1. Six weeks ago, I packed up all of my earthly belongings (the ones not stored at my parents house, anyway) into big, chunky boxesboxes I had pilfered from Jewel, boxes stashed away in closets from my last move, boxes saved from work, which had, at one time, come to my desk containing make-up samples, piles of books and sexual devices that PR agents in New York had carefully packaged for possible inclusion in the womens magazine where I worked.
I wrapped my dishes in smudgy newsprint. I tucked in stacks of photographs from childhood, from teenage years, from trips to Los Angeles and Las Vegas and Florida. I sealed the boxes carefully with thick tape, writing on the top what was inside and where it was to go in my new apartment. It took days, dusty days and nights of pulling out drawers and scooting under beds, to locate all that I owned, all the things I needed around me to feel complete.
2. It is the night before my sister moves out, to her own apartment in Bucktown, which she is relocating to in order to be closer (next to) her boyfriend of a year, whom she has hand-selected as the one, despite his quiet protests. Their plans to live together didnt work out, she tells me, because he decided to stay with his roommate, but hes very excited to have her as a neighbor. She smiles; shes won. A couple more years of steadily nudging her way closer, of rubbing up against it until she breaks the skin and shes home free, shes sure of it. Hell come around.
But for now, there is packing to attend to, and worrying about the implications and right or wrong of major life decisions already made doesnt have a time or place when there are boxes to be built, when the tape is running low and its hot in the half-empty apartment, hot and sticky. Shes 29 now, so she throws out her phone bills from college (why was she keeping those?) using a paper shredder her boyfriend has the same make and model of at his apartment. He uses his to destroy insurance documents from work, when he works at home, which is often. Hell actually be working the night she moves, on a big project shes very worried he wont get done in time, because hes worried and has talked about it all week. Shes hired movers, so its good, it will give her time to get settled. After all, once she moves, it makes sense to get settled right away. She wont be in her apartment much; hes only a block away, after all.
When I wake up the next morning, the apartment is hollow and half-empty. My boxes are pushed up against a wall, where they will sit for five days until I move. Her bedroom is a perfect squarenothing blocking the view of the window, the door, the open and empty closet. Gone are her civil rights books, her candles, her Jesus statuettes. None of the personal touches are left, no trace that my sister ever lived here. I open the hallway closet to get my coat and see four poster frames sticking out of a box. Shes left her Martin Luther King poster, the one she bought in Atlanta and carried back on the plane so it wouldnt get crushed, and her Robert Kennedy poster, which I watched her pick out years ago at the Kennedy Museum. I call and ask if shed like me to drop them off. Just throw them away, she says. I dont really need them anymore.
3. Im home, at my parents house, having dinner with my grandparents, who have driven in for an impromptu visit from North Carolina, where they sold their summer home a week ago because theyre sick, and summer homes dont have a value to them anymore when theyre not sure theyll see next summer. Their Cadillac is parked in the driveway, piled high with boxes of trinkets, clothes, insulin.
After dinner and a cherry pie Id baked an hour before, my mother tells me she found some of my things while cleaning and could I please look at them and decide whether or not she could throw them out. I go out to the garage, where the items are stored, in a Doc Martens shoebox on a shelf.
The box contains a small Irish doll, copies of the Daily Northwestern, a mix tape, several photos of my friends Joel and Ivan and three boxes of unopened red hair dye. I have found a perfect tiny time capsule of my life, five years ago, maybe more. I had forgotten that I once owned all these things. But here they were, sitting on this shelf, tucked away some summer when I came home from college. I dont want to throw the box out; I dont want to touch it or disturb its contents any longer. I tuck it back among the dust and walk away.
4. Its 7 p.m., dusky is turning into dark, and I am circling, circling, again circling the streets of this city looking for parking. I thought I was going to get a parking space behind my building when I moved in I was on a list. I am still on that list. Waiting for someone in my very tiny, very car-owning building to move out so I can overtake one of the coveted back alley parking spots. Sometimes I stand on our balcony, which overlooks the dirty rooftops of nearby stores, illuminated by the vertical neon signs that hang by their edges, and I wonder, will it be the red Toyota? Or the strange yellow car whose make and model I cant figure out? Who will leave next, so that I can pull my Accord into a corner?
Martin, our handyman, tells me people move all the time, not to worry. Hes in his 40s, Irish and permanently drunk. He likes my sister (and roommate) and I because were Irish, too, although our familys been here for a couple generations and it appears Martin alone rolled off some boat, most likely drunk, and made his way to America fairly recently. He lives in a basement room of our building that no one has seen the inside of but we all suspect has no heat or appliances. The only way in or out is a small staircase that descends from the end of the alley; its totally creepy and every time our sink breaks, I feel like I am going to request maintenance help from the Hobbit. But Martins an alright guy. The other people in our building are afraid of him because hes always drunk and sure, theres something a little bit off about him, but I think thatd be true for any of us if we lived in a cave underneath a building at Broadway and Belmont.
