Title: Message from a Blue Jay
Genre: Creative Nonfiction, Memoir-in-Essays
Author: Faye Rapoport DesPres
Publisher: Buddhapuss Ink LLC
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From an astonishing blue jay to a lone humpback whale, from the back roads of her hometown to the streets of Jerusalem and the Tower of London, debut author Faye Rapoport DesPres examines a modern life marked by a passion for the natural world, unexpected love, and shocking loss, and her search for a place she can finally call home in this beautifully crafted memoir-in-essays.
Three weeks before DesPres's fortieth birthday, nothing about her life fit the usual mold. She is single, living in a rented house in Boulder, Colorado, fitting dance classes and nature hikes between workdays at a software start-up that soon won't exist. While contemplating a sky still hazy from summer wildfires, she decides to take stock of her nomadic life and find the real reasons she never "settled down." The choices she makes from that moment on lead her to retrace her steps-in the States and abroad-as she attempts to understand her life. But instead of going back, she finds herself moving forward to new love, horrible loss, and finally, in a way that she never expected, to a place she can almost call home.
Readers who love the memoirs and personal essays of rising contemporary writers such as Cheryl Strayed, Joy Castro, and Kim Dana Kupperman will appreciate Faye's observational eye, her passion for the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it, and her search for the surprising truths behind the events of our daily lives.
No One Watches the Old Lady Dance
The sun warms my legs as they lie on the edge of a white plastic lawn chair. I have always felt critical when I look at my legs, at least since the age of fourteen. They are, after all, too large, too muscular, marked in places with small, white keloid scars. I remind myself that these legs are strong; in a few weeks they will have carried me through forty years. Just this week they hiked to the summit of Mount Sanitas, a quarter mile from the house I rent in Boulder, Colorado. Yet I wrestle with ambivalence about my hips, and soon I look away. My body and me, approaching middle age, not speaking.
A chill in the air forecasts fall. I cross my arms, trying to snuggle more tightly into my old, worn-out sweatshirt. The flower garden is tangled and ragged, retreating from its summer glory. A few red and white roses remain. They bask in the sunshine among the remnants of what was once a chorus of colors transformed daily by blooms. My arms cramp up. I reach above my head, grasp one hand in the other, and stretch, feeling my shoulders pop.
Above my head, magpies quarrel with two squirrels in a canopy of leaves. The grass is lush now, neatly mowed, a green gift of the September rains that have washed away the parched, brown summer. Cool air trickles into my lungs. I attempt a deep breath, but my chest feels shallow. Three years ago when I moved to Colorado, I was thirty-six and alone. I’d traveled from New York to Boston, then to England, New York again, Israel, and back to New York. Wherever I landed, my life started, stopped, revved up again, sputtered. I could never get comfortable. Things kept falling apart.
I had hoped that Boulder, on the edge of the mountains and inviting to thirty-somethings without wedding rings, would become my home. This hope persisted for a couple of years. I’ve loved living among the skiers and the bike paths, but now I’m restless again. I’m still alone, and soon I’ll be forty. Does the tightness in my chest reflect a sense of foreboding? It could be simpler than that—caused only by the smoke and haze hanging in the sky after a summer of blazing wildfires.
I’ve been told that life is less painful if you stay in the present, dismiss the past, and avoid thoughts of the future. Be here, now. So I try to stay here, with my breath and the smoke and the sky and the sun on my skin. But memories beat their fists at my door and beckon through the windows with crooked fingers. I am tempted and give in; my mind slips out.
I see an eleven-year-old girl. A boy is teasing her, calling her “button chest.” She is embarrassed by the changes in her body. She wants to run fast like the boys. Her mother is at home doing laundry, depressed. The girl doesn’t want to end up like her mother. She doesn’t like dolls; she wants to be strong. Her body is betraying her.
Now the girl is thirteen. They didn’t let her join the Little League team; they won’t let her play soccer at school. She joins the gymnastics team. She has dark eyes, pigtails, and a clear-skinned face. She dances on the mat, dips down and stretches, moves in time with the recorded music. She reaches toward the audience, turns and stands straight, pauses for a moment at the corner of the mat. She raises herself on her toes as the music speeds up. Then she runs, turns and twists, tumbles in the air, and lands standing on the mat, arms up. Her chin lifts, and she flashes a smile. The audience applauds. The judges’ pencils move quickly across clipboards.
