Animals

My life is animals now. An orca dragging a seal to its waiting baby. Dolphins and sharks. Gills and lungs. I’m teaching ESL, level 1, and the common denominator, the thing that we can all lower down to connect on, is animals. Do animals matter? Do my students need to know what an elephant is? Definitely not. We start there anyway.

I have brought two stuffed animals to my classroom, a black and white chihuahua and a fox. They were both supposed to be just decoration, but I realized quickly that making them characters would be a great help. So when I needed to demonstrate how to talk about a book you had read, I spoke quietly and seriously about my book, and then it was chihuahua’s turn. He spoke in his own language first (barks), and then in English. This gag was helpful.

I always begin ESL class with asking how everyone is doing, partly because they are all refugees and have each and every one been through some kind of capital-T trauma, and because a couple of years ago, the world burned down, and now every human is experienced in fear.

They sit in a horseshoe, and we always begin at the same end. “How are you?” I say. “One to ten?”

If someone says “one,” or “zero,” I take Chihuahua to that person’s desk and set him down.

If another person says “one,” or “zero,” I take Fox and put him on that person’s desk.

If a third person says this, I’m shit out of luck.

They are optimists, though, new Americans. They have either survived or won a lottery. They think things will improve.

My aunt died last week. She had dementia for about five years. She sang, she slept, she smiled when a dog visited and jumped in her lap, and she drank chocolate milkshakes. She survived covid. She did not get bed sores. Her brain got so clogged up, swallowing was too hard.

I was the last one to give her nourishment, I think. A venti Starbucks chocolate frappucino with no coffee. Really an absurd order. I sat on her bed and guided the straw to her mouth. This reflex, to root out the straw, and then to suck something sweet and calorie rich, this reflex remained almost to the end.

I got the call she had died at 6 AM Sunday morning. I was discombobulated and couldn’t figure out what to wear, or if I should stop and get food for the people I would meet.

We sat with her body for a couple of hours.

Her husband was there. Everyone wished he wasn’t. He has only a few topics of conversation: animals he has shot, the stolen election, and cooking. Sometimes you get really lucky and he will talk about his black eyed peas.

He stopped visiting his wife years ago. He was not involved in her care. But then, I don’t think he’s been involved in anyone’s care. Maybe he was raised wrong, in a big dysfunctional family in Florida. Maybe he was raised a 20th century white guy, who was not raised to constantly wrack his brain to think, is everyone okay? What should I do? How can I make them okay? Maybe he was let down by a society where joining up to endure violent trauma was much easier than getting an advanced education. Maybe he and my aunt had come together in a sort of secret pact to never discuss their traumas, and bicker.

I sit next to him and take his hand.

He starts to talk about memories, of funny times with his wife, and of her illness.

I can’t remember any time the two of them did something together that they both liked. I’ve spent my entire life wondering why they were married to each other.

That night we all have dinner and he says, “Did you hear they are closing down all the Walgreens in San Francisco because of the looters?”

I mean, if only they would close half of the Walgreens in big cities!

“And they’re on the Plaza, too!” he says, referencing a shopping area nearby that did get a bit roughed up during Black Lives Matter activism.

I thought to myself, “Not today, Satan,” and even though I was on the wrong side of a long, long table, I stood up, prepared to push furniture to get out.

Many of us at the table drive by the Plaza regularly. Some of us were at the Black Lives Matter protest.

I remember when a distant relative insisted to me that the protesters in New York were paid. I was there, I said. I wasn’t paid. I was there.

I touch my aunt’s hand before the funeral home people take her away.

I touch her hand when she lays in the casket. Still cold, but now heavy, too, like she is made of blocks of wet clay.

I didn’t tell my students any of this. For one thing, we have limited vocabulary to communicate. For another, I was at work to not think about my aunt dying.

There was so much hand-holding. My brother holding mine, my sister holding mine. We are regular huggers, sure, but at the funeral I am constantly holding someone, or holding a hand, or snuggled up next to someone.

When my aunt first moved into the nursing home, her face was dry and chapped. Someone else brought some face cream, and I would put it on her forehead. “There, that’s good,” I said, the way you say things to encourage a human vibe.

I wasn’t really angry about her illness until she died. Maybe because though she was sick, there was something I could do for her. And something I could do for myself, when I was out of hope, or out of patience. I could visit her, and sing a song, and hold her hand.

Once she died, there wasn’t shit I could do for her.

I know, I could love on those she left behind. And I did.

Death makes me so angry.

Today two of my students were sniffling and putting their heads down, and both of them returned to class with notes that said they had called their parents to pick them up.

I had intended to take Chihuahua and Fox home to wash them.

Two sick students made me remember.

My laundry room is down two flights of stairs, so I thought, wait, I could give them a bath, like real animals.

I ran the water, and drizzled Chihuahua and Fox with shampoo. It’s kind of nice shampoo, color-treated hair shampoo. That’s just because my stepmom buys it for me. If it were up to me, I’d probably try to wash my hair with ivory soap.

Shampoo strips oils, cleans deeper than body wash or soap. So I chose shampoo.

