By Dao Strom
—Do you want me to stay?
—But I know how it will damage you if you don’t go.
You can’t understand what it is like to need this unless you have been here.
* * *
A vision before leaving her marriage:
A room where the furniture is only her own and sparse, make-shift. This means no bed frame, only a mattress, maybe on a boxspring on the floor. No bedside tables; a stack of her books on the floor would do, a lamp set upon them. One dresser. One chair, her thriftstore-find stool with a box seat (the top opens and inside it she stores her music books). A curtainless window above the bed. More books in piles by the bed; her guitar there, too. Mirror and pictures leaning, not hung, against walls. This last detail especially is key. It denotes the freshness of her arrival, the temporality of her stay.
It appeared something like this, in fact. The new room in the next place she rented had pale olive-green walls which lent it a cool, lonely yet comforting feel. The entrance to the room felt protective: first, a short passageway before you entered the main square area of the bedroom itself and met its green walls, the diffuse south-facing light from its window, the gentle white trim round its closet doors. This was a room willing to wait to have its comfort, its quality, discovered.
And she was waiting too, she thought perhaps you could read it in this way. For everything around her at this time was there to be read, wasn’t it? Everything would report back to her her own position, if she allowed it to. At times like these (new departures) you had to be like a hunter, or a navigator, or some sensory animal—if you were to find your way. A subtle shift in the weather, a changed position of the stars. You had to notice the signals that cannot be read on maps.
What was she waiting for?
* * *
The first lover she has after the leaving, or upon it, really, when first she dares to say to him what are we talking about here, says to her one word, Bodies.
He says it gravely, sagely, only glancing at her with his large eyes that she thinks then are telling her he sees it as a danger to himself too but that, too, it is just the human condition and he knows it. His lust is both more tender and soulful than she has known the feeling to be—ever, possibly? Who is he, this boy? He is also a musician, he plays guitar with her. He is twenty-five, four years younger than she. He has a hungry, gentle look when he looks at her, like he knows he will not be able to avoid hurting her yet still he cares for her and will feel badly about it when it does happen. He has a wolf-like quietness. Like someone with an instinct for citing danger before it arrives, and you want that kind of person on your side, especially when you are walking into some new land or condition. To a certain extent she feels guarded by him, even fortified. She likes when he places his hand on the back of her neck (she wants men to touch her like this) and she covets the closeness of his body, the sheer physicalness of it, more than she ever did her husband’s, truth be told. Her husband’s body she always just accepted, never craved or adored. But now she takes pleasure in observing the way her new lover’s pants fall from his hips and how his back holds a taut curve. She is on her way toward a new kind of love, a stronger love, she believes it means. She will let boys be boys and she will be, what?
But what does that mean?
For her, it seems, the curse of not-loving goes back very far.
* * *
Not loving, I have failed to love. I have tried to love. I have thought I loved. I have forgotten I loved. I have forgotten how to love you.
* * *
Emotional experience. Sometimes it is more like alchemy than reality, Mia thinks, its true purpose being to move one closer to refinement, above all else. Like this is how she rationalizes her indifference, her seeming lack of suffering, the division from her marriage. That she can go forth into this next new phase with such ease and even buoyant forward-looking feeling, speaking about it to others with tactful and self-reflective poise (to her son’s teachers she says things like, “I just want to let you know we’ve had a change of living arrangements”), surprises even her, not to mention how it infuriates those close to her.
“It sounds like maybe you just haven’t done it yet,” says her best friend, Emily, during one of their many post-Mia’s-break-up conversations.
“Loved someone. Because it’s always so easy for you to speak lightly or theoretically about it.”
“But I did love him, I would say I did. It just didn’t survive everything else we had to go through,” argues Mia.
“My point exactly.” Emily says this gently but sternly, with genuine concern for the way Mia might be deceiving herself. Emily is a sensitive but also pragmatic woman. Emily, whose own husband is not always dependable and whom she also has considered leaving (but not seriously, not yet) has the authority to speak on the subject. Love is torture, is lifeblood; love embeds itself inside you; love is something you value too strongly to leave. What does Mia value?
Besides her child, of course. It’s different, that kind of love, says Emily pointedly.
“Okay well, maybe I haven’t gone through it yet,” replies Mia, relenting.
“Well, lucky you. You still have that to look forward to then. For better or worse, I guess you do.”
* * *
But then came the next, the real, surprise. It was Mia’s father.
* * *
Mia is in the middle of a recording session at her new lover’s apartment when the call comes. Cables strewn over the carpet. Microphones with pop-filters in front of them. Jokes about nothing serious. Her new lover sitting at the computer screen, watching the zig-zag, colored lines that are the soundwaves of her voice, caught. Her cell phone ringing. An unexpected long-distance call.
You never expect to be where you are when such a call comes.
After getting off the phone she sits on the arm of her new lover’s couch. She hears herself say, “Well, if he’s going to go this would be the way he’d do it,” rather callously.
It had been months since Mia had even spoken to her father and more than two years since she’d last seen him in person. In the previous year he had moved from California—where the family home had been—to a small town on the southern coast of Oregon where he had bought a lot and was building a house. For his retirement. For eight months he lived in a motel across the street from his lot, on a bluff above the beach, waiting for the builders to finish the house. There were obstacles and delays; he struggled with the builders over specifications. But finally it was done—ten days ago, Mia recalls having been told by her mother—and the house was ready for him to move in.
Simultaneously, in those very same days, Mia had been undergoing her own change of surroundings, leaning the mirror, placing lamp upon scattered books, settling her mattress onto the floor of the new room with the green walls. She was self-absorbed. She was not stopping to think about her father and his new house. She hadn’t even yet shared the news of her separation with her father; only her mother and sister knew.
Now, over the phone, her sister has just told her that after they found him the police had to search the entire house just to locate a family member’s phone number.
