On the way out of Café Borrone, at the very spot where the concrete allotted to metal tables and chairs gives way to that provided for parking signs and bus stop benches, it hits me. The oddity of bouncing around town seated in this vehicle. That some of my mind still has me walking, like patrons heading to and from the café. The wheelchair, or my low position in it, seems new. It creaks slightly moving on the sidewalk, a platform pitching on a concrete sea. Ahead, I can see the morning’s first failure, the result of this, my slow-motion reverie on the way out of Borrone’s. The pedestrian crossing light on busy El Camino Real has changed, and had I maintained anything like speed, my wheelchair would be safely and efficiently halfway across the street by now. Why not rush to catch it? Catch what? The green light, the next thing, this burg’s traffic being notoriously scant and lackadaisical. And what is such an impulse, if not mildly suicidal? I have barely a schedule. Nothing to rush for on this particular day. Nothing.
Nothingness being something of a problem in this, my first Medicare year. It is everywhere, this absence and its opposite. From my vantage point on the floor of the church where the Menlo Park Chorus temporarily rehearses, I have a full view of sopranos and altos. They, and we, are mostly middle-aged, and tonight we are striving. Performance-sobered, one might say, our concert date imminent. Parts are getting squished around, this to be a solo, no, maybe not, that a men’s choral snatch…no, let the women take it. And in the midst of all of it, a woman who is new to the group, late 50s, I would say, big hair and earnest extroversion…well, she bursts into song. In her last-minute solo assignment she surprises, and with more than her voice, now revealed to be of performance quality. It is her reach, the striving sincerity of her in this moment. I can see the starkness of it now in her face, how as life wanes we reach for more of it. Futile and admirable, doomed and courageous…our lives at their best. Hardly a surprise. A yawn, in fact, to anyone even mildly philosophical. And yet here it is, in the soprano section, a woman’s youthful beauty and vitality draining in one direction, her spirit straining in another. Is it poignant or inspiring or both? It is now 9 AM, all that is certain. Why head home when I have my nails?
Actually, I don’t have all that many, which poses a problem. My fingernails grow like weeds on my one underused hand. And beset with neuromuscular clumsiness and sheer lack of sensation, they quickly snap off on the other. None of which matters. They look better cut. And now I am having another conversation, this time with a person not myself, a woman in her 40s and far from her native Vietnam and having a go at my cuticles. We make valiant efforts to bridge the language barrier, the two of us. What are we doing with our respective summers? Any travel? No, she is staying put. Her annual visit to Vietnam takes place in January. She times it to avoid regional heat and the Chinese New Year’s which somehow spurs airfares. I nod, as though this makes sense to me. Does this mean that the Chinese are everywhere, or do the Vietnamese celebrate the holiday themselves?
Rolling into the nail salon first thing on a Wednesday morning, I wondered if I hadn’t come too early. One of the women was combing the hair of a tall teenage girl, the latter somehow not a customer. They disappeared mysteriously while I maneuvered my wheelchair into place. One other women stepped forward, a professional face and glass bowl of water signaling that she would address my fingers. And here we are, the oddness of the first moment being replaced by the weirdness of this one. I am welcome here, but still, this isn’t guy territory. Which only adds to the conversational awkwardness, the searching for common ground, the long silences. Travel, trips. This is all I can think of.
She has eight siblings, this woman. When she goes home to Vietnam, she says, she stays at least a month. The trip takes an entire day. One changes planes in Taipei, and now this tangled fabric makes a bit more sense…the Chinese New Year’s fare bump. Do her brothers and sisters ever visit her here? No. What I understand, if I understand, has something to do with visa problems. Ours is a privileged life in Menlo Park, we native born white people.
I complain that the veneer is peeling from the 55-year-old cabinets in my kitchen. But it isn’t my kitchen, is it? It isn’t my priority, either. I haven’t noticed for years even as the lacquered wood splinters, mostly under the impact of my plastic leg brace. The disabled world being full of unintended consequences, one of which is the rigid right angle of my paralyzed ankle. The brace holds it there, allowing the toe to slip under the kitchen cabinets, right along the baseboard. Rolling the wheelchair back can easily lever my plastic-braced shoe under the edge of the splintering cabinet doors. The wood, desiccated over the arid California decades, flips off like matchsticks. Under normal circumstances, whatever those are, I might react with self-flagellation over my destruction of hearth and home. But not today. For recently, it has been occurring to me that while this place on Roble Avenue has served me well for almost two decades, providing my longest and most stable place of residence…the cozy predictability of the place, well, it has become cloying.
It came to me just the other day. I have this strange habit of peeing in my landlord’s garden. Like all strange habits, it was born of necessity. I found myself caught short a time or two, and rather than negotiate the wheelchair slalom up the ramp and through my apartment to the bathroom entrance, where I stand and walk for the last distance to the toilet…why not just motor around behind the raised beds, peeing in the shady patio obscured by decades of overgrown shrubs? Only, of course, when one of my landlord’s big cars is known to be absent. Which is fairly often, particularly in the mornings. So it didn’t take long for things to sort of escalate. I found myself peeing out there, behind Tom’s splintering fence, more and more. Why, but why really? Marking territory is probably the best, most honest explanation…the illusion that the place is mine and I can roam free and primal upon the land. Just observe Jane’s dogs. This practice ground to a halt one day when looking up, I realized that any of my upstairs neighbors could easily see me. A wake-up call? Or just another spur in the direction of moving, letting go of life here and allowing the next thing to come along.
My nails are done. No, I do not want them buffed. Yes, this pleasant Vietnamese woman can leave the lotion on my arms. And I can leave her premises. For I have options, more than many people have. And if life can seem burdensome and hyperconscious, at least I know this. I am free to roll around.