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Kristen Elde KRISTEN ELDE, an editor by trade, lives and writes in Brooklyn. Her words have appeared in the Web publications McSweeneys, The Northville Review, Pindeldyboz, and Word Riot, in addition to such magazines as BUST, Health, Runner's World, Running Times, Shape, The Writer, and Writer's Digest. She's also one half of the team behind a wildly unpopular parody food blog, to which she loves contributing.

Recent Work By Kristen Elde

In a town by a sea of great affinity,
people live to begin;
pull out all stops
in the name of origin.

Here, a boy almost seven,
his guests poised to plunge
on three. Once submerged
the party unfurls: limbs lick blue,
strokes feathery with memory;
cheers catch, bubble,
laughter mute on faces.

 

The winter storm warning is in full effect,
high winds and 12 to 16 inches
of accumulation expected in the next 24 hours.

The weatherman’s voice curls around the room
like a spell, comfort to all present.
Mom on the couch hooks ochre yarn,
halfway to sweater arm, Dad and one daughter
lean over the counter with the Times,
sharing the occasional snippet,
while a second daughter sits at the table
with a cup of chamomile tea.

We advise you to cancel or at least postpone
any imminent travel plans.

There are frequent checks, long looks
out the front window as Mom, Dad, daughters,
fleece wrapped and intimate
with private affliction, behold such pristine beauty,
vaguely pleased by agreement between
what’s seen and what’s heard (their lives short this),
that voice mild as cows at pasture.

We’ve got you covered.

Such pleasure in being dry and warm
in this minute; faintly aware
the slim barrier holding tempest at bay.
The daughter at the table finds herself pulled
thousands of bedtimes back: rapt, charmed
by a prophet Mom, forecaster of everything,
who reads aloud books about a family of talking bears,
determined little engine, girl called Madeline.
This daughter can still hear herself repeating
on Mom’s leaving the words of the bunny
who bids goodnight to kittens and mittens
and clocks and socks, hears now hint
of prayer before inevitable surrender,
chill of the unknown: shapes transformed,
moon rising in the window.

She’s in her wheelchair
when we first see her,
her frame too frail to support
a precipitous weight gain.
With her back to us,
she looks through a picture window,
unmoving as we enter,
our steps cautious, voices low.

It’s my boyfriend and I,
my dad and stepmother.
Our greetings rise in pitch
and my grandmother turns,
smiles: “Oh, well look at this.”
I hug her sloped shoulders,
place a kiss on her cool cheek;
others do their version.

We chat about the usual—
where we’re living these days,
folks we’ve seen, “those darn
Mariners, just can’t catch
a break.” I circle the dim room,
pausing to handle and remark
on the odds and ends
that line every available surface—

The sock monkey, Beanie Babies,
plastic Kewpie dolls; model cars
and a tiny 747, testament
to my grandmother’s Boeing days.
And the bulletin boards!
Old news clippings,
photos of first husband
and every child and grandchild,

Reno and Maui trips
with her last love, long dead.
“I don’t know how I wound up
with all this junk,” she says,
her bright eyes a giveaway
(she knows, loves it).
Then, with conversation steering
to a close, comes a story

Of a pregnant cat my grandmother
would watch for hours at a time
some days, sit at her window
and just watch this cat
as it slunk around the bushes
across the street. Until one day
last week when she stopped appearing—
poof, gone.

“I’m just sure she went into those
bushes to have her kittens,
see. And I’m worried about her,
because you know I just haven’t
seen her and I’m afraid some-
thing might have happened.
I tell you I’ve been at that window
every day just waiting for her.”

We say our goodbyes shortly after.
From the parking lot, I glance
up to find my grandmother back
at her window, waiting anxiously
for that cat of hers to reemerge
a mother, as she, Grandma,
is a mother, as she will always
be a mother, even in dying.

When I first saw you, you were shuffling down the aisle of a crowded train, pausing every few seats to check in—

“How do I get to Myrtle?”

“How do I get to Myrtle?”

“How do I…”

I’ll admit to feeling a prick of annoyance (not another one), but it passed on realizing your compromised condition—a slight allover tremor, eyes milky with age. You were lost, and without assistance. When you got to where I was, it was time to step out. Thinking fast—Myrtle… Myrtle Avenue?—I said I could help you; I reached for your arm, and you gave it to me. As we stood together on the platform, I asked you for more, for anything. But all you could give was “Myrtle,” plus a few extras like “want” and “need,” conjuring an image of Myrtle not as place but as woman pined for. I consulted a subway map anyway, a matrix of colored strings to confuse the spriest of us. Pointing out various neighborhoods Myrtle Avenue traverses, I looked for signs—an affirming nod, flicker of recognition: home. None came. Instead, a new word, faint but there: “Lewis, Lewis and Myrtle.” Energized, I trailed a finger, inching east, and… Lewis. Lewis Avenue: a mere three complicated train transfers away. Daunted on your behalf, I did my best to explain the complexity of what awaited should you attempt again the train, next asking softly if you had money for a cab home. You were keeping up well enough, because you pulled out a billfold, which you opened and held open for me, revealing a brave sad emptiness. I told you it was okay, I could pay for your ride, and you followed me silently, slowly up the stairs and out into the circus that is downtown Brooklyn during rush hour. As you waited somewhere at my back, I watched cab after cab clear the intersection, every last one taken. An irrational desperation crept steadily in, erasing relationship woes, that problem at work, until the only thing left to care about was getting you out of all this. I chanced a quick look behind—your face, that impossible read—and a second later a yellow car was slowing at the curb. I filled in the driver, paying in advance, in approximate, and he gave you a kind smile, understanding. “We’ll getcha there.” You took some time getting situated, organizing your tired bones in that backseat, and I stood there wondering about so much… Your solemn “thank you” caught me unawares, struck deep, though I don’t believe it changed anything important.

Years out, certain evenings when I’m feeling lost, lived up, I take to Brooklyn’s quieter streets and think of you and our exchange. I hope you made it home alright,

home to your Myrtle.

A celebrated actress, locks swept up in a becoming twist, nude but for a string of Bulgari pearls, reclines in one of Hungary’s renowned thermal springs as the Danube rushes below. A continent away, a glinty-eyed boy of six without warning drops his trunks and aims his stream at the back of a pigtailed toddler splashing carefree in the Whitewater Wave Pool’s shallow end.

Wild, but both scenes are set in what’s termed a “water park,” the concept of recreational waterplay probably originating with the Hungarian model, a spa-like orientation shared by a number of contemporary European parks including Germany’s Swabian Springs, where it’s not about wave pools but, rather, saunas, steam stations, low-key bathing areas, and a snow-filled room in which guests get naked and roll around.

They—water parks in their various guises—have been around a while, first popping up in the 1950s, and these days if you aren’t within driving distance of at least one you’re in the minority. The U.S. hosts the largest water park market, and with a total of eighteen indoor parks the Badger State owns the title of Water Park Capital of the World, while Bloomington, Minnesota is home to the largest indoor facility in the country, The Water Park of America.

And now, something to keep in mind: Like construction paper art projects and the county fair, America’s water parks are probably best suited to that peeing kiddo, and, by necessity, his parents. Next-best suited may be his big sister, an eighth grader at Rivercrest High with a begged-for two-piece and the desire to take it public, especially when brooding Robert Pattinson types are slated to be in attendance.

