Put the circle back

Put the circle back

I was in New York this week; I had gone for a run along the Hudson, a run in which I surprised myself by holding onto a sub-8 minute pace for eight miles, double the distance I’d done since my aborted half-marathon training last fall; I was hobbling into the dim lobby of the hotel, drinking a minuscule $6 latte; I was in the elevator, ascending, taking in my overwintered legs, my determined post-natal flyaways. And then something – the slight hitch of the elevator as it started, a moment’s pause mid-floor – plunged me into an elevator-adjacent memory. 

On a summer day in 2019, the floor above my then office, on the 62nd floor of the World Trade Center, began to flood. There was a span of time between when we learned of the flooding {water plinking down from the high rubbled ceililngs, with increasing persistence} and when anyone decided to take it seriously. I, having taken it upon myself to go up to the 63rd floor and immediately validate the intel, was one of the first. The office had a wraparound layout, with long desk pits interspersed with small offices and a few large offices and a kitchen that seemed to swap corners whenever I was in need of it. I walked around the corridors. A few people had begun to detach from whatever it was they had been doing, to stand in pods discussing, with absolute diffidence, potential options. Many continued to type or sketch or talk, heatedly, about breakpoints. You should all leave, I said. You should leave now.

I did not want anyone to think me hysterical, or overly reactive, but by the time I’d completed my lap, the elevators had been turned off. Soon after, a thin sheet of water began to spread across the cement floors of the elevator bank and under the glass doors, making its inevitable way towards the desks, the tucked-away cordage. Even then, I think, there were some who did not leave. I was not one of them. Most of us pushed open the door to the north stairwell, the stairwell we’d been told to use in case of fire. No one had told us what to use in case of flooding.

The stairwell was covered in several inches of water; more battered down from above. I was wearing a floral-patterned slip dress and lavender suede sandals, instantly ruined. I was thirty-two or thirty-three weeks pregnant. The water fell violently; it echoed along with our slapping shoes, our mostly hushed commentary. A slim, close-shaven designer dressed all in white kept shouting, oh my fucking god oh my fucking god like a chant or a prayer but the rest of us were hushed. A coworker noticed my friend struggling with her suitcase and chivalrously balanced it atop his head for the remainder of the descent. Somewhere around the fiftieth or fortieth floor, the stairwell dried. We reached the twenty-fourth floor, and someone from the studio opened the door. One elevator was operating; we took it. In the lobby, we milled or formed excited knots or dissipated into the sunshine. My friend booked an earlier ferry; I gave my ruined shoes one last hoorah and walked home, over the bridge. 

In those frothy pre-pandemic days, this constituted an Event. But why had it come back to me now, after not thinking of it for years? I was almost not thinking as I descended the stairs; I was only thinking of the next stair. The hammering water; the rough white walls of the stairwell. It had recalled, for a moment, the engine room on the Titanic.

These moments of hyper-presence, of intense deconcentration end up being the only vivid entries in my memory bank. 

In the hospital, I thought mostly of my daughter, a little about post-partum mechanics, a little about my sons – but mostly, the outside world was kept at bay. What I had to think about was fraught, but circumscribed. In this way, those were the most simple, most pared-down two weeks of my motherhood. 

🝟🝟🝟

To come to New York, again, is to be subconsciously or consciously searching for validation about leaving. But where else mills, spills over like carpenter ants from upturned stone on a pinkening May evening, the air fresh, the grey buildings going opaque, turning away from the crowd and their second wind. 

I get on the train alone, a parent of three; I arrive and I am not that to anyone but myself. It is not so much a switching of identities as a discarding of identity entirely. On a fresh spring night, a Thursday night, a shirtsleeves night, prior identities are just behind the veil. I know it would tear easily; I could grab the one most apt to say yes to late nights, events, tucked away parties hung together by sheer force of drugs and their own unexpectedness. 

Alone, late at night in my humming hotel room, I read Sleepless Nights. A luminous, cool book of dissembling, of the specific, pointed voyeurism this city engenders: it is perfect for this instant. 

“The acrimonious twilight fell into the hollows between the grey and red buildings.”

