Laurie Stone is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction. A longtime writer for the Village Voice, she has been theater critic for The Nation, critic-at-large on Fresh Air, and a member of The Bat Theater Company. She has published numerous memoir essays and stories in such publications as Open City, Anderbo, Ms., nthWord, TriQuarterly, The Literary Review, Threepenny Review, Speakeasy, Intar Journal, Signs, and Creative Nonfiction. She is at work on My Life as an Animal, Some Kind of Romance and The Pain of Language, a collection of essays.
My mother was afraid of dogs. She said she didn't grow up with animals. She meant she came from poverty, and there wasn't room to house a pet or money to feed one. She meant she was urban and animals were part of the mysterious realm of farms and woods-sinister, vacant places where beasts could feed on you and you on them. She complained about the dirt animals left around, but really she was afraid. She covered it with talk. She spoke to me like a used car salesman, trying to unload a clunker, and that voice went into me with so little resistance I use it whenever I want something.
She said I could have a goldfish, and Sylvester sat on the kitchen counter in a glass bowl, a single fish with a gentle smile. He ignored his ceramic bridge but darted around the fluorescent green frond that floated on the surface and made a racy contrast to his orange scales. I angled my face, and we watched each other. His world was limited, and so was my mother's and mine.
In the city, my mother had had the streets, easy contact with strangers, and the river of Broadway. Out in Long Beach, she lived in the capsule of her finned yellow Plymouth, while my father commuted to Manhattan. He was a coat manufacturer. He made coats for girls. My mother did not cook or garden. My father did not use the golf clubs he bought. I have pictures of my parents when they were young and sleek. Sometimes they're posed on horseback and skis, sports they didn't know how to do, and the country settings make them look all the more urban. Weekends they would drive to the city and take long, long hikes with some errand or destination in mind. Really, it was to be in the whirl.
In the summer, I left home for camp and my mother sent postcards, reporting on the fish. I would find her notes fanned across my bed, and I would see her face floating up to the rafters, and I would look into her eyes, wondering if she could see me on my blanket, pulled taut for inspection, or swimming in the lake lit by sun. Outside my bunk, crickets chirped. Inside, an indolent fly buzzed a window. My happiest memories of my mother are memories of missing her.
When a snail materialized on the bottom of Sylvester's bowl, it gave my mother and me another character to chronicle. We watched the snail grow from a speck you couldn't be sure was alive to a small gastropod with a curved brown shell. We called him Burt, and in time Burt was fully grown. He was Sylvester's roommate, but they were like borders who saw each other during trips to the bathroom and otherwise didn't socialize.
One day Burt crawled out of the bowl. I spotted him on the kitchen counter in front of the toaster. On the radio, Perry Como was singing the theme song from Picnic. He was crooning about romance in ordinary life, and I wondered if Burt's venture was an example. His escape was unsettling, a creature setting off on his own. My mother learned to drive when we moved to Long Beach, but for her to have equaled the snail's daring she would have needed to barrel down to Mexico and disappear into a mountain village.
Burt had inched himself out of the water and over the edge of the bowl. I was surprised he could exist in two mediums, while Sylvester was confined to one. The snail looked heroic on the Formica counter, and who knows where he might have wandered had he really been free. I placed him back in the bowl. Sylvester ignored him, as usual, and maybe that's what had driven him out. He wanted to be recognized when he made an appearance. In the summer, when I went to camp, Perhaps I was Burt from my mother's point of view. The rest of the time I was the fish, gazing with longing at a woman I would never know.
I am pulling up aloes in the front yard. The leaves are brown and frizzled, and ropey roots circle the cluster. They look like a bedraggled family herded into a small holding pen, and now I'm feeling sorry for them. They have long, thick legs, like geoduck clams with obscene siphons, and I toss them into a bin, clearing an eyesore, but as I extract a husky elder, emerald pups, soft and succulent, peek out among the spikes. Oh my god, there are babies!
