“Sometimes I feel that I am not living so much as being lived.”
She’s been mulling this for days, that line above that came shimmering up from the middle of a faraway friend’s note in her inbox. It’s reduced itself in her mind to I am being lived, and she thinks about it in her waking hours and when she’s going to sleep.
She’s thinking about it now, from a chair in front of tall windows that open onto a narrow balcony. The balcony looks out over a driveway made of small white rocks and crushed oyster shells.
A cage where three parrots perch, gazing about and squawking. Where did these parrots come from? If someone opened the door to their cage would they fly out and make a life for themselves here on this forgotten beach, among the tall pines and stubby palms? She doesn’t know.
Now she’s thinking about the wild parrots of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. She saw a documentary about these parrots once, and when she went to San Francisco she kept a sharp eye out for them, but they were not to be found. Although, given the non-sharpness of her sharp eye, they were probably perched all over Telegraph Hill, watching her watch for them.
Is she living or is she being lived? She will sit in this chair, looking out at this pine that, were she a child again, she would build a treehouse in, and she will write down whatever comes to her.
A bookshelf, maybe three feet across, in the small blue-green room so far away. Forty-nine desk diaries, filled with scratchy angular half-script half-printing. Two years in which each desk diary is only half-filled: hard years. One desk diary for each year of each child’s life.
Now that the oldest lives so far away, in that city by the sea, should she stop? She thinks of her mother, who raised her to be fiercely independent. She once asked her mother if it had been hard at all, when she went away to college. All she herself remembers is the station wagon pulling away, nosing down the hill, her mother waving goodbye out the car window, smiling – and the sense of her own life, horizons lifting and opening all around her.
I cried the whole way home, her mother said, all those years later. I realized that I would never again know what you were wearing, never again watch you eat breakfast before school.
She thinks of the red one-peck apple basket under her desk, again back in that small blue-green room with the small orange couch. Little squares of paper inside, dozens of them, hundreds, one for each day, the names of those she loves written on them.
Now a blackhaired girl appears in her mind, posing in the doorway of that small blue-green room, smiling, embarrassed. Should I wear the black ones or the blue ones? Don’t just say they both look good. I don’t want you to think like a mom. I want you to tell me the truth.
Now a small square table, wooden with green vinyl inlay, appears. This is a table from long, long ago and far away. This table sat in a tiny kitchen, a kitchen sprayed weekly for roaches, a kitchen with a small gas stove, a single sink, dark and ugly but she and her sister don’t care.
A man, lean and quick and handsome, sits across the table from her. They are eating crackers with pesto and limburger cheese and other smelly foods full of flavor, the kind that they always ate together because they loved them and no one else did.
I’m thinking of ending it all, he says, and she stops with a cracker halfway to her mouth and looks across the table at him, a distance of a couple of feet and the abyss of space. She can’t think. Did he just say what she thought he did? Then he says it again. I’m thinking of ending it all.
Violin strings come to her now, violin strings on a violin held in the crook of a man’s neck, bow in his hand. He draws the bow across the strings and plays. Classical music, which she, being a child and ignorant, doesn’t recognize. This man is her grandfather. He came to this country when he himself was a child, from Europe, from a land with shape-shifting boundaries. He will die when she is seven years old, and she will never know him, but she will think about him throughout her life, shadow man, holding that violin, standing in that dark apartment in Manhattan.
A night comes to her, a night in southern Florida when she stands outside in the dark at a pay phone trying to hang on, but the person on the other end of the line doesn’t want to hang on, and hangs up. She is alone in the darkness, trying to breathe, and a blob of putty falls from a tree and lands on the pavement next to her. A frog. An albino frog.
Now here is another night, long after the night of the albino frog and the pay phone. She is in a hospital, alone in a quiet lamplit room, a television muted above her head and a tray of hospital food on her lap: chicken, green beans, two slices of limp toast and a small bowl of red jello.
Next to her bed a small new being is asleep, a seven-pound small new being. War is happening on the mute television, bombs are being dropped, and ordinarily she would hardly be able to breathe at the sight, but now she eats and breathes and puts her hand on the head of the small new being to feel that soft spot pulsing up and down.
This, she recognizes, is a respite. She is not herself. Tomorrow the worries will come rushing back.
She is right, but she is also wrong. This is the moment she will remember, always, for the rest of her life, when she thinks of the word peace.
Noon is approaching. She has been sitting in this chair a long time. Her muscles want up and out, want to uncramp themselves. Out there in the trees, the parrots are hopping about in their cage, watching and waiting. Am I living or am I being lived? Is there a difference?