Wednesday, July 25, 2012

that joke isn't funny anymore

Lately I've had occasion to think about what I used to sing when I didn't know from sad. When I was fifteen, one of my best friends, a girl who lived across the street, playfully tackled my boyfriend in someone's yard after a Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting, and then she kissed him. The boyfriend I had already decided I didn't like anymore. Her act should have been a mercy, a convenient ending to a relationship I likely wouldn't have had the gumption to cut off myself, but instead of making up with her and thanking my lucky stars for an easy way out, I suddenly decided that I did after all want to keep him as my boyfriend. I don't think it's any coincidence that my change of heart allowed me to draw myself up to my full sanctimonious height and, wrapping myself in a shroud of wounded trust, inflate her act of treachery until it was so huge that we almost never recovered. So this is what betrayal feels like, I kept telling myself, my chin held at a proud yet mournful angle. She felt guilty for the rest of high school. In my yearbook, she wrote, "Thank you for forgiving me for something I haven't forgiven myself for yet."

Now I cringe at what a little punk I was then, listening to my illicitly-copied cassettes of The Smiths and believing what I felt was actual pain. I wish I could laugh.

Another part of me thinks maybe I shouldn't be so hard on myself. If I'm being honest, even then the song frankly, honestly scared the hell out of me on some level that I couldn't articulate or even admit, far beyond the delicious self-pity I felt whenever I sang: "That joke isn't funny anymore / It's too close to home, and it's too near the bone / More than you'll ever know..."

This morning, trying to escape the seriousness of the past couple of weeks, I traveled to Ibiza on Google Maps Street View. I took a jaunt out to a desolate but gorgeous peninsula that juts into the Balearic Sea near Isla de Tagomago. The point was escape, and Ibiza is supposed to be one big sweaty rave, so I also visited some of the cities. Everywhere I went, it looked like morning in the Balearic Islands, and it seemed so crisp and scrubbed and depressing. I went north to Sant Antoni de Portmany.

Standing on the sidewalk outside the Ibiza Rocks Hotel were a group of girls who, I imagined, were headed to the ferry home. As my eyes moved over their morose or bored figures, I wondered what had happened the night before. Did one of them go back to the hotel alone again? Did another hook up with someone, but now she's standing there like it's an hour after she ate Chinese takeout? Did the screw-up once again screw up? Did they even notice the Google Street View car driving by, snapping pictures of their faces, which would later be blurred out to protect their privacy? And who will be staying in their room on September 21, the day fall begins, the night Noah and the Whale play "The First Days of Spring" for the crowd thronging the hotel club?

It makes me think of the skier I saw a few weeks ago, on the fourth of July.

My Nana lay dying in her room overlooking Lake Loudon, and she had been since well before I arrived at her house two nights before, in the midst of a thunderstorm that had knocked out the power. Her dearest love, Al, leaned over her all day long, holding her hand as she moaned in her sleep and said, "Huhhh..." as if feigning polite astonishment at someone else's life story. The mechanical, Cheyne-Stokes breathing had already begun.

On a narrow strip of track bisecting the inlet outside, trains went by occasionally on some kind of predetermined schedule none of us knew, usually headed west. Every so often, a ski boat blustered past, towing a stick figure who sometimes wiped out when he would try to jump the wake. I felt amazed – though it couldn't have been the first time I'd ever noticed it – that people can skim along the surface of the water like that, like water bugs, if they're going fast enough. When they slow down, or pull too much on the handle of the ski rope instead of letting it pull them, they lose their balance, and when they try to stop, the water becomes almost a solid thing, abrading their skin and inundating their sinuses with lake water. The faster you go, the more force it takes to break through the skin of that liquid – enough that, if you jumped into it from the now-defunct Henley Street Bridge, you would die from the impact. The only way to do it without pain is by slipping gradually and gracefully under.

I looked at the skier and wondered whether we occurred to him. Of course he couldn't have known who we were, but did, say, a cloud shadow pass over and remind him that at that precise moment not everyone was bouncing over the waves in the spray and the sunlight?

One day when they asked her, "Do you think you're dying?" Nana said irritably, "I don't know! I don't know what it feels like to die." And someone in the room laughed involuntarily – mostly because it is the most ridiculous thing to say and also the truest. She had never actively done it before. But also the falsest. Because we all know how it feels to die. We're doing it right now.

Still, I always assumed that other people who were going through a crisis were imparted with some special knowledge not available to the rest of us about how to deal with their particular situation. I also thought – and I probably get this honest – that in order to "be there" for someone going through such a trial, I had to empathize so completely that I could actually feel his or her agony, too.

My first brush with an untimely death was my friend Karen, who lived diagonally across the street from me when I was in elementary school. She was seven – a year younger than I was and a year older than Rhea – and she was insufferably bossy, especially regarding how one was expected to behave when one was visiting her backyard playset. She looked like Aileen Quinn from the movie Annie: freckles and impossibly curly hair.

On July first, Karen and her older sister had gone to the public pool with their father's girlfriend, but their day had been rained out. The girls convinced Norma to let them sit together in the front seat, and since they were happy and sleepy, she didn't insist on their buckling up. Heads nodding after a long day in the sun and the chlorine, I imagine they weren't even awake when they were hit head-on by a young man just getting off work, who had dozed off just long enough for his car to drift across the slick grass median on Oak Ridge Highway. An off-duty Pete Michaels, the guy who does the Knoxville radio traffic report, happened to have been driving past just after it happened. While they waited for the ambulance, he stood in the rain and held an umbrella over Karen, whose neck had been broken and who had probably died instantly, explaining, "I would have wanted someone to do that if it had been my own daughter."

My mom went to the emergency room to wait with the pastor for Karen's mother Vickie and her husband to arrive so that they could be told the news. Afterwards, Mom felt herself falling over a ledge. She says now that she almost drove herself to a breakdown. For months afterwards, she would often suddenly and inexplicably hug us tightly. She obsessed over our safety and felt guilty that she still had her children. Why Karen and not us? When she was alone, she gritted her teeth and tried to actually feel what Karen's mother must have felt. Of course that was impossible. But she was trying to be a good friend, and she thought that's what was required.

Thirteen years later, she became the bereaved mama. I haven't asked her explicitly, but my impression is that none of that vicarious grieving she did on Vickie's behalf prepared her for how it felt to lose her younger daughter. I myself don't know what it's like for a mother, but she and I are in agreement in one respect: losing someone close feels simultaneously not as bad as and also far, far worse than what you imagine. I realize that saying this will not help you, dear reader. At best, you might remember it later, when it happens to you. Because it will.

Sometimes, when my family and I are standing at Rhea's grave, I wonder if people look at us and think, "Who are they visiting? What was their relationship like? Is this a perfunctory visit, or are they standing there absolutely unhinged by desperate, furious sadness?" Let me tell you about the picture above. After Nana's interment, we went by to say hello to Rhea. We said a prayer. Carolyn kicked off her shoes and talked with Dawn. Al inspected his shirt. My dad stood by with his usual stoic yet receptive expression. My mom aired out her sweaty armpits in the pre-thunderstorm breeze. After I snapped this picture, I walked over, kissed my fingers, and pressed them to the "Rhea" in the center of the headstone, as I always do before I leave.

None of this will tell you anything much about what it's like.

For years, I had a number of friends who smoked pot, and while I hung out with them almost every weekend, I never tried it myself. It became a joke, in fact: when they lit up, they would singsong half-jokingly, "Come on, try it! You'll be pop-u-lar..." It is a colossal irony of my high school years that I kept company with all kinds of drinkers and huffers and tokers and thus, I've learned since, was considered by many friends' mothers to be a bad influence, yet I was a prissy virgin who never tried any drugs myself.

One night at the 40 Watt with some grad school buddies, I asked Jim what it was like to get high. Not satisfied with his initial answer (probably something like, "Um, it's cool"), I pressed him for more detail. What was the high like? Was it scary? Did it feel out of control, or relaxed? I mean, were you still able to think while you were on it? Finally he said, "Damn it, quit asking me questions! If you want to know what it's like, go do it yourself!"

Here's what I'll tell you about death: I don't know what it feels like.

Here's what I'll tell you about grief: you can't know what it feels like before you feel it, which makes it hard to be around someone who's just found out what it feels like. Before Rhea, I'm ashamed to admit that my response to others' bereavement was to wring my hands a bit and then go AWOL. I couldn't imagine their pain, and it was horrifying to watch it without being able to do anything to help. And indeed I couldn't.

Now I understand at least my own experiences, and I can say something about those. Jim's response to my curiosity notwithstanding, I think it's good to ask someone questions, get him or her to talk and describe it. But the best thing to do is simply to say, "I'm so sorry," or to acknowledge, "This is crushing and terrible."

But please don't think I'm some kind of expert. The morning after I arrived at Nana's house, my mom sat with me in the kitchen, filling me in on the preceding week's medical crises, and I suddenly noticed that one of her teeth had a tiny chip missing. It was slightly yellowed, and I wondered how long it had been there, and whether that injury might have begun a cavity. As I watched my mother lose her mother over the ten days that followed, it frequently occurred to me that I don't know what it's like to lose my mother yet.

Make fun of Morrissey's morose pose, but on some level the man gets it, and this terrifies me. Sometime we will all find ourselves at the point he describes: I've seen this happen in other people's lives, and now it's happening in mine.

And now at least let me offer you something comforting to eat.

rosemary quinoa-couscous + toasted pine nuts + roast chicken

one rotisserie chicken
one box of Near East Quinoa Blend, rosemary and olive oil flavor
one box of whole wheat couscous
1 to 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 c. dry white wine
1/2 c. pine nuts
1 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1/2 c. shredded Parmesan

Remove the skin of the chicken and take it off the bone. (You can put these remnants in a pot with some water, simmer it for a while, and make a nice broth with it. You know how I love a broth.) Tear the meat into bite-sized pieces. If there are any drippings left in the bottom of the container, pour them over the pieces.

Toast pine nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently (they burn very easily). Remove to a small plate.

To a medium saucepan, add a combination of water and white wine (follow directions for quinoa blend regarding how much liquid to use), a pat of butter, a bit of olive oil, and a little more than half of the spice packet. Bring to a boil, and then add quinoa mix. Reduce heat and simmer gently for 15 to 17 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn off heat, cover, and let sit for about five minutes. Remove cover and stir.

In the meantime, bring a combination of water and white wine (follow directions on couscous box for how much to use), a pat of butter, a bit of olive oil, and remaining spice packet. Bring to a rapid boil, stir in couscous, turn off heat, and cover tightly. Let it sit for five minutes, and then remove lid and fluff with a fork.

In the larger saucepan, mix together quinoa, couscous, chicken, pine nuts, rosemary, and most of Parmesan. Serve in a bowl with a sprinkle of reserved cheese and a drizzle of olive oil on top.

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