They lift away with surprising ease. In Arizona, the ground is hard and roots spread along the surface, and you don't need a shovel, although I use one and chop up some pups. There are too many to replant, and they have toothy edges you need gloves for, although prickles you can't see burrow under your skin. Buddhists say pain derives from interpretation. They mean inner pain. Whatever they mean, the sentence is irritating.
Aloe pups grow attached to mother plants, and you have to pull them apart, same as anywhere. At 88, my mother says, When I am gone, take a finger to remember me by. I say, How will I get the meat off? She says, That's where the mice come in, and I see them nip, nipping, and I remember a poisoned rat that came to die on our patio. It's fur was fluffy, it's ears tiny trumpets, and its nose a needle, really pointy, with whiskers on either side, delicate as eyelashes. It breathed slowly until it fell over, and I thought, Whatever you look at for a while comes to look like you. My mother says, The next 20 years will speed by like a bullet train, so make the most of them. I think, How do you decide in a moment to make the most of it? That is really a good question.
I set the heartiest aloes along a stone ledge. Richard and I are working in the falling light, when it's cooler, and I remember the first time we saw this house. We were uncertain if we were staying in Arizona, and then Richard landed a job at the university. Realtors say people make up their minds about a house in 30 seconds, and that's how long it took us. I remember the small nod of approval we exchanged as we swept across the shiny wood floors and took in the great stone wall. For a while we were shy with the garden, the way we were slow to peel ourselves back for each other. In the desert, winter is a brief grumble, but all it takes is a few cold nights for color to drain from bougainvilleas. Their bony limbs shiver, and you have to cut them back to stumps. You have to work with the dispassion of a surgeon, so don't look to me for that. When the weather warms, glossy, heart-shaped leaves form and branches overreach again. Richard asks if I think he will be fired from his job. I say, No, although anyone can be let go of at any time. We get what we want more often than we remember because we keep changing our minds.
I am sorting the living from the dead, and I get into a rhythm. It's like riding a train as the landscape sweeps by and you feel a sense of continuity because you are the one doing the looking. I'm crouched on the ground, and I remember a rendering of Lucy, our ancient ancestor. She was posed on a savanna near a watering hole, looking up over her shoulder, and her eyes were beady and suspicious but also soulful. She was crooking a finger, as if to say, Come closer, and she looked like my mother. Well, she would, wouldn't she? The landscape of Arizona is a severe kind of blank people read into a strict, withholding father. That's why they see God in the desert, the same way they see love in the man who sits glumly at the kitchen table holding a beer.
The roots of aloes are moist and fibrous, and dark as coffee grounds. They look like a medium for the beginning of life and the end, and I remember a café in Great Barrington. It was behind a cheese store, and it was expensive in a casual way. A goat could walk in, but a cookie cost $4. Richard and I were imagining living here. It's a game we play called “After Arizona,” and I said, Let's give it a rest, and a gleam came into his eyes, and I liked letting something grow.
There is a sort of horror in pulling up aloes. It's their failure to resist and take firm root, like a set of rotting teeth or the limbs of a scarecrow, and I remember driving with a man when I was 25. He was ten years older than me, and we were having a little affair, and as we sped along, he made up a ditty that went, Oh, half my life is over, and yet it's just begun. I proposed that our generation might be the last one to die, and he shuddered at the finality with a forlorn look. I saw an outcrop shearing off from the mainland like a chunk of California loosed from the San Andreas fault. We were moving out in a dolly shot. We were aloes on a ledge. This morning in bed, Richard said, You could go and never return. I said, How likely is that? He said, Not very, but he was leaving room for me to disappear, and in that space I wanted him.
It was 6:15, and the café closed at 7, but as soon as we sat down, Richard wrinkled his forehead and said, Write fast, his English accent especially clipped. We were at Kew Gardens. I got tea and started to write. After 10 minutes, he set down his pen in the center of his notebook and sat up straight. I took in his slender, boyish body and spiky silver hair. It helped.