Thirty-one-year-olds have less to gain. A bold assertion? Recent experience—last summer, Riverhead’s Splish Splash Water Park—combined with some targeted research suggests not, but for people who prefer to reach their own conclusions, be my guest. What follows is a rough idea of what you can expect to find.

1. Theme. Often character-driven, often ambiguous and pluralistic. While park designers may set out with an 18th-century Bavarian village in mind, subsequent expansion is likely to yield strange new modifiers: a snack hut with flying buttresses, say, or a changing room in the style of an Egyptian pyramid. Storybook imagery abounds, with brightly colored cottages housing souvenir visors, and oversized wooden lollipops inducing full-on meltdowns as five-year-olds plead for the real thing (incidentally, available at the cottage next door).

When it comes to actual attractions, design is more consistent. New Hampshire’s Whale’s Tale Waterpark features an eighty-five-foot, whale-shaped pool with underwater seating built into the tail, fins, and head; and rides are given names like Beluga Boggin’, Harpoon Express, Jonah’s Escape, and Whale Harbor. Dollywood’s Splash County in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee is Smoky Mountain-themed, and encourages visitors to follow the Big Bear Plunge with a deep-fried lunch served up at the Brush Fire Grill. Nestled in the Smokies between native firs and hemlocks, you’re sure to confuse the park’s man-made tubes for slick, rocky precipices, the swirling chemicals below for mountain-clean, class II rapids. (No.)

2. Attractions. There are three major components of any decent park. First and most obviously are the slides, which propel riders downward via straightaways or complicated twists in a jarring side-to-side motion that includes painful seam clearances where slide components meet, before terminating less than a minute later in turbulent turquoise waters. Second, there’s the wave pool. This attraction, screamingly popular, proves an exercise in patience as splashers young and old await the every-ten-minutes-or-so activation of an “accordion mechanism,” whereby a large quantity of water is quickly released into the pool’s far end, forcing an evening-out and some pretty terrific waves. (Let’s hope your hometown’s water park wasn’t New Jersey’s now-shuttered Action Park, with its accident-fraught wave pool. So it goes, twelve lifeguards were on duty at all times, and on busy weekends they were known to “save” as many as thirty people, compared to the one to two the average lifeguard might rescue in a typical season at the lake. While we’re at it, let’s also hope you weren’t one of two deaths by drowning in this aptly coined “grave pool”—though, if you were, thanks for reading; I hope the afterlife has included swimming lessons.)

And, not to be forgotten, the lazy river: a shallow, donut-shaped pool with a gentle current along which to laze on a blowup raft, can of High Life smuggled in/clutched at your own risk.

Other attractions include carnival fare like balloon darts, the ring toss, and five-pin bowling; and the long line I glimpsed at Splish Splash’s temporary tattoo booth drove home the compatibility of bikinis and lower-back ink. (A nice dolphin, perhaps?)

3. Lines. The hotter the longer, especially on weekends. During last year’s adventure, I waited forty-five minutes to reach the slides’ top steps, and, as implied, the payoff was hardly all that. Be warned: your back will ache, your legs will tire, and the cement will cook your feet. Good company helps; so does visual distraction. Take Mr. Carpet Back, whom I found myself standing behind on several occasions. Eye candy he was not, but the sheer implausibility of that much hair took my mind happily off my blisters-in-progress.

4. Skin. Taut, saggy, scarce, abundant. It’s everywhere, and it’s damn close. Most evident while standing in the aforementioned lines, it dips and sinks, dangles and bows in ways you just don’t see coming. At the water park, it’s all out in the open: with pride, shame, or some combination. And there ain’t no hiding behind a baggy T-shirt, either, for park management explicitly states that all riders must wear bathing suits. So if you’re prone to bouts of debilitating self-consciousness, best keep to the backyard. (Do they still make Slip ‘n’ Slide?)

5. Fashion missteps. Because like anywhere else, people choose wrong.

6. Primer on type 2 diabetes. On how to get it, that is. Everything is shot through with sugar, breaded, and fried—including the Diet Coke. Now, will it be Fry World, Chicken Coop, or Low Country Snacks?

7. Game.

Whoops

By Kristen Elde

Essay

One Friday morning, I was running the streets of Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighborhood when I tripped on some garbage and fell, bracing my fall with… my chin.

The sound was the worst: the dull internal clatter as top teeth met bottom. After lying prostrate in the middle of the dusty street for a split second, I scrambled to right myself. I made it to a sitting position and my thoughts went instantly to my mouth. My teeth: were they all there? A quick once-over with my tongue suggested they were. At the same time I brought my hand to my chin—but not before a nice crossing guard thrust a stack of napkins beneath it, urging me to apply pressure. “You hit the ground hard, honey. There’s blood—a lot of it.”

A dear friend, we’ll call him Dur, and I like to go around remarking—publicly, unapologetically, unselfconsciously*—on other people’s food. It’s a requirement that these people, our targets, be complete strangers: any old Joe and/or Sally out for happy hour or Sunday brunch with the gang.

Dur: “Those people on your right: tell the woman you really like the color of her drink.”

His halfhearted attempt to conceal is amusing and befitting, his high-octane “whisper” and flagrant nod in the direction of the targeted pair—two of maybe a dozen bar patrons including our group of five—on par with the seriously sub-serious nature of what’s about to go down.

Not that they’re noticing a speck of this, it’ll soon become clear, besotted (of love, not drink) as they will appear to be. But anyway.

Such is the task set before me.

“Sure, easy. Lemme just, you know.”

I’m giggling, suddenly back in sixth grade. I feign the sucking in of one deep, brave breath. Or, I take an actual breath, but it’s not, you know, real. Leaning in a little—

“Excuse me.” I’ve plunked myself squarely in the center of a not-me conversation. “I couldn’t help but notice your drink there,” I chance, nodding toward the sugar-rimmed bullseye. “I just really like the color.”

Behind me Dur titters, singeing the edges of our puny and ridiculous façade and leaving us that much closer to seeing our unsophisticated scheme reduced to an all-out play of juvenilia. But I refuse to lose to laughter; I will him neutralized.

And—

“Yeah, it’s a pretty color, huh? I was noticing that earlier actually. Such a nice deep red.”

Her smitten partner nods enthusiastically. “Totally.”

Our eyes connect, lips form why-not smiles, and that’s that.

Well, then.

Fast-forward ten minutes. A friend of Dur’s, Angela, a woman I’ve just met for the first time, declares herself next up.

“I know—I’ll ask if I can help myself to their nut bowl.”

Angela appears quite pleased with her expressed intent, and the rest of us are happy enough to goad her along.

“Haha, good one!” “Ohh, risky business!” “Yeah, do it!”

What ringmasters Dur and I fail to point out is that the nut bowl in question is a communal nut bowl, a nuts-at-no-cost nut bowl. Peanuts for (less than) peanuts, almonds on spec, a filbert free-for-all. (Know that filberts are basically hazelnuts? But then, when was the last time hazelnuts made an appearance in your bar’s communal nut bowl? Anyway.) 

What we fail to point out is—

Who cares? Angela’s hardly going out on a limb here, preparing as she is to solicit the lovebirds for that which is by definition already hers.

At any rate, the whole operation is fairly amusing, and a not unwelcome break from more usual conversational fare: Brooklyn real estate, Prospect Park’s Frisbee culture, von Trier’s latest throw-up fest.

