What’s in Your Garage?

“Anybody know what this is?”

I hold up a cardboard box, hermetically sealed with silver duct tape. My parents look up from their own tasks, shake their heads simultaneously. It’s Wednesday morning and we are thirty minutes into our now-weekly ritual of cleaning out the garage.

I use box cutters to slice through several rounds of the sticky tape. It’s bundled as tightly as if it contained gold bullion or some prized food stuff vulnerable to bugs. Inside, I find wadded newspaper, stuffed in between more newspaper, wrapped round oddly-shaped, bulky objects. I tear off this newspaper carefully, noting the date on the upper right corner of each page: October 17, 1995. My father is hovering over my shoulder as the crumpled print pages reveal tributes to bygone high school and junior college athletic feats. “My trophies!” he cries. Immediately, I recognize the battle line being drawn.

I am the choreographer of this effort to clear out 40+ years of accumulated memorabilia, garden gadgets, record albums, baby books, pool toys, painting paraphernalia, abandoned construction projects, cleaning products, and auto maintenance gear. My mom enlisted my backing after she reached a stalemate years ago with my dad in her effort to cut a clear line through the detritus. The items each deem essential for preservation are widely divergent; my mom favors holiday decorations she’s displayed since my childhood and craft projects she never got around to starting while my dad clings to dusty golf clubs, bowling balls, and mementos from his years as a police officer. The overall tension in the garage had ratcheted up significantly just a few minutes previously, when my mom tried to convince my dad to dispose of the gun belt he was issued as a recruit in 1966.

“Someone might want it,” my dad insists. The only person I can identify as having some (very remote) use for it is my nephew who is a member of a police tactical command force over 400 miles away. Remembering Facebook postings of him astride a tank wearing military-style camouflage and holding an automatic weapon raise doubts about his receptiveness, however.

“I watch reality cop shows all the time, Bob, and they don’t use equipment like this anymore. They all wear vests that hold their gear.”

“That’s not true, Sherry. Some cops still wear belts.”

“Well then, let’s donate it to a police station so someone can get some use from it.”

“No, I want to keep it.”

“I thought you just said that someone might want it.”

“I’m keeping it, Sherry.”

And that’s the end of that. This preface does not bode well for the disposition of trophies.

***

This is exactly why we’re taking this project a shelf at a time; none of our nerves can withstand more than a couple hours of the skirmishes involved in sifting through the accumulated strata of two people’s lives. I don’t find it coincidental that so many books on decluttering, tidying up, and organizing your shit have become bestsellers in the past decade. Baby boomers are aging, and their kids are having to contend with the amassed material collections of parental hopes, dreams, aspirations, hobbies, professional, domestic and recreational endeavors as they downsize and die.

“My trophies!” His plaintive cry echoes in my heart and resonates with the desperation it embodies. I ended up living here with them as a result of my dad’s near-fatal bout of viral meningitis back in 2016-17. During his illness, he lost the ability to walk without assistance or articulate his needs. He hallucinated, ate his meals with his hands, and failed to recognize family member and friends he’d known for years. When he regained the ability to perambulate, my mother and I took turns sleeping on the upstairs landing, afraid he would stumble down the stairs in a fog in the middle of the night. His recovery took more than a year and left him with nerve damage in his legs and hips, resulting in a pronounced limp and inability to walk more than 50 feet or so without resting. His days of running, intercepting, hurling, pummeling glory are long over the horizon.

Back in 2011 when Mike and I sold our condo, we were forced into the same situation. Though we didn’t have a garage and our domestic space amounted to less than a third of what my parent’s have, fifteen years in the same location had lead to a similar accumulation of stuff one doesn’t know what to do with besides stick it in a drawer, closet, or under the bed until the perfect solution miraculously appears. Which it never does. (Which is why people should be forced to move every decade just to have to confront those decisions. Just saying.)

