Remarkable Matters

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The place was overtaken by ceramic Siamese cats. They showed off their glossy pale coats, peered into the room with icy eyes, and lorded their eminence over anyone who set foot in the room. Everywhere Clementine looked, they seemed accusatory, as if they knew her reasons for climbing the stairs with leaden feet. She’d had to ring an outside buzzer to get in the building, like it was a secret society up there. What did you call a fortune teller’s work? A consulting business? A fool’s paradise? 

It was attractive once she let herself in. Elegant, in fact, which was surprising considering the neighborhood, fraught with wandering souls and greasy eateries.  She ignored the cats and focused on a wall of pink, blue and gold floral wallpaper, two large mirrors that caused wintry light to gather and flash across the floor and her lap. Everything was prettified and hearkened from early or mid-twentieth century. Even the phone was rotary, made for someone who wore high-heeled satin slippers upon awakening. Clementine was drawn to a dish holding heart-shaped cookies. Were they supposed to encourage a placid, appreciative expectancy in customers?

Her eyes lingered on things despite her intention, which was to await her appointment patiently, to breathe slowly. Keep her mission in the fore of her mind. How could she prepare and present her thoughts intelligently when everything gleamed and bloomed without mercy?

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When the private door swung open, she would enter the office (or would it be a room shrouded in voluminous drapes and darkness?) and take a seat confidently. Say she’d been passing by, saw the little, calligraphic sign by the door and determined to call Madame Valencia on a lark.  And she would be frank, tell her that she didn’t believe in this sort of thing, but for twenty-five dollars maybe she could tell her something good. Something so visionary that she would leave with a renewed sense of purpose. An epiphany, against the odds. She snickered softly. Wouldn’t that cost more?

Maybe that would be too much to say, on second thought.

Clem studied the perfect arrangement of heart-shaped cookies. She picked up a red one and cradled it in her palm. Her fingers trembled. The oxygen felt as though it had leaked out of the room; the warmth was oppressive. There stood eternally blooming flowers, Siamese cats like sentries. If they were real they likely would size her up as an impostor but it should have been their mistress they inventoried. Or maybe they would be trained to think of Madame as “Highness.” If they could only purr, they might leap upon the rung and twitch their tails against her ankles, make an effort to be more welcoming. Ease the mean ache burrowing between her ribs, the reason she was here. Really, she should just leave this silly place.

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Clem covered her eyes but that did nothing to stop the years from rewinding: she is again at the art museum, waiting two hours for him, studying Monet and then Gauguin. After an hour moving on to the fifteenth century tapestries that she admires most of all. He knows where to look. Though he would like contemporary exhibits, he accommodates her tastes. But this time he is too late, and Clementine has gone to the mezzanine that overlooks the first floor. Scanning the sparse crowd, she thinks she recognizes his olive trench coat, his sandy hair, but it can’t be. This man is leaning toward a woman in a navy blue cape and high heeled boots as though imparting important information. His hand is on her shoulder. Clementine is about to call out and wave when the woman looks up anxiously. The woman freezes, then steps back and brushes by him and out the glass doors. He lifts his eyes to the mezzanine and sees her, is alarmed. He punches the elevator button three times. By the time he gets to Monet, Clementine has slipped way, taken the side stairs and gone home. For the person he was stood close to is Anne. Clementine’s sister.

Though he called repeatedly, she never answered. When her sister arrived at odd hours and rang the bell twenty times, Clementine was driven out the back door by rage. Then finally moved far way. She knew he and Anne had to have something important, deep; they never would taken the risk and come to the museum together. Maybe they had been been planning on telling her. And it was just like her sister, taking what she believed was meant for her. And just like Clementine to let her have it.

But that was then. Clementine wiped any clinging crumbs from her lips and put the tissue in her purse.  The sculpted marble clock on the mantel indicated she had two more minutes but the private door opened. Madame Valencia wafted into the room, extended her hand, then followed her client into the office. Clementine took in the brocade love seat, the table with its flowered phone, the appointment book beside the kitschy figurine of a bride and groom, perhaps hers or her mother’s long ago. Madame Valencia settled across from her, long legs crossed at narrow ankles. She looked more like a fifties model than a so-called psychic, with grey pencil skirt and ruffled lavender cashmere sweater. Her blond waves were immovable.

