In My Heaven
In my heaven, I am sitting on a wooden stoop in the afternoon sun on the front porch of a little yellow house shelling peas. The stoop is critical. If I sit in a chair, peas and shelling bowl between my legs, even a small amount, a cup’s worth, becomes a tiresome chore. If I lean too far forward over the chair, like I would to strip cornhusks into a paper bag at my feet, silk falling between my toes, I tire fast. If I were to squat directly on the ground, no chair, no stoop, in the shape of a trapezoid, I could be a more efficient human mechanical harvester, but it’s not about the yield. A dinner of fresh sweet peas may be the lure, but it is the act I love, the sitting on a stoop in the sun slipping peas into a bowl.
I can sit and shell and stare at nothing or get lost in the softness of blooms, or listen to the scratchy call of a fledged jay chick, follow along the skittery path of a small blue butterfly or golden swallowtail and I am not sad or restless. I roll each pea out of its pod, a percussive act in four beat time: open the pod; push out the peas, the peas, the peas… pop open a pod. Repeat.
But the thing about heaven is that it isn’t real. It’s a wishful illusion. Real are the unsettled thoughts I cannot control. Real is the tightness in my stomach and the clatter in my head, a gypsy processional of trombones and accordions. I am not by nature tranquil.
I worry I am a bad wife.
“We could try. Not living together.”
We were standing in our bathroom. My husband was by the sink trimming his beard in front of the mirror. We had been married for twenty-one years. I had never seen him without a beard or kissed him without a mustache. The course hairs prick. They interfere. I’ve wanted to taste his lips uncovered. He is getting ready for work. I want to talk. I don’t want to wait to continue later what we started this morning over coffee after another night watching constellations slide along their migrant path. We wait and I will lose my courage. Our punctuated time is heartbreaking.
I stood outside the doorway of the bathroom. The walls at that time were a painted pale blue. It was a struggle for me to focus, to keep his face in focus, as if he were standing in a calcified cave of crystals and I was struggling to disentangle real from the reflected. I wanted him to know I was unhappy, that I was frightened of our increasing silences and the halfhearted attempts to talk our way through them. Simple lies were replacing truth. I was lonely. I wanted him to understand loneliness was the worst part. I wanted him to turn away from the mirror door of the rusting medicine cabinet full of headache and pain relievers and face me. He had stopped paying attention to me. This was his fault and I blamed him. I was lonelier with him than when I was alone and I wanted him to know.
“We could try not living together…for awhile.” There it was. I said it. I leaned into the door’s frame for support. For years this was the only door in our house that closed other than the front door. We would shut this door and make love on the bathroom floor. Our boys playing elsewhere never asked about why we were both in the bathroom at the same time with the door closed and if they wondered, we didn’t care.
“You leave,” he said, scissors in his left hand, a comb in the right, “if you sleep with someone else, I won’t take you back.” He stood; comb and scissors raised, anger and fear holding the air hostage between us. It was hard to breathe.
“It’s not about wanting to have an affair.” I murmured. I lied.
We first met, my husband and I, in a restaurant in the rural west county thirty-two years ago. I was a cook. He washed dishes. He wore heavy black-rimmed thick glasses. His hair was long. People said he looked like Che Guevera, dark skin, and dark eyes. He had just gotten out of jail for civil unrest, a nuclear reactor protest held in the East Bay. I had just come back from a trip to Jamaica. For three I had traveled with a friend, following the music, following musicians who slept on hammocks under open sky or in the vacant homes of vacationing tourists. We drank green coconut juice. We drank rum. We ate yams roasted in oil drums and stews of rice and peas. The man who became my husband and I both had three year olds. I was a single. He was not. We both were in a state of agitation. One day in the kitchen where we worked I saw him watching me. Something had changed. He was not wearing glasses and I could see his eyes. I could feel him staring at me, his gaze pitched low in my stomach. The space between us from the far side of the kitchen to the steam table where I stood filled with a million electric charges. We were a cloud in anticipation of a coming storm. We were the collision field, the mass of rain droplets suspended in animation, bonds tenuous and dynamic. In our excited state we were an atmospheric phenomenon lighting the room, a spectrum of color, a blinding white. We married in a year.
I almost lost him eight years ago. I was in graduate school. Our boys were moved out more or less successfully, no longer under our roof anyway or behaving in ways that frightened and wore us down; they were raccoons in their most rambunctious years, overturning and uprooting the order of our lives, growling at us when we tried to shoo them away. I was reading literary theory in my graduate classes. Literary theorists, I have since decided, are bad for a marriage, their brilliantly cynical anthems antithetical to the codes marriage attempts to uphold: monogamy, trust and loyalty. I wanted to turn everything into debate. I wanted to challenge my life choices, my sexuality, aging and the spasmodic flares of anxiety that came with aging. Silence had fallen between us, my husband and me. Even the simplicity of shelling peas was not enough. We were taking each other for granted. I was restless.
