There’s a dinky beige bookcase in my room. It sits directly next to the window, it’s flat top level with the sill. It makes a perfect end table for the wooden end table next to my bed. At this point, it’s basically just a mismatched table with shelves, completely filled and overflowing. I’ve always had too many books to shelve let alone count, so when I moved in I made up an order for the books; the top shelf is nonfiction, bottom shelf is fiction, and the weird extra space where the bookcase doesn’t quite meet the ground is oversized. Then, I put all the books in a big pile and sat in the middle of them for a while, because sometimes I get halfway through doing things and then I don’t feel like doing them anymore, especially cleaning. I started looking through all the books.
I collect books like most people collect pocket lint: I never know how much I have until I pull it all out to look at it. Books are way cooler than pocket lint though, especially mine. Most books have a story, that’s kinda the point of a book, but my books are special; they have two stories– the one inside, and the one I create while reading. My copy of my book is instantly more awesome than your copy of that same book because it’s mine. The notes inside it, the memories and sensations, are invaluable to me.
In an act of supreme procrastination, I decided to split the books into favorites based on my new system of of shelve-genres. “The best ones go in the front,” I said to my cat, who was supervising the entire adventure from my bed.
It was tough. Every book I own is a great book, even if I don’t particularly like it. It’s literally the brainchild of some weary author-parent, and I try not judge people’s babies: it’s bad form. That said, some books are more special to me than others because they resonate beyond their stories. I have been fortunate enough to find books that give me goosebumps just to remember. Books whose messages, stories, character, and tone all aligned so perfectly that I, miles apart and years later, thought to myself, “This is important to me.” It’s incredibly gratifying to identify a piece of yourself within someone else’s work.
So, I was sitting there holding a giant scan of Kurt Cobain’s diary when I decided this. Reading his personal journal had left absolutely no impact on my life, so I put it on the bottom of the oversized shelf, face up, directly on the floor. Feeling productive, I put all the books I’d be least likely to reread anytime soon in size order, and then pushed them all the way back to fit the others. The dinky bookcase doesn’t have a back and doesn’t sit quite right under the wall, so when all the books are pushed back, others can be slid in on top of them horizontally. All of the leftover books went in that slot, according to shelf-genre, of course.
Since then, the careful order has descended into chaos. Books are constantly pulled, marked, dog-earred and discarded in passion or in boredom. I knew things were bad when I started reaching for the books in the back, Getting them out was always a huge issue because I had to peek behind the ones in the front to see what was there. Every time, I ended up cross-legged on the carpet in the center of a pile of books. It started happening so often that my cat stopped coming to watch. One particularly bad night, I pulled out the oversized books. I don’t usually read these because they’re super niche: the giant red book copy of Kurt Cobain’s Diary, a large book of concept art for a Japanese manga that reads from right to left, and the hardback edition of a favorite comic arc. In frustration, I thrust my hand back into the shelf and stretched. There, against the wall, a small book that had fallen through the back of the shelf. I pulled it out. It was pocket-sized and red, with a yellow skull on the front. Slaughterhouse Five.
Sweet relief! From the very first time I read the very first page of Slaughterhouse Five in high school, I knew that I was in love. It was and always will be my most favorite book. My boyfriend, a grade above me, had to read it first and I’ll confess, I stole his copy. He kept it in his room, right on his wooden dresser, a red spot in the chlorine-pool blue room. It sat there, bright and bold against his black binder and his gray textbooks. At school, our English classes were in the same room, so every day I’d walk in and see rows of Slaughterhouse Five sitting in the metal cages that extended from the bottom of the blue chairs. I asked the teacher to borrow a copy but there weren’t enough to go around. Even the school library was out of copies. It was like the world was tempting me with an unreadable book, and that only made me more curious.
“Well, how is it?” I asked my boyfriend on the train home one day.
“I haven’t started reading it yet,” he said.
It went on like this for weeks! I’d see it still just sitting there, and I’d ask about it, and he’d answer nonchalantly and change the subject. Finally one day I said, “Are you guys still reading that book in class?”
He laughed but kind of strangled, like this wasn’t the first time today somebody had brought that up, and said, “We were actually supposed to give it back but I keep forgetting .”
“Just give it to me.”
He did! What a present! My goodness, the book did not disappoint. WWII, time travel, and aliens are just the start. What really gets me about Slaughterhouse every time I read it is the narrator. The first and last chapters of the book are told with the Vonnegut as the main character, because this book is semi-autobiographical, meaning it’s mostly true– minus the time travel and aliens, and fictional events. He really was a soldier in WWII, he really was captured by the Germans, he really was held as a POW in a slaughterhouse and he actually was rescued after the bombing of Dresden.
Stylistically speaking, Vonnegut makes a lot of interesting choices that stood out to me immediately; his tone is conversational, his story is discombobulated and out of order, and he uses apostrophes as quotations. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. He describes every scene like an omnipresent ghost. Most of the book is harrowing and strange, which I think is one of the larger points of it, but, some of it is downright hilarious.
I mostly read while sitting on the train, with the little red book bent backwards in my hand, a highlighter or a pencil in the other. I’d sit and scribble notes and reactions as stops and times passed unnoticed. One of my favorite, and most marked passages, is when the narrator is describing the main character’s drunken adventure home:
The main thing now was to find the steering wheel. At first, Billy windmilled his arms, hoping to find it by luck. When that didn’t work, he became methodical, working in such a way that the wheel could not possibly escape him. He placed himself hard against the left-hand door, searched every square inch of the area before him. When he failed to find the wheel, he moved over six inches, and searched again. Amazingly, he was eventually hard against the right-hand door, without having found the wheel. He concluded that somebody had stolen it. This angered him as he passed out.
He was in the back seat of his car, which was why he couldn’t find the steering wheel.
“He’s an absolute madman!” I said to my teacher, my boyfriend, my cat, anyone who would listen. “I love it!” Every page offered some new delightful turn of phrase, apropos description, or thought provoking comment. I read it, and reread it, and even did a presentation on it. I vowed to hold onto my copy, filled with my reactions and notes. It was an oath I took seriously. I could be like Billy Pilgrim, depositing myself into random moments of time.
