The first Saturday of every month, Madison has to go with her mother to Coney Island. They go no matter the weather. On sunny summer days they go to the beach and stay for a few hours, but even when it snows they ride the N from their home in Astoria, nearly from one end of the line to the other. It takes almost an hour and a half. “In Rhode Island,” Madison’s mother has told her, “you can cross an entire state in an hour and half.” Madison’s mother always brings a book on the train. Today the book is a small, thin paperback, with a solid red cover and no pictures. Madison can’t read yet, and on some Saturdays her mother brings a picture book to read to her, but on others– like today– she doesn’t. “Sorry, Madison,” she says, “I need to read this for work. I guess you just have to use your imagination.”
Madison is good at imagining, but she prefers just to look out the window of the train. Even underground, she is amazed at how fast the lights fly by her. The bridge is her favorite part, of course, especially if there is traffic and she can watch the stopped cars, the pictures on the sides of trucks, the things that change every time. She is only four years old, but she is already bored with the Manhattan skyline. She has seen it the first Saturday of every month, with one exception, as long as she can remember; and even if it changes sometimes with a new building, the novelty wears off. Once the train enters the open cut south of 59th Street in Sunset Park, she likes looking at the tracks pass her by in the light, she likes looking at the freight trains in the trench below them. She likes to pretend she is sitting still and the city is the one moving, all the buildings getting up and running so that Coney Island can get to them.
Madison unenthusiastically but ungrudgingly accepts that she has to go on these monthly errands. She is more than a little confused about the purpose of the errand, but has learned not to question it. One time she asked her mother why they had to go every month. “Sweetie, you know why,” her mother had said, “we have to visit Matt.” Madison asked if she really had to come to visit Matt. Her mother had insisted: she couldn’t leave Madison at home alone all day, and it was, as they both knew, a long trip.
Madison had asked why they didn’t go every couple of months, instead of every single one. But her mother wouldn’t dream of it, wouldn’t entertain the possibility. At first Madison had thought this was unfair. But then, one Monday night at the end of October, there was a big storm, and the subway was closed all week. Madison’s mother didn’t go to work, and the two of them stayed home; her mother read to her, they played games together, and to top it all off Wednesday was Halloween, Madison’s favorite holiday. It was the best week of Madison’s life. On Friday night, Madison’s mother said to her at dinner, “The subway is still closed. I guess we won’t be visiting Matt tomorrow.” Madison said it was OK, she didn’t mind, she was having fun. Couldn’t they stay home and watch a movie or something instead?
Her mother didn’t respond for a few seconds. Then she said, “Finish your dinner, sweetie, I have to go to the bathroom.” She got up and walked upstairs. Madison kept eating; she finished her macaroni and her mother still wasn’t back. All of a sudden she could hear a terrible sound: her mother was crying, alone. Madison panicked. What could she do? This had never happened before, not at home. She was used to seeing her mother cry in Coney Island, not every month, only from time to time, but it didn’t seem real there. It was just part of the routine, like when people cry in movies. Madison never understood why her mother cried in Coney Island, but in all her four years had never thought to ask. But this was at home. How could her mother be so sad? Wasn’t she having fun too? Finally the sound stopped, her mother came back to the table, her face wet with water from the sink. “Sorry, baby,” she said, “I guess I really had to go to the bathroom.” Madison offered to clear the table and her mother said she could do that. After dinner they watched The Wizard of Oz.
The next week they were able to get to Coney Island, and after that they resumed their usual schedule. Since then, Madison hasn’t complained about going to visit Matt. If her mother has to cry once a month, she would rather it stay there, in Brooklyn, where she can pretend it is all part of some meaningless ritual, where she can pretend it doesn’t matter.
That was more than three months ago. It’s snowing, now, as the train pulls into Stillwell Avenue. Madison’s mother puts the little red book in her purse and stands up, taking Madison’s hand as they step across the gap. They are bundled up, Madison in her red scarf, blue knitted hat and black gloves. She has refused her mother’s request that she wear snowpants. Madison asks to lead the way. Her boots are slightly too big for her, but she is still able to run down Mermaid Avenue, which she has always thought is a very pretty name for a street. Four, five, six blocks, until she reaches their destination: an old bicycle, stripped of seat, pedals and chain, locked to a pole, in the same place it has always been. It is covered two inches deep with fresh white snow. Madison brushes some of it off with her gloves. The paint underneath is the same color as the snow. She picks some of the snow up to taste it. It is cold and delicious.