Angela leaves her seat at the bar, saunters over.

“Hey there. Just wondering if it’d be okay if I had a few of those nuts.”

No surprise, she’s well-received.

“By all means, help yourself,” the flushed brunette replies, quick to pass the nuts. She smiles throughout; so does he.

End of (that) story. What had started with an earnest expression of (the frustrations of) self-consciousness—“I find myself thinking about how hard it is for me to imagine doing anything ‘off,’ anything, you know, bizarre and inappropriate just for the hell of it, and it just seems so ridiculous, like kind of a shame”—had culminated in a couple of flimsy, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempts at challenging it. And they’d both been flimsy, of course, regardless my grandiose response to Angela’s pass.

As for why they were flimsy, there is some disparity here. Because while Angela’s solicitation was run-of-the-mill, even expected given the bar’s layout/positioning of the nuts, mine at least had the potential for more. For instance, had I insisted on a more straightforward approach, i.e., no surrounding text—simply, craning in close: “I really like the color of your drink, heh”—and if my target had been less, you know, distracted, and if I’d lacked certain physical markers suggestive of innocence, harmlessness, naiveté, maybe then I would’ve had a more solid go at it.

But it played out as it did, which is to say, it played out as it always does for Dur and me: nicely. Good-naturedly. (Drat.)

Part of it, I think, is a default tendency to maintain a sort of social homeostasis—“break the news gently”; “let down lightly”—that desire that people have to present difficult or awkward things in the most pleasant/neutral way possible. And it’s damn hard to override, including on that rare occasion when achieving and maintaining awkwardness is actually sought.

The other week Dur and I, just us two this time, were enjoying happy hour at a quiet Carroll Gardens restaurant. Dur gestures toward the only other occupied table in the place.

“Sit down with them at their table and ask how their dinner was.”

Notice a trend here? Like, that I’m always on the receiving end of these undertakings? Pssh. As if I’m ten years old again: Round Table Pizza dinner with the family, only this time in the shoes of my little brother. (“Hey Kevin, I dare you to go kick that lady in the back of the knee. Do it! I’ll give you the rest of my Cadbury eggs…”) Anyway!

Quite frankly, I’m happy to be on said end. I accept this latest proposal.

With one caveat.

“Hey you guys,” I announce myself, sliding in alongside a big-haired thirtysomething. Almost in the same breath, presumably so as to beat embarrassment: “I’m wondering, how were your meals? See, I’m a food writer [ahem, fib/caveat] and I’m putting together a review on this place,” I finish, sweeping the room with my arm.

Two of the four patrons, their friend-family appearing as five for the time being, chime in immediately.

“I had the lamb salad and it was absolutely delicious, with these olive-y croutons and fried capers.”

Speaker #1, an eager blonde woman, next takes a stab at reviewing her friend’s (lover’s? brother’s?) selection: “He had the Rhode Island scallops and it came with—”

“It was dressed in an apple cider vinaigrette that was just lovely.”

Whoops. Seems someone likes to speak for himself. Anyway.

All four diners weigh in, not one of them questioning, verbally or otherwise, my lack of a notebook and writing instrument. For my part, I channel my inner journalist, affecting an air of inquisitiveness and unyielding concentration while effectively dismissing all mental visions involving the (surely) glinty-eyed, lip-twitching Dur at my back. In other words—

FAIL. Yet again. Damn default.

It’s instructive, I think, to consider the best-case scenario here: I succeed in presenting as “inarguably creepy.” Then what?

The answer: I don’t know. I just haven’t gotten that far yet, and I don’t feel like this is one of those things that lends readily to forecasting. What I do think I know, though, is what’s at the root of these self-/Dur-assigned “challenges,” and therefore I can speculate as to the best-case outcome of the best-case scenario.

Essentially, I think it’s about defying structure: a reaction to the rigidity imposed on us—both by ourselves and by the collective—all as we seek to carve out uniquely satisfying lives. And in my particular case, it isn’t any one thing, but more like an impression: an at-times almost physical sensation of walking with walls on. (Damnit, I WILL discuss my burgeoning spirituality with you, friend with whom it’s never been easy to discuss such matters. Or—bam: wall.)

And re: best-case outcome, though observing out loud the aesthetics of another’s beverage may seem less than germane, it’s really not. Not for me. Because—and this is related—if yelling-slash-singing “You Are My Sunshine” at the top of my goddamn lungs on a packed subway platform** causes the aforementioned walls to bend and bow, even a little bit, well, I’ll drink to that.


*Right.
**Daring my boyfriend, who some time ago came to a sweet understanding of this “thing” of mine, to commit such acts has become a way of projecting my own “stuff” onto another. So like, me: “Come on, babe, if I were to offer you $200 out of hand to go sit on that person’s lap, wouldn’t you do it?” Him: “No.”

I live where toddlers cram spongy Cheerios into jellyfish mouths, trip and lurch like damp little drunks, and hone elimination skills on a squat plastic potty. I’m not actually present for any—my day-hour rituals are of a more droning and fluorescent nature—but some things are safely assumed.

Enter evening, when the babes retreat, the light dims, and the chorus lulls.

That’s the Monday through Friday breakdown. There are also weekends: two days per when the sauce in the sippy cup sparks spontaneous flits and twirls and lascivious text parades in lieu of wobbly grievances in the vein of “Milo drank my appul juuuice! Waaahhh!!”

It’s a whale of a deal, this only-in-New York living arrangement, with a couch-change price tag, eggshell walls you lose on the way up, appliances that glitter and clink expensive newness, and a porcelain bathtub with mineral curves so pure and sweet and sad that to bathe is to go back.

See also: a small unit set apart from the rest—a tidy afterthought with a big sure lock. But who’s fooled? My bedroom: porous like nobody’s business.

I.

It’s pleasing to three-year-old Me, the amount of light, real and artificial, filling the room right now, and as I look down, my legs floating off the edge of the soft sinking couch that feels against my bottom just like the one we have at home, I watch my feet, striped in purple and red because of the socks I picked out myself and put on earlier. These aren’t the only stripes. There are others, ones made by the sunlight coming in through the window that is not a regular window like the ones at home, but a window with something on it so that the light makes lines as it enters the room. These lines go in a different direction than the ones on my socks, which makes little boxes on the tops of my feet. I keep on looking at my feet, because I think the lines look neat all together as they are, and a little like the floor in the bathroom at home, where I remember standing and looking up up up at my dad brushing his teeth. I wonder when I will see my dad again. It probably won’t be very long from now, because I remember wondering the same thing many times before and always, every time, I have seen my dad again. Suddenly there is a picture in my head of some quiet water, and I think maybe it is the water from earlier.

II.

This arrangement is all wrong. It’s like my 31-year-old thighs, parallel to the floor and about three feet above it, are popping out of cartoon jail, wedged between three skinny pillars: pinched, chafed, wrong. My lower abdominal region is also constricted, made concave by a jutting, hard-plastic table-for-one. Suddenly I’m aware of airplane sounds, not from actual planes but from the mouths of women who hover above me, their lips moving in rapid succession. And suddenly—food! It hits me like a full-on air assault, rubber-tipped spoons loop-di-looping fast and furious toward my mouth, depositing quivering iridescent globs of creamed corn, mushy peas, mashed carrots and sweet potatoes and neon squash, next egg custard, berry medley, brown-ripe banana, pureed pears, applesauce, honeyed yogurt, more banana… I take it all in, too, determined not to make a mess. But I’m horrified, the whole thing is horrifying and I want it to stop. My stomach is really hurting and I’m so worked up I can’t even cry. Desperate for relief, I transform myself into an eel, sliding easily out from the chair and slithering to the center of the room, where the best toy is laid out: the giant road rug, complete with crosswalks and traffic islands and signs to the zoo. Coasting at leisure, I spy in the top right corner a small dark clump of trees, and, pausing for no more than a second, I disappear silently inside it.

