Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Strength In Michigan

The first thing she remembers is the heat. With the thunderstorms came the tangible thickness of moist air. It was unlike the dry desert heat she was used to, and the slippery grips of humidity held her limbs and pulled on her strength, dragging her to the floor. For the first days of her stay in Michigan, she sought refuge in the one room of the small Victorian that had an air conditioner. She let her boyfriend drink with his old friends while she remained in the dark coolness of the room, letting the pleasant hum of the machine keep her company.

She was at Marty’s house, an old friend she had heard about so often from Jay, her boyfriend. The house was on a well maintained residential block, lined with tall, sprawling bowed trees that were just starting to turn yellow. It was a street of single-family detached homes, all nearly identical in form and lot size. Each one had a small front yard, a squat rectangular house, and a wooden fence that wrapped around the side and outlined a long rectangular yard. It was a racially mixed neighborhood of working class families and an ice cream truck drove through each day a little after noon. From the sidewalk, there were six steps up to the screened-in porch. Above the roof of the porch was a pointed rooftop with a window facing the street. It was the window for the one second-story room where Marty slept. The screened in porch was the only space in the house where smoking was permitted, thus, it was the place to lounge and drink through the long humid days. The space was accommodating for many people, providing plenty of places to sit. Along the walls were two long mismatched couches, one on each side of the front door. There were a cluster of chairs, some wooden, some padded, some metal. At the far end of the porch was a circular wooden table with some chairs pushed into it, as though waiting for the players of a soon-to-be poker game. The porch floor revealed the age of the house and its abuse in the extreme natural elements of Michigan. It was worn and brown. The grains of the wood had faded and splintered long ago. The furniture was badly beaten, the fabric stained and thin. It was the party room and was treated as such. There were cigarette butts scattered on the floor, smelly ashtrays were filled with the delicate gray remnants of tobacco and paper. There were empty beer cans and bottles that sat on tables and the floor, waiting for the maid that would never come.

Nightly, a group of three to fifteen would congregate on the porch, each laden with some form of alcohol. She knew this was their habit, their form of celebration, so she tried to relax into it. She knew Jay had missed his friends, that he had felt isolated with her in California, but she thought she could sense his cognitive dissonance, his feeling of distance from the people he once thought of as family. The memories were brighter than the people that stood before him now. She sat on the couch, sipping her beer and trying not to wince as clouds of smoke ambled past her in their search for the night outside the screens. Jay was talkative and looking stylish with his grandfather’s fedora tilted on his head. She would watch Dara, Marty’s Latvian girlfriend who always looked bored as she sat at the round table. She was the only completely sober person on that narrow porch, she was going through a court-ordered DUI program and couldn’t drink.

Marty was about 42. He was tall and had a stout stomach and meaty arms and legs. His complexion was pinkish and extended to his strawberry blond hair and eyebrows. He had an extra ten years on the majority of the group. As far as she could tell, he was the one most able to function in society. He had bought the house in the early nineties and filled it with some roommates, and because the mortgage was so cheap, he only worked a few months in the winter delivering pizzas. Marty drank socially, but he never got into the hard drugs or severe alcohol abuse that almost everyone else had. He was the stability of the group, not as cool as the others, not as interesting, but the one solid rock with a house that the rest of them revolved around. If someone left town and came back years later, they always came to Marty’s house.

Jay had always described his friends as artists and musicians. But from what she saw, it seemed to be a thing of the past. Something they talked about and remembered, but not something they did. The majority of them seemed to be in their late twenties, but they seemed so old to her, like their long decline had begun long ago.

After the first couple of days on their visit, Fran, Jay’s old girlfriend, came over with her new boyfriend, Mike, (a guy who had been Jay’s friend). She knew all about Fran and Jay’s complicated relationship. Among her many problems related to substance abuse, Fran had been prosecuted by the district attorney for domestic abuse (she had broken Jay’s arm) and had had several abortions she only told Jay about afterwards. When she came over, the air was noticeably more tense. There were the old problems, the lingering questions and hurt and the new lover’s presence, packed into a small space. Fran walked with a small stagger and her eyelids remained slightly closed, like she was always one step away from intoxicated sleep. Jay carried a picture of Fran in his wallet and mentioned many times how pretty she had been with her big doe-like eyes. The girl on the couch had given herself over to alcohol. She wore long men’s style shorts and a stained wife-beater that accentuated her bulging stomach. Her legs were hairy and her hair was a mess of faded pink and blond dreadlocks. But it was the way Fran sat and talked that revealed her the most, she just seemed to be so tired of everything…Michigan, the old friends, the faded memories, the alcohol, her body…

One day, she and Jay planned to prepare a small barbecue. They left Fran and Mike and Dara and Marty and the rest of them back at the house and they walked to the store together, hand in hand. They bought some red meat and potatoes and vegetables for the shish-kabobs. When they walked into Marty’s house an hour later, their hands hurting from the weight of the heavy plastic bags, they knew something had shifted. Fran had gotten very drunk and was making a mess and talking about the ways Jay had hurt her. Dara and Marty had gotten into a fight. There was another couple downstairs in the midst of an argument. The entire house was tense. Jay went to try to talk to Fran in the living room.

Seeing no other plan, she continued on to the small kitchen with the groceries. It was shaped like a very small “L” and was just barely big enough for three people to stand in. There was one long window that faced the green backyard and two long windows perpendicular to it that faced the fence and the house on the opposite side. The fridge in the corner was covered with magnets and cartoons and a newspaper article about a potential police officer who had been denied entry into the academy because his IQ was too high. She took a deep breath and inhaled the soft light of the late afternoon. The cabinets were dingy white and the floor was covered in a checkered Formica pattern. The kitchen seemed so cool and calm to her, a welcome oasis from the drama that was all around her. She got out the cutting board and opened the bags of vegetables. She stood there, slicing and chopping, trying to move forward with the plan for a barbecue. The afternoon light streamed in through the windows. She felt anxious energy all around, but focused on her labor and remaining as calm as she could. Jay came up behind her and put his arms around her shoulders. “You are so strong,” he said. She smiled, happy that he saw her as a pillar that wouldn’t crumble. Then her attention moved back to preparing the meat.

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