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.

Audre Lorde

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 beers.
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 choice.

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 softly…


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 I belong?

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 and…persevering.


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 affection.
"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 compellingly:

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 sleep.


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 suppose."
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 praying."
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 bedroom.
"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 rehearsed.
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 her.
"He didn't allow me to go back to my own mother when she was old."
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 her child.
"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 replies.
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.