Monday, November 14, 2005

Remind me who I am

The mailman delivered a package I had long anticipated. So long, in fact, that I had given up all hope for it. It had become like something out of a dream, imagined once in the lonely hours of night and then only half-seen, lurking on the periphery of my vision, quick to dance away once it sensed my attention, not quite a figment of my imagination and not wholly substantial, either.

And yet it was there, heavy in my hand, the return address giving away the secret of what resided within the blue and white envelope.

I didn’t open it right away. Instead, I set it down and sorted through the other mail. Bills were laid aside, junk mail tossed.

Lori watched me with a look her in eye I could not decipher.

In the stack was a magazine with an article I’d written, and I thumbed through it to see what kind of illustration they’d put to it. I was not only pleased to see that the artist had nicely captured the essence of the story, but envious, also. Painting has always been something I wished I could do though I never learned how, or never tried, which is a truer statement. My admiration for artists is unbounded. I once vowed, only half in jest, that upon attaining a certain age I would take up brush and palette and sit on the crests of the hills with a canvas and easel, perhaps wearing a white smock smudged with a rainbow of colors, or a French beret, my beard grown wild and white and tangled. But that certain age is far from certain.

Lori pointed to the package. “What’s that?” she asked.

“It’s my book,” I said.

She wanted me to open it, and I did too, but something in me was almost afraid. The process of publication had taken far too long, and I was left drained and haggard. There should be more excitement, I felt. Some part of me was missing, though I could not name which part.

In my mind’s eye I saw the procession of our lives, from the first date, when I showed up on her parent’s front porch feeling like a man who’s been given a reprieve, to much later, after the kids had grown up and left and we first started talking about trading Colorado for rural Kansas. Throughout those years I recalled sensing an abiding faith that the future was unlimited, that whatever we set out to do would be successful, and here I was at this juncture hesitant to open a package I had waited to receive since graduation, if I was honest with myself.

I wondered where that faith had gone, what was holding me back.

Our choices are always finite. I picked up the package, tore off the strip, and pulled the book out.

It was exactly as I’d pictured it but somehow less real. Or more. Or maybe it was I who was insubstantial. I felt as if all the many things I’d been engaged in suddenly swept around me and carried past like the flow of a river, leaving me immobile as a boulder.

Earlier that day I had listened to an author friend read from her books, and afterward we’d talked about publishing and marketing. She agreed with what I’d heard, that writing was the easy part. Once the book is in your hands, she said, life becomes something else.

I handed the book to Lori. “Is it what you expected?” she asked.

I shrugged. “I guess so.”

After we married, we moved to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where I worked as a guard at a Public Service generator site supplying electricity to the northern part of the state. Lori would sometimes bring me lunch or supper. We were crazy in love, and young, and had little concerns other than just getting through my shift so we could be together. Life was simple and the few complexities were shunted aside by the newfound freedom we had found. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle, or so we liked to think.

I wondered how things could get so complicated.

Lori handed the book back. I wondered what it would look like on a bookshelf, or on a display, and though I tried imagining myself giving a reading as my author friend had done, or of autographing the book, it was always a stranger I saw in my place.

I put the book on the arm of my reading chair and went on to other matters. Life indeed becomes something else.

That evening I stepped outside as the moon brightened in the dusk. It hung pendant in the eastern sky, veiled behind the last of November’s leaves, so I walked into the field to see it better. A few crickets trilled, their songs muted. A light breeze rustled the dry grasses.

The wild baying of geese filled the air, and I turned to see a small group skim the trees by the house and bank toward the sewage ponds. For a moment they were silhouetted against the moon, and then they were just a fading echo in the dark.

Light spilled from the window. Lori was in the kitchen washing dishes, oblivious of my departure. I watched her for a moment, thinking of that young girl in New Mexico, and I wondered again, not for the first time, what she had seen in me. What quality or character or trait. And I wondered, too, how I could find my way back to that undoubting man, or whether it was even possible after all these years.

In the deepening dark I felt the weight of time, of successes and failures, of dreams won and dreams lost, and saw for the first time an unbroken chain linking them, a chain that stretched back over the decades to a girl forever young, a girl who would hear the door open and come to me, and who would remind me, once again, of who I am.

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