November 16, 2015 § 5 Comments
It is June in North Carolina and we are packing up Jeff’s un-airconditioned studio—all of us sweaty and heat-irritated. I am sent to a corner to go through my things, which Jeff moved from our attic years ago. I find a box I didn’t know I had. I am supposed to be taping things up; instead, I open it. It contains momentos from my childhood that my sisters and I separated from my parents’ effects.
I am easily distracted by this box. It holds my first poems, many certificates, random photos and papers—my mother kept everything without judgment or priority. In the bottom of the box, I find a thin black book, oriented in landscape, with the words “pilot’s logbook” embossed in gold on the front cover. Looking inside, I see that on this same day, June 28, the year I was sixteen, I was flying.
I had almost forgotten this happened.I took flying lessons before I could drive a car. It was another lifetime. Those were some of my parents’ proudest moments. They flew, my grandmother flew, and now, I was trying it. I was an unlikely pilot, not a daredevil, but somehow, in the sky, I felt calm and in control in a way I never did on the ground. I remember that.
“You should do it again,” Jeff says.
“I want to,” I say, “But it’s so expensive. Maybe I’ll write about mom flying,” I say. I pack up the rest of the box, but I keep the book out. On the front page, it has my name in beautiful script. My mom must have gotten my sister Leigh Ann to write it. There is a list of dates and times I flew with Mr. Harris, his cryptic notes on what I did—arrows turning left and right, abbreviated words I don’t understand—for a total of 13.3 hours.
For our anniversary, Jeff and I go to a nice restaurant in Princeton. We are going to a play after, and I have bought him small things—just little gifts to mark the day. I think big gifts are silly when you’ve been married this long. Over dinner, he asks me how my book is coming, if I’m not almost finished. “Who knows if it will ever be finished,” I say. “But you’ll want to write about your mom flying too, right?” He hands me a manila envelope. Inside, there is a certificate for a flying lesson. Tears spill over. I can’t stop them. “Maybe this will help you write it,” he says.
I wait a few months before I call, partially because I am scared, partially because I want to pick the exact right time. In October, I realize that I won’t be with Leigh Ann on my parents’ wedding anniversary. We usually mark it by doing something they would like. That’s when I know. I’ll fly for their anniversary—except it’s Friday the 13th—maybe I’ll do it that weekend. I make an appointment with Mike, a faceless name I have nothing to attach to—and I watch the weather. There are winds this weekend, so I push the appointment back a day. It wouldn’t be right to die in a forty mile an hour wind gust. The night before, I sleep restlessly. I am nervous. What the hell am I thinking? Still, I made the appointment, and Jeff bought me the lesson, so I’m going through with it.
At the airport, a woman greets me. I take it as a good sign that there is a woman pilot here. Mike is what I expect: a heavy set older guy with an AOPA baseball cap and Costco jeans. He is exactly what I want. He reminds me of Mr. Harris, the quiet man who treated sixteen-year-old me as a competent, intelligent flyer. I tell Mike I have done this before, that I have brought my logbook. “Great,” he says. “Then I’ll let you do most of the flying. Take the left seat. I’ll sit in the co-pilot seat.” This terrifies me. I haven’t been in a Cessna 152 in decades, let alone flown one. “We manage the risk,” Mike says. “I’m planning to sleep in my own bed tonight.” He is calm, so I am calm. I will not die doing this today, I am sure.
We taxi and do the pre-flight check. Mike controls the throttle, but I pull the yoke. We rise. “You did the take off,” he says. I did. I feel the rush I last felt in a whitewater kayak, adrenaline—I feel every inch of my skin. I am thrilled.
Once we are up, I feel again that confidence that I am in control of the gigantic sky, above everything, only 2,500 feet, but still, from here it all looks manageable. Mike and I fly to the Jersey shore, just to the edge of the Atlantic. “Next stop, France,” he says. Instead, we turn right, down the shore. Mike is doing most of the flying, but my feet feel his moves on the pedals, my hands are still on the yoke. We find a waypoint-–a white water tower–and I fly toward it. “You have this too, right?” I say. Mike does, of course. Every time we hit a small bump of moisture, I let out a little gasp and Mike hears it over the headphones. “It’s normal, he says. Not a safety issue. You get used to it.”
My grandmother and my mom used to talk about how they liked to feel the air, but I don’t want something to push against. I remember too many trips in the back of a small plane, my mom negotiating thick clouds, my sisters nauseated next to me. I remember so much up here and time folds on itself. I focus on the leafless trees below, the faint outline of New York City in the haze to my right. The air smoothes for me and Mike and we fly back toward Princeton.