The tasks of divesting ourselves of the past were significantly greased by our giddy anticipation of the immediate future: we were headed out on a months-long, nation-spanning camping expedition that would culminate in my departure for Peace Corps service. Neither one of us held fond memories of the preceding decade. We had both been working at stultifying jobs for too many years and suffered the career-path disillusionment and general sense of ennui that typifies the average mid-life crisis. Shedding the material evidence of our unremarkable, cookie-cutter existence secured our belief that things would be different, better for us in the coming years. We were still in our forties; there were unbounded years ahead to turn things around, reinvent ourselves, create new routines, begin anew. The horizon shimmered with realizable potential.

This is not the case for my parents, who are both closer to eighty than seventy. Realistically, they have ten, maybe fifteen years left. (My maternal grandmother, 98 and going like the Energizer bunny, is definitely an outlier; only one of my three other grandparents lived to their mid-80’s.) Given the limitations of their various health issues and physical ailments, the coming decade is most likely the last chapter in their lives. Throughout a lifetime love affair with literary biographies, I’ve discovered few folks reinvent themselves in the final pages. It takes too much effort to embark on life-altering courses of action. By the time one reaches their age, the tendency is towards reflecting, crafting and other light hobbies, enjoying family gatherings, maybe some occasional traveling. They are who they are; they may deepen, but not transform, much less recapture the physicality and dynamism of youth. In other words, those trophies are the reliquary of the talented athlete my dad once was.

The act of discarding stuff is, in part, no longer believing in its magical assurances. By holding onto to journals and diaries, we believe the life lessons therein contained are captured and incorporated, need never be repeated. Moldy scrapbooks attest to our ability to romance, conquer, pinnacle, succeed, and serve as prequels to further achievements. Trophies give concrete testimony to our talents, inherent aspects of our character that will continue to generate recognition in the years to come. Golf clubs bespeak future afternoons strolling the greens, holes in one still left to hit. Now, my mother is struggling to acknowledge that, more likely than not, she will never regain the strength and stamina to employ the textured paint materials she purchased for $90 back in the ’90’s (“That was like several hundred dollars now,” she laments.) My father is loath to admit that swinging a golf club generates too much pain to be enjoyable. But for as long as these items have a home in the garage, they are an unspoken promise that better times hover ahead, dark clouds backlit by fierce sunlight.

Amid these Wednesdays fraught with existential crisis, I have begun to trace parallels in my own life, despite being twenty years younger. Specifically, with my dream of being “a writer.” Because that’s what I’ve told myself and others, for years and years and years: someday, given enough time and space, I will become a published writer. I don’t actually contemplate the specific work it takes to accomplish such – like sitting down at the keyboard for hours at a time, day after day, month after month, for years at a time; the classes, retreats, and writing groups; the false starts, painful critiques, and rejection slips. I just always believed that someday, magically, without forethought or discipline or effort, my outpouring of nouns and verbs and adjectives would find their way into print. Somewhere, beyond the horizon, lay my career as a writer. It is just now, as I watch my parents fight the realization that all the various intentions they’ve stored for someday, sometime, somewhere, somehow, have expired, that I begin to entertain the notion that might be my destiny, too. Unless I begin now to alter the course of its trajectory, my dream is destined for the garage.

***

I realize a different approach is needed: this is not a battleground, but a funeral, a grieving space. Those trophies were wrapped so carefully and thoroughly because they were the only remaining tokens of the strong, agile, and fleet young man that my dad used to be. Still is, within his own mind, even though the evidence has been stored away for a quarter century. I once read that all the cells within our bodies are replaced every seven years. So, nothing at all remains, physically, of that graceful, award-winning football player my dad can still recall inhabiting, being. I place the box down at his feet and wrap my arms round my dad.

“I know this is hard,” I say, my face muffled in his chest. He is still inches taller than me, and its always been a profound comfort to lay my head against his beating heart. Suddenly, I feel the heavy iron of tears weighing down my eyelids. “It’s not just throwing away stuff. It’s throwing away pieces of yourself, your life.” We stand silently and he squeezes me forcefully, for just a moment. I surreptitiously wipe my eyes on his tee shirt and go off to wrestle with another box, leaving the trophies at his feet. Minutes later, from the corner of my eye, I see him unwrap each one, turn it over in his hands, then drop it into the waste bin’s maw.

