Word House

January 12, 2008
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January 2, 2008
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 They say it’s hard to know yourself without first knowing your mother.  But sometimes, the only way to know her is to become her. 

Outside her bedroom window the shingled roofs of the estate homes sparkled like diamonds in the September sun.  Off in the distance Pen could see the giant Morris Park water tower lording over its subjects – pricey golf course homes with matching birdhouse mailboxes lining streets with names like “Pebble Beach,” “Winner’s Cup,” and “Fairway Circle.”   

The ad in the newspaper said novices but either way, Pen knew joining the Morris Park women’s crew team would mean pain.  Blisters, sunburn, sore muscles the least of it.  She promised herself not to over-think it. 

Perched on the edge of Arden’s bed, Pen tied up the old pair of sneakers Arden had left behind and tucked the t-shirt into the sweatpants that had doubled as last night’s pajamas.  She looked in the mirror.  “How…” she said.  How in the world did I get like this?  Maybe this was rock bottom, she thought.  That would explain it, this sudden show of determination. When you’re down as far as you can go, the only place left is up.Or out.  

The boathouse was lit up like Christmas.  Strings of tiny white lights draped beneath its A-frame eaves made her arrival feel like a celebration.  And in a way, it was.  In the dark, she caught up with the other women who stood shivering outside the boat house door.  “Good morning everyone.  I’m Ivan,” said the figure that appeared through the boat house door.  His voice was big like a radio announcer’s.  “I teach people how to row crew.”  Pen couldn’t make him out, the intricacies of his face lost to the backlight of the open boathouse door. “Quick review, in case you’re not sure why you’re here.” Pen shielded her eyes in an effort to see his face.  “First, yes it’s dark and yes it’s early, but this is when we’ll start.”  He paused, the smoke of his breath billowing in the cool morning air.    “Okay, everybody’s clear on that.  Next,” he cleared his throat, “it’s been my experience that there are three kinds of women who take this on.  First, there are those who sign up to get six pack abs and look hot for their boyfriends.  Then there’s the Xanax crowd – depressed housewives who think exercise can excise demons.  And finally, there are those of you who were queen of the court in high school basketball and think you can slam dunk a crew stick.   I’m here to tell you this is not your mother’s lawn tennis.  This is hard.  This will hurt.  Some of you will cry.  And some of you will come back.  “Let’s see,” he drew his clipboard close.  “I count 18 of you.  We have two boats of five.  I have no doubt that tomorrow we’ll fill those boats and only those boats.  Now let’s get started.”Pen looked around at the others.  It appeared to be an even mix of the depressed, the determined and the vane. One by one as the sun rose behind the trees the women took their seats on the dewy grass to listen as Ivan explained the intricacies of crew; the parts of the boat – the shell, bow, skeg, hull, rigger, the cox box through which he would count strokes, call out proper oar rotation and body positioning.  “In the end,” he said as they crouched in mock seating position, “crew isn’t something you learn from a textbook.  It’s something you have to feel.”   Pen watched the others brush stray grass off the backs of their legs as they headed toward the pier.  She wondered whether she was the only one who had struggled to get out of bed that morning, whether she was alone in her twisted thinking that if a crew team didn’t serve to lift her out of her depression, it would at least serve to punish her.“Don’t resist,” Ivan called through the cox box just after they pushed off. “Resisting just slows you down.  You’ve got to get into the flow.  C’mon, ladies.  Focus.”Pen felt the burn set in quickly.  Ivan, the golden-haired muscle boy in spandex shorts, as it turned out, was barking baritone orders as if they were pedigreed race horses, born and bread to row at superhuman speeds.  By her own account, Pen was a sad, sagging, sack of somebody past her prime, both vexed and perplexed by the surprising turn of events her middle years had taken.  Crew hurt.  The hard slab seats, the crouched, knees-up-your nose positioning, the blister-burning oars.  Pen felt the urge to cry, but it quickly turned to anger as painful spasms pulsed across her shoulders.  The grunts and groans of the other women, the crunch of the oars as they dipped and circled through their locks, the sounds roared through her ears like trains through a tunnel.  Ivan, so smug in his sleek mirrored sunglasses, Pen thought. “This is either going to break you or kill you,” he had said. “Stroke,” he called out.  “You’re resisting again, people. Let it go.”“This – makes – no – sense,” Pen finally choked out between breaths.  “How do I let go?  If I let go, the oars will fall in the water and we’re sunk,” she said slapping the water spitefully. He reached over the side of the boat, dipped his hand in the water and flicked it in her direction.  Pen blinked. “Ladies, listen up.  Do you hear the water?  Have the lines started to fade between the boat and the water?  Are you sitting in a boat or floating through water?  Are you listening?” he repeated.  “Because you’ll never know if you don’t listen.  You’ll never stop resisting and you’ll never get us across that finish line.”Pen felt the tears and blinked them back.  Her legs ached as if she had run up a mountain in double-time.  There was fire in her palms, raw and bleeding now, her fingers curled so tight as to make her wince later to straighten them.  Sweat poured from her temples and she heard herself begging for it stop, for the boat to stop, for the pain to stop.  And it was then, in that moment of excruciating physical pain, that something unexpected happened.  She felt hopeful, a word always so intangible to her, like the words her mother never uttered let alone bothered to explain.  Words like God, faith, love, “I love you.”  Hope.  Just then Ivan called out:  “That’s it!  You’ve got it.   Don’t give up now!”This time when Pen pulled back, the oars cut the water like freshly waxed skis through new fallen snow.  And with the motion Pen felt the most unusual sensation of unity, of oneness – with the boat, the water, the land, the air – all of it.   Ivan had called it “swing” in their meeting – that hard-to-describe feeling when near perfect synchronization of motion occurs.  She looked down at her thighs and felt for the first time in years not old and fat and useless, but invincible.  Endorphins.  She allowed the thought.  “Let it go,” Ivan called again.  He raised the Cox Box and leaned into the boat.  “Breathe from your heels,” he commanded.

