This past fall, Ben and I got into a new routine: once a week or so, on the way home to Newton from Lexington, where he goes to school, we’d stop at Costco for a snack: a churro or a slice of pizza or some ridiculous thing they call a chicken bake (chicken, cheese, bacon bits, all wrapped up in a cheese covered crust. [Did I mention there’s cheese in it?]). Costco was right off 128, and it seemed as good a place as any to kill that strange and slightly sad gap in time between after-school and going-home, especially as the fall wore on and it got colder and darker earlier and earlier. We didn’t go to Costco everyday: some days we took the dog for a walk; some days Ben had a playdate or stayed a few hours at the after-school program; other days we just came home and he played outside if the kids on the street were there or he watched TV. But for a few months we were going to Costco on a pretty regular basis, and while it wasn’t something I liked to brag about since his churro or slice of pizza or chicken bake didn’t come with a side of organic broccoli or a soccer practice or a French horn lesson, it was something he liked to do — with me — sit and eat and talk at a white indoor picnic bench under a red plastic umbrella. And so, transfats and excess-cheese and lack-of-intellectual-stimulation aside, we did it.
Make no mistake: I loved taking Ben to Costco and sitting and eating and talking at the picnic bench under all that unnatural artificial turkey-neck-revealing fluorescent light. It was my guilty pleasure, and, guilt aside, it became something I looked forward to and felt deeply flattered by. I knew there would come a time, all too soon in the coming years, when I’d be begging him to have a snack with me at Costco, so I knew that his wanting to spend time with me doing anything was a precious treasure of a gift that was only on loan. Once he decided what he was having and I paid for it, he’d find a table and get the napkins and I’d wait for the food and get the little cups for free water. Then I’d find him and sit down and watch him eat.
While I watched him eat, we’d talk about his day, my day, his friends, my friends; we’d talk about which we liked better, plain pizza or pepperoni, churros or fried dough, the Stones or the Beatles; and while our questions and answers varied, the feel of our Costco trips was always the same: it was a little piece of special time. I’d grown up having a little bit of special time myself: with my grandmother, a large Russian woman with huge hands and a limp, who lived with us until I was about 8, when she died suddenly after a bus trip to the Catskills with a group of Jewish Seniors. In that strange and slightly sad after-school gap, before my parents were home from work, and while my sister was upstairs drawing, I’d be in the kitchen with my grandmother, watching her knead dough for a bubka or cinnamon rolls, or mix hamburger meat with an egg and breadcrumbs with her hands. Those afternoons when dusk would fall and ‘The Match Game’ was on the little black-and-white television set next to the stove, when it was just the two of us, sometimes talking and and most of the time not talking because she spoke almost all Yiddish and no English, are some of the best memories I have. I’m not trying to say that watching me waddle over with a churro or a slice of pizza or a chicken bake from the snack counter cash register to a picnic table was anything as good for Ben as the moments I watched my grandmother limp around the kitchen and take her rings off her fingers and put them on the windowsill before she started to work the dough or the meat, but I will say this: quality time is quality time, no matter where you have it or what you’re doing, and those afternoons at Costco felt like quality time to me.
I’ve always struggled with being present — emotionally — both with myself and with others — and sitting with Ben those afternoons as I watched him inhale massive amounts of carbs and cheese made being present just a little less difficult. It was almost easy not to dissociate, to pull back, to disappear, when I was trying to steal bites of his food, and it became even easier when we made a friend there: a big white-haired 82-year-old man named Virgilius who always wore an L.L. Bean field coat and wide-whale cordouroys, and who was often in the snack area the same time we were. Virgilius was one of those people — brilliant, eccentric, oddly all-knowing — that makes you wonder if they’re really real or if they’re some kind of special entity sent down from the Master of the Universe to teach you something or reveal something to you. Real or conjured, at some point in March or April we stopped seeing Virgilius, and as my mother continued dying into the spring, Ben sometimes asked me if I thought we hadn’t seen Virgilius because he was sick and dying, too. Unlike some of the other questions he asked me, I didn’t have an answer for him, but our new friend’s absence gave us a way to talk about how people, especially old people — and especially grandmothers — stay with you for the rest of your life no matter when you stop seeing them or when their body disappears from our world.
