Memory Believes Before Knowing Remembers
Walk past wild radish and California golden poppies,
beyond a pond lined in cattails and home to mallards,
continue down a slope, an easy jog,
a stretch of buckeye trees, the spring’s white candelabra,
bay live oak and laurel undulate like dancers
in a scrim of sunlight, journey to the first bench
near purple periwinkles where an oak tree
became my husband.
Raised myself, ambled past
brambles of blackberry, past poison hemlock,
the canyon shaded in sword ferns
and stinging nettles, a tale of a girl
who gathered plants from graveyards
to help swan-changed brothers,
stayed at the second bench until a lover flew south.
A hummingbird called me back to myself,
now rest at the third bench, can almost see the hill
where in a dream I found
a chorus of iris smudged with faces—
This bench is memorialized to the Jalquin people,
one of the Ohlone that used to call the area home,
surrounded by orange and yellow monkey flowers,
purple thistle, almost there.
The way forward is with a broken heart.
(With thanks to Elizabeth Bishop, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frank Sinatra and W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan)
I was the myth you stole
from the twenty-second floor
of my apartment building
overlooking Long Island Sound and
the Orchard Beach of my childhood
growing umbrellas and empty beer bottles
in the hot brick sun,
created your own myth,
a southerner who crossed enemy lines,
converted me to your cause,
stamped me as your confederate,
punished my ass,
took me from my home of slate sidewalks
and vacant lots filled with broken glass,
treasures of mica schist and blue chicory
from the San Francisco Bay
hidden amongst redwood trees
clinging to bridges across salt marshes
where otters and jelly fish
swam inside seaweed stalks.
You got me,
turned me into a woman,
the first to request I drive home safely,
to call when I arrived at the airport,
picked me up and dropped me off at the gate,
slowed me down,
let me feel how music
ran through your fingers,
on Sunday morning, the smell
of biscuits and bacon
heaped on a platter,
but you, who climbed ladders
and fell from trees,
were no god, declared immunity
whenever I tried to explain.
It’s no use.
You have made me mortal.
Once I bought a subway token—
libraries, museums, art shows, coffee shops,
Broadway, Harlem, Yorkville, the Apollo,
Gotham Book Store, Grand Central Station,
Central Park, Bronx Botanical Gardens and Fordham Road,
Bruckner Boulevard and Hunts Point Avenue,
bargain basements of mixed lots and sizes,
they were all mine. Capezios and dreams of dancers
dark-haired and red-lipped
like a girl beginning to menstruate
warm blood on fingers and sheets,
wanting to make my own terms for everything,
walked from 42nd Street crosstown to Columbus Avenue,
to Lexington and back, visited Edgar Allan Poe’s cottage
on Kingsbridge and listened to a raven call my name,
Chinatown, Little Italy, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory,
the Village, stood beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and saw Hart Crane
dangle from a suspension cable over the East River,
went to the Cloisters and prayed, down to the Lower East Side,
brick buildings and iron gratings and the smell of urine in doorways,
Federico Garcia Lorca took my hand and showed me Harlem.
Muriel Rukeyser crushed a sheet of paper and smiled.
New York City New York City New York City.
People flashed past me and then they were gone.
the blackest coffee
wonder what am I doing here
ashes to ashes,
all good words interred
on TV reruns the same way
I remember mama
measuring scoops of Maxwell House Coffee,
pasting green trading stamps
in empty books stored beneath the blender.
Ollie to her friends, Olga, my mother
and daughter of Hungarian misfits
who talked to Mr. Kurtz over a sea
of Twinkies and Wonder Bread, a bald man
who in his grocery saved empty cheese boxes,
a foster home for morning glories on the fire escape.
Outside I commanded bees,
my garden of clover in a vacant lot,
sing tralala on a tree by a willow
spooled a golden thread,
drank honey, strained mica on rusted screens
into tin cans. Shiny dust.
It was me who broke rocks.
It was me who melted snow.
It was me who made it rain.
It was me who peed near the stonewall.
I never told anyone.
Olga dehydrated on the plane to Miami,
her first vacation, died a year after
Martin, my father, soccer player, body builder,
communist who believed each one according to his needs
and held me up to the blue sky
with the strongest hands I ever knew,
who told me when I threatened to leave college,
raised his voice for the first time ever: over my dead body.