“Don’t look now, ladies, but there’s the finish line.  You can see it, can’t you?  Just past that rock,” he pointed to an invisible marker.  “Cross it and you’ve won.  Now kick it up and let’s bestow that finish line with the love and the joy of a first place trophy.”  Ivan’s voice was calm and confident. “Do not delay, ladies.  Embrace and disarm.  You are the task.  You are the energy.  There is nothing you can not do.”

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January 2, 2008
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Val poured herself a cup of coffee and sat down to read the paper.  While she scanned the headlines, a photo of a dark-haired man with a thick mustache caught her attention.  She moved the paper in for a closer look.  His eyes.  Were they just micro-dots of black ink on paper or the opening to his soul?  Was he the cold-blooded killer they said he was?  Could she see the truth in his eyes if she looked hard enough? 

That night, the streetlight filtered into their bedroom and rested like a dusting of snow on Keith’s face.  Stretched out on his back with an elbow bent over his eyes, he was the picture of perfect sleep.  So Val was startled when he suddenly let out a cry.  Just as she was about to say his name, she looked over and saw that he was still asleep.  Apparently he was dreaming.

Val wondered when it would happen – when his unhappiness would break through.  He had put up with her for so long and never complained.  That he could continue to make a life with someone who never really took the time to get to know him, never bothered to get inside his head was hard for her to understand.  All these years, how Keith must ache to feel understood, she thought, to be told that he was loved, maybe not so much to hear the words but to see them in her eyes.

And now, Keith was lost in the dark forest of a dream. 

Val thought about Keith as a boy.  So much of his growing up had been spent living without.  It made her sick to think she was the continuum of a life accustomed to less.  After the wedding, Val only said I love you after Keith said it first.  She could never bring herself to initiate it, especially after married life had settled in along with the ghost of her mother, the only person she knew who was probably colder alive than dead.  She couldn’t even offer up the little acknowledgements, the everyday compliments and affectionate gestures like “you look nice in that shirt,” or “you’re a good dad.”  Instead, Val bought greeting cards that did the telling for her.  She felt such relief when she handed them to him on his birthday or Father’s Day.  Her spirit would soar for days afterward.  Not only had she honored his day but she had put out into the world some tender sentiments.  That she could do it, if only on paper, gave her hope.  Keith saved the cards in a file folder he kept in the office, along with the photos of the kids they took each year and mailed out in Christmas cards.  Val wondered if he would pull the cards out from time to time, maybe when he was feeling down and needed a reminder that he wasn’t alone in the world.  Would he look at them, she wondered, close his eyes and try to remember a time when he felt loved?  Were the cards the concrete evidence he sought that her love was not just some figment of his longing, but true?