 

On waking, wholeness. Precious.

Filling In

By Kristen Elde

Memoir

April 2007

“This isn’t spackle, it’s caulk,” he says, rolling his eyes as I hand over the plastic cylinder. But my oversight has brought him relief, clear in the quick release of his breath, the immediacy of his smile. It’s an error he might have predicted, which brings with it some comfort, and neither of us knows how long we have before these sorts of things stop registering.

As I meet his eyes, comfort is exceeded by disorientation. I can’t navigate my misstep. I don’t want it to mean anything, but I can’t help worrying that it’s somehow prophetic. I scan his face for explanation (I knew what I needed; what happened?) and think I read doubt. Quick, recover: “God, dumb. I’ll run back.”

Looking down at his hand: “No, it’s fine–toothpaste should work okay.”

Just over a month ago we’d reached our end, culmination of six years of relationship, a careful history resembling the layout of my new home, its length through the center, its bulk at each end. As of today, this is where I live: a subterranean, windowless unit with warped floors and a troubling echo.

Eventually, I am crouching at one end of the apartment, while he stands at the other.

He had offered to move, even insisting that I be the one to keep our address. Drowsy with grief and vulnerable to suggestion, I’d come close to taking him up on it. But in the end, the walls had driven me out, their glossy gray coat still wet with memories of naked limbs stretching, straining; trim brushes saturated and spilling over with excess pigment; drop cloths made sticky in our haste.

I’m organizing my books, an effort I’ve always found taxing. I’m annoyed, unable to establish a system within the constraints of my new bookcase. There are the obvious distinctions–poetry, fiction, nonfiction, instructional, etc.–but I know from experience that this isn’t enough. The dissimilarity in the books’ dimensions is a problem, because it means that the relief will be jagged, and that some of the volumes won’t fit vertically at all, that they will have to be stacked horizontally. I could always leave them out, but included in this group are several that I have yet to read, and I know that if I tuck them away somewhere, there’s a decent chance I’ll forget about them.

In the end, it’s fiction and poetry up top, nonfiction and graphic novels one down, Norwegian language books and those on writing technique and “selling yourself” on the bottom shelf. Also on the bottom, the dreaded stacks, which I’ll try to ignore just enough.

We are not talking, nor is there music playing. The only sound is the whirring overhead: one fan per end, per each of us. I am not feeling the old pressure to carry us, or to consent to be carried, but I don’t know how much of this has to do with the hallway that obscures him from me, my hang-up with the books, his makeshift spackling…

I don’t feel bad, having him help me out. He’s made it clear he wants to be involved, not because he feels he owes me anything, but because it’s his nature to step in, because he cares for me, because, maybe, he would like to see me a little bit stuck. “I want to be a part of your new place”: It’s the sort of thing you might expect someone in his position to say, and I like the sound of it. As if everything is going according to plan. Besides, part of me likes the idea of being a little bit stuck, and the idea of him wanting me to be.

We cross paths several times over the next couple of hours, though we remain for the most part absorbed in our respective tasks. I move between boxes, manning the placement of towels, clothes, utensils. He’s still going to town on the walls, filling holes large and small, some gaping with the loss of heavy screws, others as negligible as the thumb-tacked poster/calendar/to-do list that once hid them. Glancing over at him intermittently, I think of past starts, fresh addresses, and I retrace my footsteps, my family’s footsteps, opening, closing, opening doors that would reveal so much more a year out than they ever did when I lived behind them.

I reach for a hanger, sliding onto it a dress I’d bought the day before we split. It’s a frilly turquoise thing, and I feel embarrassed looking at it. But the fan above has become a lawnmower pushed along by a neighbor, the sensible hum of its motor reaching around the side of our house and into the backyard, where my brother and I are on our backs in the grass, pointing out mythical creatures as they shape-shift worlds above us.

It’s time to stop. We’re both exhausted, drooping beneath the day’s physical demands, as well as, in my case, an independence that only makes me uneasy, that I want to be able to sleep off. The plan (still with the plans) is for him to spend the night, the first night, here with me. I’d been the one to bring this up, getting it out of the way as soon as I had a move-in date. Once confirmed, I’d felt immediately better, confident we were going about things systematically. Plus, I’d wanted him to know what I would be like in bed from now on: the views I would have, where my feet would go, the last thing I’d see, on my back, looking up, before I dreamed. And then there was the long, horizontal hug to look forward to, our last before everything went vertical.

We give it a shot: parting the sheets, bending into each other, easily naked. But, sensitive to the storm of dust particles we’d kicked up earlier, he can’t get comfortable. An hour in, the sneezing still hasn’t lifted and he decides to sleep at home instead, saying he’ll return the following night for a make-up. Okay. I’m surprised at the ease I feel in putting this step off, a willingness to give up tonight for tomorrow. Dressed, he kisses me on the mouth and walks for a long time down the hallway, so long that I, approaching sleep with the ease of a newborn, just barely manage to hear the door close behind him.

The next morning, a Saturday, I am sitting on my new sofa, bare legs crossed, knees just clearing the edges of the center cushion. Without music or TV or a second voice to bring out my own, the whole scene feels suspiciously Zen, and while in theory I like this, in practice it’s, I decide, a total sham. I tell myself to get up and make some noise, dance around, cry, whatever. I settle on breakfast, and the sounds that come with preparing it.

Back on the couch, now with a nice loud bowl of granola, something on the opposing wall catches my attention. A dried glob of Peppermint Crest, with tiny raised points where fingertips, his, had failed to brush it smooth. How am I supposed to paint over this shit? I watch my irritation grow in proportion to the number of instances I see around me: dozens of little white crowns, jutting into the room’s center, imposing a topography I am not pleased with. I’m pissed, actually, and I can’t help but think of this as an act of sabotage.

Even so, an understood thing about maps is that they’re always changing, expected to go with the flow, to adapt in the aftermath of war, peace, discovery, plate tectonics. And so, razor blade in hand, I take to the walls, slicing into the hardened gum, chipping away at it as drifts of bleached slivers collect around the baseboard. Before long I’m in a groove, leveling toothpaste with real acuity, hills to plains, with none of the jagged cuts of an hour ago. I am completely sober, but I feel the way I do after a couple glasses of wine: permeable, willing, warm behind the eyes. I angle too sharply into the next crown, withdrawing my hand to reveal a good-sized recess, which I don’t fill, but leave behind as a reminder of what I have yet to chart.

compulsion
n.
1c./1d. An irresistible impulse to act, regardless of the rationality of the motivation. / An act or acts performed in response to such an impulse.

