These Are The Days
We're not the bloody Bobbsey Twins, I tell him. We don't have to do everything together. You want ten days in the wilderness with your friends? Go. Catch your Big Fish. I'm happy to stay home, sharing quality moments with each of the kids, sorting through all those ideas in the bottom of my imaginary toy box—doing all the things I keep saying I'll do as soon as there's time.
For example, I could start that novel I've been talking about for twenty years.
His car backs away, yellow kayak strapped to the roof like a cartoon spear.
What now? Like someone who's won a lottery, I can't decide what to spend my riches on first.
I should probably get work out of the way. I haul myself up the stairs to my home office (I'm a freelance business writer), phone some CEO who has way more money and power than I ever will, and spend two hours completing a 1,000-word draft on up-and-coming global markets for medical devices. Later, I spend two hours on my novel and produce half a page.
I go to the gym.
The two offspring, who still live at home—teenage sons—are out with friends. For my solitary supper, I eat a salad of organic produce with shredded low-fat cheese, followed by a dessert of herbal tea. No sugar. No alcohol. Wearing my virtue like a crown, I wander around the empty house.
In the right-hand drawer of the cabinet in the dining room are a pile of loose wooden matches, left there from the time I opened a box of 250 and accidentally dumped the contents. For the past three years, every time I open that drawer in search of a light for dinner candles, I've been telling my husband that we really should take those damn matches outta there because they're a fire hazard, and he always says, okay, you do that then, and I always reply, what, right now? We're sitting down to eat now; I'll do it some other day. But the time has come. The time is now.
Steam rises from my second mug of chamomile, as I collect little wooden sticks, tossing out old cards and bills in my way. I put the matches, all 197 of them—yes, I count them; it feels like a Zen thing—into a plastic, zip-lock bag. I am enormously pleased with myself, and stand back and admire the bag the same way I stand at the threshold of the kitchen and ogle the floor on those rare occasions when I wash it.
I close the tidy drawer and am amazed at how easily it glides, now that there's no paper jamming the top and sides. I open and close the drawer again, exhilarated by the silkiness of the movement, revelling in the simple pleasures of housekeeping. And it washes over me, a cold-water awareness of my self-righteousness. I can't stand myself. I feel a sudden, overwhelming urge to drink too much wine, eat way too much chocolate, and watch reruns of Sex and the City deep into the night.
Which is what I do.
It's normal for me to spend most of the day alone. I have long-term clients I've met in person only once. I never hear the voices of my editors anymore. We email back and forth, my clients and editors and I, and the missives include the sort of talk I imagine exchanged at water coolers. Julia, in England, mentions that she was up late "baking madly," as her mum's coming down for the weekend. Francoise, in Paris, just splurged on an Armani suit. William, in San Francisco, is so stressed translating a children's book into French, he yelled at his poodle, for which he says he is deeply sorry.
At the end of an ordinary day, I feel I've socialized as much as any cubicled office worker. It doesn't bother me that most of my friends are electronic. It doesn't bother me at all that every year I get out less and less, but sometimes it bothers me that it doesn't bother me, if you know what I mean.
So, with my only regular adult face-to-face contact miles away, aiming his golden kayak at the horizon, I decide it's time to make a few calls.
I meet Bev for a drink at my neighborhood pub. Bev owns a café in a nearby strip mall, and hosts a drop-in book club there after hours that I dropped into a few times last year, which is how I met her. We sit at a high table near the front door, and customers of her café stop by our table to chat. When a baseball-capped guy with a smoker's cough has moved on, Bev tells me he left his wife for a woman who turned around and left him, and the poor man is not doing well. A plump blonde comes along and complains that the last two self-help books she read did not help her at all, and then a guy with a ponytail admits he doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up and he's already forty-two. Over a second round, Bev and I cover the grief of a long-ago miscarriage (mine) and, later still, an ugly divorce (hers).
For someone like me, this is a boffo evening. I love this drive-by socializing, sharing the stuff of other people's lives without all that time-consuming effort of getting to know them.
I go home and make notes in my journal.
I wake up with a bad case of writer's block; I need gossip for relief. I call Jill, a woman I know through a local writers' group, and we meet in a café above a downtown bookstore. She's always treated her creative blocks with a long, hot shower, she says. Then, three months ago, soaping her body down, she discovered a lump. The man in her life was sympathetic, but left her nonetheless. "At least he gave me some money. Which is great, because I'm too sick to work." She spent New Year's Eve sitting on her bed alone, watching the ball descend on Times Square, as she peeled bandages off what used to be her right breast.
"I'm fifty-two. I'll be dead before I'm sixty."
I gasp. "Don't say that!"
The look she gives me is severe. "It's a fact that my life expectancy is five to seven years." She will not suffer fools. And who am I to argue with her?
Anyway, we're all headed for the same gate, it's just that people like Jill have been given an estimated time of arrival.
"I don't mind that I can't afford luxuries anymore," she says, swirling cold coffee in her paper cup. "Now, when I go shopping it's an event. I go to the grocery store, I take my time, I choose carefully. I pick that one perfect tomato."
We are silent a moment, then Jill leans forward and says in a stagey whisper, "Guess which high-profile editor is having an affair?"
Has it been only three nights that he's been gone?
My daughter comes over for dinner. I'm spearing nuggets of teriyaki chicken with a wooden skewer, and she's trying to make me feel better about the fact that I miss her father.
"Maybe this time alone is good for you," she offers. She isn't seeing anyone at the moment and is quite happy with her single status, not to mention annoyed with a few of her acquaintances who seem entirely too dependent on boyfriends.
I can't imagine how I'd feel if I was to find myself single again after all these years.
My husband has told me, "If anything happens, if I don't come back, just remember I died doing something I love."
He phones! He's alive!
He's using the GPS satellite phone and can only talk for a few minutes because they have to conserve the batteries, but he's fine; he and his buddy, Ray, are on a jewel of an island and, just as they were paddling into the bay, a couple of fishermen appeared out of nowhere and gave them a bucket of fresh prawns, and these prawns, you should see them, twice the size we ever get from the store, and he and Ray built a fire and boiled the prawns and washed them down with red wine, but now he's left Ray by the embers and is off on his own, he's on a crescent of white sand that's hugging a silver cove, and he really wishes I could see it.
Ordinarily, my husband isn't much of a talker. Once we drove home from a three-day getaway, a journey of two hundred miles, and for over an hour he didn't say a word, so finally I poked him in the ribs and said, "Talk!" and his hands jumped from the steering wheel and he said, "Okay, tell me what you want me to talk about," and this is how our marriage often is. But when work takes him away, he always phones and tells me things like you should see this room, they had to put me in the honeymoon suite with a view of the mountains and you'd love it, I know you would.
Now the guy won't shut up about the sunset, and I'm beginning to fear for his batteries.
Then I, who, according to him, am never interested in sex, start thinking of him standing there on that deserted beach in that body-hugging black Neoprene, and I hint at the thoughts now going through my head. And he laughs and says, "Isn't that always the bloody way?"
Cedar planks are soaking in a tub of water. Fresh dill, olive oil, and lemon juice are marrying in a bowl. I'm in a chaise lounge on the back deck, a cold drink in my hand, and a blank page on my lap. My two sons come and stand together at the kitchen door.
"Why do we never have any food in this house?" says the fourteen-year-old.
"You shouldn't be eating this late in the afternoon," I say. "I'm making a nice dinner."
"What?" he asks, instantly suspicious.
"When?" the nineteen-year-old says. "I've got plans with Alison tonight."
"Six-thirytish," I say. "Halibut."
"Alison will be ready by five."
"I hate halibut," says the fourteen-year-old.
"You liked it enough last week," I say. "I've got a fresh fruit salsa to go with it."
"Are you just trying to piss us off?" says the nineteen-year-old.
"Fish is good for you."
"Six-thirty is too late," says the nineteen-year-old. "Can't you make it earlier?"
I bristle. "I am not getting up right now. I'm writing."
"You know what Travis gets, every night?" the fourteen-year-old says. "Steak. Barbecued steak and French fries. His mother is a gourmet cook."
The nineteen-year-old says, "I'm making Kraft dinner."
"Why do I have to eat halibut when he gets to have Kraft dinner?" My younger son's eyes narrow. "That crap in the glass bowl in the fridge isn't what you're calling salsa, is it?"
"I can't believe anyone would do that with perfectly good blueberries," says the nineteen-year-old, shaking his head as he walks away from the door.
"All right, both of you eat Kraft dinner! More blueberry salsa for me!"
And then I wonder if I should put aside the damn novel (such as it is) and get up and make sure they eat something nutritious, not just give in like the lousy, lazy mother that I am.
I sit up and call out to my children. "Eat a vegetable with it!"
Two hours later, I'm sipping chilled Chardonnay. In the slanting rays of the sun, the leaves on the tree next to the deck shimmer green-gold and, among them, ripe plums hang like dusty purple eggs. I lift the lid off the barbecue to check on the fish, and sweet cedar smoke wafts out, reminding me of family camping trips when the kids were small. Back in the present, I sit down with a plate on my lap. The salsa—blueberries and cantaloupe with lime juice and garlic—is a great success with the halibut, in my opinion. And I'm grateful for the chance to enjoy this meal in silence. There'll be another day to eat with my kids. This one is mine.
I get up and check email and eat leftovers for lunch and then, somehow, it's dark out, and I realize I've wasted a whole day.
More to the point: I've pretty much wasted my entire life.
I've finally finished the fucking blueberry salsa.
I wonder, as I push a cartload of Kraft dinner along the aisles of Thrifty Foods, if my husband has yet caught that salmon he so wanted. I think about the freeze-dried dinners he packed, and about the kinds of food one eats on trips, and my mind wanders to a Copenhagen grocery and little fish coiled in glass jars. I remember how cooking frozen lasagna can be an adventure when the directions are in a foreign language. An adventure is never a waste of time. When traveling, I rarely set goals for what I can accomplish in any one day and, most of the time, I don't mind what gets in the way of any plans because what gets in the way is part of the whole experience. Every day seems full, as opposed to long.
I head over to Produce and buy something I've never seen before, orange tomatoes shaped like eggplants, imported from California.
He's back. He finds me in my favorite spot, on the chaise lounge out back, where the air is full of the hum of bees and the scent of overripe plums.
He kisses me and asks how I've been, how the kids are.
"And how's the writing going?" he asks.
"I may never finish this novel in my lifetime," I tell him. But so what? I'm slowly convincing myself that the pleasure is in the doing.
He had a wonderful time, though he never did catch his fish. He's had a long drive and he's tired. "What time is it, anyway?" he asks.
"Who knows?" I've left my watch inside.
"I've got a special dinner planned," I tell him. "Salmon caught at the fish counter, and a salad of perfect tomatoes."
We lie side by side, eyes closed, fingers entwined, listening to the sound of plums heavy with juice thud upon the dry grass.
About the Author
Sharleen Jonsson has a MFA in Creative Writing from University of British Columbia and lives in Victoria, Canada. Her articles have appeared in numerous publications in print and online. She is a writing coach and instructor and blogs on all things literary at http://sharleenjonsson.com