Our descent is a little bumpy and angled. That, with my stomach clenched, makes me nauseated. After we taxi in, I open the door as soon as I can and walk around on firm ground until I am stable. I get Mike to sign my ancient logbook. “Introductory,” he writes. I notice that without thinking about it, I am smiling wider and more easily than I have in years. I am proud and thrilled at the same time. I am who I used to be, but wiser: this is joy. Mike is right, it is the beginning of something.
October 8, 2015 § 5 Comments
When I was maybe 5 or 6, my dad brought Bambi home, strapped to the top of the woody station wagon, dead. This was the 70s in Kentucky, and I suppose he was trying to make friends by going hunting with a few guys, though the idea of a surgeon hunting with a rifle baffles me now. I think he bought the rifle for that occasion, and it was the last time it was used. My four sisters and I, as the legend goes, broke into a chorus of tears because the deer was definitely Bambi and was definitely dead. Imagine stairsteps of stringy-haired little girls in pink polyester nightgowns crying as you came in the door with your trophy. Man was in the forest.
My grandmother, we called her Gigi, was the original female badass in my life. She had a pearl handled pistol that would almost fit in the palm of your hand, just like lady badasses carried in the movies. I am pretty sure she kept it in her purse, or maybe in a bedside table drawer. I thought that was cool. My mom wanted that gun—she thought it was cool too, but I’m glad Gigi never gave it to her. She might have used it– she might be drunk, or my dad and she might have a horrible argument, or she might be depressed—I didn’t doubt that she could pull the trigger. She often felt powerless and afraid.
When I lived in the mountains, I knew plenty of people who packed when they walked in the woods, for the real possibility of encountering a copperhead or a bear, or maybe as defense against the owner of a pot patch they would come across. It seemed to make sense at the time, as long as you were a good shot. Still, I figured I’d shoot myself accidentally, or worse, someone else. I walked in the woods a lot, unarmed, and nothing ever bothered me except the cold wind.
When I taught high school drop outs in New Haven, I wasn’t really scared, even though New Haven is the end of the line of the train from New York, the quickest and farthest you can get out of town on a cheap train. I passed the Winchester plant on my way to work. All the gangs I had heard of were represented in my classroom. Still, the only day I was scared was when a guy named Alex wasn’t doing his work. I came over to help him and he looked me in the eye and whispered murder in the classroom, then grinned, apparently amused at the way the blood had drained from my face. I told my principal, but there was nothing he could do. It wasn’t a direct threat, maybe just a bad joke, he said. That’s not what Alex’s eyes said.
This was before lockdown drills and swatting. I didn’t make Alex do his work after that. Eventually, he left school. Another student though, Henri, came in sleepy one day. I told him to wake up, to pay attention. “Sorry,” he said. “I got shot.” He lifted his shirt to show me the bandages around his abdomen, and I told him he should go home, but he didn’t. He wanted to stay in school.
When I taught at a community college, the North Carolina legislature passed a bill making it legal for people to carry guns on campus. I argued with a few students in my class who were happy they could legally keep guns in their cars. I’m sure some guns make it into the building. I didn’t feel safer, though they swore they would protect me. Often, I was the only one standing at the front of the room, the easiest hit. I figured when the shots came, I’d dive under my desk and hope for the best. The emergency alert program that would have required me to log in to my computer never got activated, but the computer wasn’t under my desk anyway.
Last night, my friend Mimi texted me to tell me about a murder/suicide half a block from my old house, next door to the house her children lived in until recently. It’s in a nice, leafy neighborhood, right near the university. My neighborhood, but it could be yours too. Property values are going up. The woman, whom I hadn’t met, was shot in her driveway, then her boyfriend or husband, or whatever he was to her, shot himself and wounded her brother.
I don’t think of myself as someone who lives on the edge of violence, but it seems now that I’ve spent my life surrounded by it, or the potential for it, in one way or another. More and more innocent people seem to die every day from gunshots.
When my dad died, my mom found the Bambi rifle, along with an ancient war pistol passed down from some long dead relative. They had been in my parents’ house, unloaded, most of my life. We didn’t know what to do with them, so we stored them in a place that seemed safe. Now, I want them gone, long gone, melted down to molten metal in a giant soup of millions of turned in guns. They only make me feel like a target in this great forest.
