I bought some flowers today and gave them to a simple vase. Later, I looked across the city to the mountains, which in the evening’s light, seemed like sheets thrown down from a linen sky.
Some years ago, my ex-secretary was in the habit of phoning me at the office around 8 or 9 in the evenings. Originally, she would call to ask for advice because she was going through some tough times with her boyfriend. But, after awhile, it seemed she just called out of habit and to talk. I didn’t mind listening.
She talked about her neighbors for the most part. She would report what they were doing — report their comings and goings — in a manner that was both matter of fact and nonjudgmental. She never had a criticism or even a harsh word for any of them.
And yet, some of the things she spoke so evenly about were quite disturbing to me, and were even brutal. In her world, the romantic dreams of young girls seemed to always dead end in unplanned pregnancies. That is, their dreams ended that way when their dreams were not being sidetracked by rape or incest.
Then too, it seemed that her neighbors were always in the process of losing their jobs, being evicted, or having their possessions stolen. And all the while these things were going on, drugs and alcohol flowed through the background of her neighbor’s lives as unremarked upon as elevator music.
I myself seldom had as much to say. My life back then consisted in long hours spent in the office, and then, what remained of my time, spent in nature. So I would tell her little things, brief things. Things like how the sun had looked that evening when I went to supper. Or the calm light of the moon on the freshly plowed earth. For some reason, it was immensely satisfying to me to share my day’s trivia with her. Certainly tonight I would have told her how the mountains had earlier seemed to me like a heap of blue linen sheets thrown down from the sky.
Now and then, she would say something so horrifying that I’d want to get her away from it — all of it — if only for a little while. I’d invite her for a drive on the country roads. Or to visit a lake that was near a colony of raccoons.
But she never accepted. She never went. And at some point, I realized that to her, the silent beauty of a dogwood in full flower would never compete with the drama of a rape or beating. I had simply misjudged her. I had assumed she would want to get out of the dysfunctional neighborhood she’d grown up in. But only a relative few of us ever want to do that sort of thing — ever want to leave the world we know. Ever really want to escape.
We only say we do.
She was like the majority of us, I think now. She didn’t want to leave her waters: She only wanted to learn how to swim well in them — just as all life, no matter where it finds itself, wants to learn how to swim well. We say so often that we want to escape, we come to believe what we say. But, in practice, it’s not so much escape that most of us want, but rather greater competence.
There was that difference between us, then: She had her world, and I had mine — and neither of us wanted the other one’s world.
Often enough, after her evening calls, I would get in my car and drive out beyond the city to where the night can seem complete in the way that a single breath drawn from the soil at midnight can seem complete, and to where it no longer mattered as much to me that sometimes when we are in love our hearts can open so wide the rain comes in.