I don’t know if you’ve ever fallen in love with a book, but it can be disastrous. Like a lot of relationships, it’s great until it’s over. When it is, all that’s left is the memory of the anticipation, and of the understanding. You can reread it but you can never get to know the characters quite the same way as the first time. You want more but often, that’s not an option. Slaughterhouse never hurt me like that and it’s probably why I kept it around. Each page was like a long night talking, each chapter was a date. By the time I finished the book, I felt satisfied like good sex and a cigarette. But nothing lasts forever. I guess what happened between us was my fault, because I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to share.
He had a long, boring day of work ahead of him; the kind where there’s no more work to do but no one is allowed to leave, so you sit there and shake your leg like that’ll make the time pass faster.
“I will let you borrow my copy of Slaughterhouse if you want,” I offered so generously.
But my altruistic nature proved to be our downfall: that’s when things fell apart with Slaughterhouse and I. It makes sense, I’ve heard that introducing a third party to a relationship can often cause problems, but I didn’t expect that from them. They stayed together for months.
I’d call my boyfriend, who never stayed in one state for too long, and say, “you’re gonna bring him home to me right?”
“Of course, Sara,” he’d say patiently.
“Do you like it?”
“Yes, Sara,” he’d say less patiently.
“You’re not finished with him yet, are you?” I’d ask, jealous and hopeful.
When I went out visit him in whichever city it was that time, we got a hotel room situated far from the downtown area. I hadn’t been expecting that, so I hadn’t brought any books. We hoisted our suitcases onto the big bed with the wallpaper-design sheets and started emptying them out. My boyfriend slid Slaughterhouse from his suitcase and situated it perfectly on the corner of his squat end table, directly under the light.
“You brought it!” I yelled, nearly jumping onto the suitcases to reach for it.
“I did,” he said, “but I was thinking that I’d just hang on to it over here on my side for a while.”
I put my hand to my heart. “Why would you do that?”
“Well… I didn’t finish it.”
“You didn’t…finish…it?” Images of me laying curled up late at night, clutching the red book and my blanket, disappeared as the neurotransmitters in my brain popped and died in disbelief.
He burst out laughing and handed me the book. “I’m just messing with you. That reaction was priceless. Slaughterhouse was great.”
We talked about it for a while, and the whole situation got me so excited that I ended up reading the entire book again that night after he went to bed. I read it later on the plane home, too. It seemed a happy to resolution to my short breakup with Vonnegut. We continued on as if things were the same; my pencil marks still etched the pages, and my highlighted sections still shone, but I noticed the differences too; the extra tear on his back, the fading of his spine, the extra creases in his pages. He was worn and used.
When I got home from that trip, I decided to broaden my options. I collected every book I could find in my house into a giant pile and sorted through all of them. To this day, Slaughterhouse cannot be found. I’ve checked all his hiding places, travel bags and end tables, shelves and crannies. I’ve looked for him often, I’ve looked for him recently, but he does not seem to want to be found. I’ve read other copies of Slaughterhouse, I own an ebook now so this once can’t escape, but it’s not the same. I’m hopeful that one day my copy will turn up, so I can travel through time with Billy Pilgrim again.
Sara Watkins (she/her) is an editor, author, UCTD-haver, and EIC of Spoonie Press, a literary magazine for chronically ill, disabled, and neurodivergent creators. She is also a big fan of deviating from the norm for her own comfortability and entertainment. Her writing explores themes of disability and autonomy using wry surrealism and general weirdness to champion the idea that, despite our differences, we are not alone. Recent publications include work in Wordgathering: A Journal of Disability, MASKS Literary Magazine, Vast Chasm, Bitchin’ Kitsch, and Unlikely Stories. Sara can be reached via www.sarawatkins.net or @saranadebooks on Twitter and Instagram.
July 2017. The flight from JFK was marked by the initial thrill of taking the A train subway from 145th Street in Harlem to the Rockaways for $2.75, and then for an additional five dollars cash mounting the Air Train to Terminal 5. I cut straight to the bottom of the island of Manhattan, the subway crossed underwater into Brooklyn, through Queens, destined for the beautiful Rockaways.
A week before I had gone to the Rockaways by ferry from Wall Street for $5.50, sailing South into the Bay past the Statue of Liberty, turning East along the Brooklyn coast of Coney Island and docking at the Rockaway peninsula to discover a beautiful and strange beach I’d never known.
—“…[N]o more than a detour on the long, featureless road of my loneliness.”
This sentence would help inform what the novel I was reading was about, or what the heroine of the novel was about. I had started to read the novel on the A train to JFK, and I read that sentence just as the plane was preparing to take off to San Diego. What did the author Rachel Cusk mean?
This dilemma was just one of many dilemmas I was coming up against as I put down the book to begin writing this play, this monologue for which, honestly, I did not have a map nor course plotted; could not captain the ship—not that I sail. My father had sailed a catamaran from France across the Atlantic with a crew of five and a dog, entering the same Bay past the Statue of Liberty. I, however, had no operating principle for how to proceed with this text and no sense of belief that there were any guiding principles at all. Had the world exploded?
Writing for me had been, up to now, tied to how I existed as human. I wrote plays and by excavating subjects, I built creations that lived and breathed. And these creations became similar to children–though I have none, so how can I say for sure?
Yes, I do feel they are my children.
And yet plays are not children. Your average person, I think, would say plays are not children. And those who have given birth to children, to other human beings, might find my feeling naïve, even insulting.
Another dilemma thrown nearly into my lap on the airplane from JFK was the young woman sitting next to me. She was perfectly made-up, and groomed to appear as if a beautiful, sleek doll. Her eyebrows appeared finely threaded, she wore a diamond in each ear and on her wedding finger. She wiped down her seat and the area around her seat with a sanitary wipe. It seemed her next step would be to start to wipe me down as well. She then called the person on her phone screen which said “Daddy,” and then her mother. I could not see if the screen said, “Mommy.” She began to take photos of herself with her phone, altering her face with certain effects, large, round black-framed eyeglasses, and then devil horns. She merged herself and her husband sitting next to her in more photos, with dual devil horns. Then I could hear her make a video of them saying together, “Going to San Diego.” She started to play what appeared to be a vegetable version of Candy Crush, while simultaneously watching “The Zookeeper’s Wife” on the TV screen in front of her. I barely know Candy Crush and do not know if I was right about the vegetables. She had a third screen on her lap, a tablet, where she watched make-up tutorials that played in kind of stop-and-go slow motion.
