Outside my lab, a dogwood bloomed for a few weeks in March, its pink flowers warm against the white angles of the building. I thought of that tree often while I was lying in bed with headaches or sitting in the shower letting the water pulse against my back. Living is a hard art. One thing piles on top of another and suddenly you’ve got a hyperextended elbow or a shredded knee or a scar right in the middle of your chest that you don’t remember getting. I have such a scar. It is white now, and shaped like a teardrop, and I touch it occasionally if only to remind myself that it is still there. The wood of the dogwood is pink-grained and sturdy. Walking sticks made from it rest smoothly in the hand.
Ironically it’s often when you look your worst that you’re feeling your best. Jaundice, and the fever turns. A nineteen-year-old boy smiles, cracking newly formed lips, because his blood counts are rising. And there’s nothing like the hope that follows the recession of yellow, pulling and knitting of skin or bone, pathways and molecules clicking back into place. People will still love you after latex, after iodine, love your puffy cheeks or long pink gums or the way your nose crinkles up when you smile, so smile when you are ready, take deep breaths when you run.
The Canary Party, an anti-vaccine political action group, has hit a new low. On Saturday, First Lady Michelle Obama posted a picture of herself holding a sign that read “#BringBackOurGirls”. It was a reference to the 200+ young women in Nigeria who were kidnapped by an Islamist terrorist group and are now in danger of being sold off as slaves or suffer much worse fates. So what does the Canary Party do with that? This:
That’s right. In their twisted minds, autistic children are suffering the equivalent of being kidnapped at gun point, dragged into the jungle, physically and mentally tormented, and being sold off into slavery. And we wonder why parents of autistic children kill those children in the most heinous of ways? Why organizations and individuals in the anti-vaccine groups whitewash those murders and defend the alleged and confessed murderers of those kids?
I call on all the…
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Roadside Diner, 12:37 AM
In the booth behind me,
two men are talking about
a YouTube video. I need
to show you it, man. There’s
these soldiers in a Humvee
pushing through traffic in Iraq,
just – and it’s crazy.
The cute waiter catches my
eye, winks, pushes back
Room 410, 2:05 AM
I am lying with my head
on your shoulder, right arm across
your chest, left arm curved
around my own waist, and when
the movie ends you pull me
towards you and bury your face
in my hair. The ceiling fan
clicks away. I will not see
you again for three months.
Airport, 5:15 AM
Hazelnut coffee instead of
vanilla, the last caffeine
I will have for several days
although I am not aware of that
yet. Outside, the sticky-
still night. I scrunch up my
right foot, the one with the
broken toenail. As if
clawing to the ground
could keep me here.
Maybe I drank too much caffeine this week or maybe it was the combination of the moonlight and the cold damp grass but all of a sudden I felt both alone and connected, both sad and determined. I sat up and watched the fluorescent lights from your room glimmer and glint through the darkness, like light from the bottom of the ocean. I could count each colored paper lantern through the windowpane. Every poster on your wall was as clear as if I was touching it, running my fingers over the ink. We so easily forget what we don’t learn. The stars are a net made of neurons. Thoughts flash across the sky like waves, like lightning.
Out of all the times with you, I think I liked best the time we drove up to the top of a mountain at 10:30 PM, just the two of us in your parents’ car. The desert sky is so vast, if you weren’t there to hold me down I could have gotten lost forever. The dusk lasts for hours because the sun clings to every single particle of dust in the atmosphere, so even though it was long past our bedtime, the horizon was still light.
At the top of the mountain there was a club of sorts, built in the style common to that part of the country, all adobe and natural wood. All of the people in the club had gone home, so we hopped the wall and ventured to the edge of the cliff (was it a natural cliff or manmade? Does it matter?) We were surrounded by paper lanterns (luminarias, I think they call them) that glinted like the first stars in the evening sky. There were only a few trees. Their trunks were green. I tried to take pictures with my phone, but the flash destroyed the darkness, so I put my phone away.
It’s weird that I don’t remember much else about that night except the vastness of the black valley and the city lights in the distance. I do not remember anything you said and I don’t remember what I was wearing or how I had done my hair (it was purple, then, and much shorter) but if I close my eyes and try really hard I can remember the smell of your perfume. Cherry blossoms. Spicy, a little bit like dust, and it lingered long after you left. I will always associate that smell with the emptiness of the mountains.
