I was meeting three times a week, sometimes more, with a man. In between our meetings I waited to see him again. I drove through the traffic of Berkeley, meandered through Berkeley’s utopian grocery stores, every activity I did, really, just a disguise for waiting. Sometimes I would drive one hundred miles in one direction just so I would have to turn around and drive a hundred miles back. Sometimes I visited three grocery stores in one day, slinging back and forth across town, or I’d drive the interminable bridge to San Francisco — the slower the better — and find coffee shops, anything to pull down the long rope of hours until finally I could finally see him again.
When we met together, we almost never touched. Often we did not speak. There isn’t much action in two people facing each other in silence for ten minutes, twenty minutes, sustaining eye contact, not looking away, barely blinking. No words, no touch, no movement but breath and heartbeat. There doesn’t seem to be much action. But try it sometime. Try looking into the eyes of someone who is looking into your eyes without speech, and then hold that pose for ten minutes straight. Empires have toppled over less.
Empires toppling, that was something Lily said to me once. I’d just come into her bedroom and she was trying to get her socks off and she was stuck. I knelt in front of her worn armchair and helped her.
“Boop! Boop!” I said as each foot popped out of a sock.
“Empires have toppled over less,” she said.
Was he my teacher, my therapist, my student, my priest, my lover, my friend? No small part of what he and I did together was imagine, and therefore create, a new way of being inside the thing we had found ourselves in. When it seemed wise, and as much as we were able, we resisted the conventions for how we were supposed to do the thing we were doing. We said we wanted to create our own way of being together, and we set about doing that. Which itself might have been assumed to be cliché, but it didn’t seem that way, and at some point that stopped seeming relevant one way or the other.
In between the hours we had together I was waiting for what would happen next. Or maybe what would happen next was waiting for me, as patient as continental drift, imperceptible and inexorable both. That was what I knew, sitting at all those red lights, watching Berkeley’s diversity cracked open like a ripe papaya, and me floating through one bright, crushing scene after another. I knew I would never truly abide there, I knew Berkeley wasn’t a place I could live, and I also knew the place I would abide was being built and I was building it. My abiding place was being co-made with him, the conditions for the making being, primarily, the wish to create something new, and the commitment to waiting.
The San Francisco Bay was the wrong context for everything that was happening between the man and me. Cars with their jalopy metalicness, the way they took up space, freeways laid through the air one on top of the other; stoplights — those epitomies of brute, mechanistic ordering; the ground of the cities themselves, hundreds of thousands of acres of asphalt and concrete laid down like earth hellbent on forgetting itself. Sound of train cranking along tracks elevated over Oakland and El Cerrito; sound of collective car engine growl; sound of siren and scream and grocery cart wheel tug to the left, all those grocery carts scraping down sidewalks, carts piled high with refuse; sound of capitalism refugees and drug slaves and bicycle brakes and street preacher bullhorns and spontaneous parades and bus acceleration — times a thousand buses — and Green Peace volunteers canvassing; foot thud and holler of schoolchildren on playgrounds surrounded by rattling chainlink fences; coffee cup clatter, juice processor whir; garbage trucks screeching in reverse; outdoor café chair scrape; cell phone vibrate and everyone answering a cellphone hello hello trading high trading low pick him up after school no don’t wear those shoes hello hello goodbye goodbye goodbye.
It was the wrong setting for us, this man and me, our silence and new skin and knowing and waiting that takes time time time. The ways we risked tenderness, left behind irony, traced the cadence of each other’s breathing. So much quiet was needed. So much time. So many things cannot be hurried without losing or distorting the thing you are trying to find or make or become. So we did not hurry. We slowed down even more. We waited. Got still.
So much of what I did when I was not with him was drive around Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco, trying to find a place silent enough, uncultivated enough, to hold what was happening. I kept searching for wilderness. But in that metropolis, such wilderness wasn’t there for me to discover. Until I realized it was there, here, inside us, in our imaginations, in what he and I could invent together. So that is what we did. We imagined up places to be together when we weren’t together.
After that, when I drove around I wasn’t looking for anything. I was inside something co-imagined, and therefore co-experienced, and therefore real. It was the thing I was doing, as I did the other main thing I did, which was work as a live-in caregiver for Lily, who was in her late-80s and in the mid-stages of Alzheimer’s.
