Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Everything and More

Photo by Bunny Yeager 1959

There was that photo still kept in his Great-uncle Robert’s study, propped on his desk with everything else left untouched. She was outrageously attractive, you could see why he had kept it there, yet she was more wild-seeming than the foolishly attired chimpanzee–an impulsive gift from Robert but whom (which?) didn’t manage to make the wedding guest list; he was soon packed off to a chimp rehab sanctuary. She’d cried at that, but briefly, they said. And there was the MG, a beast of a sleeker sort which had long remained one of her joys. This was how people tended to think of her even still, he imagined. Even Andy, her great-nephew, thought of her like this despite physical evidence to the contrary. It was a fiery essence tamed by simple elegance, the kind of classiness that can’t be taught. The qualities stayed with her, reaching everyone, reflecting off everything. But the toil and trials of life had finally worn down the luster a bit.

Due to growing up around the world with nomadic parents, he’d only met her when she was well past generous middle age. It had been a happy meeting that became an inter-generational friendship. He’d grown up to work in business while she’d been a linguistics researcher. Built her life with Robert in Roxwood, more commonly referred to ( not quite with ill intent) as the “Devil’s Triangle”, a neighborhood fond of tall iron gates and streets jutting here, there and back on themselves amid copious trees and a palpable scarcity of activity. Only the well initiated could get in or out in under thirty minutes. Some had to summon help; even the GPS got confused. This had been the required design, of course. Andy had gotten the trip in and out down to fifteen minutes– less if he sped through annoying roundabouts.

The visits had gone on, soon a pleasant if obligatory act, a direct result of  cosmopolitan and mannerly upbringing: one did the right thing out of a primed social conscience, first of all. This included visits to an ancient great-aunt who lived a couple of hours and lifestyle away. But he liked her far more than anyone else in the family from the start. He also had appreciated right off  the hammocks she had hung here and there, shocking Robert at first. She had told all that it was the best way to nap, even deeply sleep; she’d had one in her bedroom until she fell out–one of many times–and broken an ankle last year. But she kept the others–in the front yard and back garden, in the study and screened sun room. Robert had grown to enjoy them on occasion, as well, though kept it secret.

And there were bright, artful flowers in most rooms, though often blossoms drooped and scents had begun to sour after they’d stood there, tired, in huge vases too long. He changed them out for new bouquets cut from her garden if Nora, her housekeeper, hadn’t gotten it done. Nora was quite good and affordable but just for two days a week. The house had slowly betrayed the wear of forty years’ life in Celeste’s (and one ought to add, Robert’s) hands and a good fifty of its own before that.

It had been some time since Andy had visited. About eight months. He made it twice a year since his  software business had taken over his life. So he tried to prepare for the worst as he pulled up to the fancy, heavy gate. He opened it with a remote’s click, and drove up a semi-circle drive, parked, got out and stretched. Yes, it was true what Mother had said, the painters had not been yet been contracted and the once creamy white with smart Wedgwood blue trim had finally given in to a dim blue and a brownish-green of creeping organisms showed on the white in spots, lots of peeling going on.

He was meant to persuade Aunt Celeste to allow them to help out if necessary. A delicate undertaking, to say the least. She could be so close with money, though maybe she had much less of it now, and cared less and less for appearances, it seemed. He tucked the lavender sport shirt into his grey shorts and combed back his dark hair; he would brook no comments on slovenly dress, even in such summer heat.

He rang the sonorous chime although he’d called her a week ago to remind of the visit. Before he could open it,  Nora answered, her graying topknot askew on her head, mouth betraying a remainder of ice cube that she liked to crunch, and quickly smiled at him. A dribble of water eked out and she blushed but he was sympathetic to her quirks. She was good to Celeste and the house was all shined up inside.

“Mr. Demart, so good to see you. She’s in the sun room, ready and waiting.”

He passed lively flowers on a half table under the foyer’s oval mirror, strode through shadowy lengths of hallway past a formal living and dining room–she seldom used these now–around brightening corners and past large kitchen and down another hall, finally coming to the sun room. The blue and green parakeets began to jabber, likely because Andy was there. He did not like them much  but they had always been there, one bird or another. Another eccentricity you took along with Celeste.

“Finally, there he is!”

She rose in one practiced movement then put a steadying hand on the armchair beside her. Then stood taller, held arms open to him. What an amazing sight, he thought as always and moved toward her–the silvered wavy hair cropped close, her signature cut; three glinting necklaces roped about her long, wrinkly neck; rose-colored, silver-trimmed caftan drifting about her smallness in a waltz of silken beauty. He inhaled her soft amber fragrance. The same as ever– how long? Did Robert buy it long ago because he loved it on her? Did she splurge on it herself and found it so alluring she forsook all other elixirs on her dressing table? It warmed up any atmosphere. She was seventy-nine and all the etchings in her loosening skin proved it, yet she seemed to most above and beyond a set age.

“Aren’t you smart today with your purple shirt. And flip-flops? Well, suitable for taking to the hammock,” she said gesturing to stretched yellow fabric on the spare frame waiting in a corner. “I can hear from here if you want to avail yourself of the fun now.”

“They’re leather, I’ll have you know, quite good ones. It’s summer!  But I have to stay awake part of the visit, don’t I? First a good catching up, later a hammock, Auntie.”

Celeste smirked at him, hand fluttering at her throat as vivid memories came forth. He liked to try every hammock when he first came to visit her, acting a child despite being eighteen, lanky and a it whiskery. She’d had one in nearly every room until Robert had finally confessed to being embarrassed by them when guests came. She was not entirely persuaded; they were made of gorgeous fabrics and such a practical thing. He’d indulged her whims most of the time, and now he wasn’t there to offer exasperated opinions or sweet compliments. Though she could still hear him at odd moments.

“I thought you’d forgotten me. What do you do all the time you’re not around besides run a business? Not that this doesn’t count but aren’t there a few days off? You’re looking a bit peaked about the gills, strained around the eyes. Premature aging, watch out. A sure sign of money madness and sleep aversion. Don’t forget to water your spirit. perhaps yy need a pet to slow you down.”

He nodded at her in vague agreement, picked out almonds from the nut mix nestled in a coral ceramic bowl, popped one, two into his mouth. He’d often considered a dog but they required serious attention. “Not that you would know anything about these topics, Auntie. And I do take a day off occasionally–I’m here now, for instance. Just got back from Venezuela but that was more business than footloose fun.”

He shrugged and snapped up more smokey almonds, ten in a palm that he bounced before tossing them back. This was what he’d hoped, relaxing in the airy sun room eating almonds and chatting easily with Aunt Celeste. Working up to that paint job. She fiddled with her necklaces, an old habit, and one with the large blue stone caught light. He’d always liked that one, hung on a long silver chain. He wondered briefly if it was a blue topaz or an aquamarine or what. Andy liked jewels but knew very little; later he’d ask. She always had interesting information.

“Well, Andrew, I assume no good, steady woman in your life yet?” she asked.

“Right to the point!”

The dating update couldn’t wait today. He stretched out long, muscled legs, leaned back. Nora brought a carafe of iced water and glasses on a tray, settled it on a coffee table and left again. How did Aunt Celeste always get to his business before he got to hers? He abruptly sat forward, forearms resting on knees.

“Tell me what you have been up to, how you’re feeling lately. I’m here to keep an eye on you, of course.”

“That’s an easy report. My annual check-up documented me as still ticking, with moderate to good energy levels. My steady vitals bored the doctor nearly to tears. It seems I shall live a very long time if I keep this up–a life of perhaps ill-gotten leisure punctuated by occasional bursts of industry, a few worthwhile efforts. I had my annual garden party about two months ago with forty well meaning, tiresome, well-combed ladies who came to donate money to our orphanage in Thailand. And the sprinkler system was finally repaired, not so bad as expected but rougher on the pocketbook than wished. And I have my usual book club meeting once a month though it gets harder to read fast and find the wit and will to offer intelligent comments. I may graduate to audible books and forego the group. Do something else. Ride a bike, for instance, there’s a thing I always planned to do more often.”

