Friday, September 30, 2011

Wish You Were Here

I'm writing this as I sit on a hard plastic seat in the Gate 2 lounge at the Palm Springs airport. An old man in a wheelchair and I are the only ones here. He doesn't seem like a passenger – no ticket, no luggage. He's wearing a pink plaid shirt with a checked wool blazer that doesn't match, and that aren't suitable for the desert. There's Muzak drifting down from a speaker in the ceiling just above my head. It's a typical, impossibly sunny Palm Springs day: cloudless, blank sky. It's the weather equivalent of AstroTurf, eternally flawless, satisfaction guaranteed. There's a giant bougainvillea bush, blazing hot-pink flowers, just outside one of the windows. I keep staring at it. I keep thinking of what you said in your last e-mail.

An hour ago, it made me cry. It was the first time I'd cried all week. Conference was a strain; there were only maybe two beautiful moments the whole time, but it's your words, and not any of that, that got me. I'd been staring at the bougainvillea bush: fiery, the color of raspberries. It was simply something beautiful to look at from inside the humdrum airport lounge. I felt tears spike my lashes and dart down my cheeks, one traveling in a wayward path down the side of my nose. I could see the scene like I was in a shoebox diorama: me sitting in a desert airport, geometric mountains rising up like behemoths outside, unreal bright flowers nourished by the water Debbie says is piped in from the Colorado Rockies, crying because it hurts to disagree with you.

Just then, an airport employee, drab gray uniform, peremptory mien (sometimes I try to seduce you with my vocabulary), walked in and unlocked a door near my seat. Embarrassed to be obviously crying, I lugged my carry-on bags up and through the lounge's automatic doors. Outside, a young man with a dreadlock ponytail and kind brown eyes was leaning against a cart of mops and cleaning solutions. The ladies' room is closed, he said, but there's another one upstairs, just past the waterfall. He saw that I was crying, I think, and spoke to me in a soft tone. I nodded. In just one week, I had grown accustomed to the unreality of this desert playground for rich white people, with its verdant golf courses basking improbably amid bone-dry dust, clotty parched desert foliage, flat cloud-free skies... plus, jet lag and stress had me taking everyone at his word – why, of course there's a waterfall in the airport. Why wouldn't there be?

I still had tears in my lashes, like Christmas-tree tinsel, when I found myself accidentally in the background of a retired couple's snapshot as I slowly glided up the escalator. I'll be forever crystallized, crying over you, in a sun-soaked travel photo in these Florida grandparents' album, one of those anonymous passersby who streak through everyone's pictures. Walking to the restroom, I inhaled a cloying-sweet sunscreen smell as cancerous women with overcooked magenta epidermises sipped from Starbucks cups at un-umbrellaed tables in the sun. Coconut-and-grease smell. I walked past a plaster elk, on whom someone had painted desert landscapes in a sort of stacked panorama across his body and head. Airport art, to add local flavor. It's open-air outside the lounges, the weight of the hot sky right on top of you. As I rode up the mechanized staircase, a plane sailed down over my head, unreal, too large, like a painting with screwed-up perspective. I watched it land and thought of what I want to say to you, and how I should word it. Here it is: "I feel that art exists independently of people, and that we must submit to it, humbly. We shouldn't write what we want to write – we should write what needs to be written." I thought I might write it on a postcard, instead of sending this. Maybe I'll do both, or neither. "Greetings from sunny Palm Springs! Now let me bore you with my thoughts about art." I don't know.

I fell in love with your words -- your stories, your poetry, even your e-mail. I shared my stories with you, too, and we wrote to each other about art. Not about paintings, but about the category of things that try to express truths about life. I was worried that something I'd written was merely "emotional pornography," or wish fulfillment, and that something else I wrote was only a sort of exorcism of toxic stuff from my past, and not real art. I worried that I was writing these things for the wrong reasons, self-indulgence. You said no, that it was okay to be self-indulgent. And somehow soon I was writing erotica for you instead of stories and poems, channeling my imagination and descriptive powers into prose crafted only to inspire lust. It's okay, you said, it's not real, and you wrote them for me, too. And you said, in effect, When I pound at my keyboard, typing a scene in which you and I are making love, and we're naked together, and I'm telling you that I love you as I gently touch your face and look into your eyes -- the people in that story are just characters, and none if it is happening, and it's not real. It's harmless.

