small sorrows, like swallows

Going through some old high school things, discovered this gem. Too many adjectives, mixed metaphors; not my style any more, thank goodness. But whenever I try to edit this one, something stops me. Something about this one, even if it is poor writing, is good. ~acb

When I was six, I knew what real love was: making tea. I learned that tea is the highest expression of affection, thin ginger cookies bought by the box, imported from Sweden and overpriced near the check-out counter, the sweetest tenderness. Hovering like an anxious vulture, watching a pot that would never boil and starting suddenly at the screech, my father tiptoed daintily, clutching over-full cups that he would gently place at my mother’s elbow, sipping his own in retreat. Reading or wrangling spreadsheets, she was often so absorbed in her work that she either absent-mindedly burned her tongue or never knew, only to matter-of-factly discover the cold cup hours later. My mother inherited teacups from her mother and her mother before her, instinctively gathering the vessels that would allow the exchange of warm contentment, even if she seldom enjoyed it fully due to ill timing. Even if it is not seen or heard, even if it waits too long and is too strong or cold or scalding—love is meant well.

Love, for a time, had nothing to do with living. Life got in the way, as they say; the unseen ordinary grime of routine and loneliness obscured, for a time, the scalding joy of six-year-old-ness and roast chicken for dinner, modernist marker masterpieces and drawing faces on bus windows in the rain.

We are all not so very different in the way we inadvertently gather neuroses like mushrooms; gathered with care, if not skill, and carefully marinated in the larder while their poison ferments, until they can be enjoyed to deadly effect. This is, in itself, a great sorrow: that we cannot draw that line between the imagined and factual small sorrows that define a life.

Small sorrows arrive, like swallows, in flocks that will roost in you for whole seasons, seemingly migrating this way by sheer cruelty. But they will also fly at the least provocation. Indeed, it will seem, for whole years, that neither tractors nor scarecrows, foxes, falcons nor banging on cutlery will end their tenure. But there will come a day, an exquisitely ordinary day, that they will be gone: either by pity, some new neighborhood predator, or their own free will. That is all you can hope for. There will be feathers to collect afterwards, and you will be bitterly grateful and quietly glad that they were there, though the tree was certainly dark with their number. Swallows will return from time to time, but there will be fewer of them. Their migratory route will not change, but their talon-ed hold on you will. Doves, perhaps, or some such other suitably symbolic bird, will take their stead.

But until then, we utter this cry: I’m sorry I led you on because I led myself on because I thought I saw things that weren’t there because I was tired of being alone again and I’m sorry. I never loved you like in story-books.

And we say these things because we doubt whatever powers vested in humankind by a creator {or lack-thereof} that trusted us far too much for our own doubting hearts, hands searching for proof in the wounds we receive.

These days, I think love happens when one decent human being discovers—despite all the myriad evidence of burned pot roasts, lost reading glasses, rotting baby bok choy in the vegetable compartment, unclipped fingernails, and ruined stockings to the contrary—that they are, actually, a decent human being. This must take time. The swallows will fly. Then that decent human being meets another decent human being who has discovered this also, and cautiously, miles away across the ocean we bellow vague terms of endearment and barely-understandable meaning and hope to God that the other mammal—hopefully of our own species—recognizes the language and thus, tentatively, we discover the keeping and habits of one another.

Friends are the decent humans whose flaws you can live with half the time. A lover is a decent human whose flaws you can live with a quarter of the time. The fractions are semantics, but we discover these mathematical proofs slowly, as the language of whales, women and men are often without interpreter.

I loved looking out the window of the apartment I grew up in. More than any other game or adventure with stuffed animals—all lovingly christened names I now cannot recall—I loved tracing the raindrops that collected on the window-grate as each orb patiently strained and quivered, yearning to fall to the peeling paint on the sill, returning to a place where, if it didn’t belong, at least it fit snugly into the cracks. Most species of swallow are not native to their environment. Swallows and sorrows fly, with time. And with time, water boils, tea brews and love—even if it doesn’t belong—finds a way into empty and cracked teacups.

© 2015 Anna-Christina Betekhtin, All Rights Reserved.


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