What is the late November doing
with the disturbance of the spring…
late roses filled with early snow?
Ohio spring comes slowly, if at all. Winter before summer, like one foot in front of the other. No one believes the trees will blossom. Blue-tinged, woolly clouds descend, trifle with new fruits in the orchard. Crocuses tremble; tulips bow down. Overnight, the white eraser comes to wipe them out. Tabula rasa, the skies repeat. Tabula rasa.
I am here for this snowfall. I have been here for others. We are wintering in a land far colder than the one we came from. Is this counter-intuitive? “We should have moved to Florida,” Angie says. “Even Texas is starting to sound good.” In the hallway: buttoning our coats, slipping mittens over twitching fingers. How can I explain my growing fondness for the cold, the urgent freshness? How can I tell her, in this barren place, the snow provides our only replenishment, emboldening the poet’s first dictum, MAKE IT NEW?
On the concrete stairs, a smooth layer of ice has formed. The snow conceals it. We step down, one foot in front of the other. At the landing, Angie falls forward on her knees—graceful and slow, the posture of sudden prayer. I am walking behind her, stride for stride. As I slide off the stair, both feet in the air, flexing then pointing (an ancient muscle-memory of ballet…), my body stretches long. In the perfect caesura between two states of being—rising and falling, trusting and doubting—I linger here in unintended levitation. My palms are open; I want all yet grasp for nothing. (How Miss Erika’s back, its topos of black moles and taut sinew, bent and turned before me at the barre…)
Then, the blood. It’s like a Pollock painting, I think. I thought. Did I say the words aloud? Angie was peering down at me. I felt the heat rushing out of my head. Long hallways gushing with blood. The Shining. Ligeti’s rapturous score. Is this my life flashing in front of my eyes? I think. I thought. The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow gives a luster of midday to objects below. It was true! All around me, despite the night, shone a luster of midday. But where was the moon? I had recited that poem every Christmas of my childhood, yet somehow never heard the words before, never listened to the sound of my own voice speaking. “You have to sit up,” Angie insisted. My body so cold, and still the heat rushing out of my head. Snow White and Rose Red. The perfect contrast. A Stephen King story? A spinning wheel? Someone pricked her finger, and it bled. Wasn’t it Eliot who said, In my beginning is my end?
Cleda, from the boarding school, drives us to the hospital—three miles in blizzard conditions, but she has a truck with studded tires. Cleda has lived in this town her whole life, birthed five babies at this hospital, “seen worse spills than this one,” gesturing abstractly toward the gash in my head. I notice that snow falls the way they say a hush falls; I’ve only heard it pronounced in the past-tense before—a hush had fallen. Both of these imply a mythic sort of silence. Now the heater hums softly, and in the warm dark, Angie takes my hand.
“You know that man, Phineas Gage?” I whisper. “I’ll never forget him. He came back a different person after damage to his brain.”
“You’re not damaged,” she smiles. “Just woozy.”
“But who would I be?” I wonder. If I could start fresh. If I could turn new.
She squeezes my palm. “Maybe someone who doesn’t talk so much.”
Squinting in the sour light of the Barnesville emergency room, I let the doctor examine me—my head, my eyes. “You’re a lucky young lady,” he says. “A quarter-inch in any direction, and they’d have had to wheel you in on a stretcher.”
“I didn’t see stars,” I tell him. But where was the moon? “I never lost consciousness.”
“Good girl”—tapping my knee with his tiny hammer.
“I was afraid—I know it sounds silly—that all my words were going to leak out of my head.” Then, suddenly self-conscious: “I’m a teacher, so I’d be instantly unemployed, to say nothing of—” The doctor is busy now, parting my hair, daubing my wound with gentle, nearly parental care. “You know, I’ve heard of aphasia before. I always remember words I like the sound of. But the concept terrifies me. I need my words, and not just a few of them either. I’m greedy. I like to keep more than my share.” (An image of my mother caulking tile, stacking newspapers wall-to-wall inside her “slow-draining” shower.) He opens the bandage, shakes out the butterfly wings.