Mia holds her phone lightly in her lap. Her new lover (let’s give him a name now, something strong but simple, not unusual: William, but everyone calls him Will) comes from across the room and wraps his arms around Mia where she is perched on the arm of his couch. He does this before saying anything and she accepts it, though is slightly surprised by it too, because another person might’ve remarked “I’m so sorry” or “Oh my god” first. It tells Mia something about him, Will, her new lover, something about the ways they differ, in fact. His way values the giving of comfort—contact, she realizes that means—before all else, even explanation or the asking of other simple questions like what happened and why.
Mia finds she is more discomfited than comforted by this. Why?
Comfort requires one to be comforted.
* * *
A memory. Mia is in her late teens here. Her stepfather is across the room from her, reading something out loud that he has stumbled on over the Internet. He is a man of science and pragmatic reasoning, surely he would insist, yet sometimes he allows himself to be made curious by things of another nature. What he is reading is “a call to action” to any who happen upon it: if you are reading this, says the website, you have been led to find it and you are one of those the call is meant for. And what are they being called now to do, her stepfather and (by dint of his sharing it with her) Mia, too? The preposterous answer is this: You are being called to let go the lessons of the pains of humanity that you have learned from your earthly families and realize your true missions on Earth as Intergalactic Warriors of Peace. As Mia listens to him read this, she is aware, uncannily, shamefully maybe even, that it makes sense to her. The notion that the pain one suffers at being caught in the psychological and emotional fray of a disharmonious human family can be but a lesson one has needed in order to learn about pain and humanity itself, but that the lesson is something one can put behind one now in order to live life more truthfully—she has not on her own come up with a better way of reconciling the neutrality of her love for them.
Her stepfather is leaning on his elbows at the kitchen counter in front of his computer screen. He glances her way briefly as he reads and catches her eye. It is a significant moment also because neither of them is making fun of it.
* * *
“I just want to disappear. I don’t want anyone to make a fuss or come after me or any such ridiculousness like that, you understand.” This was one of the last conversations she remembers having with him in person, in private, just the two of them. She was sitting on a stool in the middle of his kitchen; he was talking about his plans for selling the property and the old house, getting rid of everything, leaving. This was shortly before Mia was about to leave herself—the unplanned pregnancy, Texas—though she did not know it yet then. “And I might not stay in touch. This is something I have to do; this is just the kind of person I am. And I expect you of all people to be able to understand that,” he said this last bit meaningfully, raising his eyebrows at her. But this was just like him, to condemn and redeem you in the very same moment.
Mia, in response, had sat there on the stool across the kitchen counter from him and cried, dutifully playing the part of over-sensitive daughter, as was her role in the family, to complement his (and everyone else’s too, really), as stoic, unassailable, unemotional: and why always her in this role, as able to understand the other’s need to leave, to lament and plea against it, but always knowing ultimately that you will do nothing, in the end, because it would not be fair of you, not to let them go?
* * *
But it had been this way for a long time, hadn’t it? Theirs a family mythology founded on the necessity of leavetakings. The countries behind them—their mother from Vietnam, their father from Denmark. Their mother could not return for reasons that were political and dramatic and distinct; their father had never returned, he would never say why exactly.
* * *
When Mia and her brother and sister get out there, this is what they find their father has left behind: a nearly empty, just-built house with mostly only brand-new appliances in it. Two beds (one in the guest room, one in the master), an entertainment center and one armchair; kitchen wares. Little in the house is familiar to them and this is also the first time any of them has seen the house. The only place in their father’s vacant new home where they feel his presence is in the bedroom closet that contains his clothes. But his clothes too, as they always were, are uniform. Repeating hangers of the same kinds of slacks and jeans, neutral-colored sweatshirts and button-down shirts, already ironed. No ties, no sports coats; hiking boots in place of dress shoes. The closet of a retired man. Also in the closet—the hobby of the retired man—they find his gleaming, sturdy, apparatical-looking astronomical observation equipment: telescopes and tripods.
(Six or seven years earlier, when he had first begun with it all, Mia had intuited that her stepfather’s interest in the stars was, in effect, one way of preparing to die. But, as the years went on, she had forgotten about it—that initial intuition.)
The very next morning, Mia’s sister, Mel, is up early clearing the closet, stuffing all of his clothing into black plastic bags.
By lunchtime, the closet is empty (save for the telescopes), the bags of clothes already dropped off at a local thrift shop.
* * *
On the afternoon before she received the phone call about her stepfather, Mia was making love with her new lover in his bedroom in the apartment complex where he lives, a place inhabited by the alternative grunge, the proudly poor, the coffee shop and barroom intelligentsia of the city. A run-down, easy place with frequently stained carpets and a pool that has more than once been drunkenly peed into. Her new lover complains about the management not caring enough to keep the apartment stairs in good repair and this betrays the background he really comes out of, she thinks, one of money and good society—good Southern society, that is—a fact that in his young, new and first, self-reinvention, there in Texas where he has encountered her, he now is hiding.
He will divulge it to her later. That there is a trust fund in his name. That there is enough money, if he wanted, to go anywhere he pleases. That he recognizes a difference between himself and others his age when he finds himself uneasy answering the question, “Is your truck paid off?”
Because it is.
The new lover is from North Carolina; Texas is the furthest he has ever lived from his home state.
He had helped her move a few weeks earlier. There, she had learned another difference between them: that he expected history of people. They were moving her dresser up the stairs to her new bedroom. When they bumped it against a wall, he expressed concern. “This didn’t belong to your great-grandmother or something, did it?” But the dresser had come from a thrift store. She owned nothing inherited from family. She carried nothing with her she had not acquired, simply, emptily, on her own.
He also had been reluctant to move the dresser with just the two of them. He thought they needed “some guys” to help with the lifting. He hadn’t expected her to be able to hold up her end.
