Thursday, January 3, 2013

Then you rise, and you're pure

Here, there is silence punctuated with birds.
When my grandfather is in the yard tending to his fruit trees or tomato plants, and my grandmother is in the basement doing laundry or in the kitchen cooking a casserole, I can sit and listen to the living-room clock tick.
I can sit and let my gaze crawl, from the blue-velvet armchair, to the porcelain Precious Moments figurines in their glass-fronted display cabinet, to the thick Bible on the coffee table, to that marbled-glass vase that's been sitting there on an end table since I was little.
I can walk to town, and it takes not even five minutes. The only thing down there that is part of a national chain is the CVS. Part of an aisle is taken up by funeral wreaths on stands. Most out-of-towners come here to go to the funeral of a great-aunt, or 90-year-old Uncle Charlie, or Great-Granny Frye.
I came because of you.

While I'm here, we visit my own great-aunts and great-uncles who are still living. Their houses are out in the purple mountains--up close they're not purple--and have views of distant cows. They offer you homemade fudge. They talk about church, about the weather today.
I chose to come to my dad's parents because they're quieter. My mom's parents long ago moved from here to the Richmond suburbs, back when the only factory here in town closed down and sent everyone scattering. My dad's parents left then, too, but have moved back.
My grandfather reads from his stack of Louis L'Amour paperbacks in his recliner in the den. My grandmother hums when she cooks or does housework, a thin, vibrato hum, usually gospel songs. Her favorite thing to do is organize: baby photos in albums, family reunions, church potlucks. They both leave me alone.

Lottie is the name of the woman who puts the local newspaper together. She writes the articles, lays them out using an inexpensive computer program, takes all the photos, dispatches everything to a printer in town. She was happy for help, especially from the girl who won the state's highest journalism honor one year and used to write for a daily paper in the city. "But ah cain't pay much. All ah can give ya raht now is part-tahm." I have to admit that the accent here was funny at first. She didn't ask questions. People here are too polite for that; some of them guard their privacy with hunting rifles and "No Trespassing! Vicious Dog" signs. The hot topic here these days is meth labs. We've had a lot of meth-lab busts in the past few months. After the front page, the most-read section of the paper is Lula Coe's column, which sometimes includes who has grandkids visiting this week, and sometimes includes a recipe, and always thanks the Good Lord for something or other.

I have a routine now.
I wake up early--before dawn if I can stand it--and drive to the community center. I show the sleepy-eyed attendant my ID card and go to the locker room, where I stow my clothes. I emerge in a modest, one-piece bathing suit I bought at JCPenney in Bristol--we went to the mall the first week I got here, an exciting outing in my grandfather's new car that has a navigation system in it that talks to you--and I pad out to the indoor pool.
I'm not alone at first. There's a water aerobics class for senior citizens that four or five ladies regularly attend. Two of them protect their short bluish curls with swim caps. They all wear modest swimsuits like mine.
Their class only lasts 45 minutes, and as they go through their moves, mimicking the middle-aged female instructor in the area with "4 FT" painted all around it, the lap lanes are empty, and I have the deep end to myself.
The instructor brings a boombox and plays this funny, jazzy, Big Band music, stuff like my grandmother likes. White light ripples onto the ceiling as the ladies swan through the water and arch their arms and twirl, water ballerinas. The music hits me in waves, mingled with the splashes from their kicks and slices through the bright aquamarine water.
I swim slow laps while they're here, then I grip the metal stepladder by the side of the pool and do leg exercises, pumping slowly in that fluid, throbbing motion of limbs through water. There's no lifeguard, but the attendant walks by occasionally. When they're all gone, I do the dead-man's float.

I know when I hit the bottom.

You had sent me another racy e-mail--the kind that you and I had been exchanging for months--and in this one you were telling me about how Japanese girls fuck differently than Western girls do.

I cursed you, crying as I read the rest of the e-mail. Then I logged off, went to the bedroom, lay across the bed, clutched my pillow to my body, and with my fist I beat at my skull.