“The head is extremely vascular—there’s a word for you. That’s doctor-talk for ‘bleeds a lot,’ which is why injuries here—” his hand cupped to my skull like a Sunday blessing—“often seem worse than they actually are. I want you to go home, take this very strong Tylenol, and let that cut heal. “Like I said, no real harm done–” a perfect caesura– “except for the coat, that is.”
In the bathroom of our small faculty apartment, the sadness comes. It hovers like a blue-tinged, woolly cloud. I stand before the mirror, staring at the blood-soaked collar and blood-spackled sleeves of my best winter coat, the only one I ever wear. “We’ll get you another,” Angie reassures me. “Right now, though, you need to get into bed.”
“This is the coat you gave me,” I say, “our first Christmas together in Pittsburgh.”
“I know, but—it’s getting ragged anyway. You’ve already lost a button, and—”
“It’s green. I just love that it’s green. So all winter I go around thinking how the spring will come, how the green is only hidden underground.”
“There are other green coats,” she sighs, “and other times to mourn the loss of this one.”
“You think you’re making light, but you’re not. It is a loss. This is my very first grown-up coat, the first substantial thing not purchased for me by my parents. I always think of it as my Can’t-Go-Back coat, my This-Is-Who-I-Am-Now coat.”
Her arm outstretched, quietly commanding my surrender. “Clothes wear out, you know. Everything does. I thought with all your flair for melodrama you might at least appreciate that this coat made such a grand finale.”
Still clutching the worn green fabric around my shoulders, I walk to bed reciting, “For the sword outwears the sheath, and the soul outwears the breast, and the heart must pause to breathe, and Love itself have rest.”
“Come on, Lord Byron,” drawing back the quilt. “Put down thy head on yon pillow.”
Of all the holidays, I loved Halloween best: reveling in our finest disguises, slipping freely into any alternative self. But this particular Halloween represented for us a threshold we had long dreaded crossing over. The next year, at college, we couldn’t be sure—self-conscious, sorority parties or passing out candy in the dorms? None of the old rituals then, our neighborhood pranks and shenanigans under the streetlights, our years of exceptional trespass through those countless, immaculate yards.
We only knew we would be leaving, for a world half-imagined and mostly imagined wrong, its fodder and fluff poached from ’90s sitcoms and Lifetime moment-of-truth movies.
But the part we got right—the part we intuitively understood even as we planned with fanfare all those future reunions that never took place—was the fact that we would be different when we returned. Some essential balance was destined to shift, was already shifting, and we were standing now on a fragile precipice, our last patch of common ground.
“Do you have the provisions?” I ask April, my best friend since fifth grade.
“Three cans of highly projectile spray cheese, check.” She winks at me and tucks her bangs beneath the red satin headband with the glue-gunned devil horns.
“Ok, then. Here’s the plan. As soon as Joy gets here, you’ll ring the doorbell, and she and I will hide in the bushes. When Mr. Ronish comes out, your job is to lure him down the front walk; then Joy and I will jump him from behind.”
“What am I supposed to tell him? You know he’ll be suspicious.”
“Tell him—tell him some kids graffitied his driveway, something scandalous and profane. You noticed it on your way to Joy’s house and thought you should stop and let him know.”
April nods. “By the way, I like your pirate costume.”
“Thanks. I wish I had a parrot, though—and a peg leg.”
“Did your parents act weird that we were getting dressed up, since we’re far too old for trick-or-treat?”
“My parents always act weird. I’m not sure it was because of the costume.”
From the curve of the cul-de-sac, swishing through the misty darkness, we see our friend Joy, my first friend from the neighborhood, maybe my first friend ever. “Who is she supposed to be? Little Red Riding Hood?” As Joy passes under the streetlights, her swing coat with the high felt collar appears first candy apple, then dusty rose, then blazes all at once superhero scarlet.