All this distracted me, momentarily, from the sentence about loneliness I had just read in the novel. When I looked back at it, I thought I certainly wouldn’t describe “the road of my loneliness” as featureless.
One of the over-arching dilemmas in the sea of them was that all these screens scared me, but I was beholden and bonded to the one I was now trying to write on, and the other one I received my messages on. These screens were the equipment of a career, a life. But it was inevitable that the man—whose blonde, previously orange hair was ever-present—always showed up in a kind of grand guignol effect on these screens, come what may. A kind of supernatural shock of: when would the next shoe drop in the dreaded Trump show?
I lived in a 300 square foot room in Harlem with no access to light from any windows, which looked out on brick, and on what seemed to me to be an abandoned scaffolding. Perhaps, yes, this was in fact after all “featureless loneliness.”
Directly across the hall, our doors practically touching, lived an extended family, also in a similar-sized room, however with a large supply of furniture and electronic equipment. They cooked meals in large proportions whose odors wafted plentifully into the hall, and people of all ages came and went at all hours, in a disciplined round-the-clock schedule of work, school and life. It made me happy to see this bang-for-its-buck living situation and it appeared at least from the other side of the door that these were people with a place on this island.
The memoir, the autobiographical, exposes one’s own personal cast of characters. And so, as one gives birth this time—so to speak—to this, I ask the question, if this is even a decent thing to do?
When I arrived in San Diego, my sister kindly left the cell phone lot to pick me up in her red Fit with the Thule roof-rack still atop of her car as she approached, having arrived weeks earlier from Montana. She wore a turquoise and black dress, which accented her beautiful tan, and flat black sandals which accentuated her turquoise toe polish. Her short dark hair fell in ringlets. She said that my mother had talked of coming with her to pick me up, but instead, in the front seat of the car was my father, 92, wearing shorts, which I had not seen him wear in maybe four decades. He wore new and attractive sports shoes, if worn with socks that my sister had suggested he fold over.
His hair, which has always been beautiful and thick, was white, wild, extending in wisps in all directions. He spoke so quietly from the front seat I could not hear him, after I hugged him. He was hard of hearing, and, in the past years had started to speak more and more softly. My sister said that it was not a great use of my mother’s physical energy to come to the airport, with her walker.
My parents’ house looked quite the same. It had been nearly my first home, where they’d moved soon after I was born—a 1960s tract home my parents had paid more than they could afford, to have a view of cows on a hill in the distance. Cows on a hill were as unlikely now as reaching any sanity on the repealing of Obamacare, which was our topic of discussion in the car from the airport.
Unfortunately, my father could not hear what my sister was saying, and she implied to me that a fight with him had ensued recently about some aspect of this topic. This was hard to believe because we were in my family all absolutely and unanimously on the same side, Anti-the-grand-guignol with orange hair. But my sister implied through muted whispers and facial expressions in the rearview mirror—not that my father could hear or would notice—that the fight had to do with a fierce stubbornness on his part to be understood precisely on a sub-topic surrounding the repealing of Obamacare that was obscure and relevant to him, but not clear to us. My father is a scientist.
It was very late by then and my mother was asleep. This was the first time in my life she was not there to greet me. I took the narrow single bed in what we called the Obama Room. This room had long ago been my younger brother’s room. It shared a wall with my parents’ room.
It had become an office with a computer, and also a kind of sub-room for my mother, who hung some of her clothes there. It also was crowded with a huge, striking dark wooden armoire from my father’s rural France. As everywhere in the house there was an overwhelming number of books on shelves that had been created to accommodate more and more.
On the bed was a colorful bedspread with an enormous image of Obama’s face and lettering saying: “From Slavery to the White House.” The comfort of sleeping under the Obama blanket, while flanking the wall with my elderly parents, who slept as well as they could despite their illnesses and age, was on some level exquisite.
It was almost as if from this vantage point, in the Obama Room, under the Obama blanket that enveloped me, with my parents flanking me, I could expunge the grand guignol clown, Trump, at least momentarily.
I started reading from my book again when my father knocked on the door. I said, “Come in,” and he entered with a large yellow flashlight, which looked brand new, and said, what I already knew, that he liked everyone in the family to have their own, separate, flashlight, in case there was a problem in the night. I nodded and took the flashlight, which I tried to find a place for on the tiny night-table already full to the brim.
He asked that I make sure it worked. I turned it on. He then looked at me and said that it would also be necessary to turn it off. We share the same sense of–all be it–elliptical humor. I turned it off and thanked him. I kissed him goodnight and said, “Bon Siar,” which was a pet phrase we used to say goodnight. He started to leave and then turned back and came to hug me and kiss me. He said, “I am so happy you are here,” as he left, “and it is I who thanks you.”
This would be I thought to myself the opposite of featureless loneliness, and, also, something that I had not seen or heard my father do before. It was innocent, sweet. Then he closed the door.
As a little girl, when plagued with wild dreams I would go to my mother’s side of the bed and say: “J’ai fait un mauvais rêve.”
The next morning the ant infestation in the kitchen that had been acknowledged the night before had become worse. My sister identified the crack in the grout from where the ants were emerging—an “all systems go!” signal having been sent out to their armies, it seemed. She skillfully unleashed blue tape from a bulky roll and stuck it along the grout to halt their passage.
After breakfast, my sister suggested that we go to town to see an exhibit of murals at the Historical Society. Her daughter, my niece, was taking a photography class in the adjoining building. The challenge of my mother’s 2:40pm appointment with a doctor called King was thoroughly discussed. The clinic where we would take my mother had once been identified by a piece of famous artwork, a gigantic bronze sculpture, that had been erected at the clinic’s front door. The sculpture had the appearance of, how else to say it, a large piece of shit–and had been razed. And so, my mother, without judgment, identified the clinic for us as the one with “la crotte” in front of it. This immediately made sense to us and my sister and I decided we had plenty of time to see the murals at the Historical Society and still make it to the doctor’s in time.