Older selves replace the thirteen-year-old girl. They appear and recede at a distance. A high school girl in a peasant costume sings “Matchmaker” on an auditorium stage. She is told her performance was affecting, but the next day she pulls on her gymnastics leotard and stares at her body in the mirror. She is embarrassed by the size of her hips. At the end of the day she writes in her diary, listing every calorie she put in her mouth. The boys eye the cheerleaders who have slim, perfect legs, wear lipgloss, and blow-dry their hair. She knows that is what it means to be pretty, and she also knows she is not that. She wants the boys to like her, but not for the things that she wishes she could make disappear.
A college student with long, unkempt hair, in patched blue jeans and a Grateful Dead t-shirt sits alone at the edge of a pond near her dorm. During summer break, her boyfriend visits. He lifts her shirt and glances at her backside. “Not bad,” he says. She is glad that she has not gained weight.
A woman in Boston, twenty-seven now, says a tearful good-bye to a man who is leaving. She should not bother to cry. She won’t see him again for five years, and when she does she will no longer care. But I can’t tell her this; she stops eating and drops to 103 pounds. She thinks her reflection in the mirror finally looks good, but her friends at work ask if she is sick. She leaves. She boards a plane for Israel, where she lives in the desert and takes Hebrew classes. She starts eating again and begins to gain weight, and berates herself for starting to look heavy.
She hikes through the desert and swims in the Dead Sea. She sings “On My Own” from Les Misérables at a small coffeehouse, accompanied by a pianist. The people at the tables clap their hands. She has given another great performance.
I am back in the garden, watching one of the squirrels make his way down a tree toward the roses. Upside down, he clings to the bark and stops to lift his head, assessing any danger I might present. “I won’t bother you,” I tell him. The squirrel understands and continues his descent. I glance at a nearby Tupperware dish to be sure there is water inside. I started leaving water for the squirrels after one of them followed me around one morning in the middle of the scorching summer. I was watering the flowers, and he drank from the end of the hose.
How I crave a sip of my own gentleness.
Friends have been relentless in their crusade to convince me that forty is not old. It’s a beginning, they explain, not an end. “Remember,” one said, “on your birthday you are just one day older.” Still, I sense that I am running out of time.
My mind slips away again. The woman, twenty-nine, is back in the States. She sits in a doctor’s office. She is shaking, her mother beside her. Now she is wheeled into an operating room. She panics, and the nurses sedate her. A hot, white light hangs above her head. She sees masked faces. Hands pat her arms gently in an attempt to offer comfort. Voices grow softer, more distant. Tears slide down her cheeks. She has a tumor. They will fix it, but she will never have children.
Her body has betrayed her.
Back in the garden, I focus fiercely on the red and white roses. They blur as tears sting my eyes. It occurs to me that my body and I have been estranged for a decade. I have been banished from the only shelter I ever occupied. But did my body betray me? Or did a childhood battle become a full-blown war?
My mind drifts back a few days. I am taking a dance class in a dimly lit exercise studio. Dirt from the wood floor grinds into my feet. Hot spots burn my toes where blisters are forming. Still, I dance, twist and turn with three other women in the class. The teacher is slim and young, with a blond ponytail and a small tattoo of a rose on her right shoulder. She wears black stretch pants and a tiny tank top. Noticing the top, I feel ashamed and embarrassed. Beneath the embarrassment is anger I stuff down. My chest is too large for tiny tank tops, and I must be careful to wear shirts that hide scars. I glance into the mirror and wait for the voice that I know will soon enter my head. It happens when my right arm moves up. My shoulders and arms are too thick, it says. My legs are too large. I glance at the legs of the woman beside me. She is thin and pretty and sleek, and I wish that I looked like her.
In the garden, I stare at my hands. They are red, the skin dry. I lift them and hold them up to the sky.
I am here, yet somewhere else, not now, someday. The garden is knotty and tangled and old, but I understand that it was once beautiful. In fact, it is still beautiful. I see disarray but also past glory, and have affection for them both. I hear music and feel my body dancing. My hair is long and gray, and it tickles the bare skin on my shoulders. When my arms move to the side, there is a twinge of pain. Still, I move with the music. My legs bend, and my hips begin to sway. I smile and turn my face to the sun, then lower my arms and hug my chest. I take a deep breath. I am home.
No one watches the old lady dance, just a cat who sits on the fence. Or maybe the cat is watching the magpies. They are quarreling with the squirrels in the leaves above my head, on a cool September day in Boulder, Colorado, three weeks before my fortieth birthday.
Copyright © 2014 Faye Rapoport DesPres
Previously published in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact