Driven by unknown forces, they don’t frequent the common places. There are thousands of them, occupying, cumulative, where the work gets done, the supporting actress you don’t remember.

They are the purple roses you hardly see behind light-greedy leaves, quiet, selective, living out their lives, excluding, free, sometimes melancholy. There are gardens full of those women.

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1.

I waited for her, after the glass broke and I ran away toward the daisy field that launched itself like a smoke plume from a sole wooden step. How beautiful, she whispered in my ear when we had discovered it together. I recalled all that white with bits of yellow and the gentle light on the land when I woke in the back seat, a hundred miles already gone while I’d slept.

That was the morning we moved away from farms and long wasted empty hills, away from beavers forging delicate agreements between violet-covered forest floors and creeks bordered in trillium. It was before I could read or speak, but I knew my heart would break for those places. I remember she waited in the car while I climbed the steps to a door on our street so that I could wave goodbye.

2.

Then came the years when she needed to rest. Sometimes I’d watch her asleep on the couch covered by sheets, her best one was white with pink and orange petals. Other times creeping quietly along the hallway floor and, careful not to rattle my sister’s framed painting, I’d inch open the thin brown door to her bedroom.

Home from school I played alone, waiting for her, often suspended from that well-worn couch, head down like a bat. I’d hang there exactly as long as it took to convince myself (it wasn’t too hard) that she really could step over the doorframe and walk upright upon the ceiling. When she finally woke though I was out in the yard braiding red clover and dandelions into a crown.

3.

Stronger, she emerged, and we sat together on the city buses. Always grasping my hand, she tried so hard. We’d take the train, meet the crowds at Wanamaker’s eagle and ride the fancy elevators down to the basement for milkshakes. At Reading Terminal we’d laugh at strange meats for sale, see the station, the trainyard, the hare krishnas chanting for spare change and passing out orange carnations to the people on Market Street.

But our summer walks are what I’ve kept in my heart like a single pressed red rose. That was when we escaped our house into the humid night and taught ourselves the names of trees. This couldn’t have been an interest of hers, a girl from an inner city block halfway between the river and Broad and afraid of forests, but she did it for me. Our favorite was sweet gum because the moonlight made shadows of its leaves sprawl onto the pavement like giant dark stars.

4.

When someone is still alive, memories of times with them are clear and intact, fed by shared remembering. Afterward they seep away, like water through a cracked glass. Or become transformed by dreams, or distorted by stories told over and over until every word sounds the same, tainted by talk, and devoid of color like dried out cut flowers. Over time each dear one becomes confined, unmoving and voiceless, within a picture frame.

But this does not account for the unconscious (is this the soul?) that welcomes them unrestrained, unlimited. Not an image or feeling but something more. A sort of gentle knowing that comes to some, but only after letting go. I recall the grief of those hours and days of sitting after we lost her truest love and then lost our faith. She saved the condolence notes that came fastened to vase after dreary vase for the rest of her life.

5.

In a world new to her, she bravely watched my honeybees fly, saw the colorful pollen they gathered from asters and lilies. Later that day, she helped me sew flowery lace curtains for my windows. The joy she felt in doing that made her face come alive, and then she spoke quietly of her childhood. The poverty, her many illnesses, their place on Mildred Street, nickel bread loaves and the horse-drawn milk carts. Waiting for water to heat for tea, she wondered out loud how she had survived until that simple moment.

Flawed like we all are, she believed she had to be whole and unblemished to be loved, but she was wrong. That perfect day, she held an ice cream cone in her hand like a sugary bouquet, and her smile was a sunburst rising tall above the northern fens of Maine. Fearful but determined, she’d travelled long just to hunt for cobbles at the beach with me. Her pencil drawing of that rocky coast was scotch-taped to her papered kitchen wall for years.

I am trying to figure out why I am not more upset by the recent theft of my laptop.  It was four years old and had many glitches.  I’d had it serviced, but it was still very slow to start and I often had to reboot it altogether.  But it worked, and more importantly, it held a lot of family photographs, financial data, and writings in progress.  I almost referred to it a few sentences ago as “my laptop of four years” as if it were a significant other.  Since the theft I’ve been able to find copies of many of the photographs, and I am slowly reconstructing my financial file.  But one folder filled with poems and prose in progress is lost forever.

I am still struck by an article I read about the Craigslist killer – the guy who lured middle-aged, single white men to Ohio with a job offer to be a caretaker and handyman for his 688-acre estate, and then killed them and stole all the stuff they brought with them. He looked specifically for unmarried men who seemed to have few attachments.  But the article that profiled some of his victims revealed that these men were not as unattached as they had appeared to their killer.  Despite being divorced, never married, or otherwise spouseless, these men all had someone.  One had a best friend that he talked to from several states away on walkie-talkies every day, and a twin sister.  Another had teenage sons and was devoted to them, despite the fact that he had “failed” as a provider for them. He texted them or talked to them every day on a phone that he could ill afford, and remained unfailingly present in their daily lives.  Another had become a father figure to a young girl who had no one, and passed onto her knowledge such as how to caulk a bathtub and fix drywall.  None of the victims or the people in their lives were perfect.  I imagine that some had dropped out of school or had done time in jail, and none of their relationships fit the image of a traditional family.  And yet, they were.