She turns around; her mother is half a block behind her, in no particular hurry. Finally she gets there. She takes off her right glove, and as she does every month, kisses the palm of her hand and grips the handlebar of the bicycle. “Hi, Matt,” she says. “I’m here with Madison. It’s snowing.” Madison doesn’t get why her mother wants to tell the bike this; she may only be four, but she knows bikes can’t hear, and if it could hear it could probably also figure out that it was snowing. But she is used to her mother’s oddities. It really was a lot like a movie. “Allison and Jiayi just got married,” her mother tells the bicycle, speaking very slowly, “you remember them. You would have loved the wedding. It was at this beautiful church out in Flushing.”
While her mother is relating the last month’s events to Matt, Madison sits on the snowy sidewalk and lets her mind wander. Two blocks away she can see the beach, and in the quiet February air she thinks she can even hear the waves crashing. Yes, she definitely can. She wonders why the ocean doesn’t freeze in winter. She is lulled into a sort of meditation, listening to the water, and doesn’t realize how cold and wet her pants are until her mother tugs at her arm. “Ready to go, baby?” she says. Madison asks if they can go down to the beach. “Not today,” her mother tells her. “It’s too cold. Oh! Your pants are soaked! I told you to wear snowpants.”
The two of them slowly make their way back to the train. By the time they get home, they will have spent three hours on the train and waiting for the train, all for only fifteen minutes of talking to a bicycle named Matt. Madison’s legs are shivering as they stand waiting to cross the street, her knees knocking against each other exaggeratedly. “I’m sorry, Madison,” says her mother, “once we’re on the train you’ll warm right up.” A train is waiting for them at the terminal, and they get on, the only ones in their car. They sit across from each other. Although she is determined not to make her mother cry again, Madison feels unusually resentful that she has been dragged here yet again. She knows her friends’ mothers don’t do anything like this; why is hers so weird? Her mother takes out the little red book and begins reading. Madison watches her with newfound interest. She has, for so long, accepted their errand in Coney Island without the need to understand it; but something has changed. Her legs are still cold.
At Avenue U the train is delayed. The announcer says that they are being held by the train’s dispatcher, and thanks the passengers for their patience. There is still no one else in their car.
“Yes, sweetheart?” her mother says, looking up from the book.
“Why do you tell Matt all those things? I mean, why do we come all the way here, just so you can tell him what happened last month?”
Her mother looks at her curiously, head cocked to one side like a puppy. “Well,” she says, “he was very important to me. I suppose you could say I was in love with him.”
This was not what Madison was expecting to hear. “But Mommy,” she says, confused, “Matt is a bicycle.”
Her mother’s eyes widen and she raises her hand to her mouth. “Madison… sweetie…” The doors close, and the train begins moving. Her mother has an expression like she has just found out that everything she knows is wrong; her mouth moves but no words come out. All of a sudden Madison is terribly embarrassed and ashamed of herself. She is sure she has said something awful, something that will make her mother cry again, and although she isn’t sure, she thinks that this must be what being a grown-up is like. She realizes in an instant how fragile her mother must be, to think a bicycle is a person, and she is very scared. But above all, she feels sorry for her mother, and she feels she must protect her.
“I didn’t mean it, Mommy,” she says. Her mother still has the look of shock on her face. “Matt’s not a bicycle. Matt’s a person. I’m sorry I said he was a bicycle.” She gets up and crosses the car to sit next to her mother. “He’s not a bicycle.”
“Madison,” her mother says, “I didn’t… I didn’t know you didn’t know.” Madison doesn’t know what this means. She leans her head against her mother’s side. “I know the thing we visit in Coney Island is a bicycle.” Madison is relieved that her mother is not crazy after all. “I shouldn’t have— I mean, of course you don’t… listen, sweetie, can we— can we talk about this at home?”
