Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Shy Root

by Zinta Aistars

Sunday eases into the bones and slows the blood. Sweeps away a thousand sins. Rained in the night, soft, steady. Morning breeze shakes the raindrops loose from new leaves overhead on spring lush grass, and me. Birds singing each their own song. I hum mine.

The scent of maple walnut coffee rising from my mug—a souvenir from one of my trips to Washington, D.C., covered with images of various monuments and cherry blossoms—I lean into the open deck door and look out on my little back yard. Never expected to be here this long. But time has a way of sneaking up on you, over you, past you. That evergreen at the back fence, grown thick and full, eight feet tall and heavy with new pale green growth, tipping each branch like swollen green fingers … it was no more than a few inches tall when first planted. A gift I never foresaw as taking root.

Lesson in all that, I know. We can either live our lives aware of all the many choices we make, or the choices we don’t make sweep us along. A book I recently read for work, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything (see my review in the spring issue of The Smoking Poet) begins with that very premise: you influence. Yourself and others, each and every moment, making countless choices and decisions, and so spreading effluvial consequences. We either embrace this power or hand it over. We either realize how powerful we are, or we live our lives as cowards.

I had spent my Saturday in a happy bustle of activity: shopping for light summer clothes in anticipation of my upcoming trip, again, to Washington D.C.; planting blue and purple verbena in front of my blue house; crooning to the astoundingly beautiful jazz voice of Madeline Peyroux on my stereo; enjoying an evening of thoughtful movies, two in a row, just because it is a holiday and we could. Then it was late night, and I was home alone again, and the peace of the warm evening, nearly summer, beckoned. I did not long for sleep, not yet. Instead, I picked a Hoyo de Monterrey from my humidor and went to sit on the front step.

Been a while since I’d smoked one of these. I’m not sure it is so much the cigar I enjoy, as the easy ritual, the time required, at least two hours to reach final ash. It becomes a meditation. A forced slowing of the blood.

So I sat, lazy rings of smoke rising, and watched the silent street. Watched the verbena in the flowerbeds along my driveway and imagined their tiny threadlike roots uncurling into new soil. I sat, thinking how at times we had sat, two alongside, on this step, and now, alone, realizing the shrubbery along either side had so overgrown the step that there was room for only one. Not sure why, but that made me smile. My house, I think, was hugging me. This house I had never called Home. I had made other choices, pushed my energy in other directions, tried to hold what was unworthy of holding. False dreams built on false hopes. I gave up my power. The energy seeped out of me and I gave up on making choices. Dead weight floating along in someone else’s down and dirty river.

Guinnez, my chow pup, rattled the front door behind me. Lonely for company. I held the cigar in my mouth and went inside, clipped him on his chain, with apology, hooked to the handle of the back door, and we went to sit instead on the steps of the old deck. Two cats following. Tippy Tommy, my old diabetic cat who was never supposed to live this long, once a great hunter, now content to huddle in a loaf beside me. His head tipped to one side, one eye on me. Jiggy, the black calico, off to search for stray moonlight. Guinnez made little puffs of disgust at my smoking ash, but lay beside me nonetheless, love overcoming all, and let his soft paws hang over the edge of the step. I rubbed his velvet ear. He forgave me.

Sinking into this night silence. Like silk, drawn softly over me. In the distance, a mile away, the faint hum of traffic on the interstate. The trees around the yard edges in black silhouette. Standing guard. What if I made this old deck into a room with a view? I looked over my shoulder at the gray weathered wood. The empty chairs. The rusty iron fire pit. Suddenly, I could see it. Wicker sofa in pillows the color of verbena. Windows all around, screened in the summer and open to breeze; edged with snow in the winter, when I would stoke the woodburning stove in the corner. I could see it. I could feel myself sitting there, feet up, the ash glowing on the tip of my nearly forgotten Hoyo. Random lines of poetry on scattered paper pieces on the table.
It could be possible, still, to create a Home here.

It really was a matter of choice. A decision to make, a taking back of my own power. So long suppressed by the dark choices others made, I had to learn again how to make my own. A long and twirling-in-circles process, but the general direction still forward.