This is another expectation she will fail to meet, she must soon realize, with certain men and in Texas.
Their afternoon of lovemaking. She is still in a tentative stage regarding dating and finds it odd to spend time with other people, in their homes, in their down-spaces. To drop by for an afternoon just to visit, “to hang out” without a plan, and to end up in his bed. They have already established that this is a noncommittal type thing; it is not really a thing at all. She has agreed to this, claims it is all she wants at the time, too. And she has ignored the warning signs already. The first night, when they sat in the dark on the uncomfortable loveseat in his living room, and she asked him, Do you see a future in this? he had replied in these words exactly: No. Maybe. No. And then, the worst part, the clincher, when her gut sank and she had to look down to breathe, he noticed and placed his hand on her back to comfort her. He said nothing, just ran his hand down her back. This was worse because it showed his capacity and intuition, the things she would love him for that he would not, in the end, be willing to inhabit for her.
And yet, she thinks, he makes love to me like he feels it too, what I feel. That is what she feels, what she wants to feel, what she believes and wants to believe. Perhaps for moments, for a second or two at a time, it is true, or true enough at least. To some degree he surrenders to meeting her intensity or is drawn to it or fed by it, somehow. But there is not clarity in this space; it is like a soup, a lazy afternoon haze, that she sinks into, making love—fucking—in the afternoon in this bedroom with no sunlight, blinds the same drab color as the walls, closed against the outside world. He wants reserved good times and ease, and she must pretend she is not complicated, that she is just a girl. She is sexy, she is coveted, a slight mystery, but that is all. Part of her is relieved by this, the idea of herself as just a girl, having the still-innocent, still-unmatured power that girls have over boys. Which reminds her. At a concert one night (the closest thing to an official date they’ve been on) he ran into someone he knew and this person greeted her warmly, asking Will, Hey, is this your girl? She had been surprised by how she enjoyed being called “his girl.” But he evaded the question by replying, “This is the songwriter I been telling ya’ll about in the band I’ve been playing with.” The concert that night was a solo performance by a singer-songwriter famous in the independent music world, who hailed from somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. His music carried with it a beautified moodiness and resigned wisdom, a character of wreckedness. Folk pathos steeped in principled cynicism, drugs, beautiful despondency. This singer would die less than a year later of a supposed overdose. At the time Mia was only on the periphery of knowing anything about him. But the mention of a town name in one song, and its melody, made her reach into her purse for her pen and notebook that she always carried with her and she quickly, intently, scratched in it some notes, the amorphous shape of a lyric appearing in her mind, a brief flash of not memory, but the sensation (poignant, almost pleasurable) of remembering—yet another somebody from her past. Later, she would find in her notebook the words Oh Pasadena falling off the lines, the letters losing their shape, the way she writes when she is writing in the dark, trying to record her dreams; she would remember she had been a little drunk, also high on the music, and in her mind had believed she was addressing Pasadena as if it were a living entity, a being that was somehow holding onto something of hers. That southern California ghost from her post-adolescence. She noted her new lover watching her making notes. That was back when it was still a novelty—his admiration, his curiosity, for her as a writer.
Now she stares at the ceiling. She is sated, she is present in her body. She feels alive, rarefied, a physical, sensually capable being. She realizes that men before have not allowed her to be this, the ones who fell in love with her for the kind of woman she was not, that is, they took her to be “not like other girls,” which had placed upon her instead a persona of integrity resulting in a different feeling—a need for self-restraint—than what she feels now, being with the one who desires her only, mostly and simply, for this: Bodies. As he has put it. Her orgasm now brings her into a fullness with herself, a power even, that is also vulnerable and sweet and real. It is as if the ghost of herself that usually hovers partly out of her skin is pulled suddenly, upon the sensation of release, back into the shell of her body, and she is a normal person, a normal animal, satisfied singly by the sensation of living, not lamenting or questioning the condition any longer. She occupies herself, for once, at last. Life, death. Later, when she thinks about it, it will haunt her like an equation. Herself in this room with this pale Southern boy, making love, succeeding at last at inhabiting her body; her stepfather two thousand miles away, falling to the floor, struggling to stay in his body but riding the line, fighting and fighting. Does he fight to go or to stay?
When he fell, he was alone.
He lay unconscious in the house for two days. It was the dog running about unattended outside (her father had managed eventually to pull himself across the floor—this took him hours—to open the front door and let out the dog) who finally caught the attention of a neighbor.
On her first evening out there, Mia takes a walk alone along the shore. Her stepfather passed in the morning and she arrived from Texas in the afternoon. A man on the plane, after asking where and why she was traveling, had remarked, with sympathy, “You look too young to lose a father in that way.”
Mia’s reply was, “Oh, I’m probably not as young as you think.”
On the beach she picks up a rock. She is trying not to be sentimental and has specifically told herself she will take nothing from the beach, no souvenir of the moment, the day. But it stands out to her—round and flat, dark-gray with uneven thick veins of white—and she bends and scoops it up, quickly, without thinking. She plucks it out of the wet sand and puts it in her pocket.
The new lover’s voice, the first time Mia heard it, came to her through the phone. An answer to a musician’s ad she had placed some weeks before leaving her husband. This was just in the cycle of things, separate from the leavetaking that was, however naturally or unnaturally, being set in motion. The new voice coming invisibly at her sounded guarded and mellow, with a Southern—not Texan—accent. She learned he was from North Carolina. (The potential of his credibility was immediately daunting to her: she knew he could rightly claim the music she loved as “the music of my people,” while she would only ever be able to claim adoration.) As they were arranging a time to meet, it occurred to her to be cautious, girlish even, and she hesitated, saying, “I’m not sure I should tell you where I live.” He didn’t laugh but quickly, seriously, assured her, “I’m a normal guy, you don’t have to worry about anything like that.” She hadn’t been truly worried; she gave him the directions.
