community, Home, Things I Can

53. Things I Can Submit: My Comments

Dear VDOT,

I write to you as both a commuter and a resident who will be affected by the proposed changes to I-66.

I live in a complex of garden-style condominiums just behind a sound wall near exit 60. It is a lovely place for a home. Like so many of my neighbors, I chose Northern Virginia for my work and family because of the rich quality of life here. Proximity to the cultural and professional opportunities of a thriving metropolitan area is only part of the allure. The parkland, woods, protected watersheds, and trails are the real gems of the region.

Northern Virginia has done a superb job of maintaining green corridors throughout its various counties and districts, even as the population has ballooned. This makes owning a business and raising a family here an especially welcome prospect, and it is what differentiates us from the development monstrosities that litter the landscape of many of our suburban and urban counterparts.

It is admirable that our regional transportation agencies are working so diligently to respond to the needs of our expanding region. I-66 is the favored bugbear of locals, and it is understandable that this is where attention is currently focused. However, when it comes to projects like this, it’s been shown time and again that individual vehicle use increases as roads grow. For this reason, I am surprised that widening I-66 for more vehicle traffic is even being discussed. There is ample evidence that drivers will only shift to bike or public transportation options when driving becomes more arduous than the alternative. More lanes = more cars, longer commutes, and a miserable ride for everyone.

Alleviating the congestion here requires creative and integrated solutions. It is good to see bus routes included in this conversation. Expanded bus/train/metro service is a necessary but insufficient condition for sustainability. Truthfully, the most appropriate options for Northern Virginia are walkable, mixed-use office and residential developments with a variety of interconnected transport options.

That said, I understand that expanding I-66 is a likely outcome. The medium-term time horizon of many of our region’s residents and commuters all but guarantees this. Sadly, too many of my neighbors think only of easing their own commutes or protecting their own property values rather than ensuring a livable home for our grandchildren. I have spent enough time in cities like Dallas and Los Angeles to see the disastrous, ugly, and unlivable results of such shortsighted transportation “management.”

I would like my son’s children to inherit a place more inviting than a gordion knot of mega-roads choked with cars. As a homeowner who wants to sustain this livable community many generations into the future, I ask you to consider the following concerns as you proceed:

  1. Please do everything in your power to maintain the wetlands, mature trees, and other uncultivated greenery that abuts I-66 outside the sound walls. If any of this must be cut back for construction access, I urge you protect the land from development or structural change, and work to restore the greenery when the project is complete.

  3. Please refrain from bumping the walls further into our neighborhoods and parkland. The current border of the freeway already pushes up against countless homes and green spaces. Moving those sound walls further out would be devastating. Construction noise notwithstanding, the long-term impact of that lost acreage would destroy the livability of this neighborhood as well as many others. Here alone, an entire community comprised of hundreds residents would face a stripped concrete surface for decades to come, perhaps longer. The blight this would invite is a chilling prospect. Maintaining the narrow but delicate band of greenery that buffers our neighborhoods from the freeway is critical. Please do everything possible to secure the walls in their current locations.

  4. If the bike path being discussed comes to fruition, please treat it as the transportation route it is rather than as a “trail.” Again, the limited greenery on the outside of the sound wall is already threatened. A bike path is essentially another road of barren concrete. The nearby streets and the inside of I-66 are already designed for wheels. They can be adapted for bike lanes with much less damage to the mature trees, wetlands, brush, and wildlife habitats that flourish in the current I-66 buffers. Please keep road elements together in the plans, and keep our green spaces lush.

Thank you for considering these comments and concerns. You have my great appreciation for all you do for our region.

Most Sincerely,
A Cautiously Optimistic Neighbor

Career, Determination, Parenting, Things I Can

47. Things I Can Celebrate: A New Morning

Tomorrow begins the new schedule. It’s my first official day on the campus just a few miles from my house.

The office waiting there is a loaner crammed with British academic journals belonging to a professor on sabbatical. Two other advisors will share the space with me on alternating days. The phone will remain our Oxford colleague’s line, and the computer being delivered this week lacks monitor and a printer connection.