Today I was thinking about dying my hair a different color, maybe green or blue. I dye my hair red and wear dark red lipstick because I am tired of being in the background of things. When I was in high school, we wore uniforms and mine was always the same, a white polo and khaki shorts. When I wore skirts, they reached my knees, and my shirts were always baggy enough for me to play basketball in. I knew boys thought I was fat and I didn’t care. I knew I should buy girls’ sizes instead of boys’ but I didn’t care. My dad wouldn’t let me paint my nails black when I was sixteen (because I said so, he said,) and my mom wouldn’t let me dye my hair when I was eighteen (you have beautiful hair,) but here I am, aged twenty-one and one-quarter, lying on the floor of my room with ten black fingernails and hair I dyed red back in January. I have only dyed my hair purple once before and that was for you.
Short list of things I’m tired of: being alone, traveling, being tired. I want to pack all my things in the car for one last road trip back West. I will travel for three days and eat all the hot dogs and pickles I want. I will travel through Dallas, El Paso, and Albuquerque. I will race storms across reservations like I did when I was in high school. There will be hours and miles where I will see no other cars except mine, maybe the faint glint of another windshield in the distance. Eventually I will arrive at a house on the side of the mountain I remember. It will be empty, but the gate will be open. I remember every inch of that house: the porch with terra cotta tiles, the twelve steps up to the flat roof, the strange spiky plants with red flowers that taste sweet if you lick the ends.
In the garden of that house, or rather, the part of the mountain that slopes down to the adobe wall a quarter mile away, there are two trees with green trunks that overarch a small hollow. This is where, after church one evening, I made brief eye contact with a mountain lion. This is where two girls once sat in the May sunshine and talked about dreams. The hollow contains a small, flat rock that used to be a table, some worn pieces of chalk, and perhaps a centipede or two; not much else. The dust is still warm.
In Arizona sometimes there are dust storms. Sometimes there are monsoons – actually, every year there are monsoons, some worse than others – and sometimes there are flash floods. It’s a harsh environment and in order to grow up properly you need sunscreen, hiking boots, and turquoise crosses. The sunscreen is to protect your skin, even though you never burn. The hiking boots are to protect your feet from rattlesnakes, sharp rocks, and cholla stickers (jumping chollas are secretly alive and will do anything they can to sink themselves into your skin.) The turquoise cross/crosses? Well, we can’t see what that will protect you from, but sometimes you can feel it, swooping over you like an owl closing in for the kill. Many cultures believe that the owl is bad luck. I do not know what the mountain lion brings, except the death of rabbits, probably, and lion cubs in the spring. I am glad that I met the mountain lion in the semidarkness, many years before I stood with you under the early-evening stars, and I am very glad that the last I saw of the mountain lion was its heavy shoulders and long, almost gentle tail as it slunk away. I am happy that the last thing I will remember about you is your smell, cherry blossoms, so out of place in the dust of those lanterns, so unique against the purple.
Being alive isn’t as easy as it looks. A lot of work goes into each step, each breath, every single heartbeat, and just like in theatre, that behind-the-scenes work is often the hardest. You wouldn’t think your cells would be influenced by feelings or emotions, but they are. At least they feel like it. When you’re in love everything is easier. Your ribs become skylights, your heart a dance floor, every muscle a colored streamer, let’s celebrate. When you are in love, and especially when you are loved, you can take on the world, you can fight a leopard or hold back a tsunami and win if that’s what it takes.
But when you’re sad? Things get much, much harder. Every inch of you gets pulled down slowly and steadily to the ground. The ground will eventually reclaim you. You will no longer be able to reach. Even the trees will look darker. When you’re sad your lungs need to fight harder for more air, your toes cramp, your knees ache with that sometimes-arthritis you might have when it’s damp, your right elbow remembers the time it got strained in high school basketball. Every scar resurfaces, each bruise takes longer to heal.
So when you’re both in love and sad, everything gets more complex. Shifting geometric shapes lie behind your eyelids. You can no longer determine right from wrong or reality from truth. You wait. For hours. Each hour is longer. In previous decades you might have waited by the phone or the mailbox. These days you watch your cellphone screen or refresh your Facebook page, chewing on nails you no longer have. And this is how things break down, a hierarchy of importance: first them, then you, then water, then sky.
Eventually you will return to your own body. Eventually either the love or the sadness will win, and you never know which one will win until it does. This is the risk you take by living. In the end, it does not matter who thinks you are beautiful or whether or not you can dance well or whether, when you place your hand over his heart, you hear your own heart through your palm instead. In the end, all that matters is the precise ratio of water to sodium that it takes to keep you alive, the stretch and pull of your basement membrane, the circular morning.