He was concerned we might be inconveniencing the staff. He thought they hated us even for ordering tea near closing, and what they thought went into him, or what he thought they thought. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. On this trip, I was the girlfriend. I had looked forward to being the girlfriend, but you don't know how you will get lost in someone else's life. I could feel his eyes boring into the top of my head, but I ignored his craziness or whatever you want to call it.
You could call it cultural difference, the difference between his culture and mine. What is his culture? English midlands and something between working class and shop keeper class. His father was a bespoke tailor and worked out of a room in their house. What is my culture? New York Jew with working class, immigrant roots. My father was a garmento. He manufactured coats for girls, so Richard and I have tailoring in our backgrounds and maybe little else. As far as I was concerned, there was another half hour to write.
The café was in a building made of glass, containing a bookstore, a gift shop, a garden store, and a large area for food and drink. People around were talking or leafing through books. Richard patrolled for anyone leaving, his eyes swiveling like the eyeballs of a crab, mounted on boney armatures. As luck would have it, a band of Nordics with blond pony tails and sturdy knapsacks carried cups and plates to the trash, then filed out as if heeding a curfew. Richard jabbed my elbow and pointed. And he calls me pushy.
I thought about what people meant by peace. I had a boyfriend before Richard who was always looking at his watch. He was looking forward to the time he could be alone. We weren't together long enough for me to get sick of him. I might have, eventually, but I was like a dog you hold out a stick to, and the dog keeps biting the end of the stick. This man bought expensive presents, but he wouldn't play tennis with me because he didn't think I was good enough. Richard, on the other hand, is generous with his time. Every day he was walking miles for me, but I forgot this as soon as we set off. In his performance, you don't see the makeup and sweat.
The trip to Kew was for me, really. Richard had been there many times, probably with his three ex-wives, but never mind. His life before me is not my business. My life before him is not his business, although we poke around in each other's past, as if it is a party we have been excluded from. We are in our 60s, and we tell ourselves this is our last chance for happiness. Maybe it is and maybe it isn't, but it feels like a gun to the head.
We had had a good day, touring flower beds and green houses. Kew Gardens is a remnant of the Victorian ambition to collect samples of everything that exists, in this case botanical specimens. We'd climbed a 50-foot staircase to walk a course at the tops of sheltering trees. England is populated by nine million trees, a plaque reported, although it seemed a strange, inexact census. We flipped open our umbrellas, pulled on and off layers of clothes, and slogged around in the downpours of the chilly English July. We viewed the oldest potted plant, an encephalartos altensteinii. It was a Jurassic cycad-a species that predates flowering plants-whose fronds once fanned the planet when dinosaurs lumbered around. This one was over 300 years old, and it was easy to see how it had survived. It lived alone.
I began to worry about our plants back in blazing Arizona. They were in the care of our friend Bill, and I remembered he had watered and sprayed them the previous summer with success. I shifted to the three New York plants I'd entrusted to my friend Adam. I was spending half the year in New York to secure my rent-stabilized apartment. Officially, Richard favored the plan, but if he was angry at me for another reason, resentment bubbled up, like oat meal on a back burner. Adam had already killed a pot of pansies I'd given him, and I pictured the new plants withering and shedding leaves-a fitting emblem, perhaps, of a life spent hopping from lily pad to lily pad.
I didn't mention the plants to Richard, who sees my worrying as hypochondria turned outward. You could call it pessimism or gloom. Richard says, You don't have to voice every thought that comes into your head. Most people don't say most of what they think. I say, They don't? He says, No, they don't. I am practicing restraint. Restraint isn't the same as lying, although it sort of is. If you were an anthropologist, you might see this as a bleeding border between two cultures.