Every night I cooked dinner for Lily and we ate by candlelight with the electric lights dimmed just so. Her salt dish was an oyster shell; her salad spinner was half a century old; the evening’s light through the trees outside could occupy her for hours, and frequently did. She may not have had more than ten seconds’ worth of short-term memory, but she had such a sense of language and wit.
Over a roasted chicken one night I asked her, “What’d you do today, Lily?
“I went in and out of doorways,” she answered, sitting crooked in her chair, her bones ground together and tipped from the conspiratorial combination of scoliosis, osteoporosis, arthritis, and gravity.
“Did you hang out in any liminal spaces? I asked her. I waited. I knew that waiting for Lily was worth it. She considered.
“They were all subliminal,” she answered. “And they said, ‘Do drop by again.’ And then there was the sound of running water…. Lots of dew drops.”
We ate. I tried to eat very, very slowly. Lily, whose lifelong and explicitly stated twin missions were to be small enough to fit on a man’s lap and smaller than any woman around her, would stop eating the minute I had finished my meal. She took heroically small bites, chewing each one with what might seem like wise slowness if you didn’t know her. Knowing her, I knew it was some combination of defiance — the determination not to let food get the upperhand — and dementia’s relentless cloudiness. What meal was this anyway? How long had she been here? What were we discussing? Before she could default to her standby questions about my family, the questions I’d answered ten times a day for years — I brought us back around.
“So, you hung out in subliminal spaces all day,” I reminded her.
“And did you learn anything?” I asked.
“Not a thing. I decided they were all transitional spaces,” she said, decidedly. I knew how she felt.
“What’d you do today?” she asked me.
“I hung out in underground caverns.” I told her.
“Really?” she asked. “Where’d you find them?”
“Inside my own soul.” I said. Lily regarded me very, very skeptically. Imagination was one thing. Talk of the soul was another entirely.
“You’re playing with me,” she stated.
“No really. That’s what I did today,” I said.
“Hm. Did you feel that there was something worth discovering there?” she asked.
“Maybe. Do you think there’s something worth discovering in the soul?” I asked her back.
“Some people have very important souls and some people have negligible souls,” she regally stated. She was both playing and saying something she actually thought was true. Before she’d lost half her marbles, she’d routinely pronounce as negligible-souled someone whose art or feminine wiles she wanted to out-compete.
“Which do you think my soul is?” I asked.
“I don’t know. You’re the one who spent all day there.”
“Well, I don’t feel like I should say I have an important soul and I don’t feel like I should say I have a negligible soul. Do you think your soul is important?”
“Enormously,” Lily answered without hesitation. “My soul wanders up and down the street all day, and I have to go fetch it and bring it in and stroke it so it will be calm.” She peered over at me across the worn table. Sincere now, maybe because she wasn’t quite sure what we were talking about, she asked, “Does anything like that ever happen to you?”
“All the time,” I told her.
“It’s a busy street, with our souls wandering” Lily said, and paused, thinking about it. Then: “When the police come by, I’ll say it’s all Tamie’s fault. She’s the one you should go after.”
“That’s fine with me.” I said.
“Really?” she asked.
“Yes.” I said.
“I don’t think you really want to be chased though. However you spell it. Either you like to be chased or you like to be chaste.”
In between seeing each other, sometimes the man and I would talk on the phone. To turn toward another person who is turning toward you. To imagine something is happening, even something good. And in the imagining to participate in making it so. We imagined places, furnished them, places we could be together when we couldn’t be together. Waiting places. Or, really, places we could be together so that we didn’t have to wait.
“What’s your profession?” Lily asked me.
“Being human,” I said. I wasn’t trying to be clever. I was trying to turn the conversation with Lily somewhere it hadn’t been before.
Disapproving, eyebrows raised to a declaration: “That’s a smutty racket. I think you should change your profession.”
“Do you have any suggestions for what I should change it to?” We spoke slowly. We always spoke slowly. Enunciated words, a pace she could hear and understand.
“Either something less human or something less smutty. If I were you, I’d take the less human approach.” She paused. “Take the dinosaur approach,” she suggested, and then continued. “You walk with the dinosaur step by step down to the Bay and there are lots of squashed people along the way. He shouldn’t be bothered by the squashed people. Then,” she concluded flatly, “he swims over to San Francisco.”
