Whale Fall – Part 1 (Spring)

I was told to use the fence along the side of the house to enter. There was the sound, I could hear, of lapping water as the gate gave a rattle. Clumsily, I pulled the gate first.

“It’s a push!” The voice from the backyard rang out. I pushed.

The gate opened, not with any registering sound, but in total and near abject silence. Stepping stones rested before me, nestled in millions of tiny rocks. French drains descended from the side and burrowed underground. At first I tried to walk as normal as I could, but soon I found myself adapting to the steps, and I awkwardly changed my pace as each stone step laid themselves bare before me. As soon as I crossed the threshold of the end of the stepping stones, I could see the pool, reflecting the March sun refreshingly, as the wind took hold of the widening expanse, and I grabbed my shawl tighter, cupping my fingers around my elbows.

“Faith, hi?” the voice rang out again. There was Spencer, sitting on a new table that looked as unwieldy as it was massive. It was circular thing, some fourteen feet in diameter, with plenty of room on the edges. Much of the seating arrangements around the table looked to be indoor furniture of a variety found in thrift stores. Spencer was sitting in a plastic model with holes in awkward places, like some three-dimensionally printed chair designed for environmentally oriented customers. It was a pale white, as though it had weathered several months. To her right was a blue and white plush chair that was sun dried and billowed dust when Spencer gave it two smart raps with his fist. Coughing and sputtering, he laughed as he moved his hand back and forth across his face.

“Pick a seat,” he said, getting up. He had an apron wrapped around his body, grown thick in the middle from good eating. Where in college he used to be spry and gangly, now he seemed boxy and confident. He wiped his hands and opened the door, calling in for Marcus “Faith is here!” He turned back to face me. “And take that mask off.”

I asked if I was sure he wanted me to do that. He said that the whole design of the table was specifically to prevent wearing masks. Spencer said that Marcus had custom built the table as soon as the lockdown started. Now seeing the table with the new context, I could detect the flash of newness. The thick paint and hardy design could not quite hide the hinges in the middle, where the circular table could be folded in two. The hinges in the middle left splintering shards from its construction, and each subsequent mark left novel signatures on the eggshell blue paint. Still, the smoothness and hardiness of the wood revealed a thoughtful and robust table that would serve Spencer and Marcus well. Until the moment when it ended.

Taking my mask off, the coolness of the early March air returned to me.

“There!” Spencer said. “Now pick a seat.”

I chose a chair on the backside of the table, so that I could face whoever else arrived, while still providing a space for them so that they would not have to navigate around. The chair itself was dark, slightly lower to the ground, and clearly not the height required for the table. If I sat up and with good posture, however, I found that I could manage.

Marcus came out with a great deal of food items. In the context of the predicament we found ourselves in, many of the chips were single packaged varietal kinds from Costco. The tray passers as well were tomato and mozarella on brioche, as well as smoked salmon done with a shallot and chive cheese on water crackers. As Marcus brought out more and more layers of the available options, Spencer began by suggesting that the recent lockdown had been miserable for them both. Marcus, as active as ever, could not abide staying home for too long, and the minute that they began he found himself taking hikes and spending time in the woodshed.

“As you can see here,” Spencer gestured.

Spencer meanwhile had found himself going on walks and surveying the empty streets, taking pictures and hoping to wave hello to passersby to young ladies in prams. To her, there was a strange combination: an added friendliness to the exchanges as well as an agoraphobia to closeness. It was the formality of exchange like he had read in turn-of-the-century novels. He had hoped that, for all this austerity, there was some sexiness underneath.

Spencer gave a mischievous grin. “No sense in missing out on a chance to make love!”

I commented that, in the midst of all this, it would be interesting to note just how much more sex or less sex was going on, suggesting that communal pain could prove to be a helpful aphrodisiac.

“Whatever happens,” Spencer said, nodding at the pool, “I cannot wait for summer.”

Just then, we heard the rattle of the gate on the side of the house.

“It’s a push!” Spencer called out, giving me a start.

A series of heavy footsteps could be heard echoing closer to the backyard. Wary of all eyes on the new arrival, I turned toward the water, admiring its cleanliness. Perhaps chlorinated pools during this time irrationally invited some kind of hope for sterility, for baptism. I looked towards the sky to see not a single cloud. It seemed paradoxical for the world to be in such a state of burgeoning sickness, and for nature to offer not a single chance for pathetic fallacy.

“Hello!” Jacqueline said, carrying her own hammock seat and wearing active wear. She had intense sunken eyes, her tan skin taut with the first hints of age. Crow’s feet pointed and accentuated the eyes, which were staring unblinkingly back and forth between Spencer and me. She was wearing a sports bra and a form-fitting light jacket underneath. Her midriff was just barely exposed underneath, the zipper on the jacket only a third of the way zipped. Her yoga leggings formed a tight buttocks. Whereas I had a more informal spring dress, with earth tones, a webbed shawl and dark lipstick, Jacqueline’s leggings looked like a Jackson Pollock painting. Her jacket was neon.

