Friday, February 6, 2009

If I'd Known You Were Coming I'd Have Baked a Pie

If I’d Known You Were Coming I’d Have Baked a Pie

This begins in flight, hopeful in row 13. I get some good work done on the laptop until the battery dies (laptops can only be charged with an airplane charger in first class) and feel self satisfied after days of feeling fraught and spread thin with looming deadlines and beset by minor but annoying maladies I have vowed not to discuss here, or anywhere except in the office of a medical professional, despite having given himself a long informative lecture about the shedding of uterine lining. This reminded me, and compelled me to remind Himself, of how boring I find the discussion of physical symptoms, unless they are symptoms that I share and could mean cancer or lead to weight loss. I drifted to the auxiliary subject of my lack of interest and felt compelled to speechify this to Himself for the zillionth time, that I am also bored to tears by the recounting, in life or in literature, of dreams. In my mind’s eye, sleep dreams are just the buzz of the computer hibernating. It’s the day dreams that get me into trouble.

I have a dramatic opportunity, as there is turbulence and the “fasten seat belt” sign is flashing and my writing goes quavery, to write something for the ages. It is a bit rough. Then the light goes back off and I’ve pissed away another opportunity. My mother is confused and pliant now. I remember her constant challenge to me, pre-dementia, to face her mortality and reassure her that the loss of her would be a crushing blow. Whenever she returned from a hospitalization, all were brief and none ever for a life threatening condition, she would foist her tiny wrist to her brow and croak, “That was a rough one kid.”

Each time we return to the hotel she is a bit more surprised to learn that it is her home. Her lungs are congested and she is seeing a pulmonary specialist. She takes less and less care in her hygiene and appearance. I pull into the driveway and she asks, “What is this place?” “It’s where you live, Mom.” She accepts this placidly, but as I park she sighs, “This was such a lovely outing. I’m sorry to see it end. Can’t we stay out more? And it is a beautiful warm day and I would indulge her but the kids will mutiny and time is still an oppressive force in my life. Locked inside the hotel, she is free of that prison. I kiss her goodbye and tell her that I love her.

It’s in the 80s and I am barelegged. She would love walking in sunny Old Town and admiring the high tone shops and crowds of shoppers. I methodically plan my visits to get her a meal to enjoy heartily and a decent cup of caffeinated coffee in as little time as possible. I am blessed by my mother’s generosity to me, and me alone. I will take her to Old Town on the next sunny weekend. The loss of her would be a crushing blow.


People on the streets of D.C. are happier than they are here. The shops and restaurants are crowded and no one seems dispirited or surly. The English t.v. executive tells us in the conference keynote address that Americans are far too grim and that our industry will survive and we need to, as the British say, “keep our peckers up.” The expo though seems to have a hugely disproportionate number of sellers to buyers. My feet are sore and my skin feels grimy from the stale airline air and I push my heavy case through LAX feeling like Willy Loman.

The idiosyncratic enforcement of airport security makes me a nervous wreck. In Los Angeles you don’t have to have your three ounce or smaller bottles of mouthwash and makeup in a clear plastic bag but in D.C. you do. I am stopped by a security guard at Dulles (a very icky airport with lousy signage and stupid shuttles to the gates) and forced to stuff my purse into my suitcase because you couldn’t carry a purse and a laptop. The take off is delayed for half an hour. The gate attendant announces that there is a “mess” to clean up and she crinkles her nose in a way that spells “vomit.” There were a number of Ethiopians on the plane, completing the fourth or fifth leg of a nearly three day journey. An elderly couple (they were probably not much older than I am) in tribal dress sit next to me.