I might have been Home a long time ago. To realize this … hurt. Old enough now to understand how time eats away, nibble after bite, until there is nothing left but white bone. Age was changing me. In a myriad of subtle ways. No longer seeking wild adventure as much as settling in, finding that sweet spot, easing into its shape. After a life of risk taking, I was finally letting the first threads of my roots uncurl in new old soil.

The very moment we realize how truly powerful we are—we are.

Sunday morning, sipping coffee, leaning into the doorway, I can still see the room I imagined the night before. I must first build this place called Home in my mind, only then could I begin to work with hammer and nail.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Meatloaf Bakery

(Photos: My daughter [meat]loafing; the meaty counter, Cynthia in back to right; a tantalizing display)

by Zinta Aistars

My recent Mother’s Day weekend-long extravaganza, courtesy of my incomparable daughter, was so packed with adventure and silky ease from brim to rim that I could hardly contain it all in one blog (see previous post). Our Saturday evening dinner in Lincoln Park deserves a return visit—if only because I left the leftovers, meant for my own mama, in my daughter’s refrigerator. My girl is working through those treats now, and perhaps that is just how it was meant to be. Who says a mama cannot give a tribute back to her offspring? She is deserving.

So is the mother of all meaty cupcakes in Lincoln Park, Chicago. Blondie and I met Cynthia while chowing down and licking saucy fingertips, perched at our little orange table at the front of The Meatloaf Bakery on 2464 North Clark Street. I have no patience for long lines, and when we looked about for a quick dinner, most places came with a wait. The Meatloaf Bakery, lone light spilling out on the city sidewalk, beckoned. A few blocks from my daughter’s apartment, we had strolled by it several times already, and the unusual display each time caught my attention. Meatloaf? In the form of cupcakes?

I’ll admit, my first impression was a little … um, no. The gear in the mind is set to sweet at mention of “cupcake.” But once I gave myself a moment to contemplate … the comfort food that is meatloaf, the icing that is mashed potato, the decoration that is perhaps a bright orange coin of carrot or a swirl of green zucchini … well, it grew on me. Or in me. That rumble of the tummy asking for a taste.

Cynthia was bustling in the kitchen of The Meatloaf Bakery when my daughter and I walked in. The young man at the counter immediately jumped to attention to serve us. The display case was filled with colorful meat cupcakes and tiny loaves, even a cake and rows of miniature … puff pastries? That looked like doll-size hamburgers. How cute! I started to warm to the task of choosing our treats.

The Mother Loaf is a mix of beef, pork and veal with onions and seasonings, we were told. The topping is mashed and buttery Yukon potatoes. The Herby Turkey Loaf is, you guessed it, ground turkey with garlic, red pepper and herbs, dusted with aged parmesan-reggiano cheese. This cupcake comes with a side of cranberry sauce. A cupcake made of ground chicken with a topping of crumbled blue cheese and wing sauce is called A Wing and a Prayer. Other cupcakes are made of wild Alaskan salmon with zest of lemon and dill; Italian sausage with beef, or pork mixed with chorizo; a bacon-cheddary burger loaf with pickles atop; even a vegetarian mix out of brown rice and lentils topped with curls of colorful pepper and veggies.

My girl and I chose two to share: El Loafo Del Fuego, which is the cupcake created out of ground pork and chorizo, touch of sherry, topped with garlic spuds and served with a sherry-mushroom sauce; Loaf-a-Roma, a beef and Italian sausage mix with mozzarella, topped with a swirl of angel hair pasta and served with marinara sauce; and a gooey cheese macaroni side dish to share.


No, seriously. Yum!

Cynthia wandered over to check on our satisfaction level, and we just had to ask about the birth of this slightly if deliciously eccentric idea.

“Brings back memories of Mom’s cooking, doesn’t it?” she smiled. Dark hair pulled back in a tousled ponytail, she looked to have been cooking much of the day, with that pink flush of busy chef to her cheeks. She’d been in the corporate world for so long, she said, that came the day of wondering … surely there is something better and more sensible than this? Experimenting with recipes over three years, she had finally opened the door to her little bakery, and her audience, if perhaps initially skeptical, seemed to be passing the yummy word.