We were in England because Richard was teaching a three-week course on museum studies. Museum studies, unlike art history, investigates how museums function in cultures. Richard is interested in how museums civilize and control populations under the auspices of governments. For example, when we visited Hampton Court, Henry VIII's summer palace, Richard asked the students to consider how modern England sells the monarchy to tourists. At the British Museum, he prompted the students to search for themselves in an institution that purports to represent the world's culture. Among our group were two young women from Somalia, and they were aggrieved to discover that the museum's African galleries were in the basement. Not only that, there were no galleries depicting European culture. The values of European culture did not need to be exhibited, the museum was saying, although those values-that Europeans are the norm against which other cultures are measured, that Europeans are collectors and other cultures the collected-were ineluctably on display. Trailing along on these outings, I thought about how power was distributed in all social arrangements. Another boyfriend of mine once said, The power in any relationship resides in the person who is willing to leave. He was that person in our relationship.
In the café, I wrote about the sculptor, David Nash, whose works were installed around the grounds and in a group of white-cube galleries. I was attracted to this art in ways I didn't understand. Every day when I set off on a walk, I was looking for something to make me look out, but I wondered if, even in the attempt to look out, I swooped down on whatever reminded me of myself.
Nash used natural materials-dead trees, hedges, twigs, sod, and seeds-and I noticed how much more excited I felt looking at art made of nature than at nature itself, even the woven carpet of a garden. When I looked at nature, I sort of disappeared, and it was relaxing, but after a while I missed the feelings art stirred. The centerpiece of Nash's exhibit was a series of wood sculptures carved from a giant tree that had died on a mountain in Wales. The tree's life was over as an entity surveying glades and meadows below where it had stood, but wood goes on seeming alive. The growth rings left by Nash looked like the scales of fish or the cells of a beehive. The tree was a body with arms, legs, a trunk, and bones, and in this body Nash had found boats, benches, boxes, and a rough pig with twig legs. With chisels and hammers, he preserved roughness, brittleness, scars, and fractures in the forms.
Most powerful was a film he made about a boulder he carved when the tree was first discovered, in 1978. After it was finished, the sculpture proved so heavy Nash decided to float it down the mountain along a cascading stream. He filmed the process, and he kept filming, because nothing he envisioned came to pass. Early in the boulder's journey, it became snagged on rocks. After a year or so, it hurtled to another perch where it became trapped again, and after several years of watching the boulder buried in snow and darkened by iron in the rushing stream, after watching it erode and become etched with ridges that suggested the features of a tolerant, impassive face, after seeing the boulder bob like a seal and float into a salt marsh and sit stranded on a stretch of mud like the last speaker of its language, Nash decided the boulder belonged to the mountain and sea, and he did not try to move it to his studio. The film documents the boulder's history up until 2003, when Nash saw it for the last time. It was sighted again by others in 2008 but hasn't been seen since.
Richard and I sat on narrow, backless leather benches, and as images of the boulder and the rushing stream filled the screen we seemed caught up in a wordless conversation. I looked forward to his thoughts and the way, invariably, they snapped mine into focus. There was a text by Nash on the wall as well, a simple narrative of his involvement with the boulder that lacked a moral and finished with lines that shot through me. The boulder is not lost. It is wherever it is.
In the café, the cloud over Richard wouldn't dissolve. I asked the man behind the counter to confirm the closing time. He was friendly, although, earlier, he had been exacting about the way he'd prepared our tea. I had wanted more water in my cup, and instead of filling it higher he'd given me a separate container of hot water. He spoke with an English accent. Most of the other people we'd encountered working in cafés were from someplace else, indicators of England's arrival in the European union. Ethnically, the man was South Asian, a fact that could probably be traced back to the old British empire. Everywhere in England we were feeling waves of multi-culturalism and of immigration swirling around. It was easy to think you were in a place where everyone was a traveler and therefore everyone could find a purchase here, although no one was home.
Richard could be said to be home, since he'd lived in England until he was 33, but England didn't feel like home, he kept saying. Both his parents had died within the past 18 months, and he no longer recognized himself in the culture. He meant he didn't know all the slang. He meant he was in mourning. With his parents gone, it seemed the worm hole through which he'd escaped and periodically returned had sealed up.