“What does he do in San Francisco?” I asked.
Lily, annoyed that such an obvious answer eluded me, condescended to respond. “He goes to the opera. What do you think he does in San Francisco?”
“What’s the dinosaur’s name?”
“What color is he?”
“Maybe with some purple on his paws?”
Lily looked at me sternly. “I don’t think so, Tamie. There are some highlights around his eyes I guess you could consider purple. He winks at me. It makes me shiver to think of it. Does he ever wink at you?”
“No. He’s too busy winking at you,” I told her.
“That makes me sound self-centered,” she said.
“Has anyone ever accused you of being self-centered?” I asked.
“I had a man six-and-a-half feet tall of me living with me,” she said, referring to her late husband.
“Did he ever accuse you of being self-centered?” I asked.
“I never gave him the chance,” she said.
“I think that answers the question,” I said.
“What was the question again?” she asked.
I was waiting for what would happen next, and the thing that happened next was the one thing I did not think could happen. The man went away. He hadn’t expected it to happen. It had been the thing we both least expected. He had to leave, and after he went away we would not be able to contact each other in any way, not hear each other’s voices or see each other’s eyes. Then the waiting became another thing altogether.
Waiting for something you do not want to happen, but is inevitable, is so different from waiting for something you very much want to happen — and which therefore feels tenuous. For so long I’d waited for the next blessed hour when the man would open the door. Now I waited for the hour when I would walk out the door and he would close it, and he would not open it again.
I began actively waiting for Lily to die. Almost willing it to be so. Simultaneously, I waited with dread for her decline, inevitable unless death would intervene. When would she start losing language? Which daughter’s face would she forget first? When would light through leaves dull for her? When would she look at the plate of food, the fork, and not know where to put her hand, how to open her mouth?
Meanwhile, when she lost her place, she’d return to polite conversational ground.
“Do you have a brother?” she’d ask me.
“Yep, I have one brother,” I’d reply, ten, thirty, fifty times in one night, each time modulating my voice so her dignity would be preserved — so she wouldn’t know she’d asked me the same question five times in one minute and she was therefore losing her marbles.
“Don’t tip your head or your few remaining marbles might fall out your ear,” I’d tease her, and she’d fold over with laughter. Some splinter of her knew it was true — some marbles had escaped, rolled away under the cosmic carpet and weren’t coming back. But when we were together that didn’t matter much because we liked each other and I helped her find the right nightgown and held her hand when we walked around. And because together we could imagine up whatever we wanted, and imagination didn’t depend on much memory besides the memory of words.
Before I’d met Lily and taken the job as her caretaker, a friend had a similar job living with an elderly woman who could no longer care for herself. He told me, with what I heard as callousness, that he wouldn’t be very sad if she died. I couldn’t believe how cold he was, and with someone he claimed to care about! Now, knowing Lily, I reconsidered. Death is sometimes the least cruel fate.
Death is sometimes the most loving hope to have on another’s behalf besides, of course, what the imagination can create. For Christmas one year I gave Lily a picture I’d drawn of a swingset I’d imagined for her on the moon. The swingset felt as real as anything I could wrap up and put into her hands. And now I imagined up other outcomes than the one everyone but her knew was coming. Lily climbing aboard an aerial pirate ship, setting out to wreak playful and witty havoc on distant moons, under extraterrestrial skies. Lily waking up to the bear cubs she always wished would climb the tree outside her window, being whisked by them away for a picnic, and then a group hibernation snuggle. Lily riding the green dragon named David across the San Francisco Bay to listen to the opera, then lifting off again, flying somewhere where the brain cannot be leeched away and loss is not so widespread and everyday.
I can wait forever and those imaginings will never be so. I don’t have to wait: it is already so. Lily and I have together imagined pirate ships and bear picnics and dragons named David. They were, and are, no less important than anything supposedly “real.” Maybe sometimes what’s imagined together in playfulness and wish and love matters more than whatever happens out in the world of brute happenings, to which we often can do little more than dumbfoundedly react.
The man is gone now. Soon Lily will be gone too, and however much I might wish her a quick death, and soon, that’s probably not how it will be. But his absence, her decline, those aren’t the truest things. What we co-imagined, and therefore co-created, it is the place we abide even when we cannot abide anywhere else. It is our home.