I had to stop myself from crying as I read about them. These men represent the isolation and disconnectedness that I believe so many people feel and live with today.  I wanted to cry, not just for them, but for myself, because despite the fact that I have family, a steady job and belong to a community of sorts, I am a spouseless person too.  In this society, although there is wide acceptance of different lifestyles and types of families, it is still very difficult to be single and middle-aged.  I could go on about the many systems that are set up to benefit married couples and put single folks at a disadvantage.  More important is that although it is okay and I am okay, so many of the married people that I meet have no idea what to say to a single middle-aged adult. Many have plain just stopped bothering to be social because it is oddly socially accepted for them to hide within their marriage.  I often feel that same isolation and disenfranchisement that those victims of the Craigslist killer did.  I feel it and fight it off and run from it every day. Every day. And I am not very in touch with my feelings, thank God, because if I felt intensely the aloof nature of most of my everyday dealings with people, and remembered to count on the fingers of one hand the number of human beings who truly know me to my inner core, I would be a much sadder person.  Which is why I should be much more distraught about the loss of my laptop. That stolen laptop held a lot of my thoughts and memories.  It knew me.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my 10 year old son’s artwork.  My son has been an amazing artist for most of his life.  At first he drew for comfort, often variations of the same thing over and over again.  As he’s matured and grown more comfortable in his skin and the world around him, his artwork has branched out. These days he goes nowhere without a notebook and a pencil so that he can draw in his spare time, often getting in trouble for drawing when he is supposed to be doing something else.  Sometimes I forget that he has such an observant eye, and then a stranger comes up to me and gushes to me about my son’s artistic talent as if I had no idea. 

It has dawned on me that drawing is how my son processes and organizes his thoughts. In the second grade after seeing an orchestra for the first time, he came home all excited and drew the entire orchestra from memory.  I couldn’t stop him from drawing it even if I had wanted to. I hope I saved that drawing because it was one of the first very detailed drawings that he ever made.  The other week I asked him why he needed to draw all of the time and he informed me that when one of his drawings is very detailed, it means that he is happy.  It seems that the orchestra made him very happy back in second grade.  He now he plays cello in a youth orchestra, and his ear for music is just as good as his eye.  My son’s cello teacher recently told me that he really speaks through the cello.  Her choice of words has stayed with me – I don’t believe that she knows that my son did not actually speak (at least not in any human language) until he was 3-1/2.  

Neither did I, and likely, I share some other personality traits with my son.  For instance, there are activities that are somewhat repetitive that give me comfort – reading the same book over and over again, watching old episodes of The Gilmore Girls (sorry), staring endlessly at the spreadsheet of my finances that I have kept for 7 years.  But when I’m feeling comfortable enough, I like to write. Writing organizes my thoughts in a way that makes me know myself better.  When I write, I rarely know what I am writing about until the end of the process.  When I get to the end, I feel happy, and oddly, I no longer feel isolated, even though writing is a solitary process.  As I have said, my laptop had so many unfinished writing projects on it that will never be recovered.  I have stray notes of them here and there, some on my iPhone and some that I’ve e-mailed to myself over the years.  But there’s many fragments and scraps of things that I will never see again.  Why am I not more mournful?  

The killer’s victims who did not serve traditional roles as husband, father and breadwinner all found other ways to connect.  And their connections were not casual, they were intense and daily.  They were lifelines.  But what was more important – the actual person that they connected with or the process of connecting?  What does connecting do for us that we all want to do it so much?  More and more people die because they are texting someone or looking at updates from connections on their smartphone while driving.  What feels so good about connecting that we are ready to risk our lives?  Why do we crave it?  Why do we lack it so much?

A simplified response would be that when we connect, we are validated.  Someone has chosen to be our friend or chosen to love us, and thus we can continue (or start) to love ourselves, and so many of us need help with that.  I would go further, and say that connecting with others helps us organize our thoughts. I don’t know what anyone else’s insides look like, but mine are a dark and tangled mass of emotions, thoughts, memories, plans, images, questions, sounds and smells.  Anyone or anything that makes a tiny bit of sense out of that brings joy.  For me, the activity that brings me forward does not have to be a connection with another person.  It just has to bring order, even temporarily, to the unimaginable stringy stew that is my interior.  Engaging in the creative process does that for me.  Whether it is art or music or writing or anything else, the act of sticking my neck out and trying to create something that uniquely expresses something that might just be universal – this creates the same feeling in me as falling in love. 

I don’t think this is unique to me, nor do I think I am unique.  Everyone has a creative spark, but perhaps very few of us allow it to speak.  I am no great artist, musician or writer.  I don’t do it because I think I’ll be famous one day.  I do it because I need to, in order to stay connected.  And here is the place to note that I did not just start creating one day.  Growing up, my sister and brother and I all had regular music and art lessons that were considered just as important as reading and math.  My parents were very aware that someday and in some way that they could not predict, the skill of engaging in the creative process would serve me.  Perhaps it has even saved me.