Her eyes were a clear bluish-grey and she winked at him. She could be disarming; that was her intention more often than not. But he didn’t anticipate her next words.

“Why are you here this time, Andrew? Beyond the usual great fondness bit, I mean.” He started to protest but she waved it away. “Is it that the house has gotten too big for me with Robert gone three years now? That the peeling paint is a debacle for my neighborhood? That I should get out more via the ole senior shuttle– or get home bound meals brought in, for heaven’s sake? Or that I need a keeper other than Nora since I am fast making the approach to eighty? And you are coming to my birthday celebration, aren’t you? It’s November in case you forgot. I must have you here, dear, you are the only relief in our crowd!”

She fiddled with her necklaces, an old habit, then her hands fell to her lap and she sat still, eyes coolly ablaze. The parakeets had begun to hop about again, all four of them enjoying a elaborate white penthouse of a cage, chittering at each other and then at the humans. She watched them and relaxed a tad. Such a mood she was in lately.

“Sorry, I just seem to be noticing I am getting older lately.

Andy was startled by that outpouring since this was mostly not even what had crossed his mind. The paint, yes, the shrubbery trimmed again, perhaps. The roof–had he checked the roof in a while?

“Why all this? Who has been bothering you with such ideas? My adamant but unreachable mother? Oh–Clarence?” He knew her neighbor wanted to buy the house, probably to demolish it and annex the land for his own expansion. A lot of that was going on in the area. She’d get a mint, even as things were. “You cook okay still, right? No one is worried much. Nora says nothing, she’s a trusty one but maybe you’ve threatened her with more dusting in dark corners or polishing each floor on hands and knees…” Andy wanted her to smile, damn it, he didn’t want her to feel such anger or fear. And he still had to address the need for an expensive paint job. And he longed for a stiff drink already. Though he adored her, life was complicated and it wasn’t easy to get away to see her here. And he hadn’t even told her about Eva.

“Well.” She touched the faceted blue stone, index fingertip alighting on it as if she sought reassurance from its heft and beauty. Her shoulders loosened,  eyes softened. “Alright then. I have too much spare time to worry, I suppose. Or not about the right things. Well, I never was one for fretting the day and night away– until I hit 77. And then I woke up and thought: life is moving too fast and here I am after Robert has died and yet nothing can be remotely the same, either. Your partner is gone and you are the sparest one, not a hearty two. Not the pair who faces the world together and then each other, one a mirror of sorts for the other. I didn’t like to speak of it back then; life and death are inevitable hurdles, at times. More so as you dig your heels in and stick it out, I’ll tell you what, Andrew Alger Demart, and you have to stay in good form. Top form, I do say. But it is a strange feeling all the same to feel such singularity. And life’s tempo, so fast and yet slow. It is enough to make my head spin some days.” She ran a hand through her waves. “And it’s good of you to be here and withstand my words each time.”

Andy thought about it, this ton of things. So much she kept to herself and yet barely a moment of doubt ever shown to others. “Yes, but Auntie Celeste you are certainly a marathon runner of sorts. I’d hate to get in your way, would not think of it… I only want to be of help.”

Celeste’s sparse, arched eyebrow’s lifted high as she took in a deep breath. “There really is no helping at this stage, darling, other than being a dear and seeing me from time to time. I can pay for other things to get done, but not the acquisition of kindness, laughter and love. My, doesn’t the rest seem so much nonsense in the end.”

She looked wistfully at her birds, two of which looked back obligingly, perhaps with good will. He wondered if she or they ever wished they could be freed; he certainly would but knew the consequence would be perilous. Like the chimp, they were not meant to be kept indebted to human company.

His throat tightened as he reached for the carafe and a glass, offering her the first one, which she took, drank quickly as she sputtered a bit, then asked for more. She smoothed back her cap of gleaming hair–mostly white but not thinning much, she thought, thank goodness. A touch of vanity was good for the soul on those days when nothing seemed to stay in the right places, anymore. But she did agree that she wasted too much time on vanity as a younger woman. It got her Robert, perhaps, but it wasn’t what kept him. Only patience, appreciation and her natural fire managed to do that. He did take good care of so much. He did have such a fine way with conversation when all was well and she loved his jaunty walk, even when that hip had trouble, the way he tossed his tweedy hats onto the back door coat tree and….

“Andrew, when are you going to find a wife? Or a partner, whatever you might call her?”

“Well, I– I’ve dated quite a few. I might know someone, we will see. But first, we must discuss–”

“Oh yes, I know, the house, this relic of a house, Andrew! Let’s sniff out a prime company or two, it’s been a decade or more, and we’ll entertain the best bids and get on with it. I still have money enough. Well, not perhaps ever enough, but enough, overall. One needs to protect one’s material goods, we are told, whatever they may be. One needs to be smart about getting old–is that even possible? Does it not arrive unexalted as well as uninvited yet demand you give its way? So I must have the painting done, too.”

“And I thought this was my great mission today! What a relief. You are full of surprises.”

He got up and looked out the windows to the garden. The light was shifting, burnishing petals, greenery, all blunt and soft edges. He felt his own smallish garden could use such warm and tender light but he had no time to address those sorts of things. He feared he would fail at it, too. He was better with numbers than sentient things, he believed.

Celeste joined him, hand on his shoulder. “Aren’t I? Of course, you were charged with that duty, your mother thought I would never cave and spend the cash.” She flashed a grin, the tiny overbite lovely in her once-again friendly face.”I might even sell it sometime, who knows? But not yet, not yet.”

Nora rapped on the French door, then stuck her head around. “Done with me for now? I made lemon bars if you’d like them before I go.”

“Yes, please,” Celeste said. “They’re to die for, Andrew!”

“Please don’t say that, Auntie…I can be superstitious.”

She rested her head against his upper arm, then patted his back, moved to the bird-cage to check on the parakeets’ antics. She poked her finger in a cage and a bird nibbled at it.

“Tell me what it is, darling. What it is you mean to say to me.”

For a minute, he thought she was talking to her absurdly adored birds. But no, she could feel it, all that he was carrying.

******

They took the plate Nora brought, thanked her and said farewell, then went outdoors. The garden was cooler and quiet, the humming of insects and chatter from the treetop aviaries softer as the sun slipped down, so they took to the heavy white iron chairs with fluffy green cushions at the koi pond. A miniature waterfall emitted slippery sounds that eased the chronic ache in his mind, that lodged in his shoulders. Everything smelled abundant, sweet in this oasis. He could not imagine Celeste no longer right here; she was the central part, the axis of the wheel he valued deeply.

And so he told her.

“I met a woman in South America almost two years ago.” He stared at the fish, orange-gold and white with black markings. “She works for a company I’ve done much business with and we got to know one another over each week we had together,  here and there.”

He fell silent. How did you tell an elderly aunt who married very well and did most of the right things in life this sort of thing? And yet it was his Auntie Celeste. She had lived through decades, learned much. She was right then looking at him, maybe past him, ready to wait all night. She had that flaring fire, yes, but it also was a flame that burned long and steady.

“Her name is Magdalena. I thought maybe I was falling in love, just a little. Enough to tell her so. But she…had other plans, not including a long-term anything with me.”

The fountain had begun to sound louder, the koi swam under the darkening surface of the pond quite fast now. Andy wanted to take it all back. Celeste stretched out her legs and the kaftan rustled a little.

