Autumn Sea - Excerpts
When I dare to be powerful, to use
my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes
less important whether or not I am unafraid.
Rain is beating on the window of the train. I watch you,
Ene, standing alone on the platform in a gray loden coat,
broad shouldered. Your hair is drenched. Although rain
conceals your eyes behind heavy rimmed glasses, I see pride
in the way you hold your head; you will not be defeated.
It is dark outside except for one dim light bulb that casts
shadows and illuminates the curtain of rain. Slowly, the
train begins to move. Inside the lighted compartment, I
press my forehead against the cold glass. For a very short
moment, while I close my eyes, wetness seals us together.
One blissful moment suspended. And then the train's jerking
movements tear us apart. You begin to run. I beat my head
against the window so as not to feel the pain.
Maybe it wasn't a train but a bus…maybe it was I running
on the platform rather than you. I doesn't matter. I see
that face again today, and though I can touch you now and
then, when I want to grab you and hold on to you, you smile,
you kiss my hand and then you turn away.
"How about a drink?" I ask Ene. We haven't talked for
several weeks. Now we sit opposite one another in the dimly
lit bar. Soon the conversation turns to us.
"I won't seek a relationship like ours," Ene says, "I know I
won't find it anymore."
I nod my head, and we try to recapture in words what it was
we created during those fifteen years. We gave each other a
generous extension of childhood, a home without fights and
tantrums. A place where every fear could be discussed, where
we always got the benefit of the doubt. So different from
our childhoods, so soothing. We look at one another over
I'm taken back two years, five years…why aren't we going
home together now to walk the dogs? Of course I know. Our
bodies tell us, drawn as they are to new lovers. But still,
we aren't bankrupt. We never were. We smile through our
tears as each of us gets into her own truck, vehicle of our
Was it a train, was it a bus… was it me, was it you…?
Today you are still with me, Ene, Your face pops up between
the recipes I think of cooking, the albums I play, the books
I rearrange…your face haunts me today and makes me cry
Every once in a while the sun comes through the overcast
sky here, and it feels benevolent and warm. I submit to this
force of nature, its fickleness and arbitrariness. I don't
accept this arbitrariness when perpetrated by men. I was
going to proclaim "fellow men," but I suppressed that word.
I don't experience men as fellow men. I'm not saying that
they don't have the interest at heart of their wives, their
girlfriends, their daughters or granddaughters. I feel they
do not have my interest at heart. I always feel safer among
women. Some men harm from excessive malice; most men harm
from excessive ignorance.
From the terraces I look far toward the horizon and see the
birds sailing. In the seventies I was soaring like them; I
was going places. Since that time I have come down.
Here I am floating on the eddies, up an down, up an down…. I
look at the flock in the distance while they soar past me,
and I feel a yearning in my breast…but I know I don't truly
belong in the flock. It will never embrace me. Men don't
mind the company of female birds. Females can be the
protective cordon in the flock or the colorful retinue, as
long as they don't try to alter the course or get in front.
And I wonder do flocks ever change?
I'm lying low, conserving my energy. I'm learning about
others like me. The lucky learned sooner than I and went off
to form their own flock. They are now soaring in some
distant sky. I admire their color and formation. I ponder
whether I'll have time enough and the wisdom to join them at
their altitude or whether I should satisfy myself with
finding a few friend here on the eddies.
I feel the gentle wind support my wings. They still feel
strong, and my heart beats fiercely in my throat. I'm not
ready to reconcile myself yet with my fate, but I know I
can't afford to thrash around wildly without thought or
purpose. I close my eyes and listen to the secrets I earned.
Will they suffice to carry me to that part of the sky where
Whenever I read this, I think of you, Rachel. You are a
beautiful strong she-bird. I'm not alone. We all have top
find our own destiny. Ultimately, I don't know mine, and I
don't know yours. We explore parts of the sky. You are young
and fierce and your span exceeds mine, but that doesn't hold
me back. When I grow tired, you shield me from the wind, and
I in turn teach you the age-old trick of pacing, resting
In those days, I often felt appreciated, although Lesly
was not in the habit of articulating her approval. It took
me a while to read the signs; they weren't the conventional
ones of flowers and love notes. Lesly's letters to me never
exceeded a few lines: "Honey, sorry I missed you when I came
by. Would stay and wait for you but nobody where you are.
All is well, love, Lesly.
Gifts were of the practical variety: A chainsaw, so that
cutting wood for the fireplace would be easier. That was the
first gift I remember.
I realize, Rachel, I soak up your cherishing words, the same
words I remember when Ene and I lived together. In the
beginning with Lesly, I missed those familiar landmarks of
"I'm here," Lesly would say impatiently, "I'm not going
anywhere. What more do you want?"
Slowly, I learned to gather my evidence where it was
stacked up, right in front of my eyes: living together was
easy. I don't remember even once having to discuss the
division of labor in the house or the sharing of financial
responsibilities. One agreement at the onset, and we never
had to discuss it again.
