My friend Yvonne swore that she had an orgasm when she smelled caviar for the first time. I didn’t believe her, but I loved her stories. She had fly-away hair and big necklaces and her vivid lipstick had always gotten on her teeth because her mouth was always in motion. She was glamorous.
I don’t know what made me look at the local paper on my parents’ table when I was over there the other day, but I saw the headline “woman hit by truck, dies.”
“It’s terrible,” my parents had been saying, “A woman died crossing the street—just down the road, you know, by the light.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
I kept reading the article, and I kind of had a feeling. But maybe I’m just imagining the feeling retroactively.
When I was fifteen, I joined a writing group at the local arts’ center. Everyone else was over fifty. When you’re homeschooled you do lots of stuff with people over fifty, because they’re also around during the day. Yvonne was immediately one of my favorites. We used to “get tea.” That meant we sat around talking forever in a coffee shop. She’d worked at one of those homes for disabled kids, back when they just locked them all up together and left them screaming in their own excrement. It broke her heart. It hardened her. She said it taught her what the world was secretly like, but she was also a poet. She was divorced, but she’d been married to a man who loved music more than anyone else loved music. All he wanted to do was go to the symphony. She liked to watch him loving music. He was the best listener.
I didn’t understand her poetry. It was fluid and random and dexterous. I was writing a fantasy novel about a young queen who is not allowed to fall in love but she does anyway. I had lots of descriptions of the gowns she wore. Yvonne was in her sixties. She threw her head back and laughed. She said, “Don’t knit your brows like that, you’ll get a crease.” She was tall and graceful. I never put my shoulders back because I was embarrassed about my big nose so I was trying to hide in my hair, even though I was also cocky in plenty of ways.
I can’t believe she got hit by a truck when she was crossing the road and she died. Minutes from the house where I grew up. Meeting a friend. For tea?
My dad always shook his head and said things about young people being reckless. Like when someone my brother knew died in a car crash with some kids coming back from a party. You know, one of those cases where no one is wearing a seatbelt because they’re too busy impressing each other to bother. He always said something about how young people aren’t afraid of death. They don’t know to be afraid of death.
I always got a little offended when he said that, because I was always afraid of death.
I thought it would get better for some reason, but it’s definitely only getting worse.
Maybe I was a little proud of myself for thinking like an adult back then. For having adult fears. For hanging out with grownups at my writing group and for really being friends with them. Now I’m an adult and a mother and I am not proud of myself for being precocious anymore, I’m just more and more aware of how fragile everything is.
One of the women from my birth class is even younger than me (where I live, I’m always the youngest with a baby), and she said, bouncing her huge baby on her knee, “Birth is the closest you get to death before you actually die, don’t you think?”
We were getting together—all of the moms from the class—to show off our babies and catch up. We had been joking about sex or something, but when she said that, we all just nodded.
She said, “I think I really believed I was going to die.”
I remember, for a second, for just a second, at the worst part, I wanted to die. And then, quickly, I didn’t want to die. Because GOD, I really, really don’t want to die. I am terrified of becoming nothing. But there was that tiny second.
That woman from my birth class, she is religious, and she went to India and worked in a hospital and she saw women die in childbirth because they were already very sick. Rickets and malnutrition and things I hardly believe in since they seem so far away and historical.
“Think of it this way,” says Bear, when I tell him I am depressed over this, “Wouldn’t everyone choose to exist, even for a little, instead of never existing at all?”
“Maybe,” I say. “Or maybe it’s not worth the pain.” I cite the example of a boy I knew growing up who died of cancer before he could go to college or find a life partner or even think about having a kid. What if he wanted to have a kid, too, one day? It’s not fair.
“But when you exist, you get to see colors, you get to hear music,” Bear says. “Those things are amazing. They’re worth living for. Even one color is worth living for.”
(this one seems like a good start. source)
But later he says, looking at Eden sleeping, “I’m worried. What if something happens to her?”
“I don’t know,” I say.
“She’s my heart,” he says.
“I know,” I say.
We do such unwittingly brave things—like loving each other. We do them naturally, constantly.
Sometimes I lie in bed with my eyes wide open and I wonder how this is the way that life is set up. I think about how vulnerable I am, at every moment. I really thought no one ever died in childbirth anymore. It’s the closest you get to death, starting a new life. I wonder how I’ll ever have another child, knowing this now. I want to believe that no one ever dies from anything anymore, instead of that people die all the time, from everything, and that when you bring a new person into the world, you place them in immediate, constant danger. You place yourself in immediate, constant danger from loving them. I wish sometimes I could just watch TV forever and not care about anything. I also wish that I would wake up and watch the sun rise every morning and, before anyone else was awake, I could just think about being alive. Just take time to appreciate it. Look at the colors.
I wish I understood things better. What I should do, in order to make the most of my time, mainly. I get mad at myself for not having already done everything I want to do, just in case.
But that’s stupid.
Some things I can’t do until I like myself better, and it’s such a slow process.
Yvonne pissed me off a couple years ago when we hung out and she said, “You were always pretty quiet.”
“Not really!” I said, defensive. I like to imagine that I was a big, splashy deal, even though I was slouching because of my nose.
Maybe we didn’t really know each other that well after all. That day she was with a loud, difficult man who definitely wasn’t a good listener. He got drunk and started telling everyone about how he’d been a toastmaster or something and so he knew exactly how to make a good speech and he noticed everyone else’s verbal tics and I had said “um” fifteen times in five minutes (he’d taken the trouble to count), and I should really work on that.
(I can’t help it, toastmasters just makes me think of toast. source)
I didn’t think about her until I read that article in the paper. And then I think I maybe sensed that she was dead before I got to her name. Or maybe I saw her name before I even noticed I saw it. Pettily, I was still a little annoyed at her, maybe for turning out to be less epic than I remembered, even though she got hit by a truck and died. Pettiness is so useful in the face of mortality.
But then, slowly, lying in bed, I began to think about her slim-fit, flamboyantly colored pants and her shiny shoes and her dramatic hands and her vivaciousness. And I was thankful for having known her. I was also mad at the reporter for calling her ”woman” instead of describing how awesome she’d been. It should’ve gone: “Woman who tried to fix the world and wrote flowing, fierce poetry dies as dramatically as she lived!” She was really here. She meant something.
I am thankful for being alive.
I’m even a little proud of it, for being a person who can really appreciate her own existence and the fantastic gift of love and Bear and Eden and my parents and my brothers and in-laws and friends and even miniature but sweet exchanges with people on the elevator.
If I’m going to be terrified all the time, I might as well also be thankful.
And in the spirit of this, I want to allow for the possibility of someone having an orgasm just from smelling caviar.
Even though it doesn’t really have much of a scent does it? I haven’t had much caviar. Isn’t it just salty?
But whatever. Maybe for Yvonne it was exquisite.
Maybe all of this is at least a little bit exquisite.
* * *
what are you most afraid of?
unroast: Today I love the way my bra shows through my shirt slightly
P.S. I know this was dark and stuff, but still, happy Chanukah to my Jewish readers! And happy belated Thanksgiving to the people who celebrated that! And happy Tuesday to everyone!
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