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Twister vs. Temblor

A couple of days into my latest trip to Ohio, I am awakened at 11:30-ish pm by what sounds like an air raid siren. “It’s a tornado warning,” Mike says. I lay there instantly wide awake and discomfited, adrenaline coursing. “What’s that mean – a warning? Are we supposed to do something?” I was already picking up my phone to Google when I noted the large red banner message filling my screen:


Tornado Warning: Take Action! A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. There is imminent danger to life and property. Move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows.

And so on. After marveling at the tracking technology that located me within the relatively small affected area to communicate a dire message, I scramble to find my shoes. Then grab iPad and wallet. Mike lives on the 3rd floor of an apartment building with no basement. Although he seems open to waiting it out in proximity to the two large windows leading out to the rain-blurred deck, I am having none of it. I am a huge fan of apocalyptic thunderstorms, but once the wind starts twisting in on itself like a disturbed cat and batting cars and building into its maw, I quickly lose enthusiasm. We beat a retreat down the stairwell and enter the ground floor hallway, where various persons, singly or in pairs, huddled outside their respective doorways. We appeared to be the only non-ground floor residents who made the trip.

“I’m from California,” I announce. “Not quite sure what we’re supposed to do…” A couple pairs of eyes flicker over to us but quickly return to their phone screens. No one says anything. Mike and I take a seat on a ledge abutting the entryway. I immediately place calls to my parents and our daughter in California to inform them of our potential appointment with catastrophe. I do this mostly to sequester the film playing in my head, splicing together all the YouTube clips and dramatic movie scenes (The Wizard of Oz, Twister, Into the Storm) that are filled, invariably, with people being snatched up into the sky, pinwheeling head over heels with nothing to cling to. You can’t even hear their screams.

Ohioan folks are more taciturn than I had expected. They strike me as more like how New Englanders are usually portrayed, stiff upper lip and stoic brow, and all that. The supermarket checkers are not near as chatty as the ones in my local store. They seem to talk to each other just fine, but not really notice me. Or maybe they do, and they can tell I can’t fit myself in to the local narrative arc. I am not of this land, these swards of unending, undifferentiated green; black, looping telephone wires tangled against mountain-less skies; miles of haphazard strip malls and chili franchises – lord, Ohioans love their Skyline Chili. None of the boulevards run straight here, always curving and doubling back around intervening industrial parks and silos, then running at a diagonal until you’ve completely lost track of direction. Many roads are little more than country lanes, winding through neighborhoods backed by more green thickets and dense trees. Ponds dot the landscape. But the element that never fails to astonish me is the empty land – acres and acres of fallow fields, emerald green grassland, and snarled bushes interspersed between compact rows of Victorian houses, more industrial parks, apartment complexes with open patios strewn with BBQs and bicycles, and lone convenience stores crowning the hills. In Southern California, land has not been empty for decades; when some structure is torn down another, grander building immediately replaces it.

Mike and sit for 10-15 minutes in the hallway, pecking at our phones. We hear someone down the hall state, “It’s over,” just as we receive notification that the tornado has passed. Quickly, front doors open and close, the hallway empties, and Mike and I climb the stairs back to his apartment. I lay awake for a while, staring out the window at the rain, displaced, restless. My body is geared up for survival and resists the comfort of bed, turning and twisting this way and that to find a path back into sleep.