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“How can I be of use today?” Madame asked, voice smooth as  caramel.

“I have my doubts, really….but I know you specialize in doing readings for clients with relationship issues, right? How about past relationships?”

“Everyone has matters of the heart in mind. How long ago? Here, yes?” Madame Valencia’s eyes smiled though her mauve lips moved little.

Clementine wondered why the woman didn’t know. Wasn’t this her job or did she need clues? Maybe Madame wasn’t the real thing. Her neck tingled.

“Fifteen years, here, yes. But recently there was a divorce. Not mine. My sister’s. But I knew him first. Was with him first.”

Madam Valencia nodded.”And you would like to know if he thinks of you? Cares. Wants to find you, perhaps, to begin anew.”

“Something like that. I never married…I might still love him, but I might hate him, too. I’ve been away a long time; I had to make a whole new life.”

“Have you?”

Clementine shrugged. “Enough that I’m sought after as an art dealer. That I’m able to do as I please.”

“And are you really doing as you please? So why Jon?”

The sound of his name, not mentioned to Madame, jarred her.”Look, he took my sister–vice versa likely. They married. I haven’t talked to her since I knew they were….since they were seen somewhere they shouldn’t have been. My mother told me they divorced last year. Now mother is ill and I’m visiting awhile. I don’t know what I want to do about Jon, if anything. Can you tell me something, if I should reach out to him?”

Madame Valencia had lowered her eyelids as though meditating. She squeezed them shut and her jaw tightened as though wincing from a sudden pain. Clementine clasped her hands together and worried the fortune teller would start spewing strange things. It suddenly felt worse than absurd to be talking to a stranger, captive in a room awash with romanticism. And there was yet another cat in the window, mocking her. Too much.

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Madame opened her eyes again; they were clear blue, calm.

“Your sister, Anne, is waiting for you to call her. This has been a terrible thing for her. You can find your answers with her. But Jon is long gone.”

“Anne? I don’t care what Anne is undergoing. She stole Jon, she made the marriage whatever it was and now she is done with him. This is not of any interest to me. Anne can take care of her own business.”

“Ah, but these past years have been a chore for you, yes? They have been spare… emotionally… bereft of close friends, soured by loss of trust. You have whipped about in your private life like a kite without a direction, tethered to pain. You keep close all you lost, feed your resentment until it’s become bitter sustenance you cannot live without. You will disappear into a well of regrets if you cannot let go. And love your sister as you loved her once. With deep affection. Acceptance.”

Clementine fell back. “I paid you money and this is what I get? Jon is who I’ve needed all these years…”

“It may be Jon you both once wanted. But your sister is the one who will always be here, as you could be for her. Don’t abandon yourself over a man who came and went. Free your heart. Give it first and last to your family. It is you who has truly left. Not Anne. She waits.”

Clementine felt something rumble and turn inside. She felt the river of her life as it moved from past to present and toward the future. Had Jon divided them? And did she leave behind her sister even though she was the one who felt disposed of? What was the nature of betrayal? She was suddenly made fragile, near tears.

“Perhaps,” she whispered, “this is true. It’s time to find out.”

Madame’s eyes warmed with compassion. “Not all, but much love is renewable. Tend to it.”

On the way out Clementine picked up an ornate old mirror on a table by the restroom. She looked more weary than she’d expected. A breathing, running Siamese cat slipped behind her, tail tickling her ankle. What a remarkable and strange place. She’d keep her mad impulse a secret. Now she was going to get coffee, think it all over. Or maybe it was time to call her sister. Compare life notes. Even learn to laugh about the messes they’d made. Arm themselves with real love for whatever lay ahead.

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Blaze and Silverado

Photo by Blair Pittman
Photo by Blair Pittman

“It isn’t really what it looks like,” Sophie says as she shuffles the photos. “We skinny dipped back then, no big deal. Off to the woods and lakes we went during college breaks.”

Her daughter holds it up close, wondering if it’s her dad, almost hoping it isn’t. She doesn’t want to know that much.

“But it’s you, right? And if it isn’t what it looks like, then what do you call it?”