My sister was sure that my father could not be readied for the trip at hand and suggested that I go out and talk to him about getting dressed. I searched for him in a variety of places in the house, and garden.
He had the tendency to move around quite stealthily, so that people would say they had just seen him in a spot, but when you went there, he was gone. I found him on the side of the driveway inspecting some plants. I explained that we were going into town to see some murals. He was not wearing his hearing aid and asked me to explain who was going on the journey, where we were going, when we would leave, and then asked me to repeat the details again. I explained that the goal would be to get dressed and be ready to go by 10:30. He nodded vaguely as he continued to inspect the plants. I insisted on the details once more and left him. I told my sister of my success and she said there was zero chance he would be ready.
She went back out to the driveway where he still was and explained the rigor of our plan. As I went to shower, I heard her calling to him as she re-entered the house, “You need to focus.” It struck me as extraordinary that my little sister, who had always been advised and ordered around by the patriarchy—though perhaps that is a reductive way to put it–was now blatantly telling my father to focus, in perhaps the exact tone he might once have told her to.
When take-off time had passed, we helped my father to get dressed, to locate certain items such as his wallet; place glasses in his clean shirt pocket, and make sure that he had witnessed the secure locking of the windows and front door of the house. He had fallen recently and bloodied his face, leaving a scar, and we urged him to take his cane, which he flatly refused, putting it back where we found it. After some psychological ministrations he took the cane, which he used with remarkable ease.
After parking and helping my mother out of the car, unfolding the walker, and setting her on her path, with my father, we went to a small chapel my mother wanted to revisit. There we lit a candle and I read a sort of prayer that was written above the candle area. We all meditated, and I believe my mother said Amen. We were in an Episcopalian church and my mother is Catholic. It seemed to me at this point that we and the candle were encompassed in a universal religion, that of a miracle. We were all, as it were, standing—to a certain degree—on our two feet, that is: not on all fours, with no apparent falls, no fights, relatively on schedule, and at peace under the tutelage of the candle flame and the candle directives. “Protect us and remember us.”
At the Historical Society were the drafts of a mural created for the federal government by WPA Belle Goldschlager Baranceanu, in 1940. By chance, “The Seven Arts” mural was above the stage of my high school where at 16 I played the Fortune Teller in The Skin of Our Teeth. My hair streaked with gray, I was asked by my director, Mr. Stewart, to sit on the lip of the stage for my monologue. “I tell the future…” The next word of my monologue was “Keck.” This was not a stage direction. French being my first language, I always wondered if I was missing something I should already know. Keck was a laugh? A cackle? I’m not exactly sure what I did for that. “Everybody’s future is in their face…Your youth, —where did it go?…Next year the watchsprings inside you will crumple up. Death by regret,—Type Y. You’ll decide that you should have lived for pleasure, but that you missed it…” In the school paper, my name and performance were singled out–information I happened upon by complete surprise.
I don’t remember what they said.
“You know as well as I do what’s coming…But first you’ll see shameful things. Some of you will be saying: ‘Let him drown. He’s not worth saving…’ Again, there’ll be the narrow escape. The survival of a handful. From destruction,–total destruction.”
As a girl, I loved dirt; the taste in my mouth. The smell of grass, mud. To find a fort in the canyon above our house, where I could hide—and live. Scanning the countryside on a camping trip–Baja, Mexico, the desert—for places to go. Taught by Maman and Papa to live in a car, a tent, in the dirt, with one bag of possessions.
I was 16, the Fortune Teller was old, and she didn’t give a shit about what anyone thought.
As I grew up my body was always up for scrutiny.
“Salad will make your thighs rosier.”
“You have the hips to make great children.”
“Sorry that your kids will have no breast milk.” (i.e., considering the [small] size of your breasts.)
“Don’t wear shorts that show those [same] thighs, and if you do, that’s your fault for getting pinched on the behind or on the nipple as you walk down the street.” That’s what my mother said to me. And that’s what the men had told my mother when she was a girl.
Honestly, that was just “normal” to me.
After the Historical Society, we hurried forth to the building with the former piece of shit- sculpture. Despite my mother’s handicapped placard to park, we could not locate a legitimate spot—though I saw from the corner of my eye that a “valet” option was open to all. I paused slightly to comprehend “valet” parking from anthropological and sociological perspectives but had no time before unfolding the walker, accessing the nearly denied cane, unfolding limbs from car seats, setting bodies upright, organizing a march into the luxurious, sprawling clinic, as my sister solemnly promised to park where she could, and find us.
The hospital affiliate was an industry of appointment counters, sub-stations, hand sanitizing machines, coffee gazebos/shops, wings with prominent lettering to show donors—so that a certain name was attributed to a certain body part, or illness. My parents and I began our ascent to the Mr. and Mrs. So and So Parkinson’s Center on the third floor, my mother walking very fast, listing forward on her walker and my father walking very slowly because of the cane. When he had fallen and badly bloodied his face, my sister had fainted, and he had also injured his finger. As she was fainting, my sister promised my mother that she would soon be back on the scene to help. Nonetheless my father had remarkable stamina to heal, and his facial scar was nearly gone.
My parents were soon whisked in to see the doctor and my sister joined me in the waiting room. She fell into a well-deserved light nap, and I seized the moment to make a phone call to see if I could find a larger space for a reading of a musical, we were doing in a bit more than a month. The answer was a definite no, which was fortunate because just at that moment our names rang out in an unexpected announcement on the PA system. I couldn’t tell at first if it was heralding an honor or a problem. My sister and I were directed through a coded security door and found my parents with the doctor, who told us that he was in love with our mother. We nodded in hearty agreement and laughed when he continued looking at my father saying, “that she was already taken.” The doctor made a quaint and somewhat pantomime of a hand turning pages indicating that my mother was doing too much reading, and not enough moving.
