Aunts

When I don’t have a sub gig, I visit my Aunt Bettie in the memory care unit.  “Memory Care Unit” sounds disingenuous, as they are not caring for memories, they are caring for people who have tattered and torn memories, memories which are wearing thinner all the time.  Anyway, this week, when I arrive, Aunt Bettie is lying in a fetal position, dressed, but on her bed, just staring.  Usually she is up and singing in the living room.

When people are like, “Does she know you?”  I’m like, “Do I know myself?  Who knows me?” which makes me sound like an ass, but is also actually true.

My great-aunt, Rita, who is on the other side of the family, died last week.

I see my great-uncle Jess at the funeral.  He is the only remaining sibling in my maternal grandfather’s family.  He is 92, walking with a cane, weekly going to coffee at HyVee in Lincoln, Nebraska.  I don’t recognize anything about him except his laugh, which is close to my grandfather’s.  So I tell him this, when I see him sitting to the side, at the party (well, it sort of is) following the funeral.  Any time they gather, my maternal family is loud and gregarious and enjoying beers.  A few of us are looking out the back windows of my mother’s cousin’s house, at deer who are gently eating birdseed out of the neighbor’s bird feeder.  My grandparents had deer who appeared in their backyard, too; they would bless our breakfasts with their delicate calm in the distance.

Jess was the farmer in the family, and I was not taken to the farm as a child.  It was too far, far out in Nebraska.  People met in Omaha.  I went to Omaha.

My mother’s cousin does the ceremony at the funeral home.  He blows a flute, rings a singing bowl, and speaks about mothers and heritage and the divine feminine, and my whole front feels cut off and exposed.  My heart is my whole body.  What he says is true.  Was true.  Is true.  How tenderly his mother cared for people.  How her own troubled childhood wounded her and made her tender.

He talks about how every Halloween, my great-aunt dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West.  For obvious reasons, this blows my mind.  Poof.  When he quotes “Surrender, Dorothy,” I start to cry.  Do you see, she is me?  That she had a life, like I have one, that was beautiful, and is over, and there is nothing to do but let it go?

I struggle to “believe” in God, or Jesus, or whatever, in the last few years, but I continue to believe completely and easily in people.  Some people make it easy and clear to believe.  They keep doing this for me.

My mother’s cousins talk about caring for and interacting with my great-aunt as she progressed with Alzheimer’s.  Three years ago, my grandmother with dementia died.  This year, my aunt moved into the “memory care unit.”

It’s a nice idea, that they are caring for her memories.

I sit and talk with old friends, in a bar we’ve patronized for many years.  The waiter brings a sample of every salad dressing they have, so that we can try them all and figure out which one we used to order, when we went there for happy hour every Friday.  We can’t figure it out.  I think they don’t have it anymore.

I brought face cream to the memory care unit, and spread it on her cheeks and forehead, which are chapped and dry from the winter air.  I let it sit, and then Aunt Bettie rubs it into her own face.

We stand under the burial tent and look at Great Aunt Rita’s casket, with its spray of yellow and purple flowers.  My mom and sister and I take yellow roses and put them on the graves of our people there: my grandfather, my grandmother, and four of my great-grandparents.  My sister cries, which means I don’t, because she’s doing it for both of us, and for my great aunt, my grandmother, and Aunt Bettie.

My grandmother, in her last years, was difficult.  She was angry and scared a lot.  At her funeral, it was hard to remember the person she was before her brain started getting eaten away.  She loved meeting people, chatting with them, she laughed easily.

My mother’s cousin says, “The cemetery guy asked if my dad was an important person.  I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because he got a great deal on this plot!'”  My great-grandfather, a mortician, got him the deal.  This meant my mother’s grandparents are all buried right next to each other.  And one set of aunt and uncle.  And her parents.  It’s good to have people in the death business.

I walk up to my aunt and touch her shoulder.  “Hi, Aunt Bettie, it’s Elizabeth, how are you?  Are you okay?”

She would have known about my great-aunt’s death.  She would have wanted to know all about how my mother’s family was doing.  She would have contributed stories about her parents, grandparents, people she knew.  She was our family’s keeper of stories.  I have some of the stories, her children have some, my father has some, and others are lost forever, the way all of us will be, eventually.