My fellow advisors and I should receive an actual office assignment in January. That said, the building itself is so old, its cinderblocks and scarred linoleum are next up on the university’s demolition list. We might be in our “permanent” space for all of a year before the wrecking ball arrives. Then we’ll squat somewhere else on campus for the duration of the construction.

What fool would give up five days a week in an office all her own in a new building with reliable technology, functional windows, and a full kitchen just a few steps down the hall?

The fool who prizes time far more than space.

This is the same calculation that led me to withdraw my offer on a 2-bedroom, 2.5-bath, end-unit townhouse with a yard and a ridiculously affordable mortgage payment. That fantastic find was perfect except for its zip code. Another 10 miles west beyond the town where my son was in school, where we had begun building a life, might add another 30 minutes to a commute that was already taking 45. And that’s just one way.

The people who loved me helped me count just how many days of my precious life I’d be signing over to the VDOT highway system. Every minute in my car or on the metro is one minute away from my kiddo. Or away from my pace, my dance, my words, my breath. The true cost of all that space and grass was my relationship with everything I love.

That’s just a tad too pricey for me.

Instead I bought the condo within two miles of the metro and a few blocks of Bug’s school. I pay more money for less space. It’s been two years since I signed, and regret has yet to find my address.

Tonight, Bug buzzes through the house long past his bedtime. He’s laying towels to the dog’s crate as red carpet and lining the walls with nightlights. He piles extra pillows in under her blanket. Her food bowl and toys make their way into the room, creating a dining nook in one corner and a play zone in the other. He flips the blinds closed and clicks off all the other lamps. Shutting us in, he names my bedroom Noodle’s “Royal Palace,” and there in the shadowed light, he performs his karate kata for the recumbent queen while I intone an ancient ode.

On any weeknight before this, I would snap and fret. Get moving, Mister. Bedtime. Now. Because every minute awake is a minute less sleep, and that adds up to another morning late for work.

But tonight, I remember what waits for me tomorrow. Then I remember again when we’re brushing teeth. And again when I sit here to write. Each time, the realization cools and soothes, like air, like the grip of cramped wings unfurling from my shoulders.

Each time like the first time.

Tomorrow, enthroned on a busted office chair in my palace of mold, I will be exactly where I belong. The journey there has taken 5 years of muscle topped with at least as many months of luck. Doesn’t this happen on long rides? You see only when you’re well on your way that the landscape is changing right under your feet, and now you can map out a shortcut.

The race to the metro to grab a parking spot before they fill, to grab a seat on the train before the guy behind me does, to power the two blocks to the building before the clock strikes nine. . . That race is on hold. Tomorrow will be an easy shot to my son’s school where I can visit him in the cafeteria at lunchtime if I get the urge. Where I can arrive well before the closing bell to ferry my young prince home.

Tomorrow is the gift of inversion. Instead of giving myself to the clock, the minutes offer themselves to me.

This means the night is ours for wandering.

And the morning is mine for setting the pace.

