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An Algebra of Lyricism Which I Am Still Deciphering

Every two weeks, I will write and publish a blog post, I said.

I’m announcing this for public accountability, I said. 

Six days later, the love of my life slipped wordlessly away from this world while I sat at my computer, tapping away. I had logged over two weeks of daily writing, more than I had accomplished in years. I heard Hawthorne’s snoring change, and left the cursor blinking on the screen as I tried to quietly run upstairs, so as not to wake Lucy, sleeping in her swing by my desk.

The next week I kept my promise, with the support of my friends, family, and therapist. 

Yet now, I sit here, watching that thin line blink, a silent metronome of progress unmade. 

I need to write, I tell myself.

I don’t want to. I watch myself in my mind’s eye, see my folded arms, childish pout on my face. Hawthorne said when my eyebrows came together like that, I looked like Sam the Eagle. It hurts too much. I hurt too much. 

It has been a difficult week. Work has been wonderful; I go, and throw myself into the data, the tracking, the registration of folks coming in for their first vaccine. It’s the closest thing to a party I’ve seen in nearly a year. Eyes crinkle up with smiles behind masks; the effort is made to stay six feet away, though difficult with this crowd, close talkers that they are. At times, there’s almost a waft of jubilation; we can meet our granddaughter, our nephew, our cousin/child/long lost friend, they say. I can see my parents, my older children, my students, they tell me. Soon, they smile. We will be back to normal soon. 

Some are frightened. Some have heard nothing but conspiracy theories, some have allergies and medical problems. So many have been isolated for so long they seem intimidated by the people around, the noise that builds at the busier times, even with detailed and careful scheduling. Many arrive, anxiety balled up in their pockets, worried to shreds by restless hands; but everyone looks lighter when they leave. The weight of “someday, maybe,” has been lifted, replaced by colorful kites of “soon.”

When the work day is done, the sun slips west. I pick Lucy up from her daycare and bask in her light, securing her. We sing on the way home; she interrupts herself with growls and little shrieks. The moon rises full, stark against the softening sky in the east. 

Within an hour of arriving home, Lucy is fed, changed, and asleep. Her single-nap days playing with her friends knock her out by 7pm. The hours lit by still mismatched incandescent bulbs stretch before me; what once felt like stolen time now drags by. I think Netflix has stopped asking if I’m still watching. Most evenings I wake up, disoriented, to the plot of episode something of NCIS, having no idea how they arrived at their conclusions, or even how many fifty-minute mysteries have been solved. 

All around me are projects, half-done or barely begun. Painted terracotta pots wait for their glaze; the plants droop, losing hope that I will soon re-pot them. A belated Christmas stitching lays over a bookshelf, and yards of fabric await their transformation into curtains. One room remains full of boxes to be unpacked; books and office supplies and blank greeting cards and candles. A roll of contact paper sits on the bar it is meant to revitalize. Corkboard monstera leaves sit in their stack next to a decorative photo box, on sale and misspelled, saying “kindess matters.” 

I don’t want to write. I don’t want to open that door; it’s too heavy, stained too dark, and I am weary. I lean against it, a passive act of resistance, feeling the creak in the boards and hinges. My heart already feels too raw, my soul still scraped from the last missive. 

But I know – whether I put pen to paper or not, or fingers to keys or not, the words will be there. They will build and build against the other side of that door, until, like a sinking ship, it bursts open. If I wait for that to happen, the waves come with splinters, arrowing in on old and unsuspecting wounds. My phone lights up to remind me to drink water; the little notepad icon taunts me. I carry how many notebooks, and still, my go-to place to record the lines and stories that cross my mind is my phone. Maybe I should call it Diane

A giant laid down their head the last time this week; one of the brightest city lights of San Francisco was swept away to the stars. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, my favorite of the beat poets, died at 101. I can honestly say that I have never really stopped to think about who my influences are in my writing, but without a doubt, he lead the pack. I have been infatuated with his poetry since high school. I had the opportunity to see him do a reading at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. I arrived late and breathless with my boyfriend; the auditorium was full, and we sat on the wide, shallow steps on the side. Ferlinghetti’s deep voice hummed over the words as if the world had slowed, allowing each line to reverberate from his lips, past the ears of all in attendance, and out and down the hallowed halls. I still hear the echoes whenever I return, though it’s been fifteen years. 