At first she smiles.  “Hey!”  But then she says, “Not really.  I’m not okay.”  But she sits up.  I wish I could tell people I am not okay in such a straightforward manner.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “Can I help you with something?”

“No,” she says.

“Do you want to color in your coloring book?”

“No,” she says.

“Do you want to do a puzzle?”

“Yes,” she says.  I take her hand, and we go to the table.

Image: “Julia Jackson” by Julia Margaret Cameron, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Of Oz

I think this is the longest I’ve gone without posting here.  I wasn’t sure I was, so I wasn’t sure what I had to say.

Or I was nervous about who would be writing here.  So I will give her the third person.

She crumples with sad when the sixth graders start punching each other because the day was almost perfect, why did they have to?  What did she do wrong?

Grins when the kindergarteners dance and jump at their special day of bowling in the gym.

Sees the boy in sixth grade, and the boy in first grade, who are hopelessly behind, and need the teacher’s constant attention, and imagines (with cause) what their high school years will be like.

Sees and knows this is where the grinding, sticky problems of poverty and race are growing in their youngest stages, and that try as they might, the concerned, kindly, hardworking, thoughtful and wise adults there are doing the best they can and poverty and race will not be solved.

Walks the halls of the beautiful school where each classroom is sponsored by a real estate agent or a cafe, and then the halls where the reading center is put in by the football player who did it as community service to compensate for his mistake.  The teachers who are overly thankful because they know a lot of people won’t come to their school.  The grade school with a metal detector.  All the schools with their insane “no concealed weapons” signs outside.

She is hugged every day by kids who just met her.  It’s good.  Apart from the fact that she has been warned never to touch a student for any reason apart from dragging them out of a burning building.

Though it is like putting on favorite gloves to be a teacher again, she may feel at the end of the day her introversion, like, “Stop talking to me, nobody talk to me,” even when the kids are sweet, so sweet.

She arrives at the restaurant, the apartment, the house, the party, and several people say, “Liz!” and hug her, and get her a drink, and surround her in conversation.

On Friday night, she decides if she will go to the movies with her sister, to see her friend’s work at the gallery, have a drink with friends, or just go home and fiddle with the hot glue gun, glitter, cardboard, and duct tape for hours, prepping for Mardi Gras.

The KCMO schools pay the least.  They are the easiest gigs to get.  She doesn’t have the paperwork done to sub in the more affluent districts, and she wonders, driving as she so often does now, around the interstate loop of the city, is she going to do gigs that pay more, in fancier schools, now that she is all in debt, or is she still going to do the work she feels she can do, with kids who need someone so much?  It’s just one day.  It’s just a sub.  Other kids need teachers.

She has to get gas right after teaching at a school in the deep hood.  She drives past a mess of fire trucks and police cars.  The gas station is not a chain.  Across the street is a thrift store with a handmade sign.  You cannot pay at the pump.  Ever.  She likes this place, it’s bereft but free in a way a place no one gives a shit about is free.

Inside the place, a white guy behind the counter is chatting with a black guy, and another guy is hanging around like he has nothing else to do.  “Twenty on four,” she says.  She has more than twenty dollars now, but this seems easiest.  “What’s up with that?” she says.

“Police chase, like a ton of police cars,” the white guy says.  The black guy shakes his head.  There’s one of those cutouts by the door on the way out, a guy who makes her start, thinking he is a guy standing by the door.

“He doesn’t have a dad,” a kindergartner says, cocking her head.  Why does it have to be the black boy?  But it is.

As a sub in an elementary school, she smiles big and hard, especially at the poor schools, because she worries they don’t see enough people happy to see them, not enough people will now, or ever, be happy to see them and praise their enthusiasm and their good manners.  “Very nice manners,” she says.

Sometimes she has to make her voice sharp, or louder, but she saves this for the last hour of the day, which is like the last day of school: do whatever you want, precedents don’t matter anymore.

Until you go back to the same school twice.  Then the kids treat her like a celebrity.  “Miss S!”

It’s Ms S, but no one can say that, so it’s fine.  This is a little bit of the New York City anonymity she used to dread and enjoy.  When on Friday night she was deciding between watching TV or having a drink alone at a neighborhood bar, with a book she’d rather was a person.  (How rarely has she thought that!)

She attends Mardi Gras parties, and people she barely knows, or doesn’t know, are happy to see her and talk about fun times past.  She remembers that evenings in silence, actual silence, with only the art supplies thrown everywhere, doing her messy work, she has no patience, how engaging, how warming.

She says she moved back here from New York City, and people say, “Why?!”

She walks down one flight of stairs in her pajamas to do laundry, instead of three flights down and three blocks over.  She tries to buy her own groceries, but her parents buy them before she can.  Her cat is staying with her sister, so the pet she has is the parents’ dog.  She sings songs to the dog, walks the dog, takes the dog to the nursing home to visit her aunt.  The ladies at the nursing home stare happily, and stare blankly, and some of them are enlivened by the dog, like they were hungry and didn’t know it until they smell garlic being sautéed.

Her aunt has dementia.  There are a lot of things she doesn’t know or understand, but one thing she does know is “The Wizard of Oz.”  She knows who the characters are, says their names: Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Wizard of Oz.

Image: “Water Carrier by Moonlight” by Marc Chagall, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Move

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Someone said, “I’m looking for gum,” and I did not say anything, though I had gum in my purse.   I don’t know why.  I felt this tiny selfishness.  I have to get going, I thought.

I carry boxes up the stairs, around the corner, and unpack them on my bed.  The window has the sun, direct sun, which is a rare thing in New York City.

I drive, and I curse the car.  I hate cars.  I hate driving.  I hate getting in a car to travel three blocks.  It’s been snowy and icy, though, and wicked cold, so who could resist?  I miss walking.

I remember all the places in Kansas City where I had panic attacks, or such severe anxiety that I went home and hid.  My New York doctor liked to suggest The City made me anxious, but no.

My family treats me like I a fortunate 16-year-old: here’s a car you can drive, would you like dinner?  I’m paying for her.  Which is so so nice, I occasionally fret about if I deserve it, or if I am feeling grateful enough, or something.

I have some freelance work, which I do while wearing pajama bottoms, a good t-shirt, and socks.  I sing to my parents’ dog.

I take the dog to the place where my aunt is living.  She has dementia.  I bring in the dog, which makes me extremely popular.  My aunt says, “Yeah!” to almost everything.  It’s a sign of her disease, obviously, but it’s also a very good example.  She’s the only person I can talk to who isn’t worried about what’s going on with me, the person I don’t have to rebuild a relationship with, or worry about, am I asking too much of her?  Am I pulling my weight the way an underemployed person can?

I just say, “Can I give you a hug?” and she says, “Yes, please!” I tell her who I am, and talk about her life, back to her.  And we sing songs, and we color in coloring books.  She chuckles.

Doing the women’s work, I think, the unpaid work of life, visiting the sick.  It’s a pleasure to be able to do it.

My mom throws up, and I go get her pedialyte and saltines.

It’s sad, sometimes, when I leave.  My aunt won’t ever tell stories about the family again.  She was our family historian.  She was a talker, always, would rattle on, talk your ear off.  Now she is quiet.  She pretends to understand what you are saying, though maybe sometimes she understands?

My dad comes upstairs and peers in my room.  For a second, I think, like a teenager, this is my room!  But then I remember I’m grown up, we are both grown up, and it’s fine.

“Is there any space left in here at all?”  He keeps seeing me bring things in, that don’t come out, into the clown car of my childhood bedroom.

“Oh, yeah.”  Their house is, like, nice.  The closet doors are heavy wood.  The windows are double insulated instead of drafty.  Everywhere I have lived, it has, on some occasion, snowed inside.

“How is it, being back?” people say, and I’m like, “I don’t know.”  There are new buildings that make me say, “Whoa, what’s that doing there?”  Some of my friends’ lives are much the same; others are completely different.  The cat who lived in the cathedral courtyard died.  I became a person who knew I could do all the things I did: tolerate great upheaval, new people, new places, intense loneliness, build new relationships, go back to fretting about paying for the groceries, after many years of being financially stable.

Inside the closets, behind those heavy doors, on the back wall of the closet, are the marks where I measured my brother, as he grew.  His name, the date.  Up, and up, and up.

