Chickenhearted? Yes, Guilty

My two biggest childhood fears were long shots at best: bear attacks and appendicitis. Since my neighborhood was built in 1950, every tree, bush, and errant twig were leveled to fit as many Cape Cod houses on a block as possible. I barely saw a squirrel.

Appendicitis never got any closer to me than the boy across the street, who was rushed to the hospital by ambulance after hours of crying in mysterious pain. He was carried out his front door on a stretcher as we congregated and watched in horror. Later we heard this organ we hadn’t even known existed had “exploded” inside him. Although he recovered in a few days, I knew it was just a matter of time before appendicitis came looking for me, too.

I grew up and my fears changed. Then they changed again. Now I look around and — is it just me or — are there more and more things to cause concern? Diseases that start out with a little innocent tingling in your foot. Isis. Choking on a cough drop. Tsunami. Salmonella. Snakes. Wild fires. And what if you really do fall and you can’t get up?

I am guilty of being chickenhearted.

Like this: I called for a cab at 6:30 AM, and here it is. Why do I look at the cab’s tires before I get in? I tell myself although — yes — they do look bald, I’m sure cab companies have standards. The inside of the cab smells like vomit. Once we’re on the highway, I can see the speedometer reaching insane speeds.

I say, helpfully, “We’ve got plenty of time for my flight. We’re good on time.” That’s as direct as I will get because the driver is scowling now. She eats her breakfast  — a bag of Doritos and Diet Coke between her legs — as she steers with her left index finger and thumb.

“Have you worked all night?”

“Yep.” I could hear my family saying, “Bald tires and excessive speed, and it appears the driver may have fallen asleep while eating,” when people at my wake ask how I died.

But I don’t die, it turns out. So far so good.

I’m taking off my shoes and jacket at Airport Security when an unmistakable smell comes wafting by me. Vodka. This is not the 6-hour old stuff that oozes out of a person’s pores from the night before. This is a freshly slammed-down shot now filling the air. I hope it’s the passenger in front of me in the Hawaiian shirt. I sure don’t want it to be someone whose job it is to look in purses and find knives.

Ever since Amtrak starting saying, “If you see something, say something,” I’m always at the ready to scream, “Here! Here’s something you need to check out!” I give the TSA guy a good whiff as I go by. All clear.

The plane takes off and touches down smoothly, so the luck that’s been with me all my life is still holding. I take a deep breath and tell myself to trust the universe more. Because the only bears I’ve seen lately are on Discovery Channel. And after all these years, I still have my original appendix, which shows no sign of exploding. Of course it’s still early.

[I’m taking a blogging break next week to work on my book, which is nearing first draft stage. See you back here on October 1st.]

He’s About My Age

He’s about my age. His white hair is long and full, but not so much that he looks like he never found his way home from a Grateful Dead concert. I see him walking through the neighborhood all the time.

Today he’s on the other side of the street, and my grandson and I are playing in the front yard. He hasn’t looked in our direction all summer, but now he says something I can’t quite hear.

“Excuse me?” I say.

He bounds across the road so he can repeat his first message, which may or may not have been purposely mumbled just so he could bound across the road.

He begins in mid-sentence. We figure out we both graduated from high school in 1968 and ask the usual questions about where we grew up, where we went to school. He asks about my grandson. “What’s his name? How old is he?”

Even though he didn’t plan this conversation (maybe) he has a lot to say. At some points he’s just lost in his own narrative. At others, his gaze lingers on me, and I wonder if he’s flirting. It’s so hard to know when hormones aren’t flying through the air like they used to.

But yes, I think the neighbor likes me.

“What’s your favorite band of all time?” he asks.

“Rolling Stones,” I say.

He approves of my answer and starts telling me about a movie starring Mick, something I never heard of because — truthfully — I stopped caring deeply about Mick a while ago. In the middle of his story, my grandson decides it’s time for lunch. The neighbor and I say our goodbyes.

Me: “I guess I’ll see you around.”

He: “I guess you’ll have no choice.”

I’m a little uneasy the rest of the afternoon, worrying he might be at his house now, thinking Damn. What an attractive woman. What if the next time I see him he pulls out a Rolling Stones boxed set from behind his back, or invites me to dinner?

A week later, I spot him in the supermarket, on the other side of the produce aisle. My grandson is in the shopping cart seat, facing me, and I pretend to be telling him something interesting about cucumbers because I don’t want to get the neighbor’s hopes up if he sees me. I don’t want to look available, if that’s the right word for the way you can look in a supermarket when you’re this old and getting your grandson in the cart seat is the most physical thing you’ve done all day.

I’m thinking to myself, Ugh, I have to let him know that I’m just not interested. But before I know it, he has seen me, crossed over, and is standing in front of us, grinning.

“Oh, hi there,” I say.

He smiles big. He motions to my grandson and asks, “How old is he?” I’m a little confused. “What’s his name?” he asks. Again, old news, but I tell him.

