15 Nov

I’m all moved into my new apartment. The first few nights it took awhile to fall asleep. I lay in bed waiting to hear all the familiar
noises, the floor squeaking, people talking, bathroom faucet running, dogs panting and snuffling in the blankets. All the noises I thought I could fall asleep better without. But now that they’re gone, I realize they became what I could fall asleep to, became, in a way, comforting. And in a strange sort of way, I missed them and wished they’d return, just until I get used to this new place. So now it’s silent, except for the hum of electricity, the whirr of the small space heater and the padding of my own feet on the ground. My mom says I should get a fish, or a plant, just to have something living in this small space. I agree. It feels too still and quiet otherwise. When I put a cup on the counter, it stays there unless I move it. Before, nothing stayed where I left it. It inevitably got shuffled somewhere else. It’s strange, to leave something somewhere and, upon returning, have it remain. I like it, but it just takes getting used to. I guess I’m used to noise, to people moving my things, to friendly clutter, and now, without it, I feel a little disoriented. It’s perfectly pleasant where I am now—I love it, in fact—it’s just I never thought I’d be missing so badly the things I do. Everything, even the best things, take adjusting to.


Farmer’s market

6 Nov

Saturday mornings I wake early to go to the farmer’s market in North Tonawanda. These days it’s past peak fall season, past when most of the vegetables and fruit are  freshly harvested and spilling out of their cardboard boxes. Less farmers bring their produce from the country to set up shop in neat rows in the parking lot in a city. The crowds get thinner and the farmers, fewer. Warm sunshine no longer hits the fruit and makes it sparkle. Instead, dew coats the vegetables and, if you look close enough, frost. The farmers wear extra layers of clothing, wrapping scarves around their noses and mittens around their hands.  They move slower than in the warm summer days, conserving the precious heat in  the chill November morning. Coffee tastes better in November at the farmer’s market, and we stop at the vendor that smells of the bins of homemade coffee beans lining the front. Dip the metal scooper in, and anyone can take home some of the whole, roasted beans to grind at home.

Here, at the farmer’s market, Tina sells blocks of cheese at half the price they’d sell for in a regular grocery store. Behind her, as in all the vendors, sit the big, blocky vans used to transport the goods. She, “Tina,” weighs three blocks of cheese, feta, muenster and mozzarella, and tell us a reasonable number before we reach into our wallets to produce the dollar bills. It’s a pleasant exchange, as is all encounters at the market. People feel they get a good deal, and so do the farmers, who always thank you for your business.

We buy apples, the honey crisp variety, from a woman who says she arrived at 4:45 a.m. in the morning, to set up her stand. Her husband also sells at a farmer’s market, further into the city. She reaches for the wooden bushel and lets the crisp fruit roll into a blue plastic bag that barely handles the weight. We heave the heavy bag into our cart, now with $14 worth of apples in it. They’re worth every penny. Unlike apples bought at a grocery store, these ones are crisp.

We also buy mushrooms, garlic, lettuce, red peppers, potatoes, Brussels’ sprouts, cauliflower and cabbage. Later we’ll turn them into meals, maybe cauliflower soup or red pepper pizza or coleslaw or roasted potatoes. The woman we buy the cauliflower from stands behind her table of vegetables, proud. All the farmers are proud of the products they unload from the trucks. They arrange them artfully and some, prettily, in containers on the tables, with the best of the bunches showing face up, the deepest purple and smoothest eggplant closest to the customer.

I never saw how bright and beautiful fruits and vegetables are until I began going to the farmer’s market and saw, in October, rows of red, green and gold apples in the wide open sunshine. They’re not the same in the grocery store, under dim, artificial lights, lined in ugly rows and spritzed every 10 minutes with tap water. They’re not the same size, either. I saw cabbage I never knew grew so large and cauliflower that could easily be described as giant. Out in the open, windy market, they’re under the sun, misted by the air and perused by people who rightfully appreciate the bounty of the earth. Secretly the farmer’s know this of course, and that’s why they like selling at the market: It’s a most natural exchange, how wares were sold for hundreds of years.