Image: Fragment of Queen’s Face, Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

 

Covers

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I was on the bus, a man had gotten on, he had a thick accent and asked if anyone had change for $2.  No one answered.  He went with us a stop.  The bus driver asked him again.  He asked again.  I didn’t even look.  I didn’t want to help him.  I didn’t want to help anyone.  I wanted to go to work, and go home, and watch TV, and go to sleep.

No one gave him $2 worth of change.  An assertive woman in the back said, “Who is she talking to?”  Meaning the bus driver, who is the bus driver asking for fare.  “Get off the bus!” she said.  “I gotta go!”

Finally he got off the bus.  It was impossible to say if he really didn’t have change, or he had forgotten to get change, his affect was flat.

“You weren’t kidding around,” someone told the assertive lady.

I got the date of my move wrong.  I was sitting working with a student on a paper when I realized this.  I told him I had to go to the bathroom, walked upstairs, and called my sister so she could calm me down.

I woke up the next morning and carried boxes of books down three flights of stairs.

This morning I woke up with sore calves.  Not as bad as when I moved out of a fourth-floor apartment into a second-floor one (that day I could hardly walk), but sore.

The snow I had ordered, the last snow in New York City, arrived prettily, lacy, light, slowly.

I lay in my bed and could not avoid noticing that the walls were too bare, that there is a gap like from a pulled tooth, the gap where my great-grandmother’s dresser was.  My dresser since I was seven years old.  And the lamp that was in my room when I was an infant.  They’re all in my dad’s van, which has gone across New Jersey, Pennsylvania, is now in Ohio.

My dad, my stepmom, and I ate at my cafe, looked at Alexander Hamilton’s grave, and saw a display of quilts made by military tailors, out of military uniform fabrics.  The guard at that museum said, “What are you resisting?”

“Oh, Trump, of course,” I said, and he fist-bumped me.

I said goodbye to my dad and stepmom and the vanfull of my possessions, and went directly up to my bed and cried and cried and cried.

Moving requires a lot of crying.  And I’m not even a crier, I’m not even that good at it.

My roommate knocked and hugged me while I cried some more.

And in the morning, the snow I had ordered, as from a  catalog, a thing that used to exist as something we children looked at, and could never order from, but cut pictures out of, and desired things we would never get, like American Girl dolls, and things we would get, like clothes from Sears.

The snow delivered.  But why, where had it come from how was it December, how was it my last week in New York, how was it Christmastime, after all those times I stomped home certain no one cared for me at all, ready to buy a ticket back home and show everyone that I had given up.  Look!  I gave up!

The tickets were always expensive.  I always found a reason to stay, even if it was just that I was too tired to take action.  Even if it was only that I wouldn’t leave my great-grandmother’s dresser.

It snowed and it covered everything, my grief at leaving, my latest attempt to die to one life and move into another, my beautiful times with strangers and people who were immediately friends, and people who were slowly friends, and people who betrayed me, and people who had visited me in New York, giving me a concentrated, adventure kind of friendship that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.  It snowed on Battery Park, where I went to art events and protests, on Liberty Island, where I took many visitors, on Melville’s streets, downtown, it snowed on the top of the Empire State Building, where my cousin and I had looked over the grid.  It snowed on Crown Heights, the part around the Nostrand 3 stop, and I remember going to that stop the first time and thinking, “This is my stop.  I have a stop in New York City.”

Image: “Street Story Quilt,” Faith Ringgold, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Return

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She cries grey,

like the wash from the ink brush when

there is only an eyedrop of ink,

there isn’t black.

She calls catastrophe:

it appears, above.

There was no octopus, no graphite, no soot,

nothing could be written,

pages were washes,

scribbles carved flirty moons and moonslices.

 

She wakes,

she engages friends,

with her concern.

They walk and walk.

 

I was hands less.

I was less open-eyed,

my breasts not bound

There were things I dismissed

including rust

I knew what I liked.

 

They found the man to be be angry, and, worse, absent.

 

A humbug, though, offered what he had to

travelers from the desert.

Even a humbug in a white-gleam

city where everyone

wears tinted lenses,

where there is no such thing as clear.