I loved his unabashed appreciation for the beauty of the human body; he didn’t shy away from words like cock or breasts, a titillating and undeniable mark of maturity to my sixteen year old self, poring over his poems in study period at my Catholic high school. I was already queer and appreciating the female form myself, but he helped me discover my love for women went beyond wanting to get under their skirts. Burned into my memory is the image of a woman hanging laundry atop an apartment building, no shelter from the California sun; the wet sheets cling to her, and she laughs. It is a gif; more movement than a simple photograph can allow, yet there is no need for a story before or after, only the complete immersiveness of the moment. Even now, as I lean hard into this season of anguish and grief, I know that rooftop awash in sunlight is there. It is no oasis, but a pinprick star through the gloom.

So, before I say goodbye, Lawrence, Mr. Ferlinghetti sir, a favor if you will – if you see my love there among the stars, perhaps watching the sunset between the baobab trees, tell them that I ache for them. Tell them I miss the planes and curves of their body, the soft skin and all the changes; tell them I’d give anything to watch them hang out laundered linens on a rooftop. While you’re there, mapping the constellation of your next hundred and one years, tell my son a lullaby, a spoken word song that comes from a far rockaway of the heart. And if you can spare it, send a little of their starlight this way, so I may teach my daughter how to paint sunlight, and give me a wild dream of a new beginning.

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The Slow Honey Drip of Those Young Nights Long Gone

Ten years ago, I realized that I’d fallen in love with a beautiful person who was supposed to have been a one-night stand. They had done the same, and tried to end our budding romance, as we were both in other committed relationships at the time. I cried for three days; I remember the sun shining bright as I tried to hide my eyes from my partner on the ambulance, and gazed with aching sorrow down the street that would take me to their house. He bought me coffee that day, and was kind enough – or smart enough to save his skin – to not offer platitudes or advice. My marriage was in shambles; my husband had moved his boyfriend in months ago, and I could not relax in our house. I could only work, try to keep up with the housework and the animals we had, and avoid the two of them for my own safety and sanity. My lover was the sunshine that had disappeared from my life; I didn’t notice it was gone until they kissed me, hadn’t realized the dark around me until they made me burn. 

On the third day, lightheaded and resigned, I asked to stop by their apartment. I had a Valentine’s gift for them and their girlfriend; a poem I’d written for the two of them, every stroke of pen a denial that it was I who wanted those long looks, nights with old movies, and shared bottles of wine. I walked up the steps and waited on the porch with its painted floorboards starting to sag. They creaked underneath in the icy grip of February. My lover opened the door and looked at me; neither of us moved for a minute, maybe more. I don’t know who moved first. They pulled me in and we buried our faces in each other’s necks. Their soft voice echoed through my body. “Stay,” they said. “I can’t do this anymore. I won’t be without you.”

The following months were fraught with arguments on each of our homefronts as we each tried to detangle ourselves from relationships that had long since soured into “situations.” My husband’s boyfriend grew more abusive; after one night where he nearly broke my arm, I stayed at Hawthorne’s apartment they shared with their girlfriend for three nights. Hawthorne gave me both a safe place and the resolve to not return until the boyfriend was ousted. They took pictures of the bruising, and told me that I didn’t have to leave, even after the boyfriend left. I did, though; they walked me to my truck and kissed my forehead, telling me I’d always have a safe place with them. I went home and tried, again, to fix what was left of my marriage. My then-husband would never forgive me for evicting their lover, and crossed boundaries in our relationship that couldn’t be uncrossed. It took a couple months more for me to concede that I had done everything I could, but I could no longer stay. One night, laying as far away from me as they could in our bed, he asked again why I wouldn’t just leave if I was so unhappy. The summer air was cool on my skin as I tugged off my wedding ring and laid it on the nightstand. I dressed quickly and quietly in the dark, grabbed my get-out bags from the back of the closet as he lay silently. I didn’t think he had any reaction until I backed out of the drive, and he appeared in the headlights of the truck. He stood, softly calling me in the hideous pet name he had for me, his voice childlike; his eyes looked dead in the artificial lights. It took more than twenty minutes to talk him down and away from the truck. I drove down the street without looking back, calling Hawthorne on the way. I had texted them when I was first leaving, and they had left a couple frantic messages when I had been delayed. I arrived at the apartment in tears and exhausted. They ushered me in, undressed me gently, and tucked me in on the futon. They held me until I fell asleep. 

