The Water Is So Wide

Before we moved up north, my memories of summers past were mid-Atlantic: sugared candied orange and lime, and ice pop grape; softly rounded and coconut lotion-infused. We bought our roasted nuts in white paper bags; we stained our sneakers a winey burgundy from picking mulberries in the lane. Now once again up north, out on the porch this bright New England summer morning, it was all black kelpy stench and saline breezes. As happens when you’re unmoored from your foundation and set adrift, sensations are heightened and become everything. Jay was back from Europe and we were spending a long weekend at my mother’s summer rental on the Connecticut coastline. You could travel the extremes simply by opening the screen door and sticking your head back in the cool restfulness of the shadowed house, the smell of browned butter from the earlier pancakes, eaten with cherry jam and powdered sugar while half-naked from just getting out of bed, still permeating the premises. Outside, the sand and salt could scrub you raw.

“Do you want more coffee? We should start thinking about heading out in an hour or so.”

“Okay,” Jay said, staring out to sea.

I reflected on the unfamiliar maleness of him sitting there: the large foot up on the railing, flat and broad, so different from the curvy arch and polished seashell toes of mine; the bare chest, the loose boxers with their white folds and gaps. The pistons driving to succeed or crash. I was chagrined at having gotten used to the proximity of it after being so long unaccustomed only to lose it again. This was the furthest point we would go in our relationship. Now we would turn and go our separate ways.

Why had we come together yet again, this time, I wondered. How many women had he had by now, as his fame grew? How many groupies, how many models/actresses, by definition the seemingly inevitable choice to showcase achievement; beauties who floated like oil above the mere waters of ordinary womanhood. But my irritation was not with them, or Jay, only with me. The gap in question here was not quantitative. He had taken the wheel of the race car, driving with skill through reality; I was still playacting in my uncle’s barn. What must he think of me? The time for the van had passed. ‘Get going,’ I’d say to myself with conviction. But I never did. The strangeness I felt with him was a measure of the distance between us in strength of will. And the distance I had traveled away from the realm of my senses.

Did I have all the time left in the world? Were we still talking about forever? So many sailors—pirates, pilgrims—had left these local ports seeking profit or redemption, I thought as I squinted out at the water, the wind whipping my hair about my face. There were always ships at sea, some vessel to be spied on the horizon. My mother had had enough of me, and I of her. I felt unable to move in her presence. I was eager to set sail.

* * *

Back in New York, I found a box of old stuff my mother had set aside in anticipation of my eventual departure. It contained the usual assortment of memorabilia: concert ticket and baseball game stubs, a playbill from my high school production of Camelot with my role as “Second Lady-in-Waiting” duly noted. Another thing in there was an old datebook, and as I flipped through the pages, I stopped on September 18. “Aunt Jean” was inked diagonally across the page. Her birthday. Images of my aunt, reserved and meticulous, sent me into a reverie. Her practicality would cut through the sloppy thinking that shrouded and thickened my mind. A clue might be provided, perhaps a key. ‘That’s what I need,’ I said to myself, ‘more Aunt Jean and less Uncle Henry.’ I hunted around for pen and paper and sat down to write to her.

I wrote asking for advice, and we struck up a long-distance correspondence, as much as was possible with someone a world away, in more ways than one. A stealth campaign was mounted to bypass Mom and coordinate with Jean. There was work to do if I was serious, otherwise I was not to waste her time. Mom caught wind of the shift in loyalties, and chided me every time I went to the Post Office.

“You always go overboard on things. You’re more comfortable with these sad sacks than with people who are actually good at what they do. You string along Jay . . .”

“I don’t string along Jay.”

“Your cats, your shelter dogs, your ragtag—and my sister loves it. She loves it!” Mom threw up her hands at me. “She eggs you on.”

“No she doesn’t.”

“Like hell she doesn’t. You two are like the Bremen musicians! The second coming! All you need is the donkey.”

There were four Bremen musicians, Mom. Four damn musicians. I had to get out. At one time, my mother surely was capable of higher feelings; I’m not sure what caused her to lock them away. Disappointment is a rougher pill to swallow than most will acknowledge. They say we have a vestigial tail in our bodies; I could only hope she had vestigial grace in her soul.

Months passed, and just after I had given up and was beginning to take these jabs to heart, my endurance all but gone, an aerogramme arrived from Croatia from my aunt with the name of a small organization that was working there, ostensibly with the UN humanitarian relief mission, skirting its association with Medicine Nonsectarian. Its mission was to find and rescue the Lipizzaner horses that had been kidnapped from the Lipik stables. She could not meet me, but could make the necessary referrals, and could arrange to have someone pick me up at the Zagreb airport and take me to where I needed to go. She said to think long and hard about this; although there were numerous organizations and press on the ground, it was dangerous—she knew of at least one fatal shooting of an aid worker. Once there, returning was not an easy given, and this was not a solution to boredom or an alternative to shopping. She couldn’t stop herself from including that dig. Must be in the DNA. I refolded her letter and sat with head down in silence, slapping the flimsy paper again and again against my palm before whispering to no one in particular, “Full sail.”