October 1, 2015 § 2 Comments
I almost ordered the vacuum bags online, but I had seen the sign of the store going out of business soon in the huge shopping complex off Route 1, and I thought maybe somehow I could help it out a little in the end. Maybe just to stick it to the big box stores surrounding it. Plus, it was right beside the regular grocery store, and we needed toilet paper, soap, things that are exotic and pricey at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
The guy at the counter quizzed me on my vacuum model, but I had forgotten to look. “It’s the red one,” I said. How should I know what it’s called to the company? I call it the vacuum.
“Well, there’s a lot of red models,” he said. We finally took a good guess at what I needed–me and this young Jersey guy working in the Sew and Vac, and I wanted to ask him how he got there, but he asked me first. “Where are you from?” he said. “Well Kentucky first, but I moved here from North Carolina.”
To him, it was all the same South, never mind the huge distinctions in the places in my mind. The closest he’d been to either one was Ohio.
“Linda’s from North Carolina,” he said, pointing to a small woman, maybe in her sixties, at the front of the store, trying to sell a man on a Miele. Linda heard her name and perked up. She left the man to ponder the different models and came up to me. “Where in North Carolina?” she said, almost an accusation. She had a tinge of nasal mountain to her voice, and a raspiness that probably came from smoking for most of her life, but her o’s revealed her as a native of somewhere down east.
“I lived in Durham for fourteen years,” I said. “The second time I lived there.”
“Ok,” she said. I had passed some test. “I’m from Manteo. Most people, I just say I’m from the Outer Banks. They don’t know Manteo.
“I do,” I said. “Your accent sounds like home.”
“Do you like collards?” she asked. I confirmed that I did. “Well,” she said, “let me tell you about the flea market.” Linda described the delights I could get at the flea market, the fried chicken, the fresh collards, all the good bargains.
“Do you have any friends to go with? I doubt anybody in Princeton will go to the flea market,” she said. Before I could explain my situation, defend myself with the fact that I had only been here a month, or be ashamed at my lack of extroversion, she wrote down her phone number and told me she’d go to the flea market with me.
Then Linda and the young man at the counter showed me the worst traffic circle in New Jersey on Google maps, just so I’d know. It’s near Bordentown, just so you know. They took me behind the counter so I could see the computer screen better, and pointed out the shopping center they were moving to, just down the road from the traffic debacle. I know I’ll eventually go there.
Finally, the young man handed me my vacuum bags, Linda handed me her card, and she hugged me tight, as if to comfort me, as if I’d known her for a long time, and she’d missed me. I’d missed her too.
September 22, 2015 § 2 Comments
The mornings just got cool here, so, suddenly, the air conditioners we were desperate for a few weeks ago now sag like old gym socks out of the upstairs bedroom windows. Still, it seems premature to take them out. It’s September, cool and warm and changing all the time. The students have arrived too, and our once calm street rings with drunken laughter now and then in the middle of the night when the parties end, or when the train comes in from New York.
In the daytime, there’s a quiet drone of activity. It’s hard to bike through the maze of bodies on campus. Too loud music flows out of open arched windows, flyers are taped to the ground and wrapped around light poles: we are deep in the belly of the tiger.
There is the look in the eyes of the Freshmen that makes them instantly recognizable– part fear, part joy, and a whole lot of bewilderment. They look like they’ve just had their very first double shot of espresso and they can’t be-lieve they never tried it before. Have you tried this! This is their espresso, this beautiful gothic dream world. At times, especially when it’s cloudy, I feel like I’m in some European country, or a theme park version of it—lots of stone and gargoyles, people speaking all sorts of languages that I can’t shape with my own tongue, cathedral-like libraries—but then I hear a Jersey accent, or see someone clad in all orange and black and I remember where I have landed.
It’s good to be around these new students, to be, like them, bewildered at the number of authors I want to hear read, the classes I wish I could take, the food magically appearing at every meeting like a fresh crop of truffles, the existence of hoagie spread, and even the godforsaken jug handles.
I sense the freshmen’s homesickness and their need to travel in safe packs too. I travel with mine. I dragged Jeff to a fitness fair, where again, freshmen swarmed, this time toward upperclassmen, clad in the gear of their sport. I just wanted the half price yoga class tickets.
We recognized the different types of college people (they haven’t changed much)—mostly identified by clothing and hairstyle, and we saw ourselves, young and tender, years ago. It was a little like a time travel movie where you see things exactly how they were, but nobody can see you: now we are invisible to anyone under 30. We are so obviously, well, old, that they have to look away. That’s ok. It’s their espresso, so sweet and bitter, and eye-opening on the first cool mornings of September. I just want a sip.
