Writer’s block

I don’t know what to write about.

That’s not true. I have lots to write about — bits and pieces swirling around my head of life happening, one thing after another, day after day.

I want to write about the makeup I bought a few days ago. The strange urge that came over me recently to wear makeup — craving the orderliness of tiny bottles and compacts and brushes; craving the ritual, the time — those three minutes when I have to look in the mirror and pay special attention to the wrinkles and pimples and spots, gently addressing each one, applying color and shimmer and powder.

I want to write about the old diaries I unearthed after a weird dream one night. I want to write down why those diaries and pictures and postcards made me so sad — why, or for what, I am not sure yet. I can’t quite find the right words to grieve for things past, or why I feel the need to grieve at all for that matter.

I want to write about the photo I saw of an old boyfriend a few days ago. In the picture he is standing with his father and I had to take a quick breath as I realized that now he looks like his father and not like the blond boy I loved 15 years ago — maybe a little less hair, maybe a bigger belly, a rounder face. And right here I want to say something about the realization that the same thing must be happening to me and that maybe that makeup purchase wasn’t a bad idea.

I want to write about how my mom didn’t speak to me last week and how I wanted to feel guilty and remorseful, but instead felt tired and resentful. I also felt like a true grown-up, patching up our relationship with flowers and chocolates and a card. I want to say that I am happy that the fight is over, but I am not happy that it happened.

I want to write about Sam and about how he ate two hard-boiled eggs a few nights ago. He requested them out of the blue, then sat on the kitchen counter before dinner and methodically peeled the shells off, shook some salt on them and just ate them. He giggled while he ate and suddenly I had a craving for eggs too. He made them seem so delicious. I want to write about that.

I want to write about Drew and Sam in the other room, reading together. I want to saw something about their relationship– so fragile and delicate and complicated like a piece of lace. And how I worry about them — the lace ripping into shreds in a careless moment.

I want to write about ambition — mine, mostly — about compromise, about hope, and plans, and excitement, and real estate, and travel, a friend’s divorce, new clothes, my birthday, and time-tocking away.

I want to write about it all. But nothing seems to stop long enough for me to capture, to digest, to analyze, to make permanent. Life keeps happening — there are lunch boxes to pack, appointments to keep, jobs to show up for, beds to make, dinner to cook, moments to savor. So what is some guy I used to know in college has gained weight? So what if there is blush on my cheeks? Will the swirling stop of I put these on paper in an orderly fashion with beginnings and ends and maybe a nice lesson to take away from it all? Do I want it to stop? Isn’t it such a luxury to navel-gaze? Isn’t it so naive to think that somehow all of this makes sense?

For now, I let things simmer. Here they are in brief paragraphs, just to release the pressure in my head, to list what occupies my mind this week, to acknowledge and release the swirling, the randomness, the day-to-day.

Someday soon these too will belong in a dusty diary or a crumpled notebook and maybe I will grieve for them or maybe I will wonder why these mattered at all.

Memory

There’s this game I used to play when I was a little girl – maybe 10 or 12. My grandmother lived about 15 minutes from us by car through narrow, cobblestone streets, neighborhoods of small, square houses with messy gardens and metal gates.

We visited her almost every Sunday. My brother and I sat in the back of our little Trabi, bouncing around as we made our way through the city. I am sure I played this game on summer days too, but now that I think back I can only see those streets on dark, gray afternoons. We passed whole rows of these little houses, all exactly alike, except maybe one was cream, another a faded brick, maybe brown. Wooden shutters on the windows, tile roofs, cracked pavement out in front. Brick walkways lead from the gate to the front door.

I would press my face to the window of the car and imagine myself and my life in one of those little houses. I would imagine the weight of a big, metal key in my hand as it opened the gate. The pull of the grocery bags on my arm, full of pastries and cheese and fruit. I imagined what it felt like to come home to a family – not my parents and my brother – but a husband and children.

I loved to think about filling kitchen cupboards and the fridge and feeding all of us at a big, round table under a warm light. I imagined the sound of plates as they touched the table, the clink muffled by a tablecloth, the sound of milk glug-glugging into a glass, chairs being pulled closer to the table. Warm chatter, laughter, dishes in the sink, the sound of TV in the living room, newspaper rustling, the washing machine quietly humming.

It made me shiver to think about what it would be like to own it all. It wasn’t the ownership that excited me – I didn’t know or understand what that was about. What I wanted I think was the responsibility, the weight of adult life in my hands, to be busy with small, important things like ironing shirts and washing sheets.

