Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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I picture my father, dead a dozen years now, reaching from the great beyond to tap me on the shoulder. “What do you want, Pa?” I ask. “Look,” he says. “I’ve been practicing my moonwalk.”
I have recently made a new enemy. She is a black, curly-haired cocker spaniel walking a man holding a leash. We pass each other sometimes on the steep, narrow public stairs called the Thistle Steps. . . . I could try talking to the man, but I’m never wearing my hearing aids when we meet, so I wouldn’t be able to hear his reply.
People laugh about pubescent horniness and untimely erections, but nobody talks about getting them before puberty on a regular basis. I was aroused whenever nothing was demanded of my limbs or mind — in class, at church, on the bus, in the car. Once, I even got hard at football practice while staring off at the Catskill Mountains and half-assing my way through groin stretches.
In the months following Mom’s death in February 2021, I tried to get her to say something to me, to speak to me. If anyone could communicate from beyond, I thought, it was her.
In the backseat on long car rides home from my grandmother’s house in southern Illinois, I cataloged light sources in the dark: gazing at flare towers burning above oil wells, watching the taillights of faster cars shrink to pinpoints, following the sweep of flood lamps up the domes of concrete grain silos.
These were strange and intoxicating expeditions. At the cliff-lined ends of forest-service roads or the edges of muddy cattle tanks, or in the cricket-loud groves where saguaros gave way to oaks, I would help stretch nets on moonless evenings. Bats fluttered into the thin weave and were trapped, toothy and screaming.
You’d donated most of your organs, so the body in your coffin was basically a scarecrow version of you. . . . Thank God they don’t do brain transplants, I thought. Anybody who’d gotten your brain would’ve woken up from surgery a total asshole. I heard you laughing at this. I could remember your laugh really well. It was a letdown that I could hear it only in my head.
To live long enough in this world means to learn to nestle the twins of grief and hope in your arms. I tuck the bottle of fertility medication next to the black dress I bought for my mother’s funeral. We plant a white pine in the yard, in view of the window of our empty nursery.
I learned how to be a man by modeling the behavior of my father, and then other men. What I don’t know is how my son has modeled me, and that’s creating a commotion in my heart.
My chest, which was beginning to grow round in the wrong places, had to be hidden under a T-shirt no matter how hot or sweaty I became. Out in the desert I had to squat behind the cover of creosote bushes to pee. At home in my family’s Airstream I was my parents’ youngest daughter, but up in the paloverde I felt like one of the boys.