Pale Light, Burning Bright, Even Now (Part 2, The Dallying Llama)

In the kitchen, I spread some margarine on a piece of toast, which melted quickly, and I gazed at the window. The trees on the other side of the street had just begun to bud their leaves. Then I looked beyond, at the sky which was light blue and icy cold. Sunday morning. I saw children playing with a jump-rope and chalk. It was then, I realized, I had very few friends.

This dawned on me suddenly. Like Haruki Murakami realizing he was destined to be a novelist simply by watching a home run being hit; or even like a baby bird realizing they could fly by falling out of their mother’s nest –my knowledge liberated me. My friend Nicholas had gone back east in the fifth grade and we had lost contact. My best friend from college had married and gone off to Hawaii, to enjoy their marriage in paradise forevermore.  I had failed to keep in contact with my friends from the martial arts club, and spending time with you, I realized kept me apart from them. The few friends I had were gone by the time I figured I needed them, and by then—

All I had now was my little poodle, Sally.

I felt her tongue on my leg.  She was there below me, smiling her hound smile, panting and licking my leg. I reached down and pet her, the toast in my hand. She sat down and closed her mouth, hoping for a bite of the buttery toast. It’s all she wanted.

I gave her a piece and I put on her leash. It was difficult to say what exactly dogs wanted. What did a poodle really want? Your food.  Your love. But then, what was love, but food? A giving, a sacrifice, a giving of something that you wanted that the other needed too, so you give it to them gladly.

I grabbed my keys from the mantle and Sally panted harder, jumping high in the air, and we walked out the front door. It was chilly, but the smell of Spring approached. I could recognize that scent no matter how slight, because the approach of it made flowers bloom in my head, colors and sunshine gushed through my bloodstream.

Spring meant so much to me. To me, it was a microcosmic universe, in a flower bud. Everything was in that: birth, aging, death. Every time I smell the coming of Spring, I am reminded of every sadness, happy moment and everything in between that transpired from those points.

The sidewalk up ahead on Church Street still had water on it from the vestiges of yesterday’s rain. We walked that way. A young couple walked the opposite way, talking loudly. The young woman saw Sally and dropped down to pet her. Her face beamed brightly. Her companion, a young man with a fifty-fifty hat on backwards and a leather jacket on, had a stony expression on his face, looking this way and that.

“What’s your dog’s name?”

“Sally.”

She laughed, “Sorry, I forgot to ask if I could pet her. I just went for it!”

I smiled, “that’s alright, have at it. She usually only has me to pet her. She enjoys new people.”

The young woman kept petting her, then looked up at me. She said, “She’s the cutest dog I have ever seen.”

Her eyes twinkled with so much fiery affection that I didn’t know what to say. The young man looked at me with the slightest trace of a scowl on his brows and said to his companion, “Hey, we need to get to Costco before it becomes a shitshow.”

She got to her feet and said to me, “buh-bye! And thanks!” I saw a trace of darkness cross her eyes as she got up.

I waved goodbye to her. Now, the two muttered to each other as they continued walking.

I had recently started meditating. I had read a book by the Dalai Lama, and I couldn’t stop reading it. It took me only a day to finish the book, and by the time I was done, I had a better sense of my own grief. I could distance myself from it, and thereby ending that vicious cycle of suffering a little. I had stopped staring at the photograph of us as kids at nighttime, and went outside more often.

One day, at the park, I saw a llama. The animal, not the spiritual leader of Tibet. It was just there, in the middle of a knoll, chewing some grass methodically, lowering its long neck to take a bite of the damp earth, and then slowly raising its head again to survey its surroundings. Sally was with me. She barked at the creature and panted, trying to get at it. I wasn’t paying attention to her. The llama’s eyes. The shine of them emanated a patience that was palpable. The animal made me remember that day, the day we went to a llama petting zoo. You said it would be fun, petting animals with long necks that sometimes spit at you. Just make sure not to get spit on. A traveling circus had gone through town at this time, the freak show and smart monkeys and trick elephants, the whole freaking nine yards. It was so cool—the idea of it, really, was the excitement of it. I mean—and you agreed—the actual spectacle was nothing that stimulating. Just a bunch of cliché sword swallowers with their corny jokes and babbling auctioneers hawking some stupid knick knacks, the majority of it. But what you really wanted to see was the llamas, and I was so curious to see why that was the case.

