It’s my life…don’t you forget

As I get further into my life, I realize how much mine it is. Us humans are born into families, raised in groups, solaced by the comfort of others. But every great test of our abilities or intellect or creativity or strength is done ultimately, on our own. What I mean—you don’t get that amazing job with someone else’s resume, climb Machu Picchu with someone else’s body, or bungee jump off a bridge after overcoming someone else’s fears. In the end, no matter how many people’s footprints are sunk into the mud next to you, it’s your path.

Obviously, my point isn’t to advocate being isolationist and selfish in the greater world—that would be a silly conclusion to make of all this. But we are alone in our world, and that is an important distinction. Our world is our desires, perceptions, struggles, goals. As I get older, I find myself breaking away from socialized norms and trends, congratulating myself for being unique. When this happens, a little piece of my world becomes more distinct, more vivid, more realized.We think we are modeled by everyone else, but really we’re clay in our own hands.

The flip side of all this is the negative connotation we’ve been taught. We are nurtured to think that loneliness goes hand in hand with depression and social anxiety, that not wanting to follow the crowd (both literally and figuratively) means that there is something wrong with you. But being alone, both physically and mentally, is so essential to our development into self-affirmed, self-aware people. It crystallizes our personal world within the universe of others.

I’ve been meditating on this since I woke up to the realization that I’m in the throws of transition. College is coming to a close and the friends I’ve made here are going off in every direction: Bali, Nebraska, California, Costa Rica. We’re graduating and starting our “real lives” as people like to tell me, no longer reassured by the guarantee of returning to each other and to campus the next fall. It’s amazing how many experiences have come and gone like lightning: meeting in the dining hall for giggle-full dinners, quoting Borat religiously, carrying candles around the track for Relay For Life, hiking Oyster Dome, making funny videos and bonding over drunk Uno. I drank in (no pun intended) those experiences as they occurred, and yet still they’ve flashed by, mere specs on the dartboard of my memory.  All that’s left of them is a singular, enriched, inspired, thankful me—and that’s something to think about.

On Love and Cruise Ships

Seeking vacation on her polished decks, passengers filled the Costa Concordia to the brim. Using the hand of a crewmember to lift themselves onboard, passengers made their way to their rooms. There were elderly couples dressed head to toe in floral, families carrying tote bags, women clutching sunglasses and cameras. In each compartment, maids had set the pillow mints, folded towels into dogs and placed an All Aboard your Dreams! pamphlet between the terry cloth paws.

Matt, a soft-spoken writer from my fiction class, followed me out of class one day, commenting on the bleak weather. Rainy again, he said, gesturing up to the sky, vast and gray like ocean. Yeah, I kind of like it, I replied. He continued chatting with me as I walked towards my dorm. After a bout of small talk laced with flirtatious curiosity, he asked for my number. I fumbled for my phone (and my composure) as the Evergreens around us swayed in the bluster.

That weekend we walked down to the boardwalk to get coffee. He told me about his love of all things Dada, his desire to become a novelist, his favorite movies. I described the trip to Florence I was hoping to take in the summer and folded him an origami crane out of the biodegradable coffee shop napkin. We sipped, the water mirrored the overcast sky like an endless sheet of steel and he said, This is fun.

The passengers settled in. Several days were spent exploring the ship’s aquamarine pool, gleaming restaurant as well as their evening programs. Last night, there had been tango lessons in The Great Ballroom. The day before, karaoke in The Canteen. And that afternoon there would be a magic show in The Center Room, complete with magician, rabbit, and wand.

When the magic show began, most of the ship sat in front of a red velvet stage, eager. He’d begun sawing one of the hostesses in half, promising he’d put her back together. Jeanie, the hostess, was wheeled out in a something like a coffin, except it was too short: her head and feet stuck out of the ends. Then, the magician, Ricardo, begged for everyone’s attention. Eager kids swarmed around the stage as he sawed, the blade sinking into the box and right—presumably—into her chest.