“By the way,” April murmurs before taking off up the walk, “I changed my mind. I decided I’m not applying to college after all.”
Joy and I huddle together behind the holly bushes, the ones with the sharp, star-shaped leaves and little red berries that poison the birds.
“What did I miss?” she asks.
I thrust a can of spray cheese into her hand. “April says she’s not going to college.”
Joy considers my words while swiftly braiding her hair, then tucks the thick rope of tightly wound curls inside the neck of her sweater. “That’s silly. How does she think she’s ever going to get laid?”
“Joy!” I don’t know which friend has astonished me more. “I’ve never heard you talk that way before.”
“Well, we don’t spend as much time together as we used to,” she sighs, “but don’t worry. I’m not doing it—yet. I would tell you if I were.”
“But I mean—going to college isn’t about having sex. It’s about choosing your career, building a good life for yourself.”
“You must really trust your college counselor,” Joy grins, half-serious, half-mocking. “C’mon, I think sex is part of a good life. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought lately, and I’m pretty sure my life would be better if I were having it.”
“Who do you want to have it with?” My voice chafes of unbidden exasperation.
“I don’t know. Lots of people, I guess.” I raise my eyebrows. “Not all at once, but…sequentially.”
“This is too much! April’s not going to college, and you’re planning orgies in your dorm room.”
“Please! I said not all at once.”
April and Mr. Ronish are still chatting on the porch. She is trying to sound casual, like she’s not in a hurry, but I can see her finger pulsing on the can of spray cheese she clasps behind her back.
“So, are you Little Red Riding Hood?” I ask Joy, my voice softened by sudden melancholy.
“No. I’m Parisian. I’m a gay Parisian lady—not gay, but gay, like light, merry. A high-society, art-collector type. Probably the mistress of the head curator at the Louvre.” I roll my eyes at this second suggestion of Joy’s burgeoning nymphomania.
“You don’t need to be somebody’s mistress. Why don’t you be the head curator at the Louvre?”
“Listen!” She holds a finger over my lips. “This costume is completely authentic. My mother’s mother bought her this coat on a trip to Paris thirty years ago. And now she’s given it to me.”
“For anytime. For…dressing up.”
“Then it’s not really much of a costume, is it? Not if you’re only playing yourself.”
Joy is about to retort, but then we see Mr. Ronish in his faded jeans and fur-trimmed house shoes sauntering down the drive. April has ducked behind the garbage cans and is motioning for us to go now! this is your big chance! But before we can leap out from our hiding place, we’re sabotaged. Mr. Ronish steps back, wrests the spray can from April’s unguarded hand, and lunges full-force toward us, shooting long strands of liquefied cheese into our faces and hair, the full length of our squirming, shuddering bodies.
April is laughing in spite of herself, and I am fighting back the best I am able, but Joy has stopped struggling and lays flat on the ground, her eyes closed, quietly sobbing. “Are you hurt? Did I hurt you?” Mr. Ronish calls out with concern.
Joy shakes her head, eyes still closed, chest heaving.
He looks at me and wiggles his mustache. “I’ve been watching you girls out here for the last twenty minutes. I let April string me along a little, but I couldn’t just roll over and play dead.” Then, slugging my shoulder in a good-natured way: “I figured you were the mastermind behind this operation, so I hope I cheesed you up the most.”
“Yeah, looks like you got me pretty good,” I concede.
“Ok, then. Well, if you get things sorted out and yourselves cleaned up, you can come back later for dessert. I don’t know what Patty’s baking, but it sure as hell smells good.”
April and I sit down on the pavement, one of us on either side of Joy. “Do you want to sit up?” I nudge. She shakes her head. “C’mon, you’re just adding damp and grime to cheese.”
What happened? April mouths the words to me, but before I can answer, Joy opens her eyes and snaps, “No! I’ve heard about enough out of you.”
“This isn’t my fault,” I reply, incredulous.
“Oh, no? Whose juvenile idea was it to spray cheese on our neighbor?”