And then there were our bodies, speaking clearly and
Our eyes are the point of first touching. Hesitantly, my
finger moves, touches her cheek, moves a curl. Then we begin
listening to the pull, we must meet, and our bodies must
meet. The relief when our cunts touch, when we feel each
other's wetness and warmth. Being there and knowing time is
now ours, no hurry, we can go with it, as long as we want.
Traveling across unknown territory, sure to arrive satisfied,
full. Small currents, large currents…I dive into the waves
fearlessly, let the water run over me. I rest, return. Fold
myself into the wave, trust her force, and trust her
wildness. The ocean now my size…I, equal to her, daring her,
challenging her to level with me, to enrapture me, to engulf
me, to transport me…She is huge, strong, serene, certain of
me, certain of herself…And I forget myself, who I am, where
I begin, where I end. Screams push through me, echo into my
belly, echo in the room…die away slowly, reverberating,
reverberating. I rest, I laugh, press her body against me. …
It is December, 1944, the winter often referred to as "Hunger
Winter." We are upstairs in the living room, not downstairs
in the cellar or out in the garage. Is that because the
threat of bombings has passed, or is it just because
anywhere else it would be too cold? Something else is
unusual: Dad is home today. But Dad is never home anymore.
"He has gone away" is all Mom said when I would ask. Is he
home because there is no more need to be afraid of house
searches by the Germans or because tonight Santa Claus is
supposed to come, or both…or neither…?
Six little mustard pots filled with oil have been inserted
in a wire frame and hang like a crown above the table; they
glitter. It is the only light. I don't see any curtains;
perhaps they have been cut up to make dresses and trousers.
Mom is busying herself around a potbelly stove; she puts in
a piece of wood once in a while. She stirs in the one pot on
top…Wonder what's in it…. Some clothes are suspended from
the marble mantelpiece; they are there to dry. I only see my
brother playing on the floor; I don't see my two baby
sisters. They must be sleeping. It's a bit dark here…. I
think it's evening, but I don't know for sure; the windows
are blackened with paper so that the house will not be a
target for bombs at night.
It's Santa Claus tonight. I only know vaguely what that
means. A big red-suited man with white gloves, white hair
and a white beard. His helpers come through the chimney and
are black from soot. It's war and there are only helpers.
"Santa Claus stayed in Spain this year," Mom said. I do know
that daddy is home…I feel sleepy; I curl myself up against
my Mom's breasts.
"What's that?" I hear stumbling and a loud rumble on the
door. "Soldiers? Coming for my dad?" Commotion…. I see dad
jump up, and his shadow disappears down the stairs. I think
Mom is holding her breath…A long silence…and then screaming
and cursing…."That idiot kid…."
Everybody is crying; everybody but Dad. He is still shaking,
and his eyes look dark and dangerous.
"It's that stupid kid from next door who came to play
Santa's helper." He throws a book on the table….
I'm scared of his anger, and I cringe thinking of the kid
who came to surprise us. Mom holds me tight on her lap; my
brother stands next to her. She opens the book, and colorful
pictures begin to dance before my eyes. But I want to go to
My parent's large bedroom has two French door that open
onto a balcony. This leads by two short steps to the flat
roof of the garage. My brother and I each have a little
round basket about the size of a large tin coffee can, with
a loosely attached cover. Our aim is to catch birds on that
flat roof. We attach a rope to the top of the basket, let it
hang askew and suspend the rope over a cloth line. We then
stand waiting in the distance for a bird to fly into the
basket so that we can release the rope and capture the bird.
I don't think I could have invented this process with my
four-year-old brain. This was probably my six-year-old
brother's strategy. There was logic to it but no compelling
reason for any bird to follow our logic, despite the
breadcrumbs. It was toward the end of the war, so it is even
questionable what any breadcrumbs were available. The birds
we saw on the roof were mostly stone brown sparrows.
It so happened that I was either sick or my ordinary
afternoon naptime arrived. I did not want to give up the
opportunity to catch a bird so my mother pacified me by
offering my dad's side of the bed for my nap. I could attach
the rope to the drawer of his bedside table and quickly
release the rope the minute I saw a bird enter the basket.
After all it was summer and the French doors were open. With
the logic of a four-year-old, I bought into this ploy.
Red, yellow, blue-purple and indigo birds of every size
fly in and out of my basket. It's me who lets them in and
lets them go again. It's a feast of color. Upon awakening,
I'm amazed that my brother is still eyeing the lowly
sparrows and hasn't had success in capturing any.
I had visited a wondrous world with what I would later
learn to be kingfishers and birds of paradise and cockatoos
all dancing and diving and screaming and talking. I'm not
sure I learned anything from that dream then. Can I learn
anything from that dream now?
My mother comes through the automatic sliding doors,
small and energetic after her thirteen-hour trip. She
doesn't stop saying how pleased she is to have come. Her
belongings fit in a folding suitcase, small and sensible.
