The strange Valentines of the long-married.

WHEN you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
– William Butler Yeats

When I was twenty years old, I was directionless and lost: a raving lunatic; a blistering idiot. I was just recently back in the country, just coming out of a very damaging relationship, and just trying to put myself back together. I was a scattering of ash and dust, the glint of stars, the press of clouds.

And then I met my husband. And then my life was very different.

We are both thirty-nine now, so we’ve been together for a long time. I know the grooves of his hand better than I know my own. I could hear his voice in the middle of a crowd and find him in a shot. I know each gray hair, each worry-line, each muscular heft. When we marry, we love not only the young person standing next to us, the person right now, but we love the very old person that they will be. Creaky joints. Sagging skin. Hair as pale as thistledown. And the deepening shadows of the eyes. These things usually don’t land on Valentines, but they stir me to the core. The long-married find themselves, very often, unstuck in time. We kiss the lips of our beloved and we don’t know where we will find ourselves – are these the twenty-year-old lips? Or the forty-year-old? Or the eighty-year-old. The entirety of a life built together can hinge on a single kiss.

I have told this to my husband. He thinks I’m nuts.

Anyway, a while back, I published this piece in the Interfictions Annex. It’s four linked vignettes, all exploring the magical-realistic quality of love. But the thing is? It started as a Valentine. To my husband. This is what I wrote to him:

It’s cold and we need fire. I wrap myself in a blanket while you clomp to the porch and clomp back in, your arms wrapped around a pile of logs raining debris in a trail from the door to the fireplace.
You open the door and lean in, gather ash and dead coals with your hand, deposit it into a bag, let it fall in a soft gray cloud. Slowly, you pile the knots of paper just so and lay down the small logs and light.
As I watch you, I see what you will look like when you are very old. Your nose enlarges and bulbs forward: a tender beak. Your smooth brow folds upon itself like a topographical map. Your hands, your long fingers, gnarl at the knuckle, sprout spots like mushrooms, grow yellow at the nails. Your hair, shining now in the growing light, thins, pales, floats over your shining scalp like feathers.
Outside, the snow arranges itself into mountains, canyons and plains, retelling the story of a land built from the cruelties of water and wind. Outside, the black sky cracks into infinite shards of light, while the air etches love poems on the windowpanes. Outside, the wind hurls itself against the house, while the trees lean and flail as though about to fall.

Happy Valentines Day, to you and yours. And I love you.

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An important question.

I am having one of those days when my heart is pulled in nine directions and my mind is pulled in fifteen other directions and my body is pulled to the edges of the universe and back again.

I keep circling back to this picture by Arnold Lobel:

I love this picture, I really do. It’s from the book The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight, a book of creepy kids’ poems by Jack Preletusky that haunted my soul when I was a kid, and probably is responsible for the sheer number of dead bodies in my short fiction (I’m like a fictional-character mass murderer at this point. I never created an individual in my imagination that I didn’t eventually attempt to slaughter.). Anyway. This picture.

I feel defined by this picture today.

But what bit? I’m not sure. Am I the ship, about to break apart? Or am I the astonished-looking giant squid? The one who, frankly, looks ambivalent about whether or not it wants to be tearing apart the ship in the first place. The one who looks as though it’s asking itself, “Why ships? And what does it all mean? And do I even like devouring steam ships? I’m not sure that I do.”

Or am I the water?

Or the dark, cold floor?

Or the wide, blue sky?

I also, quite frankly, feel a little like this picture, from Wanda Gag’s Millions of Cats (another seminal tome in the mental library of my seven-year-old heart):

Like the old man in the story, I am well meaning. Like the old man in the story, I have the best of intentions. And like the old man in the story, there are too many damn cats. (Or in my case, Things To Do. And Things To Worry About. And so forth.

So who are you today? Insatiable squid? Insufferable cat? Overly-amenable old man? Are you a doomed ship or a hungry mouth or a wide open sea?

Or perhaps you are something else entirely.

If those boys would stand still for five minutes, they’d write a damn good novel.

Leo and his friends are careening up and down the stairs, a cloud of knees and elbows and supposedly-brushed teeth and glinting blonde hair. They are making engine sounds and laser sounds and sounds of exploding nebulae (which, being a big dork, I did have to explain to them do not make a sound in the vacuum of space, and they looked at me with blank eyes and continued with the swan-songs of doomed stars) and six-shooters and race cars and TNT disasters in abandoned silver mines.

They run down, and someone yells, “I’m Pete Petowski and the world will be mine in forty seven seconds MINE I TELL YOU!”

They run up and yell, “BEWARE THE POWER OF MR. JIBBLYKINS!”

And, “I do so have cyborg eyes.”

And, “I’d rather go the the dentist than kiss a girl.”

They run down and someone asks, “If you kill a zombie and then infect it with a new zombie virus is it a half-zombie or a double-zombie?”

