Fanfare

Fall forward.

The Star Catcher (1956) by Remedios Varo

Last Saturday I went on a run with my younger daughter and tripped on a downhill slope. My daughter was complaining that running on gravel hurt her back, and I was trying to find a solution inside my head: Tough it out, turn around soon, walk it out? Ignore it, pretend it’s fine, talk it out? I wasn’t focused on planting my feet in the right place, lifting my toes high enough to clear the random rocks embedded in the path. I was tired, plus I’m not in the best shape after a summer in the car, in hotels, on my mother’s floor, in our old house, packing boxes, in our new house, unpacking boxes. I was trying to decide how to be the right kind of mother, the one who listens, the one who respects your needs, the one who pushes you a little, the one who doesn’t push you at all, the one who tells you how to feel better, the one who bites her tongue, the one who models doing the best you can with what you have.

There was no sensation of falling in slow motion, no time to decide how to land. Suddenly my two bare palms were grinding into the gravel, and then the side of my head hit the ground.

I sat up and felt my temple first. I looked at the empty path behind us. Then I cried. No concussion, no emergency, no one around, ripped up palms, a ripped up knee, a damp morning, I’m fine, everything is fine. My daughter picked up my phone, then sat down on the gravel path and cried next to me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t have to be sorry,” she said, tears in her eyes.

“I think I should probably go home and clean up,” I said, getting up.

“It’s okay,” she said.

We walked back, still upset. I felt guilty for crying, for falling, for bringing her to these woods, to this damp state, to this buggy wilderness, the wrong kind of mother, the one who stumbles, the one who can’t decide, the one who models confusion and despair.

“I’m not in pain, I’m sorry, it was just scary,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “I do that, too.”

“I’m just overwhelmed lately. I don’t want to be, but I am.”

“I know. Me, too.”

We drove home and passed the couple down the block, walking their dog. They waved but I couldn’t stop, tear-stained face, the wrong kind of neighbor, the one who leaps without looking, bad hair, garbage choices, mailbox dented by the very first delivery truck and never repaired, tall weeds by the road, garbage out on the wrong day, everything going the wrong way.

***

When we got home, I soaked my palms in hot water and iodine and cried some more. I took a painful shower. A neighbor was dropping by with a loaf of sourdough. I had to tough it out, turn it around, ignore it, pretend it was fine.

He showed up pushing his two year-old in a toy car, and we all talked on the front steps: moving, aging parents, San Diego, his wife, her job, his job, this coast, that coast, traffic, weeds, schools. I didn’t address my red face, didn’t discuss my bandage-wrapped hands, didn’t talk about falling, confusion, garbage, skinned knees, bad choices. I am learning to be the quiet one.

His son stared blankly at us, motionless. At some point he silently decided we were the right kinds of strangers, so he set about performing a series of stunts with his car: two small sneakers on the car seat, then two bare palms on brick path, no head hitting the ground, breathtaking acrobatics with zero injuries. He raised an eyebrow after each maneuver, carefully noting his impact on the audience.

Then he smiled as if to say, I’m glad you’re impressed, because I am impressive.

I remember that feeling, I thought.

Then we drove a few towns over to see a band play outside by a pond. Tickets included dinner and an open bar but were still very cheap by LA standards. I imagined complicated parking scenarios, long lines for the free drinks, jockeying for a good spot on the grass, young strangers mobbing the stage. Instead there was an empty lot and old strangers introducing themselves politely, sipping cocktails, explaining their work, their involvement in the community, making small talk. I felt awkward — I hadn’t anticipated having to behave like an adult — but my friends fell into the groove immediately: their college, his brother’s job, that town, her father’s job, their daughter’s year abroad, the perfect temperature, the light on the still pond.

Southerners are so different, I thought, but didn’t say it.

An older man was introduced as having designed the modern wing of the museum. “We loved that place when we were in college!” my friend told him. The man’s face burst into a smile. He turned to tell his wife and she smiled and they drew closer, asking more questions.

Drag all of the old people out of their houses and tell them that they matter, I thought. The world has been threatening to kill them in their bedrooms, without fanfare, for over a year now. Drag them out into the warm night and remind them of what they made, how they made a difference, how they were the right kind of fathers, the best sorts of neighbors, armed with bread and stories, the most helpful friends, not pretending, saying it’s fine, it’s okay, I know what you mean, the dream lovers, the visionaries, the biggest imaginations, breathtaking acrobatics with zero injuries.

The sun was setting across the tall trees on the other side of the pond. Some strange piece of art was floating on the water. A man with white hair and light blue eyes explained that the museum was housed in the former estate of James Gordon Hanes, founder of Hanes Hosiery. His son Gordon popularized pantyhose by embracing the jingle “Nothing beats a great pair of legs.”

“Ah yes, Horny Gordy,” I said, my first contribution to the conversation.

Then we talked about local architectural flaws: Vinyl windows and flimsy stairways, bad entryways and pointless turrets.

“Nothing beats a great pair of turrets,” I offered.

A cringey win for the whole team.

***

I’m glad you’re not impressed but I was impressive. My hair was a mess. The band started playing. I drank bourbon and shouted song requests. “LET THE DARKNESS IN!” I bellowed, sprawled out on the lawn in front of the stage, among the white-haired, the genteel, the refined, on their blankets, in their lawn chairs, in their pressed khakis, somehow not annoying at all, applauding quietly, maybe even quietly knowing that the song title is “Tuck the Darkness In.”

LET THE DARKNESS IN!” I shouted at the band and also at myself. The singer looked up and almost smiled but stood his ground and didn’t play the song.

“HOUSE OF DIAMONDS!” I shouted, trying something new. My friends weren’t embarrassed, they weren’t bothered, they weren’t even condescendingly amused, the best kinds of friends.

After the show, I introduced myself to the band, shameless, terrible pouf of hair, bandage-wrapped hands suggesting deeper troubles, weird but not shy, awful but not stupid.

“You were the one yelling,” the guitarist said, a serene observation.

“You need at least one,” I said.

“I guess that’s true.”

“I saw a void and filled it,” I said, proclaiming myself helpful, necessary, irreplaceable.

We talked for a while. Other people showed up. I told a stranger she was perfect, the light in her still eyes, so calm, so made of magic. It’s just how I am now, the right kind of fan, the wrong kind of stranger, the right kind of friend, the wrong kind of neighbor, good balance but falling, bad entryways and pointless turrets.

I’m not sure what I’m doing here, I never said out loud. I feel younger and older, wiser and more bewildered, at home and out of place, sensible and foolish. I’m mostly trying to bite my tongue, I might’ve said at some point. But that only works for so long.

Most things only work for so long. Do you know what I mean?

If you do, then let’s drag all of the people out of their houses and tell them that they matter. The world has been threatening to kill us in our bedrooms, without fanfare, for over a year now. Drag the survivors out into the cool night and tell them how they made a difference, how they were the right kinds of sisters, the best sorts of brothers, armed with good bread and bad jokes, serving good vibes and bad dance moves, the most generous friends, not backing away, saying I know what you mean but it’ll get better, the dreamers, the laggards, filling the void, modeling rapid descent, two palms in the gravel, ripping up their lives and starting over, the clumsiest visionaries, the nightmare lovers, a blueprint for calamity.

But I’m already free. I’m a strange piece of art floating on the water, helpful, necessary, your moon in my cage, stumbling forward, irreplaceable, letting the darkness in.


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