“Well, who thinks the point of college is illicit sex?”
“I never said illicit. I don’t even know what that means.”
April raises a tenuous hand. “Can one of you please tell me what’s going on?”
“This is my mother’s coat from Paris, and now it’s ruined.” Joy tugs the braid free from her sweater and slowly begins to unravel her curls.
“Maybe, with a good dry-cleaning—”
“Yeah, maybe.” But it’s clear to us that Joy has given up already.
“It’s still a really nice coat,” April offers, petting the hemline as if it were a dog.
“And you’re not going to college,” I say. “So you’ve got something ruined, too.”
“Your life, that’s what.”
“Oh, please!” Joy exclaims. “There’s more than one way to get out of the house. And there’s certainly more than one way to be happy.”
“Exactly. I’ll get a job and an apartment, and then, maybe in a few years when I have a better idea about what I want to do, I’ll look into college.”
Now I find that I’m the one who’s sulking, scraping cheese off my tight, striped pants and biting my lip to hold back tears.
“The key is to make connections with people,” Joy instructs in her worst, know-it-all voice. “Join a social group or a community center. The last thing you want is to end up a recluse.”
“I thought the worst thing according to you was to end up a virgin,” I grouse.
“That too,” Joy says, suddenly rising and unbuttoning her coat despite the chill.
“Where is all this sex talk coming from?” April looks at me like it must be my doing. I tear the bandana off my head and spring to my feet in protest.
“Joy’s the one—she’s the one who started all of it. Or you are—with your great big college cop-out.”
“I’m not copping out—I’m just not ready. And I know I’m not, and I won’t let you make me feel bad about it.” April turns around twice, to look at both of us, then starts off down the street.
“But we’re friends!” I call after her.
“That’s what I thought!” Her voice floats back to me on the breeze.
“So, what? I’m a bad friend now—just because I want people to do their best, not sell themselves short?” I shake the bangles one by one from my wrists and shove them deep in my cheese-covered bag.
“No,” Joy sighs. “You’re just a really hard person to let down easy.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means nobody likes to disappoint you, but most of us feel like we’re bound to.”
Joy wraps a generous arm around my shoulder, stands up on her tip-toes, and kisses my cheek. “Do me a favor, every once and a while.” We are walking toward her house, which glows like a luminaria in the dark—the kind we used to make in grade school: take a paper bag, cut out some stars, fill the bottom with sand, light a candle.
“Sure. What?” I am trying to look straight ahead and not let my bottom lip quiver.
“Don’t just do it for me either—do it for you. Every once and a while, let yourself be absolutely devastated.”
She is wearing the coat like a cape now, with only the collar secured and her hands free and gesturing like shadow puppets above the gleaming puddles. “So you’ll know the difference between being let down and being destroyed.”
Then, she is off, a red-orange arabesque streaking the solemn dark. “That’s some real hippie bullshit!” I holler after her. But I stand a long time, one foot on the sidewalk, one foot in the road, before I bend my body westward and head home.
When I was a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest, winters were exceedingly mild. If you wanted snow, you drove up into the mountains—Snoqualmie Summit or Stevens Pass or Alpental—some place you could ski and sled, then sit back and watch your breath rise: thick, ghostly smoke-stacks to the stars.
There we are—the little blue car pulled over on the shoulder. That’s my father, squatting on the ice in his snow boots, binding chains to our fat, black tires. And there, on the passenger side, scripting the grocery list in her perfect penmanship—lots of curls and cues and many coupons—that’s my mother. I’m in the back seat: tall for my age, bookish but talkative. The condensation kisses on the windows are my doing.
“It used to be when I was a child,” my father says, opening the door and blowing hard on his hands—
“Bill, you’re letting the heat out!”
“Oh, sorry.” He climbs inside and revs the engine, winking at me in the rearview mirror.
“Bill, stop it. You’re just showing off, and it’s not good for the car.”
“It used to be, Julie, when I was a child, growing up in the great state of Montana—”
“Are we going or what? You pay the same price for a day or an hour.”
