The library was not like home, not like work or family’s or friends’ homes, in fact not like any other place, and that is why Vesta entered the ivy sheathed building twice weekly. It was a deeply neutral zone to step into, and that made up for much else in her life.
On Tuesdays she went by noon, after she had risen by ten and savored a leisurely breakfast–or, as her mother said with a cluck of the tongue, brunch. Since Tuesday was her day off she had more time to wander aisles, read through a pleasing spread of periodicals, then make black-inked, backward-leaning notations in a spiral notebook on many nonfiction books she had no intention of checking out.
On Fridays it was an after-work visit at 5. It was a comforting pause before the long night ahead. Vesta picked up a book on hold if there was one, examined New Arrivals, then perused the stacks, her forays dependent on last week’s choices. She chose one or two books to read over the week-end; she was a speed reader, thanks to a high school summer course. On Tuesday she returned books and stayed longer, settling into sway-bottomed armchairs chairs or hunching over smooth maple tabletops with her literary bounty.
This had gone on for years in one variation or another, since Vesta had graduated from college prepared to be a real estate legal assistant. At Marsh and Wright Properties she filed, managed inventory, answered calls and provided information, interfaced with banks, prepared documents and reports. In other words, she made sure all was in order, which some assumed was the dullest of positions, but she demurred. It held a small thrill when shoppers found their ideal home and all went slick as could be. But work could get fast and pressurized, impacted by sudden, errant matters, and could be rife with emotional fireworks due to the complex nature of human beings.
Vesta needed respite from all that despite being good at her job, passably content most weeks. Thank goodness for Tuesdays off, though it was not helpful for an extended week-end. But Ms. Marsh’s college age niece, Kendra, had a sort of internship on Tuesdays, so that was that. Not that Vesta objected much. Kendra would otherwise be in and out more. She was not a young woman to be trifled with, her pale face overcome by flaring glares which rendered her paler eyes mere slits. It was like being forced back into high school when Kendra waltzed in. So Tuesday off was perfect.
Vesta not only liked routine, she used it as a shield. Library visits were part of her scheme to maintain equilibrium in both the outer and inner worlds she inhabited. If work could seem full of screeching hawks on some days, well, her mother could be a character from a Wagnerian opera with her miseries, passionate wants and needs. She hit the booze too much and ruined everything she could, all the while calling her full glass the only faithful love she had ever known. It was more than sad to her daughter.
Inside Pine Grove Public Library, Vest found critical relief. She found random and persistent reasons to hope.
Libraries tend to be safely sociable but Vesta most often avoided people, even–or especially–their glances. In fact, they made her sweaty beyond the crisp, regulated office environment. It wasn’t hard to manage once she found the areas she wanted to pursue–she mad a beeline to it, got focused. Every patron did that, they weren’t there to chat up just anyone, though some made passing comments on books others had in hand, a free five second review. She ignored those; she made up her own mind. If stumped, she sought a librarian, though their formidable knowledge trotted out for the asking often made her feel lacking in greater intelligence. It wasn’t their fault, she knew. She had a lesser view of herself, anymore.
But there were some who too obviously were seeking hearts’ longings in the benign visage of an incoming visitor. She spotted singles in need of a partner; older folks who wanted a congenial conversation over a cup of coffee; a youth who longed for a research buddy to get him or her through tedious projects and then to hang out. Homeless folks who lounged, read and dozed in corners said nothing but their steady presence reminded Vesta that she should be more grateful and kind.
So she slunk down aisles until she fingered the spine of a book of intent, then stood quite still with back straight, feet apart, and turned pages fast as she could scan. The constant hum of electric lights, murmur of voices at the check out desk, people’s clothes rustling as bodies slipped by her–none of this marred concentration as nagging odds and ends of her life began to slink away, the thin pages offering portals into greater possibilities.
On a Tuesday in June Vesta had gathered three books about natural dyes, how to make and use them for ink or textiles. It was enough to keep her engaged, notebook at hand, for a good hour or two before the fiction section beckoned. Perhaps westerns, she hadn’t tried any western themes in years, or historical romance, though she doubted she would check out the latter–not usually written to her tastes. She claimed a rectangular table, though shortly there came a man who carried National Geographic magazines, glancing over from the other end, then getting engrossed in his pile. They were situated near four chairs in various positions, two at a farther distance.
Vesta was deep into dyes from plants whose names she was trying to memorize when a man and a woman entered the area. They were talking in more than a whisper, not that people did that much anymore. A flash of persimmon–this color name had leapt from a book she studied–startled her peripheral vision and she turned to see who it was stirring the air. Tall, reedy, the woman was nearly enveloped in an orange red cardigan worn over a black dress and fully crowned with burnished volumes of hair, feet clad in tall brown boots. Her companion listened to her but with head down, and wore a navy pea coat like ones Vesta admired in thrift shops, and jeans were black. When he looked up from the chair that faced the table–the woman’s position was sideways in relation to Vesta– his tanned face framed by black mop of hair was so startlingly, unavoidably handsome that Vesta let out a tiny gasp. Then she returned to her book, biting her lower lip and burning with embarrassment.