After Ben would finish his churro or his slice, we’d see if there was time to do a Fake Shop. The Fake Shop was when we’d use my expired membership card to enter the warehouse area and walk around without buying anything. Because I was trying not to spend money, not renewing my Costco membership for $50 so I could drop $200 every week on stuff we didn’t really need seemed like a good plan, and so we’d flash the card and walk up and down the aisles and look at all the great shiny stuff we weren’t going to buy that day: flat screen TVs and video game systems, books and DVDs, toaster ovens and vacuum cleaners, giant slabs of meat and huge boxes of cereal. Then we’d leave. The Fake Shop was better than most real shops because it was completely unstressful: we went in knowing we weren’t buying, so it took the pressure off what I would say yes to and what I would say no to, and it completely eliminated the potential for disappointment because Ben had no expectations that a purchase would take place. Aside from being a lesson in fiscal responsibility and consumer-restraint, The Fake Shop was just as enjoyable as the Churro-Pizza-Slice part of our Costco ritual: we’d talk about which we’d rather have: a Wii or an XBox360; an iTouch or a Flip camera; a giant bag of dinosaur chicken nuggets or a big box of mini hot dogs wrapped in puff pastry. When we’d made a complete circuit through the store, we’d slip out through an empty register aisle, pass the snack area, and head through the automatic sliding doors into the cold and out to the car. Though we always left empty-handed, we never felt empty: we’d managed to fill up that strange sad gap between after-school and going home with our own version of quality-time, and everything about that felt really good.
Sometimes when we’d go through the sliding doors and my face would hit the cold, I’d feel myself slipping away — from myself and from Ben — and it would take everything in me to stay there, in the moment, in that moment when I remembered my mother was dying, or in other moments when I saw the expanse of my life and what a quiet hopeless mess it had always felt like and especially felt like now — saw the years and months and days and hours and the tiny blurry speck of me as if from the air or some other great distance — and I wondered if the tiny speck of me would ever get bigger and clearer. I knew the only way for that to happen was for me to get closer and become more integrated — to stop floating above myself and looking down and to somehow get the glass between me and the world to fall away. But I didn’t know how to do that. I still don’t know how to do that. But I think it has something to do with writing.
Or not writing.
Now that I have all this time on my hands — not doing the intense caretaking duties of the past five months; not driving Ben back and forth to school every day; not writing my brant in the third person anymore — I’m stuck thinking about things I’ve spent most of the past few years, if not most of my life, trying not to think about. And one of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is why I stopped writing. If I think about The Why, then I have to first think about The When: when exactly it was that I stopped writing altogether, because while I was never one of those (annoying) people who has to write every day, I was definitely one of those people who wrote. After all, I did write four novels. Before I stopped writing, that is. So I’ve been wondering what happened since that last novel — published in 2006 and written in uneven spurts between 2002 and 2004 — to make me essentially shut down and put up a “Closed for Business” sign in my brain — a”Closed for Business” sign that didn’t even have one of those reassuring adjustable “Be back in __ minutes!” clocks on it. No, when I closed for business a few years ago, I shut down completely. I locked the door and walked away without knowing when or if I was ever coming back.
I say that like I had some kind of plan when it wasn’t anything like that. I’ll admit that sometime after the extremely quiet publication of my fourth novel, I thought I might not bother writing another novel and might, instead, think about doing something different, like non-fiction. Or medical billing. Or Google Ad placement. Or waitressing. I’ll also admit that the phrase Fuck that shit crossed my mind almost daily when I thought about writing and whether I was any good at it anymore or had even ever been good at it. Maybe it was discouragement — the reviews, the sales figures, all the usual business aspects of publishing that make authors feels so disappointed and look like such big fat cry babies when their books come out. Maybe it was just plain old Life Fatigue. Or maybe it was my own particular Life Fatigue that had finally gotten to me and made me feel wrung out, exhausted, devoid of creative energy and, for lack of a better word, dead.
I won’t go into the particulars of my Life Fatigue that got me to the place I am now — the not-writing place — they’re not all that interesting and I still struggle with how much to reveal in this brant about myself and the people in my life even when those people give me permission to reveal whatever I want here. But lately what I’ve been doing is trying to write. Sometimes, like now, I actually write. And other times, I do The Fake Write. I walk around in my head, look at things, think about things, imagine the words lining up and slowly moving out like eager nervous toddlers holding hands on their way to someplace new and unknown. And while The Fake Write is better than nothing — there’s no pressure, no disappointment, no expectation of success or failure — I find myself wanting more these days.
Nothing doesn’t feel as enough as it used to. And it shouldn’t.