An October Sky

25 Oct

I drove home tonight over miles and miles of pavement, passing over endless white dotted lines. But all the while I sat enthralled with the sky above me, a great, starry dome reaching around me on every side. I passed over pavement, but all I saw was this naked sky. Every second I knew it faded, the closer I went into the city. The sky was different somehow tonight: the clouds gathered in wisps, curling around the stars. They felt so close, looked so close, that it seemed had I wanted to, I could reach one hand into the air and bring some of that sky down closer. The stars weren’t bright. They were dim and sparkled infrequently, hidden within the clouds, glowing and content. The moon, meanwhile, also glowed, not a radiant moon but a silent one. The effect from all this struck into me so deeply that I hardly saw much else but the sky. I could have looked at it for hours, basked in its beauty forever. The closer into the city I drove the sky shrunk smaller, and it made me want to turn back around, to head for wide, open spaces. The lights in the city from the cars and the buildings get brighter, obscuring the glow from the stars and moon, and making the clouds seem less close. The gap grows. When I turn onto my street the trees planted in rows, lining the street, reach into the sky, their black silhouettes darkening it, crowding it out until there’s no room left for such a sky. It’s gone now, hidden by houses and buildings and sidewalks and trees planted in perfect rows. It’s enough to make me want to cry.

A moment to remember

31 Aug

The stars were bright tonight, the sky especially dark. We walked together through camp, passing the places we’d created so many memories in over the past few months. At the mess hall, the lights were out. It was dark inside. It seemed strange not to hear the plates and glasses clanking around and the dishwashers running. We’d snuck out of our cabins, just the two of us. It was the last night of camp, so what’d we have to lose? Punishment wouldn’t do anything now, not when we were leaving the next morning, each of us to head back to our homes and then, a short while later, school. All that we heard were the night sounds of bugs buzzing, and we passed through an occasional cloud of them by the lampposts. “Are the bugs bigger and louder at night, or are they just drowned out during all the sounds during the day?” I thought.

We walked onto the wooden dock and, upon reaching the end, imagined what was in the inky waters that looked so friendly during the daytime. We kicked up sand at the volleyball nets. We got close to the horses, where we heard their soft neighing, shifting from hoof to hoof and tails switching away flies. We felt alive—and, as much as two 10-year-olds can—dangerous. The thought, “What if our counselor wakes up?” was there, somewhere in our mind, but it was buried too deeply to surface. We then came to the edge of camp, to the thick, tangled tree where we’d carved our names: “Sam and Jill, Best Friends.” Instinctively we both reached to touch the grooves in the bark, memorizing it as much with our fingers as we had with our eyes. We had had to sneak my Swiss Army knife a few days earlier from my bag out here to do the carving. It was important. The tree rose in a thicket of woods near the camp clearing. In the distance we saw the lake waters, with the moon reflecting off its surface. We decided not to climb our tree’s sturdy braches but instead sit at its base, with our arms wrapped around our knees.

“Sam,” I said, “Let’s remember this moment, right now, forever—okay? We’ll grow old, but this moment will stick. Never forget.”

We both got real quit, absorbing the moment so we could stash it away in our brains forever.

“Okay,” Jill said finally. “It’s in there. I’ll remember always. But what if I forget I’m supposed to remember this exact moment?”

“Remind yourself, every summer,” I told her. “And during school, sitting at your desk. You can’t forget, not once in your entire life.”

She nodded solemnly.

The world stretched before us that summer, endless, huge. Yet all we could see was camp ending and school beginning, pencils and paper to replace bathing suits and fishing poles. We saw spelling tests and arithmetic when we wanted one more week to eat camp food and stay up late sitting on a tree stump singing songs in front of a campfire. We crept back into our respective cabins, Jill in hers and I in mine. The next morning, it was as if we never left. No one suspected our grand secret, that we had left the cabin in the night, that we had sat at the base of our tree—no one else’s—and created a moment together we promised never to forget, not ever when we’d grown old. The busses came too soon, and I saw Jill pick her duffel bag from the pile before swinging it over her shoulder. It happened so fast I might have missed if I wasn’t carefully on the look-out. I gave her a folded note, in the triangular fold I’d learned at camp, and she smiled before slipping it into her pocket.