How many times had we shut that one bathroom door and made love on the tile floor? When did that stop?
“Are you in love with someone else?”
“No.” Yes. I was. I was in love with the possibility of everyone else. I wanted to get in trouble. The slant of a neck, eyes like sea glass, gazes met, fingers tapping a pencil tip, I yearned to feel the charge of someone’s skin against mine. I wanted to be overwhelmed.
My husband loves me. There is no other man I would rather be with for the rest of my life. Even during my most pain in the ass who-am-I phases he continues to find a way to love me. I love our history. I love who he is. I love how we are when we travel, when we start something new, when we sit drinking vodka, eating spicy food, talking life and listening closely to each other. Yet over and again I struggle against choosing desire at the expense of normalcy. I want to ache, to be touched, to be passionate in a park against a tree near a pond with ducks and empty floating bottles, the sound of a hawk screeching overhead. I want to lose myself, to be unsettled, ungrounded.
There’s a photograph my husband took two years ago. I am sitting on a red tile stoop peeling shrimp in a house in Costa Rica where we are staying with our son, daughter-law, and two year old grandson. The kitchen and bathrooms are open. Only the two bedrooms have four walls. We are living in a jungle on the Caribbean side. It is the poorer less developed coast. There are no crowds along the beaches and the towns are small. The forests are tropical riots of sound and color. We have rented a home even in height with the canopy of the tallest trees. We see little of the sea, but there is an abundance of jungle life and more shades of greens than I can comprehend. Marauding herds of red and blue parrots flock from tree to tree in the late afternoons. Sloths hang in branches, perennially asleep except for an occasional descent to shake off their parasitic debris. Nighttime explodes into a frenzy of sound. A great potoo bird growls a low painful cry, his voice a hollow absence of tone. Once, in an ancestral time, he may have had his more sonorous voice stolen by the common potoo envious of the other’s greater name. The common one now sings a descending six note song, an avian didgeridoo perched on an exposed branch, while the great potoo bellows an empty moan. Howler monkeys scream in the shadows of trees and shatter the hypnotic sounds of insects ticking and chirping just before dawn. Their pre-light antics accost us in our fragile hours of sleep, and we wake exhausted and weary from jousting with nocturnal monsters. We worry at first the howlers will scare the two year old into a permanent fright, but he, prepped well before leaving home with YouTube videos of howler monkeys and their demented cries, does not flinch.
In the photo, my daughter in law sits next to me. The two year old is driving a toy dump truck up and down the steps. She and I are peeling shrimp. The photo is in black and white. We could be women in an earlier time. Skimpy sun dresses, a strap off shoulder, hair in sweaty knots, knees high, legs bare, we are leaning over our bowls of briny shrimp. It is a sexy picture.
My husband remembers turning to our son when taking the picture and saying, “How lucky are we?”
Last week while walking along the Bay I saw a For Lease sign on a fish bate kiosk by the pier. I called the real estate company, but I was too late. Someone already had signed a new lease. I am looking for work. My husband moved to the northwest over a year ago and I have been commuting state to state from my old job, living in our old home. I am ready to move. While I walked out on the pier, I looked for starfish in the rocks by the water’s edge. I had not seen any for months. They must migrate, an image to ponder. Four small starfish were in view. Last fall I saw a sunflower starfish with twenty wandering legs motor over an ochre starfish, purple, smaller and unable to escape its aggressor. I love standing here. The kiosk at the edge of the pier is a concession stand and fish bait store by ordinance. I could imagine serving free hot coffee in the morning to the men and women who sleep on the benches and under the trees nearby. One refrigerator could hold tubs of worms and small perch for the fisherman. In the other could be dark summer berries for smoothies to sell to the bicyclists and walkers or a special of grilled shrimp tacos. On the counter I would have bowls of limes and avocadoes and a small chalkboard with a simple daily menu.
If I were to shake off my doubts and reinvent myself, I would accept melancholy as a state of wonder and not of perpetual sadness. I would shell peas on a sunny stoop or on a terrace in an apartment in silver light facing an open body of water with mountains beyond. I could work here, where my husband lives. I could appreciate the work he does while I tackle something new. Work could be the net that catches me the next time I threaten free-fall, the next time simple desires are not enough and I look to him for blame. I have said that the problem is that I want my husband to jump with me. I want us to fall together, but that too is a lie. It is the separateness I long for. He and I together are not enough. I can’t ask him to rescue me from the urge to sabotage that which makes me happy and feel trapped. That is too much to ask.