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The kitchen is deep green and blue with wide-planked oak floors. I am chopping green peppers and tomatoes on the cutting board. The radio is playing low, a golden oldies station. The late-afternoon sun is sinking in the sky, hidden behind the pine trees outside the bay window. I can't see the sun setting but I know it is because of the way the shadows dance on the wall and the counters are spotted with gold drops.
I have become a quintessential suburban housewife, mired in school schedules, orthodontist appointments and bake sales. All this in between working at my painting. Lately I paint oils from a perch on the bluff at Tod's Point. I write words to go with my paintings. Short texts that tell a story, not believing that only pictures paint a thousand words. I drive the half hour's drive from New Canaan to Tod's in Old Greenwich every day. It was there at that beach where my parents rented a house each summer from the time I was an infant. It was there I disobeyed my parents for the first time when I walked with my friends to the pond.
"We told you never to go to the pond," my parents said. "The pond is thick and slimy and had you fallen in you could have drowned."
I felt so surefooted, though, even at the age of eight when I was small. Sneaking off to the pond. Climbing the rocks on the beach. The rocks were slippery with lichen but I never feared I'd fall. Digging furiously in the sand, convinced that I'd reach China. Determined. Until recently I was afraid to dig too deeply into anything, to venture anywhere remotely perilous. Though lately I navigate my way to places in my past where I probably shouldn't go. Looking back has come to give me solace. It is easier than looking ahead to a future where the crystal ball I once felt in my hands is now filled with blue fog and uncertainty. I am filled with a sense of reality. An awareness of middle life when something tells you that you have come to a fork in the road and you have to choose which path to take. I know all too well that looking back is a sure thing. The memories are trustworthy. They are faithful. Dependent only on the way I remember. And I am grateful that the past is etched with certainty since the future sometimes seems so hazy.
There was something else at Tod's as well. Something that until the last few months I tried not to think about as I looked across the horizon where it's hard to tell where the sky stops and the sea begins and they fuse into dubious infinity. I remember the summer of 1967. I think about the boy I loved who said he was a Cherokee. That might have been the only lie he ever told me. I was sixteen and he was seventeen. I had known him and loved him for merely four months but it seemed like forever. He stayed with us in the summerhouse for the week before he went away. My mother gave him the guest room next to hers. Ever-watchful. Ever wondering aloud why he was with us and not his own family.
Has he told you why he's here? she would ask me.
I've never asked him, I would say.
I thought it was so obvious. It seemed so right that he was with me. We stood on those rocks where I now sit with my easel and paint and I remember that boy who was tender and tough. That summer, when we stood on those rocks overlooking the horizon and I leaned my head on his shoulder while his arm held me so tightly, I was certain that he and I would be endless. But as the summer wore on after he left, I felt differently, not quite so sanguine. It was a sense that maybe the feeling I had for the boy who said he was a Cherokee would simply be one I would never have again, not with him or anyone else. It was a sobering epiphany I dismissed with denial that only adolescence can capitulate.
I go to Tod's now in winter while my children are in school and in summer, when they are at camp. I set up my easel, a wooden folding chair, the palette of oils and I paint the beach. I paint the lighthouse and the sand sculptures, the people picnicking on the dried-out redwood tables that have faded to a dusky gray.
In the summer, the air smells like hot dogs and cotton candy. The beach is filled with little girls in ruffled bathing suits, the kind I wore when I learned to swim. Mothers kneel at the shoreline beside naked babies carrying heavy pails of water. Older women sit together in groups, coated with oil. The straps of their bathing suits hang down their shoulders, tops drooping with the weight of their bosoms. I see the teenage girls in their bikinis, their bodies so smooth and firm, their even tans glistening the color of toast. They lie on sandy beach towels with their boyfriends whose stomachs ripple, a radio crackling beside them, their fingers entwined tightly as the sun beats down on them.
In winter, the picnickers are older people, wrapped in rough wool sweaters drinking steaming coffee from thermos bottles that serve as weights for the day's newspaper, eating sandwiches wrapped in foil. An old man tries to light his pipe in the wind.
But there's something that isn't quite the same now despite the sameness of the seasons and the same sweet smell of the cotton candy. The snack bar is old now. Its Formica counter is pitted and discolored. Signs for Fresca and Tab are worn and peeling. The town has taken away the old phone booth. The one with the seat and the black dial phone where you'd put in a dime, shut the door and the fan goes on inside. The one where you stepped in barefoot and felt the wet sand on the floor. There are three phones now, gleaming stainless steel, hanging on a wall with a sign that warns you of the fine for vandalism. It's just not the same. Sometimes I sit there on my folding chair and feel like a ghost lording over what used to be. Watching my memories the way I used to watch my children play at the shore."Come back," I'd wave as they ventured too deep into the water. "Come back. Don't go above your head."
I paint mostly from my memory of summers. But when I go back there in the winter I see the beach for what it is, empty and untainted. The winters let me start with a clean slate, a white canvas. Memories undisturbed by time. By progress. Memories can be what I want them to be. Though sometimes I question them, wondering if perhaps some of them aren't merely dreams.