Fitness, Living in the Moment

I Race the Bus

The bus couldn’t care less. Its giant red backside shrinks into the distance. I bend and downshift, pumping in a crescendo of power.
I know what might be waiting at the corner.
Brake lights burn on. At the street’s edge, a cluster of bodies draped in satchels and overcoats jostles forward. This is my chance. The mirror that my Mister gave me catches the hint of a silver shape closing in on my left. I dart right instead, hopping up onto the sidewalk and weaving around behind the embarking passengers. A ramp opens in the curb and I re-enter the fray.
I’m in front now. Only three downhill blocks separate both bus and me from the stoplight where we’ll turn towards the metro. A line of cars crowds into the tiny oval of my mirror. Every commuter is trying to pass the fat, red city bus, and every attempt is frustrated by the cyclist who materializes in the intended lane. Now the driver joins the crowd of vehicles trying to pass me. I squeeze to the right as far as I can but with a line of impatient commuters crowding his other side, he can’t thread the needle. It’s no use anyway. Another knot of passengers waits at the bottom of the hill. The driver gives up and falls back to slow for them. Theirs is the final stop before the metro station.
It’s my last chance.
I stop pedaling and drift back into the middle of the right lane. My left hand is out. The surge of cars refuses to flag. Every driver is highly motivated to ignore me. We share a sense of urgency if not community. Each of us has somewhere to be now. Dentist, office, yoga, court. We weave. We push. The rules are posted but only loosely applied. Every vehicle, stoplight, pedestrian, and orange cone is an obstacle. The road is a chess board on crack. All pieces are in motion simultaneously and at least half of them are lethal.
I inch closer to the white line with my hand still out. Now, I am upright in the saddle and I swivel my head. Rush hour drivers are as tactical as tank commanders. The illusion of ignorance is as critical a defense as steel skin and rolled up windows. My mirror is too small for the precision required by this foray. Eye contact is necessary. People-ness occasionally triggers a breach.
One driver slows. No gesture or head nod accompanies the pause. It is a matter of seconds before she takes up the slack. I lean into the gap. It is exactly what I need and it was not required, so I wave and smile. Seven cars line up ahead in the turn lane. This is maybe an eight-car light and I’m going about the speed of a tenth. Before I have a chance to get my bearings, the green arrow flashes us into motion. I stand up on the pedals, gather breath, and push. The sun blinds me. I plow straight east and then turn hard, blowing through just before the light shows yellow. One car makes it through behind me, nipping at my heels. Then another. I glance in my mirror. I see red.
Just before the high school, a growl rattles my middle. My rival overtakes me. The crimson behemoth passes on my left. I turn off through a neighborhood shortcut and catch a last glimpse of brake lights as the bus hisses up to yet another intersection. A narrow band of bike trail carries me down under the cool concrete bridge where the drivers up above must wait to turn into the station. I-66 echoes against the bike’s metal frame and throbs into my damp skin.
I emerge, squinting into the bustling metro hub just as the bus rounds the corner. The horseshoe by the station entrance teems with taxis and pedestrians. The bus creeps through on its way to a shelter on the far side. At the bike rack, I jump off and wrestle with spiraling steel, rusted combination numbers, spokes and rubber. Across the macadam, commuters push open the doors. I unclick my chin strap and snap on my smarttrip lanyard. Our feet land on the same sidewalk at the same moment.