Everything that I see, I want to tell you about. That's the way I've felt for a while now. On the plane to Phoenix before the connecting flight to here, I was seated slightly behind and diagonally across from an older man holding an unfolded newspaper in front of him. He paused at the obituaries, reading them with interest. There were printed blurbs, plus a few photos -- I remember a photo of an old black man in a Shriners hat that I figure would have been red, were it not a black-and-white photo. As the man read, I thought about how only some animals, like humans, know they're going to die. Is it only primates? Seems like I heard something about elephants, too. It was a Hamlet-holding-a-skull moment, a mortal contemplating mortality, neatly encapsulated before my eyes, and no one else seemed to notice this. I made a mental note to tell you about it, maybe in a poem.

I've been so lonely for you. I feel isolated here. It seems like all the people who came to this conference were these go-getter, hyper-ambitious, Type A personalities. They one-up one another, and give themselves pats on the back for it. They care about getting all the facts, getting it done efficiently, at a bargain. Networking. Once, I was walking across the hotel-resort-convention-complex grounds, from one building (in which motivational speakers were telling you how to communicate more effectively, with PowerPoint slide shows beaming neatly bulleted lists onto projection screens in auditoriums) to another (where the luncheon "social" was taking place). There were people scattered here and there in the splotches of shade along the terra-cotta sidewalk. Most of them were on cell phones, taking care of business back at the office while they were here at the conference in Palm Springs. I remember one woman standing out there, who had blow-dried-straight blond hair and coral-polished toenails and freshly applied lipstick. I'd seen her before -- earlier, some of us had been stocking books in the mobile bookstore we always have at national conferences in different cities, and this woman kept pestering my boss, wanting him to help her with some PR for her company, although it should have been obvious that we were busy, literally with our hands full. He tried to brush her off, but she wouldn't take no for an answer -- she probably says that about herself to other people: "I won't take 'No' for an answer!" and laughs. Now, in the courtyard between buildings, I saw her again, pink business suit, talking into a cell phone. With the phone to the side of her face, she said to a man she'd been (simultaneously, while on the cell) talking with: "Let me get your business card." Everyone at conference was like this, although most to a lesser degree than she, and so I felt alone, and it made me wish you were here.

There was another moment I wanted to tell you about. For a conference newsletter, my boss asked me to be at the vendor exhibit hall for prize drawings (conference-goers walk around the exhibit hall, and they drop their business cards into these goldfish bowls at each vendor's stall, and a few people's cards are drawn each day of conference, and the winners get a $75 gift card to Best Buy, or a ski vacation in Aspen, or a shrink-wrapped gift basket of pink bath gels). I stood there, with my notepad and camera (I'd been instructed to be sure to get photos of the winners for the newsletter), poised to corner the poor winner and ask a few corny questions for the newsletter blurb ("What does it feel like to win a basket of artisanal cheeses?"). I remembered back when I wrote for a newspaper, back when I had my notebook and camera out because I was writing about real things -- a homeless woman's body had just been found in an alley, or a family's home had burned down to rubble. As our company's marketing guy slid Jekyll-and-Hyde-style into his game-show personality with the microphone, and businesspeople posed with their prize booty for non-candid photos, and I stood there in the crowd, tense because my boss had told me to make sure I capture all this for the newsletter... I felt ridiculous. I felt removed from the real world, plonked into this sanitized sunshine-land of bureaucratic acronyms and business jargon and managementspeak, and I longed to write something real, something for you. I wanted you to remind me that I have a soul.

Some of these folks were likeable, though. There was this one doofus who bought a bunch of stuff from Debbie and me at the bookstore. There we all were in our dorky name tags (and I was wearing a form-fitting shirt that did make my breasts look wonderful, I have to tell you), and Debbie and I were ringing up his merchandise. He was loudly joking with Debbie, who has a son my age and is very witty. I was half-there and half-not there, smiling politely at his corny jokes, blushing demurely as he flirted with me, his flattery obvious as hell. He asked what I do, and I told him I work on our newsletters and magazine, mostly writing. And at one point, before he left with his bag and his receipt, he looked at me and said I was "a very attractive young lady who doesn't say much but has great power with the pen." And he gave a sort of guffaw and went off into the world. I have to say, I like how he summed me up -- this random, goofy stranger I'll never see again, and he could basically write my epitaph. Weird.