Wiping our chins with napkin tips, we watched several more hungry Chicagoans walk in. Others, by the manner in which they ordered, had obviously become regulars, knowing exactly what they wanted without hesitation. The best ideas often seem to be those that give you pause, make you wonder, but then culminate with heel of palm soundly to forehead: “Now, why didn’t I think of that??”

The next motion would then be a satisfied rubbing of the full tummy. No better Mother’s Day dinner than meatloaf, whatever its shape, that someone else makes.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mothering Dangerously

Photos: Lake Shore Drive in Chicago; my daughter, Lorena; Chicago skyline

by Zinta Aistars

Unlike my last visit in winter dark, this time when I round the bottom of Lake Michigan on a late Friday evening to enter Chicago, the sky is a turquoise blue. Lake Shore Drive must surely unfold on one of the most breathtaking cityscapes in the country. I have visited most major cities in the United States—New York City is a place unique unto itself; San Francisco is beautiful in its vibrant colors and rollercoaster streets; Seattle dazzles when its not under downpour; Denver snuggles the Rocky Mountains; Washington D.C. emanates elegance and power—but Chicago has one of the most dramatic skylines anywhere. It is the city where all the architects are show-offs, and they have earned that right. Curved along Lake Michigan as it is, the Chicago River once pouring into the Lake (Chicagoans actually figured out a way to make the river change direction, now flowing downstream toward St. Louis), sailboats billow white sails on the water and flowering trees line the Lake Shore Trail nearly its entire length. It is perfection. As always, I rubber neck (a dangerous habit when driving in city traffic, admittedly). Millennium Park to my left, then the scrapers, waves crashing to my right, I hum with pleasure at the sights.

Then there is Belmont Avenue, a quick and easy exit, another quick turn, and I am purring down the tree-lined street where my daughter lives. Lucky girl. As much as I love and crave the green of wilderness, I am fully capable of loving this lifestyle, too. Surely for a visit, and this one promises to be particularly delightful. It is Mother’s Day weekend, and a few days prior, Blondie sent me an “evite,” an electronic invitation to the weekend: a bustling itinerary of pleasures.

Mother’s Day has not historically been a good day for me. Call it holiday gremlins, or call it the Mother of Murphy’s Law, but I could cite some of the worst such occasions in my parenting lifetime. The day seems to have invited tragedy, and if not quite some disaster, then at very least, I have found myself without son or daughter near, marking the day alone and lonely for my brood. My daughter has so long been a world traveler, either overseas or hundreds if not thousands of miles away in this same country. My son has followed some rattle-brained drummer of his own for too many years. This time, grown and wiser, he sent me off with a hug, promising to watch the house and keep up with my diabetic cat’s insulin shots, twice daily. I am hopeful for a different kind of Mother’s Day.

So it begins, this weekend to make it all right. My two grandcats, Jack and José, nearly trip me up with greeting when I enter Blondie’s sweet little studio space on the third floor. I wonder, do they remember me from Valentine’s Day? It was then that Blondie and I went searching for hearty dates that would not disappoint, and came home with these two toms—a tiger-striped and a velvety gray. Who knows what a cat’s memory holds, but they seem to know me, not hesitating at all.

We don’t visit long. Blondie has me steered back outdoors, and we stroll along Broadway, sniffing out dinner. The evening is warm and breezy. Tantalizing food smells waft from open doors and windows; tables and chairs are out on the sidewalk. Lights are by now up and sparkling along the side streets, and Broadway is on show with its many cafés and bookshops and antique nooks. We decide on PingPong, a spare little Japanese place with the most Spartan décor, that is, none. Bare white walls, oak-slat chairs and benches, little wooden tables. Yet every table is full, and we must wait. They stay full the entire time we are there, eating our soft shell crab and scallops with chopsticks, and the line is long by the time we leave. Our pretty boy waiter—an Asian boy that could very nearly be a girl, he’s that pretty—waves and smiles as we go.