A frustrating or vindicating—not sure—realignment of medication was prescribed, along with the suggestion that our mother join a special boxing gym tailored for Parkinson’s. The doctor left us in a kind of elliptical abandonment, and we remained unsure if the visit had ended, though my mother assured us that he would return. The four of us sat huddled in the small cubicle, and my mother began tallying the new dosages of medication and new times during the day that they needed to be taken, a process aided at home by a specific talking alarm to remind her.
Ultimately, the doctor visit was pretty much over though he did return to call his own mother-inlaw to ask her where she herself boxed at her special gym. By the time we got back into the car a lethargy—and a deep desire I’m sure for my mother to settle down to turn more pages when she got mercifully home–had been established. The traffic was very bad, and we inched home in what could be named for myself only as a dark and numb defeat. I donned my bathing suit and running shorts and my sister, my niece and I re-entered the car and were at the beach very soon.
The weather had grown foggy, sunny, gray, and then bright, a kind of ever-shifting humid swirl. I ran as far as I could to the North, along the shore until the rocks stopped me because I was barefoot. Then I ran as far as I could south into the flocks of beachgoers at the hotels with their designated seating; past the kayak clubs, and finally the lone father-and-son snorkelers. I ran fast and hard, as if I had suddenly become a long-distance runner, with a new career. I could feel myself becoming a dedicated runner who would run forever, I thought, away from everything, gaining a great perspective from the running, that of more than anything having escaped. My body felt like a well-oiled machine, fit for a very grand exit. I then plunged myself into the Pacific which was so frothy with salt that I felt I was in a saline bubble bath of the California me, and the water warm, warm, warm, warmer than it had ever been in the half century I’d known it.
“The ants come marching one by one, hurrah, hurrah…” was a tune I had not attributed much weight to, nor even thought I really remembered. And yet they maintained their presence despite the blue tape my sister continued to lay atop the holes in the grout that she continued to find. In the night, a relatively small trail emerged from the bathroom ceiling to the tiled floor, almost a hallucination since they were gone in the morning. But they had been pushed from the kitchen, so they were re-routed. Another morning there appeared another small trail, returned to the kitchen—seemingly delighted to have found an empty wooden cutting board with the remnants of cheese.
What is the wild child? This discovery perhaps in the morning upon waking, of failure? That solid, clear-eyed attempts at reasoning will outweigh chaos, that for oneself, the so-called captain of one’s ship—not that I sail—will manage to change her trajectory towards peace and progress.
And the coming up short.
My mother shuffles, I can hear her coming from far away. When she is near, she keeps hold on the walker, but teeters.
I remember I’d just had two wisdom teeth pulled on the spur of the moment. I called to tell my meditation teacher I could not come to class. There was a pause. “It’s best you come,” he said.
Those around you, those who love you, who know you, know your “sins.” They saw them happen. They already know what happened. Do you have to write them down?
The patriarchy rips apart the feminine? Bad behavior, yelling, abuse, intolerable situations children are subjected to. I was that child turning on the fan in the bathroom and even the water sometimes so as not to hear.
And on this trip to San Diego, I did it again, though was different. I was no longer destroyed by these two people my parents, despite my father’s new kind of 92-year-old rage.
I had only love for them, and yet the fan was a nice way to be alone, and not distracted by voices for a spell.
I now enjoyed the familial company, the constant hairpin turns based on what was needed at any given second for those who were merely trying to stand on their own two legs; to manage the days, punctuated by the medication alarm voicing its feminine confirmation, “Alarm acknowledged, the next alarm will be…”
When I returned to New York from San Diego, I learned from two writers that a homeless woman was in the community writing room where I wrote.
And then as I got up from writing this, to go the restroom there was a man in the hallway who asked if I could provide him with a key to the men’s room. The writing room was suddenly on the map. On the phone, my mother tells me that at 9:15 am, the doorbell rang, and her friend offered her and Papa a boudin blanc, then dashed off. White blood sausage. Then Maman asks if I have ever eaten a horse. I’m not sure how the subject so swiftly switched, but answer: “No.” Her father believed horse was good for anemia. During the war, they ate what they could, she says. My father, on the speakerphone, if barely audible, says that, yes, he has also eaten horse.
“Avec leurs fers—horseshoe and all.” As I hang up, I think I hear my father call out my name, so I call back. My mother says no. My mother also tells me she would have preferred black blood sausage.
In their fireplace, which they no longer use to make fires, my parents have an effigy of Donald Trump. On Sunday, the day I was leaving San Diego my mother sat in her usual armchair. My father had just sat on the hassock next to her. She had beckoned him to come sit there so that they could read the goodbye card I wrote for them. After my father read it, he called our attention to the words: “fille aînée.” Oldest daughter, which is how I signed. If you change the “n” to “m,” it is “fille aîmée, beloved, he said.
My father grew up in landlocked France, a place called La Creuse. He read an ad, joined a crew to sail a catamaran, with red Chinese sails, across the Atlantic. He wrote a book about his crossing La croisière du Copula published by Julliard and translated into English. I postponed reading the book for a long time. He wrote of his joy–a word, I did not recognize. This is after he entered New York Harbor.
Then he met a Frenchman who made the perfume Arpège, who also had a plastics business. My father dreamed of designing a fiber glass sailboat, made a handshake deal and built the 50-foot sailboat himself. The perfume man then seized this boat from him and broke his heart. He stopped sailing and became an oceanographer in San Diego. His wild heart converted to measuring. He made instruments to measure tides.
She would not come to the airport. With her Parkinson’s, the walker and her imbalance it was too difficult.
California. New York. But even before I moved East over thirty years ago there had been this seismic, cosmic question. How to go away?
My father did come to the airport. She remained in the chair.
I love you. How I would hope that my voice or my eyes or my lips against your cheeks would let you know for good. I think of you all the time and this is not loneliness.
The day after I left my parents, my father threw a box of Fiber All at my mother because we said he was no longer allowed to drive.