After our first date, Matt and I spent most of our time together. So much time, in fact, I fell into a habit, a schedule. I’d wake up to a hello text. I’d meet him on campus for lunch. And on weekends we’d drink Old Fashioneds, let our clumsy fingers write on his typewriter and blast Jaymay’s Sea Green, See Blue on repeat. As my lids closed at night, I’d wish this vacation from my old life would never end.

One morning, about a month and half after he’d introduced me as his “girlfriend” to a room full of his friends from the on-campus film club, he didn’t text me good morning. Undeterred, I invited him to a downtown coffee shop for lunch, suggesting we could eat and study together. He met me at Avellino’s, a sweet café with a brightly painted façade, later that afternoon. He seemed quiet. I walked back to the table with the latte I’d ordered, the cup teetering on the saucer and spilling coffee as I walked. It was then that he told me he didn’t think we should try long-distance while he studied abroad in Germany, a precedent he had not only agreed to but desired when we first decided to become a couple. He told me he wasn’t sure he’d come back, wasn’t sure he wanted to. Without me, he could raise his anchors.

The ship’s hostess, Jeanie, was separated to great applause, then the magician proceeded to put her back together. He left the stage promising One more trick! but never returned. Then they felt an immense jolt. A sound like a horse whinny, but louder, was immediately followed by the ship tilting to the port side. People screamed and ran onto deck, leaning over the rails as if taken by a bout of seasickness. Others hurried upstairs from their rooms in a panic. A woman’s voice came over the ship-wide intercom, failing in its efforts to keep steady. There may be a problem.

They learned that the captain had steered them off the computer-programmed course and that they’d hit a rocky outcrop in the shallows of the Tyrrhenian Sea.  The impact tore a gash in her hull and left her lying on her starboard side, beached in shallow waters. Panicked, and in over his head, the Captain promptly abandoned ship.

Dimple Chin

The first thing my grandmother noticed when I was born was my chin. She held me close and stroked my face slightly with her pinky, grazing over the asterisk left in my soft clay. It’s a Peters trait, this dimple-chin.

In one of the earliest photos of my grandmother, she stands in front of a quaint house, hips forward and thumbs stuck in her overall pockets. Her face is full of dimples, two arcs next to her mouth and a star in the center of her chin. Even when she grew elderly and the skin beneath her face sagged down, that dimple was as crisp as the photograph. It aged much as her soul did, stubbornly.

As my dad ages, I see echoes of my grandmother in his face; the thousand ripples around the mouth, the cheeks plush like marshmallows, and of course that deep divot in his chin that, from a distance, is nothing but shadow. Sometimes he strokes it in thought, hunched over the table while filling in a quarter note or dotting an ‘i.’

Despite all the credit my dad’s side has gotten for my unique chin, I can’t un-see a spot on my mom’s chin that sags slightly inwards, like an overripe spot on a peach.

Once, after a trip to see her parents, my mom described spending weeks flooding the floor of their San Luis Obispo mobile home with boxes of old family pictures and memorabilia. With an excited inhale, she describe the delicate process of extracting a certain yellowed picture from its broken frame. Then she took the very picture out of an envelope for me to see. It’s a picture of our family in Italy so old even Grandpa can’t name everyone. I studied it like a crossword puzzle—looking for a familiar combination in all the empty spaces.

In the center of the photo was a elderly woman, apparently my great-great grandmother. She sat round-shouldered in a wooden chair, her hair was tucked back behind a kerchief and her face scrunched in the sunlight. Below her mouth was a dark dot. An imperfection. Then I studied each of the faces around her. Standing next to each other in a line, their chins made a long ellipses.

Cow Lake

                                                                        

The horizon stretched itself thin across the windshield, endless and unencumbered. It snaked to my right out the passenger window and I reached for it, smoothed it, as if it were a strand of hair out of place. My arm out the window was carried upwards by the car’s momentum and my hand became a fleshy crow against the clouds. I let myself float there a minute, musing. Then his voice broke the silence. When he was younger, his family had an exchange student from China who was overwhelmed by all the open space. How appropriate, I thought, that abundant space had made a kid from crowded Hong Kong uneasy. How funny that, as I sat passenger-side and wide-eyed, I empathized.