Now, she sees that the dynamic between them was set in place there.
How was his voice when he gave her that rote reassurance? I’m a normal guy. In full and accepting knowledge that some were not, and with no surprise that a woman might harbor such a hesitation.
The next afternoon was significant, and she knew it even then. A phone call came from the owner of the house Mia and her husband rented, informing her the house had been sold and they would have to move out in the next thirty days. Mia knew this meant the time had come (it had been approaching for a while now, like an achingly slow, incoming wave) for them to move, in their separate directions. She had just gotten off the phone with the landlord and was standing outside, looking at the line of trees at the back of the large yard, when his truck came up the driveway, and he got out.
He looked like what he said he was—I’m a normal guy—a pale, leery-eyed white boy from a morally dubious Southern background (later she would figure out the assailing points of this were, for her, that he had a liberal heart, a mildly deviant nature, and a conservative Christian upbringing he was still ambiguously loyal to); he smelled of cigarettes and instrument case leather; he had a wary, old-souled look to his eyes, like someone wisely but resignedly ashamed of history, ancestors you could not escape, but neither would he ever dream of trying to. They moved into the living room and sat with their instruments across their laps. She was nervous and said so, to give herself leave to make mistakes. She played her first song and he said, “Good stuff,” noncommittally. They played some more and at one moment he paused to wipe his palms against his jeans and admitted, though he did not appear so, that he was a little nervous too. She knew then that he was the one she’d been waiting for. By this she had meant: musically.
Their parents had not lived together in the past fifteen years. Although they were not divorced, they lived in separate towns, Mia’s mother commuting on occasional weekends from the Central Valley back up to the foothills where their father remained in the family home the kids had grown up in. Their relationship had been platonic for years; even since Mia’s high school years, her parents had been sleeping in separate rooms. It did not either need to be mentioned that their mother had more of a social life—all her many Vietnamese ties that, though scattered, had, like her, rebounded in America—possibly even other romantic involvements, than did their father, whose only friend would’ve appeared to be the next-door neighbor with whom he traded tools and debated, sometimes jauntily, sometimes heatedly, over their differing religious and political perspectives, standing often on one another’s driveways as they did so. He did not have any other friends who ever visited him and he did not go anywhere to visit anybody. But then he had always been like that, somewhat of a hermit, one of that breed of misanthrope (they liked to joke) who was better off with animals than with people. But it could neither be denied that he was a good provider, and that he had loved them despite his inabilities to express so.
They could have divorced, at any time. They had almost divorced when Mia was in 7th grade, her sister Mel in 3rd grade. Andrew, their brother, the oldest, had already moved out by then—or was driven out, to be precise, by their stepfather who had said to him when he turned eighteen (even though he still had a year of high school left), “If you have any pride in yourself, you would move out.” Mia remembers sitting on the staircase listening to their parents shouting, their mother making threats to take the kids and leave, their father making threats to disappear if they did: “You’ll never find me again. Never. Believe me, I know how to do that.”
This had to be the threat he had never spoken out loud to his mother and sister in Denmark, but had surely enacted.
Mia and her sister sat on the stairs crying their eyes out, and in the end their parents did not divorce. He stayed in their lives, the fights waging on, habitually now, and then their mother went back to college, she indulged wholeheartedly in her studies and got the degrees she had dreamed of since she was a girl in Vietnam where such dreams would’ve been (they heard no end of it) absolutely unrealizable. One year she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study the special economic zones in Hong Kong. Then she reentered the job market. She was offered a job at a newspaper in another town and so she moved there, into her own apartment, leaving their father behind in the old house. It all made good sense, practicalsense. You could not be emotional about such decisions.
Mia had been supportive of her mother’s fellowship to Hong Kong. She was in her first year of college herself then. But her sister Mel was just entering high school; her mother taking the fellowship had meant leaving Mel alone with her father for that entire year. That Christmas, Mia went to lengths making up a family scrapbook to send to her mother in Hong Kong, gluing in old photos, filling the margins with poems and recollections. She designated a page-spread for each of her siblings and their father, leaving blank space for them each to write to her mother, and she sent the scrapbook around in the mail to each of them, before sending it on to Hong Kong.
Years later Mia found this scrapbook in a file drawer in her mother’s Stockton apartment. Flipping through it, she came upon the page she had left for her father. It was blank, and on it her mother had taped a yellow post-it note: “My own husband, he refuses to write to me?”
Their mother is like a child that week. Her moods are rash; she lashes out at her children often. Sure, you had to temper your judgment of her behavior, her contradictions and flare-ups, due to her state of new widowhood; certainly, yes, there was that. But all three of her children find her impossible at least at moments during that week. And the thing that has set her off. Understandably, there are the hospital bills to be concerned with and she is bound to feel the stress coming on, having to deal with such contingencies in the face of his sudden decamping from their lives. But her insecurity is laced by an extra, underlying, small omission: that there is no way to know, and now never will be, the truth behind the matter of the unchecked box on that form—whether it was a mere oversight, or a deliberate decision on his part, to not check the box that would have allowed his veteran’s pay to be continued in his wife’s name.
Only Mel was there when their mother discovered it, going through his papers.
By that time he had been in the hospital for two days and had fallen completely from consciousness. When she discovered the unmarked box on his pension form, their mother reacted bitterly—laying the papers out before Mel, declaring he had done it on purpose. Then she refused to go back and visit him at the hospital. She and Mel fought. Mel was disgusted with their mother. But she went back to the hospital soon enough. His body was failing despite the life support the hospital had put him on, and the hospital needed his spouse’s approval to disconnect him. On that morning was when Mia boarded the plane from Texas.
