Free Write Friday: Waiting Room


It could be a doctor’s office or a therapist’s office or masseuse’s office or dentist’s office. Everyone rushing in, stops suddenly. This place is only meant for halting. It’s a purgatory of sorts. No one makes eye contact. You could be here for a tooth extraction, a horrid cold, a spasming back muscle, a debilitating anxiety that usually keeps you holed up at home. You don’t want to assume why others are here, so you ignore each other. 

Looking around, there’s a water cooler, an assortment of tea bags set out on the table: peppermint, earl grey, African red bush. The best flavors are depleted, the black tea bags overflow. It’s silent, save for the buzzing of the fluorescent lights overhead, plastic rectangular panels alternating with popcorn ceiling. 

A waning lamp sits on a corner table, the time on the small clock is wrong and it’s aggravating. Shouldn’t a waiting room of all places keep correct time? A laminated wood coffee table is centrally located with magazines stacked too neatly. Who keeps them all so organized, so appealingly kept? Choosing a magazine is like a Rorschach test, wondering if others will judge the decision, if you can live with it yourself. The intellectual rigor of The Economist or the gossipy superficiality of People? The organizational practicality of Real Simple or the envy-inducing travelogues of Condé Nast? Maybe you’ll just scroll, head down on your phone, where you can maintain anonymity.

You sit too straight backed on the worn leather couch, waiting. You should slouch back, relax. It’s increasingly challenging to sit in silence, in stillness, in this incessantly rushing world. You distractedly peek out of the corner of your eye. The wide leaves of the adjacent plant are drooping, yearning for a drink of water, clearly neglected. It makes you wonder at the reliability of this place; shouldn’t plants be tended to just as people are? You guiltily realize, your own office plants are just as wanting. 

Someone opens the door, a stocky middle-aged man. You don’t look at him directly but glance up through your lashes just a moment, long enough to take him in. He’s calculating, surveying the room, deciding if he should grab tea, a magazine, where he should sit. He falters, then grabs a Time magazine. You try not to judge, but you do. He must be serious. But when he sits down, he takes out his phone, scrolling through intently, waiting for his turn. 

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Free Write Friday: Night Out


You invite an old friend, a friend from high school, one who you’ve recently reconnected with because of the kinds of things that bring people together in middle age, when life is not as polished, but laughs are more appreciated, tears are more warranted. The venue is near your old college alma mater. Neither of you partied much at the time, and now, twenty years later, you’re even more out of touch with where you should go to enjoy a drink together before a concert.

So you meet up at an old haunt, a place college boyfriends frequented to play shuffleboard, drink beer, eat bad food late at night. You laugh together, but there’s also a weightiness to the night out, the kind that middle age mothers can’t escape. You both have children at home, professional jobs to keep, mortgages to pay, the worries of a changing world order, of elderly parents, of home maintenance and friends in distress. So it’s hard to let go, even in this place of millennials, of libations, of inebriation and escape. 

You drive to the venue up the street, a remodeled theater. You think the last time you were here it was a movie theater. You were a teenager and your boyfriend took you to see Titanic. You had a poster of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in your room at the time. Or maybe it was Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. You were so young. The crowd here today is old, unpolished. You feel comfortable. The singer is thin and taller than you expected. She sings in melancholy tones of melancholy topics: love and loss and loneliness. You stand, sway to the beat. You like the darkness and the warmth of being so close to so many people who aren’t really aware of you; the mutual anonymity and perplexing intimacy of a crowd. The singer strums her guitar, your feet ache in a satisfying way. 

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Free Write Friday: Nail

They first notice the water in the basement, standing water, clear and coating the concrete floor in the mechanical room. He feels the south wall, notes it’s damp. A faulty line, a broken pipe, somewhere in the bowels of their remodeled home. 

She wonders, how can they find it, how do they spot the breach? Their children don’t realize: it’s all behind the walls. And she, she forgets too. The wires and pipes that run vertical and parallel, between the studs, through the beams, carrying water, producing heat, enabling electricity to course through the body of the house like a current of nerves and tangle of vessels through flesh.

They do without flowing water, fill jars and growlers and water bottles from the tap before shutting the water completely off. They need to wash hands after the potty, clean the high chair after a messy lunch, ready the vegetables for dinner. They let the dirty dishes pile up in the sink, avoid flushing the toilet. She notices she uses the same plate again and again instead of getting out a new one, she reuses the damp washcloth to wipe down the counter and breakfast nook. She conserves out of necessity.

They do detective work: turn one system on, the other one off, decipher which is faulty. But it’s hard to tell. Both the hydronic heating system and domestic water run through similar pipes. He calls the plumber. It’s Sunday, of course. Two large men arrive at the house, stomp down the stairs, circle the exterior, inspect the siding, rip out the drywall. They trace the damp wall in the basement to pipes that disappear into a large beam. “That’s as far as we can go.” The PEX disappears into the bowels of the house, weaving through the walls, behind painted drywall, behind photos and artwork hung on the walls. Who knows where the fault lies?

Her husband tells her: they used to use copper, but it’s all plastic now. Copper’s too expensive. She remembers, vaguely, when they were building the house, commenting that there was no protection for the plastic pipes, no assurance they wouldn’t be punctured, sitting undefended behind a superficial barrier. Everyone reassured her. She knew nothing about construction, about this sort of thing. 