The guy at the end of her table didn’t raise his head, so intent was he on travelling to Mongolia’s vastness with its legendary horsemen and women, Iceland’s elf haunts or the Oceanic islands’ beauty. Vesta made two small boxes with her pen on a notebook page, underlined her last note, tried to refocus, turned to the next book. She leaned in, hand under chin, her handy veil of hair falling forward.
“Have you taken care of things? Is the vacation all booked yet?”
The mellifluous voice of Persimmon Woman came to Vesta and she stiffened, bent toward the pages. Quiet, she longed to shout.
“You should be dead!” Navy Man said, trying to control the volume and not much succeeding. “Why would we do that now?”
“Because you promised, and we have to go.”
“Of course we don’t–this is what is stuck in your head since the, uh, the accident–“
“Don’t even try to get out of it.”
“I’m not trying, I am out of this scenario, all that was then, this is now.” He made as if to get up but the woman yanked at his sleeve.
Vesta wriggled in her seat. The Nat Geo Guy remained mesmerized by his pages, never mind the odd conversation near them. None of her business, either, so she turned to an index, her fingertip sliding down the list until it landed on indigo, page 102.
“You should have died!” Navy Man whispered fiercely.
A pause, then hissed response, “You, too, Max–“
“But we didn’t so now–“
“–let’s move on. I’m well enough to get on with it, you know I am.”
Vesta cast a look their way. She sure didn’t sound convinced, though the woman made a good show of it, tossing her head, hair flying out from her like a banner of protest and courage as she moved in, knee-to-knee. Her mane had its own personality; she used it to effect, and he melted back into his chair. His patrician face–nose perhaps prominent, Vesta noted, but overall he was miracle–became obscured by Persimmon Woman’s bell-sleeved sweater as she sat taller and forward, as if to do something more, who knew what.
Why weren’t they at home talking this over? At a coffee shop or a park or anywhere else but in the library? This was a different space, not really public like all that. It was getting to Vesta; she closed her books. Then Navy Man sat forward, glanced around. Before Vesta could turn away, his gaze caught hers–she actually felt it, like a hook caught on an unsuspecting fish, an easy snag– his wide eyes, full of penetrating vision, only blinked and then slid away as he realigned with his companion. They resumed talking but softly, their voices a muted tapestry of higher and lower, darker and brighter, rougher and smoother.
The Nat Geo Guy leaned back and stretched, not a quick shake-off- drowsiness-stretch but one that betrayed tight muscles that had to release, arms held high with wriggling fingers, legs lengthened far under the table. He rubbed his palms over his balding head and then sat up straight.
He did not look at Vesta but looked straight ahead, then at the magazines, then at his phone. He was silent, rather inconspicuously alert, it struck her, and he looked…officious, official, perhaps a reporter, a researcher who was looking for more than good articles and photos. He was oddly still in the way a eavesdropper or even a predator might be… Oh, she made too much of his presence! He was only reading, paying no one any heed–as she certainly was.
She could not further sit there, ignore things. They were all three so intent on being contentious or immersed that she couldn’t regain her sense of gravity, that modulating calm that descended on her when she first walked in. The Navy Man had said, “You should have died!”–had he not? Did he mean he wished she had died or that she may well have died or that she wasn’t grateful enough or he was still feeling shocked by her almost-death?
Why did this matter to her?
She gathered her books and stood, pushing her chair back hard so that it almost fell backwards. The Nat Geo Guy never acknowledged her leaving.
“No trip right now, that’s that,” the Navy Man said and his partner laughed but not kindly.
The Nat Geo Guy didn’t move but his gaze slid over the table top, as if he was reaching for something she couldn’t see.
Vesta felt the urge to run.
She grabbed her books, loped away from them, and her heart shook off reins, galloped toward an unknown finish line. She entered the restroom, turned on the water, splashed her face with cool refreshment until she was calmer, leaned back against the white tiled wall. Her breath slowed. Vesta took out a comb to smooth back her damp, wavy bangs. She applied a pale sheen of lip gloss and pressed lips together, peered into her eyes and saw they were not too jumpy, were clear.
But she had been in the library for a little over an hour and nothing good had come of it. People airing personal lives was not what she looked forward to–she heard enough in her work–despite her curiosity about the entirety of it. She debated on staying or leaving and was definitely leaving momentarily when the door burst inward, thrusting Persimmon Woman into the path between door and sink.
“Take it, toss it, don’t care!” she said and dropped a small leather backpack at Vesta’s feet, then lost her balance a bit. As she grabbed the door handle the swift motion threw all that coppery hair away from her face. The woman turned, lips tight but breathing heavily, hands on hips, staring right at Vesta with eyes that could knock you through a wall and into next Sunday.
Her forehead were bruised, her neat nose scabbed over; her jaw and left side of her face were marred by a sinuous red wound held together by countless tiny stitches. The gauze had slipped, dangling by a bit of tape.
Vesta shook her head and pressed her back against the wall as Persimmon Woman surmised who she was, what was next. She looked as if she should sit, but the door began to open and the wounded woman pushed it hard, sweat coursing down her neck. She was feverish in all ways, Vesta saw.
“Don’t faint, shut up, you heard.” She pointed to her face. “Work-related, I’m in a risky business, unavoidable. Oh, so what!” She leaned onto the door, which bumped as someone tried to push it again and more successfully. But they both knew she’d fail in this fight.
“Open up! Put your hands up!” someone barked out and this was echoed by another.
Vesta tried to pull a deep breath, moved back from the backpack as the woman picked it up, slung it over her shoulder. Shrugged though her eyes still blazed, and the wound glared. “Sooo naive, sugar, well, too bad,” then she released the door and walked right into the presence of three policemen who spun her around, handcuffed her so fast that Vesta felt dizzy.
Vesta sank to the floor; it was impossible to stand.
The Navy Man looked over his shoulder as he was taken away, hands locked together. And his look of cunning combined with such force of life–and perhaps there was a twist of dismay–landed right inside her, setting off a quiver of fear that mixed with her own regrets–the latter of which she did not quite grasp yet.
And there he came, the Nat Geo Guy, talking into an electronic device as he offered her a hand. Pulled her up, took the backpack, led her out of the restroom to a public reprieve.
“Sorry, that got messy fast,” he said, “but you’ll be okay, right? There’ll be questions.” He pointed at another man on the periphery, muttered something more into his device, nodded at her and left the library.
Her knees quaked, feet felt like puddings as a bevy of librarians rushed to her, one with glass of water, another with blanket as if she was in dire need of help. They didn’t even know how little, or how much, they were helpers, after all. All she wanted to do was breathe clean air, book in hand. Go back home. To a life she could fathom.
There was the investigator who asked tons of questions, and then she was allowed to go. Outdoors, the bystanders–and news photographer by the size of the camera– managed to get several pictures as she left. The TV van screeched into the lot but she ran to her car. Vesta fought back the urge to smile and wave like a crazed beauty queen. She let tears eek out as she raced away.
“So what exactly happened?” her mother asked for the tenth time.
Her suddenly fawning mother (gone half-bad with alcohol in her blood) was only on her third beer at 4 pm. She was still enunciating well, not emotionally unpredictable, but Vesta didn’t want to say more than she had when she walked in–the bare facts. Her concerned mother’s voice was akin to a mosquito buzzing, circling, buzzing and she was sorry she felt that way. But it had been a weirdly exhilarating as well as a frightening day, so far. She could not explain all this to her mother–she was not a truly empathetic type.
And Vesta could not endure much of anything but a good run and steamy shower, then a layabout in the back yard, dark sunglasses and wide brimmed sunhat blocking out more questions. Read the paper, look online, she wanted to say to her, feeling guilty–just get the nutty details yourself.
But when the sun set, and smudged silver and charcoal glimmers gathered like voluminous, gentle creatures hiding in grassy corners, and her mother had retreated with a Tom Collins and TV, Vesta sorted it out in the back yard. She knew her mother would look out the kitchen window from time to time to check if she was there. It was enough of a comfort for the moment.
She had only, as usual, gone looking for those books which emptied her as they clarified details of nonessential matters, the topics that made her wonder and study, not seize up with life’s toxic detritus. She had been interrupted in that comforting process by three people. Two were mysterious, found to be criminals who triggered a nervousness while capturing her fancy. One person was an ordinary man with extraordinary skills. Vesta’s natural suspicion and growing irritation had sent her away from unknowns, a danger zone. But it had found her, anyway. And though the events were unusual and crazy to a degree and not expected by any stretch of imagination, the experience was not as bad as others might think.
It was jarring. Unusual. Compelling as well as repellent.
She said to no one but herself, “That Navy Man was the best looking man I will ever see and be seen by, for the duration of my entire life…”
She said, “And Persimmon Woman was something else, scary and extraordinary…”
She thought about the backpack, if it held weapons or drugs, something secret or worse. If the woman took it back because she was who she was, no denying it. Or if she thought she might still escape. Or she just wanted to be with her cohort– alive, imprisoned or soon dead.
What was the accident that had ruined her face? Did he care so much that he was reconsidering their plans– or was he evading her demand to run away with him? Or had he been the perpetrator of the so-called accident? No, she determined, he just did not keep Persimmon Woman safe enough. He had another part, and she would never know.
She had known real, deep fear. And a kind of awe. Repulsion, and wonder.
As she saw them move again through her mind with their energy of otherness, danger and beauty, she said to herself: “Will they ever be surprised at work, holy cow.” She looked up at the newly star-punched darkness. “And Kendra, upstaged…”
At last rosiness of sunset, she held onto her historical mystery novel like a frail armor. She decided her life would just go on as before on the outside– for now. But on the inside it would be different. Already who she was felt rearranged, loosened, reconsidered, dashed. Vesta might just take a two week vacation, finally–somewhere far away, get lost in the newness of things. There was more to investigate than what she’d been willing to learn for years and years. Until this Tuesday at the library when life erupted right out of the books and into her own.
There are occasional days I awaken as if slogging through a heavy mist of haunting dreams, feet unsteady on the floor, body trying to find a barest sense of consciousness amid a three-dimensional space. I perform preparations for further entry into daytime accompanied by a low groan or two. Dressed, wet hair dripping, I finally turn on the tea kettle. I manage to feel less weary as its soft sizzle of sounds hum through the kitchen. Curtains and windows are throw open in living and dining room; balcony door is cracked wide. Let come the light, come the fresh air, there we go.
