Thursday, May 27, 2010

The World from this Window

At Starbucks, I grab a seat at the window, and while writing the epilogue to my novel, I also make the following observations:

A woman comes through the drive-thru at Starbucks with pink curlers in her hair. She looks young (younger than me, anyway), and I puzzle over this for far too long. I thought curlers went the way of bobby socks and poodle skirts. I thought going out in public with curlers was the domain of elderly women in housedresses, support hose and lipstick-stained teeth. I thought What Not to Wear, after years of noble fashion warfare, had put a stop to this sort of public behavior altogether.

Two women come in wearing long, floaty skirts and elaborate hair arrangements that involve numerous clips, claws and bobby pins. I imagine they are part of a religious group where long hair and skirts are mandatory. Either this or a traveling theater troop, and they have raided the costume trailer. Although they order at the same time, one woman’s order comes up quickly and the other is lost in a line of white cups (made with 10% post-consumer recycled fiber). “Bless you, dear,” says the older woman when the barista finally hands over her mocha. I place them back in the religious group. This makes me wonder if I wonder if anyone looking at me would place me into a religious cult. I belong to that strange sect that worships caffeine, values silence or mind-numbing noise, types fast and loud, and doesn’t feel embarrassed to be caught staring.

It’s been raining on and off for days, so business is slow at the carwash across the street. A few cars do come through – drivers without access to weather reports? I’m tempted myself – my car was dusty before the rain, and rivulets of water have created muddy streaks down the hood. I wonder if car washes are half-price on rainy days, or if this is proof that I have no future in marketing. And then I wonder if the Pacific Northwest – where the Beths live, unaware of each other – has any sort of thriving car wash industry at all.

Earlier today, over breakfast, I browsed for editing jobs on, and noted one promising lead for which I met many of the “required” qualifications (B.A. in English, experience in editing), but when I got to the “recommended” qualifications, I noted that ideal applicant should also be fluent in Portuguese, Arabic and French. The world is a big place, so I’m sure that ideal applicant exists, though whether s/he is willing to work for what amounts to slave labor seems less certain. But you never know – I make assumptions about people all the time and am constantly proven wrong. Perhaps the woman with her hair in curlers was on her way to translate at a multi-lingual conference on bioethics; she would rather be following her passion – ballroom dancing – but takes the occasional translation gig to pay the bills. Fiction is fun.

After all this musing about others, it suddenly occurs to me that the man at the next table is wearing a sweater that my husband owns. I haven’t seen Will wear this sweater in a year, but maybe he should. It looks nice on this man, even paired with light-washed jeans and ratty loafers. I’ll have to remember to tell Will. When the side-effects of a venti skinny vanilla latte kick in, I ask this man if he would mind watching my things. I have to ask him three times, because the first time he apparently doesn’t register the question, the second time he’s completely puzzled, looking me up and down as if we are former colleagues and he should remember my name, and finally on the third plea he says, “Um, sure.” Only in the bathroom does it occur to me that there is no other copy of this novel, at least not the last twenty pages or so. I do the quickest hand-washing job ever and rush back to my seat.

My neighbor Rob is in this Starbucks, in the corner table without a view – the place for serious work. He’s writing too, a project for which he will presumably get paid and for which he has great enthusiasm. All I can see from this angle are his shoes – black Converse – and a stack of napkins, slightly wadded. I am tempted a dozen times to interrupt his concentration with a stupid joke or a witty observation, which is proof that I have the potential to be a horrible person, but since I ultimately resist, I am happy to observe that I do have at least one redeeming quality.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Great Flood of 2010

Will and I don’t clean out our garage like normal people.

In fact, I have to draw on my fiction-writing sensibilities to imagine how other people accomplish this task. They clear their schedules maybe, setting aside a few hours on a sunny Saturday morning in which to move, sort and reorder their belongings. While they move objects onto the driveway, neighbors pass by with children in strollers and dogs on leashes. Pleasantries are exchanged. Afterwards these normal, happy people collapse onto the couch with a sense of accomplishment, a cold beer in their hands and a baseball game on TV.

Will and I prefer a different approach: We wait until the washer malfunctions, then wade through ankle-deep water to salvage what’s left.

The washer malfunction is a strange fact of our lives. It is a rather-new, deceptively competent-looking machine. It works like a charm 99% of the time and then every few hundred cycles – once a year or so – something backfires. Since the prime laundry-washing hours for a night owl are between ten p.m. and midnight, we usually discover the flood while we’re winding down for the day. We drop everything else, curse the faulty washer, and begin the task of moving everything to dry ground.

In the seven years we’ve lived in our house, we’ve performed this task six times and therefore have it down to a sort of science. Our garage is too small for either of our vehicles, even Will’s Civic – which is strange, since homes in the ‘40s presumably had larger cars. So instead of accommodating a car, the garage is a repository for our stuff – notes from Will’s seventeen years as a journalist, texts from my eight years of teaching, cleaning and paper supplies, half-empty gallons of paint, random garden tools. The garage is also functions as a limbo for the things we don’t really want anymore, but haven’t absolutely destined for Goodwill – wedding gifts we’ve never actually used, clothes we haven’t worn in a while.

It’s a mostly silent task. Will opens the garage door (a feat I’ve never mastered), most of the water spills out onto the driveway, and we start dumping things on the lawn. By this point our neighbors – sane people, all of them – are asleep, their homes dark. Each time I’ve expected a police cruiser to drive by and idle at the curb, but this has never happened. (There's no trouble, Officer!) Spread out on the lawn, our belongings are a sorry lot. If I had to imagine the people who owned these random things, I would never picture the two of us.

Some things are lost for good, like the bag of cat food and a twelve-pack of toilet paper – things that actually belong on shelves, but through laziness and general apathy end up on the floor of the garage, now weighted with water and rendered completely useless. The real joy is the cat litter, which takes on the mass and consistency of a load of cement. It has to be scraped off the floor, then wrapped in layers of plastic bags. I try not to think about the bodily functions of my cats as the litter oozes between my toes.

The first time it happened, we were emotional wrecks – Will angry at the disruption, me weepy over what we’d lost. By now we take it in stride, which in a way is even worse. We’ve resigned ourselves to the situation; we’ve accepted the possibility that our benign-looking washing machine will one day turn on us. (Annie Dillard, if I recall, had a similar experience with a typewriter that one day exploded, showering her writing table with sparks. After this single incident, it worked fine.) And so, an hour-and-a-half later, the garage is drying, our belongings are reorganized and a shopping list of toiletries is affixed to the refrigerator. Will and I call dibs on the first shower; in what has become our pattern, he lets me take it.

For a week or two afterwards, we’ll watch the machine carefully, opening the garage door for a quick peek to catch it in the act, like a disobedient child. And then, inevitably, we’ll forget. Nah, we think, listening to the whoosh of the rinse and the rumble of the spin cycle. It’ll never happen again.