It is spring now but just quite spring. The air no longer has that edge of winter. Somewhere within the cool breeze there is a pocket of warmth, a portent of what is to come but still, I need my cardigan over my shoulders. The beach still holds that November sparsity. It's hard to tell where winter left off. The water swirls thick like mercury. It is still the color of charcoal. The sky is still more opal than turquoise. But lately when I go there, I am courageous as I look back. I picture the boy and myself sitting there. I can see his face so clearly, his long, shiny black hair, his hands jammed in the pockets of his blue jeans. White T-shirt. The way he walked with his head down as though he was afraid to look up at the sky, afraid to see how vast it was. Everything must have seemed so vast to him back then and riddled with doubt. Eternity and mortality. But suddenly he'd lift his head and smile at me and his eyes would blink and, looking back, I wonder if he was blinking away tears, but again, I am not sure what is memory or fancy. We were the only certainty for each other back then. This I know. This I clearly recall. I grip the cardigan that has slipped down past my shoulders, I check my wristwatch and push the images away. I pack up my canvas and oils, rinse my brushes in the sea and head back home.
I throw everything into damp brown cartons that sit in the back of my old Volvo station wagon. The car is pale blue, old and rusted through in little patches, but it holds my children and my paints. It reminds me of the one my mother drove when I was a girl. It makes me feel attached. Connected. It is continuance. We drove the boy to the train station in my mother's Oldsmobile wagon, a relic of a car like mine. That was the day I realized there could be something other than happy endings. The day I was no longer certain.
I have been married for nearly twenty years now to someone else. Years where lately I believe there have been too many long and silent nights ending in angry dawns. There are mornings when I awaken and find the bed empty beside me. Scrawled notes ("Had to leave early, see you later") on the mashed pillow where my husband Peter's head has slept have become all too familiar. There were the nights when I watched my youngest baby cradled in an eyelet bassinet next to my toddlers who smelled of talc and baby shampoo. They were swaddled in furry pastel blanket sleepers in little beds with crib sides, foamy beads of milky spittle around their soft mouths. Shallow breaths, little sighs. And I watched them alone. Grateful for them, but alone.
There were too many nights when the white wine on the kitchen table grew tepid while I waited for Peter to come home. Nights after long days alone with babies who barely spoke. Days when I longed for a pipe to burst so the plumber would come over for conversation. I chatted while he banged away, metal on metal, pinging and clanging, allowing me to hear my own voice, the man answering with an occasional, distracted "Uh-huh." He was a man with broad shoulders who made some repairs.
There was the man who polyurethaned the kitchen floor. He held a bag of ice on my hand after I burned it on a short-circuited sconce. I had turned on the switch and the light exploded like firecrackers, the baby in my arms shaken by the eruption. The man shook his key chain to calm the baby who sat on my lap and cried. Call the electrician, the man said. I'll stay until he gets here. A knight in shining armor with an ice pack.
I tease Peter sometimes. He says the teasing is really accusation. You missed the day we moved, I say. The day the light exploded. The day Jack took his first step. And except perhaps for Jack's first step, Peter doesn't feel he's missed too much. He doesn't see the importance of the mundane as I do. But with Jack's steps, he ached. "I was working, Emily," he said. "I know. I know. You think it wasn't worth it."
There were so many days when I looked in the mirror, longing for a reflection to gaze back at me for a brief moment and tell me I was worth seeing. Worth looking at. So many times I wished the reflection in the mirror spoke to me. I often longed to talk to someone other than my children. I could see my shoulders, sculpted still, no longer from youth or dance classes but rather from carrying babies on my hip, baskets overflowing with laundry, pails of trash. Lifting babies into playpens, catching them as they hurled down the slide in the park, pushing their swings, first one, then the other.
Every night, I stood at the picture window, a glass of wine in my hand, looking out at the dead-end street where the streetlamp flickered every few minutes to remind me that it wasn't the moon. Sometimes I cried. Not flowing tears, but hot tears that stayed trapped and burning. I stood and waited while the babies slept, their narrow chests rising and falling. I stood by the window, cracked open, blowing blue cigarette smoke into the cool night air, waiting for Peter to come home. I would listen for the crackle of the gravel in the driveway and I would light the candles on the kitchen table and hope for conversation. I would hear his key open the door. The house was so quiet. Babies sleeping. The warm wine waiting.
We would sit at the kitchen table and I would ask him about his day: What happened at the office? Where did you have lunch? Any interesting new cases? And he would be too tired to speak: Nothing happened. I had lunch at my desk. You know I shouldn't discuss my cases. So I would fill in the blanks: A new word uttered by a child learning to speak. We need more sand for the sandbox. Perhaps we should replace the gutters this year. Repoint the bricks in the fireplace. And after dinner, Peter would read the paper in the den. I would listen to the sheets of paper turning and shaking as I cleaned up the dishes. I would turn on the dishwasher and flick off the lights and then I would hear Peter fold the paper and drop it on the floor beside the arm chair. I would leave the kitchen, peek my head into the den. He would step into the hall. We would crack open the doors to the rooms where the children slept and stand for a moment, listening to the silence. We would leave the doors ajar. Good night. Good night. Another day was done.
People say to me, "You are so lucky. Your husband is charming and handsome." Yes, yes, yes. Successful and intelligent, well-respected, sought-after. But I often feel that my husband does not belong to me, nor I to him.Then there are the times when I am not sure I want to belong to him or to anyone.