***

On July 4th, I am sitting on the curb along Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, watching the parade when I feel the ground beneath me buckle and roll. Like the rhythmic waves breaking onshore behind me, the asphalt has become an undulating ribbon of rock and roll, a subtle shifting of the topography that my eyes can’t quite focus but my inner ear definitely feels. “Hey, are we having an earthquake?” I ask quietly, to no one in particular, not wanting to call attention to what could be The Big One. We are literally a hundred yards from the ocean and any potential tsunami will have its way with the thousands of us gathered for one of the biggest Independence Day celebrations in Southern California. Although the streets run in straight lines east/west, north/south, most of them are closed to traffic within a mile radius for this parade. Thousands of cars are parked along residential streets with no easy outlet. The landscape is flat and unwavering, studded with spindly palm trees that don’t strike me as sturdy anchors. There are two buildings over two stories in the vicinity, the respective wings of the Marriot resort made almost entirely of glass. The Boy Scout troupe wrestling a large flag into compliance continues marching along, though, folks cheering and waving from the sidelines. No one else seems to notice, so I stand and look behind me and note the waves still rolling in, regular and soothing, and I decide it’s not The Big One. The shaking continues for at least a minute, but so many people are jumping up and down, waving arms and bouncing their heads vigorously in time to the music that I decide they could just as well be its source. It’s only an hour later, as we make our way home past open bars with televisions blaring that we learn of the 6.4 earthquake that hit Ridgecrest, some 125 miles away.

The next night I am in front of my computer, watching an episode of Stranger Things, when the earth sways into motion, gradually building its sashay until the leaves on my mother’s potted palms are rustling in rhythm and the windows rattle in their frames. “Do you feel it?” my dad calls from downstairs and my mom and 9-year-old niece and I compare notes: they sense a slight movement, feel unsteady on their feet, I can count a mounting beat as the shaking persists for over a minute. I call my daughter in Huntington Beach (tsunami!) but the circuits are tied up. Five minutes of repeatedly checking Google for an update, we learn this one to be a 7.1, again, centered outside Ridgecrest. The media warns that these major quakes signal an end to a 20-year draught of temblor activity in Southern California; The Big One is overdue. Consider this a warning.

***

On the phone from Ohio, Mike asks, “Quick! Which do you prefer: tornado or earthquake?” My inner geography immediately responds “Earthquake!” It’s what I know, what I’ve lived with for most of my 57 years. Even Moldova, where I did a three year stint in the Peace Corps, was prone to earthquakes, not tornadoes. But there’s something reassuring about that red banner appearing on my phone, giving me a chance to seek shelter, call loved ones, hold my husband’s hand as we trudge up and down the stairs. With an earthquake, one gets very little, if any, warning. Boom hold on – only nothing is stable and the very ground can liquefy beneath you. I suppose we’ll hear each other’s screams during the worst of it. Unless, of course, tsunami…

3:00am with Wolf & River

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My twin grandsons are two weeks old today. Right now, mommy and daddy have taken them out for a walk so I have a brief respite to record some thoughts.

I know that when I announced my daughter’s pregnancy I fielded many heartfelt congratulations and expressed excitement from friends who already had grandchildren, telling me what a completely different experience it would be from having my own child. “You get to spoil them!” “You can hand them back when they’re cranky.” “You will realize a different sort of love – one not based on responsibility for raising them but on the pure joy of experiencing them.” Yeah – not so much yet. I’ve been living with my daughter full-time as she and her partner make the transition into parenthood with preemie newborns and have been, in effect, functioning as a third parent, complete with bottle-feedings, burpings, changing diapers, cleaning bottles, endless laundry, bath time, and tandem comforting ( mom and babies.) The fact that they are premature puts an added burden of anxiety on top of everything: about once a day one of them gags and chokes after feeding, entailing the need to turn him head down over one’s arm and firmly pat his back. So one must be watching them like a hawk one hour out of every three to ensure that someone is there to intervene when this happens. This does not promote any significant amount of time for relaxation and regrouping.

I’ve had one kid – and I did it alone, without benefit of a husband or partner. I lived with my parents at the time but they were both working full-time and not available to help at 3:00am as I trod the bedroom floor trying to comfort a shrieking infant. But my daughter was full-term, 8lbs, 2oz. She had a fully-formed digestive system and a hearty trachea. And there was just one of her. Once I had her fed and changed and burped and swaddled, I could look forward most nights to a quiet stretch when I could sleep myself. This is not true with preemie twins. The entire cycle of feeding, changing, burping, comforting, and swaddling often takes up to 2-3 hours for one. And by the time he’s quiet, the other one is ready to go again. Most times they are overlapping. I have no idea how a single person could manage. (In fact, the doula who has been helping us says that she no longer accepts twins in her practice; it’s just too hard, she says.)