“She has had a meteoric career, she is VP of…well, anyway, the point is.” He stopped and looked above. Venus was there, sparkling like brand new. Always Venus could be counted on. “The point is, she is not in my life, anymore, not really. It was impossible, the the worst when she left. I had to avoid you awhile. But that isn’t all of it.”

He took in a breath and it was a slow sharp knife that lodged in his heart, all he wanted to say and feared to tell and how it made life harder. How could any sort of love be like this?

A fish tail flipped above surface; the koi ran to the bottom. Light fell across the dark emerald lawn, its veil of dimmer gold changing into slower silvery light resting inside summered air.

“What is the child’s name, Andrew? When do we meet?”

His head fell forward, his hands covered his face. “Oh…!” he said between splayed fingers.

She hummed tunelessly, a new thing she liked. “I’ve been waiting for something. Don’t be afraid. We’ll set things in good motion, it will be alright.”

“How do I set things right when a child is here because of irresponsibility?”

She blew out air between her teeth, making a dismissive sound. “Don’t you think that’s often the case? Or it was when I was of age. No one knew what was smart or best though they thought they knew–life often just happens in ways one never expects.” She shooed away a moth that liked her necklaces. “I had a child once.”

He turned in his chair. “What?”

“I was, after all, the young woman in that photo, Andrew.  Not restrained about living an adventurous life. And I got pregnant. And I didn’t keep it. Her. My mother said the cruel reality of a motherhood would not bring comfort, good fortune or lasting security. That I was too smart and pretty to be a mother yet if at all. So the baby was taken. And a couple of years later I met Robert. But we couldn’t beget children. By then, that child was long gone if not forgotten. This was before birth control was legal, Andrew, don’t look so shocked, girls got pregnant often. Adoption was the solution then. I was not ungrateful. But, too, confounded and fearful, ashamed. But I was very sad later…”

“I never would have guessed. I’m sorry. You never spoke of wanting children. But, then, I never have, either.”

“Sometimes you don’t even know what you need or want until it is there before you. Or gone.”

Her voice had become a whisper and he ached for her as much as for himself. And lately for all the children who had no one or who had someone, then suddenly no one. It was new and too much sometimes, he had no noble words to encompass all such as these.

“Her name is Eva. She is one year old. And I want her with me but I don’t know how to do this, yet.”

“Okay. Me, either.” She turned to him, eyes clear, radiant with energy. “When can Eva come here?”

“Magdalena moved to LA. I might be able to get partial custody. I’m working on it, Auntie Celeste. Will you… can you help me?”

She sighed but it became tremulous laughter. “Look at us, Andrew. We thought we had everything, can you even imagine? But that was not the most of it, not even close. Now comes a miracle. Bring little Eva to me. Of course I will help you and love her!” She smiled at Andy, and touched the large blue jewel at her chest like a brilliant, voluptuous star fallen to earth. “And I have part of an inheritance for her already, right here, saved for this little one.” She crinkled her brow. “Oh, I need a new hammock, a lovely small one!”

He wanted to weep or perhaps giggle but remained in barest control. “You’re the first to know, Auntie. I had so hoped I could count on your generosity of spirit. To be there for me. Thank you… so much.”

Andy rose then bent to hug her but she stood up, too, and they held on as the air grew tender with night greenness. He had to hurry things up. Eva must have time to enjoy this wonderful great-great-auntie and Celeste needed time to properly adore her. But he felt better armed for any fight ahead, quite ready now. For fatherhood, yes, but for all the life that would come next. Still, he pulled away from Celeste to locate the garden hammock. He wanted to lie back, swing at will, take in the grand evening sky.

 

Our Secrets, Our Stories

Spring signs 054

I have a secret and so, my cohorts or neighbors, do you. We may have known each other for decades and shared breakfast once a month. Perhaps lived across the hall from one another and picked up each other’s mail as a favor when one or the other was gone. Celebrated our children’s milestones. Participated in a support group, noting small nuances of our lives. Been related by blood or marriage–ample opportunities to get personal. But there is ever something kept to yourself, an experience, a feeling, a person, time or place set aside from the rest. It resides in a part unknown to anyone else. And the reality is that it is not singular but exists in multiples. We have so many secrets it is unlikely we could name them all if it was demanded of us. For some we have briefly acknowledged only to manage to hide forever–perhaps even from ourselves.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary notes that definitions for the noun “secret” include:

1) information kept hidden from others

2)  an uncommon way of doing something to achieve good results  (and unknown to most others)

3) something mysterious, inexplicable

The evolution from the Latin secretus: to separate, distinguish, sift, keep apart.

This covers a fair amount of territory. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot in a time where it is getting harder to maintain privacy in our world. Everyone is concerned about having personal information kept that way, yet we are obliged to share critical details in order to manage our lived in multiple ways. For many of the younger generations it is so pervasive a condition that they often don’t blink an eye when asked for minute details to establish identity. And social media provides easier access each year to whoever puts information out there. Want some attention? Post something on YouTube or Instagram. For that matter, post anything on the internet at our own risk, as the virtual ticker tape of our lives may unspool before us. It seems to me the illusory fame some seek makes one’s identity more fluid–and rather indistinguishable.

And of course I see the irony as I write a post for WordPress, a platform for many millions around the world. Writers, after all, write from what they know or want/need to know and then tend to share it, and a reader gets to know much about the person who is penning the epistle.

Or do you? Do I?

Secrets–odds and ends as well as dramatic moments–naturally accumulate as the years accordion. There seems to be room for all despite one more item being added, pressed closer and denser, our minds and memories akin to striated rock. What surprises us at times is that secrets appear to have as big a role in creating our identities as obvious known factors do. Perhaps more so, at times. Who we are may not be who we appear to be, which seems rather ominous. The reality is, few if any of us are strictly as we appear because everyone has something kept private, held at bay. For one thing, there are too many moments lived, a glut of informative tidbits, each making an impression that is discarded or given closer examination. Our brains are ceaseless workhorses twenty-four hours a day to manage it all. So from a generalized view, it’s not surprising we don’t share close to all of what we experience–much may hardly reach awareness. Until perhaps a dream reveals it to us or a sudden thought leaps awake in the middle of some mundane activity. That aha moment–which we often tuck away.

There are those events we felt/knew/wondered/observed, then receded. But the real secrets are pieces of knowledge we are apt to be acutely conscious of but decide are better left alone. It is likely to our advantage when we choose to close the door to outside probing. The private fact, if given light of day, might compromise the secret holder’s principles, or diminish his or her efficacy. Render the person too emotionally vulnerable. Spark a conflict with another that will have onerous or at least unintended results. Or maybe it is about protecting another and keeping one’s word. And so one’s observation, a feeling or a nighttime dream may remain under wraps for awhile or forever. Details can undo us, we think, and there seems to be some truth in it.

The problem is the tendency to believe that unleashing a secret might end up taking something from someone. Ourselves, usually. We’re each born a (generally) separate human and have ownership of who we are–what we think, how we feel, why we act–until we do not. Until we give ourselves freedom to come forward with the entire, unadulterated truth of whatever it is. Until we take a risk and take someone into our confidence. And in this day and age, how many are willing to do that when it is so easy to live in subterfuge, masks switched at whim, a persona for each situation? It seems easier to do without the backdrop included–the real facts that uphold our individuality. And as human beings, we are undeniably versatile. We can keep secrets as well as divulge them; it only takes words or actions to set either in motion. How much could we lose or gain by not saying what we are so loathe to expose?

There’s a time for honesty and vulnerability, as well as maintaining that golden silence. It can get quite tricky.

