Oh How I’ve Missed (Torturing) You

If you’ve recently spent time away from someone you care about and are worried about an impending reunion, perhaps you’d like some pointers from Veronica and Ivan. My children, separated for four days, have mapped out this approach:

1. Immediately launch into stories of all the marvelous things that have happened to you in the last three days. As soon as the other person finishes talking say, “Oh I wouldn’t even like that. But guess what I did?” You can include really banal things, as long as you are enthusiastic. “Well, I stayed up until 10:00 and ate pudding.” “I don’t even like pudding. I had a CRAZY COOKIE and hurt my foot.” You get the idea.

2. Since you haven’t spent any time together, you’ll want to argue about what to do as soon as you can. In fact, it’s advisable to demand that your reunitee do something they find absolutely boring. Then, when they won’t, say you want to play alone anyway. Point out how bossy they are. You don’t have to say “I haven’t missed you either!” in order to get that point across. During this time employ foot stomping and shouting right into each others ears. Very effective.

3. Choose a common enemy. Nothing unites old chums like a mission of ill will. If you are children, your mother will be a perfect target. Perhaps she has spent 5 hours in the car and has stopped using her nicotine patches. Easy target. While she lies in wait on her bed begging for a moment’s peace, you should poke her, make horrible, nasty faces and laugh hysterically while she tries to read a book. It is important to be resolute in your intentions to irritate her.

4. Finally, with the dragon slayed (or storming around the kitchen making dinner) you can settle in to playing. Plan and host a party for an imaginary friend. Rehearse and perform a concert. Put on your pajamas and spend a lot of time tickling each other, beacuse above all what you have missed is having someone so sit on and tickle until they cry ‘Uncle”.

By now you should be fully re-acclimated. And your parent or guardian, used to caring for only one child, will be thoroughly exhausted. Which means he or she is probably ripe to give you whatever you want. Can you have a popsicle? Yes, of-course. A sleep over in your sister’s room? We’ll see.

 

Aches & Pains

The howling starts just an hour after I’ve put the kids to bed. I race upstairs to see what is happening, stop to peek in Veronica’s room, but quickly realize it’s Ivan. He’s awake but sleepy, tossing in his bed, tangled in his quilt. Between gulping sobs he cries, “My ear. Hurts.”

I comfort him for a minute and check his forehead – cool, good – and leave to run the water for a hot washcloth. I ask him to press it to his ear and go to get some ibuprofin. After a half hour, he is still weeping, so I give him a second pill. I offer to tell him a story to help him fall asleep.

“Jack and the Beanstalk.” he says, “No, Pinocchio.”

I try to cobble together the details I know: Gepeto, wishing star, candy store, Lampwick – and add details and flourishes to compensate for what I’ve forgotten. The whimpering subsides. Once Pinocchio has become a real boy, I turn out the lights and soothe Ivan to sleep, and finally drift off next to him.

Two hours later at 12:30 he wakes me with restless kicking and arm waving, which turns to crying. Once he can stop crying long enough to speak, he says through trembling lips,

“I want to go to Dad’s.”

Six words that sink my heart like a stone. As I’m helplessly wiping my son’s tears, I’m also batting away doubts and regrets that swoop into my head like so many birds.

“Oh honey, we can’t go to daddy’s. It’s the middle of the night.”

“But I really want to go! I miss dad!”

Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind taking him to my ex-husband’s house, if it would help. But it won’t help, and it would breach our tacit parenting agreement regarding such things. Almost exactly a year ago, Ivan had the croup, and I called Dave in the middle of night. I was still newly single, and scared shitless by Ivan’s small chest heaving as he gasped for air. The net result was a small bout of hysteria (mine), a passive aggressive stand-off (ours) and an ER bill I’m still paying off (mine again). This time I’ll handle it on my own thanks.

Ivan continues to plead to go to this dad’s, and then to the doctor.

“I know your dad would do the same things I am doing now. There is nothing else he, or a doctor even, can do. It stinks, but it’s true.”