On Thursday night, we all had to fend for ourselves for dinner (no awards dinners, or networking between plates of arugula-and-mandarin-orange salad and boeuf bourgogne that night), and I stayed in my hotel room and ordered room service. You know, I'd never done that before. The menu was in my room, in a fancy leather-clad binder, and even my humble-sounding chicken quesadilla was so expensive. Depressed and lonely, I went ahead and ordered the molten-lava chocolate cake for one. I'd been expecting something like the service you get when you order a pizza -- the guy comes to your door, hands you the warm cardboard box, you hand him the money, he splits. So I was already in my pajamas (boxer shorts and a T-shirt; sorry it's not the negligee I wear in our erotica), ready for an evening in alone with whatever was playing on HBO (hoping to find some lite porn), when he arrived. I was surprised to learn that I was expected to let him into the room. On the coffee table, he spread it all out: a black round pot with a lid (that'd be my quesadilla), another warm container (the cake) and a cold ceramic pot (the vanilla ice cream and mixed-berry compote -- surely mademoiselle couldn't possibly eat her molten-chocolate cake in any fashion except a la mode!), and also a linen napkin, non-plastic utensils, even tiny glass salt-and-pepper shakers. Oh, and a goblet of water, slushy with gravels of ice churning inside. And a basket of bread! He left, and I tipped him well (I get comped for travel expenses, after all). I brought over a couple of cushions from the sofa, giddy like a kid, to sit on the floor and eat my fancy hotel meal in front of the TV. I imagined the fun we'd have if you'd been there, sitting on the cushion next to mine, maybe in your pajamas, too (what do you wear, if anything, when you sleep?), trading bites of food, cozy in the glowing hotel room with the curtains drawn closed to the world. (And yes, I also imagined what all we could do in that king-sized bed with the inviting-sin, crisp white sheets... but I'll save that for our erotica).

Before you get too flattered -- I didn't lack charming male company the entire time. My boss (not the Big Boss, but my immediate supervisor, who edits the company magazine and has great taste in films and books) and I had a fun outing to an In-N-Out Burger joint. Have you eaten there? Apparently it has some kind of cult following. He and I took a cab from our hotel-desert-compound to one such franchise, late at night after this cocktail event I had to cover, yes, for the newsletter, taking snapshots of our dear soused conference attendees and asking them, "So whaddaya like best about conference this year?" We consumed our burgers, fries, and chocolate milkshakes, then realized there were no cabs prowling the streets. There weren't many establishments near the In-N-Out -- all we could see, glittering on the horizon like a mirage, was a casino. I could have called the hotel, or 411, with my cell phone, and gotten us a cab that way, but I liked his idea of walking along the desert highway to a neon-sparking casino, where we could catch a cab. The walk was much longer than it looked, and so windy it nearly knocked me down a steep hill and into a ditch at one point, and my boss had to help steady me, the gusts whipping my pant legs so hard you could probably see the outlines of my shin bones from the front (my calves are quite skinny). The wind was sprinkled with sand, and we trudged, along a highway overpass, past a barren moonscape enclosed with barbed wire, until we got to the casino. Having gotten that far, my boss said we had to at least bet a couple bucks, so he put two one-dollar bills in the slots (one for each of us, taking turns pulling the lever and watching the pictures spin and stop in succession), and we both lost. It was a fun, if surreal, night. In my head I heard the Ethiopian jazz from Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers."

Then there was the night of the big awards dinner/dance, when I got the worst ache for you I'd felt all week. It's funny -- I don't have any nice formal clothes, but recently my sister wadded up some of her old clothes from high school into a garbage bag and gave them to me, in case I want anything, because we're both still as slim as we were back then. There was this satiny black halter dress, sheeny brocaded fabric with a chinoiserie print, little gilded Chinese flowers, short but not too short. I think she got it for about 20 bucks at some teenybopper boutique in the mall back in the ‘90s. Well, it looked great on me -- showed some skin, but in a tasteful way, my shoulders and back bare. I got tons of compliments on it -- from my boss, from our CEO, from a lot of other men. But, perhaps more telling, I got catty glares from some of the women – as a female, you know you're looking good what that happens.

Do you know that I save the messages you leave on my cell phone, and sometimes I close my eyes and listen to the warm rumble of your voice, the upbeat lilts and spontaneous shifts in trains of thought, just close my eyes and listen to your voice? I did this in my parked car the other week, as Jake was in Giant buying little cans of Red Bull to wake him up in the morning and toilet paper. We'd just been to my parents' house, and my mom had given me a carton of raspberries to take home. I was popping the plump little berries into my mouth, and closing my eyes, and feeling the warm hormones stirring as you spoke into my ear...