The dictionary’s second definition seems reaonable while interesting. It refers to keeping hidden a special method or idea that has had a good outcome. Anyone can relate to that. If there is an arcane ingredient of a recipe or a revolutionary manufacturing technique a company uses, one is not about to spill the beans. There may be a provisional solution to a thorny problem and when it becomes verifiably tried and true, the minds behind that solution may choose to keep it closer for all posterity. Maybe it comes down to greed. But it could also be wise management of resources, depending on the personalities and circumstance. I would tend to go for the greater good, if it came to that–but even that could end up meaning sharing information or keeping it under lock and key.

I opt for both a privacy determined by self counsel as well as a more trusting openness. I want transparency in my living because it is authentic. Complete in a way that layers of diverting signals can never attain no matter how smart or intriguing. It is, however, a surprise to family that when I write I am willing to say so much about who I am. I have been perceived as a primarily pensive, calm, reserved person much of the time, especially in my career. True, all a significant part of who I am, having been raised to be circumspect. It was good manners if nothing else, and often a deciding factor in success and failure or happiness or misery. We take into our beings what we gleaned from earliest years. But there was also a fire within, a strong need to speak out, and so openness flowed more naturally as I grew up. I had discovered, too, that some secrets could do irreparable damage and why allow that if there was another way? Armed with questions for the world, I asked them of myself first and the one I loved the most was: What is the truth? I have never been one to accept a glib answer as the final say. It can make me a bit insufferable. I am not a good small talker, all that easy breezy stuff.

I might have made a better reporter, detective or spy. Let me at the innards of the object of my interest. Spy craft is another thing altogether but if there were no secrets, there would be no spies–real or created– and what would we do without those ramifications to engage and entertain or offend us? Secrets have played a significant part in the world’s history, I gather.

But there are vast amounts to uncover when evaluating the entirety of a person, a place, an experience. The truth, it turns out, tends to be complicated. The beauty of this is in the unmaking and remaking of it as well as the sheer existence of it. Each is a kaleidoscope to turn around, a puzzle to decipher. And memory alters it, as well.

If my impulse is more toward rooting out the gist of a matter, the unvarnished core, it may seem that secrets are not my preferred domain. But poetry can arise from secrets glimpsed within one moment. This is true of fiction, too, a story gathering shape from threads and the snags as its design is gradually woven. A writer develops tools from an array of generous offerings from mind and heart as well as strict information. And so it is the third definition of the word “secret” that draws me most of the three: the mystery of all things.

It matters to me, the numinous nature of mystery. Even more than it did decades ago, because of greater permeability of societal boundaries and the wider reach computers have brought. So much is far more than I want to see or hear. I have to block those distractions to give serious attention to what is going on inside and out.

I find there remains the same evidence of mystery I had as a child. Pulsing star maps of sky and undulating oceans emblazoned with sunrise. The give of grass beneath tender feet in summer. Songs of cicadas and loons; the calls of coyotes and a bear cub. The transitory radiance of fireflies on summer’s eve. The opening of one hand by another. Tears that ease a formidable grief. Victory that arrives in a moment after years of relentless work and the bitterness of failures. Love, how it can bless those downcast or those rising up.

Mystery in all honesty rules me. The secrets of God’s ineffable presence have illuminated my journey, the seeking and finding, bewilderment and awe. I stand here now only because of a power I can barely begin to identify with such small, poor language. I know I am impacted beyond all reason when I feel God-moving-here, and yet it is the lofty reason of science that reveals to me God’s business in the physics of our universe. I cannot get enough of this gorgeous, messy living, not even on tough days, not even when I feel my own secrets are the worse for wear yet make me foolish.

Why do we even need secrets? Why do we not? Such contradictions seem commonplace and that, too, is not wholly understood. There is so little we can well account for when we come to the end of the road. Why not take in and hold those set aside moments, our own secret knowledge close enough that it shakes us up so we break open to more jubilant life? There are times we have to rend our egoistic cloaks of darkness and let go the shame or fear, let it stir in the air. Shake out spasms of anger, of regret. Pronounce our liberation when our dream looms close–grab it before it passes. Say aloud the hesitant words as if everything depends on it: I love you, let me help, I honor your life, God’s peace to you.

If there is an experience that persists like a steady lamp along the way, a certain person who was a gift or a season in life that meant more than can be told, cherish it. It will nurture you. If there is something that dissipates your energy and shadows your soul, perhaps now is a time to speak or you may remain captive by its presence. What we decide to keep is ours and ours alone if we choose. Let it be a secret for the best of purposes. Otherwise, let it go and let the greater mysteries reign.

 

The Power of Naming

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“Sylvia?”

I paused between shelves of brightly packaged herbal teas and redolent coffee beans at my neighborhood grocery.

“How are you? Haven’t seen you in a long time!”

I waited a few seconds. There was no answering voice so I stole a look at the speaker. Ah, yes, a therapist from the agency I had worked for prior to retirement. I came forward with a smile and we chatted a few minutes. Then I corrected the misinformation.

“You know, it’s funny that I’m so often called Sylvia. I tend to answer to it, no matter where I am, like it’s a second name. But my real name is Cynthia.”

The woman frowned, then covered her face with a hand in embarrassment. “I knew that! I think I knew it? But you always seemed like a Sylvia…really, I guess I once heard it wrong from the start and it stuck–sorry!”

“It’s quite alright, Julia, now you know who I really am. It was good to catch up a bit!”

On we went our separate ways as I laughed over what has become a common error.

Another time I was at a restaurant when a man came up and said, “Cindy, right? How’s it going?”

I didn’t recall his name right off. We established the name of another agency as where we’d crossed paths briefly. His name came forward: George.

I didn’t correct him though the name he used is like an off-key measure of music to my ears. I don’t think of it as my name, don’t answer to it. But I knew him less well and he had assigned to me the easiest name he could call up. It was unlikely I would run into him again so on we went.

All of us carry around the experience of our names, the etiological, familial and social histories. We are given our birth names after much thought and discussion by our parents, then we live with the results. (Apple, anyone? Moon Unit? Or a student in my old high school whose last name was Fish and first name was Star? She–a shy, rather timid girl–did not have it easy.) We find that, unless we use our middle name, it often gets dropped altogether–unless our mothers repeatedly had to call us in from the street for dinner: “Cynthia Jane Guenther!” What a mouthful, an old-fashioned (perhaps) and rather inelegant bunch of syllables to enunciate while shouting.

The truth is, I was called Cindy for years. It started at kindergarten, likely, as my family used my given name quite awhile.  Back then teachers didn’t have to be sensitive to such superficialities nor politically correct, so no one asked me if it was okay to shorten my full name to a nickname. It was like an invisible branding, even a literal name tag: I had to wear it and answer to it. I was “Cindy” at school then “Cynthia” at home and finally the two merged into one before I quite realized it.

As it happened, by fifth grade I also was developing a close friendship via church activities. She strangely had the same initials as well as the same first name. I felt a sting of disappointment at first; I didn’t know others with my name in the late fifties. Emphasis was definitely on the “my” in my assessment of this weird coincidence. How did she manage to keep the full name and avoid the ignominy of a nickname? She was taller, granted, with wavy, shiny dark hair and had a perfect smile, fine. She held the apparent right to the greater name while “Cindy” had become firmly attached to my life, at least my public, exterior, more social life.

She told me soon after we hung out more that she also was called our nickname but didn’t want it to become her “official” name. Okay, maybe she had a stronger will. (She did come from more money, which somehow seemed relevant at first.) In any case, it was certain we couldn’t use the same name as we entered seventh grade as best friends. Walking arm and arm down school hallways and sitting in classes together, people had to distinguish us by using the name’s different forms. At least we did look different: I tended toward dark blonde versus her raven haired appearance. I ended up a cheerleader but she did, too. I was known also as a daughter of our public schools’ well-known music program director. My buddy was into perfect grades and school politics; I was a dedicated arts lover and performer. But our school names had taken hold and that was that. I couldn’t easily reclaim “Cynthia”, not in that town.