Sophie takes the picture. Cradles it in her palms. Her face closes, then she puts it back in the square box. Nods.

“No mistaking my hair. And not your dad, no.”

She touches her hair now, as if reassuring herself it still holds a gingery glow. It is camouflaged a bit by a few strands of white.

“Well, he has a nice back, whoever he is. You were pretty.”

Sophie lets out a soft laugh. Mia slouches off to watch television. Saturday morning. Sophie has been up cleaning out her massive desk for hours, placing into teetering piles the things she wants and doesn’t want. What matters now, what doesn’t. Most of the paper memories are discarded. Even most of the pictures are less valuable as time goes by. There are tattered take out menus from the last city, matchbooks left over from smoking days. The race car sketches of Evan’s are kept. He left them five years ago, but still, for their daughter. And Mia’s report cards have been kept for her; they denote certain potential, despite her lackadaisical attitude.

They’re moving again. But this time to a house. Not impressive from the sidewalk, it got to her when they climbed the steps. The screened porch, a heavy wooden swing. It was what she had been circling back to her whole adult life.

The bulk of the sorting done, Sophie stands and pivots from the piles. Catches her face in the gilt-framed mirror. Something there brings her closer. Her hazel eyes are reddened by dust she stirred up. She smooths her freckled cheeks, her pale lower lip. That old photograph has invaded her oasis, returned her to that place where anguish and tenderness are bond together, captive.

What it looked like was what it was. Finding each other. Being astonished. Feeling safe, so also more free than ever before. Being in love had been like finding out she could speak another language without any effort, or had wings that were secretly hidden and waiting to share their power. It was the beginning of a small kingdom constructed with wonder.

It makes her wince, but she remembers it all.

Martin Robishe was the older brother of Cassie, a friend she’d met in social anthropology class. It was their family cottage into which a small horde of students crammed one June. Three small bedrooms with an open living area that soared above, skylights encouraging buttery light. They had sleeping bags. Two people had brought little tents. Sophie took the couch on the porch; it was her spot, Cassie informed the others, claimed last fall.

When she got there relief banished all tension like a kind drug, making her limbs looser, feet lighter. Mind cleared. She was a dancer with demanding goals, but here she forgot. Let herself revel in simple things, heat, tree mazes and dirt. Undulating, hundreds-of-blue waters. Feral cries in the night. Stealthy moths circling light, drawing her with their zigzag grace.

Martin disrupted her train of thought when his blue-black Silverado finally pulled in.  The engine boomed. He loped over, finishing a pizza slice.

“Hey,” Martin said as he came up by her. She sat with arms wrapped around bent legs. “Sophie, right? Or Blaze like Cassie calls you? We met last fall for a minute or two.”

Sophie raised her eyebrows at the familiar, interesting face, then returned to the sputtering bonfire. Smiled a small smile. The others had gone off to bed. Cassie had said he’d be there a couple nights before heading back to his apartment in town. He ‘d fix torn screens, cut back the new weed growth for their parents, who arrived in July for a month.

“Quietness is preferred, I know–sorry,” he said, then poked at the fire gently, as though he was afraid to disturb it. It flared, then settled into a coral glow.

“Yes, as solitude is, as well.”

He laughed, a low rumble, not put off by her sarcasm.

She sat cross-legged. “I’m practicing being still in the center of the dark. If you want to join me you will have to conform.”

“Here on my land? And how do you know it’s the center?”

But he sat opposite her, fire between them, the night’s depth and breadth embracing them. Sophie listened, eyes closed to better hear waves advancing and leaving, the simmering of wood in flame. She expected him to jostle about and clear his throat, say something stupid. But nothing. Nature had many songs,and a fine hum vibrated in her core. Until he broke the spell.

“The sky is a map of places we have been before, I think.”

Sophie opened her eyes. He was leaning back on his hands, looking at the constellations and other tiny lights in the blackness.

“Where do you think you’ve been?”

“I don’t know. I just feel this isn’t the whole story. Look at the way the darkness dances up there. How much are we missing?”

“I second that feeling. Dancing heavens…” She let out a sigh that felt good.

Sophie observed at the fine shape of his head, dark hair falling forward, shoulders set against the gleaming midnight. The way he seemed to fit in the woods and this moment. The fire was nearly out but they stayed on, speaking only when it seemed necessary.