“Do you mind if I finish a thought here?”
“Do you think you could think and drive?”
I lean my head forward and make a bridge with my hands, elbows spread between the bucket seats. “What were you saying, Dad?”
“When I was about your age, we lived in Billings, Montana, and the winters there were unbelievably rough. Imagine waking up every morning to this stuff, right in your own backyard!”
“I’d love it!” I beam. “And every year we’d have a white Christmas, guaranteed.”
“You’d get sick of it soon enough,” my mother insists. “Now, speaking of Christmas, shall we do a run-through of your recitation?”
“Ok,” I agree, clearing my throat. “‘Twas the night before Christmas—’”
“Title and author first, please.”
“Oh right—‘The Night Before Christmas’ by Clement Moore. ‘Twas the night before Christmas—’”
“Look at those icicles!” my father exclaims, gesturing to a row of crystalline swords dangling from a deer crossing sign.
“Bill, we’re practicing here, if you don’t mind.”
“Can we have some Christmas carols?” I request, jutting my head between them once again.
“Sure. Do you want Roger Whittaker or Bette Midler?”
“Hands on the wheel, Bill,” my mother commands. “Julie, you should have picked your cassette tapes before we left home. This isn’t a good time for your father to be searching through that overhead compartment of his.”
“Well, we don’t have to play music; we could sing our own songs.”
“Why don’t we review some of your spelling words? It’ll be bee season before you know it, and I just happen to have the Seattle Times official word list with me,” she says, laying the newspaper like a napkin across her lap.
“Ok. Don’t go in alphabetical order. Surprise me.” I lick my lips for a good luck taste of cherry gloss.
“Deciduous,” I repeat with trepidation. “D-e-c…Could you use it in a sentence please?”
“But you’re allowed to!”
“Unlike coniferous trees, deciduous trees lose their leaves every autumn, and they don’t grow back until the following spring.”
“What’s an example of a deciduous tree?”
“No, really, I want to know.”
“Montana was full of deciduous trees,” my father interjects proudly. “We had oaks and maples and birches, and there were these cottonwood trees—”
“Nobody is interested in a botany lesson, Bill.”
“I am,” plaintively rocking.
“You’ve never even been there, Linda. How long have we been talking about taking the train—”
“Are you kicking the chair?” my mother demands, her eyes brimming bright with blue fire.
“Sorry. It’s just—are we almost there?”
“What did we say about that question?”
“That it’s annoying and impertinent and we’ll get there when we get there.”
“Correct. And when we get there, what are you not going to do?”
“Jump out of the car and go running all around without my coat on.”
“So it means dying, but with the potential for reincarnation?”
“D-e-c…” gazing out the window again, leaning over to smooch the glass, then meeting my mother’s disapproving eyes in the mirror, and sitting up straight again “…i-d-u…” choking in a quick breath—“o-u-s.”
“Correct!” She sounds pleased, and I feel my toes uncoil in the snug fleece of my boots.
“Hey Mom, why are these called moon boots?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“Well, why do we have to wear the hard boots to ski? I like the soft ones so much better.”
“We’re here!” my father proclaims. “Set your dials for excitement, women of the family Wade!”
“Park over there. I don’t want a bunch of college kids flinging open their doors and dinging us.” My mother checks her make-up in a hand-held mirror, then rummages through her pocket for a candy.
“Can I have one?”
“I don’t know—can you?”
“If you give me one, I can!” My mother flashes me a tight-lipped frown, but on the driver’s side, I hear my father chuckle.
What we discover when we climb out of the car is that my father has brought me last year’s parka. “She’s outgrown it, Bill. Didn’t I clearly explain? This bag”—holding it up like a fish about to be tossed—“is going to Goodwill. What happened to the new coat and gloves that I set at the top of the stairs?”
He shakes his head, the color of salt with a dash of pepper. My mother says he is prematurely gray. “I don’t know, Linda. I’m sorry. I thought I brought everything you asked.”