The Irish Breakfast teabag greets boiling water and I stare into deepening amber. I must get more awake, greet my life with eyes fully open. I will meditate and pray longer, for this may be a day that will take more work to mine the beauty and hope that enliven my life. My love for the world–mine and our greater one– is straddled with grief. I am often surprised by this. Ask my spouse and he will tell you I am a person who is primarily even-keeled, rolling with the weather of life, even optimistic by nature. It wasn’t always that way. I learned a few things.
But am I feeling a little depressed those certain mornings (day, evening)? My training indicates it can happen that way, sudden brief lows, even mild yet disheartening. Close-up experience being myself may indicate otherwise; there is usually to be a reason. A lifetime of valuing the intelligence of emotion also chimes in. I know the voice or silence as well as the faces of depression, the energy and mass of it from repeated encounters with mental health clients. And I have known it in my personal journey when facing serious crises. It carried my burdens with bleak misery. But the older I become, the more I feel “the blues” is but one more variation of the expansive spectrum of emotions–if generally an indicator of other, less visible feelings. And it is not the enemy but another ally, nudging me to take notice. To see what else is going on. It’s a little like the relentless shriek of the tea kettle telling me it is liable to go dry, so time to take action.
That loaded word, “depression”, floats by our collective eyes and ears more times than I can count these days. It certainly was a major focal point all day long when I was a counselor. Also prior to that, while working with geriatric and disabled populations. It has become a dominant topic in literary, scientific and spiritual journals, even popular magazines. It often takes center stage during commercial breaks on television, courtesy of the octopus reach of Big Pharma. It can be a source of discussion among friends, acquaintances, family members. I have lost people to suicide; I don’t underestimate its debilitating, even lethal effect.
Clearly depression is entrenched in our socio-psychological lexicon following centuries of being a word not uttered if it could be helped. Or quietly, behind closed doors. And even then, it was called something else. The varieties of depression have been re-categorized or redefined to keep up with the evolution of diagnostic techniques and manuals. (Or the other way around; it depends on your viewpoint.)
Back when I was working in mental health agencies, powerful grief and loss usually underlay depression symptoms–it might have been an event that kept cropping up (say, ancient family dysfunction fueled by ongoing abuses or abandonments) or a very fresh experience. Anything from unemployment or medical issues to relationship trouble or moving to a new city, even loss of dreams and goals. Addictions of all sorts are also both symptoms and triggers. But right there I’m going to stop. I’m leaving the finer details to diagnosticians who are working away in the field.
I’m going back to my opening theme, those times when walking and thinking are reminiscent of trudging through noxious mud. Because I have worked at gaining self-knowledge a long time now, I also know the acrobatics my mind can perform and the poisons my spirit can let in. So I am ready when my response is needed. I know when and how I must take myself in hand.
If we are in large part what and who we tell ourselves, then I’m a curious human being with intellectual capability, decent physical equipment, rich emotional responses and a seeking soul. All these work together from what I can tell, for if one aspect goes a little awry, others tend to malfunction some. I am made of homeostatic systems that make a whole, one that runs well and without much fretting when systems do their work appropriately. All I have to do is see to insure my human beingness remains tuned up–attend to whatever is askew and appreciate its design and function. It is not so much to ask for; every creature has its work to stay alive and do what it can do.
If we stop to consider the intricate checks and balances that go on in our bodies, alone, that awareness can startle us with awe. We know the brain does countless jobs each moment and exerts tremendous influence– we haven’t anywhere near figured out the full scope of its powers. But we do know, for instance, that sleep is critically needed to provide to good health, and for the brain to efficiently process and park information. Otherwise, we cannot operate without paying the price. (I remind myself that those nights when I awaken at 2 a.m., then return to sleep somewhere around 3:30 am.–this would contribute to anyone’s moody ineptness the next day.)
Every part of who I am wants to work at maximum levels. It is far more interesting; I gain and also give more. This requires intellectual, emotional and spiritual support and care. I know, for example, if I neglect reading meditation books and studying guiding scripture, if I don’t allow enough time to seek the Creator’s wisdom for more clarity of mind and a compassionate heart, shadows of sadness and distress may find greater opportunity to cling more than a moment. I tend to manage, anyway; there is the will, a mighty thing, to help determine quality of life. (Or better yet, there is synergism, a theological assertion that renewal is a combination of will and divine grace.) But how much better to remain rooted in my strengths as well as curtail or transform my deficits? To create more possibilities for a fuller, truer life?
I manage my health needs and revel in the body’s capabilities. I’m not ready to leave this earth. I watch over my emotional wellness because I savor happiness and peace. But I am no longer afraid of sorrow, frustration, disappointment or even failure. I’ve been there; still standing.
So I locate and nurture wellsprings of wholeness. It isn’t too hard. I admit it’s less challenging since retirement, but even as a working woman I kept those operational needs met the best I could. This is my way since I am a person who has been intimate with the vagaries of life fortunes, the loss of health, money, housing, safety, love, hope and twice, nearly my life. Yes, then, I have been to some deep pits. I didn’t expect to step into or get tossed in them. Who ever does? The climbing or tunneling out was exhausting, lonely, left a few marks from hoisting mental, spiritual and physical burdens, from the clawing and gnashing of teeth as I searched for relief. That rejuvenating sip of air, illuminating pinprick of light–it can turn the tides of mind.