I realize it’s not that he’s a bad listener and has forgotten the details of our talk on the sidewalk. He has no idea who I am.

On the way home, with my grandson chirping happily in the back seat about the cookie the bakery lady gave him, I feel the need to reach deep into my memory box.

I was 23, at a wedding, seated next to a man from Greece. He was dark and tall and brilliant. We danced. I’d had a lot of wine and had suddenly remembered what a fabulous dancer I was. At the table, as we talked, he looked deeply into my eyes, and we took almost-drunk turns being fascinating.

Hours later — home alone and in bed — I heard little pebbles glancing off my second-story window. He was standing in my front yard, bathed in moonlight.

“We’re not finished,” he said, “I want to know more.”

I go over the story a few more times — savoring a detail here and adding a new one there — until finally I’m ready to take it into old age with me.

“How’s that cookie?” I ask my grandson. I’m happy the rest of the way home.

The Cellist’s Wife and Me

Paul and I started looking for our own place for a couple of reasons. Paul’s mother rolled her eyes at everything we said. We were getting snubbed in the elevator, even by the man in the uniform whose job it was to make chatty small talk and push the buttons for us. We were done with the Apthorp.

We saw ourselves baking bread and sweating out hot nights in a crumbling walk-up apartment in the East Village where garbage pick-up might be iffy. But those apartments were scarce.

Finally, Paul’s mother called in a favor from friends, a couple she knew about 20 blocks away. He was a famous cellist and they owned a second, smaller apartment in their building, which they’d bought for their daughter. But she was in Barcelona, taking pottery classes and drinking white cava in the afternoons, and it didn’t look like she’d be home soon. It was ours to rent.

The good news: it was closer to Columbia and Harlem.

The bad news: it was on Riverside Drive and the cellist and his wife were filthy rich. We couldn’t lose a doorman or an elevator operator no matter what we did.

Paul was pleased that at least our apartment only had two windows. They faced the brick wall of the next building, a few feet away. It always seemed like it was 4 PM on a cloudy day no matter what the weather.

We were firm in the set-up of our new space. No furniture in the living room, just a few mattresses, so we could invite friends in to discuss anything that needed discussing and give them a place to sleep if they needed one.

After a few weeks, even Paul tired of the dreariness, and we tacked up some posters. And once the walls didn’t look like a subway station anymore, we bought Indian print bedspreads for the mattresses. We thought a chair or two wouldn’t really make us total sell-outs, as long as they weren’t comfortable.

Paul still wanted to pretend we were living in a corner of the Port Authority. The irony weighed on me in a pre-war building with a doorman, but six months into the relationship, I had a deep-pocket investment. I had dropped out of college to be with him, much to the anguish of my parents. They wondered if I’d ever amount to anything without a college diploma. They didn’t love the sex part either.

Once a month I took the elevator to the top floor to pay our rent. The cellist’s wife always seemed to be cooking when I arrived, often wiping her hands with a dish towel as she answered the door.

“Let me get you a receipt,” she’d say as she padded barefoot to her desk. This always gave me time to study the photographs on the baby grand piano, arranged in a clever pattern that made you think it was haphazard. One was of the cellist standing arm in arm with Pablo Casals on a beach. In another he was shaking hands with President Kennedy.

Their living room was full of leather sofas and cozy armchairs upholstered in yellow and blue patterned stripes and checks. Tall potted plants soaked up all the sun that came through their windows. I thought of asking her if I could pay the rent every two weeks — just to be in that space more often and absorb her graciousness — but I sensed it would be taken as weird. And more than anything, I wanted her to be happy to see me on the first of the month.

When word got out we weren’t living at the Apthorp anymore, Paul’s friends from all parts of the country began knocking. Some would stay the day, but others might still be underfoot a week later.

By early spring, everything about Manhattan exhausted me. I hated crowds, I discovered, which made sharing a small island with eight million people a little tricky. While Paul still wanted to cure the world, I’d discovered walking through Bloomingdales at lunchtime did wonders for my middle-of-the-day blues. And then there was my platonic love affair with the cellist’s wife and her glorious living room.

One night someone named “Chicago Tom” was giving a mini-lecture about the travesty of the Yale University endowment. He was eating the last of the chili I was hoping to have for dinner. I went to the bedroom, closed the door, and turned on “Let’s Make a Deal.” The discussion from the living room droned on. I was hungry. My days in the Revolution were over.

The next morning I said out loud what I’d been thinking for weeks. “I’m tired of your friends.” It didn’t go over well.

I decided a college degree wouldn’t be such a smudge on my character after all. I called my parents.

Two weeks later my father — on time as always — pulled up in front. I would stay with my parents for a few weeks and then get back to Cortland for summer school. We started loading my belongings into the back of the station wagon. I was weepy. Paul was, too.

“Maybe we should reconsider,” one of us said, but I don’t remember which one. He let go of me. I got in the car.