I was sitting alone at a table during the dinner/dance, some of my co-workers drinking mojitos nearby, our company logo beamed onto the wall in a sort of stencilled-light graphic design, men in suits and ladies with pashmina shawls covering their sunburned shoulders. There was an oldies/classic-rock cover band, and the middle-aged, golf-playing conference attendees were loving it. We'd been given printed-out programs with names of award winners that no one read, strewn across tables, a few on the floor. I wasn't drinking, because I never do, but I'd gotten greedy and was devouring three fancy desserts. After my tiramisu, a co-worker (shouting over the band's rendition of "Play That Funky Music, White Boy") said, "Talk to Matt -- you two have a lot in common." She gestured toward a guy in dark clothing, a good ten or more years older than I am, dark wavy hair in a ponytail, glasses. He’s one of the AV guys who help put on these conferences for all sorts of companies. Matt seemed as fish-out-of-water as I was, not talking to anyone, and at my co-worker's urging he scooted into the chair next to mine.

It was awkward at first, like going to prom with your cousin. He said he played guitar in a band, and we chatted. Then he said he's also a writer, and something in me woke up. I interrogated him about what kinds of things he likes to write, whether he's tried to get stuff published, what he likes to read. Finally, I thought, I am having a real, interesting conversation with someone at one of these events! After a few minutes, for some reason, he excused himself, and I realized we'd been sitting at the table alone, talking, for a long time. A group of my co-workers stood nearby, and I think they'd been watching us, and I felt embarrassed, like they'd all seen him reject me. I stood and tottered, in my high heels, to the restroom. I looked in the mirror. I was prettier that night than I'd been in a while, my shoulder-length dark hair sexily brushing my bare white shoulders, the new blond streaks I'd gotten put in at the salon the week before looked wild, my smoky eye make-up ("smoky" is the women's-magazine term for lots of black eyeliner) smudgy, wanton. Did my co-workers think I'd been trying to hook up with Matt? I slipped into the black cardigan I'd brought in case I got cold, covering up my bare back and shoulders, and walked back into the hotel ballroom.

Some co-workers were standing there, watching the spotlit band and the Baby Boomers writhing on the dancefloor, and Matt was with them. I stood off to the side, counting down the minutes until I could go back to my room without my boss (the Big Boss) thinking I'm not being a "team player" for ducking out early. Matt walked over, and we talked some more about writing, and music. I liked his warm chocolate-colored eyes, his deep voice that slurred everything and sounded a little like Bob Dylan. He asked about what I like to read, and I tried to shout that I like to read the short stories in the New Yorker, but I could tell from his expression that he couldn't hear me. I laughed and shouted, "Can you hear a word I'm saying?" No, he said, and suggested we go out to the courtyard. Not caring what my co-workers thought of the two of us leaving together (getting a naughty thrill at what some of their worst assumptions might be, actually), I followed him, and he found us a bench with palm trees flailing in the wind just behind it.

We could see the band and the attendees dancing (to "Brick House" now), but from far away, quieter. He said that he and his band could make a lot of money playing this kind of music at conferences like this, but that if he always had to play these drunk-on-margaritas-during-work-conventions crowd-pleasing songs all the time, he'd have to blow his brains out. He laughed, and I decided that I liked him. There was something vividly romantic about the scene, and I made an effort to memorize it all at the time, knowing I would write it up later for you, but I've forgotten some of it, so I may be making some of this up now. I remember a soft glow, like from a fireplace, I guess from amber-colored lights outside, glinting on his glasses lenses. I was close enough to him, sitting on the bench, to see that his cheeks and nose were sunburned, and his small mouth made a pleasant little crescent-moon shape when he smiled with his lips closed. I think I remember a fountain splashing nearby. He was warm, real, and I opened up to him with a sense of relief: I told him about my writing, about how I've been afraid to send it anywhere, paranoid that someone will tell me it isn't good. He told me about a short story he's working on, about a guy who decides to shred all the paper artifacts that document his life (birth certificate, drawings from childhood, high school yearbooks, diploma, marriage certificate and so on). He laughed and said he wasn't sure the ending was realistic -- the guy winds up surrounded by shredded paper, and he sets it on fire and dies in the blaze. I told him I loved it, that it didn't matter if it wasn't realistic -- it's symbolic, I told him. He asked for my business card so he could e-mail the story to me. It was the only business card I gave to anyone during the entire conference.

We agreed to exchange stories. I liked his zany curly hair, his impassioned-eccentric personality, the way he talked about crazy projects -- some website for unknown writers like us to get our work read, about how tomorrow he and his band are doing a photo shoot for their new album out in the desert as the sun rises. He talked about reading Rolling Stone back when Hunter S. Thompson wrote for it and then joked about how that was "showing his age," but he looked and seemed young to me. He had this boyish, mischievous quality that reminded me (with a pang) of you. I noticed with a little dismay that he didn't say anything flirtatious or inappropriate, or ask where my room was. He was a gentleman, and I was grateful but I also hated him for it. Finally I left, saying I had to talk to my boss. I lingered in the ballroom alone for a few minutes before walking back to my hotel room.