Sitting in that cold car these thoughts always made me feel so warm and cozy. I could see myself so clearly as an adult and I so relished this imaginary life with its everyday noises and smells. Whatever doubt or questions I had about where my life was heading floated away during those short car trips, because in my mind there I was, settled, grown up. Ready.

I haven’t thought about this game for years – or decades even – until a few weeks ago when we were once again on our way to my grandmother’s flat, crammed into the back seat of a rental car with my brother and his wife.

We had just left the cemetery where my grandmother’s ashes were scattered in a fountain. The city was especially cold and foggy and my little neighborhood seemed small and dirty.

We stopped at a light in front of one of the houses and suddenly it occurred to me that I have everything I imagined back when I was little – a small square house, the big table I share with a man and a little boy, the full cupboards, the humdrum of quiet evenings at home. It’s all there – far away from where I first imagined it, but there.

It is everything I ever wanted. It’s nothing like I ever imagined.

Budapest

I like to stand at the foot of the bed and throw myself on the bouncy mattress. My hair splashes around my face like water and I pretend that I am a weightless, powerless body. I turn my palms toward the sky and hold my breath.

That’s what I was doing as he packed his suitcase. The big bed in the hotel room was wide and flexible, so I bounced for a long time. Once the bouncing stopped I stayed there, staring at the cheap chandelier hanging above me. The hotel was in one part of a converted downtown apartment building, near the train station—a formerly bombed-out, turn-of-the-century building along a wide, congested boulevard. Our window looked out on the wrap-around balcony facing a stone courtyard. Old ladies shuffled by our window and a couple of kids bounced a ball on the old wooden gate below as we made love that afternoon.

By now it was dark and we were dressed and the courtyard was empty. Dishes rattled in one kitchen. A baby cried. Someone must have been sautéing onions and paprika in an old iron skillet across the hallway. The news came on and a window pane rattled as the wind blew it shut.

I shivered.

It was July, but the skies turned dark the moment his plane touched down Friday night. We took a cab to the hotel and made small talk. I stayed behind him as he checked in—this time he gave his real name, not like he used to when he had to sign in to my dorm in college. The receptionist called him “Mister” and then shot me a knowing look. I pretended to not notice. I clung to his arm as we walked up two flights of stairs. The lights in the dark hall were operated by motion censors and lit up the way ahead of us one by one like a runway.

Later we walked along the boulevard—maybe we were talking, maybe not, I can’t remember now. We crossed the road and tram tracks and walked up to the bridge crossing the Danube. The river curves at that point, so we walked almost all the way over to the other side before the city opened up in front of us. The drizzle made all the lights seem a bit dimmer, a bit less like a cheesy postcard.

I wanted him to think that this was romantic. I wanted him to love my city as much as I did. I wanted him to love me.

We stopped and leaned on the rail. The bridge gently swayed as a tram passed by.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I came to see you,” he said, matter-of-factly. He smiled his sweet, crooked smile. There was a raindrop on his eyelashes.

“Yeah, right.”

We held hands on the way back to the hotel, his arm curving perfectly into my arm, his fingers entwined with mine. A decade later I can still feel that pressure on my elbow, my wrist, between my fingers. His thumb rubbed the top of my hand.

I took a taxi home after we made love. I ate leftovers in my parents’ kitchen at 2 a.m. and wondered if he missed me in that big bed. I wondered if he really came to see me and whether his hunger for me was fueled by love, or need, or nostalgia, or something else that I would never know or understand.

The next night I stayed with him. There was no use pretending that I was cool or that I didn’t really care whether he was there or not. I took him to all of my favorite spots in the city, trying to etch the image of him and those places in my mind. He fit in everywhere, sure, but he was so much shinier than that drab July weekend, than my favorite smoky café, or our hidden hotel room. So much shinier than me.

All weekend I pretended that Sunday didn’t exist. But here it was and he was packing and I was playing dead on the hotel bed. He giggled when I started the bouncing, but now he moved around the room quietly, with purpose.

He neatly folded his clothes and placed them in his bag. He picked up my clothes that I left on the floor the night before, folded them and placed them on the chair by the door. He put his shoes on. He tucked his plane ticket in his jacket pocket and checked for his phone and keys.

He finally sat down next to me. I knew he wanted me to leave, but I was clinging to every minute with him. He said he’d rather see me leave than watch me wave as he got on the airport shuttle bus by himself.

He lay next to me and put his head on my shoulder. I touched his hair—so painfully soft—and cried.

“Please tell me that it’s going to be all right,” I sobbed.

“I can’t promise you that; I can’t promise you anything,” he said, almost laughing.

“No, I don’t mean just us — I mean in general.”

“Yeah, in general, everything will be all right.”