“Does this mean I can ski without a coat?” I plead, dropping to my knees and folding my prayer-hands dramatically.
“Get up!” my mother snaps. “Why must you always make a scene? Now here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll wear your father’s coat, and you’ll wear my coat. You’ll be fine, won’t you, Bill?”
“Oh, sure. I’ve got my long underwear and a couple of sweaters here.”
“Don’t be modest,” she says, with a sharp jab to his gut. “There’s an extra thirty pounds there that are bound to keep you warm. Keep eating the way you do, and you’ll have enough blubber to insulate a whale.”
My father has a kind face and creased cheeks from where he holds his smile as hard as he can for as long as he can. Now I watch him wince and turn away.
“Your coat is too big on me,” I tell my mother, as she zips me up brusquely and steps back to admire.
“You’ll grow into it. That’s what people do.”
“I look like I’m wearing a garbage bag,” I grumble. “Or like a prune that’s still wearing its skin from before it was shrunk.”
“That doesn’t even make sense. Now come on!” she chides, fastening my ticket to my new pruny uniform. “I think we’re ready for an intermediate run. Bill, what are you doing? Feeding your face? Well, I’m taking Julie up to Dodge Ridge.”
“I don’t know, Linda. She’s only ever done the rope tow. If you want to ski Dodge, I can take her for a run on the bunny slopes.”
“No, I think she’s ready,” my mother says. “What do you think?”
I nod, knowing what is expected of me. “Daddy, I want to sit next to you on the chair lift.”
“Oh, I see. So I’m supposed to ride with a stranger?”
He winces again; his eyes dart away, then return. “Tell you what, Julie. You ride up with your mom this time. She’ll help you get the hang of it. And then, maybe later, we’ll take a ride…” He has his hard boots on now; so do I.
The coat is too big for me, but I find that if I hunker down deep enough, so the collar comes over my nose, it screens out the wind and drowns out the sound of my mother’s voice reciting my father’s wrongs. “When I married him, he weighed a hundred sixty-five pounds—can you imagine?” She has her goggles propped on her head, but I keep mine down so she can’t watch the way my eyes wander, roaming the landscape, traversing the trails lined with evergreens, which from this vantage look hardly larger than the little green sprigs we wrap in gauze and call our Christmas village. “What if I had gained that much weight? How would he like it? What if I had packed that many pounds onto my frame?”
I am trying not to wonder. I am clinging to the pole that separates my mother’s chair from my chair on this tram without windows or walls, and I am trying not to wonder about the number of people every year who fall…some by accident, some by prank or malice, and some who surely don’t fall at all—who see something they want, some little sprig of green popping up from that barren, icy topography—and go after it, drop into it, look before they leap and keep looking all the way down.
“Now when we get up there, I want you scoot to the edge of the seat and push off from it. Wait till I tell you. You can hold your poles in one hand if you need to, but we’re just going to glide right down that little hill over there, and then we’ll stop and collect ourselves.”
She has her goggles on her forehead like a second set of eyes, which makes me think of Riding Hood and the Wolf—the better to see you with, my dear. Her cheeks are red and wind-burned, and I can tell the dismount makes her nervous.
“All right now, on three. One…two…three.” She pushes off from her chair, and she glides down the hill, but I am not beside her or behind. In the distance, my mother is screaming my name, but I sink low in the coat and pretend not to hear.
On the way down the mountain, in my single chair, skis gently swinging below, I see my father. He too is alone, watching the trees pass under his feet, these evergreens smocked in white like chefs or surgeons. The white seems to give them a sense of purpose.
At first, he doesn’t recognize me, a shriveled-up plum in a pruny disguise, too many layers of poly-blend and nylon. Then, he does, and his mouth gapes—my father inching his way up the mountain and I inching my way back down—but, though our eyes meet and our lips part with some kind of special intention, neither of us utters a sound.
What was the right word then—what do you think—for two deciduous points on that line?