For a man to admit that he had not seen her passing by would be to confirm the opposite.

“Pick any chair you like?” Spencer said, with an inflection on the end that suggested confusion and poking fun at the hammock seat strapped close to Jacqueline’s shoulder. She nodded, and moved a chair closer to Spencer’s side to make room as she began to assemble the hammock seat.

As Jacqueline constructed the seat, she remarked that it was amazing just how empty the streets were. Claiming that she had gone 50 miles per hour on a street that allowed 30, I was surprised she showed up later than I did. As if recognizing the paradox, she remarked that she was getting her son settled into his homework, and had to make sure her husband had a meal for late afternoon.

“Even with a sandwich he’s useless,” she said, aggressively laughing to herself. Sensing that she needed someone to approve of her arriving ten minutes after the appointed time, I told her that it was typical for me to arrive sooner, as I am so wary of other people’s instructions as to overcorrect and miss the point entirely.

“Oh it doesn’t matter!” Spencer said enthusiastically. “Just more time with me!” He reached out and took a bite of the tomato brioche before offering the plate in its entirety to Jacqueline. She shook her head. Spencer offered me one. I shook my head. “Oh c’mon!” Spencer said, goading me, “I know you love cold mozarella.” I took one to placate him, though it was true….I loved cheese.

“Can you believe all this?” Jacqueline said, finally sitting in her hammock chair, which I noticed was notched at its highest and most taut option, forcing a tall and flat posture from her. Her shoulders, symmetrical and balanced, were lean and strong as they maintained her stance. “I have had to change all my routines.”

Jacqueline was the wife of a computer scientist, who could just as easily work from home as abroad, though she found that, since he had been home, agitated collisions would occur near the laundry room, or from the vaulted second floor overlooking the open plan living room. The children sat with their devices, taking in the newness of the agitated cat calls just as easily as their TikTok videos, seemed hardly to be disturbed. Jackie found that if she was unable to go on her run, or to do her YouTube yoga sessions (which had been recently lifesaving), she would malign the children by suggesting all kinds of things for them to do.

“When they were away,” she said. “I didn’t have to imagine their itinerary. Now it’s all I think about. And I am disappointed.”

I wondered if children having schedules was a modern experience. Perhaps, I said, the virus is giving us back the natural day, whatever good that word “natural” had in this context. Only that the measurements for the day happened to be the angle of the sun.

“Well, there is nothing natural about this to me,” Jacqueline scoffed. She has found herself exhausted at the end. In order to make time for this, she complained, she had to work to make sure each person had something to do for the rest of the day. It was a headache attempting to square out the schooling of her son and daughter, because each teacher had differing standards and visions. Her daughter’s teacher expected Zoom sessions and constant attention, and the whole class was together performing these elaborate exercises of using whole rooms to act out. Her son’s teachers, however, were all relatively asynchronous, posting assignments without examples and esoteric instructions that proved very difficult for both to parse out.

She said that luckily, since her husband worked in tech, they were fortunate enough to have fiber internet in the house, but she dreaded the lives of other families bottlenecking. “All that Xbox playing,” she said, picking at her nails already cut close. “All that YouTube.”

Spencer brought up trying to keep his family in touch through Zoom. He has ended up being the “glue” of the family, and for whatever reason there are some serious rubber-banding issues going on with conversations. “Like, I want to talk, but then they talk too? And then we’re both silent, waiting. And then we start again! It’s bizarre.”

I said it was hardly the method of interaction that I was looking for. The constant back and forth of looking at the webcam and then looking back at the screen. I could imagine, were I a student, that seeing so many faces simultaneously could prove stressful, and that social resources we did not know we had could be rapidly depleted. Again I wanted to inform the two that this, this was nice. It had been too long without all of us gathered, I told them. It is hard to admit positives, I finished, in a disaster.

But I told Jacqueline that I was equally distressed to find that her time was required at all in order to create a world for her family. “As if,” I mused “their sense of well-being was based on your ability to lay the train tracks right in front of them just before they crossed it.”

Jacqueline laughed forcefully, rearranging herself in the chair as her lithe shoulders flexed. She was grateful for her oldest son, and though she knew she continued to sing the praises of her teenage son, knowing it did not stop her from doing it. Not only was he willing to provide for daily chores, but he even helped his sister a time or two. While the other friends she kept who had children of a similar age were going through the worst bouts of teenage rebellion, her son had taken to folding clothes.

“None of you have children,” she remarked. “So you would not understand. But this time is doubly hard for some parents.”

Marcus came out wearing an apron and holding a pair of tongs. “Is Mia coming?”