The evening slips into night as Blondie and I walk, and walk, and walk, talking softly and laughing, not wanting to disturb the magic of such a silky night. Every street we turn onto seems more beautiful than the one before. Each house has its own character: stone buttresses, wrought iron gates, neat little courtyards, beveled windows revealing glimmering chandeliers inside, and outside the first budding green leaves, and endless flowerbeds of tulips line the streets. Boats bob in the waves whenever our route takes us alongside the lake again.

Saturday we bustle. I have the coffee made while Blondie groans out of bed, but I can barely keep up with her when we walk in the bright of morning. I used to be the fast walker. But this girl can move. Now and then, I have to plead for mercy and ask her to slow down for her old mama. We catch a bus, are in the center of the city in no more than five minutes, cross a street and enter the lobby of the elegant Four Seasons hotel. All is gleaming marble and glimmering crystal. On the eighth floor, we find the spa, and here Blondie delivers me to the care of Lisette, a petite young woman in a spotless white coat, long black hair pinned back and very soft hands. She takes mine in hers and examines my nails. This is her mission in life. We discuss them with great seriousness, and I smile over her shoulder at Blondie, who is lying back on the shiny golden fabric of a couch in a dim room with soft music piped in. She will wait in this room, with pitchers of chilled water filled with orange slices, and another of chamomile tea, and glass plates of dried fruit—cherries, apricots, tiny green chips of kiwi.

I am taken away. I am seated at a little table, my sleeves pushed back. Lisette places a champagne flute next to me, champagne with fresh-squeezed orange juice for a pulpy mimosa, and a china plate of wafery sugar cookies. We discuss tint of my nail polish. My long-nailed days of blood red are long over, gone with youthful tacky taste and general indiscretions. I choose an iridescent blush of pink. Lisette clips and files my nails into perfect ovals while I sip my mimosa. She massages scented lotions and oils into my hands, and I sigh. She soaks my fingertips in a warm, milky solution, and I play with the glass stones at the bottom of the bowl. She wraps my hands in steaming hot towels, and I ponder the painting of lily pads behind her. Life is easy. How often does that happen?

While my shimmering pink nails dry, Blondie and I sit poolside and eat strawberries dipped in chocolate. I resist asking her how much such pampering has emptied her wallet, because I know it is good to give, and I don’t wish to deprive her that pleasure nor myself of what I have been missing too many years. It’s not easy being a mama … especially a single one. I remind myself to enjoy and, just this once, not worry about my daughter’s budget.

Then we are off again. This time to Navy Pier. How many times have I driven by this immense pier reaching far out into the lake? All along its length, shops, exhibit halls, restaurants, and finally, a ballroom where Blondie tells me Obama and Oprah have partied on occasion. I’ve never yet walked it, and we postpone it still now, boarding instead a river boat on the Chicago River. All around us are the white blossoms of apple trees. The day is chillier than we would like, the sun pulls back into clouds, but I’ve been on this tour once before and know I will enjoy it. That time, it was night, and the skyline was outlined in tiny lights. This time, it is the bright of day, and I snap photos as the boat moves smoothly along the river, under bridges—29 of them, says the tour guide—and we crook our necks this way and that to peer up at the array of skyscrapers. Each one has its own style. There’s art deco, classic, modern, and a long list of other architectural terms—even corncob. Although that is not the official term, the guide explains, but the one everyone knows now, the frilly edges of the building resembling exactly a cob. We see the old Chicago post office, seen in the filming of Batman movies in the supposed Gotham City. We float by opera houses and theatres, office buildings and condos and marketplaces. Walkers lean over bridge railings and wave at us passing below.

By the time we arrive back at Navy Pier, we are near frozen, but our eyes are wide from city wonder. We trot into the buildings on the pier to warm up, enjoy the show of stained glass, then catch a red trolley at the other end to take us back downtown. John Hancock is our next rendezvous, and our ears pop as we zoom at breakneck speed to the 95th floor, where we enjoy the Skyview Lounge with windows in all directions. Even the restroom is breathtaking (for the right reasons), with floor to ceiling windows to the panorama of the city. I sip a martini, snack on baked brie with apple compote on crackers, and we are off again.