What has been SO gratifying about this experience is witnessing my daughter transform from a young woman who was accustomed to indulging herself and her whims (yes, a millennial!)  into an absorbed mother who has lost all concern for herself and her own needs in giving 24/7 attention to her newborns. It has been both achingly stressful and immensely rewarding for me to witness her complete metamorphosis: it is so hard to watch her dragging herself from bedroom to kitchen to rewash another receptacle for her breast milk (she pumps in order to provide bottles for daddy and me to do feedings) or change another shitty diaper with bleary eyes in the half-light of dawn, but so heart-warming to hear her murmuring a lullaby or see her kiss the top of a shrieking head. Since her partner is working full-time, it is most often her and I together through the wee hours of night, trying to juggle the bottle warming and burping and diaper changing and gag monitoring; it has brought us into a closeness I’ve not experienced with her prior to now. I am sure at some point I will enjoy all the benefits of being a grandmother, but right now I am reveling once more in the experience of being a mother and watching my child master, with grace and tenacity and boundless love, one of the biggest challenges of her life so far.

Postcards from Chisinau

I have been remiss in blogging, but a fellow blogger saves me! Julie is an inveterate traveler, a gifted photographer and an accomplished writer. I am lucky to have met her in person when she traveled to Moldova last April. Here she does a wonderful piece on Chisinau – much better than anything I have managed to compose. Thanks Julie and may you continue to traipse about the globe with fortune at your heels!

Wish I Were Here

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Chișinău, Moldova – April 2014

Dear K—

I’m sitting in a pleasant outdoor cafe, resting my feet after a day of aimless wandering. I looked and looked for a postcard to send you for your collection, but none are to be found in the shops here. I found a faded one on a shelf in the apartment that I’m renting, tucked amid the dog-eared books and the travel brochures for other countries. The photo on it is of the post office building. It’s a striking building. Isn’t it funny how it makes the people look so miniature? In most other European cities, such a building would fade into the background. But this is Chișinău.

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It takes a little effort to see beyond the dingy Socialist dwellings that are packed together like hives. But there are traces of beauty to be found.

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Here, in Chișinău, I finally asked myself why it…

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International Day of Women – Moldovan style

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Friday, March 8, was International Women’s Day.  In the United States, I can’t remember this holiday making much of a bang. (Perhaps it was noted on my desk calendar, but with the advent of Outlook, smart phones, and virtual reminders, who looks at those anymore?)

As Americans, we tend toward holidays that commemorate war, politicians (or other male figureheads,) or successful conquest.  We cede women Mother’s Day (isn’t every woman a mother?) and Valentine’s – neither of which are days of rest from work, I should point out (Mother’s Day being officially confined to a Sunday in the US.)  Both these holidays have a very specific focus and audience – thanks mom for bearing/raising/putting up with me and come on honey, give me give me some love…

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Forest light

In Moldova, conversely, International Women’s Day is a BIG deal with a wide open vista of possibilities.  Everyone gets the day off – women, men, children, politicians and bankers.  Women are feted, toasted, and gifted, by their husbands, their co-workers, their neighbors, and each other.  Coming just a week after Marțișor – the beginning of spring – there is a general feeling of sunshine and fecundity impregnating the air.  It not just women in particular but the female principle in general – the yin, if you will – Hera, Athena, Hestia, and Artemis all rolled into one.  So what better way to  celebrate than spending the day in the forest dancing midst the trees with wine, women, and song?

All week long the mayor’s office had been abuzz with preparations for the pending  party.  My partner kept assuring me that I was in for a genuine cultural experience, Moldovan style.  And the weather itself toed the line, dawning clear and brilliant, topaz sun ablaze in sapphire skies.

Arriving at work at a leisurely 10am, I found out I had missed the morning champagne toast (?!!) and the 100_2066presentation of flowers to all the women. But never fear! Within minutes, I was ushered into the mayor’s office and presented with a flowering plant, decorative salad dishes, and a genuine crystal vase made in the Czech Republic. These were accompanied by ornate speeches from two of my male co-workers, who then repeatedly kissed me on alternating cheeks so Doamna Valentina could properly capture the moment on camera for the historic record.  (Apparently, as both an American and a mature female, I am accorded an inordinate degree of respect.  American males – take note!)

