *
The curtain opens and it is clearly a flashback—you can tell from the lighting, which is sort of yellowish—and there is a woman in a royal blue jogging suit and pigtails. The woman is wearing aviator sunglasses and stretching and I realize that it is my mother. She has incredibly white teeth and is smiling at someone. Beside her, a younger, skinnier version of my father is wearing a polo shirt and athletic shorts with blue piping—the shorts cover only the top third of his blindingly white thighs, as was the style during what I can only assume was the horrific fabric shortage of the 1970’s. My father is not stretching, but is standing, leaning against the bare white, undecorated wall. He is smiling.
There are no children, only the young couple enjoying each other’s company, though the woman peers into the baby carriages of strangers more frequently than she did when she was single. Their apartment is well furnished. It has evolved past the transitory haphazardness of a single person’s apartment and is devoid of posters tacked to walls and random, unmatched dishes inherited from family members. It is the apartment of a couple who own a matching sheet set and a food processor and who lie in bed early Sunday morning, looking out the window at their tree-lined street.
The couple looks happy, despite the fact that there is nothing interesting happening. There are no people dancing in the background and no hors d’oeuvres being passed and no one is cutting an enormous cake topped by a small, plastic likeness of themselves. There are no kick lines and no one holding a microphone and no one in a fantastically long dress hurling flowers into the air. There is just the woman, stretching in her jogging suit and aviators and the man, standing casually against the wall, next to a lightswitch plate surrounded by smudged fingerprints.
“This is right after we got married,” my mother says, gesturing to the photo. “Why I’m wearing those glasses I have no idea.”
“I’ve seen you wear worse glasses than those,” I offer.
“Thank you,” she says. She turns to the next photo, another shot of my father, and my mother smiles.
* * *
I am looking at a place with a tent that sits alongside the river. It is a large white tent that seats 300 and, weather permitting, the cocktail reception is outside, in chairs that look out onto the Hudson, and there is a partially obscured view of Indian Point, the nuclear power plant, which is only a mile or so away. Its immediate visage is comforting, assuring me that, should there be any malfunction, the entire wedding will be instantaneously vaporized, rather than my guests suffering the slow painful death of radiation poisoning.
“So this is what you want?” my mother asks, reviewing the folder for the site. “This is the one you really like?”
“This one is nice,” I say. I avoid answering the question, ‘Is this what you want?’ because what I wanted, I remember, was a backyard barbeque for 250 people, with coolers full of Negra Modelo and Stella Artois and a man whose only purpose is to keep running back to the supermarket to buy more chips. I mentioned this to my mother once, early on, and I recognized her expression as the face of someone who wants something vastly different, but is also determined that I be happy. It is the quintessential facial expression of a good mother.
“Our house isn’t big enough to do something like that,” she said quietly. “But if you really want we can try paring down the lists. We can just go through them person by person.”
“I don’t really want to pare down the list,” I admitted.
“Not your friends,” she said. “Your friends can all come—it’s your wedding. But maybe some of the people dad and I know…”
“I don’t want you to have to pare down your people either,” I told her.
“We know a lot of people,” she said. “A lot of friends and a lot of family.”
“Good,” I said.
“So you’re sure this is what you want?” my mother asked.
“I want the people coming to have a good time.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s what I want.”
I would get married here or I would get married somewhere else. I would walk anywhere they wanted me to walk. Down to the ceremony, up to the altar, back down the aisle, shake hands with people—some of whom you know, some of whom you don’t—walk down toward the river for photographs, including several (despite my mother’s protests) with the nuclear power plant in the background, back up to the cocktail hour, and over to the other side of the property for the reception. Sit through toasts and speeches. Listen, as my grandfather gives a toast that is very sentimental and sweet and that will somehow segue into an oral family history that makes four separate mentions of World War II. Dance through the reception, intermittently saying hello to people my parents know and my next door neighbors and someone my mother used to teach with and a friend of mine from nursery school, occasionally eating something, shaking hands, dancing, thanking people for coming, telling them I had a wonderful time, and I exit stage left, taking off my costume and telling people, “Good show! Great show tonight!” and high-fiving the tech workers, asking if they are meeting us later for a drink.
And the clock will strike twelve and my dress (which will already be in a closet hanging up somewhere) will turn into a pair of jeans with a bleach stain on them and my glass slippers will turn into size 11 Saucony running shoes that my mother wishes I would throw away. My contact lenses turn back into debilitating myopia and the waiters at the reception site will turn back into mice or actors or freelance graphic designers who are looking for work and my bridal suite will disappear, turning into a sofa in a living room where I accidentally fell asleep without meaning to. And it will all be over and we will all return to our lives.
* * *
I am sitting on Jonathan’s futon in my black sweatpants and a T-shirt whose seams have ripped in both armpits but which I keep meaning to fix. I am wearing my glasses, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I had always meant to read but am just now getting around to. Jonathan walks in from the other room where he was sending out submissions to literary magazines and eating peanut butter cups.
He is wearing a T-shirt from his high school graduation, which was 15 years ago and kisses me on the forehead and I put down my book and he sits down beside me on the futon. He has a slight ingrown hair on his arm and I ask if I can try and get it out and he says no, please no…he will get it out later, and last time I asked to pull out one of his hairs it hurt a lot. And I apologize and he says don’t worry, it wasn’t my fault, he just wants to take care of his own hairs.
And so far this may not seem that exciting, but right then—right at that point he does something spontaneous, like saying, “Do we have enough recycling to fill up a full bag tonight or should I wait until Thursday to take it out?”
And I, taken aback at how much my life resembles the plot of The Bourne Identity or Mission Impossible, say something edgy and dangerous, like, “Did you get my message that your mom called and the 29th is fine? Everyone’s good with the 29th.”
And Jonathan, completely overwhelmed by the thought (the thought!) that his mother has left him a message and that the 29th is fine with everyone, does something electrifying, like looking at the wall next to the bathroom and commenting that we might have water damage and that he should probably call the landlady.
My head thumps with adrenaline and I find myself frantic, excited, doing something outlandish and passionate like saying, “Yeah—give her a call,” while brushing biscotti crumbs off the lap of my sweatpants.
And we look at each other—madly, unbelievably in love—he pointing to the phone, indicating that he is leaving the landlady a message.
* * *
If you are hoping to have a lasting relationship, you can choose from one of these three packages.
The A #1 Super Best Relationship package, which includes a completely free daily yacht ride from the French Riviera to Cape Town, South Africa, an oil well that smells like fresh rainwater, a baby snow leopard with no claws and no teeth, and a Yves Saint Laurent sleeping bag lined with the feathers of extinct Moa birds. The A #1 Super Best includes unlimited access to Sigourney Weaver’s e-mail account (you can read all her mail!), and four oxen and two wagon axles and the ability to fly at altitudes of up to 15,000 ft. (to breathe underwater is an additional $21.50 per person). You receive a lifetime subscription to Marie Claire and Smithsonian Magazine and unlimited good hair days and you will be included in this year’s edition of The Guinness Book of world records without even doing anything noteworthy, with your picture alongside the picture of the world’s fattest twins, both of whom are posing on motorcycles.
If that doesn’t work for you we have the #2 Still Great But Not As Great Relationship Wonder Package, which is similar to the above package, except that your sleeping bag will be lined with the feathers of a bird that has not yet gone extinct and you get only 2 oxen and 1 wagon axle and your oil well smells like oil. Also, you will still be in the Guinness Book of World Records, but your picture is nowhere near the fat motorcycle twins and is somewhere in the back where probably no one will find it.
And last off we have the #3 Totally Regular Relationship Non-Wonder Package, which involves nothing from either the above packages. You do not have the ability to fly and you do not get a baby snow leopard with no claws and no teeth and you do not appear in the Guinness Book of World Records at all—many of the world’s citizens will live their entire lives, never knowing of your existence.
You get a small apartment in Jersey City with a toilet that works some of the time and a non-ergonomic desk chair that you will probably have to replace. You get recycling, but not quite enough to have a full bag, where you would need to take it out tonight, and you get voicemail messages from your parents and if you do not wipe things up in the kitchen as soon as you spill them, you get ants.
And you get someone who, if you ask them to get rid of the ants, will help you get rid of the ants— trapping them between a glass and a piece of cardboard and setting them free outside, next to the porch. You get someone who does not think less of you for being the type of person who squashes ants with her shoe, rather than releasing them back into the wild like she would if she were a better person.
With the #3 Totally Regular Relationship Non-Wonder Package, you get someone who does not expect you to be perfect—someone who will not mind that you sometimes walk around the apartment with your shirt on backwards or your socks inside out and who will wake up next to you every morning smiling at you, their face on the white sheets illuminated by sunlight because neither of you can remember to buy curtains. The person will look at you and tell you you look beautiful and really think it is true, even though you know for a fact you fell asleep wearing eyeliner and look like a child has been drawing on your face with a piece of charcoal.
And it is not that you will be deluded into thinking this particular relationship package is perfect. You will be well aware that it isn’t. But after the imperfect wedding that begins your imperfect life together, you will sit down at a table with your small, camel-colored notebook, and make a list entitled, “Things That Went Wrong.”
Your pen will write things like:
1.) Wore one black sock and one navy sock
2.) Gave best man wrong boutonniere
3.) Went to new barber and received unflattering haircut before wedding
4.) Neglected to powder face between photographs
You will list all of the things that went wrong. You will write them out, one after the other, before closing the tan cover and putting the notebook aside somewhere, tucked into a closet for your unborn daughter to find when she is looking for scrap paper. You will change into your royal blue tracksuit and stretch on the floor of your bedroom, and if you hear keys jingling in the lock of the front door it will mean the person you have just married has gotten back from his Saturday morning errands and has come home to spend time with you. You smile, pulling yourself off the floor and fumbling for the aviator-style glasses on your night table.
He unlocks the door with his house key and calls your name and your heart jumps a little. It is not nearly as dramatic as breaking into a church with a crowbar, but is much more practical in the long run.