As the road funneled us forwards, filtering us through town and out into pastures, I leaned on his shoulder and watched the huge, placid sky through the sunroof, I pointed at horses, I took in big gulps of Eastern Washington air and audibly sighed them out. He smiled at my wonder and drummed, one hand on the steering wheel and the other on my knee, to Radiohead oozing through the car speakers. A native, the vastness had swallowed him long ago, but I needed to savor every blade of wheatgrass, every inch of azure sky. I couldn’t help but be filled up, as perfume does a bottle.

When the narrow gravel road began shooting pebbles at the windshield and the car tires seemed unsure in their muddy tracks, he said that we were getting close. Hills came into view, and I squinted, trying to make out what was in the distance. We were looking for a lake, but I pushed the memory of a giant, grey Lake Washington out of my mind. We were looking for a country lake, for Cow Lake.

Sure enough, it appeared, a large puddle in the midst of low, grassy hills. He stopped the car and we got out, my brown leather boots squelching as they touched muddy ground.  From his description, I’d expected a pool of sooty water. While it may have been just that, all I could see, as it sat there frozen over and illuminated in the sun, was an intricate stained glass window or a piece of icy Venetian tile.

I meandered along the lakeshore, skipping in the dry grasses like a little girl and letting the cold wind bring out the rosiness in my cheeks. He lingered back from me awhile, perhaps musing on the day much as I was, or reminiscing about times spent swimming in the hot sun with his siblings. I smiled, thankful that my footprints would be left in the mud of his memories.

Suddenly desiring to meet his kind gaze and push a hay-bale blonde lock from his face, I turned back. Finding his outline in the distance, my walked turned to a run. Every pore drank in the sweetness of the day, and for a moment, I flew.

 

Ripen and Release

In the yard of my family’s first house grew an avocado tree creeping up like a great praying mantis. We waited eagerly for its sporadic offerings, attuned to the thud of its leathery eggs against our dry California grass.

The day we moved away, I watched my parents collect dozens of these strange fruit in large wooden crates. My mom crouched repeatedly, balancing several in her cradled arms. My dad’s soft hands gripped each delicately and lowered them into the crates. Both of them seemed entranced by a strange catharsis of starting anew. Of ripening, tumbling and rolling away from their roots.

I was young then but the move impressed me like the pit does the green flesh. There was the hot plastic of my car seat, the steady rhythm of the sun-visor vibrating against the window, a large cardboard box marked ‘BOOKS’. And then there were the avocados that sandwiched me against the car door. They looked like the dark circles under my dad’s tired, road-lulled eyes. They looked like three-dimensional bruises. They looked like stepping-stones.

The hardest part of leaving that house was leaving the avocado tree. My parents remind me. Dad uses the prongs of the fork to smash the green meat into his quesadilla. Mom strikes the pit with a sharp knife and twists to lift it from its imprint.

I’m grown now. My bare feet stick to the kitchen linoleum in my first apartment as I take one of those familiar ovals in my hand and squeeze it, feeling its surface give. My knife cuts through to the dense pit leaving the rind split like an old tire. I pull the two halves apart and I spoon the insides into my mouth. I am halted by the uncanny sweetness. How similarly we ripen and release from what once held us up.

The Crane

She starts as a square piece of paper, pink side up. Crease and open again.  She gasps for air. Crease and open again. Her limbs are reaching out like a pinwheel. Gentle hands turn her over, pat her doe white behind, and set her down. She’s a small delicate beginning lying face-up on the metal table.

The fingers of time swaddle her, and mold her to life’s geometry. Pudgy hands touch her knees and help her rock back and forth. Mom takes a picture to crease that fold, before she teeters forwards.