By 1:00 all the women from the office were piling into a hired rutiera for the ride up into the forest just outside the city limits.  Up, up, up (past the city dump, deserving of its own blog post at some point in the future) to a 10-12 acre plot of trees on a secluded hill.  And there were all the men, fires burning under huge metal discs sprouting spindly legs, skewers of meat and buckets of potatoes, onions and carrots readied for the flames. 100_2041 Jugs of wine squat and mellow lined up on wooden tables. Vagabond dogs, still sporting the bristling, dense coats of winter, lingering at the periphery, anticipating the feast to come.  Air clear and mild, the sun a thin blanket of warmth over the crisp chill of glittering frost.  It was almost medieval in its raw, unadorned simplicity.

100_1999The first order of business began with the photographs –meticulously posed group and individual shots that are de rigueur for Moldovans whenever they gather for celebrations.  No matter how old, wrinkled, tired, messy, fat, windblown, or unattractive one might be feeling, there is no reason a Moldovan could fathom for not wanting your portrait captured in any given circumstance where someone is wielding a camera.   I am generally considered a slightly daft anomaly in these situations – not only for my unwillingness to continually stand and smile for up to 35 pictures in a row, but even more so for my propensity to wander about snapping unlikely shots of buildings, trees, food and fire with no apparent concern for lining up people in my cross hairs.  What in the world could that be about?  I have quit trying to offer any explanation beyond an inexplicable infatuation with the captivating Moldovan countryside.  That seems to mollify them a bit.

After that, the games.  All those not actively involved in the preparation of the food enthusiastically joined100_2062 rousing games of badminton or volleyball.  And I mean everybody.  A few women, arms linked, drifted off to pick violets and craft cunning little bouquets of tender new greenery, but there was none of that cracking open a beer and parking your butt in a lawn chair that Americans have perfected to an art form.  Apparently, enough sitting on one’s behind is accomplished at the office; picnics are about shaking things loose and getting one’s blood pumping again.

And when it came time to dine, there was no thought of sequestering off into little cliques of age-, gender- or interest-mates:  the women were set at one long table, jugs of wine, buckets of meat and platters of fire-roasted root veggies set before us, while the men stood in a ring behind eating on their feet, ready to replenish the fixings should any particular dish get low.

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Chicken stomachs – they taste fine but have the consistency of rubber

Of course, after one eats until the stomach is ready to burst, it is them time to dance the hora to combat the stultifying effects of all that food.  And dance the hora we did – old, young, male, female, mayor, driver, attorney, secretary, janitor, and volunteer.  There was no acceptable reason beyond keeling over and dying right there in the fallen leaves to not dance the hora.

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Cartofi și markovi

 

 

 

It is quite refreshing to see that there is no inhibition on anyone’s part to get up and dance.  Some of the males in this video are barely 20 years old….an age cohort that would most likely not know the first step of a waltz in the USA, much less being caught on the dance floor partaking.  And they all dance well – it must be the natural result of being included in every dance on every occasion since you could walk.

And this is one particular cultural quirk of Moldovans to which it has been most challenging for me to acquiesce – the impermissibility of playing wallflower.  One cannot float on the periphery and merely observe; there is no motive they can comprehend for not participating – fully, joyfully, and energetically – with all forms of active celebration.  If you are there, you participate; “no” is not heard, accepted, or tolerated.  They will wear you down.  You will dance.  And dance. And dance. And dance. (And actually end up enjoying it in spite of yourself.)

And if you get tired of dancing, if your feet are about to trip over themselves in a stupor and your knees are weak and cracking with the effort of propelling your leaden legs into the air, then you are permitted a wee break to embrace a tree and re-energize.  What?  Yeah, that’s what I said.100_2009

As the evening sun began to slip into the naked branches proffered arms, bathing them in a golden glow, I caught glimpses of shadowy forms engaged in locked embrace with some of the more substantial members of our little forest.  Arms and legs wrapped around trunks, leaning in with head lying flat against bark, it seemed as if they were listening carefully for the thrum of a heartbeat, or perhaps the pulsing of sap coursing up through the roots to bring sunlight and energy to the higher branches, and the human partner so lovingly appended.