🝟🝟🝟

At home, it is the time of violets, so many across our lawn that from a distance, they look like confetti, or willful scatterings of leftover crinkle paper. The three crab apples are in domino blooms; their trunks, slender, vaguely serpentine, strike me as elegant, winsome now they’re covered in carmine and pale pink froth. I’d scarcely even noticed the one that occupies the southwest-most corner of the lawn, past the myrtle patch, except to scowl here and there at the unruly pile of wood and bracken beneath it; now the pile is gone (ashes to ashes), and the tree looks like something out of Bridgerton

Yes, yes this narrow place with its crimped, muted beauty is thrumming, gaining lushness exponentially. One morning, the dale in the town forest is dotted in fine green quills; a day later, the quills have unfurled to feather-width ovals; now, above each pair of ovals rises a single, slim shoot with a spraw of white blossoms, infinitely tiny. Canadian mayflower. Under the hemlocks and rhododendron in our yard, the real lilies of the valley are following more cautious suit. 

I read Very Cold People and A Manuel for Cleaning Women. Fragments and short stories; like Sleepless Nights, emotions run cool, or from a distance, while the surroundings are extensively, specifically catalogued. Very Cold People is constrained, blunted. A Manuel for Cleaning Women is the opposite: big sky, reckless. But it’s all very placey writing, very distinct for reasons that are easy (perhaps lazy) to attribute to geography.

I hope, by use of intricate detail, to make this woman so believable you can’t help but feel for her.

Perry is classifying. Brady noted it first, put a name to it. Are alligators and crocodiles the same? Are bees like flies, or like mosquitoes? Which frogs are poisonous? What makes a tree frog a frog, and not a lizard? Which is the fastest turtle? What lives in the hadal zone? Nothing, I say. No! Very tiny organisms, I say. No, no, no! James Cameron. No! Russian billionaires. No! 

He runs off, come back with his shark encyclopedia. THESE! 

Tubeworms live in geothermal vents and grow to be longer than dad is tall, I say, skimming. Blurrgh. 

See? 

But are there geothermal vents in the hadal zone? I ask. Not rhetorically. 

YES. SEE. IT’S DARK DOWN THERE. 

But he grows doubtful, worried. I look it up. He’s right. They can live in the abyssal zone too, I tell him. LET ME SEE. 

I hand him my phone. The tube worms glow blue-white, look like a chemical byproduct, which I suppose they are. 

He wants tube worm videos. He wants videos of volcano eruptions on Mars, lightening storms on Jupiter. The videos are murky, half-slideshows, intercut with men talking and talking. Perry is disappointed. He wants Planet Earth, but on Jupiter. It is hard to explain that the results are bad because there are no good ones, no ways – yet – of creating Planet Earth on Jupiter. I distract him with the launch of the James Webb. Maybe this will give us better videos, eventually, I say. 

He is only four and already pushing at, or past entirely the extent of my life sciences knowledge. 

I try to redeem myself with math. 

Maria taught Grothendieck, who was twelve, the definition of a circle: all the points that are equidistant from a given point.

We are eating pizza. This is a circle, I say. I try to make a rectangle by lining the slices up tip to crust. See, calculating the area of a circle is tricky, but calculating the area of a rectangle is easy. Perry looks from me to the sloppy rectangle, confused.

“Put the circle back!” Irv shouts. 

🝟🝟🝟

At night, I lie on Irving’s trundle, just below Perry’s looming head. He likes to keep watch on me, Perry. For the longest time, he insisted on holding my hand; now he just stares, fixedly, while the nightlight cants off the whites of his eyes. 

What was one fun thing you did today, I ask. Sometimes the answers are the same entry-level genericisms I myself offer when asked about my week. Playing with friends. Going to school. Sometimes they are patently false. “I liked eating breakfast with Swirvy,” though Swirvy took Perry’s coin, spat milk all over the counter, and exhibited both desperate desire and truculence when ordered to return the dried mangos he’d craftily swiped from Perry’s lunchbox. 

“I liked making your mother’s day flowers,” Perry says, then gasps. “That was A SECRET.” 

“What flowers,” I say. 

“What did YOU do that you liked,” Perry will ask. At first, I’d start with something I’d done during the day. Any one thing I could remember, whether it had been fun or not. A walk where I saw a century of painted turtles, sunning across every surfaced log and crag on nameless lake. The first evening primrose. No, what did you do with me that you liked? In the morning what did you do with me that you liked?

Always wants to know about the morning. The weekday morning: that most harried of time. Every night, I scramble to come up with something novel. Something beyond I liked making you breakfast and nagging at you to get dressed and put your shoes on where are your shoes and pack lunches and Irving eat your breakfast please.

I scramble, but I find something, always. I liked listening to you play the ukelele, liked when you got a straw for Swirvy, liked dancing to “Fancy” with you and Otter.  