I scrubbed each animal. Chihuahua’s eyes were suddenly clear of fur, and he stared me down. When I dunked Fox, I realized it looked like I was drowning him, and I flipped him over so he could float on his back, snout up.

The animals are soaking. I guess I will towel dry them and blow dry them.

Next week we learn elephants, cheetahs, and wolves.

What’s Up

When I drive to school every morning, I pass an abandoned building that has been spray painted, with an X and then one stroke of a second X, and I wonder, is that fifteen?

Yesterday I chatted for a moment with an old man. I have done this a million times, and had lovely conversations about art, politics, families. This time I asked about his book, and he said, “It’s good, but it makes me kind of dizzy. Not as dizzy as the Clintons make me, though.”

And things deteriorated further as I tried to keep a neutral face, and consider that if he had a patient listener, he might not send anthrax in the mail or some such.

With a group of teachers, we drove around and delivered some swag to students. A bit of happy surprise for them, on a day they were not at school.

On one street, two rather bedraggled white people conducted their deal as if the director had told them, “The audience needs to SEE the baggie AND the drugs.”

I talked with a man from Zimbabwe this week. He said he wished he could take my English out of my head and install it in his, and looking back, I think, it sounds wonderful to have some of my brain removed.

I am teaching English as a second, third, fourth, or fifth language. We’ve had some comedy about the difference between pronouncing “peach” and “bitch,” including me trying to explain that you can only say “bitch” at a dog show, which is, admittedly, a rare language usage occasion, one I haven’t experienced… ever.

A week or so later, a kid wrote a word on his palm and showed it to me. “Yeah, you can’t say that, either,” I told him.

Something about turning 45 has caused me to consider all the things I thought would be cool to have in my house, around the age of 8. So now I browse grandfather clocks, although I don’t really want to own a clock. At least I am staying strong on not having a bubble gum machine.

What Is

I’ve taken some hiata before. I wish it was “hiata.”

There has been less to say.

But: I made all the boxes, left and came home to my disassembled home, hauled the boxes, profusely thanked the people who helped me move the boxes. I moved into my mom’s living room. I moved into my friend’s upstairs. He made nice cocktails and had other guests who could talk about science. We sat outside. “I know people don’t want to talk about it,” the guest said. “I want to talk about it.”

This was when the pandemic was theoretically over.

I went to a dinner party. To some extent, we had forgotten how to talk to each other. To some extent, no one wanted to talk about covid, but then, what else was there to talk about? Covid had run our lives for a year.

I politely drank some bubbly white wine, though I dislike white wine, and I hate bubbles.

I met new people, people who had been to Spain or once had an elderly dog or knew the former mayor well. I wore a new dress and no one said, “What a lovely dress,” which I didn’t take personally, at all, but noted as part of the hollow tin soldier way we were trying to go about things. We were noting who was plumper (me) and who was older (some), but also who looked mysteriously fresh (how do they do it).

People kept asking if I had found a job, and I kept telling them that I was sure I would soon, but thinking that I never would, that this was the world telling me my time and talents were useless, both as a woman over 40 and a human being who disliked the excesses of capitalism.

Around this time it turned out the pandemic was just taking a break. I was at my summer graduate class when the announcement was released for the United States: masks on. I will forever be grateful to have been in a room with other disappointed humans at that moment. We were crushed, but crushed together.

Then I had two interviews.

I got two job offers.

Both seemed like okay jobs. But while one was teaching English to ninth graders, an endeavor I had already accomplished three times, an endeavor that directly sucked life force out of my skin suit, the other was teaching English to kids who don’t know English.

My students, when they natter on to each other, are saying things I don’t understand. The cognitive load on me, to consider how to intervene, what to say, if the kids are all right… it’s gone. Their asides are opaque.

This is a perk.

Is someone speaking ill of a sexual orientation? Is someone referencing the female boy inappropriately? I just don’t know, and I can’t know.

I took the job.

I miss the light.

I lived in a light box, and now I live in a place like other people live.

But I love my bathtub.

I feel safer as an ESL teacher. I imagine some people might show up to my new class and say, “Jesus, they are learning the word ‘pirate’? They are still practicing ‘sometimes’ and ‘always’?” How do you communicate with them? YOU MIME?!?”

And then they might slink away, like, I don’t even know, man.

Lately: I try to figure out what is “safe”: masks, people, outings.

The virus will have its way with us. People keep testing their strength against it, and losing.

Nothing is okay. Some things are lovely. Some things are nice.

On a few occasions I find myself taking Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: “Every so often, say to yourself, if this isn’t nice, what is?” My porch is nice, getting coffee down the block is nice, having my cats back together with me is lovely, starting to make little art projects again is nice. I took a little bookshelf and assembled some of my treasures and then sat down with letters to turn it into the Museum of Small. It’s nice.

Again

“My friend, not only could it happen again– it will happen again.”

Last night I was reunited with my extended family. My enormous, gregarious family, wine and beer flowing, an even layer of attempts at laughs, here, there. The joke is my uncle doesn’t like my mom. The joke is all there is in life is pleasant and loose.