When my mother’s family repatriated from Algeria, they were given a wooden crate. Her parents’ simple wooden bed set was put in that crate and sailed to Toulon, France. In Toulon, France, in my last year of high school I passed my Baccalaureate in Philosophy, to try to become the French me. The bed sent from Algeria later made its way to San Diego. My mother said the morning I left, “What does it even mean now, that I am ill, and I need a new bed? It will all go away. It has no value.” But she also meant that it had no monetary value but something else.
Once I was no longer a child, crying was alarming to my parents.
Back in New York I can feel tears under my eyelids, the drops like birds when you hear a big group of them in a thick tree but can’t see them. And in my heart, in my chest, is a welling up, an explosion waiting to happen.
There are two parent doves outside my parents’ window. When Papa is alone, he goes out to the patio and walks towards their nest and whistles to them. I wish I could show you how he whistles but only he knows how to do that.
The following spring, in Harlem on my birthday, I walked in a big blizzard to the subway. The flakes were large and puffy. Along the way I saw an expansive film crew setting up a shoot. I heard a crew member saying they’d be shooting all night. This, in a building with an abandoned jazz club, which was a historical landmark and had the vestiges of a red sign outside. In the weeks before I had seen people doing some fixing up of the sign and the dilapidated interior. I assumed from this repair work that the club was going to re-open. The next night, while Ed Norris in the director’s chair shot his film starring Alec Baldwin and Bruce Willis, the building burst into flames and a firefighter lost his life. The next morning the whole area was a closed-off investigation.
Four days later I went in a Lyft, with my husband, to get our taxes done at our accountant near Grand Central. The traffic crawled as all the roads were blocked. A procession and a funeral for the firefighter were being held at St. Patrick’s. Firefighters poured down the streets.
Then that afternoon I took the MegaBus to Washington D.C. My friend’s mother had gone to Cornell University with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The next morning, we walked to the Supreme Court, went through many forms of security, relinquished all our belongings, and sat in Justice Ginsburg’s box. When the first lawyer began his argument about partisan gerrymandering, Justice Ginsburg immediately interrupted him and asked him a question. Later we met Ruth in her quarters, and she showed my friend a book of photos from Malta, where she had traveled and where my friend was going. She showed us the boxes where she stored her research materials for each case. And a photo of her great grandchild. She wore a beautiful textured jacket, with distinctive buttons, brown pants, and brown heels. Her eyes looked out penetratingly from her eyeglasses. She was so kind.
On the MegaBus back to New York, an Asian woman got very sick, vomiting in the bathroom. Her male partner administered acupuncture to her. A girl child who was the only one in her party who spoke English said we should call 911. The bus driver decided to take the woman and her family to Baltimore. At the bus shelter we called her a cab and arranged for her to go to a motel. By the time we got back to New York City it was very late. The remains of the now burnt-out building with the abandoned jazz club were being placed in dumpsters to be carried away. The fire trucks and fire men were there as if in a vigil for what they could no longer do.
The next year in late summer I was invited to Hawaii for a writers’ fellowship by Barry Lopez and one of my publishers Manoa to honor my work in social justice. Barry had recently written a new book called HORIZON: “What we say we know for sure changes every day, but no one can miss now the alarm in the air.”
In Maui, as you descend from the Kihului airport on the Hana Highway past Hana Town you reach Mile Marker 41, in Kipahulu, on the mountain side. From the porch of the guest house where I was staying at Marker 41, you could see a thin steel tower rising above the coconut trees, the plumeria, the avocado trees and the orange trees, as the birds sing. The tower is from the remnants of the sugar cane industry.
If you continue past Mile Marker 41, you reach an unpaved road that climbs and descends before becoming paved again and going inland past Haleakala, one of the world’s largest volcanic craters. And then back towards the Pacific Ocean to return to Kihului airport.
Descending on the Hana Highway there are tall silvery eucalyptus trees that have blueish veins of translucence when I look back at them. The Rainbow Eucalyptus trunk peels away to a green layer which eventually fades to blue and to other colors, before returning to brown and starting the process again.
In San Diego, California, I grew up with green-leaved eucalyptus trees with ash colored bark in the median along La Jolla Scenic Drive, on our way to the right turn to our house on Sugarman Drive. Sometimes the trees were shrouded in fog and sometimes the trees were ashen. You could smell the trees, and my mother made paintings with eucalyptus bark. We carried home swaths of eucalyptus bark that had fallen on the ground, which was an orange brown, with small orange-rust colored pebbles. My mother made pebble mosaics framed in wood. We also glued beach glass and shells, into the image of the Pacific Ocean and a sailboat, which was placed into a wooden frame outside on the patio. My father made the frames. At the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, you can see a hanging of eucalyptus bark which looks like the white fur of a sheep.
Off the Hana Highway near Hana Town, the Pacific has white sand at Hamoa Beach; black sand at Waianapanapa State Park; and red sand at Kōkī Beach. From Kōkī Beach you can see the small island of ‘Ālau.
In Honolulu the kind host at the hotel who directs us to the coffee apologizes for the humidity not usual for the island, he says, due to climate change. We thank him and say: please, you don’t need to apologize for the weather.
In HORIZON Barry Lopez writes: “I felt I wanted to look again at nearly everything I had seen.”
In France, in Guéret, in the department La Creuse, my father’s father Emile shared the garden behind his house with us, the garden where he grew lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes and more. There was a cherry tree, and he had beehives to make honey. Granite is present in La Creuse and also in California. I think of my ancestors when I see granite.
At the farm stand shortly past Mile Marker 41 in Kipahulu there is tender lettuce for sale and taro. Right before this farm stand is the grave of Charles Lindbergh. A German man we meet at the grave, which is minutes from the guesthouse where we were staying, volunteers that Charles must be “lonely.” We walk to the edge of the cemetery/field on the ocean side and see the lookout to the Pacific. Our airport in San Diego on the Pacific is named Lindbergh Field, and there is a large mural of Charles Lindbergh in a pilot’s uniform.
Hunter who lives across the road from the guesthouse is building a type of art gallery directly on the side of the road in a circular tin hut, with a sculpted door of faded turquoise. The hut is surrounded by sculptures, hangings of found objects, boasts a deck, some chairs and a wooden whale with a rock for its eye. Because Hunter is often working along the side of the road many tourists ask him for directions to places including the Lindbergh grave. He hears a lot of different remarks about Lindbergh, which he says he lets pass.
