Issue #56, Waiting

Any Given Day

Essay

Judith Kitchen

Any Given Day

On any given day something claims our attention.
—Haruki Murakami

MONDAY:
May. I’ve been waiting for this all year, and now the talk of the World Cup is all about injury. Suárez, Costa, even Cristiano Ronaldo—all a bit iffy. Ghana’s team doctor—a witch doctor whose name translates into “Devil of Wednesday”—is claiming credit for Ronaldo’s problems, says he is “working on” a curse that will keep him from playing. My boys—Messi, Modric, di María, Marcelo—will be scattered over the map to represent the places they call “home.” Surely they’ve been away too long. And yet there is something at the back of the brain, maybe a remembered touch, or smell, a ball rolling down a set of steps, a grandmother stirring soup, something that spells the dream of playing for where you belong.

What are the trappings of home? Do they go back to childhood, or can I look for them outside my front door? Sand: the drift of it through the fingers and the glint of stone or shell, small enough to carry in the pocket, small enough to turn in the palm with a grandson. Sand: where to take off your shoes is to enter another dimension, and to wade out into surf is to realize there is no real division between water and land. Water: spewing from the hose as you race through it on hot August afternoons; New England brooks that rush downhill in patchy light; creeks, we called them in upstate New York, not brooks or streams or, ugh, rivulets. Creeks, with beds of large, lazy rocks, slippery underfoot, precarious footing for the leap to the other side. Rivers, too, but that was a different kind of water—less intimate, less part and parcel of the body’s sense of a summer day.

Or snow. Ubiquitous memory of falling flakes, snow softening the ground with its pale white brush. Everything hushed, waiting for Christmas. Even the wind seemed quiet. And the mittened hand reached out, caught a flake, then another, the tongue licked wool, metallic. Snow slipping from branches, sliding in slow motion, small splash as it landed. Snow circling back on itself, revealing its dark absence at the base of trees, its swelling proclamation at the bottom of steps. And cutthroat cold—the kind that can bite at the skin, or the kind that creeps up the back, or the kind you welcome as you rush out the door, freed into that new white world.

Now you live in a place where snow limits itself to the mountain passes. Is this home—this unfamiliar forest with its dense, forbidding trees, this coastal town full of foghorn and fable? Your childhood lost in the way that a soldier’s sense of self must be lost as he gazes out at meaningless rock and searches for what is worth fighting for, comes up as empty as the landscape that stretches before him. He cannot dredge up the sound of the ice cream truck, or the chatter at the Little League field, or even the way his son babbled in the crib. He cannot call up his brother’s broken bike, or how he helped him fix it. He is lost in a land where memory dissipates. So why is he there, staring into lifeless hills waiting for signs of life to pull him back into what he has learned he must do?

This is not the displacement of the striker called to play thousands of miles from where he learned his tricks with the ball. Nor is it the dislocation of the young programmer bringing his skills from one coast to the other, suddenly confused by the palm trees outside his window. This is psychic disruption, and for that he will need to recall the day he realized—in Mr. Harrison’s social studies class—that he belonged to something larger. To an idea he hardly knew how to express.

Let’s—at the very least—look at the day—this day—to see what it brings.

• • •

TUESDAY:
Early June, and still the rain persists, dripping slowly onto the azaleas, as though they could bleed their colors into the ground. It could as easily be any given day—anonymous, indifferent to schedule or event. You sit by your window, letting chemotherapy work its way through your body, work its way into the organs that tell your brain to shut down. Enjoy this lethargy, they say, because there’s nothing you can do about it.

Well, of course there is. You can decide to say “no.” And there are moments when that feels like what you should do. At least you’d have some control. At least you’d be able to think your thoughts in a context: let’s drive down by the water and listen to the waves’ rhythmic batucada; let’s stop for pulled pork, or, if your stomach’s still bad, at least a popsicle; let’s watch the ferry pull into the dock, unload and reload, then pull away again.

It’s a Tuesday. All Tuesdays are elastic. And it is June. Any June. Trace them back through time. My sons are young, pre-school, and they are playing in the sandbox. Low murmurs as they sift and pat. I don’t remember having this much time to myself in weeks . . . months . . . years. They are playing happily and, if I’d known this would happen, I would be doing something for myself. But I didn’t know, so I am simply waiting to be needed again. And nearly fifty years later, I still wait, a Tuesday in June, for my life to catch up with me.

Breathe in, then out, walk twenty minutes at the slow speed of 1.2 at the hospital exercise group. Twenty minutes reclaimed from whatever bank of days I have stretching before me. Twenty minutes I didn’t know I still had in me. This is the day I imagine will catch me unawares, sometime when I look back, trying to pinpoint the time, the place, the exact day I decided what to do with the time I bought.

