Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jan's mind wanders

Each stroke of the pencil changes everything, but the erasure is always an option. Nothing’s indelible yet. She hasn’t yet touched this drawing with a pen. All of her changes can be erased, changed back, like they never happened. Presto! Magico! Gone. Maybe this is what she likes so much about drawing with pencil: the do-overs, the second chances, so rare in real life but an almost constant occurrence when she draws. Her options remain perpetually open.
The tilt of the cat’s ear on the kitchen table is giving her trouble. She hadn’t considered the cat’s ear when she started the drawing, but faced with it now she’s at a bit of an impasse. The bear’s arm was easy, the bear so obviously pontificating. But the cat is trickier. The cat is female, feline, endlessly difficult to read. Should the ear be cocked forward as if listening, or tilted away, tuning out? Or can she somehow infer both? Wouldn’t that be best? The cat, while polite or political or plotting, is no longer listening to the bear, in fact can not stomach the insufferable bear another instant. Yet she is powerless against him. She’s just a pawn after all. She goes where she’s moved and stays put. What choice does she have?
Jan’s mind starts to wander as she sketches the ear lightly both ways. Weird how the mind works. She thinks back to a night in college, a night it’s fair to say she has not thought of since college. There was a party, and as usual she was in a little over her head socially. She knows now that her personality fits a certain stereotype, a little niche in the Myers-Briggs universe. She knows now that she is an introvert. 99%. She didn’t know that then. It was the fall of junior year, and the professor of her honors English seminar was having a little getting-to-know-you shindig with his so-called best students at his gentleman’s farm ten miles outside of town. The professor, she remembers, was gay, which to Jan at the time was fascinating. She knew for sure he was gay because he hung out with all of his gay buddies for happy hour at the tavern where she worked three nights a week. She would often see them getting ready to leave as she was coming in. She’d joke with them in the nursey, settling way she joked with all of the drunks. This she could do because it was her role, and she did it well. Random, institutionalized party chatter was another matter entirely.
On this particular evening at the professor’s house, Dr. Hopewell, his name just coming to her, full of dedicated students brown nosing the English faculty with white wine-lubricated vigor, Jan sat awkward and alone on the two steps leading down the a central recessed living room. In the middle of the room, indeed in the middle of the house – open floor plan, mostly rough-hewn pillars and beams – hung an enormous Turkish bed, ornate and heavily wooden, suspended from the ceiling by thick chains. “Oh, yes, Steven and I procured this amazing bed the last time we were in Turkey,” Dr. Hopewell makes sure to tell all and sundry. Why is it in the middle of the room? Surely she must be mis-remembering the layout of the house. How would one sleep on such a thing? Or, perhaps more to the point, how would one have sex? Does it swing? Is it dangerous? Promiscuous certainly. Right in the middle of the house?
As she sat there another misplaced soul, Davis Ritchie, sidled over next to her and started to talk. She could not have been more stunned. Just the fact that he was in this honors seminar at all was breathtaking to Jan on the first day of class. Davis Ritchie was a campus celebrity. He was cute as a button and had been captain of the men’s soccer team since sophomore year. Is it possible he was also smart? That seemed an unfair allotment of talent for one person. She had never spoken to Davis, rightfully fearful of that A-list girlfriend always at his side shooing away anybody female with her dagger eyes. Unbelievably, the girlfriend was not with Davis that night. He was alone and something of a fish out of water in this crowd. So he sat with Jan as she stared, contemplating the odd bed situation.
“I see you running all the time,” he said. “Why don’t you go out for cross country or track?”
“Teams,” she said, somewhat stunned. “I can’t handle the whole team thing. Woo wah, all of that.”
“Teams are okay. When it all clicks there’s nothing better.” And then he went on to enumerate several recent examples of his soccer team “clicking,” all of which left Jan with nothing.
“What’s going on with this bed?” she asked when he’d quieted down.
Davis just shook his head. “I don’t even want to think about it.” Which for some reason got Jan giggling. It was sheer nerves mostly, but also something about Davis Ritchie’s wagging head and rolling eyes, the whole thing struck her silly.
