August 29, 2016 § 1 Comment
Me and Lucian, Grand Canyon, 1979
Union Square Farmers Market, late on a Saturday afternoon. Sunny and hot but not quite as hot as it’s been. The raspberries were $2 a box, so I bought four. Thought of making ice cream, but big bowls of Greek yogurt and a cascade of red berries will be better.
The zucchini were almost gone at the next stand (though zucchini were, of course, everywhere) and I bought the tiny conjoined remnants and a tomato with a second belly growing out of its top. I felt virtuous buying the misshapen veggies, thinking of the tons of waste this country produces, much of it due to cosmetic preference. The idea of thousands of pounds of produce plowed under at the farm because it’s just not pretty enough, while children go hungry, makes me angry. But it’s also true that I like my little oddities, especially the zucchini, which I will separate surgically and then slice fast into pale green rounds before they even know they are individuals.
Is there any color as delicate as the inside of a zucchini? I once had a blouse almost that color—a silk blouse inherited from my grandmother, with narrow pleats and tiny mother-of pearl buttons. It was too big for years and years, though I wore it anyway, and then too small. The silk fell apart in my hands finally.
Corn and string beans. I’d like to slather the corn with spices and roast it over a fire, but in this apartment it will be boiled and messily eaten, kernels falling to the floor where Fitzroy will attempt to eat them, my poor sick cat who can’t absorb nutrients and is always hungry, though he eats upwards of a pound of food a day. He prowls, hoping against hope someone has left a mouse heart under the table.
String beans were my first love among vegetables. I ate them from a can as a child and sometimes now the flavor of fresh ones makes me taste metal. In my 20s, I served them with butter and garlic or lemon and dill. Now I also like them cooked, chilled and tossed with olive oil and chopped tomato, or cucumber, red onion and feta. I still have a child’s love for their shape, tight skinny twigs, how they lie on the plate like an armful of kindling.
I chose a small cantaloupe in remembrance of a cat I bought as a four-week kitten in a pet store on the Upper East Side in October 1976. I named him Lucian after Balzac’s poet in Illusions Perdue, Lucian de Rubempré. At night, Lucian would climb into my bed and suck on my neck like a toothless vampire. His neediness made me anxious. He also loved cantaloupe and would lick the seeds clean.
Later, when I was married and renting where pets weren’t allowed, Lucian went to live temporarily with my stepchildren and their mother. At that point, he was renamed R2D2. My stepdaughter once came downstairs to find her mother in the kitchen crooning to the cat: “You’re so pretty; why are you so stupid?” It’s a remark I often think of as I make my way through life.
Lucian was a passenger on our drive across county, scared by the motion, the smell of the highway, and unimpressed with an up-close view of the Grand Canyon. He did approve of our half a house on Ellsworth Street in Berkeley, which came with a tiny yard and a lemon tree. Gray cat, yellow lemons. Blue sky. Both beings—feline and tree—enjoying the fresh air, the warm/cool days, my company on the steps, barefoot, in a denim skirt, with a cup of tea.
Then—so horrible—Lucian was hit by a car when he followed us on a walk. I can still see him lying in the gutter as we found him on the way home, a smear of red on his tiger belly, mouth a little open. A girl was kneeling by him, as in the famous Kent State picture, but with less distress. The distress was ours. He lived an hour. So pretty. A light silvery gray, with darker but subtle markings.
I bought striped beets the color of persimmons and a curly pepper. A jar of honey. I admired the rows of dark plums and some red ones, and thought of autumn. When I’m back from Portugal, I’ll make a cake. Apples and plums, pecans and brandy, brown sugar, black pepper, fresh ginger, nutmeg, eggs, butter and two cups of sifted white flour.
I hope Fitzroy is still with us. Not just until I return, not just until Christmas or spring, but forever. My mother once said (mistakenly, she admits), “Cats cannot love a person.” At 11, I didn’t see the point of this complaint. I loved cats—one cat in particular—and whether he loved me back was immaterial.
Great warriors of the night, the bed, the barn, the lap, champions of the Internet. While we do our feeble best to think out of the box, they get in the box and know that it is good. They sleep. They creep. They wait patiently by mouse holes. They wake me up from unlawful naps, meowing in my ear.
I was too young to fully appreciate Balzac when I read La Comedie Humaine, his great series of novels that includes Illusions Perdue. How fascinated I was, swallowing the classics! I loved the intricate study of motive and secrets, mistakes, betrayals, ruinous passion. Balzac, Zola, Steinbeck, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Proust. I had no idea it was all so accurate. I was Pollyanna in the dark, playing with my witch toys. Basking in the dazzle of precision-guided words.
Pretty I was then, surely—but why so stupid? I recently read the obituary and some poems of a poet who died at 25 this August. He was no dreaming ninny. He was obsessed with his own death (anticipated, cancer); I with the deaths of family in childhood. I didn’t grow. Didn’t want to. Or know how. Who knows? Berkeley sidewalks were often covered with fallen blossoms and fallen fruit, green seedpods.
I wrote in the mornings, spent all afternoon in bed reading, spending down my inheritance from my mother’s uncle, a Texas insurance tycoon, LBJ backer.
Money that could’ve, but didn’t, last. A world away.
I should go eat those raspberries.
The 25-year-old poet who just died is Max Ritvo, prodigiously talented. I’m including a poem from a poet whose work I’ve loved for a long time, Andrew Hudgins.
Day Job and Night Job
After my night job, I sat in class
and ate, every thirteen minutes,
an orange peanut-butter cracker.
Bright grease adorned my notes.
At noon I rushed to my day job
and pushed a broom enough
to keep the boss calm if not happy.
In a hiding place, walled off
by bolts of calico and serge,
I read my masters and copied
Donne, Marlowe, Dickinson, and Frost,
scrawling the words I envied,
so my hand could move as theirs had moved
and learn outside of logic
how the masters wrote. But why? Words
would never heal the sick,
feed the hungry, clothe the naked,
blah, blah, blah.
Why couldn’t I be practical,
Dad asked, and study law—
or take a single business class?
I stewed on what and why
till driving into work one day,
a burger on my thigh
and a sweating Coke between my knees,
I yelled, ‘Because I want to!’—
pained—thrilled!—as I looked down
from somewhere in the blue
and saw beneath my chastened gaze
another slack romantic
chasing his heart like an unleashed dog
chasing a pickup truck.
And then I spilled my Coke. In sugar
I sat and fought a smirk.
I could see my new life clear before me.
lt looked the same. Like work.