That week their mother is stern; she is weepy. She alternates between bouts of indecision and sudden decisiveness. In turn each of her children tries to step in to help her organize, make lists, propose logical decisions toward the house, et cetera, and each in turn fails to maintain either purpose or patience with her. She accuses them—of callousness, of coveting the big-screen TV or this or that other item, she lashes out at them, and even though they understand it is the general anger and sorrow of the widow in the face of a world ceaselessly moving on, they unwittingly allow themselves to become riled in response to her venom and outbursts.
One afternoon, they pack up the kitchenwares because she has decided to sell the house immediately; the next day they are unpacking those same boxes, placing silverware back into drawers. A real estate agent comes and goes.
The suspicion in all of their minds, however, is that it very well might not have been an accident. That unchecked box. Mel is the most blunt about it:
“She was always taking from him. Always. She’s always been so selfish.”
And when they overhear their mother on the phone haggling with the real estate agent over he house-listing price (their mother wants to list it higher than recommended), Mia watches as her sister rolls her eyes toward the ceiling and mouthes the words: Sorry, Dad.
Mel is his only child by blood; perhaps her loyalty is stronger for that reason. She has also never forgiven their mother for leaving for Hong Kong when she did, though she will cite their mother’s absence as going back even further, as far back as Mel can remember, when as a child Mel spent more time at a neighbor’s house down the road than she ever did in their own home.
Mia only dimly remembers how she spent those days herself.
The warm fur of a pony, the intricate cracked-grid geography of the dried-mud lake basin nearby—as far as she can recall those were her childhood escapes: sensations, surroundings, the animals. Dirt darkening the lined skin on her knuckles in the summertime. Mel ran to other people, while Mia—the introverted one, the weird one, the quiet one—took refuge in (what kind of escape did this qualify as exactly?) the textures of nature.
* * *
Another memory. Childhood. Mia is in her bedroom playing with her dolls on the floor with her sister. Their father is downstairs. Mia’s mother comes into the room, lays on the floor with her daughters, at one point turns over onto her stomach, propped up on her elbows. She is fiddling with her wedding ring, wriggles it off her finger, lets it lie in her palm. Mia is unsettled by the way the wedding ring, even removed, has left indentations on her mother’s finger, as she is also by the way the tiny circle of dull metal appears—so easy to drop and lose—resting in the palm of her mother’s hand. What do you think happen if I go downstairs right now, and I hand this to Daddy? She always called him Daddy, as if she were one of them. Later, she would claim they did this initially, when Mia and her brother were still young, still adjusting to the new language, the new country, so as not to confuse you kids, as she put it. Mia’s mother would later also say that when they came over in 1975—as part of that first wave out of the cataclysm that was Vietnam—there were not yet in place the types of refugee aid programs that became more readily available in the 1980s. Or at least she did not know about such programs in 1975, when she met Mia’s father.
Stepfather: to be precise.
Mia’s mother slips the ring back on, smiles ruefully. You know what happen if I do that? All hell break loose.
One afternoon in the middle of that week, Mia finds her stepfather’s rock collection.
A clear plastic container holding at least a hundred of them—agates—similar to the one she found on the beach on her first evening there.
For the next few days, she pores over the rocks, sitting on the carpet by the living room window, while around her the rest of her family is more preoccupied with, what else could you call it, but the more banal aspects of the aftermath. Bills need to be paid, the cable subscription cancelled, the cremation arranged. The gas dryer in the utility room needs to be exchanged for an electric one, the garage opener properly wired. This is their brother’s territory. There are not any phone jacks in the house so Mia’s brother worms beneath the house, strings wires, drills holes into baseboards. Mia pulls up the lengths of cable her brother pokes up through the baseboard holes from the other side, helping out as she can. But it is only the rocks that stir in her any true feeling of responsibility—these are the only items she feels an honest (or possessive) concern over what should happen to them next. They are ocean rocks, tumbled smooth by years of life in the water, and washed ashore. He had collected them, presumably on his daily walks along the windy beach with his dog. (The dog is Mel’s chief concern; plying her ways with people and her ability to make quick acquaintances, she has already found the dog a new owner in town.) Mia meanwhile stares at the rocks. She notices the rocks are a different hue dry than wet. Dry, they look to be ordinary shades of brown and gray. When water washes over them, however, their colors come to life—they become like jewels. Purples, reds, more nuances of brown than she can even imagine, some rocks embedded with veins of color that sparkle.
Rocks. This is what he has left for her, she thinks.
She will take these back with her to Texas, she tells herself, to show to her child.
She experiences visions that week, too. Or that is the closest way she has of describing it. Waking feelings of something. She sees herself standing on a beach watching toward the sea with the sense that someone she knows has departed by way of the sea. But this person has restored something to her before leaving, there has been a trial of sorts, a subtly calculable fair exchange of a kind has occurred via this energy of comings and goings. His departure, her arrival, this shoreline. She fills the plastic tupperware container with water and sits by the window, in the patch of sunlight striking the carpet. In her mind she is standing on the bluff above the beach. She is a witness. The wind blows her hair. Her skirt is full of rocks.
* * *
This is how it ends: Mia stands on the shore, the middle child, the stepdaughter, while her sister paddles out on a surfboard to release his ashes. Their mother is there too, standing with Mia, taking pictures. Their brother is not there; he could take only a couple days off from his life in Southern California and couldn’t wait for the ashes to be ready to be picked up.
Mia watches as Mel gets past the breakers and sits up, straddling her board. She is a tiny silhouette now from Mia’s point of view and the evening light glows behind her. The ocean turning golden. The water closer to shore, shadowed by large rocks, is draining of color, falling to a copperish gray. Mia sees Mel holding the box and it looks like she is opening it or shaking it. Her shape bobs on the waves for a few moments like this, before it lays back down on the board, then paddles back to land where Mia stands, implicated on the shore with her mother, is what it feels like to her.