In the morning the weather wasn’t good. Wind rattled the screen door; the sky looked like a bruise above a swaying treeline. They played poker and chess, ate leftover spaghetti and too many brownies. By late afternoon someone suggested they sit on the dock. See how the storm swept in. They went down as felt the air crackle as thunder boomed, crescendos of sound through woods, across rough water. Lightning cut the sky into puzzle pieces. They waited until rain broke loose, first in splatters, then in a torrent that stung their skin. Cassie and the rest took refuge in the cottage. But Martin and Sophie found refuge in the boathouse, watching from an opened door.

“Ever sail?” he asked her, leaning against the boat.

“We had a sunfish. It was great, the challenge of it, and the way it sped and bounced along.” She leaned back, too, a few inches away, far enough to not give him false ideas.

“I always wanted to build a sailboat. My dad has this speedboat but I want another experience. That’s my goal this summer. I’m taking a class on week-ends. Have to work at our store long hours, but I can do it.”

“I like that. I’d try it out when its finished if you invited me.” She grinned at him. “I’ll be at an arts camp as a  camp counselor for three weeks. I get to practice my dancing, too, which is why I’m going.”

The wind died down; thunder was a distant echo. The rain was pummeling less, was now a pleasant drone.

“You do ballet, I guess?”

“No, I ‘do’ modern.” She laughed and pushed his shoulder. “Have you ever seen a dance performance?”

“I saw two snowy egrets. They looked pretty good. Can you do that?”

She laughed, head to the side, eyes seeking his. He looked down at her, smirking, then was intent on memorizing her features. She saw a surprising glint of silver in a wave of his hair and wanted to put her fingers there. She felt warmth from the lean lines of his body. Or it was their combined energy, travelling through their cells and out to each other. Everything felt dense but elastic, as though time was fluid and they were moving far beyond it just by breathing. She had to move or she would combust, even disappear into thin air.

“Let’s swim in the rain!” she shouted and ran. At water’s edge, she tossed t-shirt, bra and shorts onto the shore, kicked off her sandals. Then stopped. What was she doing?  But he was there, too, stripping off shirt, pants, shoes, wading into sterling grey waters. He sank, a beautiful, shining stone.

Under the surface and up again, under and up, she swam against the waves until she felt a luxurious weariness. Martin sliced through the water, then floated beside her. Waited as rain melded with lake water, their skin with the air.

She moved closer as he reached for her.

“Come here, Blaze, let’s hold each other while we can.”

They met like they were meant to, face to face, heart to mind and soul. It was that simple. Crucial. It was unavoidable–to be together, be happy all summer long and longer still.

Sophie returns to the photograph. She knows what to do with it. She’s going to frame it, place it in her new office in the little house. And some day she might tell Mia: “He was there for a summer and a fall, then he left our country. To fight for it. He did not return. He passed over to the places he showed me that first night. And I love him. Even now.”

Bonnie and Me

I recently was gifted with a ticket to a Bonnie Raitt concert. It came from one of my closest friends, who has treated me a few times over the years for no reason in particular that I can tell, except that I am lucky to be her friend. We always have nearly front row seats. This venue was Edgefield, just outside of Portland, so we enjoyed the embrace of sky and sun, with gusty winds out of the Columbia Gorge to enhance our experience. The moon showed up bold and bright halfway through and cast a benevolent glow.

We didn’t need anything else to improve our mood, although lots of people were enjoying beer and wine, and smoking pot only a bit surreptitiously. Likely a lot of other substances were involved, from the looks of the exuberant women and keen-eyed men. My friend and I haven’t had a drink or drug in over twenty years. We had long ago partied our way in and out of concert halls and music festivals and only remembered about half of them. So we were missing out on nothing this night.

What we had tickets for was the promise of inspiration, joyful sass and a low down bluesy melancholy that only Bonnie Raitt can do the way she does, with her slide guitar finesse and her panoramic voice. When she lets loose an edgey crescendo, you stand up and cheer. When she lifts a tender note from the bitter depths, you weep or nearly so. As love moves into the limelight the cadence of desire builds longing. And when she struts across the stage, shakes that mane of red hair and teases the audience with a still-smoldering playfulness, you realize how long and winding a road it has been for her, and for you.

