by KARA VANDERBIJL
It was summer; we feasted.
I took up drinking coffee so there would be no tea leaves to read. I spent hot afternoons fielding prophecies of the future. As butter melted in the hollow of a skillet, I thought no further ahead than what it would taste like in my morning eggs. Big things happened when I stopped blaming my circumstances for my unhappiness. For one thing, I got mono. I raged against the quiet windows, the kind flowers, the soft bland flood of my convalescence. When all of that broke, I had broken too, into subdued pieces, a child with an appetite only for milk and manna.
J said, “I could cook for you every night.” I wasn’t surprised to hear he’d been visited by an angel. Octopus tendrils trailed off the fork, doused in spicy tomato sauce. The brine of it on my tongue reminded me of my childhood by the sea. Aren’t we all prophets of the impossibilities of our youth?
The French poet Baudelaire uses the word “spleen” to describe a particular melancholy, a gray mood brought on by the dirt of Paris and the rotting carcass of a dog. With the onset of infectious mononucleosis, lymphocytes abound in the bloodstream. The liver and spleen are tender and enlarged. When the doctor pressed her fingers into the skin beneath my ribcage and told me she couldn’t feel my spleen, I laughed. My mouth was dry. Later, I lay in a bath so hot that red flowers bloomed on my legs.
I decided not to be suspicious. I wanted to enjoy things with the innocent fervor that assigns a mythical quality to even the most basic things. I wanted to believe in basic good, in excitement, in childlike wonder. I wanted to change, to become the prompt for a better story.
Illness was a big frame for the small, stifled narrative I’d built into myself, the lie I had told myself: “You are better off alone.” There were ins and outs to my physical failings that I couldn’t predict. One morning after a shower I sat next to the toilet and dry-heaved before tremblingly climbing back into bed, hair sopping, the damp spreading in waves across two pillows. J whispered to me, concerned. A good friend sat with me at my sickest and read Mary Oliver poems out loud while I sobbed. I was weak. It takes the bigness of a sickness to belittle you, sometimes, when you’ve made yourself grand and others small, when you’ve let a lie swallow you whole and chew you up.
I slept very deeply when I did sleep, and waking up felt like breaking the surface of a viscous, tepid pond. I did not dream.
J told me about his dreams and about his father. I cried and touched his hand. We shared a cigarette on his back porch at the time of summer night when the air is thick and warm and purple. I had to wash it from my hair afterwards. I fell into dozes on the dark, oblong couch in his living room, while he cooked me noodles with butter and freshly ground pepper.
I never considered the space between two people as a safe place to rest. I had always trusted my surroundings to save me from the people in my life: a forest to envelop the wolves, a house with a picket fence to be home when mother and father’s arms weren’t long enough to reach. But you can move from forest or glen or house; you can’t move from your own blood that teaches you to care even when you think you can’t. Welling up within me was the grace that knew I’d be hurt and the grace that somehow still wouldn’t expect to be hurt. They fought gently.
When it came time, I purchased eucalyptus and hydrangea to mourn my girlhood. I said goodbye with tears. I have always believed in making one’s life a sacred space, in dragging out ornaments and holy oils to mark the demise of something in favor of something else. Even the happiest things hurt.
I didn’t read much. I was too distracted, and there were not many books readily at my fingertips. Like talismans, I’ve always trusted them to take me to who I need to become. But instead of this looking-forward I got caught up in the poetry of the present. It was too beautiful to abandon for even a small amount of time. I sat for long quiet periods, nothing to occupy me, without restlessness. After my recovery, the importance of cultivating an inner serenity seemed paramount.
This summer, Presence was my Holiest idea. Like bread and wine, it’s an old thing that has been made to look simple in the light of new spells. But I won’t take an hour-long half-glance for an instant-long hold of your fingers, for your kiss goodbye after breakfast, all of it bacon and sunshine and whatever other crumbs we’ve been leaving behind to find our way back to one another.
"Here's Where The Story Ends" - The Sundays (mp3)
"You're Not The Only One I Know" - The Sundays (mp3)