I know that kids show parental preferences, and when they were toddlers and Dave and I were married, we actually joked about it. “Looks like your the favorite!” we’d remark with a grin as we passed off a screaming child, “she wants you!” and then go back to bed. It was cyclical, and I never took their preference for their father that seriously. Because at the time I was the go-to parent, when the dog bit and the bee stung. Times have changed.

I crush a tab of Sudafed and put it in a spoon full of sugar in desperation. “I just want to be in my high bed, that’s why I want to go to dad’s.” he says, still trying. I tell him it wouldn’t help his ear, while I stack pillows behind him in bed so he’s sitting up, to help the fluid drain. I’m calm, and kind, but my heart is heavy. I know it’s not the bed he wants, but  his father’s deep voice, slow cadence. Probably his smell, and the scratch of his cheek. But, I’m the mother. Aren’t I supposed to be the one who he calls out for at night? Shouldn’t I be able to deliver my own baby from pain?

And that, more than a fear of being the lesser parent, is what kills me. I can’t cure it. When my son asks for his father in the middle of the night, I cannot grant his request. And that this circumstance, this life of cold comfort and co-parenting, was my choice. Like everything that results from the divorce, it’s my fault. And while I can acknowledge in the light of day that the failure of our marriage was a group effort, at two in the morning it very clearly registers as mine alone.

After a long hour of efforts to distract and comfort, the decongestant takes effect, and Ivan begins to calm down. I bring him back into my bed, and offer a second story.

“Jack and the Beanstalk?” I ask.

“No, we always do that one.”

“How about Hansel and Gretel? Too scary?”

“No. I like it.” This one I know well. The stepmother shakes them awake while it is still dark. They wake shivering on the forest floor. The pebbles shine like stars in the night sky as they guide the children home. Breadcrumbs, birds. The walls are made of gingerbread and the windows of colored candy glass. Gretel gives Hansel a chicken bone. When the children return, their pockets are stuffed with emeralds and the woodcutter embraces them.

I hold Ivan’s tiny hand until his breathing slows and he is out. Another ear ache, another long night, endured. I lie awake and wish for sleep. I wish for happy endings and stars that lead the way to them. I wish for my children to have a life I cannot give them. I wish for medicine to chase away the ache that rises up from my chest when I feel the full weight of the choices I’ve made. And I fall asleep, telling myself stories.

72 Hours

72 HOURSIn the first 72 hours of smoking cessation: Symptoms of chemical withdrawal have peaked in intensity, including restlessness. The number of cue induced crave episodes experienced during any quitting day will peak for the “average” ex-user.

Day 1

Hour 8: Before I am out of bed, I slide open the bedside drawer and pull a patch from the box. The cashier at Target forgot to charge me for them, so I feel karmically indebted to quit smoking. On top of a lot of other reasons. (it’s stupid, causes cancer, et cetera) Coffee_vs._no_coffee

I descend into the pre-dawn light of the downstairs and quietly begin the morning rituals of coffee brewing. CAREFUL! COFFEE MIGHT BE A TRIGGER! says my brain. SHUT UP! also says my brain. I predict many future brain-to-brain conversations. The patch is shiny and transparent and my bicep itches.

The kids wake and within minutes they remember I have told them they can destroy what is left of my cigarettes. I film it with my camera, because I believe in making a public spectacle of my life. They are purposeful in their destruction. It seems like a waste of money, until I remind myself that cigarettes in and of themselves are a waste of money.

Hour 12 When my oldest friend unexpectedly calls, I tell her I am quitting today, and she tells me she is so proud of me. “Thanks.” I say, and my voice cracks. “It’s only noon!” she says despairingly, which makes me laugh and cry a little. I think it will be a long day. But these little patches are cunning and I feel resolved to stick it out. Plus, I don’t have any cigarettes. Damn.