Yes, far easier to maintain the well-being I have developed– and take rapid action to repair breakage or malfunctioning than let things head sideways.
We likely agree it’s sometimes a strange and arduous thing to inhabit this human flesh. Optimism can be fickle, faith can get slippery and resources run out more than we’d like. How much we admire the creatures who carry on their business without, we suspect, any thought to the future, without consternation over much while driven by instinct. But we are not they. Let us live the parts we have been given, then seek to make them finer.
When a disenchanted melancholy swirls about then settles on my shoulders like a ill-fitting cape, I don’t panic. I wear it awhile. Acknowledge it. Let it visit me, talk to it, carry it about. Listen to any stories it has to tell, let clues surface. It has come to keep me company. But I don’t give it undue attention, either. The feeling will depart, either when it is ready or when I determine it is time. If a feeling hangs on to my detriment, I know what to do: reap spiritual sustenance; walk, hike, dance; eat smartly; rest even small pockets of time; visit and help others; make or bring life-affirming music and art and literature more deeply into my days and nights. And do not stay glued to electronic mediums, especially when it emphasizes negativity, subjects me to ever more violence. I–we–clearly need edification, more potent solutions born of thoughtful consideration.
But when there is a long and opaque shadow cast, it pays to well investigate the source. A shadow is only light blocked. Is it a circumstance that will pass? Is it a person whose presence is overwhelming the positive in my life? Is it something I have no direct control over, anyway–the complex state of this world, weather, my aging siblings’ health, other peoples’ beliefs? Or is it me? More often than not I am getting in the way, complicating things, being slow to mend a torn or sore spot. Maybe I just feel lazy; it requires strategy and effort to change.
I may be blocking the very light I need to thrive. If that is the case, I may find the deeper shadows suitable for encouraging self-pity, the last thing that’s needed. I can get out of my own way. Then I can influence the issues I can address. But I do not have to make it a big production, either. When a touch or full-on case of melancholy is experienced, quiet work usually gets the job done better than a dramatic response. Either way, its up to me.
Try this next time awakening with your own shadowy companion: give it your respect. What would we be without the mystery of shadow; it helps delineate our lives, as well, and gives us more depth and mystery. So make a fresh cup of coffee or tea to savor, open your window and let your lungs fill right up. Find that spot of beauty and absorb it. Praise the numinous Light of all. Spread it about. We can and should embrace even the homeliness of our lives, their misaligned aspects. We ought to love the weak moments and mad bits, and exercise mercy during baffling trials. It all works well when we accept the vast variations of our living, and help it along.
We called them The Twins although they weren’t sisters and didn’t appear to be that much alike when you got invited to sit at their table. The only ones who really enjoyed that were those of us who hung out at Rolf’s between auditions or shoots. With their well-cut, old fashioned hats and suits they elicited whispers and looks but we were arty types, people who risked our psyches every day for our dreams. We could find virtue where others saw irrelevance or annoyance, I thought, and wished to be tolerant. I was pulled to them. I found their generousity of spirit a balm after the hurt left by my parents’ disapproval of my career choice.
Eliana and Roe, short for Roella, told someone who objected to their always snagging the corner table they were cousins of the owner by marriage and thus, entitled to it. When asked later about that, they denied having said it. They could be outrageous like that, but with elan. They were a fixture at least three days a week around lunchtime.
They had lived together for twelve years, since their husbands passed away. Eliana was from Argentina and Roe, from Pittsburgh by way of Germany, but they had each ended up in Seattle. They looked like over-dressed, snooty dowagers even when trying to be friendly, Frank said. No, said another, more like two worn out basset hounds in discarded vintage wear, a new guy said, and that sealed his fate, never allowed at our lunch tables again. There may have been some truth in it; we just didn’t want to be unkind to two people who adored the arts and expressed genuine interest in our affairs, creative and otherwise. Besides, I appreciated their decided flair and was intrigued by their togetherness.
Frank and I had been close like that once, two peas and all that, but by then less so. He was an actor, I, a model, both of us struggling but determined. I was succeeding a bit more; he was becoming harder to enjoy. We often met at Rolf’s after auditions, joined at times by Viveca and her insufferable boyfriend, Mr. Harper, a supposed playwright. When he saw The Twins, he said, “Lesbians, what else?” with a dismissive flip of his hand. They were theatre people; I in a way was, too, with my play acting for cameras. We lived in altered realities and felt removed from mainstream earth people. But I didn’t think The Twins were gay. No matter; I was on a sharp learning curve those years.
After the older ladies had chatted several times with us, then asked to join them twice, they told us the story of how they met thirty years before. Roe first gestured to the waitress for a big pot of coffee and cookies for all. Eliana lit her first cigarette, then turned to Roe, the inscribed sterling silver lighter aloft to fire up hers. They seemed to inhale at the same time, sat close together, their lotioned and buffed fingers poised in the air.