The man is wearing a cheap new western suit over a muslin shirt and there is a roughly stitched leather pouch on his hip and an elaborately carved wooden walking stick under the seat. He covers his head with a beige terrycloth towel for most of the trip. His wife wears a sari type thing of fine white cotton with vivid embroidery and snood like head covering. As soon as I sit down, the man pokes me and gestures for me to fasten their seatbelts for them. I do not lower the armrest when I sit down and when it finally occurs to me that I should, I am afraid that it might give offense. The man, apparently lacking western personal space sensibilities, sits very close to me for the whole flight, pushing me into the aisle to be knocked hard by the cart with the six dollar snack boxes and later the one with the beverages and by everyone heading to the bathroom. One of the other Ethiopian passengers translates that the couple has never flown and they are on their way to visit their son in Los Angeles who they haven’t seen in thirty years. The stewardess gives them cans of ginger ale but they are stymied by the aluminum pull tops so I demonstrate how to open them but they foist the second round at me to open as well.

I discreetly eat a bagel from the hotel but I feel guilty and wonder if on their long journey they’ve been provided enough to eat. I hand them a bag of almonds in a zip lock bag. They are confounded and he pokes me again. When I show them how to open and close the bag they admire the cunningness of its design and taste the almonds warily. Like my birthday mate, Ronald Reagan, I love jelly beans. I have discovered that you can buy a big bag of mutant, misshapen ones at the 99 Cents store called Belly Flops, but leaving D.C. I splurge on the genuine article, a bag of tropical Jelly Belly beans to comfort me on the flight home. Because I am a bleeding heart liberal and because the flight attendant comments about fifty times about how “cute" my seatmates are and makes the astute observation that they are probably from Africa, I rip open the jelly beans and put them on the man’s tray table, next to the almonds. They mix the almonds with the candy and munch away. The man grabs my hand. He stuffs a huge handful of almonds into it, presses my fingers into a fist, holds it ceremoniously and mutters something. I would rather have the jelly beans.

I have a tiny box of mints in my purse with the Shepard Fairey graphic of Obama, that I bought at the airport for the 16 year old. AP is suing Fairey for the use of their photo in the artwork and I guess the economy ain’t all that bad if folks can still litigate. I think about taking the Obama mint box and pressing it into the hand of the man as a welcome to America gift. “See good black man? We like. We make his face many things plastic.” I bet they would have actually been glad but it seems like such a condescending white thing to do and I hesitate to give up the 16 year old’s consolation prize for being in Dad’s care for four days.
I leave work tired and downcast. It is pouring and the 16 year old has been on public transportation for two hours so that I can pick him up in Silverlake and drive him to spend the night at a friend’s in the hills. There is no food in the house and Spuds and his Hebrew teacher are there waiting for me to prepare (a Kosher) dinner. Spuds has no clean pants for school. I have been to this friend’s house many times. The GPS doesn’t work in the area and I always get lost and the steep flooded streets are brutal on my slipping transmission. After nearly an hour and futile efforts at navigation by cell phone, I cave. I stop the car in the middle of the street and I wail. The results are anti-cathartic and I feel like an even bigger asshole when the 16 year old’s friends mother drives down the hill in rainy rush hour to pick him up at Trader Joe’s and rescue him from his insane hopeless mother. I send him off with a pie though.

Jet lagged, scared and weary, I sleep badly and find myself sobbing on the couch in the middle of the night. I return to a warm bed and wake my, weary himself, beloved and beg him to hold me because I am afraid I am going to fall apart and he does. And I don’t. There are many people who deserve a pie. One thing that I will always remember about this shaky weird time is the blast of warmth I get from continual demonstrations of astonishing generosity. In the morning Spuds has made me an origami birthday flower and the 16 year old calls early from his friend’s with groggy greetings. My mailbox is filled with Jacqui Lawson animated greeting cards and my hipster friends have written on my Facebook wall. My mother remembers only her own name and my own. I see her only once a week. The rest of the time she is taken care of by warm strangers. The Ethiopians, hurtled into an alien universe, surrender and trust that some human being will help them get to where they need to go.


Bob said...

Your words become ever more artful. Happy birthday honored one. You, certainly, rock.

Fionnchú said...

I love pie, but you like cake. Still, we get along.

You're getting better in your essays, even if you misspelled the Symbolic Spelling of Salesman Loman.

Happy wishes for this special and every other mundane day. xxx me

Chris Berry said...

Beautiful post Layne...spelling mistakes and all! Did Leo give you the hug from us that he said he would on Facebook? Happy Birthday!