Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Cut

She cuts my hair.

Her own is a starburst of magenta and yellow, fireworks on display.  It must be fun, every morning, I think, to stand your hair up on end.  It must make you feel constantly surprised.

We talk.  She cuts my hair whenever I'm in town, and though months pass before we see each other again, we always pick up as though she's just lathered my scalp under water the day before.  We talk about our work and travels, we gossip about celebrities, we mourn or praise the state of the union, we admit we're not exercising as much as we used to, we share a little about our families.

"How is he?" I ask about her husband while she drapes the bib around me (it always makes me feel like a little girl again).

Her husband (like my father) was diagnosed at 51 with congestive heart failure.  He's already lived longer than expected--thanks, she's told me, to his athletic background and his mighty lungs.  He was an avid mountain biker and the owner of a successful mountain bike shop in Colorado; but at 51 he'd been told by doctors that if he wanted to prolong his life, he needed to spend the rest of it tethered to an oxygen tank.  At first he refused.

"But . . . but how did you feel about that?" I ask her, wondering, thinking:  how do you manage, how do you go on when someone you love pushes away the line that could keep you as one?

"Well," she combs my hair and then has me part it myself, "it really troubled me at first.  But then I made my peace with it.  It's his life, after all.  We respect each other that way, these days."

I try to say something reassuring, consoling: "Well, at least you can look back and say it's been a good marriage."

"Oh yes," she nods her mane and takes her scissors out of her pocket and narrows her bright, eyelined eyes.  "But we're not married anymore."

I stare in the mirror.  I follow her round, nimble, aproned body moving around my small, bibbed one.  For the last three years, we've been talking like old friends, while my cut hair fell over her toes in her flip-flops--and I didn't know this?

"You're not married?"

"No.  I still say he's my husband.  But we divorced years ago.  So many things weren't working.  He was very . . . competitive."

Then she tells me that, years before, when they were first married, he had wanted her to mountain bike with him.  And so she had.  She had learned how.  And she had frantically tried to keep up with him while he asked her to do more and more and more impossible things, impossible climbs, straining, gasping to push her body beyond what it wanted to do, beyond what she wanted it to do, beyond what she wanted at all.

"I would be on a mountain with him--I mean dying for air, just dying--and he wouldn't even wait for me.  He was like that.  He loved doing better than other people.  He loved beating men younger than he was.  Everyone.  Everything was like that.  He wanted the upper hand. I wanted to live in a city.  He wanted to live in the country.  He wanted me to work in his business.  I wanted my own shop.  So, finally, we divorced, and then he got diagnosed, and I came back to take care of him.   And now he can hardly do anything.  Do you know what happened one day?"

"What?" I hold very still as she razors the back of my neck.

"One day he found out he couldn't get up a hill anymore.  How nearly impossible it was for him to take a breath.  And then he came home and he apologized to me.  He said he'd never known how hard it could be to climb."

"But you've stayed divorced."

She starts trimming my bangs.  Expertly.  Fast.  "Believe me, we're much better off as friends.  We each have our own space in the house.  And now I can even admit I learned so much from him.  I mean, I was one amazing mountain biker.  But me, I know when enough is enough."

Then she says that the doctors didn't really understand the nature of his heart disease--that that they had told him there was nothing to indicate why his heart was failing, and that they could only speculate that he had used his heart in the wrong way when he was younger, pushing it in the wrong way.

"He's doing the oxygen now?"

"Oh yes.  24/7.  Wait, this is going to be cute," she says and gets the hand mirror and spins me around in the chair, so that I can see what she could see, what she has seen, all along.


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Small-Town Fourth

We got to the park just after the parade of water and fire trucks and decorated bicycles had gone around its small green square.  Uncle Sam, his top-hat made of something soft, like the coat of a stuffed animal, waded in his long striped pants through the grass.  The water trucks had snugged up close to the curb, under the cottonwoods, and their giant hoses were now feeding the white slip 'n' slide the children were screaming and hurtling their bodies over.  The park's pool has been closed all summer for renovation.  Vote for Sheriff White the side of the biggest, shiniest water truck says.

The signs around the park clearly say No Dogs Allowed, On Leash Or Off, but our dogs stay politely near the curb, and that woman's mini-Yorkie pup doesn't really count yet as a dog, small as a haircomb, and anyway petting-camels are being unloaded from a horse trailer, the first one already tied by its red leash to a tree.  You can forget how huge a camel is, how hairy its hump.  The children who've never seen one before stare.  Those of us who have, stare.  Cotton candy freezes in beards under everyone's chins.

Jamie from Animal Control comes by in her black uniform--she doesn't mind if you call her the dog-catcher, by the way--and bends down to pet our dogs.  She tells us she lost her beloved Yodi, part-coyote, part dog, three days ago.  She says she can't talk about it, and goes on stroking our youngest, her eyes wet.

The mayor walks by and doesn't smile.  Maybe he's tired.  Maybe politicians need a holiday, too.  Under the gazebo a high-school girl is reading her winning essay answering the question, "Does America Still Have Heroes?"  We can't hear a single word she's saying, what with the children dive-bombing into the water just to her right.  I worry about how long she practiced, if she imagined silence and dignity attending her words.  I stand still to let her know I see her.  A young Navajo boy is practicing his lasso-work while his mother sells fry bread.  He expertly ropes a mock-metal-calf he's brought with him, the knot around its neck as perfect as a pretzel.

Everyone wants to eat something, ice cream, palm-shaped sugar cookies, popcorn, cotton candy, coffee cake.  It's ninety degrees.  Our friend Tad is selling oven-fired pizzas, delicious, but business has been slow, and he may have to move with his wife and baby to another, cooler town.  Behind him there is one ride, something like a red starfish whirling wildly.  It looks dangerous.

The average age in the park is eight.  The old people look young today in their shorts.  Only their bare knees show the long haul, like a camel's.  A solitary man is trying to sell his apricots from a picnic table.

Our neighbor walks by; he and his wife built their dream house in this town a few years back, a beautiful bed-and-breakfast; and then, soon after it opened, she died.

He has his new girlfriend with him now.

It's a new year, America.

Just beyond the apricots, behind the sign giving the park's name, every kind of bicycle you can imagine lies in the grass, unwatched.


You can listen to me read this story here.