It’s a draw.
The man with the giant grin who passes out free newspapers beams at me. “How was the ride?” He calls.
I brush sweat from my forehead and holler back. “Victorious!”

Children, Parenting


Under the blanket, the smell is rank. Is it him or me? My son’s hair is a chrysanthemum explosion too close to the earth. He pushes into my body, twisting the sheet and blanket away from my folded knees. Morning breath and cool autumn air snake in around my neck.
He bathed last night and now the faint scent of berry shampoo joins the mix. In the tub, he stretched himself to his full length. His head was submerged over ears, up to jaw, past hairline. My boy became a naked mask, bald and brown, hovering just above the surface of the water. “Put your hand under me, Mommy,” he said. I did, floating it down below his back and in the open space under his calves.
“You’re levitating,” I said. “Is it magic?”
“It’s a trick. I push my head against one end and my feet against the other. It lifts me up.”
If he’d pointed his toes, he wouldn’t fit. My son is this tall. I said it aloud but he mouthed, “I can’t hear you.” I dipped my hands under the water and cleaned his ears. I pressed the soapy cloth into neck creases that are quickly disappearing.
Now, we linger in bed longer than usual. We have time to talk about nothing. He rides the school bus for the first time today. My boss agreed to let me have a late day once a week, a 9:30-6:30 sort of day, as much for my kid as for my working students prefer after-hours meetings. The bus comes late around here. Usually my kiddo is already deep into some before-school activity and I’m parked at my desk when the other neighborhood children are lining up on the street with their backpacks.
When we finally untangle ourselves from the blanket, I pad into the kitchen to throw together banana-oat waffles while Bug assembles a lego spider truck. Steam rises from the waffle iron. Warm syrup. A dog walk. A long shower. I never could have imagined such weekday luxury. I drag my bike out the door and we bump to the curb where a mass of families is assembled. Is it possible this many kids from Bug’s school live in our neighborhood? My son’s smoothed white hair falls down around his eyes and he slows, wiping it back, surveying the crowd.
We meet Ray and Rose and Marianne. Bug presses himself close to my side and whispers something. I bend down. “There’s BK from my class.” He points. The gesture is tiny but certain. A mom with a daughter in Bug’s grade walks up to us and introduces herself. “You’re new here,” she says. A dad carries a baby girl on his shoulders while his son charges ahead. The crowd surges closer to the street as the bus rounds the bend. It hisses to a stop and blinks in dumb excitement, doors grunting open. The driver is a big man in a Redskins jersey.
One boy on the sidewalk screams and sobs. His backpack slips from his shoulders. His mother discharges him into the grip of an older brother who tries to cover the little boy’s mouth. Big brother gives up and simply frog-marches the shrieking child up the steps. The bus swallows them whole. Parents cluck and shake their heads. The kids all wait at a safe distance until the show is over then they press forward in pairs and trios to climb aboard.
Bug gives me one last appraising glance up from under his curtain of hair. He does not smile. He disappears inside, his blonde head now just a shadow passing through the crowd. I click on my helmet and wave. He takes a seat, scoots to the window, and turns away from me. He is already talking to his neighbor. The doors thump close. I throw my leg over the saddle and push off towards the metro as the bus wheezes off, carrying my son away.