This is the Tuesday that Suárez, only one month from a knee operation, plays for his country and then betrays everything. Did I see what I thought I saw? A bite! Did he bite his opponent? Okay, bad boy biting bad boy—but still, doesn’t that cross some line I’m not able to forgive? I still can’t quite believe what I’ve seen, but there it is on replay, and it might as well be preschoolers in the sandbox, some hidden time when the animal rises up, before the diligent mother does whatever it takes to say, “Never bite, never again.” This will make headlines. This will divide friends, and marriages, parents from children, me from my son, and it will bring disgrace. This is news!

Never mind that in Iraq leftover weapons are mowing down people, including ancient Christian sects. Never mind that a soldier is being held in a Mexican prison. Never mind that the IRS has “lost” its emails. Never mind that history sidles in, a bit like rising water seeping under the crack in the doorway, spilling a slow trickle onto the floor. History does not care if it is Tuesday or June, or somewhere far away. History does not care that billions of eyes are fixed on a bite. But there it is: the human being reduced to its origins, the rest of the news given a context we do not want to face, but are faced with, nonetheless.

Nonetheless. On the other hand. All the same. Even so. However. Nevertheless. Never the less. Not if we can help it. What we want is more—more of everything. We want to bite off more than we can chew, then chew it. We want to argue this day over and over: what it has done to our sense of our selves. Who are we beneath the façade? Are we tooth and claw? Fist and knee? What do we alter with the slow drip of civilization?

• • •

WEDNESDAY:
I’m free—for a while—without poison or pill. Free to retrieve the sense of infinite living, played out against the broad background. Will I be able to play the part? Or has something changed irrevocably? July. Today is sunshine, leaking its way to the hummingbird feeders, sending back sparks from their cylindrical shafts. Catching itself on telephone wires, thin stripe of glinting yellow against the trees. Or the leaves themselves, cupping the shine and turning it back toward its source—even the pine needles’ thin mirrors are splayed like torches. Sky as blue and cloudless as it’s supposed to be: all of every July coalesced in one long memory of heat, of endlessness, not quite boredom, but bordering on ennui.

My brother will have a stent inserted in his artery today. Extend the life of the heart. Its rhythmic chipping through the day, ta-dah, ta-dah, the ventricular emphasis on to-day.

The sun beats down, memory of past suns, days spent lying on the float just offshore at Keuka Lake, days spent searching out shade by skirting the walls of Rio. Heat rises from the road in shimmering waves and everything seems translucent—seen through the wavering space between the candle and the flame. The sun flares in the sky. And there is music everywhere, floating on its own high notes.

The yard begins to tarnish. Scraps of weeds, taller than the shrinking grass. Rough at the edges, scrawny. But the hummingbirds keep coming, dive-bombing the feeders, whirr of wings as we replenish. Same for the birdbath that seems, each evening, to contain a spectrum—warbler to robin to wren. Dust on the windowsill, caught in a shaft of sun. Everything gone to seed. Or going.

We are driving through rural Pennsylvania when the road signs announce that we are somewhere between Desire and Panic. An appropriate approximation of the human condition. We glide past Amish buggies, faces mere glimpses in the darkened interiors. What would it be to know so well who you are that there is nothing to question? To spend day after day in the somber cloth of faith, wheels turning backward (or so is the illusion) as the car speeds past. You might think of this as home—green sound of the fiddle, salt stroke of a future you know you will not inhabit.

Early morning light, layers of yellow and gray, an unfamiliar view from the motel window. There’s an artificial breeze as the air conditioner blows the curtains into the room. Outside, we cannot tell what type of day this will be—only that the sun has appeared, at this moment weak and watery.

• • •

THURSDAY:
Home to a scattering of fog. But who could forget a world that offers up perfect metaphors? Between Desire and Panic. Panic is easy to define—it’s the ring of the phone at some late/early hour, the row of medicines on my nightstand. Desire is more difficult. What do I want, now that wanting seems to be beside the point? Now that everything is the object of desire.

I remember Augusts of old. The days stretched over the horizon, and time settled into one spot, one book to read, one soft throbbing of rain on the roof. Nothing went forward; there was no future. Even the past receded, firmly fixed where it belonged, there on the shore. As though the earth were not winging its way through space. As though each of us were not headed our separate directions. For one brief instant, everything could be held in the hand, or beheld by the eye—intact and exclusively ours.