“So I’ll see you next year?” she asked.

I nodded.

“It’ll be even better than this year.”

I saw her drive away, her face in the small, square window waving to me until I couldn’t see her anymore, and then I walked, kicking dust and rocks as I went, all the way back to my cabin. It would be another whole hour before my own parents came to get me. The camp suddenly felt empty without Jill, someplace I’d rather not be. So I took out my collection—rocks, string, drawings, candy—basically cool things I’d found over the past couple months, and as I lay on my bunk, I thought about the moment I was never to forget.

Why you shouldn’t get a goldfish

28 Aug

We stand, all three of us, my mom, sister and I in front of the fish at PetsMart. We came to get a goldfish, a shiny orange one Victoria will put in her two-gallon tank, on her dresser in her room. Her last one died. She walked in one day, and there it was, belly up, floating at the top. She ran downstairs, hysterical, nearly crying: “Mom, my fish died!” The day before, it was perfectly healthy, cheerfully swimming through his water. Turns out it died from heat, or so we think. The tank lamp should be turned off periodically, to cool the water. Victoria didn’t know. It was bright sunshine for the fish all day, and all night, long. The light killed it.

The goldfish we’re looking at now look healthy enough. Victoria’s already got one picked out, including its name: “Squirt.” (Because it’s tinier than the rest, but it’s pretty, a goldeny color orange.) She follows it with her finger along the tank, as it twirls through the other, bigger fish. Some have bulgy eyes and bubbly heads, and I think the same thing I always think when I see these fish: “Why does anyone buy those?” They are—I think—ugly. If I had to look at something in my house every day, I would not choose them. The marker drawings on the tank read “$2.99” A bargain. A steal. For that price, she could get—a lot of Squirts.

“Can I help you guys with something?” says a PetsMart employee in the fish department, with a dark green polo emblazoned with the company logo, complete with khaki pants and a fish net in his right hand, still dripping.

“We’re looking for a goldfish,” my mom tells him, smiling in the direction of the tank Squirt’s swimming around in.

“What size tank do you have?” he asks, stepping down from the ladder just moments ago he was at the top of.

“It’s a two gallon tank; we just want one fish for it.”

Fish man shakes his head. He makes a “tsk tsk” noise. He looks at us like we’re like we’re very small, tiny children he needs to teach a lesson to—on how not to kill your fish. I’m worried. I wonder if he’s one of those people who believe eating salmon for dinner is the same as murder.

“A goldfish needs a 10 gallon tank,” he says. “They grow—big—(He makes a motion with his hand, indicating just how monstrous they can become.) and they need one gallon per inch of fish. Two gallons wouldn’t be nearly enough. Did you keep one in that before?”

My little sister looks toward the ground, at the wall, anywhere but him.

“I see.”  His eyes narrow for a moment, but then he perks back up. “Well, I can tell you that one—just one—would do well in a 10 gallon tank, and they’re just over here in this aisle.”

We follow him to where the big tanks are, filling three shelves with empty glass and black borders. My mom looks at the price tag and gulps. It’s not cheap, like Squirt is.

“Do they really need 10 gallons?” I ask, eyeing them warily. Suddenly it seems if little tiny Squirt were in this tank it’d be an ocean to him, somewhere he could get lost. Much better to keep him in a two-gallon tank, I think, where he’d know his way around.

He looks exasperated now, like trying to teach children for the zillionth time their ABC’s. “Yes, they absolutely need 10 gallons, even the goldfish that look small now. Plus, they’re dirty fish. Messy, the messiest of any fish here.” He makes an expansive gesture toward the wall of bright fish tanks. “They release a ton of ammonia into the water. So if you don’t change the water often, it’s lethal to them.”

I’m not sure exactly what ammonia is—and I don’t think my mom or sister do either—but apparently fish produce it, and too much is bad for them. I can see we three all thinking the same thoughts: “So if goldfish grow to monstrous proportions, are super messy and produce gross amounts of lethal ammonia requiring near constant water change, why, again, are we getting one?” Squirt now seems far less attractive than he was just a short time ago.