“I was to meet a neighbor downtown at Pike Place market but she never showed,” Eliana said with a soft, lilting accent. “So I was musing over vegetables. Hills of tomatoes, mounds of green and yellow beans and bunches of radishes that looked so perky with those red skins and hard, white hearts. I was reaching for the biggest bunch on the top near the back of a wooden box and my hand collided with Roe’s. She was after the same bunch!”
Eliana looked at Roe and Roe raised her eyebrows.
“I saw them first,” Roe continued. “I eat a few radishes daily, with or without salad. They keep my palate fresh. They bring a little spice. I’ve found more ways to use an odd radish here and there so when I see a perfect bunch–”
“And when her hand hit mine, it quite hurt. ‘Pardon me, so sorry’, I said, but Roe still didn’t back away. I grabbed hold of them, gave them a yank and took them to the cashier’s table. Roe followed.”
Roe elbowed Eliana.”I was not about to let her get away with those. ‘Wait a darned minute’, I told her, ‘we have some business to discuss. First dibs when I saw them before you got your paws on them.’ But she did not relent. The cashier was annoyed, there was a line behind us and we were fighting over a bunch of radishes.”
“So we split them!” Eliana said triumphantly.
“Equitable arrangement,”Frank noted.
“So you just shopped together?” I encouraged them as I eyed the plate of lemon bars. I was trying to avoid the extra pounds that sugar loves to leave me since I had more “go-sees” for modelling jobs in the morning. But hunger was gaining and food shopping sounded adventurous.
Eliana stubbed out her cigarette and took a lemon bar, nibbled a bite, then broke off a piece for Roe, who took the entire bar. Eliana shrugged. “Not at all, dears. We two some spicy Italian sausages at a food stand and sat on a nice painted bench on the street. The weather was so blue and sunny it demanded we bask in it and talk. We chattered on for a couple of hours.”
Roe took another cookie and placed it in Eliana’s hand. “We hit it off. Same age, similar tastes. Both our husbands were in business–mine ran a paper products company; hers owned import/export–and we all became fast friends.”
“Well…not exactly. Raoul was not the social type. Arnie was more of a conversationalist. A braggart compared to my humble love. What an odd couple.” They both giggled. “They mostly got along by playing cards and smoking cigars as they listened to music. Thanks goodness, they did both like a little jazz.”
“Big band, usually. Arnie started to appreciate tango near the end and Eliana taught us some gorgeous moves…” Roe was perilously close to veering into full nostalgia but snapped out of it. “She and I sat in the kitchen after we cleaned up and enjoyed a couple coffees, planned our next outing. So it went from A to Z like that: strangers to very best friends. And when our husbands died, I sold my house and moved into her bigger and, I must say, smarter house. Consolidated assets in a few ways. We live quite nicely, thanks to Eliana’s business profits and my financial acumen.”
“Yes, a good German, she has to be practical about everything and it’s worked out so well. I would have been a sorry old lady without Roe there to keep my spirits up. Raoul was such a lovely man. But Roe will quite do for companionship and sheer entertainment.”
Frank was on his third lemon bar and I was getting resentful. He leaned closer. “They didn’t die at the same time, did they? I mean, that would be hideous. They weren’t so close, you said.”
I kicked his leg under the table and snatched the last cookie.
Eliana’s eyebrows dipped further down and her round face caved. “How odd to say that! Yes…they were in an auto accident. On the way back from Spokane. Arnie had a convention to attend and Raoul went along to see an old friend from Buenos Aries who taught at university in Spokane. It was a four-day event. On the way home a truck–what did they call it? A nightmare.”
“Jack-knifed, El… a Mac truck jack-knifed and the driver lived, even with spilled gasoline that caught fire. Our husbands did not.” Roe looked down at the napkin she had folded into thirds, and now into halves and sighed.
Frank and I didn’t know what to say. He really could go too far, say things off the cuff as though he was in improvisation class. That was what did us in.
“My apologies,” he said, chagrined.
“No matter now, dears, we have gone on well enough,” Eliana said. “So tell me about your ‘go-sees’, Marisa. How many today?” She lit another cigarette and inhaled lightly, licking a lemon bar crumb off her peachy lower lip.
“Only two. I have a chance with the make up company but not, I doubt, for the swimsuit ad. Not their type.”
Roe looked shocked. “Not their type! What can they want when you are blue-eyed, raven haired, ivory-skinned skin and svelte?”
“I second that!”
Frank still admired me some days but who cared?
Roe lit her own cigarette this time and leaned forward to pat my hand. “They’re missing out. You must know you’re quite the beauty. Why, you could be Eliana’s lovely granddaughter with your coloring and style.”
Frank about choked on his coffee–he was going to say something stupid about my style, I knew it– but then spotted Viveca in red heels as she strode in with Mr. Harper. He excused himself but first bent over and told me he’d call after his hot audition the following week. I smiled to assuage his insecurity.
“Hi, Twins!” Viveca called out and the women returned the greeting. They didn’t care for her so much, they told me. Viveca was so addicted to the sound of her own voice they hardly got to speak. They liked having an exchange with others.
