Monday, June 28, 2004

Crossing the border

into Maine, the car suddenly started smelling like Deep Woods Off. It kept smelling like that--I had the sun roof open, and I wondered if maybe the Maine government dusts the whole state with Deep Woods Off to keep down mosquitoes. When I pulled up to my brother-in-law's apartment, it was still there. I mentioned it to him, and he got a quizzical look on his face and said, "Maybe Deep Woods Off has a 'piney fresh scent.'


Belfast has an organic foods co-op, and a big Victorian-ceilinged library with free Internet access, and a few too many galleries. The chicken-processing plant closed last year, along with the fish-processing plant, and the harbor is full of yuppie sailboats. My brother-in-law is here designing high-end townhouses and condos for a new development. My brother-in-law's business acumen is looking sharp to me.

Even the library smells like Deep Woods Off.

My brother-in-law has tactfully provided a piece of floor for me to crash on, and a very comfortable boat mattress, and a hand-me-down quilt from his mom. I suddenly had a flashback to the month or so I crashed on the floor at B. and V.'s loft in Oakland, in 1996 I think, after getting smeared into the pavement in my SF ghetto, dumped by my then-partner and having nowhere else to go. I wonder what happened to make me the sort of person who goes through periodic crises and ends up crashing on people's floors or couches or spare office bedrooms for longer than a week. I suppose it's that persistent willingness to risk absolutely everything on an irrational compulsion. I can understand why people try to dissuade me--too often, they're the ones who have to mop up the wreckage.

Then again, the time I got stranded in Austin and stayed with my friend Carlotta for a month or so, she invited me to go with her on road trips to her parents' vanity farm in Canton, and to her uncle's fiftieth birthday party, and out to poetry slams, and was sorry when I left again, so at least I'm not a terrible house guest. Not the kind of house guest who complains that the couch makes her back hurt and the mayonnaise is all wrong and there isn't any sugar and she hates honey, and the cat is staring at her and she hasn't slept in four days. And she forgot her toothpaste and she doesn't like mine.

(Do not compare yourself with others, lest you become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself...)

Had a Moment yesterday evening, after driving eight hours and walking around the waterfront at high tide, and meeting a couple of daddy long-legs which don't freak me out as much as they used to, and chatting neutrally with brother-in-law, when he said "...and I got some single-malt Scotch, thought you might need it" and I suddenly gasped as though I had been shot, and said no I wasn't okay, thank you. There was a long silence, and brother-in-law said, "You don't have to have any Scotch if you don't want any." I pulled myself together, and made both of us one of those fabulous salads with corn and tuna and artichokes and haricots verts that I learned to make from my French boyfriend. It's one of those things that keeps my welcomes fresh.

My friend K. in Canada says, "You are mourning what you wanted, not what you had" but that's not true; I miss C.'s actual presence, his actual self, the actual intimacy built up over thousands of minutes together. He once put a pill on his tongue, stuck it out and said "Say bye-bye," and I thought this was hysterically funny, even though I didn't think it was funny at all in first grade when boys did stupid things like that. It came to me that having your skin ripped off isn't even the hard part--it's all those hundreds of thousands of minutes afterwards when every bit of your life is impregnated by absence. I feel like a faded, childless widow, being dutifully cared for by a tired brother-in-law who has also got a business to run.

My actual lips taste like Deep Woods Off. It's weird.

That vanity farm in Canton was slightly disturbing. Carlotta's mother bought it with the proceeds of selling her clothing boutique in Dallas, and she decorated the main estate house and each of four smaller houses with antiques from the local flea market, each in a different theme. I slept in the Hummingbird Bedroom in the Derby House. When we arrived at 11 PM, all the lights were on in all the rooms of all the houses, and all the dining-room tables were set in matching service for twelve. The living room of the Derby House was decorated with Kentcky Derby paraphernalia--riding crops and horse portraits and large tomes of racing statistics. The back bedroom where Carlotta slept had an enormous mural of a desert painted on all four walls, with cacti and mountains in the distance, and a four-poster bed made of fence posts. Little vignettes were set up in every corner--a place for young mothers to chitchat over tea and knitting, a place for a solitary writer to while away the afternoon with lemonade and a journal, an Irish Lodge for fourteen boisterous soccer players to sit up all night with Fritos and horror films, before crashing under matching plaid blankets in the bunk beds all round the room. And as you explored the increasing detailed wonders of every room in every house, you realized that NOBODY LIVES HERE--all these rooms are set up for imaginary people who never come to stay. Carlotta said that when she and her siblings were little, her mother would follow around after them, putting all the cushions and lamps and charming arrangements of books and flowers and musical instruments Back In Place, in the elaborately casual way they had been before real live children messed them up.

Carlotta said, furthermore, that her mother periodically gets bored with the theme of each house, tears everything out and redecorates again. Her brother lived in the Derby House for awhile with his first wife, but they had to leave because his wife said it was like living in a museum. They weren't allowed to have their own dishes or furniture or possessions or lives; they had to keep the tables set all the time. Carlotta's mother said exactly one thing to me the whole time I was there; she said my hair ornament was "cuuuuute." And we all went shopping at the antique flea market.

I liked staying in the Hummingbird Bedroom, though. It had an iron bedstead with hummingbirds on it, and a hummingbird bath with books about birds stacked up on it, under the hummingbird lamp, and antique white dresses hanging on the wall. The mattress was all poufy and new, and there were about twelve pillows on the bed. Carlotta said her mom bought all new mattresses after one of her mom's friends mentioned that the aesthetic details were perfect, but the mattresses were old and thin and scungy. It was a lucky place for a tired gypsy to rest.

When we went to her uncle's fiftieth birthday party, Carlotta didn't even introduce me to anybody before she disappeared into the thicket. She said later that she knew I'd be fine. I was fine, but it wasn't easy. For an itinerant artist I'm sort of shy. Her uncle showed me his art collection and his wine collection, and I provided temporary Interesting Person conversational material to various stranded aunts and co-workers. It was just after 9/11, and I was just about to move to New York. I said, "New York could use some healing," and some pilot said, "You would make a profit on that?" I forbore to ask him whether he'd fly a plane for free, camp out in Central Park and eat out of trash cans if flying planes would help the wounded, and said, "It's about survival." My sister later said that the only proper response to that is to look the person in the eye and say, "Yes."

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