Did I tell you about the hotel room balcony? There are palm trees just outside my room, and at night they rustle fiercely. There's a little breakfast table and two chairs out there. I took photos for you with my disposable camera. I tried to take photos of myself in the black satiny dress, but you know they never come out right when you take them yourself.

There was a funny moment during the dinner/dance, at the beginning, that I wanted to tell you about. The CEO was at the podium, rattling off awards winners (highest sales in the Pacific Northwest region, blah blah blah), the candles glowing on tabletops, everyone dressed up and prettier in the soft light, tuxedoed waiters poised to lift the silver lids from food on the buffet tables. Then someone, a waiter or hotel employee I think, accidentally turned on the ballroom lights -- the bright lights that are on when the ballroom's used as an auditorium for motivational speakers. Instantly, the sweet soft light was drowned out by the stark everyday kind of light you see in offices and stores. You could actually sense people shrinking back into their clothes, you could see the coarse skin on the middle-aged women's sun-cooked cleavage, the lint on this man's suit, the cakey texture of women's make-up. I, who had gotten a few compliments from men already on my way to the table, felt my magic vanish, too. I hunched, and cast my face down. It was just a minute or two, and people grumbled until the lights were dimmed down again -- and the tension was gone. To think how different people are in different lighting, how ill-at-ease they are when the illusion is doused with the cold water of reality... it was just amazing.

As I walked back to my hotel room that night, I indulged in this irrational daydream: You had driven to Palm Springs, maybe in a rented car from the airport, and somehow you pulled right up to the curb as I was walking to the squat little building, No. 10 "Joshua Tree," that houses my room. You saw me walking, beautiful and lonely that night, and you put the car in park (maybe you left the engine on in your haste to get to me) and you rushed up to me, seized me passionately by my shoulders, and kissed me. "You don't have to go back to your room alone," you told me.

But of course I did go back to my room alone, in real life. It wasn't that I wanted Matt to be there with me (come to think of it, he had kind of a hippie-pothead demeanor... maybe it wasn't that I was unattractive, but that pot had diluted his testosterone?). In my room, I was too fired up to go to sleep, so I listened to beautiful music on my Discman and stalked and twirled around the room, restless, posing in front of the mirror and wishing you could see how good I looked. I know that sounds silly, but that's what I did. You know by now that I'm a little bit crazy, and a little bit louche.

The next day it was more work, non-stop, 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., running around writing stuff up for the newsletter, ringing up sales at the bookstore, acquiescing to my boss's (Big Boss) urgings to go network at the cocktail socials. By this morning I was bleary, exhausted from being around so many people, being "on" and polite all the time, even during mealtimes, ready to run to a quiet dark corner and say nothing, think nothing for a while. Before sharing the cab with some co-workers to the airport this morning, I saw Matt, with some of the AV guys, packing up stuff into the back of a moving truck. He wasn't the zany artist spouting out a dozen different ideas for short stories and album photography, talking about Hunter S. Thompson and meeting his idol Keith Richards and the story of a man who wants to incinerate all of the paper artifacts from his existence into a tower of flames that consumes him. He was just a sleepy guy with a ponytail humbly packing boxes into a truck. I didn't say anything to him.

I've taken up most of the pages I had left in this spiral notebook. The first pages are filled with my shorthand notes from conference, quotes from people about what it's like to win a basket of artisanal cheeses. I think I should burn those pages up in flames, don't you? Maybe I'll burn this, too, and everything we've ever written to each other. But much of what we've written to each other has been sent through e-mail, and it's just not as poetic, is it, burning a computer? There's something aesthetically lacking in that image, I think. The man in the wheelchair is still here. Maybe he spends all day here, every day. Other people have trickled into the lounge. I wonder which of them I'll be sitting next to on the plane?

I lied to you. I told you, in my response to your last e-mail, that when our writing turned lascivious, I wasn't foolish enough to think it was "real." I let you think it was just playtime to me, that I could write heated stories about the two of us (well, about two characters based on us with different names, but who am I kidding?), and that I could then go on about my day, disconnecting from it like logging off from a computer. I know this is how you feel. But I never could keep my heart out of it. Instead of sending this, would it be corny to write the following two sentences on a postcard and send it to you?--because I'm considering it: It was never fiction to me. It was always love.

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