About twice a year, Martin gets really wasted, goes riding around on his bike, and gets hit by car. I make him cookies when he comes home from the hospital, cookies he really likes and tries to tell me I should start a baking business. But I dont, so he starts leaving me boxes of stuffgifts, I guess. Books, hotplates, flower vasesall things my sister and I have the distinct feeling hes pulling from the large trash bins that dot our neighborhood. We clean them up and keep them anyway.
in the burbs so I have to drive everyday and the worst thing in the
world is looking for a parking space after fighting an hour or more
of traffic. Just driving around the block, over to Clark, back around,
looking for a few feet in which I could squeeze my three tons of metal
into. There are always attempts to fit into spots that are not really
spots that look big enough until you stop traffic and start easing
into them. And then
that moment of glory in which you find
the perfect space, or a space, which is good enough, and you click
the gear shift to park. Brilliant. You are a city dweller. You have
worked this neighborhood, you have survived the survival of the fittest,
Darwin is smiling from the dashboard and you are picking up your purse
from the car floor, where you leave it when youre driving to
avoid someone breaking the window and grabbing it because thats
not an uncommon theft, you are at home. Unfortunately it sometimes
takes two hours (really! Two hours!) of circling to find that space.
And at that point, youre far too tired to enjoy its full satisfaction.
But, on a good night when you find the space quickly, it is not uncommon
to sit in your darkened car for a few minutes and purr a bit.
Not Eileen. Eileen was my missing cousin, raised in California miles and years away, never at family reunions, never in photos, never in stories just pictured among the palm trees and the Hollywood sign. I had met her two days before Grandad died, when she flew out to visit us on her way to New York, to see Grandma and Grandad for the first time in years.
She wasnt like anyone I knew, or anyone in our family, really. She packed her suitcases with sea moss (for good luck) and wore layered skirts and confessed within hours of meeting me that she preferred Paganism to our inherent Catholic religion. She was amazing, a brilliant burst of light that came bearing Gloria Steinhem essays and Cowboy Junkie tapes. I couldnt believe she was related to me. I couldnt believe she was here.
With all the confusion, with all the loss and the crying and the first handshake with death Id known, there was this deafening dichotomy of a girl, in her early 20s, mumbling along with us at mass but gloriously, wonderfully not buying it. All the questions, all the calmness, all the things I needed to get through the two-day wake, the goodbyes, walking his clothes to the St. Vincent of DePaul drop-off were mercifully provided, and I never knew to expect it.
I did feel bad for her, though. All those months shed saved her money to fly out from San Francisco and a stop in our house had ruined it all for her. She would never speak to him again. She would never know him. How old was she when she last saw him 8? 10? She couldnt even remember. Not since Aunt Irenes divorce, we guessed. But no one talked about Aunt Irenes divorce because it had driven her to California and it had driven her crazy. We were used to her outbursts at that point, but within five years, shed disappear and wed never see her again.
But that crisp December day, just before Christmas, everyone was there Aunt Lorraine, who always managed to look like Jackie O, even in times of sorrow; Aunt Ann, who kept a brave face but everyone knew was sitting up with Uncle Vince at night trying to figure out what to do; and Dad, of course, who had asked us not to mention the layoffs, or the house, or anything else that was big and scary and would make us look like a mess.
We all got a moment with the body (as they now called him), before things were shut and people were shuffled off to the ceremony. I didnt know what to say. But I kneeled, just the same, pressing bony knees into stiff satin and resting my hands on the coffin ledge. It had been three days and I had already begun to forget his voice.
It was then I noticed it, tucked in the coffin for eternity the little sachet, tied with ribbon. It smelled sweet; something smelled sweet. Eileen had put it there, a little note and a picture. On the way back from the funeral, I said to her, I thought you didnt believe in that stuff. I dont, she said, eyeing the church. But I wanted Grandad to have something to remember me by.
And in the end, we were the last to leave the site of the burial, watching from the back of Uncle Mikes car as they slowly lowered my grandfathers coffin into the neatly-carved hole in the ground, its edges perfect and straight and lightly tinged with snow.
6. Los Angeles, Summer, 2001, 12:41 a.m. Im blinking in the stark white light of the emergency room, or whatever room this is, off in a hallway several floors up that I was taken to, very embarrassed, in a wheelchair. Ive had an accident a bump to the head and it was almost funny, only I really didnt tell anyone at work because they might think I should go home and were on deadline, and its my responsibility to oversee the magazine and get it done and that wont happen if Im sleeping off a head injury.