The laughing broke the ice. Jan remembers that she and Davis sat there companionably chatting for a long time, possibly hours. She can’t remember what they talked about but she can be sure she played it cool. That was her pose back then with boys, uncomplicated and cool. Low maintenance, whatever. Which angle did she take, she wonders now. Misplaced science student in an honors English class? Dreamy runner girl wedded to the outdoors? Party chick out on a bender (unlikely)? It could have been any of these. She didn’t quite know herself back then. Still doesn’t.
Was Davis coming on to her? Was he feeling shy, so he glommed on to the girl sitting by herself? Was he the one that got away? Was she? No telling. The whole thing got broken up by Carl, Jan’s “date” for the evening, her roommate’s boyfriend of three years and with whom she was charged to return safely to his dorm at the end of the evening. Carl had been outside with Dr. Hopewell and had evidently passed out on the deck chair on which he’d been loudly lounging, and from which he’d been putting the moves on Hopewell all evening. Why do people do things like that? Why try to sleep with your gay professor when you are clearly not gay? Dr. Hopewell had come in to find Jan, to tell her that it may be time to take Carl home. Hopewell talked to her, she remembers this clearly, as if she were a responsible person. Perhaps an adult. Maybe it was all those chummy late afternoons at the bar, but Hopewell seemed to think that she could handle the situation. He seemed to like her, even though she wasn’t doing particularly well in his class. Not yet anyway. He’d called her a couple of times to lead the class discussion when he was sick. He trusted her. Perhaps she seemed trustworthy. She had no idea.
Carl, meanwhile, had woken up, or perhaps had been feigning sleep all along. He came bumbling into the house like an oversized bowling ball, grunting, “Where’s the party? Moved in here?”
He went straight for the hanging bed. Indeed it was made to swing. Jan grabbed Davis’ arm and shook her head, big-eyed, right in his face. Carl howled. The kid had no sense of propriety, no sense of the spectacle he was making. Or maybe he didn’t care. Jan was mortified.
She remembers Hopewell and Davis each getting Carl by a meaty arm and steering him into the passenger seat of her car, an ancient Chevy Nova, brown with purple patches where the paint had rusted away. “I love you, man,” Carl was saying to Hopewell as they buckled him in. “I meant everything I said out there.” Hopewell looked at Jan, eyebrows raised. “He’s all yours,” he’d said. Davis, perplexingly, leaned in through the open driver’s side window and kissed her on the cheek. Whatever that meant.
Jan doesn’t remember the drive home with Carl, though she can imagine he blathered on about some damn thing or other, she probably nodded along, agreeing with whatever he said or didn’t say. She brought him back to his dorm. And this she remembers clearly. He started walking away from the car, away from the building, across the street and into the grassy hills yelling, “Sheep! Sheep! Ding, ding, you goddamn sheep!” She didn’t follow him. Alone in the car she realized how annoyed and confused she’d been by Carl, by the whole uncomfortable evening, really. She just wanted some time alone to think it all out. She let Carl go. He wasn’t her responsibility anymore.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Jan drawing

Drawing for Jan is all about the details, each piece the summation of a thousand decisions, minutiae really, a line, a shade, a gesture. Drawing is the only part of her life that captures her attention this way, the only thing for which she has the energy for this level of detail. She cannot stay at it long, and she cannot be interrupted. It’s an unusual and fragile zone. 45 minutes go by in a flash and then she is spent. Done. Batteries dead. Drawing is slow and difficult work, an endurance event, her specialty. She starts with broad strokes, the easy part, then ever so painstakingly fills in the details. She cannot let anything slide, cannot get sloppy. Once she feels sloppy, she stops.
Today she’s drawing a kitchen. She’s been working on it for two weeks, and it’s starting to take shape. The kitchen is inspired by the Avadecian’s house: two professors, one International Relations, the other Mathematics, and two sons. She’s never seen the kids but guesses from photographs hanging around the house and artwork magneted to the refrigerator, that they’re maybe 2 years apart, 6 and 8, 7 and 9, something like that. Her own kids are in that age ballpark so she knows the signs. Little soccer balls and cleats in the mudroom, Annie’s mac and cheese cases stacked in the pantry, Legos in the bedrooms. These boys are evidently Star Wars fanatics. Just like her own.