Her songs have likely chronicled many lives–hers, the other songwriters’, and ours. Mine, for certain. Her music has carried me and cleared my vision; it has offered me relief. When things failed, Bonnie’s music undid the ruin for at least a few moments. She wound me up and let me down easy and it was all because she sang what mattered most.

I remember first listening to her in the mid-seventies. I would have sought her out sooner but I was a late bloomer. I had been trained in and raised on classical music, so when I decided to act up and venture into the musical hinterlands, I fiercely attached myself to Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins and Gordon Lightfoot to name a few, with a smattering of Moody Blues, Cream and Chicago thrown in. My older sister, living in Washington after a few years in exotic California, exposed me to a new variety of musicians, and Bonnie Raitt was one.

Despite having bought a couple of earlier albums, Bonnie’s songs are actually cemented in my memory druing the year 1979. I had come to the conclusion my first marriage was ending, despite hanging on to the last shred of hope. There seemed so little I could do to make sense of it. But I was a writer and writing it out was what I did whenever the kids were in bed, after the sun vanished. I would listen to the deer snuffling outside, eating our beautiful corn, drink wine and write poetry that illuminated too little. And I played music softly, hoping for a small miracle of one sort or another.

By then I had very limited emotional space within me for music. Complicated situations wherein I had given up the pursuit and pleasures of music had left me unable to hear most of it, as it caused vivid pain. But sometimes I gave in to my increasing hunger for music and listened to classical artists and symphonies and a few other carefully chosen musicians. Bonnie Raitt was one of the few who spoke to me, and enabled me to speak back. Alone in the house at times, I would sing with her. It felt alright even when it hurt. In fact, it finally felt like a healing when I listened to, then learned the song “Two Lives”. What I couldn’t quite say, the chorus said:

“Some said time would ease the pain, two lives love has torn apart;

I believe whoever wrote that song, never had a broken heart.”

Bonnie Raitt’s music helped me find the strength to grieve and move on. I played her albums The Glow and Sweet Forgiveness over and over that year. They got me through along with Bach cello suites (some of which I attempted to play on my beloved cello), and a few other treasures.

There were many other songs that reflected, cushioned or celebrated events over the next four decades of my life. “The Glow” was an ode to the terrible comfort of a drink when there seemed nothing else. “Nick of Time” speaks to our mortality and the surprising love that is found along the way. “Silver Lining” is sort of a hymn to me: despite madmen and fools, despite all that we fight for and against, we need to take the light and shine it all around, as “the light don’t sleep”. She sings: “The only things worth living for are innocence and magic, amen.” And she makes her  message perfectly clear in “I Will Not Be Broken.”

She probably sings about love the best, all the varieties, whether it triumphs or crashes and burns. And for me that is a good thing, as although I am as fascinated by love as anyone else, it has been a confounding part of my life, full of flash and bite, heat and shadows, and the long still points of no return. If there is one thing I have tried to write about and felt I have missed the mark too often, it is the mystery and mastery of love. But not Bonnie Raitt or her fabulous songwriters. Just play “Love Sneakin’ Up On You”, “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Wherever You May Be.” The list gets very long. I have heard them all by now, many times.

But the September concert with my dear friend is one that will stay with me. We have shared a lot over the years, including a love for this music. And, like Bonnie, I think,  we are both fighters who have learned when to stand up and when to step away; we have found some peace.  When dancing rises up in our bones and blood it may be with a sigh as well as a shout these days. We have done and witnessed some things hard to forget, had our lives hijacked and taken them back. We’ve found happiness easier to create than to wait for, and we laugh a lot.

So, we sit up–or stand–close at Bonnie Raitt’s concerts and hear about risking it all for love but not the loss of our souls. Being revolutionary in our everyday lives by having mercy and not giving up, by being fully present and accountable. Finding the silver inside the blues. And having fun for no good reason.

So I hang out with Bonnie just as much as I used in my twenties. She sings my tunes. And I still sing her songs in moments of solitude. And when the music comes–it roars awake as it always did, after all these years–I feel right at home again. So, thanks, Bonnie. I’ll be up front whenever you come to town again.