Love, Music, Poetry

4:50 pm, Pink Floyd

Tulips bend to paint a corner of Washington
Circle with candy tongues
tied, twisted police tape slaps at a strutting
breeze, a whir of wheels, skin and spandex sheathing
viscera pulsing femur tibia and tucked wing of
earthbound flight. A checkered cap tops
the pile on a table by an escalator
ringing like a miscalibrated telephone, unheeded
warning every third or fifth body rushing
up to open air, no one turning. Back
after back in suit jacket, wilting and shedding
finally revealing damp shoulder, furred forearm
freed from cuff. Lime-green
chrome and finned convertible
on oversized whitewalls takes the corner,
watering eyes and turning heads.

Delayed train, detour, an extra mile
on foot west, sundog flares against the curved city
bus merging with a hiss. I thought I knew
the way, thought I’d thought of every
contingency but I never imagined him
in the everything
grazing the tips of my fingers, him
in the everything holding me fast

To these teeming streets. Nothing to compare
to this belay. No metaphor, no halo
of light, no vapor trail threading sky
is anything like the music
making me skate an inch
at least above the skin of the planet
and so it should come as no surprise
(except that’s exactly what it does) to find
I learn to fly
the instant I give up

Children, Co-Parenting


It is almost 6:30 pm. Congestion on 66 West backs it up all the way to Falls Church. After a grind of a day, a co-worker saves me a metro trip by letting me hitch a ride back towards home. My car waits near the station, a stack of overdue library books in the trunk alongside a bag of clothes destined for Goodwill. Somehow I will have to make room for the giant sack of special Active Maturity dog food I hope Target has on the shelf because PetSmart is in the wrong direction. The dog’s bowl has been empty for nearly two days.

In an hour, friends will be gathering for Team Trivia at the bar. As for dinner? The leftover apple banging around in my backpack will have to suffice. As we sit in stop-and-go traffic solving the problems of the world, my phone rings.

Noisy air when I pick it up. Then, “Mommy?”

“Hey, buddy. What’s up?”

“Can I stay with you tonight?” His sing-y, plead-y voice spills into the car. Sweetness bomb. My friend rocks from the blow.