Her arms become bat wings that fold around doggies and daisy bouquets and teddy bears. In, crease. Out, crease. Hugs are becoming a habit.

Her first word, “Dada,” escapes and her head bows down reverently. Crease there, where her Adam’s apple slowly rolls under the skin like the tip of a ballpoint pen. This is her new command room of expression, the cockpit of the bird.

She lifts her corners up until she’s sailing high like a kite, legs straight and strong. She steps with the crutch of her blue toy car, Mom’s hand, the staircase bannister.  Her walk is new, and her  precarious legs begin to crumple under newfound weight.

But she grows tough and precious like a diamond, letting fingernails crease her into the puzzle of self-actualization. Her legs come up into crisscross applesauce, hopscotch and then in the dance steps of the Texas Tommy. Her wings pull straight out, fan towards Lake Union, extend towards a friend, and point her like a compass. Her mouth becomes a beak, prodding for the next adventure, gaping with the next song.

Used Heart Shopping

Last month, I was hunting for a good used car at a reasonable price. This was not an easy task. I mean, it’s a good thing I had my dad with me going from dealership to dealership, because if it had been up to me I would’ve bought the first car we looked at. I just wanted the whole process to be quick and easy. Eventually I did find a good Honda, though, which I am extremely thankful for.

But…where am I going with this?…Oh, that’s right.

Despite the fact that car shopping is not half as enjoyable, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between it and dating. Yep, I’m going there.

Firstly, you and the person, like you and the car, have to find each other. Maybe you’ve known each other for a while (say, the guy, like your neighbor’s Camry, is an old friend of the family) or maybe you run into a guy on the street holding a figurative ‘For Sale’ sign. Or maybe, you meet online–eHarmony is to dating what Craigslist is to cars.

Then, like you did with any car that catches your eye, you collect the basic details. Age, appearance, personality, interests. And after this preliminary screening, maybe you decide the person (or the car) isn’t for you. Or, you two like each other enough to dare a first real date–a test drive.

The test drive is where things can get hairy. Just like a car salesman knows you’re more serious about a car when you test drive it, the stakes are raised between you and the person when you attempt a real date.

You go on the date and as the car starts up and comes to an initial hum, everything about the both of you is being scrutinized. You listen to his words like you’d listen to the gears shift. You watch his eyes when he looks at you like you’d test headlights. You touch his shoulder and his hand like you’d touch the dash, the steering wheel. You quiz him on his music tastes like you’d test out the radio.

And as the car rolls forward and set outs on the side streets, things feel uneasy. You’re self-conscious about your driving because this is not your car yet. If you crash, it could get really messy. So you proceed slowly and eventually, things begin to feel a bit more natural.

Next, like any wise shopper, you decide to take the car on the highway. You tell your date something personal about yourself. You make a racy joke. You talk about one of your obscure interests. All of this is a test that he can keep up with you at 60 MPH.

As the night dwindles to a close, you exit the freeway and pay the bill. You drive the car back on to the dealership lot and take the key out of the ignition. Your mind is busy weighing the pros and cons of pursuing a relationship with him as he walks you to your door. Maybe you’re thinking it needs new tires, but it’s a good car, or you’re thinking, this is a freaking hot rod, but it doesn’t really suit you, or you’re thinking, SOLD! Then you snap back to reality and dig for your house key in your purse.

You say goodbye, perhaps exchange a hug. Of course, the test drive was fun. Dating, like driving, is fun. But, after you shut the door behind you, the salesman (in this metaphor– your brain) freaks you out. Is this car something you want to invest in? Do you want to see it again? It pressures you and confuses you and tries to get the sale. Your brain wants your heart to make a decision—yay or nay–because then you’ll know how to proceed.

But if there’s one thing I learned from car shopping, it’s that you don’t rush into things. You must shop thoroughly, cross-check prices online, and negotiate with the salesman.  So, similarly–you can’t rush love. You must date intelligently and never give up on those high standards. Because in the end, the key to someone’s heart (not that new SUV), is the most important key you’ll ever hold.