August 27, 2015 § 4 Comments
I have taught approximately 950 students in the past 4.5 years. Some are repeats, but still. That means, when you live in the same place you teach, you can’t go anywhere without being recognized. I have some talents, but they are limited. I can, for example, remember 120 students’ names each semester, provided they sit in the same spot for the first two weeks of class. It’s a visual/situational memory thing. Unless they have made an impression on me in some other way by the end of the semester, however, I unconsciously delete the names to make room for the new batch. But I always remember faces. Jeff did not teach as many students, but he got to know his students well over the years. In North Carolina, there was nowhere we could go within a 15-mile radius where we wouldn’t be recognized by somebody: no coffee shop, restaurant, or grocery store, at least. On my last day in Durham, we went to the Whole Foods, sweaty and disheveled from packing, and I ran into a student I hadn’t seen in a year or so. I remembered his face. I was grateful for his nametag. He remembered me. I smoothed my hair to try to look closer to my work self. He told me I’d made him like English, which may have been a fib, just because Jeff was standing there, but still, when you are leaving a place you didn’t plan to ever leave, you love everything about it, especially students who say kind things.
Now, that is gone. I could be anybody, just another one of the millions of people in the Northeast from around the whole world. Predictably, I miss being recognized as “Ms. Whetstone.” I knew who that was, what I was expected to say, even if I was embarrassed that a former student was scanning my tampons or cheap wine.
I am anonymous here for at least a few more weeks. on the upside, I could wear pajamas to the grocery with no shame if I wanted. Hell, slippers even. (Apparently, this is a thing. See the photo I found on the Internet.) I don’t have to make eye contact, much less conversation, with anyone in retail. Still, I must admit, I felt slighted when the guy who checked me out at Ross the other day told me the total due and turned away as he gave me my receipt, as if I was already gone– as if I was nobody. Not even a nod.
Jeff says he likes this, the anonymity of a new place. We haven’t even run into anyone in NYC—doesn’t that always randomly happen? We are individuals at the tail end of a liminal space—stepping off from the unknown to the barely known.
A week ago, I was on the way to meet a friend of a friend for the first time, and I heard someone call out, “Stephanie!” There are a lot of people with my name, so I just kept going on my bike, then I heard it again. I stopped and turned around. It was the one friend I already know in this town. It actually was my name being called, a great and wonderous surprise.
My invisibility cloak is slipping. Then again, maybe the thing never fully covered me anyway. Today, in the phone store, the young guy waiting on us observed, “Your accent is different than his (meaning Jeff). When he talks to me, his changes a little, like he’s travelled for business. Yours is stronger.”
“Where do you think I’m from?” I ask. I think I sound like I’m from Kentucky/North Carolina, but I’ve been placed anywhere from Mississippi to England.
“The South,” the guy says.
“You have a good ear,” I say.
I guess I never was totally anonymous. I’m just not sitting in the same spot.
July 16, 2015 § 3 Comments
In the spring, when we finally know for sure that Jeff got the job in New Jersey, we hire some realtors. We’ve lived in this house for 13 years, longer than I’ve lived in any other house, my kids’ whole childhood, and it seems strange to think that anyone else could live here. We claimed it as ours long ago with holes in the walls, worn floors, an aging paint job, an un-remodeled kitchen. “I don’t want to move,” Jack Henry says. “Me neither,” I say.
The realtors tell us we should re-finish the floors, paint the walls, install something called a vapor barrier under the house, lay carpet upstairs, “update” the kitchen, and spruce up the yard. Okay! We say, envisioning the bidding war which will surely come, the money we will use to move to a much more expensive area of the country. Piece of cake, right? Wrong. Very, very wrong. The painter, a sweet man named Leonardo (I kid you not) begins to dig though the work. He is punctual, methodical, dignified, and silent. Furniture must be moved, rooms must be cleared. We rush around, each night before Leonardo hits a room, rearranging and moving, removing the evidence of our lives. We rent a storage space because the floor guy, an Eastern European who has no time for humor, needs an empty house to do his work. We move everything out, including the dog, and move into a hotel. Floor guy is appalled to find that we will be moving back in after his masterpiece is finished. It is a masterpiece, by the way. The floors give off their own otherworldly golden light. Still, we can’t afford to stay in the hotel forever. I make everyone take off their shoes when they come in to see the improvements. We move a few mattresses back in, but not much else. Our lives move forward with work and school, but the house is in the way, or we are in its way. “Mom, I just need a surface to write on,” Jack Henry says. I tell him to use the kitchen counter until Elvis (again, his real name) and his crew show up to fix the kitchen. When they arrive the next day, they tear out the counters, so now, there are no surfaces for homework or cooking, and for one harrowing day when they change the sink, there is no water.
