I had that feeling again, of being both intimidated and stifled by the plethora of people out there, pitching tents on the Internet. A crowded, clamoring forum, everybody listing accomplishments, outlining projects, trying to seem more successful than they actually are. The most popular bloggers have a similar bio: some failure led to a great success, the writer (consultant, motivational speaker, life coach) reinvented, baptized by fires of defeat. A more likely truth: we are not always improved. There are short straws and long straws and we will draw some of each, and some people will draw more of one than the other, not always because they deserve it. There’s failure—I tried to be a professional athlete and didn’t have enough talent; I wanted to write but lacked drive. And there’s bad luck— I wanted a happy marriage but never met anybody; I wanted a long life but got sick. It’s hard to talk about defeat, especially in the can-do cyber-universe. Every narrative is subtly framed as a step in the direction of eventual triumph. A consoling template until we meet a road block that won’t be moved, or until the road dwindles to a path, and then a trail, and then disappears. How do we talk about loss? How do we talk about aging? How can we talk frankly and truthfully about life without talking about death?
In her acceptance speech, the woman at the awards ceremony said her child once asked when she was going to learn how to cook. Her answer was never. The audience laughed appreciatively. I sat, cringing. I taught myself to cook. On purpose. Not because I like to cook, but because I have children. Which is why I will never win an award for anything.
You don’t get a lifetime achievement award for baking bread. People eat it, but it doesn’t make very good conversation.
She rides without a helmet, fast, long hair flying behind her, lifted by the wind. She leans into the pedals, rising slightly out of her seat, as if the weight of her body can push the bike faster, around corners, up the long hill. She isn’t going anywhere, but she races, speed giving the feeling of destination, a place that matters, a place she would like to be. At home, the place she is avoiding, the Quaker lady waits, patiently, keeping the house tidy, stirring potting soil in her flower boxes, steeping tea in small silver balls. This is your house now, she said, the day they moved in, you belong here. Then her mother took off, the way she always does, with some guy she met at an AA meeting, making plans to buy a house together, start a family, before they slipped into the liquor store and grabbed a handle. The Quaker lady rested a papery, patient hand on her shoulder, repeating it: you can stay. Heat gathers in her chest. She imagines a knife, pearl handled, folded small, with a slicing blade.
When she looks in the mirror, she sees the wrong person, like those movies where the main character wakes up in somebody else’s body: tall and slender, straight blonde hair falling to the middle of her back, trimmed to a sharp, even line. Milky skin, pink cheeks and blue eyes, a cheerleader, a popular girl from Lincoln, the front hall closet jammed with cleats and lacrosse sticks, not a subway station, which is where the Quaker lady found them, tucked behind a grate, eating discarded Lo Mein out of a styrofoam box. The kids in her class have two parents, mothers who hover, remind them to sign up for SAT’s, make them come home by midnight. They assume, because of the way she looks, that she does too.
At the top of the hill the path stops, abruptly, at a lookout, a bench rooted in asphalt. He is already there, impatient, because she’s late. The thing is, she wants to say to him, she wasn’t even planning to come. She wants to spit in his face. “Look at you,” he says, standing, coming over to the bike, which she is still straddling, refusing to get off, wanting to make him work. His eyes search her face, questioning, is this okay? Sliding his cold hands over her belly, testing the edge of her shorts with his fingers.
“Let’s get it over with,” she says, impatient, flipping her hair and dismounting, leaning the bike on its kickstand. The bike belongs to the Quaker lady. It’s ancient, the kind of bikes people ride in British t.v. series, homely and black, with a wide basket for bread and flowers.
She pulls him into the bushes behind the bench, hoping the sharp branches leave telling scratches on his wrists and ankles, hoping his wife finds tiny, unexpected leaves tucked in the collar of his suit. They do it standing, leaning against a tree. “I want to take you on vacation,” he says, after he tucks in, zips up. He buries his face in her neck. “I want to show you off.”
“Right.” His daughter already invited her once. Last February. They go to an island off Puerto Rico, rent a huge house on a cliff over the ocean. She thought about it. Thought about him waiting for her every night, in some dune. “Think I’ll pass.”
When she gets home, the Quaker lady is at the kitchen table, reading a book about calling. The feeling we get in our chest, that tells us why we are here, what we are supposed to do with our lives. She looks up when she hears the back door open. Wrinkles fan out from her eyes, like bicycle spokes. Thinning gray hair tucked behind her ears, the part pink and wide. Never had a husband. Likes to have children around, which is why she takes them in, like stray cats. She closes her book, smiling. “How was studying? Did you have a good time?”
This morning Kathe said Danny is lucky he was born a man. Danny said everything balances out. I said it didn’t really balance out for slaves. Then we moved into irony. Danny said, it’s a lot harder than you think to be a white male. We made a list of the hardships: getting blamed for everything; having to take responsibility; too many jobs and too much money; always being asked for support and advice.
We dance around the uncomfortable, unspoken truth. Through no fault of your own, you are born a woman, or a person with no legs, or a person of color. In that moment, the odds are set. You get most entitlements for no reason, except the accident of your birth.