The animals were standing in a fenced off area near the freak show tent. Every now and then, the equanimity vibe that the llamas gave off was punctuated by the cries and moans of something in that tent, followed by screams and oohs and aahs. You ignored an obsequious young man wearing a poncho and some dirty jeans and cowboy boots on his feet, who kept telling us the words: They’re all very nice. They’re very nice. He also said, just don’t look them in the eyes. They’ll see through you and change your soul.

An offhand admonition, but I should have heeded it. I started petting one’s rough fur and looked at its long neck, and then up to its eyes. And then I couldn’t stop looking.

They pierced right through me. And through its large black pupils, I could see the infinite sorrow of an animal’s lifetime of solitude. Beyond that analysis, however, I couldn’t see anything. Just an infinite cesspool of blackness in the eyes of this creature. I stared back as best as I could, but it won the staring contest by a mile. And I was hypnotized by the lulling lure of its animal magnetism.

When I finally pulled my gaze out from its eyeballs, it had lowered its head to the grass below to munch on it. I cleared my head. I didn’t know how long it was since I last thought about the passing of time. You were still stroking their necks, an inscrutable sort of adoring expression on your face, one that I yearned to see given to me in moments of intimacy.

And then, I remembered that on the same day, after we saw the freak show and a small Indian elephant balance a ball on its nose, you took my hand and led me to a grove of flowers near the bridge. The manmade lake glistened in that special kind of weather. It was sunlight after rain—I could never know how to describe the way it was, the way it made me feel. Though, perhaps it is what you said to me when you led me under that cherry tree that makes me feel this way still.

This talk we had was unlike any time we had hung out on the freeway overpass, smoking and holding hands, or counting the stars at night on the highest point of the city. In fact, it is photographically imprinted on my cerebral cortex; I believe a neuronal pathway was formed just for this memory, and I am cursed to feel a certain way every time I recall it.

If need be, I could write a transcription of our dialogue. It’s not that hard to do, what we said was rather straightforward. And do you know why? How could I do that, when I can’t even remember where I put my coffee mug down five minutes before?

Anyway, I could tell you how many roses were near us, how many were pink and how many red. I could recall the number of times that morning dove that was behind us somewhere cooed, and how big approximately the clouds were in the sky. Is this creepy? You might think so, even you, and most definitely a lot of others would too, but I don’t forget what is important to me. The world must understand this. It is important that the world understands this. You’ll understand, I’m sure.

We sat, and you had a on your face the strangest smile. It was the most beautiful I’ve ever seen you.

A god from above had shot an arrow through my chest, and blessed you to make you more radiant than any woman on earth, at that moment. There was a little creek next to us. You said, “You can put your feet in the water to make them feel better, Darren.”

You took off your shoes, and then your socks, and did just that. So I followed suit. The slight ache of my arthritic feet subsided almost immediately when I plunged my feet in the cool water.

I was curious. Why you looked this way. Your eyes twinkled like starlets. Your cheeks full of color. The little pond had fish and turtles and moss in it.

We sat there for a bit, enjoying the gentle sloshing back and forth of our feet against the friction of frictionless water, so cool and blue, amongst the turtles and fish and moss. I remember the single cloud above us concealed the high noon sun, canceling the brightness from the great light, keeping the air cool and dark at that moment.

When the cloud passed over the sun, at that moment you sighed.

“Darren? What made you first realize you were never going to be homeless?” She asked, staring into my eyes hard.

I returned her gaze. I thought it was obvious at the time. “I don’t think it’s a choice. I don’t want to be homeless. I never want to be homeless. It would be unacceptable to me. I wouldn’t do it.”

“But—what if you were? What if you became homeless?”

“I wouldn’t allow it. Homelessness is like death to me. I would prevent it from happening, just like I would prevent myself from drowning by avoiding the riptide.”