Hour 17 I only lose my temper once, dramatically, in the Holiday parking lot. It has something to do with boots and dawdling I guess, but more to do with nicotine withdrawl and cabin fever. I say to Veronica, “You know, I am quitting smoking and it is really, really hard! Can you just give me a break today and cooperate?” She says, “well I don’t see what is so hard about it!” and I say, “Well, have you ever withdrawn from a chemically addictive substance VERONICA? HAVE YOU?” Yes I actually said that out loud to my 7 year old.  I thought to remind her of how she acted when I weaned her from breast milk – tantrums I tell you! – but thought better of it.

Hour 22 I carefully sew a bird patch on the knee of Veronica’s pants while I watch the Oscars, which are a total yawn. During every commercial break, I think for a split second that I should go have a cigarette before I go to bed. But I don’t have any. Damn.

Day 2

Hour 34 My first real test comes as I run the gauntlet after dropping Ivan at Montessori; my first time alone in my car. A time I typically savor, free from parental obligations, window down letting in the arctic midwinter air, radio turned up loud and smoking my first cigarette of the day. This morning, as the car warms up, the smell of stale smoke is overwhelming and I feel nauseous. I grab a bottle of Rose Geranium I keep in the ashtray and inhale deeply. I look at the label on the side: BALANCING. COMFORTING. Indeed.

Hour 35 I have a lunch date in Minneapolis. I have a minor wardrobe crisis and begin a mantra that goes: Not smoking makes me pretty which I absolutely do not feel, but repeat nonetheless. Again with the car thing. But the sun is high, and I have gum. I turn up Florence and the Machine (from an album unironically entitled Lungs) and sing, well, scream actually, all the way to the restaurant.

Hour 37 – 39 I take breaks in the afternoon to play the trumpet happily along with Mission of Burma when I feel like smoking. That’s when I reach for my revolver!! BLAT BLAT BLAT BLAT!!! It tires my lungs and amuses me. A friend texts me to remind me I have to bowl tonight, which is great, because I was dreading the night alone without the kids and my cigarettes. I have the second wardrobe crisis du jour and spontaneously cut my hair. If you have ever cut your own hair, you know that once you start, it is hard to stop. Luckily, I am running late, so I put the scissors down before it becomes tragic.

Hours 40-42 I bowl for shit, but this is not unusual. A woman in lane two sets a half smoked Marlboro next to her pack while she bowls. She is a thin Northeast Minneapolis spectre with a grey, wrinkled face and caved in cheeks. Not smoking makes me pretty. Thanks lady!

Hours 43 – 46 I had grand plans for writing and sewing and cooking tonight,  but when I get home I see the pile of hair next to the sink, the trumpet next to my desk, and the couch in front of the TV. I feel scared, so I lay down and watch terrible broadcast television. I call my friend who is also quitting and he makes me laugh so hard I choke, for which I am extremely grateful. I climb in bed and wait for my new age book to put me to sleep.

Day 3

Hour 56 I realize that smoking has become the punctuation of my days, and it is for this reason that I miss it. Finish breakfast; comma smoke. Write proposal; period smoke. I’m bored; question mark smoke. When I’m drinking, it’s like: beer, comma, beer, question mark, beer, did I just smoke? Oh well, comma, comma, beer, beer.

I figure I need to find a new activity to punctuate the pivotal transitions in my day. Besides eating, which has become a long stream of consciousness monologue with my kitchen. I try sun salutations, and my friend suggested I run the stairs to get my chi going. Mostly though, I stand up and circle the apartment aimlessly every hour or so.

Hour 60 I find myself at Whole Foods around the noon hour buying ridiculously healthy foods (rainbow cale?). I feel ecstatic that I have driven here without losing my mind, and impulsively buy St. John’s Wort just in case. Just in case it gets harder. Just in case it might actually help. Just in case I forget for one minute that I am on day three of quitting smoking, I tell the cashier. She is nice about it.

The sun is shining and it is about forty degrees. I roll down the windows and drive half lost around St Paul, not entirely by accident. I sing along with Kate Pierson and imagine that my voice is already dramatically improved in range, and test this theory with abandon. Then, darkness falls.