He has a way up,

a way out,

to Omaha, back

to Omaha,

where my grandparents

and my great-grandparents

were buried in their good clothes.

The humbug said,

“Let’s go.”

I, on Friday nights, dreaded equally

the empty apartment

the friendless bar.

“Let’s go!” said the humbug, who also believed we would never know or need magic again, as he was not magic.

The wizard left alone.

for Omaha,

where my grandparents

and my great-grandparents

are buried in their good clothes.

My great-grandmother Mabel,

who fed me knox blocks and

studied Latin and Greek,

My great-grandfather, who dressed the dead,

My grandmother, buried with her withered mind and worn heart.

My grandfather, whose heart exploded and silenced his squeaky chuckle.

My great-grandmother who stitched.

My great-grandfather who made bathtub gin.

I will not return to Omaha.

I have the shoes.

And I will leave in a click

of a glint and

with color in my eyes.

 

Hair Peace

The weather has turned the city from welcoming to alien, the wind suddenly blew so cold, I set blankets against my windows and the north-facing wall.  I spend Friday and Saturday fielding calls about the hows and whens of my move.

A radiator in the apartment busted a gasket (I think literally?) and clouds of steam stream out, crack the paint into streaks in the hallway as it evaporates.  When I get home, the super is tinkering with the radiator, and later I hear him clattering in the bathroom, probably cleaning up.

New York changes you, a friend said.  I was like, no, nothing changes me, I am a force unto myself.

Thursday night I went into Manhattan to meet a friend, and it was one of those perfect into Manhattan times, that I was so psyched to be there, to get off the subway and walk in the orchestra of the people, wander, see the lights, eat a sandwich, chat.  Energy, energy, energy.

I have a hard time remembering: I came to New York City someone who had never lived with anyone she wasn’t related to, or sleeping with.  Someone who had lived her entire adult life in the city where she was raised.  Someone who had had exactly two jobs in her twelve-year career.  Someone who had a wee anxiety disorder, and took about a year to open up and feel comfortable with people.

I had to speed shit up, here.  I just had to: eight different roommates, three jobs, in four years.

I don’t find this a particularly speed-obsessed place.  Things here actually happen slower.  Bureaucracy is glacial.  You spend half your day waiting for the train, or waiting or the train to get there.  People sit in traffic.  Wait in laundromats.

I had to open up to people here, though, as much as my tense little self could.

Results were mixed.

I am about to get up and get going on a Saturday, I hear the cat peeing on the floor.  I told her I was going to beat the shit out of her, which she knows is not true.

My city.

A friend I love, loved, our relationship was long, weird, loving, generous, or was it?  There were things about me that I thought only he understood.  We were drinking buddies, and other things, I don’t know what we were.  He disappeared, and he won’t even know that I have left New York.  He disappeared completely.

“If you move to New York,” I told him many years ago, “I’ll see you all the time.”  I did.  “If you move to LA, I’ll never see you again.”

I finally got myself dressed and out of the apartment.  Neighbors were hanging out under the scaffolding next door.  “How are you?” one said.  “How’s your mother?”

“She’s fine, thank you for asking,” I said.  I hate when people say, “Thanks for asking,” like, I’m honored you consider me worthy of the most casual conversation, but this guy met my mom once a million years ago, so it was actually nice for him to ask.

“And hey, watch your step, there!” another neighbor said.

Dog shit.  “Oh, I see, you guys are all out here protecting the community, huh?  Public service?”

They liked this, they all laughed and laughed as I walked away.  Standing around, smoking or drinking a beer on the sidewalk when it’s forty degrees, autumn weak sun, leaning on the railing of the scaffolding.

—–

Goodbye Louis CK as a good guy, a feminist.  I’ve watched “Louie,” and “Baskets,” repeatedly, and I still don’t quite “get” them, in the best way.  I just feel “yes” about them.  “Better Things” is also quite “yes.”

I always had a fondness for Kevin Spacey keeping his sexuality private.  “American Beauty” remains a favorite movie of mine.

I started thinking of Out of Africa when I thought about leaving New York.  I am broke, like Dinesen was, and I did have a short time here, relatively speaking.  I do not have syphilis, though, and I’ll be back, of course, I’m not leaving the way she left.