Wait, where did I leave my sunglasses? I make a face, the glasses were hardly days old, not expensive, but I hate just leaving something behind. The drugstore where we stopped for film? I try to talk Blondie out of going back, but she’ll have none of it. She leads a frugal life, never passes up a bargain, and has a trust in the goodness of humanity that I seem to have lost years ago.

“You’ll see,” she assures me. “If you left them at the store, they will still be there.”

In this milling and bustling city? This mass of humanity? I follow her, trying to keep up as she moves through the crowds with grace, but I have no such confidence. I already decide to buy a new pair when we get there.

But Blondie asks the man at the cash register, and to my surprise, he smiles, nods, reaches under his desk, and produces my missing sunglasses. No. Really? Blondie is laughing at me, telling me again, you just have to believe … most people are good people. And I have to wonder, sadly, at how she retains this belief while I have lost it. A given over a longer life span? Not necessarily. It was not so long ago that our attitudes matched. I make a silent vow to work on this. In some things to move forward, in others, to move back.


After a long but wonderful day of great meals, wandering walks, exciting explorations, we are finally home again. My feet ache and I kick off my shoes. We change into jammies, pull our hair back into ponytails, eat pistachio ice cream with a swirl of whipped cream, and watch the evening news, then some flaky romantic comedy. Ah yes. I was going to try to believe in the sweet innocence of life again, wasn’t I? I lick whipped cream from a polished fingertip and decide it may not be so hard, not so very, as time goes by. There is not forgetting, but the body returns to what it once knew, and the survival instinct is strong. I count blessings, the day filled to brimming with them, and it isn’t even Mother’s Day yet … but I am deeply grateful for my own, one watching the fort for me so I can play, the other my guide through these days. My treasure. My son and my daughter have taught me patience, resilience, love. They have taught me not to give up when all in me screams to throw in the towel. They teach me still, every day. Trust, and now and then, the world will do me right.

On Mother’s Day morning, we walk to church. Blondie has found a place recently that she likes, and she wants to share her find. This, too, quite recently, I had lost … my belief in that higher power of goodness, that prayers don’t wisp away into nothingness, that God didn’t create woman as an afterthought. This sunny Sunday morning, Blondie leads me into a plain old brick building, and we find all the seats full but for one. A leather armchair way back in the corner. My girl waves me to sit and pulls the ottoman over for herself. I sit. Everyone here, it seems, is in jeans. People coming in off the streets. No pretense, no glamour, no showing off. Even the pastor is in jeans. He begins to talk about a generous spirit.

I can’t help but think of my mother as my eyes wander over the casual congregation as the pastor speaks. She would not approve, I’m sure of it. Church to her is a place of utmost respect, and I cannot argue this. One dresses up to approach the Holy, even as the head is bowed. Yet I also have to think Christ would greet the most poorly attired in his home. The unshowered homeless, the bedraggled junkie, all and anyone would surely be welcome. My own clothing is nice enough this morning, a salmon-colored, embroidered shirt I had recently purchased, silken black trousers and little black slippers … yet my heart feels anything but well-dressed. It’s been homeless for a while. Bedraggled, too. Knocking on doors that never seem to open.

I listen to the pastor speak about trust, the danger of trust, and how we must pray dangerously. I am intrigued, he speaks well, and I am drawn into his story about praying for what he is not so sure he really wants … yet it is what he needs. I twirl a lock of my daughter’s soft blonde hair in my fingers and note the woman sitting to my other side, a newborn child in her arms. The years, oh the years, how many, gone. I once led my children through crowded and bustling places of confusion, maneuvering through the traffic of life, and now I willingly hand myself over to their leading. I have grown to trust them, nearly implicitly, and even when I doubt—as I did the previous day when my daughter was so sure my sunglasses would be honestly returned to me—I continue to follow, happy to be proven wrong. Maybe that’s what I need to do with Him. Continue to follow, even when my faith grows thin.