“You have to read your book for work,” Madison says.
Her mother smiles. “Yes, I do.” She blinks and there is a single tear in her eye. “Yes, I do.” They sit the rest of the ride in silence. Her mother combs her fingers through Madison’s hair. Madison knows there is something her mother isn’t saying, but that sense of dangerous fragility is still so fresh in her mind that she is content to wait, to learn about it later. At some point she closes her eyes and the next thing she knows her mother is waking her up, telling her that theirs is the next stop. Madison is sad she missed going over the bridge. But, she supposes, she will see it next month.
They gave him oral rehydration therapy, Frank says, but he threw it up.
Shit, Julia whispers, and puts her forehead in her hand.
They say it might still work, Frank says.
That doesn’t make any fucking sense, Frank. How the fuck is he supposed to get the water in his system if he threw it up. If you’re in a goddamn boat and the boat starts to sink, and you bail all the water out of the boat, the boat doesn’t sink anymore. How the fuck is he going to get rehydrated if he’s lost all his goddamn water? She pinches a fingerful of yellow hair in front of her nose and pulls it down until she involuntarily-voluntarily yelps.
Julia, Frank says. Julia, calm down. He sits next to her. Rows of empty chairs line both sides of the hallway, as if the hospital were expecting visitors four to a room, as if (Frank thinks) all the open doors all might suddenly close and the hallway might start to move, a great Hadean subway to nowhere. He touches her shoulder and she recoils from his fingers like a snail.
I don’t want to fucking calm down.
There’s a difference.
What’s the fucking difference?
The difference is in this case we want the water to stay in the boat.
Fuck you, Frank, Julia says acridly, you’re murdering my father.
Neither one of them talks for a little while. Julia knows she is being irrational but she doesn’t fucking care. Frank knows she knows, and doesn’t know the right thing to say. So he waits. The hallway is quiet. It is so quiet that Frank starts to wonder if anything is actually going on in the room, if the doctors are doing anything at all, or if perhaps Steve is already dead, maybe he has been this whole time and nobody remembered to tell the two of them, out here in the hall. Maybe the subway has left. Maybe the room has already been cleared. Maybe someone else’s father-in-law is already dying in there.
I mean, he finally hazards, sometimes the boat still sinks.
You know, you try and bail out all the water and you don’t… look, I’m just trying to go with your metaphor, I mean, your analogy, I’m trying to say that it might still work.
The oral rehydration therapy.
Oh. Julia takes a deep breath through her nose, holds it, exhales through her mouth. I’m sorry I snapped at you, she says.
I’m just… She holds both hands in front of her face, palms facing each other like she is clutching an imaginary basketball, and vibrates them.
It wasn’t a very good analogy.
It was fine.
They wait. What else can they do?
NOTE: You may just want to skip to the story below the horizontal line.
When people ask me what it is I write, the best answer I can give is that I don’t know. “I’m just starting,” I tell them, “I’ve just come out of a very intensive course of study and I’m changing career tracks.” “Did you study writing?” they ask. “No,” I tell them, “physics.” “Oh, but you’re a writer now?” “Well, I’m applying to wash dishes at a Mexican restaurant.” “Ah,” they say, “I understand,” and I wish they would explain it to me.
The goal of my writing up till now has always been exemplified by the quote from On Keeping a Notebook that I’ve repeated so many times: to remember what it was like to be me. But the world (in the narrowest possible sense) is changing, and it is not just Didion I must live by, but also Rilke:
Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
Maybe Rilke is being too exclusive; surely there is such a thing as the hobbyist writer, for whom writing is not quite as important as water and air, but nonetheless more important than (say) sex or automobiles? I don’t think I would have to die if I were forbidden to write; I have gone long periods without writing. But then, there are those who fast.
Though I naturally have some private journals, an inappropriately large fraction (it seems at a first estimate to be around half) of my writing in the last few years has been on this blog. It’s been primarily nonfiction, first-person, like a diary (which the prankster in me would like to call diaretic, but which is actually diarial). I have sparingly but unapologetically sprinkled in fictitious elements where they made the story better; but from now on, my focus will be on using this as a platform to publish more polished short stories, essays and other literary efforts. My last post (from April!) was my first effort at this; expect more like it to come.