I, a full-tilt Virgo, have been inclined since the tender age of five, back when my chore of choice was folding laundry, keen (hell-bent?) on matching corner to corner, edge to edge, of The Wonderfully Right-Angled Bath Towel, to observe an indulgent amount of order in the course of a day. I’ve never really seen this as an impediment, however, considering the routine straightening of pictures, aligning of chairs, and, yes, still the fastidious towel folding, have never, like, axed friendships or lost me jobs or sent lovers fleeing in abject horror. At most/worst, these and other related behaviors have brought about the conspicuous rearranging of my office desk fixtures at the hand(s) of knowing coworkers. And that’s just kinda funny, you know? (Not that said fixtures aren’t promptly and vigorously returned to their rightful homes. Heh.)

Anyway, yeah: I’m scrupulously neat and I’m okay with it. It evens me out.

My friend Jenn has similar inclinations when it comes to linin’ shit up.

“My office/desk must be in order when I leave for the night. For example, when I worked in a law firm and had an entire room to myself, I could not leave at night unless the guest chair was angled just right and the pillow on top was fluffed and perfectly centered. Stacks of paper on my desk or side tables had to be so that all of the edges lined up exactly.”

Like me, Jenn covets the tension-relieving powers of a color-coded bookca—wha? Ur…

“It’s totally satisfying. When things in my spaces, especially my work spaces, become momentarily the opposite (i.e., disordered), I am physically tense and emotionally cranky. When things get back to order, I am at peace.”

And even though “things in order” doesn’t always equate with straight-up efficiency—“sometimes it makes me lose track of items because I order them for the sake of order itself and not for the purpose of later finding things”—Jenn says that chasing down “one clean line of papers’ edges” isn’t a bother. She doesn’t mind it at all.

“It makes me feel like I have control.”

Which I totally get. And as long as behaviors such as these outlie the parameters of certain diagnostic criteria, I say so be it: Let the wild ordering rumpus continue!

My friend Sandy has a thing of a different nature—definitely irrational, somewhat irresistible, and freakin’ adorable—a thing she has no name for but can logically be termed “crack jumping.” In her words:

“When I’m riding in a car and there are seams or cracks in the road, or if there aren’t any but there are driveways and intersections and crosswalks, I think of the ‘step on a crack, break your mother’s back’ thing. And since I can’t ‘step’ over the crack, I instead shift my body weight so as to mimic jumping over it. I also like to think of it as some weird sort of rhythmic exercise: up and down, up and down.”

Asked if this is a behavior she’s ever consciously tried to reign in, the woman’s emphatic.

“When I decide to do it or notice that I’m doing it, I just don’t stop. I’ve never even thought about it—it’s too fun. Actually, I think I may have tried stopping before, but it’s kind of hard to so I don’t bother. Anyway, it’s such a little thing. And I can carry on complete conversations while doing it, no problem.”

The word “quirk” dawns on me, and I’m surprised it didn’t occur off the bat. A logical descriptor—“a peculiarity of action, behavior, or personality”—and with an easy cuteness about it.  Yet I miss the specificity of, the appeal to mechanics in “an irresistible impulse to act, regardless of rationality.” It seems so… human. Especially if amended slightly to read “an irresistible impulse to act or think, regardless of rationality.”

Another friend, Matt, wrote me about his “number thing”: irrational and irresistible and (potentially) satisfying as hell.

“I am the proud owner of a Zenith DVD-2200 model DVD player—gift from my parents, Christmas 1999. In what I guess is kind of a throwback nod to the previous generation’s dominant home video technology, the VCR features an extremely large and absurdly bright digital display on its face, showing DVD chapter, time expired, and a small, rather unconvincing two-frame animation of a disc, spinning. That’s neither here nor there, except for the fact that its size and brightness make it kind of distracting, in the dark, when I’m trying to catch a flick. The point, really, is that I often become mesmerized looking for patterns in the display’s numbers. Sequences are good; the most basic is also one of the most satisfying—1:23:45. Sadly, our silly base-60 clock makes a long Fibonacci string impossible; 0:11:23 is there, but I’m sure that a decimal clock would provide a real adrenaline-loaded, fight-or-flight-type thrill.”

Surely. He continues, to dazzling effect—

“I also dig snagging a set of three primes, like 1:17:05 or 1:03:13. The good shit, though, is palindromes—1:00:01, 0:47:40. Every palindrome I catch is tasty, but my favorites are palindromes that are visual, not numeric. What I mean: on your everyday digital alarm clock/DVD player/whatever, each digit is rendered by selective illumination of an array of seven little bars, which means all the numbers look sort of boxy. One consequence of the boxy digits is that 2 and 5 are mirror images of each other: when that fucker hits 1:21:51 I experience a little symmetry-gasm that is approximately as satisfying as getting the perfect ratio of buttery crunchy sugary blueberry-crumb muffin and hot black coffee in one mouthful, while receiving oral sex and scratching the hell out of a fresh mosquito bite, damn the consequences. Anyway.”

Although even in the wake of an analogy like that, Matt notes that “visual palindromes” isn’t all blueberry-crumb muffins and blowjobs. It can also be downright distracting, leaving him “unable to give a film a fair shake because of it.”

My boyfriend Ray has anything but love for his own “making triplicates,” viewing the practice with utter contempt.

“I hate it. It’s only enjoyable in the sense that I’m completely used to it. It’s sometimes satisfying, I guess, but it’s like an addiction—not ultimately satisfying.”

Explained: “Nearly everything I take in (read, hear) undergoes a rapid metric scan, and that which fails to conform to a trisyllabic pattern I manipulate with additional words or sounds until it does. ‘Buy it tomorrow’ might become ‘buy it tomorrow yeah.’ Slightly less pressing is adherence to the typical beat emphasis of Western musical notation. So while ‘President Obama’ is good, ‘walking the dog today,’ with its front-loaded ‘measures,’ is great.”

Yikes. Problematic no doubt, but intriguing, foreign.

Me, I have this “looped thing,” which lies somewhere between neutral and positive on the experience continuum. It’s dropped off considerably in recent years, and in fact, I can’t recall the last time it surfaced. But man, back when it did routinely, it would really take hold. Strange and suggestive.

Basically, the only condition that had to be met in order for it to appear was some degree of out-of-it-ness, whether due to being drunk, stoned, sleepy, or otherwise impaired. In these scenarios, I would potentially encounter the following mental image: a small and slightly asymmetrical looping figure, which, some time after and no longer impaired, I came to associate with a whimsical bow like the one shown in the final illustrated square of a shoelace-tying tutorial, laces’ ends winking upwards. There was also a sortof “handshake” quality about the image, although this could’ve had more to do with the incredibly tactile nature of the thing as it presented in my brain (my “grip” on it was exquisite and complete and extremely satisfying) than with anything aesthetic.

Especially interesting personally was the implication of “something sought.” I would see the loop—see it and really scrutinize it—and always I would feel so close to figuring “it” out, to identifying and consequently deciphering the meaning behind this peculiar mental piece. It was an attempt to unlock something very familiar (and not simply due to past mental “sightings” of it), and I always came up just short. In the aftermath of the experience I would dig around more, though not being able to see the loop in the moment, the pursuit was for naught. At some point I convinced myself—or began playing with the thrilling and romantic notion—that if I could just get to the bottom of it, some profound self-discovery awaited me. I still like this idea.

Anyhow, it’s not really like crack jumping or visual palindromes or making triplicates; it’s hazier and less applied. But it has in common the recurrent and compelling nature of these behaviors and segues nicely into my friend Alex’s “spinning cube”: a persistent and poetic dream sequence.