What are these days / how is this time? I used to while away the hours. I used to get annoyed, crushed even when meetings were canceled. When an analysis I’d labored over wasn’t instantly heralded as a heartbreaking work of corporate genius. I used to fly into a rage over the slimmest of indignities, inconveniences. Used to send ratatat angry missives over slack. I had passion, ambition; I craved recognition, thought, generally, I deserved it. More of it. 

Now, I do not know if these traits are banked, chilled, what have you. There is always more to do than there are hours to do it ; the balance owed grows and grows. Sometimes I consider what my days would look like, life would be like if I had not taken the professional leaps of the past four years. Would I spend the late nights, the occasional early mornings writing? Would I have managed to write a draft good enough to publish? Or: would I feel aimless, unfulfilled, “not living up to my potential.” 

 What did you do today that you liked.

“I liked going to school,” Perry says.

“You always say that.”

“I always say that,” he agrees, bashful.

🝟🝟🝟

I had, the other night, the awful realization that it had been teacher appreciation week at my children’s school and that I had utterly failed to notice. There had, the week before, been a series of emails about it, and I had not read a one of them. 

I was distraught, savagely so. My husband, confused. You sent cards in this morning. Those were for Mother’s Day, I wailed. For the mothers! And they were only cards. Teachers’ appreciation week means gifts, gift cards to Starbucks, cellophane bags of chocolate-covered pretzels, chocolate bars in matte, liberty-printed wrappers. Lavender eye masks. Italian soaps. I knew that! I am but playacting at being a mother, and had forgotten my lines. 

🝟🝟🝟

With the baby, I go to Detroit. She falls asleep as the plane takes off. The sun glints off her hair, now honey-blonde, still as copious as it was at birth. Between the crack in the seats I watch snatches of unknown films. Foolishly, childlike, the couplet “You know what the midwest is / young and restless” rattles about and about as we drive by auto factories, an enormous car tire, the Henry Ford hospital. The overcast sky is close, thick over the low cityscape. 

Our friends are artists. A sculptor, a potter. Their home is brimming with objects. Substantial ceramic crockery. Woodcut plates. An octopus-like sculpture in variegated pinks slopes against one corner. I touch it: it is spongey, incredibly light. Pool noodles, my friend tells me. To make your own art and live among it: it is foreign to me, and wonderful. 

The neighborhood is green, ivy green, forest green, and architecturally varied. Brick romanesque and english revivals with dear little dormers, limestone neo-tudors with grand lions at their auspices, clapboard dutch colonials. A storybook cottage with terracotta tiles. A low-slung farmhouse in the provencal style, palest green, like a duck egg, with sage shutters and swells of lilac along its fences. Boarded up and empty houses sit side by side with homes owned for generations, well-tended lawns and gardens next to thickets, knee-high grass and swaying dandelions. People peck at laptops from front porches and call out in greeting as I pass by. 

In Detroit, I am introduced, over and over, as a writer. I demure, conscious of the false modesty implied in demurring. She’s written three novels, my friend insists. I am among artists; they take my belonging as a matter of fact. The long weekend is easy, so easy with one jolly baby; the city so captivating; there is enthusiasm, momentum, gratitude at finding a place to live that makes room for the possibility of art.

There is an artist who makes wall hangings that remind me of outsized kites, pop-art bright and stitched together, with soft drapey entrails instead of the usual white string. I admire the hangings; my hand reaches instinctively towards the entrails, even though I am looking at a picture on an iPhone. The artist says she hasn’t made anything in a month, after two years of near-continuous labor. “But the teutonic plates have started shifting,” she says. 

The expression makes me hopeful, and I pocket it away. 

I fly into the waning weeks of a spring that has cemented itself as the driest in fifty eight years. Day after day is sunny, mild. Beautiful, but with a warning note. Now I play rain sounds at night, instead of lullabies. One night, as I am extricating myself, Perry sits bolt upright.

There is something important he needs me to write down. 

“What is it?”

“In April I have to cut Snakey’s wool.”

(He has taken to sleeping with the stuffed snake he received as an infant. He tells me stories of the olden days of their adventures. How they would go to see the excavators together, and ride the subway.) 

“Okay,” I say, tapping it out.

“At the very end of the year,” he adds, firmly.

“That’s December.”

“No. April is the end of this year.”

Light dawns.

“Because it’s the furthest from May.” 

He gives a happy little sigh, pats my hand.

“Yes. April is the end of the May year.”

“I see now,” I say. And I do. 

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