The man behind the counter said the café closed at 7. I reported this to Richard, and he sighed. I thought, You don't know how English you really are. As a visitor to any new place, he likes to leap past the front rooms of official presentation and infiltrate the back rooms of life as it is lived. In the café, though, he didn't want the activities of the back room to impinge on his welcome into the parlor. It was owed, Richard knew, to having lived with the tailor shop in the house, with customers coming in and out and the children banned from their father's workroom, but Richard gestured to the man as he emptied trash and said, He wants us to leave. I closed my notebook. Richard said, I wish I weren't like this, and I wondered if it was true. I often wished I could be more observant, like him, but there is something in human beings that makes us want to preserve ourselves in a recognizable shape. It's why it is hard to adapt to other cultures.
Richard said, Thanks for accepting me, and I wondered if I did, and I recalled a recent outing. He'd said we could wander around and get lost, but he kept checking maps and suggesting routes for a section we were tending toward, as if we had a destination. He charted our way back to Bloomsbury, as if never leaving were the goal. When I first met him, I formed a fantasy of walking in New York, street after street, while he pointed out this piece of architecture, or remembered that bit of history, or swept me to bars and galleries I didn't know. I learned he doesn't like walking in cities the way I do. He prefers parks and trails with a beginning and an end. He likes sitting on grass or benches and reading. He likes sitting, for God's sake. Why didn't I just kill myself?
After a while on that walk, he stopped looking at maps. I said he could, and he said, This is more fun. I didn't know if it was or if he was giving me what I wanted. Later, when we wrote, he spoke of the Brownian motion of our ramble. He talked about the doubt that hounds him or is him, the doubt of not knowing which way to turn, where he belongs, always a dilemma, and how he looks to maps to lead him to the next location. Location, he wrote, is all about arrival, although arrival might not exist. When I heard these words, the fight in me drained out.
Still later we quarreled about something else, and he reminded me how difficult it was for people to be with me. He said he was the most patient person I knew, and I believed him, and then a few seconds later I wondered if this was an example of brainwashing. You know you are in someone else's power when you believe the worst things they say about you. Then I thought there were probably worse things he could say about me. When he said he was the most patient person I knew, I tried to think of other people who liked me more than Richard, and no one came to mind. I tried to think of someone I liked more than him and drew a blank.
After leaving Kew, we roamed around Bloomsbury, looking for a restaurant, and we passed a man in a wheelchair. Richard said, There will come a time when we won't be able to walk so much. He laughed. It was as if he was looking forward to it. He said, What should I do with you when you die? I said, Burn me and toss me in a bin. He said, No service? No gathering at the apartment for a glass of sherry and fond remembrances? I said, No one will care much but you. I didn't think it was true, but maybe I did.
That night, in a tapas bar, we wrote about Kew and read our pieces to each other. I wrote about our time in the café. He wrote about the boulder, and he read his piece, wearing his smarty-pants face, his cheeks rounding. He pointed out that Nash had changed his original plan. He still presented an art project, but instead of showing the boulder in a gallery, he presented a collaboration with the natural environment. I said, That's really interesting. Richard said, With this kind of art, you look less at the object and more at what it makes you feel inside. The boulder asks us to think about how we measure success. It asks us to think about what is given and what can change.
He sipped his wine and dipped a bread stick in olive oil. Then a light came into his eyes, and he said, The story of the boulder and the story of the café are versions of each other. That's why the boulder affected us so much. Both stories are about getting from point A to point B. Sometimes the boulder is a rock, sometimes it's wood, sometimes it's an animal. It gets stuck, and so do we. Both of us are the boulder, and both of us are the water, swimming around in each other. We are big and weighty to each other, but a relationship changes as it gets bumped and rubbed.
He bit the breadstick. I said, I could never have come up with that. He said, I see patterns, you tell stories.