Continue reading “Deposed”

Career, Happy Days, Home

Happy 100 Days: 37

Happy News of the Day: The Powers that Be approved the promotion! This was my official first day as Director of PhD Student Services. The real fun begins tomorrow when I cruise the main campus schmoozing with folks in the know about future projects. Onward and upward!
So-So News of the Day: For all his sweet talk, the sexy condo is out of my league. The seller’s broker came back today with word that a $6000 special assessment for new staircases has to be included in the purchase price. The gal who owns it was supposed to have been making monthly payments but has not paid a single penny. The bank will not approve the short sale without the buyer taking on the assessment. That would be me, except that it won’t be me. Also? The condo fees were listed incorrectly. They are actually $117 higher per month than advertised. A chunk of change that size can choke you in a year or three, never mind a few decades.
I would have to live on credit cards and ramen for the next 10 years to afford it. So, today, I bid this dream a sad farewell. Goodbye, bamboo floors! Au revoir, living room dance space! So long, staggering mortgage and second job!
It’s not quite a heartbreak. A little heart-squeeze, perhaps? The regret is mixed with a dollop of sweet relief. It’s nice to be able to imagine a Christmas with gifts again.
I met my agent at another cute little place this afternoon. The price is right and it’s a decent location but the traffic NOISE NOISE NOISE is unbearable. Tomorrow, we head out west again to another property which would require a commute. It is not quite as burdensome as many of the places in my price range, though, and the neighborhood is close to several of Bug’s and my favorite parks, shopping, and rec centers. Also, it is 1140 square feet with fireplace and a fenced back patio. We’re still talking condo-ville in a car-clogged area, so I’ll have to see if the property itself is enough of an oasis to make up for the shark-infested surroundings.
Rain and snow are churning just beyond tonight’s clouds. Once the slop starts to fall tomorrow afternoon, I will have the perfect opportunity to see just how much road-time those two hundred square feet are worth.


Happy 100 Days: 71

For two years, the restrictions have been a willful suppression of pleasure. The diet was imposed by uncertainty. Not knowing how long this journey through the desert would be, not knowing how long the provisions would hold out, required strict limitations on expenditure. That control became so second-nature that it barely required thought. It did, however, require a denial of sensation and a refusal to acknowledge desire or even pleasure except in the dark moments.
Today, a small but noticeable shift occurred. I was able to forgo grabbing lunch out not because I wouldn’t let myself, but because I didn’t want it. Same went for parking that 3/4 mile from the metro and crossing the distance on foot. I was excited to walk and to save that $4.50.
For the first time, I know exactly where my spare change is going.
The condos and townhouses I checked out in the past couple days are within my price range (more or less) and at least one looked just about right for Bug and me. In Northern Virginia’s hot real estate market, simply finding places to see is no small chore. I have visited eight homes on the furthest outer reaches of my commute, and that’s all she wrote. Those are the only properties listed. Can you believe it? Only eight two bedroom properties under $220,000 whose condo fees are in the vicinity of manageable are for sale anywhere in two of the largest counties in the state. And only one of those is both affordable and not a roach motel.
It boggles the mind.
At some point, I have to stop letting my memory wander around the lovely four-bedroom cottage on Lake George that Tee, Bug and I inhabited rent-free a little over two years ago. Or the three-bedroom split-level sitting on the hill overlooking Four Mile Creek in the middle of Pike National Forest in Colorado, when our nearest neighbor was a half mile away and we also paid no rent. No, no use picking at the scabs. Camp was a magical, bizarre chapter in my life. It is the past. This is the here and now.
Here, now: the one condo that has captured my attention. I can afford it and still have a little money left to buy a couch sometime in the next five years.
The place is tiny. It sits underneath a larger townhouse in a crowded community. But it is cute and it backs up to a small playground. It has a fireplace and room for a table in the kitchen. A deck just big enough for a grill and two camp chairs. New kitchen appliances. A bedroom each for my boy and me.
I returned to the neighborhood tonight after work. The commute is tough, but it is not as bad as I had feared. Also, it sits on a bus line that feeds my metro stop. So far, so good.
I walked alone through its cul-de-sacs and back lots in the dark. I saw families inside their kitchens eating meals. A couple leaning close on the front steps. Halloween decorations. Harvest wreaths on glass doors. Mums along walkways. I saw a few folks walking dogs, and a few women, like me, strolling alone in the dark even without dogs. I heard only the faintest traffic hum even though rush hour was roaring along one of the busiest arteries in the region just a block and a half away. I saw people driving with care through the neighborhood. I saw tennis courts. A community room. A pool covered for winter within walking distance along back sidewalks.
I saw places Bug could ride his bike. I saw a patch of soil where I could plant my own mums.
I am not sold yet. I have not fallen in love, but that’s no surprise. My romantic capabilities have always been a bit stunted. In matters of the heart and, it appears, the estate, I tend to delay immersion until I have a good handle on depth and currents. I am learning to see the possibilities here, though, and to feel the swell of pride in knowing I could do this on my own.
When I met with the real estate agent, I had my questions printed in bullets and ready to fire. She answered them all, agreeing to send me copies of contract templates and a few other items so I can be ready to rock when it’s time to put an offer down. Places we are seeing are only on the market 4 days, 5, before they are under contract and gone gone gone. One property that was listed Friday was already under contract by this morning. We have to move. It’s exciting, especially for someone like me who wants to read everything and ask every question.
That means I sit on the metro and read. I curl up on the living room couch and read. I have worked my way through three books on first-time home buying, one for condos and townhomes in particular. I understand concepts that were indecipherable even a week ago. Earnest money. Title insurance. Inspection contingency. I am learning what to ask. I was on the phone again with my loan officer today asking for further clarification on how HOA dues and condo fees affect the pre-approval.
So much to define, to absorb, to sort. So much to learn!
I can see that if I do this. . . no, when I do this, my lifestyle is going to look quite different. But before that, first this: a single mom living on an university administrator’s salary can own a home! She is not helpless or stuck. She can provide for herself and her child while also building a life that is sustainable for the long haul. She even may even be able to replace the cabinets one day and pull up that rotting deck and build something sturdier.
That’s why it was so easy to bring my lunch and walk the mile to the metro. It didn’t require an ounce of self-restraint. The pleasure is not in the immediate quenching of a passing thirst. The pleasure is in walking steadily towards the mirage, and watching with shivering disbelief as it moves closer, grows larger, and resolves into clear relief.
Yes, it is an oasis after all. Yes. It is real.