There was nothing “weird” about this – neither drugs nor excessive alcohol was to blame.  Tree hugging, apparently, is not so much an environmental catch phrase here as it is a reverent commentary on the relationship that Moldovans still actively hold with nature and the land, especially after hours of dancing leaves one spent and limp and in need of jolt of energy.  I was charmed, and humbled.  And  I refrained from taking pictures, as it was a too solemn, personal and seemingly sacred activity to demean by turning it into a voyeuristic photo opportunity.  (If Moldovans aren’t taken pictures, you know it must be anathema…)

My first celebration with my new partners was definitely a mind-expanding journey, though.  I was welcomed and integrated into the proceedings with no hesitancy or awkwardness.  After so many weeks of solitary confinement in a small bedroom, it felt good to be dancing.

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New violets and a quirky fungi
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Me – posed Moldovan style

And now for something totally unrelated (or is it?)

The Yellow Cup

(Last Night’s Dream – in Technicolor, Dolby sensaround sound….)

Yellow coffee cup

I am sitting in a large and airy coffee establishment – Starbucks, Peet’s – something modern and well-designed.  I have been drinking coffee from a large yellow cup, the soup bowl type with a handle.  I am with two friends and we are finished with our coffee but lingering over conversation.  Three young men walk by, young, urban-hip; one of them notices my coffee cup and stops to pick it up and admire it.  He asks if he can borrow it to drink his coffee from as he doesn’t want to use a paper cup.  Flattered that he likes my cup and seems to be a kindred soul, I say yes.  He has tousled blond hair and sharp blue eyes and my friends perk up a bit, taking note.  He takes the cup and sits at a table over my shoulder, where I cannot see him but my friends, facing me, can.

Thirty minutes or so passes and my friends and I are ready to go.  One of them reminds me about my coffee cup, nudging me to go retrieve it.  However, I know somehow that this friend, being younger and single, is a more appropriate fetch so I ask her to go get it. She darts up from her chair and scoots over so quickly I know that she was waiting for this opportunity.  Within a few seconds I hear the young men laughing and my friend returns with a cup, but it is much smaller and of a different color than the one I gave him.  That’s not my cup, I say to her.  She looks abashed.  I didn’t think so, she tells me, but they kept assuring me it was and I felt like a fool.  Suddenly, my two friends are anxiously pointing – They’re leaving, they’re leaving with your cup, go get it!

Inside I am half aware that this is not a good course of action but not wanting to seem like a patsy I get up and go after them.  They have left the building by this time and soon I am running to keep up with them. It’s almost like they’re baiting me to chase them.

They board a sort of trolley car that looks as if it is a boat on tracks with a couple of decks and really nice, art deco décor.  I am wandering through the rooms and up and down the stairs before I finally find them and ask for the cup from the tousled blond that took it. He smiles mischievously.  I don’t have your cup, he says, I gave it to your friend.  I hold up the cup – this is not my cup.  Mine was large, yellow, and bowl-shaped.  Oh, he says, eyes twinkling, my mistake.  Let me go get your cup.  He disappears for a minute or so and then returns with another cup, small, delicate, with a pointed cap – more like a little urn than a cup.

That’s not it either, I said.  Come on –give me my cup.  By this time I notice that the trolley has been traveling, rather quickly, up and down streets I don’t recognize.  I think that we must be in Long Beach as this is the only city I know that has trolley cars, but I don’t see anything that looks familiar and I realize I didn’t bring my purse or phone.  A slight panic arises in me.