So I waited. All day, for the headache to stop, which it didnt, and Im worried because Im hundreds of miles from home and I didnt really go away to college so Im not sure what to do in a strange city with a strange head wound so I take a cab to Cedar-Sinai. The nice doorman, Ray, calls the cab for me, and he doesnt think anything is wrong he calls a cab for me most nights when its late and Im alone upstairs and have to get back to my hotel down Sunset, past all the clubs and the Hustler store. Im hiding it now, I dont want Ray to know either because maybe its weird Ive had a concussion all day and didnt do anything about it, maybe people would think Im strange for that, but Ive been pretty much living in LA hotels for the past two months and nothing seems normal or real anymore, with my clothes each day coming out of a suitcase I dont have time to unpack, nothing is routine. Not until I hold each finished issue in my hands and know its all finished, for now.
So Im at the hospital. After waiting for hours, holding my backpack on my lap, answering questions, filling out forms, there was a big accident tonight, thats the back-up they tell me, looking tired. Then theres the trip upstairs, and I lay in the CAT scan like they tell me to, the good obedient girl whos been on autopilot all night and just wants a clean bill of health or a prescription for a painkiller and to go home. They tell me it will be dark. They tell me its a little cramped in there. Thats not it, its not claustrophobia that makes me cry when they roll me into the machine, its the silence that boisterous, buzzing silence that is waiting inside, that somehow makes me remember I am here alone, in the darkness, tucked in this little tube, and thats not so bad, being there alone. Its the fact I didnt even think it was odd not to call anyone, not to tell anyone, to be here in this strange city filled with strange people who smoke a lot and wear dozens of bracelets and kisskiss on the cheek when they see you and to be so used to being alone you just get in a cab with your big throbbing head and take care of it, take care of everything, take care of everyone. You are alone at that moment, acutely aware of it because it is what you have chosen. It is what you know. I cant do it anymore, not in this sterile place, not in this machine, not in this city.
The doctor rolls me out of the CAT scan.
Are you pregnant? he asks.
Is there a fetus on my head? I say.
No, he responds.
Then fine, I say, and sniffle. He turns on the machine. He photographs my brain, then my face.
I have a concussion. They tell me an hour later, down in the waiting room, give me some instructions and Im back in a cab, tired. I drop my keycard on the nightstand, crawl into bed and pick up the phone.
Hello, I say. Im staying in room 328, and I need a wakeup call.
What time? the desk attendant asks.
Every two hours, please, I say. Starting now.
7. I am starting a new job, and as with all new jobs, there are forms to fill out. Tax forms, 401 K forms, direct deposit formsthey all ask the same questions, want the same information: Where do you live, when were you born, will we be covering some family members, or is it just you living in that one-bedroom unit on Southport Avenue? This is my third post-college job, so I am familiar with these formsjust me, guys, just me, I say as I scribble my responses. Theres a change this time, though: Only two boxes to check for my courtesy title, Mrs. or Ms. I wonder who changed this, who decided that when it came to health insurance, certainly no one wanted to admit they were single. Surely no 26-year-old woman would want to say I, Miss Brereton, would like a PPO dental, please. Unheard of!
My lock breaks, and I am stranded on the street with no one to call. A pay phone, a locksmith, an hour, maybe two before I get back in.
Another wedding invitation from my cousin, with guest, and a note. I check off one box, one entrée, one chair needed, thank you, and drop it with a thud into the mailbox.
Saturday night, 2 a.m., key in the lock, standing on Southport Avenue in a tight black dress and sparkly shoes. Upstairs. Alone.
I need to move my refrigerator to clean behind it, and its heavy and too tall but I do it, after an hour of trying, I do it.
Sometimes people just want different things. Sometimes dinner and a movie is just something to watch and something to eat. Sometimes people just assume what you want, at 26, is to be together forever, so desperately that no matter what you say your subset of goals includes or doesnt, they wont listen. Sometimes people have their own little ways of looking at you, squared off and wrapped up in their minds, and thats how they see you, reflected and refracted in the iris of their eye. They dont see you sitting in a meeting with people twice your age, climbing on the bathroom sink on your overnight flight to Los Angeles and pressing your face next to the mirror as close as it will go because youve just noticed the start of tiny wrinkles around your eyes. No one sees this delicate balance we keep, this softly swaying tightrope that women walk, where youre weak if you want to get married and youre pathetic if you dont. Certainly not the people who are standing closest enough to look. And when its over, the only thing you can really do is back up, package up your feelings all the pain and the pleasure and the regret and the wonder and pretend they never existed in the first place.
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