And, “Can zombies be pirates? Can they go in space?”

They run up and yell, “I ALREADY GOT YOU WITH MY LASERS. YOU ARE SO OUT!”

Only to be returned with, “Well, I used my laser-blockers. So.”

And as the game continues, I catch little bits as they float down the stairs.

“We each get sixteen superpowers. I call having the power to beat every superpower. Which one do you want?”

“Which would be better: an outerspace circus in space, or an underwater circus with squids and octupuses and sharks?” “Or both?” “You’re right. Both.”

“Oooo! Zombie fingers!”

“Okay, fine. We all speak fluent Wolf.”

“Toe jam is just the nice way of saying toe poop. No one likes to believe that their toes can poop, but they do all the time.

“They sent an army of miniature cyborgs hiding in cereal boxes. The attack will happen at breakfast!”

“I don’t need any weapons. My fingernails were implanted with lasers when I was a baby. That’s what everyone does on my planet.”

“No matter what, I have a second brain.”

“You’re right. Your farts really are grosser than mine.”

“Baby dinosaur? Well, of course.”

“Donuts ARE TOO dinner food.”

“It doesn’t matter if we guard our ice castle with polar bear armies or not. NO ONE CARES IF WE TAKE OVER THE ARCTIC CIRCLE.”

“We have to stop Dr. Nimblenuts and his atomic EXPLODING ANTS!”

“You’re right. A penguin army would be awesome.”

“Is there such thing as chocolate salsa?”

“Let’s say we were separated from our families and raised on a remote island by ninja spiders.”

“My boots have levitation upgrades, but they’re on the fritz. That’s why this leg can’t come off the ceiling.”

“You can too build a space ship from bottle caps. My dad told me.”

“Fine. I’m King. You’re President and you’re Supreme Ruler. And I’m also the Pope.”

“It is not a dumb game at all, Ella. We’re whales. Flying whales. In space. What’s dumb about that?”

“Well, on this planet people’s butts are on their heads.” “Actually, our planet is the only one where people’s butts are, you know. Where butts go.”

“It would totally be good if everything was flavored like raspberries. Raspberry cereal. Raspberry milk. Raspberry bacon. Raspberry pizza. Raspberries. They’re delicious!”

 

I’m sitting here, trying to finish my Sasquatch story. Instead I’ve been listening to these kids for the last hour. It’s more entertaining than the teevee.

What’s distracting you from your writing today?

 

Fragile, and fading, and brave.

My kids, when they woke up this morning, bolted out of bed and ran to where their dog was sleeping, skidding along the wood floors on their knees.

Harper nested in a clump of blankets next to the heating vent. The kids had organized it the night before, and I had carefully lifted my fifty-pound beastie – built for running, leaping, and agile bounding from rock to fence to rock – into the softness of her sick-bed.

harper

She will not stand. She will not walk. And outside of some half-hearted lapping of a half-cup of water, she will not eat or drink.

The kids snuggled around her, putting their faces next to her nose, wrapping their arms around her middle.

“You’re still alive,” the kids said. “I knew it.”

Last night, when I put Leo to bed, I told him that Harper was in pretty rough shape. She’s been in rough shape before, of course (heck, she’s like a million years old), but this feels different.

“Is she going to die?” Leo said.

“Probably not tonight,” I said. “But it’s hard to tell.”

“But she is dying.”

“Yes.”

“Maybe we should sell her.” Leo turned his body to the wall.

This sentiment surprised me. I spoke slowly. “That’s an interesting strategy,” I said. “What makes you say that?”

“I don’t want to watch her die,” he said.

We were quiet for a long time. The lights were off and the room was cold and he and I pulled closer under the covers. “I can understand that,” I said. “But think about Harper. She’s hurting and fragile and confused. But the thing that makes her happy is her family. You and your sisters, especially. She has been with you for your whole life. Don’t you want to be with her for her last, important days?”

“I hope she doesn’t die.”

“Me too.”

“But she will, though. Someday. Right?”

“Everything that is alive is fragile and precious. Everything is stardust and dirt and spring green and the breath of god, and then it fades away. Harper is fading. And so will we.”

“Harper is fragile,” Leo said. “But she’s brave. She’s not scared at all. She’s brave and snuggly.”

“And who knows,” I said. “She may rally.”

“What does rally mean.”

“It’s when someone is looking worse and worse, and suddenly they are better. Harper has looked pretty bad before, and sometimes I thought she was dying. And then she rallied.”

“I hope she rallies.”

“Me too,” I said. The wind howled outside. My dog was downstairs. Breathing. Breathing. Not getting up. My poor baby. “And who knows. She’s made of magical stuff. Maybe she’ll outlive us all.”

Leo sighed deeply. “Mom,” he said. He spoke slowly. Like he was explaining something obvious to an idiot. “There is only like a two percent chance of that happening.”

I told him that I liked those odds. And then I kissed him goodnight.