My daughter glances over at me, my sigh must have been heavy, and I smile at her, although suddenly my eyes are brimming with water. I can resist all I want, but going to church always seems to do this to me. Open up some hidden place, some dark void, some childish howl. It’s all I can do to contain myself. Tears pour down my face, unbidden and unstoppable. I wipe with pink, polished fingertips, hoping no one notices.

What would I pray if I were to pray dangerously? I know. Nothing is more dangerous than to open a heart to love. Mine had slammed closed, too hurt, too broken. Failed miserably at love, trammeled with betrayal, rejection, abandonment, addictions I could not fathom and never will. It wasn’t God that left me. I left Him, tired of trying to do right and rewarded with being devalued.

Pray dangerously. It echoed of words someone recently wrote me in response to an earlier blog: “You touched me, changed me, because you write dangerously.”

Can I pray as I write?

I don’t know. Honestly, I cannot say. But I can try. I wipe my eyes, hide them behind dark glasses when we emerge from the lowly church. We walk a few blocks to a Mother’s Day brunch, where I am served again with a mimosa, and a rose. I don’t like roses anymore. Their thorns hurt. But I finger the delicate petal of this one, draw in its sweet scent, and settle in to enjoy one of the finest breakfasts I’ve ever had, my daughter sitting across from me.

I would not have her in my life had I not risked a dangerous life. I would not have my son. I would not have known a blazing love, even if lost, with a searing and purifying flame. I would not have the ability to write dangerously had I not first lived so. Had I the chance to do it all over again, I would. Every single day of it. Every last night. I have no regrets, even as I have the scars. I am incapable of living a passive life, even if of late I have settled into quieter ways, resting, healing, keeping a low profile. There is only one kind of life I can live honestly, and it is the one I have been living all along.

Over our shared meal, I bow my head and pray: Lord, I ask nothing. You’ve already given it all to me.


Epilogue to the best Mother’s Day I’ve known but the first two, in July 1980 and February 1982—my daughter and I bike along Lake Shore Trail for 11 miles, and at times I trail her, and for the occasional moment, she trails me. Always she looks out for me, as I once looked out for her.

All that I have ever given, none of it has been lost. I return to the counter, and what I thought I had left behind, I need only ask, and there it is again. If I ever withheld, I do not have it now. If I ever gave my heart dangerously, it leads me now, the trail rolling out ahead alongside the cool water, stone scraping sky to my other side.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The New Old

by Zinta Aistars

Fields of colored cups, like curved hands held open and waiting. Tulip time in Holland, Michigan. Every color, and the shades between. My eye is drawn to the eggplant purple, the deep pulsing color of royalty.

I haven’t been to this resort town on Lake Michigan in seven years. No, eight. Funny how my mind wants to forget, muddles the facts, snicks matches beneath the bridges, attempting to set fire and burn. Sad trick, that my mind cups around flashes of those distant memories, like protective palms, like the goblets of tulips, and wants to keep a few of them. Sad slivers of moments I want to believe were … pleasant. Only I can’t trust any of them. One lie works like a domino, tick tick tick tick tick, and knocks the whole row down.

Such a sunny spring Sunday, why not a road trip? Why not meet someone new? A colleague made the virtual introduction, our e-mails whipped back and forth, finding common ground, finding plenty of it, beginning with the shared history and shared Latvian blood. It tugs, somehow. I ponder this. Driving the 75 miles northwest from Kalamazoo, I muse over our human need to search for mirrors in those around us. We are drawn to those who reflect something of ourselves. Why? Don’t we have enough of me me me? That we still long to find me in you you you? Odd. Yet I enjoy the echo afar. Perhaps it reaffirms that our personal oddness is shared and so … less odd. Or if someone else can survive being us, maybe we can survive being us, too.

And it works. Just like that. We say hello, sveiks, in Latvian, I extend my hand for a handshake, and it suddenly seems silly to do so. Our e-mails have already established that we are bred of the same Baltic white sands, shared amber ancestors, a language as old as any, spoken over many centuries, our names resonating that ancient wisdom, so surely … and we embrace with warmth, laughing. Of course. I knew it, didn’t I? Driving north, always my best direction, never east, never west, forget south, only north. We are instantly new old friends.