Hour 64 Impulsively, I bake banana bread. Impulsively, I decide to go to Artemis’ house for American Idol and to gawk shamelessly at the Charlie Sheen debacle. I have to stop at my ex-husband’s house TRIGGER! to pick up school enrollment forms and my yoga mat. Veronica is having a meltdown for unclear, but surely not proportional, reasons. TRIGGER! I keep it short and civil (just like I learned in my court-ordered divorce class!) and get back in the car. TRIGGER!

At each possible point I make a wrong turn TRIGGER! but instead of telling me to backtrack, the GPS calmly urges me forward onto ever more unfamiliar roads. Cruising on my odd cocktail of nicotine patch and St Johns Wort, I calmly consider I would have likely smoked at least 3 cigarettes since leaving the house.  I pull into a gas station to pee.

I walk into the belly of the beast: convenience store. TRIGGER TRIGGER TRIGGER It would be convenient to buy a pack of cigarettes, smoke one, and throw the rest out the window. It would be super convenient to buy a pack, smoke three in quick succession and hide the rest under my seat. But it would also be incredibly disappointing and lame. So, instead I buy butterscotch discs and something approximating green tea. Back in the car, I pop in a butterscotch disc and think that it is the very best thing I have ever put in my mouth. I can’t believe they are legal, that is how good they are. Buttery warm nectar slides down my throat. I moan audibly and put the car in gear.

Hour 66 Artemis gives me pizza and offers me wine. I decline, because well: TRIGGER! Everyone says it will make you cave. But then I think I might as well face this demon as well, and have a glass. It’s a juicy little chianti and it goes great with butterscotch discs. Someone sings Judas Priest on American Idol and it is fucking fantastic.  Charlie Sheen is painful to watch but the best part is a shot of his girlfriend on a Cali Chronic magazine cover holding a bong and wearing a girl scout uniform (really!).

Jeff comes home and I am nervous because I know he has cigarettes. But  when he comes in it smells dusty and wrong. I feel pious and high on trash tv and several glasses of chianti. It is good to be with my friends and not think about when I can go outside and smoke. I drink water and pound wasabi peas and get ready to leave.

Hour 72 On the way to the car there is a sizable butt in the driveway I know Jeff has just left there. I consider picking it up. Twice. Then my brain says GROSS! and my brain agrees SUPER GROSS and I drive home without getting lost once.

I was inspired to keep this record by my good friend who also inspired me to quit, simply by deciding to do it himself. You can read his account here. I also did the illustrations, because at it turns out, drawing is a great pastime for your hands. At the time of typing this, I haven’t had a cig in 216 hours. Yay me.


Games for Boys and Girls

The following are illustrations from Games for Boys and Girls, E.O. Harbin, 1951.* The fifties certainly were a different time!

Game: Cat’s Meow
What You Need
: Chair, pillow, a subserviant boy, a mouthless girl
How to Play: Boy kneels on a pillow and mews plaintively until girl scratches boy’s head, signaling that humiliation is complete.
Everybody wins.

Game: Jawbreaker!
What You Need: Blindfold, brute strength
How to play: Blinfolded boy or girl “The Breaker” tenderly holds the face of “The Jaw”. The Jaw taunts the breaker until, filled with rage, The Breaker twists the Jaw’s head sharply clockwise. The other players yell “Jawbreaker!” and medical help, if necessary, is administered.

Game: Fetal Ball
What You Need: Fifth of whiskey
How to play: Pass around a fifth of whiskey until one of the players starts to cry. All players should hug their knees to signal fear. The player with the highest tolerance for alcohol stands and gently rocks the crying player until he or she tips over. Remaining players continue to pass whiskey until everyone is curled up like a fetal ball.
Game: Huff and Puff
What You Need: Paper bags, paint thinner
How to Play: Do not play.