“Anyway, as Roe was saying. My daughter, Maria Teresa, she married a Brazilian and all three have moved there.” She produced an embroidered handkerchief and dabbed her nose.
I stayed another half hour, listening to their stories about being young wives and mothers (Roe’s sons lived in Alaska and New York; she’d visited but they were so busy), telling them about my modelling jobs and going to the Black Forest in Germany the previous year. That made Roe so happy–she had lived the first five years of her life just fifteen miles from there–she offered to buy me lunch the next Monday, which I agreed to since it was a gracious gift.
But when I entered Rolf’s with a bouquet of flowers, The Twins were not there. Roe was, sitting at their spot as usual. She was shredding her napkin and letting her cigarette burn away in the clean glass ashtray. I sat opposite her and she startled.
“What’s up? Is Eliana not able to come?”
“Eliana sends her apologies. She’s at the travel agency. Then visiting a realtor’s office.” Roe placed what was left of the napkin over her mouth to stifle a cry.
“What? This doesn’t sound good.”
She crushed the cigarette. “No, not so good! But I should have known. She has been talking about going home awhile –missing Maria Theresa and little Arianna.”
“You mentioned the grandchild last week. I thought Eliana looked sadder than usual.”
I felt like an interloper. What did I understand about the ladies and their concerns? They knew so much more about life. “I mean, Eliana always seems melancholy to me…and then when you said that, she sort of teared up.”
Roe slowly pulled another cigarette from its package and rooted for a lighter in her crocodile handbag. I got a matchbook from my purse and lit it for her, thinking cigarettes were more like accessories.
She smiled at me. “Eliana’s a real class act, you know, much more than I am. And a good heart. My very favorite person after my husband.” She turned to look out the window at the congested street and took a deep drag and coughed. “But we all have to do what works best. Right? Right.”
For the first time I saw remnants of the woman she must have been, someone who worked very hard and kept a firm hand on things, was a devoted but realistic wife and a stern, loyal mother. Someone who cared about quality in food, in possessions and endeavors, and certainly people. All kinds of them, even us young adults with our arrogant self-delusions, our fragile egos. Roe could not feasibly have a breakable heart. She was far too accepting, and more yielding than apparent, in the end.
“Lovely flowers, so kind!” She sniffed them. “Now how about lunch?” She pushed the ashtray away. “Nasty habit. I think I”ll stop if she…goes.” She closed her eyes a second, then raised her hand to the waitress, shaking her wrist so that her gold bangles rattled pleasantly. “Don’t tell her I got emotional. She will go if she must, but you can’t really sever deep ties like we have. Now tell me about your week. Trips coming up? Maybe next year an escape to Brazil! We’ll both go, shall we?”
Anything seemed possible with the marvelous Twins. Gratitude filled me. I threw all caution to the wind and ordered a burger with avocado and bacon. I split it with Roe, then we each had chocolate mousse.
At the gym, the substitute Zumba teacher called out new steps with a determined cheerfulness. From the back of the room I peered through three lines of shuffling, swaying bodies to catch sight of the moves. I was not thrilled with this teacher; she tended to stray just enough from the music’s rhythm to make it hard to watch her, harder to follow. My neurological and emotional instincts were to move right with the beat, not miss it by even a smidgen. I knew the others also had complaints yet they remained attentive to directives. They looked good from where I was moving along a bit haphazardly. I felt frustration mount until I veered off the proscribed steps, modifying a couple, throwing in a spin. Think I will slide my feet instead of bouncing, swing hips side to side instead of backand forth–more natural to me and becoming. Then I came to a standstill as I tried to figure out where everyone else was.
Irritation with the class had given way to a need to correct the choreography, to hit my beat, not the teacher’s. I was right, after all. I loved to dance and embraced Zumba’s vigorous fun. (A goal of mine is to be in good enough condition by summer to take a yearned-for flamenco class at a dance studio.) But now the old sass I’ve had to often quell all my life took over until the urge to break out and dance my own rhythmically attuned dance was pushing me toward….well, I closed my eyes a moment. Imagined the room transformed by low lights and live music, people dancing with lovely abandon. I was jolted from that brief reverie when I jostled a man next to me. He was keeping close to the metered measure but also all instructions. And no stumbling. He knew the value of sticking with the group, staying in line. I took a water break, stifling the desire to walk out as a few already had.
I’ve begun to count on Zumba to help keep my heart in good working order. It’s a prescription, part of a broader regimen my cardiologist and I agreed upon nearly twelve years ago: if I maintain my health with daily cardio and practice diligent self-care, I get a chance to live a few more years. Maybe many more. So what was my complaint? Why couldn’t I just do what was expected this time? Why did I think I could diverge from the norm when the benefit in this case came from following along? I felt I was different. I needed things to be exacting, correct as well as fun and that led to ignoring the exercise mandates Zumba provided.
The truth was, I was not doing so well; was the beat off or was I? Maybe I thought I deserved more for the money and time. But I forgot my real intentions. Did I think I was on Broadway? Who had made me soloist, leader or critic?