“Tropical fish are a good choice,” fish man says, uncannily reading out thoughts, “but they do require more work. You’ll need a heater and salt for the water, a thermometer, an extra good filter, a sucker to suck the grime from the gravel…”

I stop listening at the 15th item he lists. As he continues talking, telling us all the items necessary to properly maintaining a healthy tropical fish tank, I’m back to the goldfish. I picture all the one gallon goldfish bowls I’ve owned since I was little. All the half gallon bowls filled with fish at carnivals. All the bowls I’ve seen in people’s homes. They are everywhere. If they’re so terrible—so deadly—then why, why, does everywhere sell them and everyone have them?

So I interrupt the now detailed description of proper filtration. “How come so many people then have the one or two gallon goldfish tanks—?”

“Let me ask you a question,” he says, setting down his net, because I suppose he’s about to get real serious now. “How many people do you know that have five-year-old goldfish? Hm? How many people do you know who have, say, four-year-old goldfish? Hm?”

We shake out heads no, and no, we do not in fact know anyone with old, ancient goldfish. Most of the people we know just have their goldfish death stories, like our own.

“I didn’t think so. And you know why? Because they die. Every last one. It may be in two weeks, in two months—maybe they’ll hold out for a year or two—but they always end up dying. The tank is too small. They never live to see three inches.”

We left the store not with a goldfish, not with tropical fish and not with a 10-gallon tank. All the way home my sister cradled in her lap, making sure it didn’t splash, a deep blue Beta fish with flecks of fiery red. She named it Polynesia, after the bird in the Dr. Doolittle stories. It’s happy now in her small tank because, apparently, Beta trap oxygen in their bodies, so they don’t need as much of it.

Before we left, I turned back to look one more time at the wall of florescent fish tanks, and I saw fish man ask a young couple if they needed help. I wished I could tell them to kindly say “No,” so they could stay blissfully ignorant of the intricacies of owning a fish. Once you know, you can never go back to a one gallon. Or, even to a goldfish.

A world without him

12 Aug

Yesterday I looked through some of my old word documents, the ones with interesting titles. One stopped me: “Heartbreak.” I opened it, and read through. I described in it how I felt after a guy in my life told me he wasn’t interested in me anymore, romantically or otherwise. We had been talking on the phone, oftentimes for hours, for many weeks. We met in college, right before I graduated, when I left Michigan to come back home to Buffalo. I remember well that place I was in then, something so extreme and unlike anything I’d experienced before. I did everyday things, completing two internships, one at a newspaper and the other at a magazine. I ate, slept and woke in the morning. But nothing was the same. I remember crying for hours, the tears staining my face. I remember being that pathetic girl—happiness wrapped around a boy—I never thought I would be. Then again, it was the first, and only, time I’d fallen in love. In this piece of writing I attempt to empty myself of some of the pain I felt by putting it on paper. Suddenly I was there—two years after it happened—rushed back into the madness of it. I had forgotten, mercifully, the pain of it all. Isn’t memory in itself a porous thing a type of grace? Imagine never forgetting. Yet I remember wanting to remember everything, remember him, because if I didn’t, he’d then truly be gone forever. The thoughts were painful, but they reminded me it was real. He happened. Reading through the document, I remembered—most vivid of all—how tasteless the world had become in those months following rejection. I remember being curled into a tight ball on the bottom bunk of the bunk bed I once shared with my little sister, numb to all feeling except that deep, clinging pain writhing in my stomach, like someone was twisting it and wouldn’t let go. I hurt somewhere I didn’t know could hurt, from someplace I hadn’t known existed. A world without him in it I couldn’t imagine; I didn’t want. He had shown me what it means to love, had made me laugh, had me smiling and, best of all, dreaming of a life stretching out before us: All we had to do was take it, together. I lay there in that bed, the world a dull color gray, feeling like the thing that made me alive, life itself, had been sucked from me. In the weeks following, I moved through my days wondering how I’d ever enjoy the things I once enjoyed, reading, cooking, taking walks. All I wanted was something I could no longer have, him. Here I am, two years later, reading all this, remembering, feeling the ghost phantom pain, still there somewhere but no longer intimate, clawing into me. It’s true that time heals. It’s the best healer. One day I felt like reading again—began reading Annie Dillard—and discovered in her words something that made me feel once again alive, like I was getting filled back up. I tried new recipes, began cooking gourmet dishes for my family just because I could, and I wanted to. I took the dogs for a walk. I cleaned. I went to work. I discovered grace where I hadn’t thought—in the passing of time—so that, eventually, I became full and happy in a world without him.