I tried to change the spelling: “Cyndee”, “Cindie” or “Syndie”  with the last being favored. But it wasn’t accepted on school assignments. It, however, could be used on notes we’d all surreptitiously pass back and forth as if they were top-secret spy communiques. And then it came to me–I could choose any name I wanted and no one would know but my friends! We could all have secret names. I already kept a notebook of names–in the hundreds by then–for poems, stories and plays I loved to write. A few of my girlfriends went along with the idea.

I tried on several for good fit and decided on one so unimaginative I can’t believe I used it: Melodee. I played cello, I sang and danced, so why not, right? My second choice was Brooke (last name added: Hammond) and that persona was the writer who would one day be a roaming reporter or a marvelous novelist. In the meantime, I tried my hand at romantic poetry–oh, those mysterious, elusive boys for whom my heart throbbed but of whom I could not speak aloud. And for some reason I used my own name at the bottom of those pages.

People recreate and even legally change their names with ease these days, but not when I grew up. No one thought that much about it, I doubt, unless the given name was plain loathed. We might use nicknames for fun (one guy I knew was dubbed “Chilla” and another “Snarfy”, who knows why?) but nothing as fancy or exotic as those that crop up in our pop culture-driven society today. It surely has to do with one’s identity, how people desire to be recognized, who they would rather be. How they want to make their mark and be remembered.

Just as we are born into names, they have a different sort of potency as our days end here. Friends and family bring forth, even conjur personalities and memories as the name is stated once more. And if someone is banished from a family or a community, that name is not ever to be spoken again. That person becomes anathema, invisible.

Yes, names are more than a chosen arrangement of letters. They eventually carry who we are unless we alter things, ourselves.

Somewhere along the line I realized my best friends–yes, even the other Cynthia–called me “Cyn.” She and I sometimes even used that same shortened name with one another. (I saw her a few years ago, in a church in Portland (would you believe it, we both had moved here) and we exclaimed, “Cyn!”) My mother hated it when she answered the phone. “You mean Cindy? Yes, I’ll get her.” She would turn to me with hand over receiver and whisper, “That name sounds like ‘sin’ and I don’t like it!”

I didn’t care what she thought. That three-letter name became so powerful to me–the telltale marker of a dear friend, those I trusted and was deeply loyal to, who mattered more in my teens than my family–that even today it will stir a well of emotion. I can hear my first true love’s husky, warm voice saying that name. I remember my best male friend, now passed on, still using the endearment as he visited me one year before he died. I can remember my other best friend who lived a harder life than many while being a true support, calling me up, saying: “Cyn? We need to walk and talk.”

If someone other than closest hometown friends used this name it would feel like an intrusion, as once happened at work when a new guy blithely dropped it in a sentence. Wait a minute, he didn’t even know me so I had to nicely tell him: “My name is just Cynthia, not Cyn, okay?”

After I was done with high school and moved to the Seattle area for a while I found it good timing to take back my birth name. It was the only name strangers or new-found companions would have to call me. No one could confuse me with any other, or at least not often. It was a relief. I had missed it in a profound if unconscious way, with attendant and unexpected feelings. It was as if I was rescuing a large part of myself, once almost forgotten. But I wasn’t sure what to do with it at first. Who was this person after being Cindy or Cyn for so long? It heralded small changes that would help renovate my life over many years. My birth name would be honored and worn with more self-respect and compassion than had occurred in a long while.

“Sylvia” started to show up during my career as a mental health and addictions counselor. The only one I had  known very well was the poet Sylvia Plath, who took her own life long before her genius could come to full fruition. Of course, I knew her only in print and during own poetic ponderings but she made an impact. I wasn’t prepared for being flagged down with such a name as that, yet when it happened more and more, it began to seem reasonable. It had three syllables like my own name. If someone didn’t hear well, it might be mistaken for the actual name. And some people admitted “Cynthia” was “too formal” and they didn’t “feel” it whereas Sylvia seemed, well, accessible. Warmer. I’d shrug it off but some thought of me as reserved, a bit intimidating at times, despite undisputed devotion to my clients. The mistaken name grew on me despite a random thought that some might like to rename me… and I suspect I will continue to answer to it, if no one else does first!

Before sitting down to write today, I looked up my first and second names for more information. I have to admit I’ve always enjoyed the meanings. “Cynthia” is the Latinized form of the Greek Kythia, woman from Kythos. It is additionally a name denoting Artemis, Greek moon goddess. Diana is also associated with it as a huntress of the moon. (As a side note, “Sylvia” is an Italian name of Latin origin meaning “from the woods”. Silvia is the Roman goddess of the moon and forest.)

My  simple middle name, “Jane” was originally a feminization of the male name Johannes. Derived from Hebrew, it means loosely, “gift from God.” That was something I didn’t know until today.

I loved my name even as a youngster without knowing its meanings and it suits me well. Nothing pleases me more than being in the woods or being under a star-beaded sky, basking in the moon’s fine light, both calming and thrilling to behold and sense upon my body, filling the heavens and earth. I sure don’t know how much of a gift from God I have been in others’ lives but this human life is a most sacred treasure. God has and always will be my deepest love. Both sensual and spiritual wonders have informed and energized my life and I am so glad of it.

Oh, yes, I have one more tidbit about the curious place of namings in my life. There was a person of strong heart and intuition who gave me another name in my twenties. Is it a real name, is it even important now? It felt almost celestial in its essence then: three syllables starting with a “C” like my own earth name but sounding as I imagine a little music of the spheres sounds. It felt like one I already knew. At times I still say it in a whisper or hear it in my dreaming. I am happy to have this small gift tucked away. But I can’t tell you, of course–it is a secret and only mine. At least, as far as I may ever know!

 

Escape into the Beauty Bar

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She enters this corner kingdom of marvels with a little push from the woman behind, someone who thinks nothing of it, the place or the push. But Merilew is sweating. Her throat is closed over a hot pebble of fear. Her hands are knitted together, as if praying. A tidy handbag swings from her forearm. It still aches from last night. She steps forward, out of the way of those who pass by, and nary a glance tossed her way.

What makes it easier is the anonymity. No person here is anyone Merilew might know. All are nose-deep into the array of colors and lovely packages, gossiping with friends or enjoying a solitary visit, eyeing a lipstick or powder as if there are secrets to be discerned with scrutiny. Patience. Maybe there are.

There isn’t much time. He, the one she has been married to thirteen years and two months, is at a meeting four blocks down, a restaurant that serves men best, he says, with its room for cigars, made intimate, exclusive, with lustrous dark wood and burgundy leather-clad banquettes. She looked into the windows once and felt annoyed.

Today he is trusting her, for a change, to enjoy her time downtown; two hundred dollars is only part of a thank you for being a good partner. They’ll eat at Jake’s Grill later.

“Buy yourself lacy lingerie, a good new dress,” he suggested as he dropped her off at the department store. “I’ll be back in an hour and fifteen minutes to meet you.” He pressed his cool lips to hers, then patted her back.

She had watched him proceed along the sidewalk, his mammoth shoulders squared, arms barely swinging, each foot set down heavily as if to leave his mark even there. In a charcoal pinstripe suit he looked like a CEO. In shorts and a white T-shirt he looked like a well-turned-out but serious wrestler, not someone taking a small break from racing up the corporate ladder. He looked like a man who would bend your needs to meet his. Or could bend you into a knot. He had a certain knack, he admitted.

He fit well down here, geometric, tall, hard as the ponderous, arrogant skyscrapers. Merilew waited until he disappeared around a corner and thought, Go!

