1. I remembered that Charles Simic, Poet Laureate of the United States, would be reading at the Harold Washington Library on April 26.
2. I remembered that I had planned on attending this reading, despite the fact that the work of Charles Simic makes me feel as though my head is filling up with potting soil, and not the sort which gives new life to tulips and basil alike.
3. I remembered that all of these remembrances were for naught, because I was going home for the weekend to surprise my mother for her birthday.
And then I felt a deep and unexpected pang, that I would not have the chance to see Charles Simic, and to hope that he would change my mind–persuade me that I had been wrong about him, and that his work had something to say to me that I wasn’t hearing, or that I refused to. Now we will never know, because on Saturday afternoon– just as Charles, no doubt, was warming up the crowd in the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium with an old favorite–I was in a grocery store in Indiana with my sister, navigating a grocery cart the size of an aircraft carrier, if an aircraft carrier contained small nieces and nephews, instead of the brave young men and women who defend America on the high seas.
You get to choose where you spend your Saturday.
The surprise went off quite well. I took a Megabus down on Friday night [I looooove Megabus, which is truly “the conveyance of free men”, if I may quote P.J O’Rourke], and my sister picked me up. Waiting until we were 148% sure that our mother would be asleep, we journeyed to a Steak n’ Shake in order to talk about the Grown Up Things That We Talk About Now That We Are Grown Ups, and eat food that was inarguably bad for us until one in the morning. [That is what Steak n’ Shake is for.] We were seated next to a table full of teenaged boys—because Friday nights and Steak n’ Shake are made for such as these—and as we watched them torment their waitress, we looked at each other in wonder. “How do teenaged girls ever even LIKE teenaged boys?” I said, and she said: “I do not know.” We were once teenaged girls, but we could not remember our reasoning on this subject. Then we ate French fries.
The surprise itself mainly involved me lying in bed the next morning and giggling, waiting for my father to propel my mother out into the kitchen so that I could descend upon her from the clouds, a sleepy gift-wrapped present, if by “gift-wrapped” you mean “my pajamas”. She was surprised, all right!
MY MOM: What are you doing here?
ME: I came to surprise you for your birthday, Ma!
The next day, something magical happened. After cake and presents, we all sat down to watch an old videotape that my parents had unearthed: a videotape which contained virtually billions of moments from our collective childhoods. Let me be plain: we laughed ourselves into comas. “Find of the century” is a laughably inadequate description of this videotape, as is “Play this for the U.N. General Assembly and the lion shall lie down with the lamb.” There were a great many birthday parties, most of which [the boy birthdays, at any rate] involved absolutely enormous amounts of Nerf-related gifts, and cakes with so many candles that it often appeared as though my mother was bearing a small bonfire into the room to celebrate a pagan rite. There was also a recording of my mother positioning herself at the end of a hallway on Christmas morning, so that one of my brothers could aim the Nerf dartgun he had received that morning at her for target practice. My youngest brother spoke blithely to the camera at age 4 about his Buddy doll [remember “My Buddy”?] and how “his arms got cut off.” What?
It was all miraculous, and sort of bittersweet.
At the end of the day on Sunday, I was twirling my nephew in my arms, and he—perhaps believing that I was twirling him too energetically—took a swipe at my face with his little hand, leaving a long red scratch on my cheek in its wake. [He was very, very sorry and kissed my face penitently many times.] I look pretty hard, I’ve got to say. I’ve been telling people I got in a fight with broken Coca-Cola bottles.
PEOPLE: You Jets and Sharks! When will you ever learn to get along?
I’ve been trying, my darling, to explain
to myself how it is that some freight train
loaded with ballast so a track may rest
easier in its bed should be what’s roused
us both from ours, tonight as every night,
despite its being miles off and despite
our custom of putting to the very
back of the mind all that’s customary
and then, since it takes forever to pass
with its car after car of coal and gas
and salt and wheat and rails and railway ties,
how it seems determined to give the lie
to the notion, my darling,
that we, not it, might be the constant thing.