Also, obviously, I’m a well-meaning white person who is sometimes insufferable but not, you know, all the time.

The way people used to leave places.  The way my great-grandfather left Poland.  Goodbye forever, and by forever, he meant forever.

People had more practice for death, in the past.  I don’t know if this was good or bad.

But anyway I love New York like that, like it makes me who I am, the idea of it.  Its mere existence is a comfort.

I stumbled into watching a bit of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in, or peace-in,  whatever.  I love how Yoko gets to talk.  One of the reporters insists he was talking to John, but John ignores this.  John treats her like she’s also an artist and a person.  Of course he was a real piece of work, too.  And she loved him.

I liked watching them make their posters with markers and put on their jammies and be like, Our biggest problem is war!  I was like, shit, if only our biggest problem was a war in southeast Asia killing millions of innocent people.

Wait, okay, that was a pretty bad problem.

And I thought, it’s so easy to focus on what you’re against instead of what you’re for.  For decency, for freedom to make mistakes, for truly restorative justice, for nurturing, for mistakes, for jammies, for vegetables, for pie, for letting “Parks and Rec” play a million episodes in a row, in the background, if that’s what makes you feel safe.  It’s fine.  For feeling safe because people can be good.  Hair peace; bed peace.

Alarms

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The smoke alarms were going off.  This told me the super had installed them properly, which was a surprise.  Two of them were going off, one beeping, and one was saying, “Fire…. Fire…. Fire….”

I didn’t want to get up, and I thought, someone was cooking, and they’ll handle it.

A crazy man drove his car into a crowd this week, and the press reported, “Terrorist Attack.”  Some news hits you so hard, and some news just bounces right off me, like that bit.  I was just like, I am moving, my whole life is falling down around me, I can’t compute other threats.

When I went to my meditation group, though, one of the women who was there lived right at the scene of the crime.  She looked out her windows and saw it.

“I couldn’t leave the apartment,” she said.  “We were on lockdown.”  We listened to her story.

Another woman was in Puerto Rico during the hurricane.  She showed us pictures from her balcony, before and after: green Eden and winter sketch.

My roommate opened my door and said, “Do you know which apartment the super lives in?”  I didn’t.

But I put my glasses on, texted the super.  I got up, and saw the whole hallway was full of smoke.

Except it wasn’t.  It was steam.

Last night I went from work to the psychiatrist, for my last prescriptions of my (current) New York life.  My psychiatrist lives and works on Central Park West, and feeling like a real New Yorker, up there in her office, is not worth having panic attacks, but is cool.

I got on the wrong train, noticing only when I saw daylight above my Candy Crush hypnosis, we were on our way to Brooklyn and MY DOCTOR IS IN MANHATTAN.

I arrived at 5 for my 4:45 appointment, feeling like I didn’t need my medication, but WHAT IF I DID?

There was another woman in the waiting room.  Ah.  It’s all good.

When you see another person at the office of a mental health professional, it feels like you are in some sort of conspiracy.  No one ever says, “What are you in for?”  But everyone’s wondering how crazy the others are.

I petted my doctor’s dog and she wrote my prescriptions and wished me well.

Walking to the subway, I heard a loud boom, like fireworks.

You know how everyone always says, “It sounded like fireworks?”

The New Yorker commitment to acting like it’s all cool is so deep that no one, I mean no one, appeared alarmed.  I was walking down Broadway, the weather was perfect, it was Friday night, and everyone was more concerned with looking like everything was cool than, you know, not dying.

Or perhaps they had all gotten the text alert from the city that some running group had a permit to shoot off fireworks to celebrate the New York marathon.

Why you would shoot off fireworks in Central Park to celebrate being about to run a marathon?  I mean, maybe at the end.

I turned a corner and saw the color, red and white sparkles.  Fireworks.

The whole apartment hallway being a cloud was nice, pore-opening, I love the tropical, humidity.

We hope nothing was ruined by the moisture.

The floors aren’t ours.

Every fall here, the boilers are lit, one day you notice your radiators are on, maybe the skeletal barging around sounds, maybe it’s just warm and you don’t have to turn on the space heater and you’re like, Oh, wait, it’s on.

Image: “Tristan Tzara,” Man Ray, Metropolitan Museum of Art.