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Cat Rescuers & Seamstresses

sixth avenue (3)

The first time I saw Jay, I was wearing sweatpants and smelled of burnt chestnuts and urine. The smell of New York. I was sitting in the reception area of my mother’s office, just delivered from the police precinct station where I had been brought in for questioning on an attempted mugging—not my mugging of someone, of course, but of someone trying to grab me. Freida, my partner in lunacy, and I had been out and about in the early morning hours, wandering through the garment district and up across the street from the Port Authority, have-a-heart traps banging against our legs, looking for strays among the debris, the abandoned reclining armchairs that served as people’s beds; avoiding the chiffoniers and city gypsies, keeping an eye out for the mentally troubled and criminally inclined. We thought both our industriousness and the lazy habits of this population would protect us from harm, but we were the victims of our own prejudices.

Our plan was simple and free of any practicality: saved from wanton cruelty or the research labs, the captured felines would be carted off to our veterinary student friends who would neuter and vaccinate them, then take them to the shelter to find homes. Their “forever homes.” This phrase, though admirable, meant nothing to me. Forever stretched off into the distance for me. How long is forever when you’re young? How wide is the ocean when you’ve never been abroad? I was eager to move time and set sail. My mother could not stand this humane sideline of mine; she said it was a nasty streak of self-righteousness that ran through the family reaching its pinnacle with her sister, Jean. Mom was ready to push off my boat and wave from the shore.

Mom and Dad divorced while I was in college. Mom moved to New York and Dad stayed in the sticks. She always hated the country, and I was brought to wonder sometimes why they got married in the first place. After graduating, I moved in with Mom to make my way in the big city. Mom went into PR and ended up a management consultant in the entertainment and sports industry. She was right at home among the high achievers and go-getters. They possessed something Dad and I lacked.

So that’s how I found myself seated in her reception area that day when she walked by with Jay Burton, frontman for the rising roots group, Yellowbird. Why he was awake and here at such an hour, why Mom had not gone instead to see him, following at heel like a bird dog, I later found out had something to do with morning radio. Mom saw me sitting there, but ignored me; Jay turned to look at me a second as I’m sure I stuck out sartorially, but instead of looking through me as expected, a puzzled expression flashed across his face, replaced with the slightest of amused stretching of his lips, then he was gone. This glance lasted all of ten seconds, but it was enough for me, even in my agitated state, to post two thoughts in his favor: one, he was not half bad-looking; and two, he had not yet lost his mind.

On Mom’s return, I was called in to tell my story: Freida and I were in the lot across the street from the Port Authority. I had gone around the corner of a nearby building and was lifting up old, wet, half-deteriorated boxes when a sense of dread flooded over me so strongly I straightened up, senses on full alert. I turned around to see a large man—much larger, so much larger than me—about six foot three, drunk or stoned or both, blocking my way. I often wondered what I would do in a situation like this. Well, I froze. I couldn’t move or scream. This is it, I thought.  Right here in this ally.

Seconds of inaction passed, then the spell broke, and I casually tried to go by him, saying calmly, ‘I’m just going to go out here,’ but he grabbed me and put me in a choke hold, ripped open the Velcro of my fanny pack and took my wallet. I was pressed hard against him, struggling, rubbing against his filthy, stinking body. Freida, seeing this, dropped her cages and took off in the opposite direction. He jammed his hand down my jeans, trying to pull them down, but I had both my hands clutched over my belt buckle, holding on for dear life. What would have happened if an off-duty detective on his morning run hadn’t seen this struggle and chased the man away, I could well imagine.

I went with the detective to the local station to report the crime. Detective Cunningham said there wasn’t much chance of anything being done, and if I ever decided on doing something so stupid again, he would run right past. He let me call my mother from the phone on his desk and gave me cab fare to my mom’s office even though it was just a few blocks away. All I wanted to do was go home, take the world’s hottest shower, and curl up in a blanket, but Mom was hysterical at first and needed to see her girl alive and in one piece. Her relief at my survival had turned to anger by the time I went into her office. As with Detective Cunningham, she felt the responsibility for this upheaval of everyone’s day rested solely with me. Why wouldn’t that man want to attack me? That’s what muggers do. No more rescue work for me. From now on I could work in her office, filing photos as they came off the wire, and satisfying any higher calling by volunteering at the shelter.

Weeks passed, the seasons turned, but I never did regain my sense of normalcy. I just tried to stay out of everyone’s way. Every day I’d get off the train at Penn Station and walk to my mom’s office, up out of the fur district, dodging the men with their rolling racks of furs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, past Macy’s, up Sixth Avenue ignoring the public altercations that always seemed to be taking place between some man in a suit and someone who probably didn’t own a suit. This was also the era of the flyer, every shop or restaurant employing some poor soul to thrust its advertising at passersby. I took it as a point of pride that no one could make me take one.

Just before I turned the corner to my office, I would pass a mustard-colored building; there were always young women going in or coming out. The women were Asian, but I could not place them more specifically. Sometimes one of them would emerge by herself, but mostly they traveled in groups, and on the rare occasion I could overhear their conversations, it was in a language I couldn’t identify. Maybe because I was lonely and unsettled, I was drawn to these women. I wanted to know who they were. I fell into stereotypical thinking, seeing them emerging onto the street like a flock of graceful birds; I romanticized them, thinking they carried a sadness in their faces, a sorrow in their posture, though I realized reality was likely much harsher and grittier. Over time and repeated crossing of paths, I was able to recognize a few of them as individuals, and they seemed to recognize me. Though we never smiled at each other or looked each other straight in the eye, eventually there came to be some understanding, some acknowledgement as we passed that, Yes, there you are; we’re both on schedule, then. I came to the conclusion that they worked either in a brothel or a sweatshop. Given these two hard choices, given my recent fleeting brush with unwanted intimacy, I hoped to God it was the latter.