When I first came here, I didn't eat. I hadn't eaten much for the two weeks before that (I gave precisely two weeks' notice at work, as much as I wanted to leave immediately). The food here isn't stylish or healthy, but it's good for me. I had gotten used to my twentysomething-bachelorette diet, Pop-Tarts, frozen pizzas, frozen mocha coffees for lunch. Now I have oatmeal in the morning, and turkey biscuits for lunch (they call that meal "dinner" here), and green-bean casserole and cornbread and my grandfather's tomatoes for supper, and homemade brownies from a tin my grandmother keeps on a lace doily on the dining-room sideboard. I'm getting fatter, and this is fine with me.

We sat at the dining-room table one evening after I first got here, my practical grandparents and I, looking at my most recent bank statement and my first dinky paycheck from the paper, and decided that I'd have to save up for a while before I could rent a room in a house here. There are no apartments here.
They keep saying they're more than happy to let me stay with them for as long as I like. My grandfather pointed out that if I saved up I could afford a small trailer. I couldn't help it--I laughed. I laughed too hard, because I was trying to picture your reaction to that: She's living in Appalachia now -- in a trailer. You would shake your head as you shared this with your friends over beers, and someone would do that famous opening to "Dueling Banjos." And you would laugh at me.

Do you miss me at all?

I go to church with my grandparents even though I am an atheist. It would be an affront to not go. It's the hub of everything social here. I like my grandparents' Methodist church: dry, quiet, still. It reminds me of why I chose them and not my mom's parents. My mom's parents are Pentecostal, and during church some of them speak in tongues; there's a lot of passion and sweating and shouting, and they sing hymns over and over until you're lightheaded, until all the speaking-in-tongues has subsided. It's like a drone, and it always made me feel seasick.
What I want right now is the opposite of passion. I want to be still.
I want to wear an ugly, modest church dress from JCPenney, one that's high-necked and goes down to mid-calf and of which the Amish would probably approve. I want to listen skeptically but politely to the preacher's sermon, then look out the stained-glass window after the first five minutes, and think nothing. And stand when the preacher says to open your hymnals to 396, and thin pages with gilded edges flip, and you follow the words on the top line, then the second line, then the third line, then you sit back down when it's done.
When I was driving out here, with all of my clothes and boxes of books in the trunk, I had this fantasy of getting baptized in a little country stream, the way some of them do out here. Of course that's absurd--an atheist getting baptized. But I held that image, and I'd thought it would feel so good: a cleansing, a purging, supportive arms holding your back as your head is dunked backwards into the clear, cold water--and then you rise, and you're pure.

I asked my grandmother about it, trying not to sound too eager. She told me that it's only some of the little Pentecostal churches way out in the country that still do it that way, that her church has a dunk tank right inside the church now. It's more efficient and hygienic this way, she said. And less poetic, I didn't say.
But I've found something else that helps. I go to the pool at 5 a.m., and when I'm finally alone, I float. I make myself forget that my body has any weight to it, and I surrender. My ears are half-under, and it sounds like listening to the inside of a seashell. It's like being suspended at the perfect point in a baptism, when you're resting in someone's arms, and your head is in the water where it's pure, but you don't have to rise, you don't have to face the world and test your newfound purity to make sure it took. You're just suspended in the water, and time is still, and you think nothing.

I guess it's pretty unoriginal of me, coming out here, now that I think about it. The young city girl comes out to live with relatives in the country, to get away from all the madness, get back to her roots, and is rejuvenated by being around nature and regular folks. In the movie version, in just a few months I'd realize what's really important in life, have some sort of catharsis.

I don't think I'll be around long enough for a catharsis, or a trailer. I doubt I'll stick it out a year.

I'm the type of person who often dreamed of dropping out of my life and joining some Buddhist convent in the Himalayas. Shave my head and humbly beg for alms in the morning from villagers, and spend all day ridding my mind of earthly concerns. If I'd been alive back in the 60s, I probably would have been the biggest hippie you'd ever seen, having lots of free love and doing mind-expanding drugs; maybe I'd even have joined a cult, fallen in love with a cult leader and been one of his many wives.
I'm also the kind of girl who had crushes on her male English teachers. I would write a poem, and he would praise it, and I'd decide he was my soul mate.
So it didn't surprise me when I fell for you. I didn't really want to be a newspaper reporter, only did it because it was some kind of writing, so I signed up for the creative-writing class at the community college, a night class, and there you were.
You were critical, but kind. You thought that at least some of my stories should have happy endings. You seemed most interested in the sex scenes, so I wrote more of those.
It became a private joke. I e-mailed you short, sexy stories. You were game, and wrote some for me, too. And in them, you and I were the stars.