When I traveled to Oran, Algeria, I went to see my mother’s homeland. I went to the top of Santa Cruz and looked down at the Mediterranean. There were pine trees. There is bougainvillea in Hawaii, La Jolla and Oran. My father made a wooden trellis above our patio in La Jolla, where the bougainvillea took hold and covered the area between the house and the sky, sometimes the sun could barely break through. And with time the vines that had taken hold of the trellis would winnow away, but then later spring back.
Come to think of it there was also bougainvillea in Toulon, France, where my mother’s parents and her sister lived after they were repatriated from Algeria.
Hawaii, La Jolla, Oran and Toulon are sun-filled lands. The bougainvillea has pink, purple, orange, white and fuchsia flowers, depending where you are.
In Hana Town we go to the Catholic Mass in the white church, St. Mary, at 9am and go across the street to the Wananalua Congregational church at 10am to hear the service mostly in Hawaiian. We had visited the Catholic church a few days before and met a woman arranging flowers, as well as the priest. The priest says that he will be giving a mass at the tiny church across from the guesthouse where we are staying in Kipahulu at 11am, where generally only two people attend. He will then go on to another even more remote church down the road. We visit that church when we go around the other side of the island to get back to Kihului. There are old, sacred graves marked with black lava rock. The church door is locked, and all is silent but for the waves.
At the Catholic Mass in Hana there is a little girl in a pretty dress standing with her grandmother who plays the ukulele and sings. The little girl is only happy when she is in possession of a gourd so she can drum along with the songs. When other children have the gourd, she acts as if she is in violation of her holy rights and makes tragic faces and cries. She taps her grandmother to get her attention and the grandmother continues to sing, sometimes giving her a comforting touch.
As a girl I went to the white Catholic church in La Jolla called Mary Star of the Sea. Once a eucalyptus tree fell onto the church. There was a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with a blue cape, above the altar: broken pieces of ceramic, which fit together with interstices. The blue cape blended with the blue of the sea in the mosaic. I looked up to her from my pew, holding my mother’s hand.
As children growing up, my best friend across the street and I embarked on many projects. We learned Batik from a family friend and in my backyard, we were able to boil the wax, which we would trace onto the lined designs we made on white sheet scraps. We would crinkle the sheets into a ball, to make cracks in the wax. Then we would dye the fabrics different colors. We would hang up the fabric to dry in the sun and after it dried, we would boil out the wax, then iron our designed fabrics. My friend and I were industrious and enthusiastic, and I remember at the end, we would throw the water into the gutter my father had designed behind our house.
There was a large steep hill behind our house, and the earth went from very dry to sometimes receiving serious rainfall. Drainage of water was a complicated issue for my father. When he first arrived in California, he planted the whole hill with a variety of ice plant, which flowered in purple, yellow and pink, as well as aloe vera plants and other cacti.
I have always loved cacti. In the California desert such as Borrego, where we would hike and camp, there were ocotillo, which flowered in red in the Spring. My mother always pointed them out. My parents loved plants. And she loved purple thistles, which were found in the mountains. She would ask my father to stop the car so she could pick some. I also love thistles. They are delicate, wispy and prickly and stand out for me as my mother’s gift.
At the place where I write in New York City, The Writers Room, there is a woman I have come to know, who has written about women in solitary confinement in the U.S. prison system and is now writing about climate change. Her husband is an active protestor and is put in jail on a regular basis. He asked me to read a one-person play he wrote about his experiences, which have sometimes been dangerous. He went to trial and won his case. He writes to me, when I am in Hawaii, ending his email with: “off to get arrested again tomorrow morning…” Soon after he sends me another email: “Just back from jail,” with a picture captioned: “Shutting down 59th Street outside the Plaza Hotel at the beginning of today’s Bloomberg Global Business Forum.”
The protestors are holding a banner that reads: “Unite Behind the Science.”
The public school in Hana has Hawaiian murals on many of its schoolroom walls. The indoor classroom and the outdoor world meld in Hana. The world in Hawaii is often not divided between outside and inside. The rain in the night can be so fierce and yet when I say the Hana Highway will be very slippery, I am not necessarily right. Some signs along the way that say “Yield” or “Slow Down” are covered with mud, or dust, or stains from vegetation.
Barry writes: “He was never able to determine what he meant by his life.”
In the Bishop Museum I see a model of Hawai’iloa, the wa’a kaulua, a Polynesian double hulled canoe.
La Creuse where my father grew up is inland in the center of France. When he sailed that catamaran across the Atlantic to the Bay of New York, he entered past the Statue of Liberty. Then in Havre de Grace, Maryland, he built one of the first fiber glass sailboats. For me there is great beauty in his sailing across the ocean to the place where I was born. In that beauty is this phrase: “I have never been able to determine what I meant by my life.” You would have to know Guéret, in France, its rural, peasant, natural beauty to know how strangely beautiful it would be to take a boat across an ocean, born from a landlocked village. You would have to know that his father Emile fought in both World War 1 and World War 11. That his brother was in the Resistance.
And when my mother looked down from Mount Soledad, Solitude, to our town La Jolla, The Jewel, and the Pacific she saw her own country Algeria, as she did from Santa Cruz, in Oran. It is impossible to determine the meaning, but only to say it all exists and is real.
“To create a narrative that would engage a reader intent on discovering a trajectory in her or his own life, a coherent and meaningful story, at a time in our cultural and biological history when it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives,” Barry says.
Growing up, I had a fierce personal wish to prove my bilingual Franco-American nature. I decided to graduate a year early from high school in San Diego to get my French Baccalaureate in Toulon, France the following year. I chose the focus of Philosophy, doubled up on the French Literature obligation, and succeeded. Before, in those two years of high school I took an elective typing class in the early morning, which I remember as one of the sweetest classes of all. I made my way through all the Philosophy studies in French, trying to understand as well an 18-year-old could. Hard work has always had a core meaning in my family. As well as dissecting the meaning of words. Both held crucial importance. “Va chercher le dictionnaire,” was a common directive. We were a family that laughed at our mantras and still do. I came back to California after the Baccalaureate. Then I went to New York City, to that harbor where my father passed the Lady Liberty. I likewise traveled all over the globe and across the United States to try to understand what might be my responsibility in this world, which my parents couldn’t help but open for me. What is my obligation as an artist? I talk about the word “complicity” because I am myself complicit.