It was as if I could feel my serotonin levels rising, chemicals being pumped into my brain by virtue of me being a mammal who was with my troop. We were mirroring each other’s body language unconsciously. Everyone had such gravity. We were there.

One of my aunts has dementia, and she has made me notice how particular the cadence of our voices is. How even if she has stopped speaking, the way we structure a story, our family, our troop, is in common. We are speaking the way she taught us to speak, the way her mother taught her to speak, though I didn’t know her mother.

One aunt has a snort in her laugh. My uncles all sounds so similar we have to close our eyes and squint to think which uncle it is. One cousin has a booming voice weighing in.

These people who have known me since I was born. People who reminisced about visiting my parents’ trailer in the trailer park, before I was even a thought. Oh, yeah, we stayed there once, they say. Just like I’ve had nieces and nephews and siblings come stay with me.

Staying at each others’s houses is usual. I’ve stayed at the homes of almost all of my aunts and uncles: a house in New Jersey with a guest room where a doll from Singapore looked down on me, a modern hand-built house in Oregon, in the desert. A comfy old house in a green suburb of St. Louis. Only once did an uncle stay with me. But I’ve never had a guest room.

I’m moving into a place with a guest room in four days.

Truly if you asked me who I am right now, I would wearily recite the things culture has told me are my situation. I am staying with a friend. I have a place I am moving to. It has a fireplace and a big porch. I am looking for a job. I have one class and one portfolio to complete my master’s degree. I am tired. I am a little out of it, from dislocation, a sudden move, and the way the world burned down last year.

These strange times that my life feels like a novel, because everything that happens is of note. Where I wake up. The gush of rain last night. The unusual meetings of people, unusual groupings, when I stay at a friend’s house, and other friends see me there, or pick me up there. A friend, my sister, and me. We talk about “passing the open windows,” as John Irving would say.

My cat licks my nose twice.

I turn on the shower to steam my dress into a presentable state. My idea of a presentable state is not very smooth, but it was truly a wadded up mess.

I check on my dress. This lets out too much steam. I stand a minute and think, does steam relax everything, everyone?

Moments within the six hours of continuous conversation that I thought, I wondered if I would see all these people again. And each of their faces is here. We were lucky. Very lucky. Privileged and lucky, and science believers.

People recount kindnesses past, and fret over the futures of the young. My aunts and uncles give my mom a beautiful necklace for her birthday. I am especially relieved because I have been broke, and I couldn’t afford to get my mom a nice present for this big birthday.

A cousin’s kid tells me she has many special skills, including ventriloquism, stalling (“for hours”), and negotiating contracts.

Another cousin’s kid sits and discusses if someone will be allowed to pull his loose tooth. On the table: someone changing their name to his name, any toy under $127 (a figure mysteriously specific), and a Chipotle kid’s meal gift certificate. Towels and sheets are fetched to “catch the blood,” but the kid’s grandma ensures that the various volunteer tooth-pullers stop just short of pulling on his tooth even a little bit.

There are stairs in my friend’s house, and I am staying on the third floor. Up and down, up and down, the old wood creaking. The top flight is twisty, servant stairs twisty. The bottom flight has two options which I think should make for magnificent drawing room comedy. I hate drawing room comedies on stage. In life I think they could be charming. For the moment, though, it’s me, my friend, and my cat. Not enough characters.

I am back in a city. (I almost typed THE city, but of course that is The City, darling, I miss you.). An aggressive zoom on a trafficway can get you where you want to go. An old man sits in a triangle of cement, with two plastic bags and a book he is writing in. Hunched way over.

There is a sign in an alley that says, “These trash cans are for residents of 2452 Pennsylvania.” I’ve moved from a college town, where all the dumpsters and recycling bins are communally parked, and no one is directed to, or not to, use them, to a place where parking must be bickered over and left turns are frequently not permitted. There is the city part of me that has not been exercised. She feels enlivened.

Kansas City is not The City. She has messes, people who wait for busses, dramatic and terrible crime, risks that are real. She has need of a Level 1 trauma center, where gunshot wounds are treated regularly. She has a history of gangsters and corruption that a college town can only wrinkle its nose at. She has recent immigrants struggling mightily. She does not have easy access to things she needs by just posting in a Facebook group. People will suspiciously refuse to help. They will immediately assume advantage is being taken.

The news: a new variant of the virus flourishes. I have also moved from a college town where vaccination levels were high, to a city where a mix of people includes plenty who don’t want to be vaccinated. One of the national hot spots is just south of us. In the Ozarks, society frowns on anything unChristian, and uses that to contain the devil, rather than ordinances and hearings. And they flood together in tourist towns to exchange breath indoors.

Am I returning to mask wearing? I just know I’m vaccinated, and tired. I keep being told that my vaccine works.

I work my way through the novels I have to read for my summer class. The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. I would not have read this book. It is set in India, in a region of water and land giving back and forth to the people. When discussing the nature of floods and earthquakes (and I’ll add pestilence and fire, and mud slides and tsunamis), the way those forces periodically overwhelm our lives, flatten what we know. The character says, “My friend, not only could it happen again– it will happen again.”

Image: Standard with Two Long-Horned Bulls, Hattian, ca. 2300-2000 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of Art.