Game: Sit and Spin and Barf
What You Need: One chair, one blindfold, barf bucket (not pictured).
How to Play: Isolate one player “Sitter” in a chair and ignore them. Choose a player with no empathy to be “The Spinner”. Blindfold  “The Barfer”. The Spinner turns the The Barfer while the other players scream, dance and taunt them. The Sitter calls out “What about me? Hey guys! I think he’s going to be sick!” Game is over when Barfer vomits. Game: Charades, Urban Dictionary Edition
What You Need: Internet connection, a willingness to experiment (optional: Box of Franzia White Zinfandel)
How to Play: I think you get the picture.

* For the record, the above illustrations are taken directly from the book referenced above; the descriptions that follow are conceived entirely by me. Except for the name “Cat’s Meow” which is the name of an actual gamebut, oddly, corresponds to a different illustration in the book.

I Saw You

I guess I must have a stalker, or maybe even a gang of stalkers, because the other day I checked the “Missed Connections” ads on craigslist, and half the ads on there were about me!

Roseville Library – m4w – 25

You: baggy wool pants with something sticky on the butt and a filthy white winter coat with no buttons. Me: standing behind you in line when you argued down your sixty cent fine. The way your hair clung to your head after you took off your pink stocking cap stopped me in my tracks. Do you always smell like red wine and pizza in the morning? Call me!

Number 16 University Avenue – m4w – 55

Tuesday afternoon. You were headed east on University with your two adorable children, who you appeared to be screaming at, but no sound was coming out of your mouth, despite gesticulating wildly with your hands. Is there something wrong with your vocal chords? You should get it checked out. And also, you seem like a bad mom.

Shopping at Cosettas – m4w – 41

You spent 40 minutes deciding on a $4.99 bag of pasta. You picked up a wedge of cheese, and put it down again, then picked it up and put it back, like about 100 times. You must have picked up and set down everything in the store. I think your indecision is really cute! Are you even crazier once a person gets to know you? I can’t wait to find out.

Lex and Larp – m4w – 5

Idling at the corner of Lexington and Larpenteur, a projectile hit you in the back of the head. I did it. Love, Ivan.

Shmexy Shmoker – m4w – 49

I saw you standing on a fire escape smoking a cigarette at 11:30 a.m. wearing sweatpants, a kimono, pig-tails, a do-rag and obviously no bra. I was the guy rocking from foot to foot hugging a bottle in a paper bag who asked you if you wanted to party. How come you said no? I think we are soul mates.


February, 1994

Valentines for Seven Friends and a Stranger

Weary of girls floating by
cradling long boxes of roses like newborns
their sweet fragrant blossoms choking me,
A memento of my empty arms.

We contrive  a Valentine’s Day party –
“NO LOVERS ALLOWED
Dress in black and come ready to mourn
the Death of Love by Hallmark Card.”

The coterie arrives alone, by necessity,
Each more bitter than the one before.
We revel in our loneliness
And drink the swill of co-misery.

But cupid’s arrows are fierce and frequent:
A pack of smokes, a hand-made card,
A shot of bourbon, and a dance of abandon in
the smoky haze of an otherwise empty bar.

I’m wounded, I’m hit,
With a quiver full of tenderness
For my lovely orphans, my drinking chums,
Oh my comrades and amigos!

To toast the love this day forgets
At two a.m. it is February 15th,
But still I call out to the bartender
“Eight more pickled eggs!”

Ripon, February 1994

Now I get It

First gig: Groovy Hipsters, backing vocals.

I spent years dating musicians. Not on purpose. But my first love – or more accurately, my first obsessive infatuation – was a guitar player. He was in a wedding band called “The Unexpected!” (punctuation mine) that played mostly 50-60’s classic rock. He was the lone teenager in the band, the rest were in their twenties. I used to go see him play and wait for The Kinks so I could go and dance like Molly Ringwold and gaze up at him, playing expressionless except for the odd, taut smile. I thought this was because he was cool, but now, I wonder if he was just concentrating really hard.