Just give me my cup, okay?  Therein ensues what seems to be 30 or 40 minutes of cat-and-mouse game playing on this young man’s part while his friends lounge nearby whispering to each other and laughing.  He shows me my cup through a locked glass door, taunting me to retrieve it, but when I break the door open to access it the cup has disappeared.  He tells me my cup is in his bag and hands it to me to plumb.  I keep pulling out cups but none of them is mine.  He then leaves the room, promising to retrieve it and I am chasing him again through the rooms and hallways of this fabulous trolley car.  I somehow become aware through this process that he is a rich, spoiled brat, that he owns the trolley car, and this little game is a passing amusement for him and his friends.

When I finally find him again I begin to plead with him, hoping he will see my anguish and relent.  By this time I realize that I am miles from my friends, I have no idea where I am or how to return to the coffee shop, I have no money and no phone and no coat and it appears to be snowing lightly outside.  I tell him I am completely vulnerable, describing my situation, appealing to his sense of humanity, asking for him to please empathize and quit playing stupid games with me. I ask this repeatedly, five, six, or seven times.  It seems at this point to have become about much more than obtaining the cup, but I can’t quite grasp what I am trying to convey to him other than to reach out to him as fellow human being.

His eyes continue to twinkle and he smiles as he reaches into a cupboard and pulls out yet another permutation of the cup-that-isn’t-my-cup and proffers it.  Here you go, he says.  At this point my frustration and perceived vulnerability are now combining into a frothing rage. I am appalled that somebody would treat a person this way, that they could remain impervious to my plight. His friends, meanwhile, continue observe our interactions and chuckle.

Suddenly, I have jumped on the young man, overpowered him and I am beating his head against the floor – not with all the force I could muster, but lightly as if to put on a show of what my anger and frustration could lead to if he didn’t listen to me.  He does not respond or try to escape – just allows me to do it while remaining unresponsive through the pathetic beating I administer.

Meanwhile, the trolley trundles on and the snow is falling faster and I know that I am traveling further and further from my friends and will need to rely on help from strangers or passersby to find my way back again. I don’t know whether I am in America or a foreign country, whether I will know the language once I disembark, or how I will contact my friends with no money and no idea, I now realize, what the name or location of the coffee shop actually is.

I decide I need to get off the trolley at this point but I am so angry and frustrated that I grab the young man by his coat sleeve and begin dragging him along with me, vaguely thinking of finding a policeman or some sympathetic stranger who will convince him to relinquish my cup.  He bumps along beside me, face down, up stairs and down halls and is otherwise unmoving.  A vague sense of unease begins to creep up in me, as if I might have inadvertently hurt him; yet I am still so angry and scared and single-minded in my need to get help that I continue on.

We finally board an escalator and reach the top, me dragging him still by the sleeve only he catches at the top and goes under the rim of the escalator while I am still holding his arm and part of me thinks I should pull him out but instead I let go and he is sucked in and down as the escalator stairs fold (yes, I know this is physically impossible, but it’s a dream remember.) One of his friends is now walking beside me and he winces, grins, and says: that hurt.  And I picture the tousled-hair man falling into the hidden mysterious mechanisms of the escalator and getting flattened by the gears and I don’t feel a bit of remorse.

Only then it dawns on me that I may have committed MURDER, I may have actually killed this person, this stranger who began the afternoon walking by my table and admiring my cup and that his two friends witnessed the whole thing and that I had no excuse other than he stole it from me as a twisted prank and kept taunting me despite my pleas to stop. And I had this horrible, mind-numbing sinking knowledge of how a person must feel when they get so caught up in an emotion that their reason and humanity disappear and they act blindly, stupidly, and end up killing another person without ever meaning to.  I knew that I done something in an instant that would change my life forever and I had no recollection of how I had arrived at that action or what compelled me to act that way.   And I also knew that there was nothing I could do to take it back or make it not have happened.

And then I woke up. (And I was SO damn glad I could’ve cried because my situation had seemed so bleak mere moments before.)

Every nuance of this dream stayed crystal clear throughout the hours of the morning until I finally had to write it down.

The yellow coffee cup is exactly the one from which I drink my coffee every morning.

I have no idea who the young man, his friends, or my friends were or where I was.

I feel very disoriented still with a lingering sense of unease and am left pondering the message of this dream.