You smiled a little, dipping your chin. When it rose again, your face held concern.

“Darren. Have you ever imagined how it would be, though? It wouldn’t be so bad to think about if you just thought about it every once in a while.”

Just then, the little cloud that had passed over the sun passed beyond it and further towards the north, and the sunlight grew brighter.

I looked up and coughed. This fleeting moment in time, I remember as being the first time being aware of your presence slipping away. The first time that delicate crystalline ice sculpture melted, started to fall apart. It was a breaking, but this feeling of breaking was so intimate, so slow in passing, that I mistook it for love.

“Darren.” You moved closer to me then. “I need to know: Have you ever experienced grief?”

And I answered immediately. “Yes.”

You looked skeptical. Your eyelids fluttered and your nose twitched. “I don’t think you have.”

You looked away and down, contemplating the water, those turtles, those fish, that moss, deep green, and then after a minute, you looked up at the cherry blossoms beginning to bloom inches above our heads. I remember feeling a slight grumble in my stomach.

Then I said, “How would you know, Laura?”

“I can just tell. The way you move, the way you talk—the way you say good morning to me. You try to make everything hunky dory. Life isn’t always sunshine and roses.”

“But Laura—what if it is?”

Up till then, everything is preserved perfectly in my brain like a wax cylinder recording. But then it started to blur. I just remember my stomach feeling worse. I didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now—the only regret I have is not telling you how much grief I had experienced in my life, and how much joy that eventually brought to me. I acted like everything was hunky dory because everything was hunky dory. I’ve felt grief. Lasting, piercing, insidious grief. I don’t know if you would understand the grief that comes from personal illness; it is unlike grief that comes from alcoholism in your father or an abused mother. I was dragged to the bottom of hell, and as a young man too. But you know, many people have come from hell. I know a few personally. This doesn’t mean they’re not worth it. Prisoners from super max jails come out and they know joy unlike any one on the streets of the city. When people on the streets holding umbrellas run away from the rain and back into their houses, they run from their houses and into the rain, to feel the heaven-sent drops on their faces.

It is the doubt I saw on your face that I now know I mistook for love.

My wings have opened, Laura. If I had them then, that Sunday afternoon, I would have spread them, unfurled them and taken off into the sky to see what the glory of the sky tasted like. How wet one could get while flying through a cloud. I would have grabbed your hand and taken you with me whether you were ready or not and you would have seen how sublime the world really was. Where the air is clear and azure bright. Where you could taste the joy of the sky and see the beautiful world.

But after that, we drove home, and nothing in our lives remained to save us. Not little Sally and her ferocious wagging tail begging for more kibble; not Steven Colbert heralding the advent of gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana; not our newly installed dishwasher; not the new neighbors or our parents, not anything.

But I accept it. This is all I can do. Just one thing to ask, if nothing else can be done: Please, when you stop to smell the roses, or look up to feel the first drops of rain, or when you lie in bed thinking about dreams, take a minute to reflect on your grief, and know that it is not unique.

Yours truly,

Darren.

P.S. The llama was gorgeous, he had blue eyes.

Helplessly Hoping

Pale Light, Burning Bright, Even Now (Part 1)

Many, many nights, we talked. After I shoveled snow off your garden, the poppies finally bloomed in the Spring. When we woke, we were like these poppies, as the sun shone through the open window. My kettle of tea whistled joyously, and you calmed it by switching off the burner.

A beam of pure essence shot up my body when you first touched me. You put a hand on my index finger and squeezed it lightly, goosebumps razing my skin.

Then, one summer’s afternoon, you left.

And, like a midsummer night’s dream, I started to question whether or not you ever existed. Flesh or spirit? Woman or mirage?

It was so balmy. The birds in the trees twittered like thunder. My favorite show on Television was on while I cooked breakfast for us. It wasn’t abrupt. You left gradually, like the melting of an ice sculpture. Our relationship lost definition over time, and with application of heat, its crystalline edges dulled. Our desires decided to melt into confusion and hesitation and our mouths refused to open for each other.