Anyway, our courtship consisted primarily of me gloomily smoking cigarettes and him playing the opening to Ceremony on an acoustic guitar, which never ceased to thrill me. Sometimes we had to walk to the gas station for more cigarettes, and sometimes we made out, but mostly, I think, I gazed at the ceiling and listened to him plink-a-plink. Then I would go home and dash out poems on my electric typewriter about our difficult and doomed love.

Stella, camping, 1995
It will comfort those who knew me then, I no longer play guitar.

One thing quickly became clear. Band practice comes first, girlfriend comes second. The guitar was his object of obsession, as he was mine. This fueled a resentment I harbored gleefully for all of my twenties, as I dated one musician after another. Then I married a painter, and moved to St Cloud and stopped thinking about rock and roll because I had babies and worked in advertising. Rest for eight measures.

When I met Doug, I thought he might be my boyfriend, but it turned out he was going to be my band-mate. This happened when he shoved a microphone in front of my face and said, “let’s see what you can do”. Then he put me in front of a keyboard and said “write a part” and I did. I think I surprised him a little, and nobody more than myself. Douglas does nearly all the hard work; drum parts, rhythm tracks, guitar, bass, mixing, producing and writing lyrics. I was – I am – a rank amateur. But I really, really love making music, and when I show up in his living room studio, I’m ready to work, and ridiculously serious about it.

I played a Chintzeys’ Christmas song for my mom, and she was utterly bemused. “So what now, you’re going to be a rock and roll star?” No mom, I’m not. But I don’t know, is this what it is like for some people who start golfing and just can’t get enough of it? Other people play softball, or build model trains or watch football, and I guess I make weird art-rock, new-wave music with my friend who graciously allows me to do so.

So, the actual recording is much less glamorous than you might have imagined.

So now I get it. Now I know why it was guitar first, girlfriend second. It’s just really fucking fun. To start the day with nothing and end it with a song is just short of alchemy. Like a secret I’ve just been told, and now I can’t help but blurt out to anyone who’ll listen. It’s not my life’s work, it’s not as important as parenting, or as natural as putting words down on paper, and it certainly doesn’t pay the rent. But it’s better than any high-school boyfriend I ever had. It’s not personal, it’s just I’d rather be doing this.

(Oh, and if you want to hear what happened when that microphone got shoved in my face, it was this.

Kiwis

Veronica, second grader

My daughter Veronica, second grader, is telling me what she wants to be when she grows up.

“I’m going to be an artist.” I nod knowingly. I think of Patti Smith whose memoir I just finished. “Well,” I tell her, “you’ll have to work very hard.” I check the rearview. She registers all this with an intense look out the window. She is, I think, well on her way. Then she pipes up,

“Jerry is going to be an artist too.” Jerry. I have heard this name before. When I asked her why she was lugging The Invention Of Hugo Cabret (544 pages, 2.7 lbs) around in her backpack. “Jerry and I like to read it.” I smiled and looked away. Veronica is extremely squeamish about romantic relations, a state I wish to preserve until… adulthood, I guess. I tread lightly.

“So tell me more about this Jerry. What does he look like?”

“Well, he’s Jewish.” Pause. “But he doesn’t wear one of those little hats on his head. He just can’t eat certain foods.”

“Like pork?” I offer.

” No. Like kiwis becuase Jews don’t eat kiwis because they aren’t grown around here. So like if we eat kiwi in class, he just has a little.” This sentence is so densely packed with mind-blowing information, I’m not sure where to start.

“Are you sure his parents aren’t locavores?”

She sighs. “No they are Jewish. And he is, like, partially bald.” What?

“Is Jerry an adult?” I ask, startled.

“No mom. He’s a kid. He sits next to me”

“Then why is he partially bald? Do you mean he has very short hair?”

“Yeah his hair is really short.” Despite her concession, I still picture a seven year old with male pattern baldness, maybe a comb-over.

“He and I draw together.” I recall a stack of baby animal drawings she showed me yesterday, and mention them. “Yeah, but Jerry draws  mostly superheroes.”

“Hmm. So did you make him a special valentine?”