I blame Martha Stewart and HGTV for this torture. When we bought our first house, before Cole was born, there was no such thing as “staging.” It was clear that you bought a house to live in. There might be toiletries in the bathroom when you looked at a house. A kid might have left his socks on the floor. That was the good old days.
We are instructed to stay out of our house as much as possible. It won’t take long to sell, everyone tells us. We hear of houses that sold in hours, not days. We certainly do not expect weeks. Everyone is wrong. As soon as the house goes on the market, a heat wave hits. It is above 95 degrees for about two weeks straight. Maybe that is why it doesn’t sell in a day. No one can say. We dutifully eat out, make our beds first thing in the morning, wipe the sinks down every time we brush our teeth. Our 12-year-old dog, Annie, spends more time in the car than she ever has. As I drive around with my clothes in the trunk of my car and Annie in the back seat, head hanging out the window, I wonder what it is like to really have no place to go, not even a car. I vow to work with the homeless. I begin to fantasize about living in a messy house again.
My sister, Katie, comes to visit. “Your house used to have so much soul,” she says. Now, it is beautiful, but sterile, in a Southern Living photo shoot sort of way. We are at each other’s throats over things like leaving a cup in the sink. It is a model home, meant to help people imagine a perfect life, not meant to actually live in.
We visit New Jersey, and the house we have decided to rent. It is empty, but wonderfully wonky. It is not perfectly polished or staged. I can imagine my kids’ socks on the floor, an occasional glob of toothpaste in the sink. I can imagine making a messy meal in the kitchen and gathering with friends (at least my imaginary new friends) to enjoy it. By now we are aching to get to a place where we can relax, spread out, maybe even (gasp!) leave the dishes until morning. I guess we are selling the house our kids grew up in in all its glowing floor glory, but we are taking our messy lives with us. That, Martha, is a good thing.
February 14, 2015 § Leave a comment
I heard it on the news, and on Facebook, which is faster than the news. Then, I heard, maybe it was one of the women’s husbands, a domestic dispute, not because she was Muslim. Somehow, I don’t know how, that seemed more comprehensible than a hate crime on a very low scale of horrible to worse—a different kind of hate—which in itself says plenty about what we get used to accepting, moving on from. When I got to school, the first person I ran into was Ama. She had emigrated with her husband, but he was shot at the convenience store he owned in Raleigh a long time ago, and she had been on her own for many years. She had taken my English 111 class. She was diligent in every way. She had seen a lot, raised four children. She was Muslim. We said how terrible the triple murder was. I told her the husband theory. No! She said. That’s propaganda. She was 21. My son knew her. Her husband and sister were killed too–a beautiful family!
I went on to teach class, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” He said so many indelible things, like: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I explained that to the class, but they knew what it meant. And then this: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The truth of this echoed. A few students had claimed at the beginning of class that the reading was boring. I asked them to listen to the power of the words, still resonating after 52 years. The idea that we live in an inescapable network of mutuality has yet to hit home with many.
A few years before, I had had a fantastic student, a woman who wore colorful hijabs to match her outfit. She was planning to be a respiratory therapist. When we read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that semester, she told me she took it home and made her kids read it. We talked a lot in that class about tolerance, justice, and action. It wasn’t until the end of that semester that I found out her husband is in jail, charged as a terrorist. I had thought I knew what that meant. I found pictures of her on the Internet proclaiming his innocence, face covered, all but her eyes. I knew her eyes though: warm, kind, thoughtful. I didn’t know how to reconcile what she’d told me with what the papers said. I just knew that I was tied to her too.
After class this week, I found out that the man who murdered the young family in Chapel Hill was a student at this very school. My school. The administration sent an email. Part time student, they said, trying to limit the ties, but still. He could have been in one of my classes. They were required for his program. I wondered which of my colleagues had pulled that short straw. Though, when he had been in class, semesters before, would they have known? Would it have made a difference if he had read Dr. King? If he had pondered “networks of mutuality?” I was secretly glad that I had never met him, and wouldn’t have to second guess every word I had ever said in his class.
Like everybody in my community, I can’t make sense of these murders, this terrorism. Over parking? As if that’s understandable, as if it’s not about hate? I wonder if I ever took this man’s spot in the parking lot outside my building. It would have been legal for him to have a gun in his car. Would he have shot me, my hair a wild mess, uncovered?
So this is community college. This is community. The single garment of destiny: Muslim, Christian, Jew, Atheist. All in the same place, walking through the same halls. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” How do we make sense of senseless violence? of hate? How do we reconcile this in one small building, one small state, one world?