“Every Christmas Eve from when I was a young child up through high school, I had the same dream—sometimes multiple times in the same evening as the adrenaline of anticipation coursing through my veins would dispel sleep as only it can in the mind of an only-child aware of the imminent prospect of tearing open presents! It was the simplest thing—gradations of gray, geometric, atmospheric—a cube of indeterminate size rotating top-like, spinning on one corner. It was if this cube had everything: untapped power and yet irresistible force, hypnotic slowness yet palpable menace, perfect smoothness of surface and yet a sense that it’d be made of the softest fabric if I could just touch it.

“If anything it seemed a simple monochromatic representation of desire. If my breath accelerated on account of impatience, frustration, I have a feeling it started spinning faster and approaching, but there was something in me that knew that if I let it get out of control, my self-preservation-drive would kick in and I would have to wake myself up, thus sabotaging the distorted dream time speeding me towards presents. I think it was those moments of subconscious and rational sides battling, that I could feel myself either encompassing or being encapsulated by the figure. It was another type of heartbeat almost.”

Asked about his feelings toward the spinning cube years later, Alex recalls a marked anxiety.

“I’d say it was more distressing than anything else. … On these nights of heightened anticipation, I was demanding something, trying to bend my subconscious to my greedy little will and most of the time I was simply toyed with.”

About a year ago, I came across this exhilarating little wonder. I’ve read it again and again since, and have feverishly passed it on a handful of times, eager to share its magic with people who won’t just think it’s weird and/or pointless. Because to me, it’s anything but that. To me, it’s sweet, funny, odd. Painstaking, lovely, painstakingly lovely. It’s terribly intimate. At least, that’s the way I receive it. And I think that’s what it boils down to: as much about the author’s willingness to put it out there—to give it language—as it is the thing/act/quirk itself. And although this Shya alludes to conversations about it among friends, it’s still no “what’s new in politics/the economy/my relationship/etc.” It’s not usual.

I don’t know—it’s sort of like reading a Lorrie Moore story, how I relate to these things. If you’ve read Moore, you know her knack for slipping in inner-monologue stuff that on initial read takes you aback, because it seems to come out of nowhere. Left field. But then, seconds later, you realize, wait, this is how it works. Nothing’s ever completely linear in my head, at least not for very long stretches at a time, so why shouldn’t these made-up people skip and trip through the day any differently? And, come to think, why don’t we see this more often in literature? Isn’t it sort of, like, the truest thing there is? Big beating (and small pulsing) thoughts that sprawl and skid and meander? Anyway, bit of a tangent there maybe, but what I’m getting at is the beauty of these non-sequiturs—the sharing of them—be them one-offs or more persistent, compulsion-type behaviors as those graciously offered up by a few of my friends.

It’s what prompted me to reach out in the first place, to pose the question, “What do you do that’s like this? And although I initially got caught up in the semantics stuff (the “what the hell are they?”), ultimately I was just touched. Deeply. Touched in a similar way to how I was on hearing my retiring boss’s speech at last week’s in-office party, all of us gathered in a drab conference room as David took a chance on a story about, several months prior, standing in a room on the top floor of the building, staring out at a series of water towers—strong and steely, wood-braced—and having this dawn on him: I want to be out there with them. Maybe it’s time to be out there with them.

Perhaps that sounds unrelated, but it’s very much not. It was, like the other shared experiences herein, something not easily described in a way likely to make perfect sense, maybe in part because it’s not all that sensible to the person expressing it. But it can still be understood—by you the expresser, and by others, vis-à-vis a shared humanity.

That, then, seems to be the connecting piece: that we’re all prey to this less-than-rational part of ourselves, and it can bring us closer.

Big Sky

By Kristen Elde

Travel

September 2003

It’s late, 12:30-late, and I’m just now pulling into the parking lot of Hubbard’s Ponderosa Lodge in Missoula. The toll of a thousand straight miles on the road won’t register for a while yet: I’m still carrying a charge.

“Hi. I’d like a room—two nights, one person.”

I’m traveling by myself, my preference from the age of five, a time when my version of a solo vacation was putting Mom and Dad thirty feet at my back, all but forgetting them as I crouched low, sifting through frosted sea glass and limpet shells with glossy, purplish undersides—alone on the beach with a green plastic bucket and an active imagination.

Front desk: “I’m sorry, but we’re actually booked solid through the weekend.”

I stare, confused. It’s the middle of September, and I’m in Montana. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to make a reservation beforehand. “Oh man. Really nothing?”

“Yeah, ‘fraid not. Maybe you haven’t heard, but it’s the big game tomorrow night. Hate to say it, but you’ll be lucky to get a room anywhere in the city.”

Ah, the big game. Sure. Of course.

I thank the attendant and drive down the road to my second try: Campus Inn. Again, no go. Two more hotels and I’ve reached the bottom of a sticky note lined with recommendations from a Missoula-born co-worker. Out of leads and just shy of resigning myself to a dicey stay in the backseat of my Honda, I decide to give it one last shot, pulling into the no-frills Mountain Valley Inn.

They’ll have me.

A half hour later I’m stretched out on a double bed, looking up at a popcorn ceiling and half-listening as a local news reporter covers the latest in a string of nasty brush fires. My calves feel cool against the starchy comforter, and I can’t believe that I’m here: far from Seattle, in a place where nobody knows me, in a room that I might easily never have known existed.

I sleep late into the morning, waking at ten o’clock to the sounds of construction workers outside my window. My eyes feel dry and a little achy, and I realize I’d fallen asleep with my contacts in, teeth un-brushed, yesterday’s clothes on. The same reporter is still talking about brush fires.

Once outside, I head east on Broadway, steps later turning off at Higgins Street—according to my co-worker, Downtown Missoula’s most energetic thoroughfare. Her description was apt. I wander in and out of art galleries, antique shops, and gear stores serving outdoor adventure seekers lured by the dips and crests of the Rockies.

I stop at a cheery bakery for a slice of peanut butter pie, which I enjoy under a noon sun, my back pressed up against the edge of a picnic table overlooking a tree-canopied nature trail. Several cyclists and a pair of joggers pass by, their low chatter overlapping the song of a carousel turning circles across the way.

I wander back inside, returning my plate and fork to the counter amid a bustling brunch scene. Thanking the college-aged kid behind the counter, I see myself in her place: hair pulled back at the sides, logo-imprinted apron, a pleasant espresso buzz lifting me through the afternoon. I’d take my lunch break outside, maybe at that same picnic table. Hmm, perhaps following my stint peddling organic veggies at the farmer’s market up the road, and after my apprenticeship with the cobbler back on Front Street. Really, I hate to prioritize. In my head, I could just as easily be doing one over the other, with each pursuit delivering the same degree of satisfaction.

Because I am alone here, this kind of posturing—the harmless, romantic kind—is fairly seamless. With nothing or no one to pull me back into my life, there isn’t the distraction, and the reinvention is cleaner than it would be if I were at home, or if I were away from home with someone else.

I’m sitting on a bench facing a paved walkway that cuts through the lovely, neoclassical University of Montana campus. I’ve got a book open—a Paul Auster novel—but I’m only half-absorbing what I’m reading, too aroused by reality to plunge into one of Auster’s twisting narratives. Although it’s a Saturday, there are still plenty of people around, and it’s the students I notice, heavy backpacks curling their shoulders forward, dingy flip-flops audibly scraping the cement as they pass by my bench. With my cracked book and my casual clothes, I look like them; there’s nothing to suggest that I’m not, say, pushing through the required reading for English 301, nothing to expose me for the UW alum that I am. I blend perfectly.