The first night she shows me her wardrobe. I have written
her to bring summer outfits-and nice ones at that so I can
show her off. She is asking if I approve. I am amazed that
she has made so many outfits herself. I could have sworn
they were store-bought. She is particularly proud of the
ensemble she made out of a gray-white sari I brought from
India last year. With her white hair, it gives her a regal
quality. I will come up against that regal quality several
times during her stay.
I have been looking forward to her visit, am pleased that I
have stumbled on the plan of asking her to come alone. I
have had to become forty-five, she eighty, to realize that
this is a viable option.
In retrospect, it is amazing how I have always behaved as if
my parents were inseparable as a couple. I have bought right
into their own fantasy about that. Once my idea was formed,
I didn't doubt for a moment that she would accept the
invitation to come, and from the minute I see her at the
airport, I know she is ready to step out of her fantasy, at
least for a brief period. To what extent we are both ready
for this visit, I will soon find out.
The first day I take her to my eight o'clock class. It suits
her jetlag, and I figure that as a mother she will want to
see her daughter in a professional role. So I urge her to
take her knitting along, plant her in one of the seats in
the back row and tell the class I have my oldest student
ever today, my mother, and proceed with business as usual.
Nothing much throws me in front of a classroom; this group,
especially, has proven to be generous, inquisitive and
good-natured. My mother is barely going to understand what I
am saying; nonetheless, my voice vibrates just a bit more
than usual. My gestures are just a bit less certain. Whether
the students notice this or not, I don't know. They engage
me in a lively discussion about the effect of alcohol on the
fetus, and from where I stand, seem to conspire to make me
look good in the eyes of my mother. After that beginning, I
decide to let her in on a bit of my personal life.
I tell her that although Lesly has put up a hundred dollars
toward her trip, it's uncertain whether she will see her.
After all, Lesly and I haven't seen each other for four
weeks, since her young black lover moved in with her. Not
surprisingly, my mother is moved by Lesly's largesse. I hear
it in her initial silence and a slight wavering of her voice
when she proposes, "I could write her a note to thank her, I
Yes, that would be nice," I reply. It's one of the things I
have always loved about Lesly-her generosity.
"But you know what," I say, while we are on our way to work
in the hospital, w'll stop at Leona's house. She and I would
like to be lovers but that's impossible. She is married and
not free to be with me."
"Oh, yes, I would like to meet her."
A long silence follows. Suddenly, I hear her mutter, "Now
that I know whom you really want, you know I am very good at
I must also say I find it to my mother's credit that she
doesn't solely rely on praying. When the opportunity arises,
she takes it upon herself to ask each of these women in her
best college English, acquired sixty years ago, not to
forget me. What more can I wish as endorsement of my
lifestyle from my mother? But I'm in for some more surprise.
Home after a long day, I lie down on my bed to make a few
calls. I hear her puttering around in the kitchen and her
"Are you getting some of the nurturance you could now use?"
Leona asks me on the phone.
"No, I answer. "I haven't had that since I was five. She
probably wouldn't know how to give it and besides, I
wouldn't know how to ask."
"Well, maybe it's time she learns," Leona, ventures.
With that we hang up. My statement echoes in my ear:" I
wouldn't know how to ask, or would I?"
I hear her outside my bedroom door, tiptoeing through now to
go to my bathroom. "How would it be if you were to lie next
to me for a little?" I hear myself say.
"Sure she answers.
"Thus far during the day, she has been answering "sure" with
calm and finality, as if she had written the script herself.
Lying down beside me, she is taken aback by the rolling
motions of my waterbed and stretches herself out on her
back. She is smaller than I am, almost girl like, my mother.
I turn on my side and look at her looking at the ceiling.
"I wouldn't know how to ask…. Of course I do, but will I
dare? Of course, I will," I think. A pause.
"Can I lie against you?" I hear myself say next.
"Of course she answers.
Didn't I tell you she wrote the script? I swear she came
I have felt the bodies of quite a few women, with ease and
certainty at times, tentatively at others. Now is a time to
feel the beat slowly. For a while, we just lie quietly, her
arms loosely around me. Then we begin to talk.
"You know dad wasn't so good for me, don't you?"
"I have heard it said by your sister, but I didn't realize
it at the time. I was busy and a little blind, I suppose."
And then I tell her some specifics. She doesn't defend him;
she just listens. When my voice begins to waver, I feel her
arms lock closer around me. I feel encouraged to forge on.
"And besides, despite your public statements of marital
bliss, from what I remember, he wasn't particularly nice to
you, either." Again I tell her some specifics and again she
doesn't defend him. By now both our voices are filled with
tears. One memory in particular seems to resonate inside of
"He didn't allow me to go back to my own mother when she was
Little did I realize that as a child; I just remember seeing
her cry upon learning of her mother's death. No wonder she
has so readily agreed to come. But still, I insist on being
"I don't understand why you never protected me against him."
The indictment is there, the words are spoken.
"That's the one thing I regret the most," she simply
From then on our tears and gestures mean forgiveness. For
once, finally, we are both mother and daughter. We get to
this point only once that week, but once is plenty.