I have often dwelt in darkness and for this piece I thought I would write in the direction of what I have titled as beauty. Barry writes, “Beauty refers to a high level of coherence existing everlastingly in the world. Pay attention to small things I tell myself. Look closely at what are clearly not the answers to some of your questions. Do not presume that later you’ll be able to read about something you’ve witnessed today.”
The love of my family is not a question. The deserts, the beaches, the mountains of California, and those in Mexico where we drove on what for me was “the perpetual camping trip.” We four siblings would eke out our small territories in the car, in our one bag of clothes, in our tent, in our food supplies. And the way our parents delighted in the avocado, the mango; and the shrimp in San Felipe, Baja California. When I traveled to work on a motobike in Cambodia, I consolidated my supplies in the same way. The love of my artistic collaborations points to discoveries that feel like landing in new territories and exploring them, then finally coming to the edge of a beautiful new sighting. When on the way back to Kihului, the silence; the end of the land as when the cavern came upon us on the back road and my sister said, “Come a little further down the path,” and she smiled at me, and I went.
“Mystery is the real condition in which we live, not certainty,” Barry wrote.
When I was working on a passage in a new play, I tried to unlock a mystery. It is interesting how long it takes sitting at your desk to try:
Is the real problem that we humans are unable to change?
That might be one of the favorite questions of white privilege. I have seen plenty of humans have to change. And those humans are asked to do so again and again.
So, this current feeling of moral exhaustion is also white privilege.
And at my writing space, when I go to get a glass of water in the kitchen, I watch the other writers who come in to also get water or make a cup of tea. We often exchange a simple joke, or comment, or just stare at one another. Sometimes it feels we are staring at each other through that mystery, trying to place words on a page, in our uncertainty.
The airplane is flying toward JFK, New York City. Before, the other airplane flew from Honolulu to San Francisco. Hours were skipped and light changed.
“How to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself,” writes Barry Lopez.
For a long time, I have written plays about genocide. The central characters: Raphael Lemkin, Thida San, Sarah Holtzman, Pol Pot, Luz, Alexandra, Jasmina, Joseph, Eve, Doug and the Prime Minister were some of my guides. There was bloodshed and horror and the complicity of the United States and of my own self–always seeing how I had not seen. Selfishness roars up in front of you, when you have convinced yourself it wasn’t there, or was even the opposite. Those central characters: Lemkin etc. are awareness and they have felt real because I have loved them. At the San Francisco airport hotel on C-Span last night, I watched news about the impeachment proceedings, and the defense by the grand guignol of what he called a “perfect” phone call to the Ukraine. I watched and I knew that the unreal was being taken as real. And then I turned off the light to go to sleep. The hotel bed shook a bit throughout the night. When I mentioned it to the man at the hotel desk as I was leaving, he said, “An earthquake?” I said, “No, it went on all through the night.” He said he’d make a note of my room number. And yet a note might not provide an answer. It appeared to be an older building on the side of a large freeway, on the second floor, which was the top floor. Did the room sway the way San Francisco buildings are said to be engineered to withstand tremors?
There is a banyan tree, past the mango tree U-turn in Kipahulu, that is enormous with a cosmos of branches and tiers. You pass it on the way to the ocean and the remnants of a landing where boats unloaded their sugar cane haul during the 1800s. I own a glass inkwell that says: “Cartier 1897,” purchased for five dollars from the neighbor Hunter across the street from Mile Marker 41. The land behind his house was a dump for the people who worked in the sugar cane industry, and he collects them, by which one can inscribe things in ink.
There is no “drama” in living life.
Barry Lopez died on Christmas Day, 2020.
My mother died 4 days later. As a little girl, when plagued with wild dreams I would go to her side of the bed and say: “J’ai fait un mauvais rêve.” And she would tell me something, a directive That would send me back to sleep. To translate, J’ai fait un mauvais rêve, is to experience the difficulty of our language. “I had a bad dream.” And so is our life together, Our in-between life which exists between language. She who taught me to love it, to write it I can remember writing the words with her Her enthusiasm, passion, practicality with language Langue Tongue Was beyond contagious, it was infectious palpable, breathable. She is in my every breath And has given me this mixed language, which I will continue to disentangle, fathom… Oh, Maman! The in-between Cat Stevens song, she would sing the refrain with us with such delight “Oh, baby, baby, it’s a Wild World”. It was, is. To contain this is to contain Infinity. To start is, not to end.
What is the wild child? That solid, clear-eyed attempts at reasoning will outweigh chaos, that for oneself, the so-called captain of one’s ship, will manage to change the trajectory towards peace and progress.
August 2021. I am walking through the door. And there is Papa.
CATHERINE FILLOUX is an award-winning playwright who has been writing about human rights and social justice for over twenty-five years. Her plays have been produced around the U.S. and internationally. Catherine has been honored with the 2019 Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship; the 2017 Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre; and the 2015 Planet Activist Award. Filloux is the librettist for four operas, produced nationally and internationally; her most recent Orlando is the winner of the 2022 Grawemeyer award. Recent plays include: White Savior at Pygmalion Productions in Salt Lake City, Utah; her web drama about deportation and children, “turning your body into a compass” livestreamed by CultureHub, and “whatdoesfreemean?” produced in New York City by Nora’s Playhouse. Filloux’s plays have been widely published and anthologized. Her new musical Welcome to the Big Dipper is a 2018 National Alliance for Musical Theatre finalist. She received her M.F.A. at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts’ Dramatic Writing Program and her French Baccalaureate in Philosophy, with Honors, in Toulon, France. She is a co-founder of Theatre Without Borders, as well as an alumna of New Dramatists.