I will miss my old laptop, but the burglar did not steal my creative process.  I am sad, but not devastated because I will write again, intensely and daily.  It is my lifeline. 

(c) Melissa Perera

Rough blue jeans, long dark hair,
I stumbled on a log, and
His warm hands came from nowhere to steady me.
We were watching lanterns float out on the lake
Candles encased in brown paper bags,
Balanced on thin wooden platforms.
Each single flame was carried to its fate
In that cool summer night.

I should say more of the years that followed,
The myths created about our certain happy ending,
But we, unaware, did not feel the weight of it.
Just one string tuned against another,
Wordless, we practiced fitting notes inside left handed rhythms.
We knew that it was right and good.
Inside our blind world, I think that is all we knew;
That it was good, even as the sound attenuated.

(c) Melissa Perera

I inhale the air off salty seas, and
With respect to time, breathe slowly
Through its painful passing.
Calm, I continue to bear the flow of unmarked seasons,
Focused on making my hands more useful.

This is the natural cruel way of it,
The coldly doled out single hand,
Unclaimed, incidental.

But even now at this late date
I detect in my heart a belated rebellion
Starting, simmering, called awake by the sound.
The desire to expand a quiet bliss,
An hour beneath the pale summer stars,
A forest walk and three smooth stones.
I’ll cobble them together for a giant shawl
To cover my head and shelter us all
While I pray for forgiveness.

Offering thanks for dreams, I ask
Mostly for protection. At last I’ll no longer fear
The dark approaching, as I know it will,
When loneliness and regret finally come for me.

(c) Melissa Perera

Where breath is shortened by vanishing air and
Space too small for lungs to expand,
Where hands reach across a thousand miles but
Barely pass beyond the ancient grainy shores,
That is where I must meet you.

During the rain that falls, that overwhelms the pipes but
Cannot reach the soil,
While the wind blows and cracks the limbs against each other but
Cannot cool the heated coil,
That is when I must listen to you.

How ordinary sight must move beyond the dimness,
And vision of blind perceive the dance of kites,
Instead of light, how belief is given but
Faith is left behind, traded for handfuls of dice,
I do not know how I appear to you.

The color and numbers of strings that tie
In knots that map the fates of deer
That cross the darkened highway hungry and fearless,
Another combination, a twisted candle, someday a whisper,
I must discover these to hear you.

The heavy lid that fits the pot that holds the world,
The slow soup, the flame that curls around the wood
That boils the oceans and leaves only dust,
And we must try to feel the stars even though we cannot see them.
Persuade a single weed to stand and end these wars.

(c) Melissa Perera

Happy bad new year to you.
How can I be so cruel and mean-spirited.
You beg this heart of rocks to just stop,
But parting words force themselves out:
A swift sour breath from the bitter brown liquid
That rises from spaces between my bones,
From the ache of trying to understand
The increasing signs of your madness.

Happy bad news for bears
Fishing in rivers so icy cold
For that one last meal before winter’s long sleep,
Knowing but not, that when waking in spring,
If awakening comes, she may painfully starve;
A reward for the marvel of surviving the months of
Mold and darkness. But unlike us,
Uncertainty does not lessen her desire to live.

Happy bad New Year’s resolutions.
Why bother putting it on paper at all.
Why now, you delusional, do better people?
Gym memberships, diets and treadmills on sale,
The poor hopeful souls wishing at the wrong wishing well,
And you, you holiday fat money-makers oh so ready to reel them in,
Bleeding from the sharp, baited hook in your hand,
Into your happy bad new life-changing plan.

Happy bad news you rush to tell me
My mother’s run of good health will not last
And you hope I know this, but you know that I don’t
Because I have dared to pass my time so joyfully
Like the aging hippie you think that I am, foisting my
Views of interconnectedness on all of you,
Who would much rather I leave you alone to bathe
In isolation, superior and unsaved, and free
To express your wisdom of doubt. Your best moment?
When your happily sad predictions turn out to be true.

Happy are the purple dried flowers
Musty, they stare through the window from their vase
At the bleak salty street, always poised and confident that
New green leaves will eventually rise up from the
Rock and concrete; and the limp black wires upon which
Birds brazenly sit and sing as if it were spring already.
They are so naïve, those flowers, they actually think
That when they are spotted, smiling through thick glass,
The youngsters will nod and respectfully pass before them,
Not avoid their gaze, horrified to see such trapped lifeless sticks.

Happy new love slowly dries the wintry damp
Encasing my hurt limbs like a handmade blanket.
Brown knit wool scratches my face and gently clears out
The things I cannot bear to part with but must,
Rooms I have given over fully to dust.
I repeat to myself: give it away, give it away,
The past and even my heart, the little of it left
Like a spider plant baby, cut so a new one will form
Even if it has to grow far from me, and be
Born in a country that I may never see.

(c) Melissa Perera