* * *
“Hold on, he’s asleep but I’ll wake him. I know he’ll want to talk to you.” That is Will’s roommate, when she calls that week from Oregon.
She tells Will about it, but only briefly. Her stepfather is gone, things are a little weird, but the ocean is beautiful, the town is good. His last days were good, or must’ve had some good in them. That is the way she feels she must express it. Will is not a talker and although she senses he wants to offer comfort, she knows already that comfort from him, for her, will not come via words. Maybe music, maybe sex, but not words.
“How are things with you?” she asks, to shift the focus to him.
A brief pause; he is weighing something. Then: “Don’t worry about us here.” He says it almost sternly, though she knows he means it compassionately. It tells her something, though. His “here” and his “us” do not encompass where she is now. Where she is now, he cannot share with her.
* * *
I am walking in a garden by the sea. Large squares and hillocks of color, flower beds planted in deliberate curving shapes that appear, almost, afloat in the pools of green lawn. Brick paths winding in orderly tranquility through groves of roses, a pond teeming with lily pads and lotus flowers, a few forlorn statuettes. Through the wind-conformed limbs of the Monterrey pines that ring the edges of the garden, there is the sea—see? You can’t miss it. A blanket of blue, green, frost-blue, then white-blue as it draws nearer the horizon and then seems to loose itself, somewhere even further out there, to the sky. Just beyond those trees, sandstone cliffs plunge into drama: ancient rivuleted faces roaring and gaping as the waves dash themselves to pieces—white fringes and sprays—where they meet that rocky shore. And what, really, is a garden? Just a small cultivated area (and we humans must continuously preen and preen it to keep it this way), one beautifully stilled patch in a wilderness otherwise wind-beaten, volatile, and already beautiful. It is but one brief singular resting point, before the land surrenders itself to the sea.
* * *
Mel departs once the ashes are in the sea, thus leaving Mia the one who will stay the longest that week, waiting with their mother for final loose ends to be tied up. On the last afternoon they walk again on the beach. The day is blustery and overcast, the waves boisterous. Mia is surprised, disbelievingly amused, she can’t help it, when she sees her mother take out of her pocket her husband’s dentures—meaning to throw them into the sea the same as they did with his ashes. But the sea will not have it, at first. She throws them in and they quickly wash back up in the surf, a jawless, opaque band of teeth in the sand which she then has to pick up and throw in again; this happens twice more, before she finally lobs them out far enough for the water to take. It is like a farcical second ceremony, this one, Mia thinks. Like he, or the sea, or both, are laughing at them to the very end.
And, some months later, one night Mia will be watching a documentary on television about Lewis and Clark’s passage to the sea. The reenactment will show the familiar northwestern landscape, the channel of the river flattening and widening, an expanding plateau, to reveal the expanse of “Big Water”—as it was so-dubbed in their Native guide’s way of speaking of it, that lone brown woman of legend with her own many-syllabled name…Watching this moment, something will stir in Mia. In front of the television, even separated by several layers of narrative and the filtering processes of representation and projection, she is nevertheless moved to tears, absorbing the explorers’ triumph and relief, at having at last reached the sea.
Life goes on.
The boys refer to each other in an almost tribal way, affiliated with their bands. She hears about others through Will in this manner, not by individual names, but by the names of the groups with which they are associated.
—I’m going to help The Heralds take their drums down to Emo’s.
—I was hanging out till seven in the morning with Disaster.
Boys, it strikes her, run around in packs in this town. They sit snug in their sequestered groups at the backs of rooms; they rule the stages and soundboards of most bars; they wear around them, always, the knowledge of being able to call upon a natural, collective forcefield.
What the boys share, as she sees it, is an understanding—a recognition—that they are a part of a common effort. The quest of making music, yes, but it is not that alone. And what really is music? But a shared endeavor to make a certain quality and order of sound emerge and take form in a room. Yet it is not the sound that matters so much as it is what the sound succeeds in creating: a conduit, an opening, an event, by which something else may enter. Something invisible and remarkable and infecting. It is non-physical; yet it is felt. If it were a hand (she thinks) it would be parting the hair in front of your eyes, it would be cupping and sweeping aside veils of fog, and, if it were a weapon, it would be slashing its way through that fog in order to lead its followers to some place purer, raw: the source of the wound.
Perhaps this is key.
Music is endeavor; it is death-quest; perhaps everything is death-quest, death-revealing. This is the kind of thinking that plagues her everywhere she looks now.
And every thing has its angles and its special light when you move through the world in this manner.
She has carried back with her from Oregon, from that vicinity closer to death, these out-of-time sensations. No one understands this when she tries to describe it. But she enters places—like a music store—and feels as if she has arrived at a mercenaries’ outpost in the middle of a wilderness. Scenes like these are an extension of the vision she had of herself above the beach: the brown-skinned girl looking out to sea with her skirt full of rocks. She is aware of herself as a voyager, a visitor, to her own life. And the wildernesses she wanders in take on different features, but they are always a type of periphery land, an era at the edge of winter, night-gray or brown, misted. These places are not her home, she feels this acutely, but there is some work to be done here. She looks at the instruments in the music store and understands they are goods and tools to use to maneuver her way through the work, the possible battles, in this hinterland she is now a part of. She looks around her and all of her companions at this time are male. They are scruffy, lean, laughing and competent and clever, entirely at ease in their skins. She envies them their self-ease, their languish. They seem to her assured, physical creatures.
She is guarded and careful in the music store, shy with her hands.
She tries, mentally, to lay the pieces of her understanding one against the next. The energy of history—of time itself—strikes her again and again. She is aware that time and history are not, in truth, linear; and neither is she. She is a circle, a fog, a traveling atmosphere of sheer experience, and she has only just rewoken to this fact. Every moment, every situation, each new beginning thread and each continued old one, appears now to resonate to some pattern beyond its own, something historical or perhaps even ahistorical. And it is not only in the vicinity of music and men that it occurs; the impressions lie in wait nearly everywhere for her now. Attributing it to some experience of the mystery of Time, knowable or not, is the best way she has to make sense of it, even if the theories she has derived are vulnerable ones. But at least I am trying, she thinks. In this new world I am trying.