I remember Augusts, and instantly I am eight or nine, old enough to take off on a bicycle and not return until dinner. Something children today do not do—or not enough of them. The world was ours to learn. We didn’t have names—not yet—for the things we saw, but nevertheless we saw them: wintergreen, shale, timothy, oriole, woodchuck. And the bicycle—fat-wheeled Schwinn—with its ticket to distance and speed and the edge of the town, where we could pretend we were standing on moors, looking far as the eye could see at heather and bracken, while above us the curlew called and called. Or eighteen, waiting for the phone to ring, waiting on the front steps for his car to round the corner, his easy laugh. Waiting for life to take us out of sight.

Or out of mind. Be that as it may, La Liga has begun again. Messi scores. “He could teach geometry to Euclid,” says the announcer. “A human Stradivarius.” And it’s true. His quality of tone is just as distinctive. Although, truth be told, tests have showed that even experts cannot tell a Stradivarius from other violins if they are played behind a curtain.

Thursday is such an ordinary day. Why give it stature? And what is a week but a string of such days, run of the mill and unremarkable? The deer in the yard grow steadily bolder. Beyond that, the peal of a foghorn, screech of brakes—sound to tell us someone else is out there, someone whose life is separate from ours. That ordinary days contain the lives that live them.

Where is time taking us, we whose time means everything and nothing? How does the month slink off without warning? We measure now in degrees of Fahrenheit. I remember waiting for Pelé to enter the pitch. I remember anticipating Carnaval: the samba schools spinning and drums in the distance. Between then and now? I’ve waited for the ordinary things: dinner, delight, an idea. I’ve waited for the eagle to remind me of the meaning of “one fell swoop.”

• • •

FRIDAY:
The year is turning. And again we are bystanders. Somewhere sumac flares. Woodsmoke rises. Here, the days are doled out as though they were precious. And they are, they are. It’s just that we don’t know what to do with them. They extend themselves. They go on and on, orderly in the extreme. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, ad something we’ve yet to discover. They go on and on and we go on with them—no way to pluck one up and say, “This, this is the day that defines me.”

Until now, my waiting has always seemed anticipatory. But this is different. I wait for the phone call I don’t want to hear. If this were soccer, the doctors would be offside. The ball called back: free kick. But what is the goal, now that we know we don’t know? There are no rules. What claims our attention? The ball, with its spherical secrets? The cell, with its secret spheres? I move in interior spaces, sometimes the body, sometimes the mind. I move, but nothing moves with me.

What’s a little oxygen? The man delivers it, and suddenly I’m tied to the elements. Hooked to a machine. It pulses. For the life of me I can’t tell how it really helps. Friday. Almost evening. And I’m a prisoner: helped by what hinders. Friday. Almost evening. Tomorrow I will need to re-evaluate. Tomorrow, which comes as inevitably as September.

Face to face with an alternative life, would you take it? Would you follow its surrogate options? What if you were offered the chance to go back, start again, eat right, slow down, keep this cancer at bay? What if you were given days and days, but of a different life? Would you take that chance? Be honest. What would you do with something that unfamiliar? So far off your beaten track that you might not recognize home?

The morning light comes later and later and soon it will be equinox, and then we will move into days of steady gray rain. The body relies on this knowledge. Future oriented—that’s what we are. And, of course, we mine the past. It’s a way to predict. And to understand. And to moderate. Though moderation no longer appeals. I’d like to shake things up a bit, as I have been shaken. I’d like to withhold—and reveal—on my own terms. And I’d like to make a bit of unnecessary noise. Meanwhile, at the very center, something wants answers. What word to put on it? What word could suffice?

Meanwhile. For now. For the time being. In the interim. In the meantime. Mean time. Yes, nasty, cruel, uncaring, callous time. It holds out its hands, but that’s about it. The rest is what you can make of it. What’s left of it. Not what’s gone, but what remains.

Ronaldo scores. A sea of white flags. Like ocean waves in moonlight. Like seagulls swarming at the dump. They whip the air to a frenzy. This waiting moves in another direction—into the long, slow wait we all share—and we are defined by its gravity. How to lift the heart again? How to return to the typewriter, furiously tapping out its feast of words? How to stuff the envelope and lick the stamp and send something out into the real, almost-tangible air? How to find you again. You, whom I cannot bear to give up.

Puff. The sound of inhalation. Forget Saturday. And Sunday. What is a day or two? What is a week, or a month? Or a year, for that matter? Days build up—a wall of bricks—then begin to topple. At which point, memory begins. And memory? Puff. It’s there, there in that shadow, that word in a book. Puff. There—see—it shapes the passage with images of places we have never been. Though, puff, somewhere, sometime in childhood, puff, words invoked this instant when, puff, the phone is about to ring. This waiting. This interval of time we now call home. This given day.

* Illustration by Anna Hall


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Author Bio

Judith Kitchen

Judith Kitchen was the author of five collections of essays, including the novella-length The Circus Train (2014), and the winner of two... read more

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