Eventually my hope is to submit writing to magazines, but I’m not there yet. If you are reading this, the odds are that you know me personally; if you take the time to read a whole story, I sincerely appreciate constructive (interpret broadly) feedback in the comments section.
Today I offer you a piece of fiction largely inspired by real events. Its working title is “About the Dog.”
Michael carried the dish across the kitchen. It was still replete with the old dog’s lamentably uneaten breakfast: a cup of crunchy, dry, almost unscented kibble, with a spoonful of leftovers for palatability, garnished liberally with ketchup in a crosshatch pattern. The plate was crawling with a mass of six-legged scavengers, seeking to capitalize on the sick old dog’s lost appetite. He turned on the sink. As the scalding, steaming water washed the food and its formicid inhabitants, incapable of protestation, into the gently whirring garbage disposal, he was reminded of the line from the Bhagavad-Gita: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
He let fall a single drop of soap, massaged it with his thumbs into the old, decaying sponge. “This sponge,” he said aloud, “has seen better days,” and it was true; but he kept using it, nonetheless, because he had no other. Having worked the soap into a lather, he vigorously scrubbed the bottom of the dish, intent on removing every last invisible ant-germ. On some level he knew that ants carried no significant diseases, and that the old dog had, in his day, eaten enough of them to get an exterminator’s license; but it seemed important to get it right this time, to give the dog a dinner to remember, one not… Outside, there was the faraway grumble of a motorcycle.
Speak of the devil— when he turned around to replace the empty bowl, the old dog had dragged himself into the room, looking forlornly up at Michael, his master. Thick front paws supported his entire weight; neurodegenerative myelopathy (Michael remembered the name without a clue about the underlying causes it signified) was now several months advanced, paralyzing, atrophying muscle, working its way from the hind paws forward, until it would eventually reach… The two held eye contact for what seemed to him like a long time, until finally the dog’s rear legs gave way and his hindquarters fell into an unenthusiastic intercourse with the lacquered wood floor. “What do you want,” Michael asked, “old boy?” The dog, unaware of his slippage, did not change expression: waterfallen, cloudy eyes fixated as best they could on his master; bent and patch-haired tail, splayed out behind the bony, fragile legs, vibrated, feebly, once.
He sighed and went to go refill the dish. It bothered him, the amount of food he discarded every day. After all, each dry brown nugget represented a portion of the life of (he read the side of the bag) a chicken, a pig, or a lamb. Some animal somewhere had suffered and died, to be fed to the old dog, to be fed to the ants; to be washed down the garbage disposal. But dutifully he poured the chicken-pig-lamb-bits into the dish, and dutifully he opened the refrigerator and reached for the Tupperware of last night’s vegetables. It was empty. “Sorry, old boy,” he said softly, “nothing special for round two,” and satisfied the both of them with extra ketchup.
He returned the bowl to its spot on the low table. The old dog was now lying on his side, not looking at anything in particular; the squeal of the mailman’s cart outside did not even disturb him. “Come on,” Michael said resignedly, “come on.” The dog made a halfhearted attempt to lift his head, but gave up, waiting for what always came next. Michael knew. He slid his arm under the visible ribcage, feeling the tumor that was growing larger every day, and his other hand around the veiny neck. He gently picked the old dog up and righted him; he uncrossed the dying legs by hand, straightened them, and left one hand in contact with the old dog’s buttocks, to push him in the right direction should he slip.
Now they stood there, the two of them, in silence for a while. The old dog watched his food continue to exist; time did not seem to pass, the ticking of the clock above the shelf drowned out by the neighbor’s comically overpowered lawnmower. It may have been five minutes, it may have been fifteen; but nobody moved until the first ant had made its way up the leg of the table and into the dish. The first ant was followed by a second, and by a third, and before long the whole colony was back in force, consuming the sustenance that had so generously been proffered it. As the neighbor finished mowing and the engine sputtered to a halt, the old dog turned his head back towards Michael, who removed his hand. Ignobly, predictably, and slowly, the dog’s hindquarters slid backwards; he lost his balance; he fell sideways. Michael did not take his eyes off the ever-growing, squirming mass of ants, the ever-diminishing pile of ketchup. He was once again reminded of the line from the Bhagavad-Gita, and softly he began to cry.