* * *
They are at a party. She and Emily. Bluegrass music is being performed in the living room of the party house, and if they hang out in one of the bedrooms long enough, where the musicians are tuning their instruments, they will be invited to smoke pot with the boys. Even Emily (because her husband has offered to drive) will imbibe tonight.
Mia is turning coins over in her pocket, feeling alone even in the midst of the music and these people who may or may not consider her an equal or a friend. She is sitting on someone’s guitar case. Heads, tails. Will he, won’t he? The relationship with the new lover has fizzled by now, she knows this even if she has not fully admitted it to herself yet; now they are just partners, musically, but she is waiting for him to leave her there, too, eventually. And there have been other lovers, other dramas, in the months since April.
Emily is talking about someone, another woman they know, who is waiting for a kidney transplant. Sometimes Emily does this, she talks about tragedies, she sinks right into them. Mia, normally, would go there with her. But in this room, tonight, with the boys around, she is conscious of a divide. She is wary that the boys will walk out, or crack a joke, or turn and start talking amongst themselves instead.
This is when one of them reaches into his jacket and pulls out his pipe.
And soon they are all dwelling in a place where the acknowledgment of pain is irrelevant.
Emily begins to tell a story about the last time she smoked pot. “It was at a party and I had this, I know it sounds stupid, but this, like, epiphany. I was watching people come in the door and I was like, I’ve been that person before, and that one, and that one. I felt like I was inside each one of them, even though I knew I wasn’t.”
“You were high,” says one of the boys, and the others laugh.
Emily goes on, though, even after the boys have left the room, gone out to play. (Mia hears the familiar voice, his, muffled through the walls.) Emily asks Mia, “Do I seem to you like someone who’s an old soul, would you say, or a young one?”
Mia looks at Emily. There is a broken guitar body hanging like a plant from a ceiling hook in the corner of the bedroom. This is her old new-lover’s bedroom, the party is at his house, and she can safely assume he sleeps here in this room now with another girl who is, more conventionally than Mia ever was, his girlfriend.
But all this, Mia is not bothered by.
“I think I would say we’re all about somewhere in the middle maybe,” replies Mia. “I think some of us have been here awhile, but we’re still not used to it, we still don’t like it very much, you know?”
“Because that time I was just talking about, when I was watching those people come in the door and I felt like I had been all of those people before, you know? I also had this really clear impression that I had been doing this over and over for a long, long time and that I was toward the end of it, and I felt like, god it’s been so hard and I’m so tired, but I have to keep on just a little longer. That’s what I felt, you know, and it was just strange.”
For some reason what Emily is saying has brought tears to Mia’s eyes. Maybe it is the drugs or the mood she is in tonight. Maybe it is Emily who sometimes crystallizes before Mia and says things that are uncanny but on the mark. Mia isn’t sure. Or maybe it is because inside of her lately a delayed kind of grief has been surfacing, and she is only now starting to see it.
Emily puts her arm around Mia; she has come to sit beside her on the guitar case. “But this is good,” she says, “because I think you do want to be emotional. You’re so often so reserved. And, well, I’m stoned and totally drunk right now so I’m going to say this to you, but what I think is if you let emotion in it would help with your art too, your writing and your music. I don’t mean that you’re not awesome already. I just think, you could be more, you know, just more, than you’ve touched on so far. I just honestly see that, that’s all. And I think you should know that. You should know that about yourself.” Surprisingly, Emily’s eyes are watering now too, and Mia doesn’t know why but she knows enough to respect it.
And: music. Why did it matter so? One night she stayed awake knowing the boys were at work in the studio, mixing a song they’d recorded with her, but even though it was her song Will had not asked her to be there. It was just boys at work; he was there with others he knew. She was at home meanwhile, unable to sleep, inexplicably energized. She could feel it in the air, the energy of their creativity at work on some disembodied representative of herself she had released to them through him. Later, he would tell her that they worked until four in the morning on the song, and people passing by the room that night were looking in, even stopping and coming back—one of the guys from The Heralds actually, he said—to stand in the doorway and listen and ask, Who is that?
Her voice, hers.
Christmas lights in the naked crepe myrtle branches above the stage. A warm July night; the air has a quiet heft to it. There is a boy here who talks with her about Iceland after her show. A new boy. It is the first time she has met him, he is a friend of Will’s and has come to see them play for that reason. This one we will call him Everett, a name not as forthright, maybe a little more complex and refined, than the one we gave the first new lover.
The new boy’s family is from Norway, although he was born and grew up in the States. He has a tattoo on the inside of his forearm that she noticed even from the stage: it is of a Viking ship. Is this a sign? She is in the perfect position—emotionally and spiritually—to take it as one. Norway is a part of Scandinavia; it is close enough (for her) to Denmark, that elusive isle from which her stepfather first severed his ties. The new boy is reading a book called The Sea Road. It is about an Icelandic woman who traveled during the Viking Age and was among the purported first to venture onto the North American continent; it is a fictionalized account of the life of legendary Viking Thorfinn Karlsefni’s wife. For the Icelandic Vikings of that era, sailing to the Americas and landing upon its far shores was considered a journey into realms beyond the boundaries of the known physical world—thus, they were considered travelers who had ventured “out of the world.” The as-yet-unnamed Americas they encountered, thick with strange vegetation and seasons warmer than the people of the far north had ever experienced, was to them a place inhabited, dangerously and ominously, by the dead, by spirits, by unknown volatile forces. There, they encountered natives and violence and hardships that only confirmed their superstitions. Small, dark-skinned fighters, forests of tall trees clustered impenetrably close together, a land containing an interior they could find no access into, that seemed to extend further south and west than they could effectively fathom. It was an uncommon journey for a woman in that time to undertake, certainly it must’ve been, and Mia remarks on this as he is describing the story to her.