Inside the store, there are more displays than she imagined, glittering, sleek and topped with pretty words or models’ faces. It is a room of curvaceous shapes and lucious color, of silver and light–though she feels she has stepped into a cave, a special scooped out refuge where only the savviest females are allowed. Their own special club. But she has not worn make up for thirteen years and six months. He would never suspect this is where she has gotten to behind his back. He wants her “fresh-faced and simple, it’s one of your better virtues”, he has said many times. After a surreptitious swipe of a leftover coral lipstick resurrected from her bottom drawer, he impressed upon her that he meant it. Hence the sore arm, soon to show a bruise. But she has been captivated by this store for months. She can’t ascertain its magnetism except that she has seen herself grow pallid and listless when she studies her mirror at home. Not really herself, not even who he thinks he sees, either.

Her hand flutters at her throat. She is ridiculous standing here, mad to think she can get away with experimentation he won’t deduct.

“May I help find something for you?” Jade, a sales associate  with pink hair and cat eyes speaks up.

Her eyes are, in fact, barely discernible beneath emerald green smudges of eyeshadow and black liner added like two wings, two thick lashes that look furry. But her smile is inviting as she tries not to telegraph the truth: What is this woman doing in here? Old fashioned ruffled blouse and too-long black skirt. Fancy leather jacket from, what, 1990? Maybe vintage? Then: Face like porcelain. Long nose. Bordering on exotic. Eyes…so blue and scared.

“No, thanks, I’ll look around if that’s okay.” Merilew licks her lower lip, then forms her mouth into a crescent moon smile.

“No problem. Just find me when you need assistance.”

The first stop is rouge, or blush as she remembers to call it. But there isn’t just one section, there are many. She sees it now, how the store takes you from brand to brand, from one island of wishfulness to another. A maze of enticements. A hall of mirrors. She ambles toward an elegant display as if this is the brand she is seeking. But as she touches everything, she thinks, the wonder of eye shadow names, ancient amber, blue note frost, midnight disguise. The last appears shimmery black but purple bleeds through as she rubs a fingertip across it. What a terrible name for what could look like violence. Merilew shivers, turns toward the next aisle.

Razzle dazzle me, set me free for an hour, she thinks as she finds blushes aplenty and so many pretty ones: I’d forgotten how it is: roses of morning and sunset petals; baby pink, almond latte, barely blushed, midway mauve. She takes the creamy “midway mauve” and dabs her fingers with it, then tries to pat it onto a cheekbone while searching for a mirror.

“Over here is what you’ll need,” Jade offers generously.

It’s like a movie dressing table, a cozy vanity with puffs of cotton in a clear jar, brushes and wands  of all sizes and shapes for adding more colors, Q-tips for smoothing, sponges and wedges for something else, she can’t imagine what. The mirror is illumined by large globe bulbs. She sits in a tall swivelling stool and sees her light blue eyes flash, the lightning of anxiety. Faded auburn hair straggles over pinched shoulders as she leans close. She steadies her hand, then spreads the color, her tender skin marred by a streak of mauve.

She jerks back. It is alarming to see her face changed by something not meant to be there. It seems akin to lavender, rich as the scent of the flower, not her color or floral choice at all. The curve of the bones of her face jump out at her. She takes a tissues and rubs it off, skin reddening, stinging. Tears pop up to aggravate her. She feels ignorant, foolish. This won’t work, none of it. She needs to leave, go find a dress that he will appreciate, look for lace things he will love. What is she doing? Here, of all places? She’s lost her mind, maybe, so steps down, beige leather purse with its documents that identify her as his his his clutched to her waist.

“How about this to clean things up?” Jade asks.

She brandishes a small bottle of make up remover and fat cotton balls. Jade dabs and daubs with cautiousness, washes away remnants of mauve and soothes her skin. Merilew leans back, feels the touch of a fresh cotton ball like the kiss of a dandelion.

“We’ll start over. Are you going some place special?”

Merilew’s giggle sneaks through discomfort. “I might.”

“Then I’d be glad to help it happen for you. Let me look at your face, your overall coloring. You’re ivory pale; we’ll be careful with color.”

“Yes, please,” and she wonders if she means that. Now that she’s here. Now she has elected to put what is forbidden upon her face. Her light eyes stare back at her, wide open, blue as a spring sky. They startle her.

Jade gathers various products from different places with the speed of a pro. Merilew feels more relaxed, knows she is in the hands of someone who understands things she doesn’t, who may even discern an inner potential she has misplaced, a spark of someone better, smarter. Freer. More whole.

Powerful.

“Can I close my eyes? Is that too odd?”

“Shut them only if you trust me!”

“I’m Merilew, by the way. I have to trust you. I don’t have a clue what to do with all this stuff. It has been….over a decade.”

“Wow, that right? Well, then, let my magic begin.”

As she sits there feeling the lotion, the fluffy brushes and deft pencils, each one she feels as an offering to her–of who knows what except they feel so kind, so sweet to her skin. Like little fishes dancing past her in turquoise water, a relief of rain on parched lips, like a million tiny valves being opened to her heart and soul slip through. She rests and imagines that she will emerge transformed beyond recognition and that she will be able to do something with her life as she has never done before.

Of course, that is a daydream. This is so risky she cannot believe she did it though she is still glad to to lean back into this oasis of time.

“Are you out shopping alone for fun?” Jade asks.

“Not exactly. My husband is at a business meeting.” Her eyelids flutter as eye shadow is smoothed over delicate hillocks. “I have been charged with purchasing only things he likes.” What is she saying? “You know, got to keep them happy, got to play the game.”

The words fall like burning matches into the happy din around her.

“Will this make him happy?”

“You know, Jade”–she feels a hot flush, how open she is being–“nothing actually, deeply makes him happy for long. My hair isn’t right or my dinner is overdone or I look at him the wrong way when he needs another way….”

“Been there, done that, never again. Sorry, but hold still so I can figure out what to do with your sparse but nicely arched eyebrows.”

“Make them bold. Like…Joan Crawford.”

“Joan who? Oh, like in those old classic movies?”

Merilew shrugs. “Yes, I like that. Her. She was sassy. Maybe a little bossy.”

“Don’t move.”

She feels her eyebrows grow from timid to perhaps inquisitive and wonders if they will act more expressive. She tries to not show too much of what she feels since he prefers her quiet, calm, to be capable enough but not overtly so. Good natured and grateful. Helpful. If she isn’t, she pays.

“Is that where you’re stuck? Back then, nineteen forties? Just asking… but so you know, we’re living in the twenty-first century. And you can be gorgeous in 2015, believe me. You don’t need make up, anyway, to be honest. Lucky you!” She guffaws as if she made a joke. “But you should buy something from me, anyway!”

Merilew wriggles; the eyebrow pencil pauses, then begins again. She has said too much, as if she thinks this is the sort of place women can say what they won’t elsewhere. Like a hair salon, somehow therapeutic though not that she has been recently. She places her palms flat on her purse, stays stock still. Her breathing keeps her company as Jade’s hands draw a line here, blends the hues there, presses a gloss stick to each lip, then removes the stain to start again.

The rumble of a man’s voice as he speaks to someone, perhaps his girlfriend, finds Merilew so she startles, murmurs “Sorry”. Has he chosen her a perfume? Is he guiding her with hand at the nape of her neck, right out the doorway? Or if he is just saying farewell so he can get a cup of coffee across the street, let her have her own time. Maybe he’s saying, “Have fun!” She imagines it’s her husband and his hands are in his pockets as he lopes past her and whistles on his way out, then holds the door open w ith his shoudler for a smiling woman coming in. And when Merilew is done, she will meet him and buy an iced coffee. They’ll sit and talk as sun kisses her face and dust swirls brightly, the cafe all brilliance and warmth. Contentment.

Of course not.

