Saturday, June 15, 2013

El Paso Retrospective

I have this picture on my nightstand:

Ayla died several years ago, brittle with chronic pain.  But I took this a decade prior, when she was in her open-mouthed panting prime, good natured, what James Herriot called “an obvious grinner.”  I loved her like a child before I knew what it was like to love children. 
When I had children, my older daughter insisted Ayla was her sister.  Once, I happened to mention something about Ayla’s parents.  My daughter looked at me, stunned.

“Ayla’s mom and dad were…dogs?”
She was wonderful to my babies, in a fiercely protective way, but also made it clear she didn’t understand why I had chosen to include such noisy, unpredictable, clumsy beasts in our pack.  On the other hand, they were a constant source of dropped, spilled, and occasionally regurgitated food, and she thought that was at least partial compensation for their obvious liabilities.

This picture was taken on the side of the Franklin Mountains, overlooking the west valley of El Paso, where I lived at the time.  This was a lifetime ago, so long ago that I imagine if you wanted see the timeline of my life, the cartographer would have to telescope it with those little slashes.
Looking back on it is an exercise in perspective, and humility, because no matter how much I thought I knew something to be true, I was wrong.

I was in my open-mouthed panting prime then, too.  I was still ensconced in my first marriage, a series of small unhappinesses that would soon become a suffocating but unspecified misery before imploding altogether.
I was also still ensconced in my first “real” (read: post-college) job, a career path that would strangely mirror the trajectory of my first marriage.

These things seemed—were—momentous.  There were days during the year of the divorce that I wondered if I would ever again breathe without feeling the grief lodged in my chest.  I tortured myself with the questions: had I done enough?  Was it the right decision?  But today, for the most part, I don’t even remember that marriage, and when I do, I can call it my “starter marriage” without a hint of guilt or shame or doubt. 
And when I decided to leave that miserable, thankless, grinding cubicle wasteland, I was terrified I was being reckless (my parents shared my concern).  I was leaving the security of a good job with a Fortune Five company, benefits, retirement, and an all-but guaranteed ascent to mid-level management by my forties.  I had no plan, and only the vaguest destination: Out.  That company was General Motors.  Cue the laugh track.  I had worried I was throwing my career away, but it turns out I was just dodging a big, slow, bankrupt bullet.

Soon after the divorce, I had an affair with a married man.  It was, according to everyone who loved me, a horrible thing.  I was a homewrecker, the lowest position a woman could possibly aspire to.  When I came to my senses I would see that I was being used!  Foolish! Naïve! A traitor to the cause of feminism!
Now, nearly 20 years later, I can say: in many ways it was wonderful.  Not wonderful in a way that I’ll ever repeat, granted, but wonderful enough that I still look back on a thousand little things from that year of iniquity with gratitude.

Then one night we went out.  He got drunk, which he did more often than I cared to admit.  I tried to take his keys.  He insisted he was fine with the sloshing belligerence only the completely inebriated can muster.  An acquaintance urged me to let him call me a cab, give me a ride home, anything but get in the car with him. 
I got in the car with him.

He weaved and slurred and raged down the I-10 as it snaked around the southern tip of the Franklin Mountains.  I begged him to stop, let me drive, let me out.  But I was trapped.  Trapped in a speeding car with a man who just might kill an innocent person with his pathetic addiction and pride.  Or he might kill me.  But I wasn’t innocent.  I had chosen to get in that car because I was too afraid to risk the confrontation, too afraid to stand up for myself, too afraid to hurt his feelings.
Miraculously, we made it home safely. 

It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, getting in that car.  But nearly 20 years later just writing about that night, I can feel the fear and shame twisting together in my chest.
When I snapped this picture-of-a-picture, I suddenly saw there was a crack in the glass of the picture frame.  It’s been there for years.  I dropped the frame; the glass cracked; I made a mental note I ought to find a new one but never did.  Instead, over the years, the crack in the glass has faded so far from my consciousness that I can look right at it and not see it.  It’s not important to me, I suppose—I want to see my gorgeous sunlit dog before age robbed her of that obvious grin, the open-mouthed pant.  So that is what I see.  The crack is not part of my vision, in either sense of the word.

But now, distanced and reframed through the quickie ipod pic, the crack leaps into the foreground: evidence of my carelessness, I suppose, or maybe my willful and selective oblivion.  The crack becomes important.  I notice other things, too.  The frame is almost archaeologically dusty.  In order to take the picture, I had to move clutter: a knitting pattern I haven’t touched in weeks, a physical therapy ball, a broken necklace my daughter has been patiently waiting for me to fix so long that it, too, will have to be excavated.  A jar of fish food.  A bag of crystalized ginger from that stomach bug two weeks ago.  So much strata, preserving my shortcomings.
My heart aches a little to realize I have neglected this memorial.  Ayla was a central and loyal part of my life for fourteen years.  She deserves more than a cracked frame caked with dust.  My heart aches a little for me.  I close my eyes and the cartographer’s hash lines disappear.  That night rushes back at me.  I deserved more, too.

1 comment:

  1. E - looking through my blogs on Blogger and started reading your posts. Incredible. But this one of Ayla made me smile and tear up a little. I still remember frozen perigees and have told a bunch of people about her penchant for those beautiful packets of comfort food! Just an update on my furry babies - Hannah left us almost 3 years ago on the 2nd anniversary of Jeff's mom death. She had struggled with kidney disease for years but it was my diagnosis with BC that caused her to bid us adieu. 6 days before my lumpectomy, after she gads starting to not be able to go upstairs, I kneeled down and said to her "Hannah Banana, you can't do this to me. We need all hands on deck right now. I can't do this without you" The look in her eyes (all calm and Hannah-like) was almost telepathic - it's time. So the next morning, I told Jeff I had to take her to the vet. He started to cry. I said I would just see what the vet said but he knew. He held her and kissed her and went to work. Her last real expenditure of energy was to try to jump on the couch to be with Owen. She fell and he panicked. I put her up next to him and he loved on her. The girls had been spending mornings on the family room floor wrapped around her all week. She would seek out Owen because she knew she had to let him know she loved him just as much as the girls. I put her in her crate and told the kids I was taking her to the vet and at the school I made them come round the back of the van and said "Say Bye to Hannah and tell her you love her because she loves you." I took her in and after calling Jeff in tears (and he was bawling at his desk saying why is this all happening to you now, Robin? - I called my best friend here who dropped her groceries and ran to the vet's office.) I held Hannah for a good 45 minutes wrapped up like a baby telling her about El Paso having her choose me, all the years we had together, and how we would now take care of Hobbes like she took care of him and at the end he took care of her (he wouldn't leave her side all week). Then she was gone. I went and had my lumpectomy on the next Tuesday. We picked up Hannah's ashes on the Friday. In the van on the way home, Jeff told the kids they had to stop talking because Mommy needed to have quiet. I just held the box with her urn it in like it was a life-raft. Hobbes never pined because he knew., He has spent the last almost 3 years as my constant companion through surgeries and chemo and many tears. He turned 20 in April. The vet told me he looks amazing. My three year anniversary (for my type of cancer - they tell you to start breathing again at 3 years) is in October. Jeff laughs at me when I worry about Hobbes when we travel despite the best vet tech in the world watching him. I tell Jeff - he's been my constant companion through all of this and I don't know what I will do when he goes. Jeff's response - Hobbes will go only when he knows you are truly safe. I always reply - I will never know that I am truly safe. Jeff says Hobbes will know. And he's right. I miss you - and your insight and passions. Keep being you, Erica! We have come a long way from those cubicles in hell! Robin