The boy whose mother is from Norway is reading this book because he is going on a trip soon to Iceland with his parents, he tells her. He has a natural kindness to his eyes and a charming self-effacing demeanor. He is an only child to his parents whom he speaks well of, though he once had a younger brother, who lived only up to the age of sixteen. His dark hair is shorn close to his scalp, he has a nick of a scar across one eyebrow, he has a lean lanky frame. He is enthusiastic and candid and comes alive, notably, when speaking about books. He is an avid reader, it strikes her, an inward journeyer. He is interested in the paranormal and willing to believe in life after death, he says—this in their first conversation which they have fallen into easily, eagerly, sincerely. And suddenly Mia is talking about her stepfather’s death and the rocks in Oregon, the strange way they called to her, their aura, and how she has been absorbed in thinking such things about rocks lately, about what their ancient mineral consciousnesses must contain. She remembers reading somewhere that Iceland was formed almost entirely out of volcanic rock. That Iceland is basically a volcano.
—Oh man, I wish I could take you there with me!—
There is no guile in this exclamation from the reader of The Sea Road. He seems to genuinely wish that he could share knowledge and witness of Iceland with the girl who is engaging him so on the topic.
This one will not be any kind of lasting answer either, though Mia does not quite know that yet. Still, he will be a companion along her path for the time ahead, and so we will let him be that for now.
* * *
That July night. She follows the boys along a path through the trees and across the Congress Street bridge and on through downtown. She drinks with them at a bar. They are the kind of boys who don’t so much converse as just sit in their circle, and drink, and look over their shoulders at others, all the while generating amid themselves a kind of energy which seems to fortify them. But for what purposes? On the way back they decide to take a cab only there isn’t room for everyone, so she volunteers to walk. No, no, I’ll walk, it’s a nice night, aware that she may be trying to prove something, slightly, by offering this. Will is already in the back seat of the cab with his other friends, and she can see it is a dilemma for him. He feels obliged to volunteer to walk back with her, but does not want to—he wants to stay in the cab with his friends. But suddenly it is the new boy, Everett, the one with the book about the Icelandic Viking woman, who volunteers in Will, her lover’s, stead. The new one climbs out of the cab, extricating himself from the arms and legs and laps of the other boys. He makes a joke of it, as if he does not even want to ride with them and it has more to do with them than with the problem of the girl.
—You got her?— This from Will, as if she is an object they are handing off between them, and the camaraderie in the exchange lies thus between the two men. She is exempt from being responsible even for herself. There exists in this a diagram of their male view on things that eludes her, she is aware. For she has no qualms about walking out into the night on her own; it is only their strangeness at it, their sense of decorum and liability, that gives her pause to wonder what it is they might know that she is missing.
He proves good walking company, the new boy. He smokes a cigarette as they walk through downtown and asks, good-naturedly, why she is walking so fast. Right away, they have between them a mutual unspoken regard for the antics of the drunks around them. They do not laugh, but they both notice. Two boys on the corner, one yelling at the other “But where are we gonna go to meet girls!” in sincere exasperation. People streaming up and down sidewalks and stumbling down the middle of the street. A battery of alcohol-drenched noise assaults the street from rooftop bars above. Passing by one bar, her new companion remarks, “That place, god no. That’s like the kind of place if we went in I might have to win a game of pool or something to defend your honor.” The night’s languor is palpable and so is a pervasive atmosphere of lust and abandon. The girls in their fitted tops and tight jeans appear like weapons, their bodies like slickly packaged objects promising harm, radiating sensuality. Generously, the new boy remarks, “Why do all the girls on this street look the same? Why are they all so skinny?”
She replies, “I think it’s a prerequisite to being let on this street,” and he seems to appreciate her wryness.
As they walk she learns that he is a member of a band called The Heralds.
Of course, she thinks, it was him.
They pass out of the busy downtown area onto smaller side streets. The night wafts here, it is quieter, you can even see some stars in the sky above.
Then: they materialize out of the walls, or so it seems. They are upon them before she even knows anything is happening. At first she thinks it may be a joke, others he knows. But they have grabbed her wrists and suddenly they are not her wrists anymore, for she is standing to the side somehow now, watching her wrists be taken. Watching her own arms that are a girl’s arms, slender, and the shape of her body that is not dissimilar to those of the other girls she has just seen walking around on display on the street. She is delicate, she has soft lines. She is one of them after all, too. And life too is delicate (but you forgot this) and you must protect your bearers of it. That is the philosophy behind peril, where her thoughts are racing.
The boy she is with is not making a sound, although some audible rush of movement is happening. There are two, no, three others, and she is caught in the midst of the commotion because he has come toward the one holding her. She is contracting, trying to make herself a shell, pulling all parts of her inward. There is grunting and shoving and now she sees her way clear because her arms are free and she can twist away. The others are running off down the sidewalk. No words. There are no words in all of this motion. It has been a purely physical, energetic dialogue of struggle.
Her hand is gripping something very tightly. The strap of her messenger bag. Her bag is still pressed against her side.
He looks distraught, the new boy. He looks suddenly old and tired, someone who will endlessly blame himself if others come to harm. That is the kind of person he is, she realizes. That is why he gave up his seat to walk with her in the first place: he feels responsible and now he is thinking, what if he hadn’t? What if he had stayed in the cab and let her walk alone after all? And it is tearing him up, she can see that.
I’m okay, she says, standing up. I’m okay.
* * *
Yes it has been a strange year.
I left my husband in the spring.
My father died.
I think about death and I think about death.
But your love always was a mixed blessing.