A Year After the Day Before Everything Was About to Change

Wandering in Brussels with my friend, Tim.  I love putting the camera in front of faces and seeing what is captured.
With Tim, in Brussels

A year ago today I was in Brussels.

I didn’t know that everything was about to change.  Or maybe I did know.  The universe did.  Perhaps that’s why I was blessed with an extra day there, even though it didn’t feel like a blessing at the time.

I’d spent the past two days in what I’d come to call “Paris Small.”  One of them, with my old roommate Tim, who flew in from Dublin for just one night – just to be with me.  We rented an IKEA-decorated studio, a few blocks from the train station.  Its red wooden shutters opened onto the square.  It was perfect.

That day, we Skyped with Tim’s boyfriend Martin, who was living in Yorkshire.  We got our heads shaved.  Ate Belgian Waffles covered in powdered sugar, walking and talking until the sky turned navy.

I spent the next night alone.  I called my friend, Michael, my divorce pal in the States, before going to sleep.  Just as I did most nights back at home.  Ever since my ex asked me for a divorce and he and his wife also decided to separate.

The next morning, a year ago today, I arrived at the airport and learned that my plane had been grounded due to a cracked windshield.  I stood in line for more than two hours before reaching the counter to re-book my flight – surrounded by people loudly sighing and complaining.

I made friends with a gay boy from Missouri.  I watched the family in front of me – husband and wife, and almost grown kids.  They seemed nonplussed.  Almost enjoying the time.  As we approached the counter together, I commented on how happy they seemed.

“What else can we do?” the father responded.

Happy, even though they had missed the Chicago portion of their vacation.  Would miss their connection to San Francisco.  And were just hoping to recoup their time in Los Angeles.  Happy.

They wrote a list of suggestions for how I might want to spend my extra time in Brussels.

We wished each other well, and parted ways.  Me, with a voucher for a hotel room across the street, and a boarding pass for a different flight tomorrow.  No longer direct, I would fly to Frankfurt – the first airport I landed in overseas, nearly 20 years ago – before arriving in Chicago.

I took the train back to the City Centre after checking in to the hotel and retraced my steps down the cobblestone streets.  Enjoying another waffle.  Purchasing pale nougat studded with almonds and dried orange pieces to bring home as gifts.

I walked to a park overlooking the city and read in the cool sunshine.  I browsed a museum gift shop, as I arrived too late to see the exhibit.  And then I took the train back to the hotel, stopping in the airport to buy a phone card, hoping to speak with Michael again.

I tried phoning him from my room, and then realized I hadn’t put enough money on the card.  I stuffed it in my wallet and went to the lobby to take advantage of the free WiFi.

I noticed it was my friend J’s birthday while trolling Facebook.  I sent him good wishes, which he was on the other end to receive.  It was still afternoon in New York.

He told me he would be spending his birthday eating crab legs with his girlfriend.  I told him I was on my way home from Rwanda.  That I was grounded in Brussels.  That I was divorcing.  And that I was moving back to Chicago.

I threw up on him.  And then I went to dinner.

When I left Seattle nearly a month earlier, I didn’t know where I would settle.  Now I had a plan.

I arrived in Chicago the next afternoon.  (I was fortunate, for those who were able to re-book on the original flight remained grounded in Brussels for another day.)  I informed my friends I was now going by Liora – my Hebrew name – as that was what I was called in Rwanda, the result of having two Lesleys on the trip.

I had dinner with Michael.  And after, we stood under a street lamp, holding on to one another for what felt like forever.  I didn’t want to let go.  I told him I would see him in a month.

My friend Emily picked me up at the airport that evening.  She remembered what re-entry was like after spending time in Africa.  We had dinner.  She took me grocery shopping.  And then she dropped me off at home.

The cats greeted me at the door.  My then soon-to-be-ex-husband was noticeably absent.  I felt painfully alone as I rolled my hard orange suitcase into the house.

I saw Michael sooner than anticipated.  At my request, he flew to Seattle, helped me pack my car and drive home.  We stayed with friends of mine in Missoula and Bozeman.  I shot a gun for the first and only time somewhere between the two cities.

2012-08-31 10.30.32
Hiking in the Badlands.

We camped along the Missouri River, under a blue moon, at Teddy Roosevelt National Park.  Hiked the Badlands the next day, and stopped somewhere outside of Fargo that night, sharing a room at The Bison Inn.

We stayed with my college roommates on our final stop in Minneapolis.  They stuffed us with homemade treats.  Michael replaced the radiator in my 2000 Honda Civic.  It failed just as we were entering the city.  My job was to hand him the tools he called for.