She was cleaning the house midmorning a few Saturdays ago, the family gone as she insists, presumably at a soccer game. The light coming in through the kitchen window over the sink stopped her cold. She stopped and stared at the dishes in the drying rack, the white board calendar full to bursting, the stuffed animals on the table, the bookshelf strewn with homework and library books. The light seared through and blessed it all, illuminating the scene and taking her breath away. She didn’t want to clean the room, didn’t want to touch it. It was perfect as it was. Why this obsession with cleanliness and order? Why not let our lives spill out of the frame? She walked away, cleaned the downstairs bathroom and the living room. When she returned to the kitchen the moment had passed. Only then would she disturb the scene to do her work.
She scrubbed the counters and the floor, de-cluttered the table, put the dishes to rights. She sun was well past the window now, the room desolate as an empty church. She had been the only witness to that illumination. She feels it’s worth preserving. Maybe she’ll give the picture to the Avadecians if it turns out well. Let them see their kitchen with fresh eyes.
This morning Jan is drawing the stuffed animals on the kitchen table. The table itself in just a series of lines she’ll fill in later. The table doesn’t matter so much. It’s the animals she’s focused on. The bear’s arm is raised as if he’s making a particularly difficult point to the cat who is turned to the window, oblivious or perhaps pushed beyond patience. Hard to tell with a stuffed cat. A little brown cocker spaniel with floppy ears and curls on top of his head stares forlornly into a bowl of milk, a few bloated Cheerios languishing at the edge.
Jan imagines the boys. These stuffed animals mean the world to them, the kind of made up world only kids seem to have access to. These boys in their family photographs are beautiful. Big dark eyes and dark hair, half Armenian, half …. what? … American? She doesn’t remember seeing them but she must have, swimming lessons, grocery store, surely someplace. It’s not a big town. She imagines the rush to get out of the house that morning, the soccer game or wherever they were off to, the animals quickly abandoned, then waiting in the boys’ room where Jan eventually placed them on the beds. How she’d hated to move them.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Jan's Day: Early morning

Jan wakes up

It’s never a question of if, but more simply a question of how far? As soon as the alarm goes off, or on very lucky days a minute or so just before, which saves her husband the startling inconvenience of a 4:00 wake-up, before her feet hit the floor, before the last of the wake-up adrenaline has exited her system, well before the sternest and timeliest cock crows even once, Jan’s plotting and planning her route. Call it conditioned response. Borderline lasciviousness. She has three hours to herself starting NOW and she intends to use them.
Sunday was a long run day, twenty-eight trail miles with Lucy, her training partner, her fait accompli. Lucy’s as bad as Jan is. Lucy may well be the only person in this town who truly understands Jan. Running with Lucy is like gliding along beside her own alter ego, a younger, one might correctly say more polished, more “together” version of herself. Lucy’s 23 and she’s got it going on. Jan’s 43 and beginning to wonder where it all went.
Lucy’s everything Jan wishes she could have been at that age. Lucy knows who she is and what she wants. Lucy’s an orphan, which may have hurried the process along. Jan at 23 was still butting up against the unmovable wall of her mother’s iron will. Jan’s mother had been a first wave feminist, a career go-getter from the get-go. Jan’s mom had real obstacles to overcome and came out shining. Jan had nothing but imaginary obstacles, constructed whole cloth from her own addled and perhaps misguided head, and she’s still reeling.
But all that’s neither here nor there at the moment. Jan is planning a run. The whole world can take one giant step back. Mother may I? Yes, you may! Monday was an off day. Jan tries and often fails to take at least one day a week off from running. It’s good for the tendons, she’s told. The delicate muscle bellies, the micro pulls and tears. Whatever. Monday was yesterday and she had two houses to clean and she was tired. She did the smart thing.
Today is Tuesday, conceivably a speed day. Speed work is a new addition to Jan’s bag of tricks. She does it only because suddenly, inexplicably, she enjoys it. It’s fun! Running as fast as she can for relatively short bursts makes her feel young again. Not young like Lucy, but young like her kids. Really young, like ten or eleven. She kicks her feet out behind her, steadies her head and bolts from the hip like a missile sprung from a desert silo. Her hair flies behind her, wind in her face. Never mind that she can’t breathe. She’s okay. She feels great. Stay in the moment; be here now. You don’t need to breathe all the freaking time. Take a break. Forget about it and RUN!