Martin who spoke four languages and never finished high school,
taught me the meaning of life through his death,
Olga followed along the shoreline his footsteps
smeared with translucent jelly fish and cracked shells
until she caught up with him,
here today, gone forever into negative space.
Light can be a wave or dead people.
It took years for me to understand that fact.
They left without a trace,
not a word about grandparents,
the camps, who had been spared,
the death fugue. Only a word about violets
as large as a person’s hand.
I am not one, but two generations erased.
So fly me to the moon,
a white bird with gawky legs
who nestled near the water’s lapping tide
without a clue about flight patterns,
believed that the past lies on the present
like a dead giant’s body, its weight
presses down, tectonic.
Speak to the white gardenia
tattooed in my palm,
tell me how you will always love me
better than any other man, my history,
my past that follows me everywhere
like a blind lover.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master,
keys, glasses, a misplacement that moments
of stirring around in the usual places
can remedy until I discover wherever I’ve left them,
a sense of relief that parts of myself have been reunited,
but since I’ve lost you, I feel uncompleted,
keep going over where it turned to mush,
although I know exactly where you lost me and where I lost you,
which doesn’t stop me from wanting to relive each moment
hoping to discover some place I’d overlooked,
a bureau, a table, the bed,
not wanting to forget those times
when we found each other.
Thank you for showing me how to fold my jeans.
Thank you for teaching me about music.
Thank you for making me a better person.
Thank you for healing my cauterized heart.
An hour-and-a-half ride on the subway from east side to west. Always waiting, finding a place between riveted posts, a light in the tunnel, I hope it’s a train, hot air on my face from the IRT, a seat if I were lucky, just my luck, holding the handles, reading posters, this month’s Miss Subway, Rhonda Rodriguez, her photo never came down, transferred at 42nd Street, one train, two-ways, back and forth, some people rode all day and took up three seats, reading Howard Zinn on the sway, People’s History, New York City and the Ladies Garment Workers Union, the United Federation of Teachers and Albert Shanker, past Hell’s Kitchen, stretches of cement, smell of coffee, Greek restaurants, meatballs staining hero sandwiches orange, walking fast, but always late, stairs to elevators, fifth floor, Van Nostrand Reinhold, a publishing house bought out by Litton Industries, first to market the microwave, press the button, at my desk, Mr. Epley in his office who’d served in the Navy, I’m his secretary, Lina from the Peace Corps wore a bracelet of masking tape, I typed and made mistakes, Mr. Epley said he knew I was bored, couldn’t promote me unless I tried, white-out coated my fingerprints, went for walks during lunch, wanted to find the Chelsea Hotel, home to Brendan Behan, the clock was my movies, I watched it all day, after work, went back down the elevator, caught a different train, a bus to Long Island Jewish, never came, stainless steel piers, my father in the hospital, a proposal in marriage, uptown waiting
She was excited to have three separate appointments in one day. The first, to get her eyes checked following cataract surgery, then on to her regular physician who was going to read the tea leaves of her MRI, and a podiatrist who was going to examine the intruding bunion on her right foot to ascertain if surgery qualified; she had no other plans, save her cat, Knickers named by a roommate from Great Britain whose feet were half brown, half white (the cat). She required a flu shot from the local CVS. Needed to use a coupon before it expired. Heard children hanging on to the last stretch of summer where trees crumpled along the street for lack of rain, one girl’s voice followed by a boy’s voice, broadcasting pre-pubescent flirts, while Mrs. Hercules’ dog, Potsie, answered another dog who did not wish to be rescued, only did its business on a nearby hydrant.
I rendezvous with my online dates at either one of two places.
The first is near Lake Merritt in Oakland, which provides ample time to sniff each other out and offers enough café choices should we wish to postpone our good-byes. If not, we’ve gotten exercise, and for a short while, can pretend to be another couple around the lake, which brings to mind an impressionistic painting, possibly a Degas or maybe Renoir. Alternatively, we can meet at a mutually agreed upon coffee shop and get our fill of caffeine. The only downside is that many cafés are noisy with the hiss of latté machines and background conversation. A good choice is to find an establishment that caters primarily to the Wi-Fi crowd who sit stone-faced before the altar of their computers.