I make my way to the base of the “M” trail, named for the gigantic Times New Roman letter consisting of white stone and resting three-quarters of a mile up the west side of Mount Sentinel. Said the co-worker, the steep hike up is a not-to-be-missed event, affording exceptional views of the Missoula Valley.

As a distance runner, I’m in good shape. But after eleven switchbacks and a 620-foot elevation gain, I’m ready for a rest.

I catch my breath among a handful of people gathered at the perimeter of the alphabet’s thirteenth letter, stretching my legs as I survey the peaceful vista below: gray cityscape broken up by thick, deep-green parcels of fir trees, split in two by the inky Clark Fork River, ringed by mountains cased in golden-brown brush. Even busy Interstate 90, stretching across the north end of the city, imparts a certain tranquility.

Narrowing my focus, I try to locate my bench. I think I’ve picked out the row of campus buildings situated behind it, but assuming I’ve picked right, a few prosperous maples are obstructing my view. This gets me thinking about everything else I can’t see from here: students napping on the lawn, garage sales in progress, potholes in the roads, the entire east side of this mountain… Part of me is disappointed to have to admit to missing so much, but most of me appreciates the mystery, likes thinking about the infinite scenarios.

I wander away from the M, the earth dry and un-giving beneath my dusty shoes, bleached grasses and rampant weeds distinguishing Mount Sentinel from the lushness below. With the aid of my hotel map, I pick out Hellgate Canyon and Mount Jumbo to the north, the Bitterroot range to the south. The air feels raw and decisive as it enters my lungs.

I’d like to stay longer, maybe take a short nap myself, but the sun’s descent is well-underway, and it’s more than a light breeze that’s raising the hair on my arms. I’m hungry, too, and the granola bar I’d tucked into my bag isn’t going to cut it. It’s time to head.

Back on the precipitous trail, I find that it’s easier, going down, to maintain a sort of restrained jog than it is a steady walk. Certainly more forgiving where my knees are concerned. This in mind, I make my way along the zigzagging path, passing several people moving in each direction. Periodically I get a little ahead of myself, inadvertently picking up the pace and slipping into a near-run. When this happens, I simply make the necessary adjustments and push on.

Halfway to the bottom my track record takes a hit. Reacting to a surprise dip in the trail, my foot falls an extra inch, connecting with the dirt at the same time my pack, stuffed full with books and magazines, jumps up against my back. This repositioning throws me off and suddenly I’m airborne, for a split second flying parallel to the slope before the weight of my load pulls me to the ground—hard. Of course, given the surface gradient, the excitement’s only just begun. I bump and skid headfirst down the trail—my hands, elbows, and knees bearing the brunt of my stupidity—and it isn’t until seconds later that my pack, now hanging for the most part off my right shoulder, slows me to a halt.

“Oh my gosh, are you okay?”

The voice comes from above, from a switchback or two up, and as I struggle to right myself, it merges into a chorus of several voices, maybe four or five. But I seem to be trapped, confined in an awkward, crumpled, downward-facing position by this ridiculous ten-ton backpack of mine.

Panic sets in; the skin on my face and arms is suddenly burning, and not from pain. As hot, fast, embarrassed tears run over the rims of my eyes, I flash back to a mortifying experience: Sixth-grade biology class. I’m tipped back in my chair, my forearm resting on the table behind which Joe C., object of my crush, sits with an adorable smirk on his face. We’re definitely flirting, exchanging juvenile quips about our nerdy teacher, when Cute Stuff takes it a step further, without warning yanking the table in his direction. I follow my chair to the floor, partially catching myself with my hands as I/we strike bottom. It feels like whole minutes pass before I’m able to effectively rise up from that piece of dumb orange plastic, my head low, eyes prickly, as I take my seat for a second time. Pain is not on my radar.

This time is different, of course. No one around me is laughing; more importantly, they don’t know me in real life. Consequently, my initial embarrassment loses potency, and as I wiggle my shoulders a last, vigorous time, finally losing the hated backpack, what I’m left with is coarse pain, pain that alters the nature of my tears, pain that is very much on my radar.

I stand up fast, wincing. Instinctively I move to brush off my jeans, jeans that I notice have sprouted a hole in the right knee. Though my eyes are still watery and unfocused, I can see the bright red of my blood where it’s flush against my skin, the darker red where it’s begun seeping into the sides of the torn fabric. I see my skin, puffy and pale, almost white from the impact.

“Oh yeah, yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Are you sure? You took quite a fall there.”

I force a smile, something smart-alecky occurring to me. Oh, silly man, as if these bloodied palms of mine weren’t proof enough! I’m fine—fine as fuck!

“Nah, just some scrapes. I’m sure I can find some Band-Aids somewhere on campus,” I say, addressing the group of four—one couple, two singles—that had loosely assembled nearby. My palms have become pincushions, smarting with each new wave of insertions. My throat feels tight. I want them to leave.

“Well alright. Take care of yourself.”

Take care of yourself. As I turn and start walking, the words of the nice man, the sincere well-wisher, turn over in my head, and the tears in my eyes cease to be motivated by pain alone. Take care of yourself, because there is no one else, no go-to person at your side in case something should happen, in the event that something goes wrong.

The campus spreads wide below, visible from end to end. Ticket-holders have begun filling the white-lit stadium, their energy roving upward. Around them, the day is on its last legs, the sky glowing fuchsia as the sun drops steadily toward the horizon.

I am sharply afraid, disoriented and whimpering like that five-year-old on the beach suddenly scared to find she’s wandered beyond the place from which her parents are visible. Reflexively, I unzip the front pocket of my pack, reaching in for my phone, anticipating my boyfriend’s mild voice…

I don’t call, though, deciding instead to wait until I’m secure on flat ground, wounds addressed, wits gathered. There’s something else going on, too: from within, an appeal for a few additional minutes of solitude.

And without trying, I am systematically relaxing, conscious of my breath slowing, my throat loosening, my eyes gaining focus. I’m still worked-up, my body hasn’t stopped hurting (I’m limping slightly), but it’s my hurting body that is driving the intensity of my experience, authenticating my one-woman journey, the spectacle that preceded it ensuring that I don’t completely fade into the background. Reflecting now, I don’t think I ever wanted to fade completely.

Back at home and in the weeks that follow, I’ll have to explain the scrapes, several times. But the story will never come out as I want it to, lacking the emotional breadth that endears it to me. Writing it all down will be slightly more effective, but the truest way to tell it will be to graze the skin on my knees, or my elbows, which will bring it all back. At once frustrating and satisfying, I will be the only one around to hear.

Knowledge is learning something every day.
Wisdom is letting go of something every day.

—Zen Proverb

Against the dull roar of eight-million-plus, I’ve often felt a shadowy sense of loss as another train whizzes by me, the faces in the windows clear for a few seconds before fading into the future. I find myself thinking about how unlikely it is that I’ll ever see them again, or if I do, how there’s not a chance in hell of recognition.

Enter craigslist. An unlikely credit, perhaps, but along with equipping me with temporary housing, a kitchen table, and cake decorating classes, the venerable 12-year-old marketplace has impressed on me the value of transitory relationships.

