Monday, June 14, 2010

The school at dawn

The night before the triathlon is almost festive. Like the night before Christmas, you go to bed early and put yourself to sleep thinking magic thoughts. I mulled the question, “What if the run is really hot again? How can I think my way through it?” The night was full of anticipation.

I dreamed about the children I helped raise, how I left them, how it wasn’t up to me. I woke up miserable. I thought, “I will tell myself, Feel how hot it is. Feel how my muscles work so well, so fast when it’s hot. Feel how my joints are loosest when it’s hot. I’m fast when it’s hot. I’m a well-oiled machine running hot.”

Amy woke beside me, restless because the hotel was noisy. I mumbled what our coaches had told us. “It doesn’t matter if we sleep badly tonight. Last night was what mattered, and we had a good night’s sleep.” She turned on the light to read for a while.

I dreamed I was outdoors before dawn barefoot, in a cotton negligee. I was on my way home, but there, suddenly, was a school of black and brown teenagers on the hillside as the first light was breaking, singing and clapping and chanting affirmations. I am somebody! I slipped between their rows.

I thought, It’s good for them to do affirmations. They probably benefit, but wouldn’t they benefit more from sleeping another hour and a half? I thought, I have to start swimming right away. None of this waiting for everyone else to get out of the way. I have to start swimming with the crowd.

I woke earlier than necessary, listened to the hotel noises, felt the hotel sheets, thought, “I’ll say, Feel how hot it is! Feel how my muscles move so fast when it’s hot.”

It was 4 am. In the room next door, the people who had been up until 11, who had fiddled with the connecting door before going to bed, got a wake-up call. As one mind, Amy and I said, “Not fair! Our revenge was going to be to wake them up at 4:30!”

I felt the sheets. I reminded myself, “I have to limit my rests in the swim and in the run. I have to be disciplined. Only five short walk periods in the run. Maybe ten breaths. In the swim, turn over and kick, only the minimum, maybe ten breaths. Then back into the freestyle stroke.”

The phone rang. Our wake-up call. We made our preparations and were out of the hotel with our transition bags, a cup of hot coffee, and our bikes by 5:15. At the reservoir parking lot, people with blinking flashlights, women smiling at each other, getting their bikes off the back of their cars, riding down to the reservoir. First light was breaking.

We split up in the transition area, racked our bikes, got our things arranged on our towels. Found familiar faces, found the porta-potties. Snacked and drank. I stripped down, finally, in the cool dawn light, and walked down the hill to the swim start, barefoot and blind, to join the crowd, my orange swim cap in one hand, happily not clashing with my blue bathing suit, my disposable bottle of water in the other.

The familiar voice started in my head: I am NOT going to put this cap on, these goggles on, and get in THAT water and swim OUT THERE. (Where are the course markers?) The crowd chatted and assessed the water, the course, the weather, their goggles. I shared my bottled water with a woman who wore an orange cap. I swung my arms, jumped up and down, stretched my lower back. And the voice in my head kept on saying, I am NOT. I put on my orange cap and my goggles, moved forward with the other orange caps, watched the green caps before us splash away. I am NOT. You’ve gotta be kidding!

Officiating there on the dock was our jovial coach Dave yelling, “Get in the water, get wet all the way, ladies!” I squatted down in the gray water, gave a thought to all the women who were no doubt peeing in the water around me. I put my face in and blew out. Cold! I sputtered. Repeat. Still so cold. Again. Damn, no good. Again. Okay, better. Again. Better. . .

“. . .Three! Two! One!” Then with an awkward leap, the orange-capped crowd became a school, splashing silver like smelt, slipping evolutionary bounds, slipping through the water. I thought, “None of that waiting for everyone else to get out of the way. I have to start swimming with the school.” And so I did.


Hugging her I remembered the apple orchards of my childhood. It was she who made the fat, round apples hang on the blurry trees with her broad, flat brush and a springy knife that laid the soft, glistening colors on and scratched into them.

The smell of turpentine was more familiar to me than apples, as familiar to me as the smell of my brother's head or the sound of blue jays bragging in the tall tulip trees.

She owned the sunniest places in the house. She hummed while she worked with her untouchable bottles and tubes. Turpentine greeting me at the door meant she was floating in happy distraction.

I was invited to lie on the floor with my own colors—colors that had their own delicious smell. Curious, each had the same smell, although the colors were different. I could make a house and a path, cut the path into the paper, and have a little person pay a visit, walking right through the apple orchard and knocking at the front door. Or I could draw a mountain with a train climbing it, cut a track into the paper, CH-ch-ch-ch, CH-ch-ch-ch.

Now, her shoulders are frail as I hug her, and no matter what I do, the apples, the orchard, the train remain outside of me, flat objects, but then, surrounded by light and oils and her humming, I could hear the knock on the door, feel the pull of the train, taste the apples.


Cymbopogan, maybe:
A flattened bell shape, an ancient Greek bell, probably to chime or gong or call the vestal virgins to the hearth, the Oracle to speak, the worshippers to witness mysteries. A cymbal crashing into its twin, or the shape of the sound, thrilling, drawing in.

But no. Cymbopogan:
Camel grass, citronella grass, lemon grass, the sweet aromatic breath of the bitter ship of the desert, the insect repellant sweat of the dromedary in a desert full of fleas, the fragrant feed at the end of the searing sand, the surprise rising on air at the end of the surprising spit on your shirt. The shifty slave's bite, scented grace.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Now I see how she felt for others
with generous heart and gentle tongue
Sun rises and noons through pine and apple leaves
had dappled her hands,
thinned her once-pert lips, public and private,
dried the honey dew off her blushing cheeks,
sucked the smooth and plump from everywhere,
leaving the delicate, fragile as tundra.
So who was she to aim a darted tongue,
turn up a nose? No one
No one might ever see her again
that acute arbiter, that accomplished hostess,
for the lover she was
that temptress in what way was she still a wife?
In what life did she last sink deeply into
being deeply sunken into?