Preparation requires thought. I like to wear casual attire, no prom dresses. I never want to work hard to impress before I know whom I’m impressing. So a pair of jeans is a good start, assuming that they are clean and don’t have the rips and tears that seem to be fashionable. I can imagine my mother saying, “Women throwing away a hundred dollars on a pair of jeans that are ready for the Goodwill bag? Imagine.”
So a pair of intact jeans, thank you, coupled with an attractive top, which neither displays too much cleavage, but also doesn’t look like Julie Andrews from the Sound of Music, some middle ground that shows style. And even if I choose a simple fashion statement like jeans with a red ribbed top, there are accessories—shoes, rings and bracelets—which is the look I went for when I got ready for my online date at the Peet’s coffee outpost in Emeryville, California.
My prospective date had made a point of saying in his profile how he loved women and was a sensuous man.
He was only a few minutes late, not a biggie. By his profile picture, I recognized the man in the parking lot who had just pulled up on a Honda motorcycle. Tugging a khaki-looking shirt over his head and then shoving it into his saddlebag, he quickly donned a purple replacement. For a moment, I saw his exposed stomach, which was not stylish.
Coffee drinks in hand—his iced, mine a chai—we sat outside for the first chat, but I wouldn’t call it a chat. He talked, and I sat there listening, nodding my head or interjecting such astute comments as “Nice,” “Cool,” and “Really?” For the next hour he explained how he’d credited his friend’s death for missing a chance at opening his own business, and how all the women he meets are on drugs, high-blood pressure, cholesterol, and recreational of different kinds. Would he need to add my name to the list? There was a pause as he invited me to whisper the answer into his ear. But when he mentioned that he had no children because he was bald, and how different women who had passed through his life didn’t want to visit that genetic horror upon youngsters. I stopped listening. Truthfully, I had already rolled my eyes into the ozone about half an hour before. I had a hunch that it wasn’t his baldness that had deterred him from fatherhood.
I made quick escape. “I have to avoid commute traffic,” I told him.
Later, he sent a message saying how I was the love of his life and how he was attracted to my body, my hands, my face, even to my roots, which I wouldn’t have to worry about because he was ready to drive off with me on his motorcycle into the sunset, with or without a helmet. I told him as politely as I could that I wasn’t interested. He persisted, and urged me not to let “love fly away for I might never find it again.”
I thanked him. “I don’t feel the same attraction.”
Oh well. Sometimes an afternoon can become another lesson in the art of online dating, which makes me promise that I will never schedule another walk around the lake or coffee date unless battering myself with a hammer seems more appealing, but then there’s a hope that keeps me thinking. One of these days, I might be surprised.
I’m not proud about online dating. Why would I want to brag about trying to find loving companionship after searching through profiles and photographs and exchanging emails for much too long?
The truth is that eight years ago I thought the kiss of joy had grazed my cheek. On that particular evening, I had sworn off renewing my online membership. I was going on my absolutely last online date. Then I would try to meet people the old-fashioned way—at parades, a party, a pot-luck, or a dimly lit library table, which is exactly when I met the one. Isn’t that how it always is?
People proselytize that once you stop looking for something, the universe finally cuts you a deal. We went to a Spiderman movie together (not exactly a library table, but it was dark), and laughed before the coming attractions and long after the credits. He was on the short side with a brilliant smile and strong hands and wasn’t shy about taking mine into his own on our first date.
Guys talk about fetishes. I have a hand fetish. I look for the cut of nail, the length of finger, smoothness of palm, and for the feeling of flesh on flesh, which is what happens when someone takes my hand into his for the first time. Later, he ordered drinks and opened my car door when I went home. On our second date, he brought me a motorcycle helmet, and showed me a catalog where I could order a black leather jacket. Pick out any one, he said.
He wasn’t really a bad boy type, more like a southern guy who’s been riding motorcycles since he started to pitch newspapers on peoples’ front lawns. He wanted a friend to join him for the ride and I did. We had one of those honeyed amber courtships. Everything was fun, even asking him to repeat what he said because I couldn’t quite understand the bayou in his southern lilt. He made love to me with his beautiful hands. After a long spate of death and disappointment, for the first time I felt cared for, nurtured, and loved.
So why did it end? For months, I woke up sobbing. Everything reminded me of him. Now I’m beginning to feel numb. I suppose that’s progress. One day I decided to try the online dating thing again, a sort of chain that I could cinch to my waist and pull myself out of the mud.