That afternoon, after the program ended, I was spreading Tupelo honey on my toast. I watched the honey glisten in that golden light. Watching it, I felt something intangible slide away, so slowly it seemed like nothing. I looked at the light hitting the honey, at the bubbles within the goo. It slid down my blackened bread, and as I tilted it further, it dawned on me that today would be the last time I saw you. You would be gone. You would not return that evening, and the sweet potatoes I made would be sitting there in the oven, waiting to be eaten.

And for many nights, I would sit on the edge of the bed, sometimes with a tear in my left eye, but usually just sitting there, thinking. I would hold a photograph in my hands under the lamplight in the growing darkness and quiescence, just looking at the picture. There she was, on a swing, and there he was, perched on the precipice of the jungle gym, his grand smile betraying his sense of triumph and virility. The sky was so very teal in that photograph, more teal than the sky was earlier that afternoon and beyond, forevermore. Like you, the sky as it was in those years would never, ever return to be. I would sit there for an hour, maybe two, every night, in that spot under the lamplight, with my back slightly hunched or else on the bed, lying down – simply looking at the photograph, studying it and finding it pleasing, until I would finally become tired and yawn, pulling the covers over me and pulling the lamp switch off, ‘click-click’.

Every day, my dog and I go to the park and grow a little older each time. She frolics and pulls me along the entire time, her leash almost choking her neck with her earnestness. I walk as fast as I can. I don’t want to choke her, I would never want that. She sniffs at nooks in the tree roots, sniffs the moldy mushrooms under the sticks and mud and steps all over them, or else peeing in a pile of hyacinths and pawing at her newfound territory with her hind legs. She pulls me along, searching, always searching for something, her snout going this way and that, and I do my best to keep up. My legs get tired sometimes. I now have a bit of arthritis in my feet. Sometimes, I have to sit down and take a break, my feet ache so bad. My little dog is impatient, expends too much energy panting and crooning, wanting to walk again. But I can’t do it that quickly.

Many children play in the park in the morning. One little girl walked up to me one day and gave me a Marigold. She said, “Please take this life as a token of gratitude.” She turned about face before I could say a word and then skipped off. It was one of the more random acts of kindness, and I was appreciative, though a little taken aback. I stood there for a moment looking at the flower. It was almost in full bloom. Then I wandered from the play structure to the basketball courts. Some tall black boys were playing a game. I sat down on a bench and watched them for a while, keeping my little dog in my lap.

After the game finished, a young man with corn rows walked up to us sitting there and he said to me, “Ay, you trying to run?” I had to refuse. My arthritis wouldn’t allow it. In my day, I played all the time. I could even dunk. I am quite tall, as you know. But I played too much, and that took its toll on my leg and feet joints.

The boy shrugged and walked back. “Let’s run it back Davonte.”

But then, they only had nine guys, because Lamarcus had gone downhill to eat some ribs that were done cooking at their family’s BBQ.

“Lazy ass. Ay, you trying to run, man?” Everyone wanted me to play hoops with them because of my height and my athletic build.

“Naw, breh, he ain’t running.” But then, an inexplicable fire kindled within me – I felt it in the soles of my feet and palms of my hands. It tingled and it was hot – and I knew I wanted to play. I couldn’t help myself. It was how I got arthritis in the first place. I would say, no more games, I’m done – but then the fire inside me would ignite once again.

I tied little Sally up to a sapling near the water fountain and said, “Yeah, I’ll play.”

It was tough. You know, when you finally decided you had had enough of me, I was 32. It’s been three years.

I would have liked to have been able to drive on those boys, who were all under 25 at the most, but I got picked a couple of times. My saving grace was my game in the paint. I grew up in the 80’s, when Hakeem “the Dream” Olajuwon and David Robinson were in the NBA. I learned my post game by watching them. Some of the younger boys made fun of me because these days, posting up is a lost art. They were the ones who only shot three-pointers, and probably only made about 30% of all their shots. At the end of the game, my squad all gave me skin and smiles, nodding in approval. One boy, who had a short flat top and looked about twenty-four, gave me a little bear hug. “Man, you raw, bruh! Come play again! My cousins are gonna eat now. You’re welcome to join us, if you want.”