I learned early that it was important to do things the best I possibly could. The American way, at least where I lived. Mediocrity was never good enough, was, in fact, equal to failure. “Excellence Above All” was a favored motto as a youth. My school notebooks were covered with those words, as though noting it multiple times would make me impervious to the possibility of imperfection in all I undertook. It succeeded in that I worked hard and was confident much of the time. Feedback regarding various endeavors assured me I had some intelligence and talent. But I was on more deeply intimate terms with my flaws and weaknesses. As a young cellist and vocalist I despaired some days of ever completing a certain measure of music just as my teacher or my musician father required. Demanded. I worried I would not get the awards I strove to achieve. Everything I attempted had to fulfill a goal set highest. It meant everything to excel. It meant I was good enough. Acceptable. Pleasing to others. If I didn’t think I could manage to achieve something I didn’t try or gave up quickly.
Like sewing, for example, a talent at which my mother excelled. Her seamstress work was actually art; I wore her often custom-designed clothing proudly. But my seeming lack of feel for the mechanics of creating with fabric only brought anxiety. My mother sat beside me correcting errors, her voice soft but insistent that I try, try again. I couldn’t get beyond tangled thread, a crooked seam or hem to resurrect the vision of a beautifully completed dress. I just saw failures. So I gave up, except for a few things years later made of necessity–simplest shorts for my children, basic curtains. I sometimes had ideas for a sewing project to create–but only if like my mother. Years ago my children bought me a sewing machine for Christmas. When I unwrapped it I burst into tears–because they knew I yet dreamed of being good at it and were cheering me on. But also because the very sight of that machine daunted me. It had defeated me. Could I even bother to try again when it brought mediocrity at best, poor results at worst?
Sewing is one thing. But a desire for perfection as a human being is another. I had that urge, as well. I suspected if I tried hard enough spiritual prowess would be attainable and once that occurred, I would be all set. Foolish mistakes would not happen. Tragedy would be averted. I would be the sort of girl who the sort of guy I wholly desired would instantly be mine, utterly beloved. I would set to my tasks and find them far easier. Since I had a powerful faith in Jesus’ uncommon wisdom, it seemed reasonable. It was clear that such Divine Love deserved full attention to the expectations: kindness, patience, courage, tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, fortitude and so on. But lo and behold, I was not able to succeed for long before my attitude would slip a little here and there. My personality and will seemed governed by moods, impulses and defects–those aggravations that would not help bring me anywhere close to a state semi-holiness. How did the great sainted souls of eons manage it? Trying and praying very hard weren’t nearly enough to get a good foothold on spiritual bliss. I had to content myself with random mystical moments and a sustaining belief.
So I despaired while growing up, youth being a time of great hope and misery. Despite medals and awards and honor roll and opportunities to do what I loved–the arts, athletics, academics–I felt the terror of failure like a gaping chasm between me and my dreams of fulfillment. I worried about missing the other side when I lept. If I could not be who I believed I should and wanted to be, then why even bother? There were things I ceased doing because of this. Like music. It was more than perfectionism that waylaid me but the joy of it was lost somewhere on a stage. Even, or maybe because, the applause came–but also could evaporate. When I lost my edge for many reasons, grief followed. I thought the price paid might kill me but it was that need to be perfect that threatened my well being. Despite giving it up, music has breathed its magic into every day in countless ways–even in a Zumba class. Even as I whistle, hum or sing along to a CD.
It took some years to realize I was not very unique. I would have both triumphs and wipe-outs, just like everyone else. I have what I was born with to help or hinder me, but I’ve also had chances to garner insight, knowledge, self-acceptance and mercy. Mercy is key here. For others, yes. But when we live without consistent kindness towards ourselves we court disaster. Holding ourselves responsible for our actions is crucial. Perseveration regarding our mistakes, not even necessary. That creates an irascible, angry and fatigued person. Or a self-righteous one. Another side effect is that nothing anyone else does is good enough, either. And if we get to the point where we are tough as nails and no one should get in our way of achieving, we’ve become blind to the freedom of self-forgiveness. God already embraces and carries us when we are fighting for a better life but running in circles. Only for love. We can help by waking up and slowing down. By being gratefully equalized by life. Being perfect has nothing to do with it.
Perfectionism determines that there is no worthiness save for those who achieve one hundred percent, every single time. How does this help me, and you, to experience the diversity and richness of being on earth, to appreciate the manifold wonders of ordinary life? What is exquisite is whatever, whoever dwells and moves in love. What is acceptable is becoming one’s true self. What is perfection is that we are necessary components of the cosmos, a connecting thread of the universal symmetry. That we overlap one another in spirit on earth and beyond. All we have to do is be willing to give all we can, be ready to do what we can barely imagine. Not perfectly but with commitment.
I stayed for the full Zumba class. I fell into place, then changed up steps a couple times, discreetly. I joined in the fun. And the fact is humility has to teach me things the days my health is not feeling like a win. I practice acceptance, but still give things a shot. It’s also my nature to experiment with rules. Taking a small risk is more fun than doing things the same way every time, perfectly. What matters most is jumping–or walking–into life’s bold yet tender core, right where I belong. This way I honor myself; it helps me honor you. There is no failure in this, only freedom. This, I can do.
An imperturbable demeanor comes from perfect patience. Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened, but go on in fortune and misfortune at their own private pace like a clock during a thunderstorm.—Robert Louis Stevenson
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