Dogs and the Iditarod

6 Aug
This is Kody, my standard poodle. I don’t have a picture of Chester, the labradoodle.

My sweet, good dog, Chester, lies beside me as I write this, his belly moving and down as he breaths deeply in his sleep. He came to us almost a year ago, but it feels like he’s always been a part of the family. It’s hard to imagine he ever wasn’t here. He’s one half standard poodle, the other half labradore, making him a “labradoodle.” He has short legs and a long body and big, bushy eyebrows, and he’s a total love bug. He likes to follow me everywhere in the house, especially if I’m the only one in it. Some dogs do things for food, some for love. Chester, though he appreciates a food treat, does things for acceptance. He’ll do nearly anything for a scratch behind the ears and to hear me say, “good boy!” He’ll trot happily away afterwards or collapse on the ground content by my feet, knowing he’s secure in my affections. He wants so much just to be loved. But, when it comes down to it, don’t we all? Our other dog, Kody, is all standard poodle. He’s smarter than Chester, I can tell, but doesn’t care too much for obedience. In that way, he’s more like a cat. He sleeps now most of the day, curled into a ball in an overstuffed chair in the living room by the window. His new spot now is the day bed we recently put in the basement, where he stretches his long legs out like a king. I suppose he likes it because it’s cooler there during these hot summer days.

When I come home from work, I spot both of them in the front window, their whole bodies wriggling with excitement. I do wonder whether they know the sound of my car coming down the street, because I come home at different times in the evening, and yet, without fail, they’re always waiting. Since their ears are like triple human ear power, I don’t rule out this possibility, however far-fetched it may seem. When I walk in, Kody, the standard poodle, saunters over to me, tail wagging. Then he goes searching for a shoe of some sort, usually a slipper. He runs away with the slipper, always glancing behind to see if I’d seen him take it. It’s a game to him, sort of like how negative attention works. He knows he’s not supposed to take a shoe, so he does it so I’ll chase him. I always fall for it, because he’s so cute. I’ll “catch” him underneath the dining room table, where he thinks he’s hidden and spend a few moments petting him. Chester doesn’t take shoes for attention. He stays by me, tail wagging, wagging, wagging and mouth panting, panting, panting. In fact, that’s the only bad thing about Chester: He pants incessantly. Annoyingly. I wish I could train him not to pant. Right now, when he’s sleeping, is one of the few times he’s not doing it. He sleeps especially deeply it seems, almost like how a toddler sleeps, and he’s difficult to wake. When he is woken, he lumbers around sleepily, the dreams still heavy on him.

Here’s what’s got me thinking so much about dogs: I’m reading “Winterdance” by author Gary Paulsen. It’s about running the Iditardod sled dog race in Alaska. It’s fascinating. I find most books fascinating if they’re well written and I know little about their subjects. Like orchids. One time I read a whole book on orchid flowers. Anyways. Paulsen becomes sort of addicted to running sled dogs on his land in Minnesota. He becomes addicted to this particular way of seeing the beauty of the country, the stars at night like crystal in the cold sky. He never quite decides to run the Iditarod; the dogs do it for him. They choose him. There’s a moment when he realizes, in Alaska, that the race isn’t about him. It’s about the dogs, caring for them, learning how they think, and, strange as it may sound, becoming like a dog himself. It’s the only way to survive, he realizes, in the 1,500 miles trek through Alaskan wilderness fraught with predatory weather and animals. His language is sparse, no frills, matching, it seems, his wilderness surroundings. Every word means something, is put to good use. And unlike Alaskan author Heather Lende, this book doesn’t make me want to pack up and visit her town. Rather, I’m glad to observe dog races from afar, from the comfort of my warm, snug room. I realized also that Chester and Kody would make terrible sled dogs and myself, an awful musher. I think I’ll stay in newspapers.