Val had only seen him cry once in all the years they had been together.  It was the night he told her about his father.  They had been dating just a few months and Keith had taken her to his favorite rib restaurant in the city.  Over the restaurant’s sound system came the words, Cats in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon, when you coming home dad, I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, dad, we’ll get together then.  Val saw Keith’s face change, the corners of his mouth slide down his cheeks.  His shoulders shook.  “What is it?” Val asked, trying to pry his hands from his eyes.  “What’s wrong?” she pleaded. Keith’s father had died four days after the last game.  It has been a winning season of high school baseball and the game his father had promised he’d be at come hell or high water.  Keith said dieing would have been a good excuse and that he probably wouldn’t be sitting here blubbering like a baby in a crowded restaurant if his father had just died a few days earlier.  The reason his father told him he didn’t make the game that day or any other was Keith’s mother.  He said he couldn’t stand to breathe the same air let alone inhabit the same bleacher.  Keith knew it was a lie.  He knew it was his fault.

After the divorce, his dad moved three states over, back to the coal mining town where he grew up, to the place where people didn’t give a rat’s ass about fur coats, fancy cars and the right table.  Keith didn’t see much of him after that, and then even less when Keith’s life started to fill up with more baseball, girls and parties by the pool.  Keith said he felt guilty for not making the time when his dad called.  He said he felt bad that he let his stupid social life get in the way.

“Mother,” Keith mumbled suddenly.  Val glanced sideways again from the pillow.  She could see his profile, his face squeezed tight like a fighter.  That’s when Val thought she should have reached out to him, as any loving wife would.  That’s when she should have put an understanding hand on his shoulder and gently woke him.

Val remembered walking down the long fluorescent-lit corridor during one of her first visits to the nursing home.  She had gone to see her mother.  Every so often one of them would call out.  Mother, they would cry.  They called for their mothers – not their fathers, spouses, children, siblings or friends.  In their final days, the dieing wanted their mothers to take them home, just as they did when they were children, as they’ve waited to be taken home their whole lives.Keith rarely spoke of his mother.  He said he would have divorced her too if he could have.  But she was the one with the family money, the big house on the hill with the pool and tennis court.   She paid for the private school and winning baseball team.

Now, in the middle of the night, Keith was calling for her.

Val never really looked at Keith because she was afraid he would look back.  She was afraid he would read her willingness to make eye contact as a sign that she was ready to let him in.  Then once inside, he would look around at the real Val and run.  That’s when Val realized the beauty of the dream.  With Keith asleep, she could look at him without fear of expectation.  While he was busy dreaming, she could watch his facial expressions, listen to his sleep talk and learn about the man she loved without fear of losing him.  His dream was a chance for her to know him without him knowing her back. 

With that, she pressed her two hands together in a prayer and slipped them between her cheek and the pillow, settling in to observe Keith – for the first time in years.Suddenly his eyes blinked open.  Val quickly shut her own and waited.  When she finally dared to open them again, his hand was over his eyes, like an awning in the rain.  Then he was rolling, back and forth, flipping from side to side, tossing in all directions.  A bad dream, Val thought.  His legs bicycled, shoved off, karate kicked at the covers.  Val watched as his face reflected a torrent of emotion – anger, fear, pain.    “Val,” he said.  It startled her, the sound of her own name in the dark.  Was she in his dream?  Val imagined herself standing alongside his mother and father, all of them opposite Keith on a bridge that slowly rose separating them.   They stood with their arms outstretched to hold on but the bridge continued to rise.  Val watched as Keith’s eyes disappeared behind the broken street.

“Val,” he said again.  She looked over and this time he looked back.  He was awake.

“What is it?” she asked, shocked to see the light against his eyes.“Cramp,” he said, “I’ve got a mother of a cramp in my leg.”Val’s head dropped back on the pillow.“Why don’t you get up and try to walk it out,” she suggested.“Talk it out?” he said.“No.  I said walk it out.”Keith said he was too tired to walk it out.  Instead, he pulled a leg out from under the covers and began pulling his knee to his chest, repeating the motion several times.  When he was done, he rolled back onto his side and slung the covers over himself.“It’s gone now,” he whispered.  Val breathed a quiet sigh and pulled the blanket up under her chin.  The streetlight outside flickered, as it did each time the house’s heating system switched on – the result of crossed wiring.Val listened as Keith’s breathing gradually thickened, getting closer, working its way into its familiar rhythm.  As she drifted back into her own deep sleep, she remembered the photo she had studied of the man in the newspaper that morning.  She promised herself when she woke up she would show it to Keith and see if he could tell just by looking.   

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About author

I do PR for a writing instruments company. I have three kids. I like to write. I used to write for a newspaper. I am very busy but still find time to over-think things.