But...what if he forgot to meet me? If he decided not to come home tonight? If he came home and said he was leaving me, we aren’t right together, after all? Her breath catches in her chest and her fingers go to her mouth whereupon they make contact with a luxurious lipstick. She licks a fingertip, finds it sweet.

Her eyes open as her pulse leaps.

“What do you think, Merilew?”

In the mirror she searches arctic blue eyes that seem deeper set with swaths of summered bronze on eyelids, a dash of peach on each bony rise above. They dominate even new eyebrows that exclaim, then reach for points unknown, arches like graceful bridges linking her wide, smooth forehead to luminous center of nose and mouth. She has a widows peak that at last looks right as it draws attention to the auburn waves framing her face. Her prominent pointed nose is complementary to two glistening coral lips. The warm tones make her think of shells and sea and palm trees, running barefoot. Sculpted cheekbones are a landscape configured of tender peach and honey. This Jade is an artist, that is truth.

“I look like someone else.”

Jade frowns. “Are you a good or not-good someone else?”

She turns her head to one side, then the other, leans close to her image. “I look like I’m about to have a grand afternoon. I think I wouldn’t recognise me on the street. It’s a tad frightening, exciting to see how all this can change a woman. But it’s more surprising to me that I am even sitting here. I walked in that door. I was looking for a change. Maybe it’s been a little rebellion. It might be something else. I’ll leave. I might find nothing will be the same.” Merilew leans over and bestows on the sales woman a smile that would illuminate the dark. “You’re wonderful, Jade.”

“Well, I don’t know if it’s all that, it’s just make-up! Your face was a great canvass. Glad you’re satisfied with my ideas.”

Merilew slides off the chair, takes off her jacket and tosses it in a heap on the stool. Then she pulls out the tail of her blouse. She sleeks her hair back into a long ponytail, securing it with a common rubber band dug from her ladylike purse.

Getting out two big bills, she says, “I’ll buy it all.”

“Fantastic! Follow me.” Jade hesitates, then turns. “Before you pay, I have to say you’re far more, much better than he thinks.” She reaches out and touches her customer’s hand lightly like a nod, an agreement, a quiet understanding.

Jade calls after her. “Your leather coat!”

Merilew leaves the beauty bar. She spots him leaning against the building where they parted. He is checking his watch, running his hand through the blond thatch of hair, then stands up tall and brushes off  lint or something displeasing from his suit coat. He swivels his lion’s head all around. Merilew shudders, thinking he glances right at her but she crosses the street, moves faster toward him as he searches groups of pedestrians.

Her stride lengthens, she is coming close, she is looking at him and sees his eyes flicker over her. And then he turns away to find his wife. She keeps on walking, sees the corner and the green lights and the people rushing across a wide, congested thoroughfare and she slides in among them and her feet are flying, her heart a drum calling for bravery, for a life to be truly lived and she is panting as she flees like a creature leaving a place that must be left and she steps up and finally Merilew, eyes and mind blazing, is safe, she is safe on the other side.

 

A Mad Charade

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The rotund cigar was positioned between index and middle finger of my right hand, while the left was positioned on my blue-jeaned hip. My friend, Bev, was standing nearby, waiting for her turn. The cigar had been filched from her father’s stash, which was the first thing that had made me nervous. But, hey, I was far from home, hanging out in Pontiac, Michigan, a city north of Detroit that felt as foreign to me as Detroit, itself. Gritty streets were jammed with honking, revved up vehicles, smog laced the air, and people yelled from their porches at the traffic jams and passersby. Even the extrenally more pleasant neighborhoods gave off a disgruntled air, as if the houses themselves would just as soon be elsewhere, and the stores would rather close up shop and migrate to the tranquil northern forests, even for a brief respite.

This was Bev’s town. I lived in a much smaller city in mid Michigan replete with lush lawns, a plethora of well designed parks, a major architect, Alden B. Dow, whose influence was seen everywhere. There were more churches per capita than almost anywhere. Situated there, commanding the services of everyone from renowned scientists to line workers, was the world headquarters for a major chemical company that Jane Fonda, in person, protested. The arts and sciences created their own complex and impressive culture. Beauty reigned, as well as excellent education. But clearly there was a significant lack of population diversity. All I had to say was “I’m from Midland” and Michiganders understood–or so they thought–what that meant. To me it was home for eighteen years, sometimes inhospitable and other times a seeming paradise.

It was true that in Pontiac I was out of my element, but this is one reason I liked to visit Bev. I had done some travelling but at fourteen I hadn’t yet experienced a wide variety of environments. My family travelled by car on vacation each summer. I had been to various summer arts camps and met people from all over the world, yes; at one I’d become friends with Bev, a talented pianist who wanted to be a composer. For world experiences I couldn’t quite count a week-end summer shopping trip to Chicago or Detroit when my parents and I would also attend a symphony concert and visit art museums. Pontiac gave off a slightly dangerous, exciting vibe. I thought this could be where authentic people lived, not just those who presented as perfectly well-groomed and mannered and appranetly free of the growing angst I felt. It was nineteen sixty-four, and the world sure was changing, per Bob Dylan and so many others. I was restless.

Since I was caught in the maelstrom of adolescence I had begun to try on different styles of fashion and types of behavior. Different personas, to see what might fit better. If I was out-of-town, that is, where it was safer to do so. And Bev seemed of my ilk, ready to push limits just enough, interested in deeper meanings and unusual possibilities, at least philosophically. We both had read Hermann Hesse and Ray Bradbury, Albert Camus and Kierkegaard and Jung. Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Buffy St. Marie and Joan Baez were guides as well as Bach, Stravinsky and Handel. Ensnared by “teendom” and also the impulse toward adulthood, we explored life with a boldness shaped and at times undercut by an intrinsic sense of responsibility and well ingrained conscience.

So we did a few things that we told no one.

Earlier in the day we had wandered stores as we did on occasion, speaking in extravagant accents that undoubtedly fooled no one while garnering a little attention. I had a  habit of trying to speak in another language even though I had barely begun the challenging task of learning French. Bev spoke what sounded like passable Spanish but I had no idea what she was saying to me. So I invented my own languages, utterances rolling off my tongue without self consciousness. I also wanted to indulge myself in even a barest imitation of how I imagined Anouk Aimee, Catherine Deneuve or Jane Birkin might be in their own cities, laughing and sharing secrets, gesturing eloquently and swooping about the aisles with eccentric, self-possessed grandness. I wanted to have that sort of magnetism, to be as confident as they were. And I wanted to play.

I might wear a floppy hat or bright head scarf with bell-laden, dangling Indian earrings my mother would have forbidden. I preferred black boots with bell bottom jeans borrowed from Bev or long gauzy skirts if we could find one at a second-hand store. It was costume time, an activity I missed from childhood. (At home I still wore slacks, matching skirts and sweaters with Capezio flats; my own trendy jeans, loose chambray shirts and love beads came a couple of years later. But never in school.) We bought a token something now and then–matching enamel butterfly pins for our jackets, a fancy pair of “natural tan” pantyhose, a bright bangle–to lend our forays more shopping authenticity and as momentos. I doubt that sales associates or shoppers fell for any of our raucous, amateurish attempts to appear like exotic European visitors. They likely were laughing behind our backs as we made our way from department to department or cafe to shop.

Never mind. We were having too much fun. Bev and I saw ourselves as romantic idealists. We vowed to live industrious, imaginative lives and thirsted for adventures that tested our intelligence, conferred high value on fledgling talents. We were powered by the zest and foolishness of youth, moved by a desire to make the world better but also more vivid and dynamic, as if we were worried it might not hold enough of either without our help.