Spencer turned and grabbed Marcus’s apron coquettishly. “Yea, she just texted me. She’s close.”

There was a pause.

I must admit that I took offense whenever Jacqueline used her age against me in conversation. Life is a limited occasion, and to create some kind of hierarchy even in our friendship was to use one’s own body against another.

Spencer asked me how my students were doing?

I remarked that the school was facing some very real problems from parents wanting a tuition cut based on the quality of the lessons after spring break. It was all anyone could do to convince a family that when they paid the money they did that they were receiving a comparable education. But now all bets were off. How exactly could a university, for example, expect to charge for a recreational center that clearly no one intended to use for some indefinite amount of time?

But I remarked that my teaching was fine. Austere, asynchronous, like Jacqueline’s teenage son, and routine.

“I hope this all blows over by summer,” Jacqueline said.

I said that I didn’t.

“You don’t?” she said, giving a start.

Trying to rephrase, I said that the virus was a terrible occasion, one that would impact the world in death and decay, in misery and instability. That was not in doubt, and I did not want to excuse that level of pain.

But as I sat there and I could hear the pool lapping, responding to a breeze that I barely knew existed during my time teaching, I realized that I was putting every emotional resource into a life I hardly realized I was living. It was becoming clear to me that I found every excuse to avoid the thoughts in my head. A kind of automaticity had crept into my style of work. When I was not teaching and grading for students, I was planning lessons and reading books designed for students. I was writing letters of recommendation. I could not remember the last time I sat, really sat, and decided on simply paying attention to the thoughts that came into my mind.

“Sounds hippie to me,” Jacqueline interrupted.

“Call it what you like,” I said. But I was growing aware of the fact that maybe calamity was what it took for the world to wake up from the staring contest we had been having with “society,” with “the public,” or whatever it was called. That forum where we all gathered was now so unavailable as to in fact be dangerous to our health. And who could have imagined that it would set me up for a transfiguration of a kind, a-

Just then the gate rattled.

“It’s a push!” Spencer yelled, laughing to himself. “Jesus Christ.”

It was Mia. Her wicker hat and her denim overalls gave her a kind of stereotypical farmer look, were it not for the striped shirt underneath that for some reason was also the tipping point where people could make the correct assumption that she had been homeschooled. Why this was I do not know. Of course, to know beforehand about Mia’s corners in her personality perhaps gave it away, where someone meeting Mia for the first time would have no idea until many hours. She had pale skin and kind eyes spaced far apart and turned down.

“Hello everyone,” Mia said in her mothering tone. Looking at the table, she slowly glided around the table and chose the lushest and biggest chair on offer. She placed her legs, her milky white legs arching over one arm as she leaned luxuriously over the rest of the chair.

“Are you high?” Spencer remarked at Mia’s entrance. Mia remarked of course not, that she had never been high and was never going to be under the influence.

“You’re young,” Spencer said, waving his hand. “You’ve got time.”

Mia said that she was just so happy to be here. That it had been a long time since their class together and she was starting to wonder if they would ever keep in touch.

I agreed and said it had been too long.

“Well,” Jacqueline said. “When you have children, suddenly your life starts to become someone else’s.” And though she said it with what felt to be a line of bitterness, she corrected it by suggesting that she loved her children. She found the whole aspect of parenting to be a roller coaster. There were times when the high points had so filled her as to be to bursting. That seeing the way they learned, as if for the first time, the most basic of processes, was for her the best part. To her, opening a door had been so routine as to become invisible.

“There’s some truth to that,” Mia said. “The brain puts the information to the back after a time. The hippocampus, it becomes automatic.”

“Thanks Wikipedia,” Marcus teased while offering her the tray of tray passers. She took the vegetarian tomato brioche.

Jacqueline would in those times be consumed by parenting so much that there were new arguments with her husband, where they both came home exhausted and, now, that idea was even more pronounced, despite the fact that everyone was at home. It was in these moments that the roller coaster, to use her metaphor, came back down again. Her daughter was taking to some of her stuffed animals and ripping them to shreds violently with whatever sharp objects she could find. No outside element seemed to precipitate this, and trying to find the cause was a never-ending puzzle that worried Jacqueline. It was in these moments, these picking up the pieces of stories that clearly suggested how different her children were to her own body, that most unnerved her. How even in this enclosed bubble there could still be this lack of overlap in personality or genes. It was daunting.

Marcus came out and asked if we would like a hamburger or hot dog. We each gave our orders.

Mia, nodding towards Jacqueline, tried to soothe her with stories about her days homeschooling in the middle of Texas with her mother. She read to her constantly, and found that they shared a passion for something. She asked whether they shared a hobby that they could do together.

“Yelling,” Jacqueline said. “My daughter and I both like yelling.”

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