The sun melts over our shoulders. We walk and talk, talk and walk, pointing out the color goblets holding Sunday within them, rows and rows. A. takes me to a sculpture beside the lake—a family in bronze. Mother, father holding a child curved against his shoulder, a grandfather in his cap, son with eagerness carved into his stone eyes. They are the immigrants. In this town, of course, the Dutch from the Netherlands. But we stand gazing at them and wondering at our own parents, grandparents, just like these, and what it must have been like to be new in a strange land, never yet seen, an unknown language that feels like steel on the tongue, no home, no work, no welcome. A. turns and takes me the other way to show me a patch of ground where once there was a house, end of the street. A childhood home. Memories, here. For a child, good growing years. For the immigrant parents, we can only stand here and imagine. A’s parents strove toward assimilation. Mine resisted it. A. never left Holland, never wanted any home but this. I have wandered from place to place, seeking it.

“Why leave?” A. says, standing face to the shimmering water. “I have all that I need here. A small community of the arts, a network of friends, my honest work, my memories." Including two sons, born here, now grown and gone, one east, one west.

Yes, why leave. A. wants to know about my travels to Latvia, that history source we share. We sit in a café, snacking on chicken pizzas, licking our sticky fingers dipped in cheese and sauce, and I talk about a country both of us knew before we knew anything else.

“Did you grow up on stories about the war, too?”

“Yes,” I nod. “Other kids had Goldilocks. Our bear was real. It ate little countries for breakfast. You grow up watching your back. The lesson is—don’t trust anyone. Anyone could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger. Anyone.”

A. understands, grew up on the same folklore, same warnings, same tender stories of execution. Yet how is it that we were able to trust? And perhaps too much. Even in this little tulip town, when we stop in a little parlor to pick up bottles of green tea, I turn for a moment and see a table where I sat, eight years ago, across from a man who told me I had beautiful lips. I wanted to believe him. I wanted to believe in him.

And so we walk and talk, talk and walk, and talk: about the wars we have fought and won, partners that came and went, each leaving corpses on our scattered battlegrounds, some that we could still recall with the tenderness of an execution.

A. draws me into the town library. Another love, we find, that we share. Places filled with books, like walking into a cathedral of humming minds, rich with fantasy, dreams, spinning ecstasy of unbridled musing. Books. We run fingers along their spines.

Downstairs is a concert hall, tucked away like a precious secret. No tickets needed, we sit in the center of the front row and listen to The Perugino String Quartet—two violinists, one violist, one cellist. They play Four for Tango by Astor Piazzolla, and I feel the pores of my skin open and breathe. You understand: I love jazz, I enjoy rock now and then … but this kind of music, this is the music from which all other music is born. Song of the Ch’in by Zhou Long is a tantalizing plinking of strings, a heartbeat out of the cello, a dance that takes us to the Orient. But then, then, then it is our Ludwig, and no one, still, has a note on Beethoven. String Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, and without realizing it, I have begun to pulse in my chair, my body swaying toward the stage, my foot dancing its own little patter, my mind swirling in a dream. There is no other kind of music. And it has been far too long that I have listened to such as this.

So we walk and talk, the sun sliding along the arc of blue sky, and sit on a wooden bench overlooking a stream caught between dry grass, a yellow kayak zagging between yellow stalks.

“Swans,” A. points, and I look, see: two great white birds soundlessly moving their white wings and folding them into air to glide across the sky. And they are gone. Into the next life.

We talk about the generations behind us, we talk about the work that we do, the future as we see it, hope that was lost and how we might now recapture it. We walk between rows of red, gold, orange, purple tulips, and little blonde Dutch girls clomp by in pointed white hats and wooden shoes, giggling. We lean against a wooden rail and stop talking for a while to watch the slow swirl of a windmill’s paddles paddling through air and getting nowhere, not needing to. It is a good moment, full of new hope.