Happy 100 Days: 82

We are driving home in the almost dark and Bug drifts off to sleep. He stretches awake when I pull into the driveway, and I ask him again whether he wants pizza toast or eggs for dinner. He does not answer. When I gave him the same choices at Chicken School, he’d answered, “Lasagne and Thai food.”
“What’s it going to be, Buddy?” I ask as he slouches out of the car and yawns his way into the house.
“Mom, can’t we just sit on the couch and talk about it?”
This decision is clearly too much to tackle. I drop our bags in the doorway and follow him into the piano room. Granddaddy is in the den eating a sandwich and watching a show, no doubt gearing up for the vice presidential debates. I fold myself around Bug and he presses into me, resting his head against my chest. We do not talk for a while. I kiss his forehead over and over, just because it is so close. Finally, I ask again about dinner.
“Okay,” he sighs. “Eggs, I guess.”
Bug’s grandma is in Germany, so she is not here to help me figure this out. Also, I did not have the foresight to prep a meal. Such flashes of organization never strike twice in one week. I rise to go into the kitchen.
“Mommy, can you play something with me?”
“Can’t, Buddy. It’s time to make dinner.”
I start washing out the containers from Bug’s lunch. He follows me in, bringing the new science kit his aunt sent from Germany as a birthday gift. He opens it and digs through all the tubing and rubber gloves and strange pictures.
“What do I do with it, Mommy?”
I dry my hands and come over. The instruction booklet is long, and I tell him I cannot help him with it. “This weekend, baby. We’ll have lots of time.”
He sighs again and puts everything away. I have him set the table and wash his hands. He is still exhausted, still wandering around and looking for something to do. I remind him of his “H” collage for school. I set a magazine and some scissors on the table, but he can barely hold his head up.
Finally, dinner. We eat our spinach eggs, share the bacon, nibble at the cinnamon toast. We look together through the Kid’s Post and Highlights for words with “H” in them. Hockey, High Five, Third, Hidden. We find a picture of a hug. I help him cut and he glues the scraps into his journal.
Then it is time to clean up and get ready for bath. Bug finds a book sitting on the kitchen table. It is one of his new favorites, The Witch’s Supermarket.
“Mommy, can we read this book?”
I look at the pile of dishes, the unfinished laundry, the snacks still needing to be packed for tomorrow. I haven’t started the bath. If I don’t iron something tonight, I’ll be wearing yoga pants to work in the morning. Even with Giovanni watching the dog for the week, even with someone else paying the mortgage, all I can manage is another “no.”
And so I finally know this: loneliness is nowhere near the worst part of being alone.
“I really need to clean up. You could help me, and we would be done faster so I could read to you.”
I see my boy deflate. Even the book seems to droop in his hands.
“I really like this story,” he says. He is so tired.
“Sorry, baby, I can’t read it right now. I’ll read it to you at bedtime. If you are done helping, you can go look at it by yourself until I’m finished here.”
“Okay.” He trudges away.
Some days, I would give anything not to be a single mom. Okay, maybe not anything, but in certain low moments, the devil could show up with a contract and a fountain pen, and he’d walk away a soul richer.
I start the dishes. Then I stop.
How stuck in our ways are we? Really, how blind do patterns make us to their existence?
And how willing are we to come un-stuck?
We are not alone in this house.
Yet somehow, we keep giving that truth so wide a berth, we can’t even discern its edges.
“Hey, kiddo. Let’s go ask your granddaddy. Remember that guy?”
We walk into the living room. Bug pauses, transfixed by Gary Oldman’s giant face on the screen. We chat for a moment with my father about Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and then we ask if he would be willing to read Bug this book while I finish preparing for bath and bedtime.
“Why, sure!” He turns off the TV. “Get on up here, big boy!”
Piece of cake.
Bug ooches up onto the couch, pressing his insatiable body into his granddaddy’s frame. The old man takes the book. “Let’s see what we have here. Uh oh. Witches!”
And they begin.
As I putter and pack and start the washing machine, I overhear my father taking his sweet time. He puts on a cackling voice and even reads through all the disgusting signs at the Witch’s meat counter. “Eyes of newt, lizard’s gizzards. . . ” This catalog of dark magic gives me a few extra breaths which I offer up to Carolyn Hax and the other guilty pleasures of the Style section. This is my moment of nothing. A booming racket and a fit of giggles burst from the living room, and I hitch a ride on it, free and easy.
Imagine that.


What Grows Here

Gray rain falls outside the half-window. Everyone is sick here. It was silly to come to work when I have leave in the bank, but I hoard it. For my son, perhaps, or just because. I want to be stronger than need. People have made it further on less. The office doors close and lock. Green plants drink the moisture from the air and spill out over the edges of their pots, oblivious to the lengthening night, the inevitable winter.

My head spins but my chair is soft. The floor is soft. I make a pillow when I cannot stay upright and lay myself on the closest thing to earth, five stories up. It, too, is soft enough. I stay hard because of these small, inanimate kindnesses. I refuse the offer of juice. I refuse the offer of a ride home. I have made it this far, and it is afternoon, and I will work my eight hours. The students who stop take the best of me because I offer nothing less. I stay until five o’clock. The projects are complete and better than mediocre. No one has helped, and the pride in this tastes like the flat, white paint on the walls. Like the drop ceiling tiles. Like nothing at all.

The metro grinds up slowly, dragged down lower on the tracks by its swollen belly. I push my way into its choked middle, get stuck in the craw. Not a spare seat, not a square of territory. The pole is claimed and what remains is clammy from before. Not even a cool square of metal on which to rest my palm. A lanky blonde in a red trench coat faces me, my forehead inches from her lips. I pull out a book. The American within slides headlong into a torment she calls love. She is in Côte d’Azur. She speaks erratic French.

Vouloir is to want.
Attendre is to wait.
Manquer is to miss.

Everyone is talking there. Eating and kissing, sipping menthe and yellow citron pressé. A child bends to pet a white bird. The silence of compression dissolves into laughter and a mother calling, Francois, viens! I ignore the dizziness and lean an inch of my hip against the pole. No one speaks. I can smell the breath of the tall man to my left. He has had a drink today.

