Long day’s journey

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Maya Deren, still from AT LAND (1944)

The kids spent Saturday night at J’s parents’ house. We try to get them out there at least once a month. Even if we don’t have any spectacular plans, getting to spend kid-free time at home is always a bonus. I’ve been feeling pretty lousy for over a week now – in addition to the eye problem, I’ve had a cough I have never quite kicked since we came back from Colorado at the end of June. It’s been better and worse, and now much worse. Since I’ve had pneumonia too many times to keep count now, I should be more careful. My CT scan in mid-July didn’t show anything on my lungs, but that’s two weeks ago already. And if I’ve learned anything in the past year, it’s how quickly things can go south.

So J went to drop off the kids. When he got back I’d barely gotten out of bed. I was ambivalent about making plans to do anything. I knew this looked like depression. To me it just felt like exhaustion. J was keen to check out the new Whitney Museum downtown. That just made me want to bury myself deeper under the covers, but I decided to try to be enthusiastic, for his sake. I got out of bed, took a shower, put on some clothes a cut above sackcloth. Added my new bead necklace made for me at camp by Young A. (He’s very proud of it. Today he came home with a matching one he’d made for himself.)

We took the train into town, had lunch and then ice cream, then walked west towards the Whitney’s new location. There are certain quadrants of the city that seem alien to me now that I have a family. The Meatpacking District among them. That was a place of my early New York days, my single days, my clubbing days (I’ve only ever been to about four clubs, don’t get me wrong). We picked our way west over the cobblestones, and I tried not to turn my ankle. It reminded me of a mug or novelty sign I’ve seen for sale, that reads, “REMEMBER: If anyone asks, we are a NORMAL FAMILY.” Here we were, J and I, out on the town in the daytime, without kids, trying to reinhabit old habits, like museum-going without feeling like we had guns to our heads as we walked through the galleries (as we felt last weekend when we took the kids to the Met).

The new Whitney as destination on a Saturday afternoon in fine weather was just as impossible as you might imagine. J and I used our respective ID cards to see which one would give us the greatest perk: Mine, staff ID from my very, very part-time academic job, or his, employee ID from a major cultural institution? His won, hands down, because not only did it afford us free entry – it also let us cut the super long line.

I felt claustrophobic as soon as we got inside. The giant elevators were so packed you couldn’t choose a floor – everyone was taken to the top and expected to start there. The crowds in each gallery were three thick in places, and the crowd’s slavish cell phone documentation of the works of art and their explanatory text was a bit much. My bad eye was giving me trouble – I have to put drops in it three times a day to keep it dilated. That doesn’t make for good art viewing.

Finally I found a small, dark gallery where films were being projected. I settled in and watched this one, AT LAND, by Maya Deren, filmed in 1944:

Perhaps I was in a particularly receptive mood, but I instantly identified with every frame of the film. Maya Deren’s chaotic beachy hair. Her struggle to climb to the top of some driftwood, only to have it turn into the tabletop of a long table at which fashionable men and women sat and smoked and ignored her. They all knew what to do. She has no clue what to do. She claws her way across the table.

“Mon semblable, mon frère!” I felt like shouting. It is good to recognize yourself in art. But also good to keep yourself from identifying too closely with it.

I was done looking at art not long after that, and was feeling exhausted, so I found benches wherever I could while J poked around some more. I think I had forgotten how much he enjoys art museums. It felt important to rediscover this facet of him.

We left the museum and sat shaded from the setting sun by an angular corner of the building. I felt lousy. J fetched me a ginger ale and I revived enough to have an opinion about where we might want to eat dinner. We selected an Italian place that had good reviews and seemed reasonable. Despite crowds outside, there was a table for us right away. We could have selected indoors or out. I chose indoors, and they guided us to the most chaotic table in the place, right at the exit from the bustling kitchen.

Despite the earlyish hour, there was absolute pandemonium. The Italian owners yelled at each other and the other staff from across the room and you could almost not hear them above the roar. I was so happy in that chaos, though. The staff also included Spanish speakers and maybe a couple of Brazilians, but they all spoke to each other in Italian. It reminded me that years ago, upon moving to New York, I’d been sitting in a diner and feeling impressed that the Greek owner sat at the counter reading a Greek newspaper while conversing with his staff in fluent Spanish. I love the linguistic microclimates of New York restaurants, where a lingua franca emerges that usually isn’t English.

After dinner we drifted over to the Hudson River Park, a place where we’d spent lots of time pre-kids. My time running and biking up and down the paths there came flooding back to me. I felt a bit morose and old, which isn’t an unfamiliar feeling these days. But also, happy to be there with J, retracing our footsteps.

We sat on a bench as the light began to wane and watched a small sailboat docked at a pier. We imagined Young J as an adult, with his own small boat. We sat in companionable silence. And finally, after what has felt like months and months of silence on the topic, I started to tell J what this feels like. How it feels to know that at any moment, things could just go to pieces again. How it feels not to be able to count on being around as long as I’d like to. I mentioned something I’d talked about with my shrink, that I’d considered writing an ethical will, but then decided against it, because it felt too much like tempting fate. I haven’t decided against it, really. (You might argue this blog forms part of an ethical will, anyway, but it would need to be extracted from piles of chaff.)

We got up and kept walking south, keeping a potential destination in mind but also willing to discard it from our plans. Eventually, we made it there: an outdoor showing of STOP MAKING SENSE on the waterfront by the World Financial Center. I hadn’t spent much time there since the Winter Garden reopened after its destruction on 9/11. It was strange to be there again. It was stranger to be there watching that particular movie. When we arrived, the band was playing “Swamp,” never one of my faves. But things got better from there, and we started dancing, and my headache lifted and it was suddenly the best night ever. And Sunday morning I slept until 11 a.m. without even trying. Legendary.

Today I found out I’ve got pneumonia. And so another journey begins…

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