“It’s better than yesterday,” the man says. “Yesterday was pretty bad. Today looks better. But it’s still a little C-L-O-U-D-Y at the top.” I am amused by the way he spells “cloudy.” I cannot tell if he is spelling it for the benefit of his three school-aged children— most likely Jack, whose name I have already learned in the first three minutes of this gondola ride, who last year fell on Kandahar (on a C-L-O-U-D-Y day, no doubt) and lost his goggles— he seems to be traumatized— or if he is merely avoiding Greek hubris, if he does not want to anger the gods by naming them.
“What’s coldy?” Jack asks, genuinely, and everyone laughs. Jack is embarrassed but determined not to show it, and makes a too-nonchalant effort to ensure his liftmates that he does know how to spell “cloudy,” that he misheard, that he thought Dad sad C-O-L-D-Y and of course “cloudy” has a “u,” everyone knows that, come on guys.
But I am not to see them again. When we disembark at the top I snap in, I hear the sound that Morten calls the best in the world, and descend into the blinding white fog of the Versant Nord.
For two minutes, I am alone.
The wind thrusts against my face, my knees behave instinctively, in the long, precise downhill dance. I hit ice and keep going, faster, now slower, now faster again, around a corner. I get to the bottom and ride up with what I take to be a gay Québecois couple and their child. “Nous avons presque les même skis,” I remark to the man on the right, and it is true, “les vôtres sont bleus et oranges, et les miens sont oranges et bleus.” He asks me the model and I admit I do not know, “il est mon premier jour avec…” I search for the word “eux” and despite its brevity do not find it, “je les adore.” At the top I push my poles into the crunchy, cloudy ground and return to the same trail, finding it the same and different, finding its idioms and idiosyncrasies, exploring every inch of my lover’s body.
“I think we should split up for the morning,” I had told Morten, Kamilla and Linnea after our first run together. “I like skiing with people, I do, but…” How do I explain it? “I haven’t skied since June, and I feel like I am seeing my girlfriend for the first time in months. I’m not ready to share her yet. We need some time alone together, a little privacy, we need to reconnect.”
It does not take long. For two minutes in the clouds— there is nothing else— there is only the two of us in the world, me and the mountain, the snow, the slopes, the coldy air. There are few activities that so profoundly occupy one’s mind. There is no room for others, there is no room to wonder what about dinner, what about the spring semester, what about that girl, where is my phone— for two minutes there is nothing but us, we are the whole world, we are the lovers.
This jump is not where I would have put it. I have bled off all my speed from the downhill, have been cruising calmly, straightforwardly for a hundred meters or so, my lungs and brain and legs beginning their slow detumescence from the orgiastic thrill of speed, of the downhill, above all (and quite specifically) of the sensation of those quick shallow turns in the soft perfect virginal snow… I have been cruising, but now on the right there is a drop off, pleading with me, commanding me, come here, c’mere. And so I thrust myself forward with my poles, great big jumping motions that use my entire body, I bend at the waist and push forward with both arms, I don’t care how I look, right now there is only this.
It is not like anything else. When you have not done it for six months, if you have not done it for a year, it comes back, it more than comes back, it is better every time, on every new mountain, every new trail. Every new bend and bump in the trail has something to teach you, their similarities and differences.
I recall reading The Da Vinci Code when I was too young to understand it, the line “By communing with woman, man could achieve a climactic instant when his mind went totally blank and he could see God.” I think something similar is true of skiing. The cold air bites like a lover, the pain in your legs is integral to the experience, “one cannot take pleasure without giving pleasure,” your body does things it does not normally do yet does, with practice, wholly instinctively, one must risk to receive. And when it is over there is a long period of thinking: and now I have to return to the world, this was not of this world.