Hawthorne’s story of the spring of 2011 doesn’t feel like it’s mine to tell, at least not yet. 

We talked about this every year, about a week before Valentine’s Day. 

“Remember when you broke up with me?” I’d ask.

“I had to,” they’d reply. 

“Never again,” we’d say. We meant it.

We were married almost exactly three years from the night I left the house I owned with my ex-husband. The nights were comfortable; the day dawned gray and dry, and the light cloud cover gave way to skies the reflection of my lover’s eyes. 

We chose our vows carefully; Hawthorne personally curated the music for the day and the ceremony, and given the DJ a list of approved songs. We wanted no mention of ending or death; we wanted to be in the moment, to ride that wave of joy and jubilation that was bursting out of us. We brought the light out in each other. As I walked down the aisle to an instrumental version of “The Luckiest,” we were trembling with laughter, smiles so big they hurt our cheeks. 

We promised forever.

We never said “til death do us part.” 

It’s been nearly five months since they died. My body feels hollow, a cavern carved from sorrow, jutting protrusions left from where my heart was torn away. I didn’t know it was possible to feel such anguish before Oscar died, and my womb became that haunted, hollow place. The echoes of my own cries ring out, bouncing off the sharp edges, sounding foreign even to my own ears. 

It has only been recently that I’ve started to be able to talk to them, to let them in, to let them linger. It was easier to be angry. It was easier to refuse to talk to them than to acknowledge the emptiness of the space beside me. Now the soft material of the shoulder bag that Sherri gave them feels like their jeans when I reach over, my hand searching for theirs in the passenger seat. I grip the sturdy cotton and watch the dance of the tow truck lights in the bumper of the car barely in front of me in traffic; the ambers and reds refract in my tears, a kaleidoscope of blurred edges. I think about how they would never have let me let the car get this messy, the grief I would have gotten for the errant sprinkles from a week’s worth of cupcakes for breakfast.

They’ve come home, too; my friends and I have talked about all the apartments that fell through, leaving me in my new place, with all her creaks and moans. I don’t think its happenstance that this house reminds me of Buffalo with its wood-framed glass built-ins, it’s layered-painted white trim, and two-handed bolt on the back door. It has the wide entryways and narrow-planked hardwood floors I came to know so well in other 1920s-born apartments. I hear Hawthorne’s footsteps in the floorboards. I hear them checking on the baby in the night, I hear them unloading the dishwasher and the drip of the water off the hot, clean glasses. I hear our summer nights spent fishing in the sounds of the radiator, the forced air system earning its name.

Valentine’s Day was about the little things; great food, wine, chocolate, and just being together, silly and romantic. There was never pressure, there was never expectation; just love, that joyous expression of it we always seemed to be able to find, even in the cold and the dark. We would dance, wherever we could. We’d trade cards, proud of our finds or our creations. I’d keep the fancy box long after the chocolates were gone. They would kiss me until my head spun, and I’d smooth away the lipstick left behind as I caught my breath. 

I don’t know what to do with myself this year. I am not decorating; my heart aches too much to hang up the garlands of fish I made for our first real Valentine’s; I can’t bear to open the tote where they rest among the Easter chicks and foam pumpkins anyway. I’ll hang Lucy’s first piece of art, a heart made with her long little feet dipped in red paint. The rest can stay packed. 

I’ll buy myself the chocolate, and hell, I’ll take the heart-shaped boxes too. Let them burn; strike a match and watch the cellophane melt, red dye dripping into spreading pools. Let it seep into the frozen ground, branching out a root system, something to ground me in the cold winter nights when I’d give anything to feel their ice-cold feet sliding up my legs to warm up between my thighs. 

I will never forget that burgeoning joy, the sheer exuberance of our love for each other. It doesn’t matter if what ended up being the last months were the hardest; we had a lifetime of love crammed into our ten years together, jam-packed like a Pop Tart. Anger might be easier than the depths of this grieving, but there is solace to be found here, too. It’s just hiding in the shadows, waiting for that slight sliver of light to catch off the surface and set it glowing. 

So I’ll sing the bebop apocalypse to our baby, and I’ll leave an extra-thick pair of socks near the bed, when the cold feet looking for comfort in bed are mine; and baby, our love song will survive.