Something Sharp

Their dogs run around wildly, leashes dragging behind them. It isn’t accidental, this leaving on of leashes. It’s strategic. If the dogs get into a fight, the owners want to catch at the leash quickly, yank the animals away from each other with a sharp pull at the neck that shocks the air and bark out of them. It’s cruel, sure, but efficient. Technically, they’re not supposed to let the dogs off the leash in the park either, so it’s a way to get around the rules, sort of. 

Ida’s dog is small, lean and brown with perky chopped ears and a mouth bigger and louder than all hell. He’s a sweetheart when he keeps it shut, but he gets high strung and barks at people too often. Some think he’s mean, and she spends half her Saturdays with him fighting her arthritic knees in order to run after his leash when he gets too barky around little kids who don’t like it. Little kids these days, she always thinks, have been raised too soft, like melting marshmallows. Squeeze ’em, and the soft stuff in the middle will pour right out. It’s the reason she prefers her dog to her own grandchildren. She never utters such a blasphemous confession, barely admits it to herself, because she loves her kids’ kids, of course she does. She just doesn’t have a lot of patience for them. They’re too spoiled, their lips wobble so easily, they want and want and want. 

Ruth feels Johannes’ arm’s weight on her shoulders and keeps her mouth zipped. She doesn’t tell him to take it off, that she’s warm, that it’s heavy, that he’s making her uncomfortable. They just moved in together, it’s their first weekend sitting outside with the dog, it’s too early for so much criticism. He’s a sweetheart, but he’s so proud of her in public that it’s hard to bear some days. She sees the old woman sitting to the bench on her left, past Johannes’ skinny little body, and wants to sit with her instead, to be a woman among women. Her dog is female, a gorgeous collie she got for free from a friend who couldn’t sell the runt of the litter. She’s named her Posy, a terribly sappy name, yes, but it suits the fluffy dog. Ruth is sometimes childish like this. Johannes isn’t, is the problem. He never wants to go out with a picnic basket and lie in the sun all day, or play with the dog. He wants to hold onto Ruth and sit stoically with her on a bench, a picture-perfect couple of yuppies. He wants to take her out to dinner at fancy restaurants where he gets to wear loafers and nice pants with a gap in between to show off his socks. He’s the kind of person who cares about what socks he wears. Ruth’s socks are all old, holey, and often mismatched.

Ida calls her dog over and he doesn’t come. She leans back on the bench. He’ll come when he’s ready. She sees him playing with the collie that belongs to the couple next to her. She’s pretty sure they’re new in the neighborhood, at least in the park. Though the dog is familiar, that collie. Maybe one of them is new? She doesn’t recognize them together, anyhow. They have that glow, she thinks, that smug us-against-the-world glow that young couples have. It’s tender, but so thin a veneer that she could pop it with a needle. Not that she keeps needles on her, or anything else sharp for that matter. It’s safe being an aging lady in this town. She’s thankful for that. 

Johannes’ stomach rumbles. He leans his chin on Ruth’s hair and rubs it around. She makes a sound in her throat which he takes for satisfaction, although it is impatience. He asks her if she’s ready to go have lunch yet. You go, she tells him. She wants to play with the dog a little. He says nothing, but he stays.

Night Birds

Our apartment has huge windows in the adjoining kitchen and living room. It’s almost a balcony. Only it’s not. We have blinds that we lower and raise, depending on the hour, on how brightly the sun is shining, on how much privacy we want.

Big windows can be horrible if all you’ve got to look at is the inside of someone else’s house. If that’s the view you get, you have a sort of forced intimacy with whoever lives across – you know they see you, and you know that they know that you can see them. It can become very awkward, trying to time things right so as not to spy on each other. Maybe then you both become recluses and never catch a ray of sunlight.

We don’t have those kind of big windows. Ours overlook a relatively large oval-shaped park, surrounded by trees and lined by paths going around and through it. There are benches there where the Filipinos hang out and talk while their elderly charges sit, awkwardly, either unable or unwilling to talk with their peers. There are mothers and fathers walking strollers along the paths, trying to lull to sleep screaming babies, or maybe just sitting by empty strollers while their toddlers delight in the sandbox and the wooden pirate ship that dominates it. There are elementary-school kids and high-school teenagers walking to and from school every day, backpacks weighing them down, some in groups and some alone and some even more alone than the others. These are the things we see during the day.