Take the other day. I was fifty bucks and a lunch-hour meet-up away from landing a pair of Andrew Bird tickets. Should’ve been easy enough, considering the man with the goods worked all of ten blocks from me. But circumstances were not in our favor, and it took several emails, a phone call, a missed opportunity, several texts, and a few more emails before we finally managed the exchange.

It happened on the corner of 23rd and Fifth in Manhattan, at which point I already knew a) where this person worked (in his email signature), b) something about his taste in music (somewhere in the email thread, he’d mentioned a favorite band), c) the kind of schedule he keeps (hectic), and d) that he’s somewhat easily irritated but ultimately sympathetic (okay, so this one’s a stretch). Hardly an exhaustive understanding, but it’s still more than I know about some of my actual acquaintances.

The point of impact involved nothing more than the physical swap, a few breathless words (running late, I’d come at a run), a wave… It was fleeting, in other words, which, following the barrage of communication, felt slightly confusing but ultimately thrilling, and kind of sweet.

There’ve been several others. There was TV Girl, a transaction that involved my showing up at 11 a.m. to find her in the middle of comforting a teary roommate over a recently forfeited boyfriend, wine glasses fully engaged. We chatted awhile, sharing our thoughts on the neighborhood, and as I got up to leave, the roommate said something along the lines of, “Hey, if you ever wanna hang out, get a beer w/ us…” I think we knew nothing would come of it, that this wasn’t the start of some fated friendship, but as I hugged my purchase to my chest and clambered down the stairs, I felt energized by the goodwill—and the novelty—of the previous ten minutes.

There was Chandelier Man, who, incidentally, didn’t live far from TV Girl. (Would craigslist bring them together, too?) My then-boyfriend and I walked into his tree-framed brownstone to find a small museum’s worth of antique furnishings: lighting fixtures spanning every decade of the last century, various paintings, sculpture, glassworks… The fireplace was aglow, and a wiry cat slinked around my ankles.

Chandelier Man offered us tea, which we sipped over small talk. We heard the story behind our acquisition (the 1920s deco piece was rescued from a Long Island salvage yard), and after fifteen minutes or so, we thanked and said goodbye to a gentleman—poised, warm, almost fatherly—we would in all likelihood never see again. Because really, what would be the grounds? Newly emergent Depression Glass Lust? A yet unrecognized proclivity for Rodin replicas? More tea?

Again, I left feeling vaguely intoxicated.

The list goes on. There was TV Stand Girl, Bookcase Guy, Hula Skirt Girl… And then there were the few things I myself unloaded, making me Cheap IKEA Chair Girl, Bike Lock & Helmet Girl, and Kitchen-Aid Mixer Girl. In each case, a meaningful relationship developed—meaningful in an ephemeral, invigorating, faintly surprising way.

The meaning stems from a particular way of relating. Unlike a straightforward back-and-forth with a gas station attendant, deli guy, or a Times Square-seeking tourist, your average craigslist transaction occurs in parts. Contact is initiated, followed by some amount of dialogue, and it’s this “instant history” that brings gravity to the physical exchange once it takes place minutes, hours, or days later. If Lucite Nightstand Man or Vintage Ice-Crusher Lady opens his or her home to you, more weight still. And because this succession—seek out, plan, connect, let go—is not typical of conventional relationships, it can be disorienting. (”Goodbye forever? Really? After I’ve seen your family portraits? After you’ve introduced me to your dog?”) But this doesn’t mean it’s not the right way to proceed.

If you think about it, across media, the focus tends to be on a) maintaining positive relationships, or b) ending negative ones. But what about those relationships that are fruitful for a period of time yet probably not worth preserving for the long haul? What do the magazine articles, the talk show programs, and the self-help books say about them? Not much.

Craigslist affinities aside, I’ve had several such relationships over the years, and I’ve tended to prolong them unduly. Certain friendships and loves have fallen prey, with concern over hurt feelings, confusion in the wake of intimacy, or a general fear of change forcing a deciduous alliance into an evergreen mold. But how refreshing, the notion of ending authentically, with a farewell hug and a string of kind parting words. More often than not, I think we know when to say when. It’s following up that’s tough.

I recently followed up—or, well, for the most part—with a couple of coworkers I was about to leave for another job. These were people I’d chatted, laughed, and whined with over afternoon coffee breaks, people I cared for but never considered to be more than work buddies. And as I prepared to begin a new job elsewhere, some part of me recognized that our time had passed. Sure, we still swapped phone numbers and personal email addresses and let’s-do-this’s, but there was a sense of knowingness in the air. This is it.

This exhilaration, I now realize, comes from the awareness that a person has served his or her purpose in your life. It comes with being in command of yourself, and it comes with moving on. Life is too short to cling to expired relationships.

Thanks for the lesson, Craig.

Pee Shy

By Kristen Elde

Humor

The other day I swung by Quest Diagnostics for some routine diabetes-related testing. First up: the blood draw. Ridiculous, but I near-hyperventilate just thinking about this procedure. I always make it a point to inform the phlebotomist of my irrational fear well before he/she does his/her thing, just in case doing so guarantees me a really great draw courtesy some extra care. This woman, pleasant and chatty, laughed and said, “Oh, you’re too much.” Word.

Anyway, it was fine. Fast, painless. Great story, huh? Stay with me.

After blood came urine. Ah, everyone’s favorite: the ol’ pee-in-a-cup trick. Because I’m a decent human being, I’ll skip to the end—to that part when you’re left standing in the middle of a private bathroom, one hand warmed by the golden specimen it’s wrapped around. Generally, this rude sensation need not last long. Following instruction, you simply set your cup, capped tightly and marked with a personal identifier, on a designated shelf. With a thorough scrub of the hands, you’re on your merry way.

Today, though, things went a bit differently for me. For starters, at the point that I was ready to hand off to the shelf, I realized the bathroom was not furnished with one. The words of the friendly phlebotomist came back to me: “Just bring your sample back here [bloodletting room] when you’re finished.” I then realized there was no lid to go with my cup, nor was there a strip with my name on it. Wha? But it could be anyone’s! What if there’s a mix-up? What if someone else gets my diabetic pee? What if I end up with a meth addict’s pee? Highly unprofessional! Gingerly setting my cup on the floor, I washed my—wait, no water? And none of that deliciously foamy soap to go with it? Nothing! Remembering that I’d be handling the cup again anyway, I let it drop (the issue, not the pee).

More than a little freaked, I nudged the door open. There were several people—staff, patients—filling the small hallway, and while I knew my room was close, anxiety was clouding my ability to recall details. Is it that room two doors left or the one just right? By now I had completely cleared the bathroom, putting me and my pee in full view of passersby. I took a left that should’ve, turned out, been a right, and when I went to correct myself, I felt the pee slosh in its cup. Whoa! This was followed by visions of dampened pant hems, disgusted faces, injurious slips… Oh, to hell with it. I walked into the nearest empty room and placed my cup, its contents exposed to plenty of airborne bacteria by now, on the handiest surface I could find (probably too close to the computer, but hey) and aimed to jet. On my way down the hall, I caught sight of my phlebotomist. Muttering and pointing, I made it clear where my pee was resting. Then I realized I was without wallet. Which meant I still needed to locate my room. Thankfully, without that cup in hand, my brain function restored itself and things fast settled out.

If ever I could’ve benefited from an open container law…