I said, out oif breath still, “thanks, my friend.” I was sweating and breathing hard. My feet were on fire. I looked over to Sally, sitting near the sapling, tied there and looking lonely. “You had some good assists. Great way to stay in front of your man, too. I don’t know, I am hungry, but I don’t want to intrude.”

He looked back. His cousins were chatting and laughing, and one was doubled over from a joke cracked by Davonte. But they all headed slowly downhill, where you could see smoke from the grill, and smell cooking poultry.

“Well, if you or your dog is hungry, you’re welcome to join us. Ay, Davonte! I seen you tell that old joke again!…”

He started to walk back too, but I stopped him before he took three steps. He turned around, and I asked him for some aspirin. He looked at me blankly, and then said, “Ah yeah. You’re not young, like us, huh? You an old school baller.” He smiled grandly again and said to come on downhill. He would ask his mom if she had anything.

By the time I got downhill, my feet cramped up, and my ankle joints throbbed and ached. I realized I was in a fix before I even got downhill. When I reached the BBQ, everybody looked at me.

The boy with the flat top went up to a tall, regal looking woman with luxurious long dreadlocks. She was talking with another woman with short hair at the table. She said, before he could speak, looking at me, “Have you offered him any food, Jamil?”

“Yes, mama, but he needs aspirin, too. Do you have any?”

“Your grandma has some. She’s over there playing with your sisters.” She pointed to an elderly lady on a chair,. knitting and talking animatedly to a group of young girls sitting cross-legged around her.

By now, I could hardly move. I limped the remaining distance between myself and the table where the two women sat and extended my hand to Jamil’s mother.

“Hi, I’m Darren.”

“Toni,” she replied, smiling. “Nice to meet you. I saw you over there on the courts. You got some moves! Playing like Charles Barkley over there.”

“Thank you, ma’am. But now I can hardly walk. I have arthritis in my feet.”

She looked down at my feet, so dumbfounded at those words that I couldn’t help but chuckle a little. She held her expression. It was then I remembered Sally, still tied to the sapling.

“Oh. I left my dog up the hill.” I tried to walk uphill but my feet gave lout and I sunk to the ground. I tried to get up again, but I couldn’t. Toni looked at her friend, and they exchanged worried looks. She and Toni both helped me up and into a chair. I grimaced and groaned. Toni said I just needed to rest, and she yelled to Jamil, “Jamil! Where is that aspirin?”

“My dog,” I pointed up the hill. “She’s still up there. I tied her there.” I tried to get up again, tried a third time with all my might, but my tarsals and ankles screamed in agony and fire flowed through my whole lower body. Toni put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t get up.What does your dog look like?”

“She’s a white poodle. She’s tied to a sapling near the water fountain.” I tried to get up again and failed again, groaning in pain. Toni had placed her hands on my shoulders to set me back down. Jamil came back with another man, who must have been his father. He was a broad-shouldered, tall man with an intelligent face.

Jamil said, “Hey, we don’t have any aspirin. My grandma said she used the last of the bottle for her back pain.”

Then his father said in a baritone, “my other son is driving to CVS right now to get some Ibuprofen. Hang tight, okay?”

I looked at him and nodded.

He looked at me wryly and said, “how old are you?”

I answered, “thirty-five.”

He looked astonished. He said, “I stopped playing basketball when I was thirty-five. You’ve got some guts, man.”

“Yeah, you should see him play, dad, he’s raw,” Jamil said.

I laughed, and looked back up the hill. It felt like my feet were being sliced off by an onion slicer. I really hoped that Sally hadn’t got loose and lost, or worse, stolen. I couldn’t bear that. You know, if I left her to die a slow painful death, or abandoned her on accident, I wouldn’t be able to handle that. I would keep a straight face in public, but the moment I would get home, I would eat a bunch of ice cream and put on some Marvin Gaye ballads. I couldn’t bear leaving her like you left me. I couldn’t lose another loved one like that, if that ever somehow happened.

(To be Continued…)