Secretly, I wanted to be a stage actress and playwright–secretly because that sort of vocation would not do in my family. The best I could hope for was to perform in a few school musicals and plays, so I did. But I read all novels or memoirs (including Moss Hart’s remarkable offering Act One: an Autobiography) about acting I could, behind my closed bedroom door or in the big maple’s treetop branches. I was not a huge movie goer–it was not encouraged, as I had academics, church, cello lessons, dance, singing and figure skating to devote myself to first and last. But I might still see them on a group date or when visiting Bev or another friend out-of-town. Every now and then I was allowed to go to a Saturday afternoon matinee for a quarter at the Circle Theater.

But how unbelievably powerful to write a play (I’d tried a childish few), then direct it with characters placed about a bare stage, turning it into a pulsing, riveting piece of life lived before one’s eyes. How much better to be the actress who is given choice words to enliven a moment or an hour, to move an audience with a shrug of a shoulder or a lowering of eyelids, a small space of silence or a bellow of grief or joy. And, oh, to be someone else, anyone else but myself for just a little while…the freeing beauty of that!

So, you can see I was already at risk that spring day for something unexpected and untoward. I was perhaps overzealous in my passion for the arts, in my longing for exotic experiences, and molded by a certain naiveté that one develops living in a small near-cloistered Midwestern city. If Bev showed some restraint as we lolled about a street far enough from her house to both feel like visitors, I did not.

I smelled, then I lit the cigar. And inhaled. The fragrance and taste of the hot smoke hit me. I consoled myself with the thought that this was different and different must mean better. And then I choked, blew out a rapid stream of smoke. I felt light-headed, pleasantly so. Disoriented, perhaps, but not enough to raise alarm. I handed the cigar to Bev and she puffed away. I suspected she had done this before, had a small stash in her room along with marijuana and found this possibility awesome. I noticed a few people staring at us as they walked by, a couple of guys poked their heads out their car window and whistled. I reached for the cigar again and inhaled more deeply and slowly, tossing my hair back and adjusting my sunglasses. Exhaled more slowly. And began to feel as if I was on a merry-go-round and as if I was floating away, then turning upside down. I wondered if it might be laced with something bad. I wasn’t ignorant of some illicit substances but neither was I any expert. I didn’t know what I was supposed to be feeling; I had thought it would be a little like cigarettes which I had tried once. A green wooden bench was to my left. I sat down and leaned back, inhaling a last time.

That was a mistake. I felt immediately nauseous and leaned over in time to vomit. Only I didn’t. I hadn’t eaten in a few hours and the dizziness seemed to stay and swirl inside my head, not quite upending my stomach. My heart raced and I began to perspire. Bev came over and spoke to me but I put up my hand.

“Okay, Cyn, what’s going on?”

“I think I’m going to die,” I whispered.

“Not possible. It’s only a cigar.”

“I am definitely going to die. Call 911.”

“Well, I don’t see a phone booth anywhere so just relax. Breathe.”

She sat down and rubbed my back and I jerked away.

“Don’t touch me, I’m going to be terribly ill.”

It was like being in some sort of tobacco hell, so nauseous and whirly-headed I couldn’t see straight, yet I was unable to divest myself of the sickness that consumed me.

“You inhaled, didn’t you! Why did you do that?”‘

I turned my head enough to see her accusatory look, her irritation.

“Why didn’t you tell me not to inhale?”

“I figured you would know that much.”

“I’m going to pass out. I have to get help.” I eyed a police station across the street and felt much sicker. No, not there.

Bev looked around. A couple of passersby slowed to gawk. I put my head between my knees when I heard a woman offer to assist us. Bev was talking to her and then her arm went across my back and her hand under my armpit with presure enough to lift me.

“Get up. We’re taking you across the street.”

“The police? No!” I wanted to stop talking and thinking, go to sleep, just wake up tomorrow.

“Yes, police department,” the woman said as she took the other side of my body and we crossed the street.

“No! I’ll get in trouble…”

“Already are,” the stranger said, cackling.

I loathed her help more than being ill.

The policeman who came out to meet us in the hallway took one look. “Drugs? What kind did you take?”

“None! I smoked a cigar. I’m so sick.”

“Right.”

He turned to Bev as the helper slinked out.

“She’s right, we shared a cigar. I don’t inhale but she did.”

“You do look pretty green, no kidding,” the policeman said. “You’ll survive. Lie down, I’ll get some water. You kids!”

He seemed tickled by my foolishness, though, and laughed so hard he clutched his stomach, another police officer coming out to see what was up. The longer this went on, the more I wanted to throw up. I gingerly lay back on a bench in the hallway and closed my eyes. I wanted to caution Bev to not give him our names or addresses, but figured she knew better. Everything was muffled as my head reeled and pounded, my stomach endured its stormy unsettling. I heard the man offer a paer cup but shooed him away. Breathe in, breathe out, think good thoughts, I told myself.

In a few minutes the spinning slowed some. I squeezed my eyes shut. I could feel Bev’s warm thighs under my outstretched calves and ankles. She kept drumming her fingers on my boot. I suspected she was practicing some piano piece she had to memorize, or she might be dreaming up something new. It irked me, then was calming. I fell into a light, woozy sleep, and dreamed of the open air stage of the music camp where Bev and I had met. It held rows of neatly seated cigar smokers.

In real time, a man and a woman came in arguing, followed by a teen-aged boy cursing at them both. My eyes flew open.

“Any better yet?” she asked.

I sat upright bit by bit. The spinning had stopped.”What time is it?”

“We’ve been here twenty minutes, maybe longer. You dozed some. I’m hungry.”

“You always are…maybe I could manage a pop.”

“Well, I guess you aren’t a born smoker.” She grinned, then hung her tongue out at me and widened her smallish hazel eyes.

“Stop. Not cigars, for sure…”

The others took the next bench, still going on about rent overdue and a car that had to be towed “or else” and tickets the boy had. I glanced into the office where police officers were milling about. They were paying no attention to me. I marvelled that I hadn’t been arrested for underage smoking or sent off to emergency for nicotine overdose. I wondered why they were so blase about a young girl nearly passing out on their turf. But I suspected this was the least of their worries, so stood up and tested my first steps. Success.

“Thanks,” I shouted into a hole in a thick glass window.

A guy who was studying paperwork looked up, gave a lazy salute.

We bought two soda pops in a machine down the hall, exited the building and waited for the city bus back to her folks’. I took off my hat and wiped off pale lipstick. It had been a heck of a day, and a painful mixture of relief and disappointment welled up. I put my arm around my friend’s shoulders. She elbowed me as we started to giggle. We both knew the next time I was in Pontiac there would be another caper.

I caught a Greyhound to Midland the next day. No one heard my tale at home. It was back to the routine, learning how to be a musician, reading and researching for school, hours on the ice rink and stolen moments with notebooks where I recorded the ins and outs of growing up. And my stories of brave girls and seriously beautiful romances, poetry of despair and passionate longing for more of life. I heard from my hometown friends that I was too earnest and sensitive, but I couldn’t seem to be otherwise.

The last I heard Bev ended up in L.A. and made a good living as a pianist and songwriter. That gave me happiness. We were true friends for a couple of years when we needed some zaniness as well as loyalty and respect. I found ways to grow into myself; it took time, endurance and better creative thinking. There were false starts and odd scenarios, a few leaps of faith. I had to admit that becoming whole and authentic was far harder than playing elaborate games of pretend, and the lessons of those times helped point me the direction I needed to go.

But lest you think that day was just a lark and had no real impact: I still cannot abide the barest whiff of cigar smoke fifty years later. Later, surprisingly, I did take up cigarettes for thirty years, and I regret every one smoked. But I was appreciative of a wise policeman who gave me a safe place to recover, put things into a right perspective with his good humor, then looked the other way. And lastly, you never know when what you’re looking for will turn into something else entirely.