“No. I just wrote ‘you’re funny’ because sometimes he is. And I also said ‘you’re cool’. I’m probably going to make a book about baby animals when I grow up.”

I look back at her again, her thin blonde hair parted in the center, glasses, one adult tooth descending slowly from her upper gum. If she and this prematurely balding Jerry kid grow up to be funny and cool artists, and read books and make books about baby animals and superheroes, I think I can live with that. As much as I can stand her growing up at all.

She’s Come Undone, Again

Cappadoccia, Turkey, 1995
Capadoccia – as good a place to lose your mind as any

I went crazy in Istanbul. I know that I went crazy, because there is an entry in my journal, sparsely kept, that reads “I hated Istanbul. I think this is where I began to mentally disintegrate.” However, I broke that cardinal rule of good story telling; rather than SHOWING that I went crazy, I merely TOLD myself that I went crazy. Like, “Went to the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, then gambling, then crazy.” Now, truthfully, I do remember some of the details. But like many memories, and maybe in particular those of psychotic breaks, much of it is lost to the passage of time and the power of repression. It was almost 15 years ago now.

In order to jog my memory – which I wanted to do for the sake of writing, and not just remembrance alone – I decided to re-read The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. Because it contains what must be one of the most stellar female-crack-ups-of-an-American-woman-abroad, ever. Kit Moresby looses her shit in the Sahara, and never, ever gets it back.

The book is, I hate to say, existential. There’s no getting around it. But as Tenesssee Williams points out in his original  review in 1949, don’t let that stop you from reading it, it’s also a ripping good yarn! Albeit one that will really fuck with your head.

From "New Geography" textbook, 1920
Shifting sanddunes burrying date palms in the Sahara

What I remembered about the book from my first reading this: three incredibly self-absorbed Americans set out for the Sahara in search of something meaningful, and that gradually, they are undone by the vastness of the landscape combined with their own nihilism. Which is true, sort of. And is why I really didn’t want to re-read it. Because I was worried that while I might have suffered nihilism in my twenties, I would have little patience for it in my thirties. Could I really give a care about three rich, self-indulgent post-war brats – again?

What is so stunning about The Sheltering Sky is that one is not asked to sympathize with the characters. Bowles is plainly ruthless in his characterization, so that the reader needn’t be emotionally invested in them, just fascinated by them. And who can help but be fascinated as Port and Kit, the married couple at the center of the story, by turns take actions more and more incredulous and illogical.

The first time I read the book, I finished it in one of those marathon reading sessions on the old green velvet couch in the apartment on Summit Avenue. Back in the days when I could devote a good six hour stretch to the last 200 pages of a novel. I remember being unable to tear myself away as first, the protagonist was killed off (what?! who does that?) and then, Kit gave herself over to a sort of catatonic voluntary victimization that frankly blew my mind. I remember a sort of blinking, fuzzy post-reading state of “well, I certainly didn’t see that coming.”

Upon re-reading, I knew what was coming, and felt more able to … enjoy would be the wrong word; more able to appreciate Kit’s spin into madness, acutely aware of the distance between her madness and my own unhinging so many years ago. Early in the book, Port makes a distinction between travelers and tourists, identifying with the former. It was the same distinction backpackers and wanderers made in the nineties when I was abroad. Port defines it partly as a question of time “tourists generally hurry home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than the next, moves slowly over periods of years”. To me it always seemed the difference was that a tourist was interesting in seeing places, things, sites; whereas the traveler was interested in the acquisition of experience, wherever that may take them. Bowles’ pushes his characters to places wholly new – death, madness –  from which there is no return itinerary.

As I finished the novel this time, it was with a sense of relief. Kit wanders off into the streets of Algiers, I drift through the rooms of my sleeping children. I attend to small bed-time rituals, turning off night-lights and radios – my children, like myself, fear both absolute darkness and silence. It is a long time since the traffic and crowds of Istanbul, and I am still dipping in and out of crazy like a tourist. But here I am  – mother, single mother – ever forward, onward. There is no returning in life, only passage through.