I do not ask for a seat. There is a bitter taste in my mouth. I am stronger than all the bacteria in this place. The pole is a petri dish. The train car is a tenement. We all share precious bits – cilia, lung, adenoid – but do not dare exchange a gaze. We copulate then flee. No one leaves a number. No one leaves a name.

Who among us is on the brink? Will I be the first to give way? What would happen if I just let go of the pole, if I just surrendered my weight to the rocking field of rain-flecked overcoats and creased brows? We are all so tired.

At the third stop, a seat appears behind me, and I stumble over feet and bags, sinking in. I have made it again, by my own volition, through turbulence to the next holding pattern. A mile walk in the evening haze awaits. I must gather strength. In Vence, the bells in the cathedral cleave the morning. Biciclettes whir along the streets, the women drink Veuve Clicquot. I glance up. Across the car, the blonde in the red coat has found a seat. She is staring right into my eyes. Hers are small and too close together. She oozes poison. I wonder at her for too long but she does not drop her glare. Where is her book? Her gadget, her paper, her daydream about the mouth of a man on her bare knees? I return to France where the American has seduced a young poet but she herself is the one who cries.

I glance again, and the blonde drips arsenic from her chin. Still, she glares at me. I fear she has knives in her sleeves. Her mouth is small and tight, a milkweed pod compressed by too much rain. It missed its chance to unfurl. Inside, everything decays.

The train wheezes to its final destination. Crackling commands sting our ears. Pings andlights command us all to our feet, force us to flee. No one is allowed to rest here. En masse, we trudge up and up, in rows and clumps, out. My head spins but my legs abide. Gravity is no match for me.

Near the exit, on mud-slick tiles, I hear her voice.

“What’s your problem?” She strides next to me. Vinegar churns through her throat and ears.

“Excuse me?”

She is taller now, the red coat slapping her shins. “Here I have an injury and need a seat, and you just take it from me.” That shriveled mouth tries to snarl, but nothing elastic is left. I wonder if she was beautiful once. She is a decade younger than me. I glance down to see a single black sock wrapped around one slender ankle. An injury? Down below the wool and satchels, stone jaws and bodies rocking, rocking, I was supposed to discern her pain?

“I had no idea. I would have been happy to give up my seat if I had known.”

She continues to limp along next to me through a stained corridor of glass, the choked animal of the interstate pulling itself inexorably forward below our feet, one jerking inch at a time. Now, the eyes do not venture towards mine. “I’ve got nothing else to say to you.”

“I’m sorry you were uncomfortable. I’m sure anyone would have been happy to get up if you had asked.”

She stares ahead. Limp, step. Limp, step. Her shoulders curl in. She is a stalk, pole beans dried to husk. “I am not speaking to you.”

“I hope you will ask next time,” I say. “It would be so much easier.”

I want to gather her in my arms and tease the stiff cord from her neck. Such things are not done. I keep my distance but also keep pace. I do not let her flee. Too soon, we are out in the reluctant light. She turns away as do I, and she lurches over concrete and up the iron-tongued stairs.

Everything that matters is left unsaid. We are in this together, but she may never know. Can she hear me still next to her? I am whispering past her shoulder. I try to alight. She slaps me away. Over the groaning distance, I speak and speak. In silence, I force her to hear.

Yes, the day is a dark and lonely thing, if you paint it so. In our anonymous intimacy are the selfish, the wounded, those who serve only their own hungers. But also, you are in the company of those who are made to give. You may not know it, but you brush up against the tender and the naked; every day, they reach to meet you.

Do not be fooled into believing you are owed this generous thing. The earth is capricious in her offerings. Care may come. It may not. You may find yourself on your knees before a cenotaph, digging for the human heart that was never there at all. But this is the chance you have to take.

Bow your head. Let the plea awaken your tongue and the soft wet call pass your lips. You have to be as tender as that damp milkweed waiting inside its bristled fist. Dare to peel open, dare to loose the embryo of your longing to the fecund, tainted air.