I know you felt something real for me.

I ran into you and your wife at a restaurant. She was lovely and intelligent; goodness radiated from her.
On a weekend later, I ran into you and some friends at a bar. I drank too much. I sat on your lap. I whispered lewd things to you with my beery breath. You were embarrassed for me.
You sent me an e-mail, making it clear that we are not to cross that line. You'd been with many women before, a veritable lothario, but those days were over, because of your wife. Had I met you back then, you could have been mine, even if just for one night.
I told you that I understood, that I admired you, even. And we resumed our game.
We shared stories from our sex lives, your populous one and my very limited, practically solitary one. Each time I read about you with someone else, I felt a squeeze in my chest; I would say I felt it right over my heart, but you would take out your red pen and write "melodramatic." 
I don't know what it was about that last e-mail that sent me over the edge. Maybe it was the casual way you said you'd "had" Japanese girls (girls, plural). The way you were comparing women (plural), in different cultures, like some sleazy sociologist. The way you made light of it; the way you reduced a woman's behavior during lovemaking to the culture to which she belonged. But mostly I think it was just jealousy, boiling over at long last.
All these women around the world who got to have you, who got to revel in your love and attention, your eyes on them, your arms around them, you in them--and those days are over, so I am throwing myself at you, but you won't have me.

Venomous, toxic thoughts. I came here to think nothing. I came here to feel nothing.

My grandparents used to have a dog, an Irish Setter named Red. He just showed up one day, so my grandparents took him in. When I was little, I would spend hours lying out in the sun with him as he rested on the welcome mat out by the garage. I would pet him, and I was calmed by his deeply heaving flanks as he breathed. He was later struck dead by a car. To this day, my grandfather can't talk about dogs, will never have another dog. It's too painful, and it feels like a betrayal to Red. So they have a cat instead. The cat is shy, only peeking out at you from behind the almost-closed basement door at the top of the stairs, and she doesn't let you pet her.

It's cute, the way my grandfather keeps saying that he'll find me a "feller." Yes, he says "feller" instead of "fellow" or even "fella." My grandmother says there are some nice young single men at the church. But I'm 27, and most of the girls I know here already have five children and short, frosted hair like my mom's and order corny earrings and crystal vases from QVC.

People here are so nice. When I showed up at the paper for my interview with Lottie, she said, "Ah've known Billy since he was knee-ha to a grasshopper! He and Ricky go way back." She was referring to my dad and his childhood best friend, respectively. There were no advertised openings at the paper--no openings at all, actually--but Lottie heard that I was looking for work, and she scrapes together a little to pay me each week for the measly bit of work I do for her. Ricky, my dad's friend, is obese and wears overalls and John Deere baseball hats. Not everyone here looks like that, but he does. He was once the paper's editor, and later the town's mayor. He stopped by my grandparents' house once after I came here, and I got a vibe from him, like he was interested in dating me. I hope I leave town before I have to break his heart.

The climate here in fall is more perfect than anything I could have ever wished for. Cool, cloud shadows moving across deflated purple hills. Most of the town's population is elderly. Patchwork quilts, whitewashed churches, cows. Nothing here should make me think of sex, nothing here should make me think of you.
Somehow everything does.
I was helping my grandfather change a tire--he was teaching me, and I know it's partly because I'm an over-25 single woman and he figures I need to learn how to do it myself. I squinted up at him in the sun as I knelt and followed his instructions. Pure technical instructions, metal tools, nuts and bolts, smell of tar. And I thought of you.
We went to the homecoming football game. My parents came to town that weekend to cheer for the old home team. Knit scarves and chili dogs. Marching band. Again, not a thing in sight to make me think of you.
But, of course, I did.

I'm lying to myself if I say it's getting better.

5:45 a.m., aquamarine water. The deep end, floating. Dancing light flecks on the ceiling. Buoyant. The swans have left. As long as I stay here, I am pure.

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