We arrived home the day before Labor Day, around 11 p.m.  I dropped him off at home in his questionable neighborhood, sobbing on the front lawn.

July 19, 2012.  I didn’t know everything was about to change.  That, in many ways, it would be the last day of my “previous life.”   How could I?  And yet, how could I not?

I believe my brain was protecting me from that which I could not yet conceive of.

My divorce was final a little more than 10 months ago.  I live alone for the first time in my life.  I buried my birth mother in the spring.

I felt new lips over mine for the first time in many, many years.  And I watched my heart crack open.  Then again.  And again.

A couple of weeks ago, I initiated the process of separating our monies.  When that is complete, only our condominium, which we rent out, will bind us – financially.

I applied for a job today.  The first in more than 11 years.  I’m excited.  Fingers crossed.

This morning, two women commented that I sounded really good.  A third asked for my blog address.  Later, my friend Jess asked if I could have imagined how much I would have healed by now.  It struck me as funny, as I didn’t feel particularly healed.  I decided to trust her perspective, and that of the three other women.

I wrote J a birthday greeting.  I wished him what I wish for everyone I love – joy and the causes of joy.  And then I wished him something special – something  just for him:  a nice piece of liver for dinner.

He knew exactly what it meant.  And suggested a watermelon instead.  I laughed out loud.

It is comforting to know not everything has changed since July 19, 2012.  To know that some things have survived.  Friendship.  Love.   Shared memories and private jokes.  And most of all, me.

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Artist’s Date 19: We’re Only As Sick As Our Secrets

anne sextonI met Catherine Kaikowska my senior year of college, in an 8 a.m. poetry class.

She was all black.  Turtleneck.  Boots.  Leggings.  All hair.  Brown.  Shoulder length.  Wide and kind of frizzy.  She hiked herself up on the desk, crossed her legs in front of her and cracked open a can of Diet Coke.  “Fuck, it’s early,” she mumbled.

I liked her right away.

She liked me too, and invited me to meet her at The Peanut Barrel – an East Lansing institution known for good burgers, cheap pitchers of beer, and peanut shells covering the floor – where we sucked down Labatts Blues, chain smoked and talked about sex until closing.

She was from Ohio, and used to work the door at a club where Chrissie Hynde played before she made it big with The Pretenders.  The place she vowed she’d never return to until that time.

I haven’t thought about Catherine in a long time.  Until last Thursday, when I slipped a biography of Anne Sexton into my robin’s egg blue Samsonite carry-on bag, circa 1972, and boarded a plane bound for Nashville.

I was first introduced to Sexton in Catherine’s class, along with Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and her mentor at Michigan State University, Diane Wakoski.  Yet my interests lied with the testosterone-rich voice of Charles Bukowski.  The beatnik fantasy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

I pulled the book out – a tomb, really, nearly 500 pages, hardcover and wrapped in acetate that is supposed to protect it – at Midway Airport, after checking my orange hard-case luggage and picking up a mediocre Americano.  Artist’s Date 19, surrounded by fellow travelers with faces tucked into ipad and smartphone screens.

If we are only as sick as our secrets, then Sexton was the picture of health – for she had none.  She was transparent, as I have been described.  Only more so.

Teacher and mentor John Holmes begged Sexton not to publish her darker, highly confessional poems.  Advice she ignored, and turned into, “For John, Who Begs Me Not To Enquire Further.”

And yet, clearly she wasn’t well, as she took her own life at 45, just two years older than my 43.

Sexton threaded the stories of her life through men – how they reflected her.  She was wildly flirtatious.  A presence.  And, at times, profoundly sad.

She tended to sexualize significant relationships.  She had fluid boundaries.

She felt, at times, in competition with her mother.  And was considered alcoholic.

She gave away her heart too easily.

In “More Than All the Rest,” a poem to her long-term psychiatrist Dr. Martin Orne, she writes:

“Oh, I have raped my inner soul/And give it, naked, to you,/Since my warm mouth and arms/might love, and frighten you.”

I saw myself.  I looked around the airplane to see if anyone else saw me too.

I felt sick, like the medical-school student convinced she has contracted each disease she studies.

But I am not Anne.  I didn’t suffer post-partum depression.  I didn’t hand over my children to be raised by my mother-in-law.  I don’t have children.  I’ve never been pregnant.

I haven’t been institutionalized.  I didn’t take my own life.

Sexton’s gift was making something out of her sick.  Creating art.  Allowing others to see inside the most shameful parts of herself and whisper, “me too.”  In the process, she found both “her people” and herself.

Me too.

The plane touched down.  I was 78 pages in.  I slipped an index card into the book to hold my place, on it is a prayer I had written.  My own words.  My own healing.