At night, it’s harder to see. The lamps in the park are yellow and dim and sometimes blown out or simply not turned on. So we use our ears instead of our eyes. On some nights, we can hear teenagers sitting on the benches, whistling and yelling, the glowing red of their cigarettes the only light in the park. On other nights, it’s so silent out there that we long for a storm to come along, to thunder in the sky, to pour down rain so we can hear the tip-tap-drip on our windows.

The best nights, though, are when the night birds sing. We’ve never yet seen them, only heard them. Their cry is shrill, like a whistle, but it’s melodic as well. They seem to be yearning for something, missing something or someone so deeply that it hurts them. Their sound makes our hearts melt a little bit, and even as we smile and pause to listen to their lonely, beautiful cries, our hearts seem to tug at us, feeling a little sore and swollen all of a sudden. Our night birds let us share their desperate want for something unnameable, they nurture our longings, even if we don’t realize it’s happening.

I sometimes wonder if our night birds are like emotions – unseen, only heard somewhere deep, sometimes shrilly enough that it’s impossible to ignore them.

Birthday

If you think about it, the concept of birthdays is a strange one. We commemorate the day we were born – a day which we can’t remember and which we didn’t have much physical participation in. Wouldn’t it make sense to remember the day we said our first words? Or the day we took our first steps? Maybe the date of our earliest memories? But no, we celebrate this day of all days in the year as something special.

When I was a kid, birthdays just didn’t feel like regular days. They felt magical, full of special occurrences, little traditions and big wrapped gifts. My mother would read me The Birthday Bird book by Dr. Seuss every birthday morning, and then the whole family would go out to a hidden picnic table in my favorite park to eat cupcakes, play Frisbee, talk and watch the sunset through the distant skyscrapers.

Today felt like a pretty normal day, despite being my nineteenth birthday. But then, that’s what happens as you get older. Birthdays stop being magical and become just… nothing much. There are still presents and there’s still some fuss made with friends and loved ones, but the magic is gone from the day. It’s bittersweet, really, because although I miss the special fuzzy feeling that I got on my birthdays, I also appreciate that I’m wiser now and more willing to find magic in my daily routines and simple pleasures instead of putting all my excitement about life into one day of the year.

Writing Exercise: The Portal

It’s not every day that you see a portal. Actually, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a portal in my life. Well, let me amend that; I’ve seen portals, but they were just regular doorways or windows, a portal from one normal space to another. This portal, the one I saw today, was different.

At first, I wasn’t sure that what I was seeing was a portal. It looked like a shimmer of air – like the sort of shimmering that happens above the flames of a bonfire in a hot and humid night. As I drew closer to the wavering patch of air, I realized that if I looked at it out of the corner of my eye, I could see something through it. What I should have seen through it was just the trees, tall and boring palm trees, on the other side of the park. Instead, what I saw through the patch of air was something exceedingly odd.

It looked like a kind of demonic vortex: a sort of whirlwind of dark colors, weaving through each other and around and around the spiral they made, tumbling over one another and creating frightening images if I tried to concentrate on them. Sweat poured down my face in the summer heat as I kept turning my head this way and that, trying to see where the moving tunnel inside that patch of air led to. It was no use, however. The spirals of color just kept on and on inside that portal, and the ending was so far away it just looked like a black dot at the end.

The portal drew me towards it. I took a step, and another. I wanted to enter it, get swept up in that endless darkness and see where it would lead me. Before I knew it, my hand was inches away, reaching towards the shimmering air through which I saw the tunnel.

My logic kicked in. I snapped my hand back. I shoved both hands in my jeans pockets, like unruly children who had gotten away from me and needed to take a time-out. With one last, involuntary yearning, glance at the portal, I turned away. I turned my back on the fate that would await me if I entered that darkness. Now, at day’s end, my curiosity burns for that knowledge and my logic must sooth my imagination. “There, there,” it says in my mind. “It couldn’t have been anything good. There, there. It’s alright.”