Sometimes she does these speed workouts on the track around the high school football field. Other times she slips them into her everyday runs: one-minute pickups, four minutes rest, GO! This morning, however, as she swings her legs over the side of the bed, a lucky morning – she beat the alarm by 53 seconds – she has a different idea. Today, instead of flat out speed, she’ll run hills. She can feel it in her bones. It makes perfect sense. She hasn’t done a hill workout in a long time. Hills, after all, are speed work in disguise. Strength coupled with one hell of a cardiovascular workout. A middle-aged person’s run. Let’s face it; what is Jan if not middle-aged?

Jan drinks coffee (or doesn't....)

Jan goes back and forth on the coffee issue. Right now she’s off. It feels like a forever decision but who knows? Everything always feels like a forever decision. Like so many things in Jan’s life, the caffeine thing turns out to be a cycle, though she can only see it retrospect. It always starts with decaf. For a while the decaf gives her a little lift in the morning. Nothing jolting or abrupt, just enough to get her eyes open and the ideas flowing. Before she runs she draws, every morning without fail. She once assumed she’d make a living as an artist, but now she’s 43 and that never happened. So it’s a hobby. She’s resigned. It gets the day started and she enjoys it. The tiny caffeine boost from the decaf sharpens her focus, keeps her in the swim so to speak, until it’s time to run. She can only draw in the mornings, super early, well beyond the hope of any interruption.
Of course one thing leads to another. Tiny fractions of regular caffeinated coffee, the kind most humans drink without ill effect but which makes Jan a little nuts, start to seep into the morning mix. 1 7/8 scoops decaf, 1/8 scoop regular. Her focus sharpens further. It’s good! And if a little caffeine is good, more must be … better! And it is. It IS! 1 ¾ scoops decaf, ¼ scoop regular. Her eyes open a little wider; her brain clicks along like a stopwatch. Yuh, baby. Let’s go! The ideas come fast and furious. Her drawing hand cannot keep up and her piece changes. It’s less contemplative on the caffeine, more plainly manic. She isn’t sure she likes it, but she can’t stop. The ink from her pen runs dry. Weeks are passing. She moves on. Half decaf, half regular, one scoop of each. What harm could it do? Ride that high! Ignore the afternoon jitters, the horrible feeling of doom that sets in at dusk, the galumphing heartbeats, the no no no sleep. She’s on a wild ride here. Full caf! Go in whole bore. By now she’s convinced herself that her body craves the stuff. It gets her up and keeps her going. A real cuppa joe. Everybody does it, jesus christ what’s the big deal?
Until she finds herself night after night lying awake, vaguely headachy, kind of dizzy, entertaining an artillery squad of explosive thinking, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat. Her heart no longer sits still in her chest. There’s something in there rumbling around like a tennis ball in the dryer. She can feel each chamber distinctly fire, kalomph, kalomph. Once the panic attacks start, the out of nowhere grip that zooms her away from her life at alarming speed, she knows the ride is over. And then she goes off the stuff. Cold turkey. Presumably never to return again. She can’t look at the French press without feeling strangely punchy. The smell of coffee makes her sick. She’s never going back.
So for now it’s all Yogi Ginger and Tazo Calm. Herbal tea from here on out. No need to go down that road again.
This morning she’s having ginger tea with honey. This will soothe her stomach before the hill workout to come. No need to go crazy. It’s 4:15 and she’s in her studio, which is really just a corner of the attic next to a south-facing dormer. All of her art supplies are strewn around like pickup sticks. The kids are not allowed up here. She needs a corner of her own. She knows where everything is.
She’s working on a drawing of a kitchen just before breakfast. This is what she does, interiors. Her house cleaning work is the perfect inspiration. One job feeds the other. As she moves from room to room when she’s cleaning she imagines the lives that play out in these spaces. Her drawings are like this. The people are absent but you can imagine them. The details imply habitation, a life lived. She loves the details. Once in a while as she’s cleaning something will catch her fancy, the angle of a tee shirt hanging out of a drawer, a toy on the staircase, the heartbreaking loneliness of an unmade bed. She insists the houses be empty of people when she’s cleaning. The infiltration of reality ruins the effect.
She doesn’t sketch on the job, doesn’t take snapshots even. She simply absorbs the details, however imperfectly remembered, and draws them in the early morning light. She can honestly say that losing herself in these stylized, half-remembered rooms gives her peace. Why else get up at such an ungodly hour of the morning?