An infrared camera is borrowed, reveals the heat, the coolness behind the walls: clues to the origin of the drip, of the gushing water. “It’s gotta be here.” They get on their hands and knees, realize the unevenness of the wood floor in the entryway, the bowing of the tigerwood panels. Water damage. They never would’ve noticed had they not pulled out the shoe rack, the coat rack, traced the leak from down below to up above. They keep going, follow the path. Up on the ceiling though, where the pipes crawl down from the master bathroom, there’s no water damage, no discoloration to indicate a leak from higher up. 

He traces back down the entryway wall, confirming. “It’s gotta be here.” He rips out the drywall with his hands; it comes too easily. He pulls out the soaked insulation, traces his fingers up the exposed wall. “Ah!” He exclaims. A nail, a nail placed years ago, half a decade ago, missed the stud. Someone someday with a nail gun moving too quickly. Someone someday installing the pipes, didn’t see, didn’t look for the nail. Someone someday sealed it all up, insulation blown in, drywall enclosing like a layer of skin. The nail’s sharp point remained exposed, right beside four plastic pipes, coursing up, coursing down the wall. 

A few minutes later and he’s figured it out: the hydronic heating system, not the domestic water. They can bathe, they can wash, they can do the laundry and flush the toilet. They can turn on a tap and cool clean drinkable water will flow: a marvel, really. A marvel, too, that stray nail and an unfortunate series of events. It makes her wonder what else lies beneath the exterior, what tiny insignificance of today may resurface years later as a consequence, a surprise, an unexpected disruption.

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Free Write Friday: Pump


She’s pumped in bathrooms, in locker rooms, in economy class on a six hour flight wedged between the narrow aisle and a couple on their honeymoon. She’s pumped on a Washington State Ferry, in the passenger (and driver’s) seat of a car, at her desk at work over a harried lunch. She’s pumped at writing conferences and medical conferences and her own weekend island retreat just to get 24 hours away. She’s pumped while consulting an orthopedist, a psychiatrist, a radiologist; she paused her pumping before calling a patient with the difficult diagnosis of breast cancer. 

She’s pumped to get colostrum while her newborn was in the Special Care Nursery, to avoid clogged ducts while at a national bioethics conference, to build up a freezer supply of breast milk for the long days she’s at work. She’s pumped while reading books, while eating soup, while watching bad cable TV in a hotel bedroom. She’s pumped through frustration, through ambivalence, through hot desperate tears of new motherhood.

She’s spent the last six years pumping, off and on. She’s pumped for her three children: willful and strong, eager and growing. She’s pumped for herself: time to work, time to write, time to be something other than Mother, an unclipping of the tether, if only for a few hours. She’s hated pumping, championed pumping; she’s become indebted to the contraption. It’s allowed her to be free, to be connected, to be a distributor of sustenance and maintain her vocational and social and creative aspirations. She gives thanks for the pump, pays homage to it, lays it to rest with gratitude and an easy goodbye.

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Free Write Friday: Train


2015

My son likes Thomas the Train but the newer episodes seem strange to me. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, his voice conjures up 30 Rock or Saturday Night Live. His raspy vocalizations seem misplaced on the Island of Sodor. Thomas is so eager to please, so concerned with being useful. We should all be so diligent with our life trajectories, laser-focused on our purpose. What satisfaction he finds with a job well done, what eagerness he displays to please Sir Topham Hatt. 

My son, too, is eager to please, but also wants what he wants in the typical preschooler way. He likes to link all this toy trains together, crowd them all on the winding wooden tracks. He wears his Thomas overalls, sleeps on his Thomas pillow, reads his Thomas books. I crouch to his low table to help assemble the puzzle-piece-like ends of the tracks, create a circuit for the trains to follow. I too like clicking the trains together, end to end, magnets locking. Each train helpfully pulling its neighbor to the desired destination. 

2009

My lids are heavy; we got up early to take the boat from Naxos back to Athens. Walking up the steep stairs from the port to catch the train, I could’ve sworn a rogue hand reached toward my backpack, fumbling for something of worth. Sealed tightly, I snatched my bag away as the arm disappeared into the swarming crowd. The end of our European tour, we’re heading back to an Athens hotel after several weeks of Swiss Alps, French museums, Italian countryside, Austrian opera, German beer. Our worn bag is full of dirty clothes and camping gear, Rick Steves travel books picked apart. 

I keep our small bag with valuables on my lap as we take precious seats on the packed train. My husband dozes next to me. Suddenly someone taps him, then, in broken English: “Is that your bag?” We both turn to see another man struggling to lug our huge green canvas pack out the open double doors. My husband jumps up, pushes his way through and out of the train, not thinking.

They both stand there on the platform, staring at each other; a stand off. Eventually my husband pushes the perpetrator back, away from the bag and heaves the heavy pack as he slides back through the train doors, just as they close. The train speeds on to the next station. I wonder what we’d have done if he’d been caught at the stop, holding our bag, standing by the thief. No cell phones, no contingency plan. We hadn’t even decided where we were staying that night. I would’ve had all the cash, both our passports. I look at our crumpled bag and all I can think of is how disappointed the thief would have been: all that’s in there is our ratty stinky travel clothes. 

2000

I like looking out the window as the world speeds by. Bright earthy fields of Kerala, the train jolts back and forth hypnotically as the greens all blur. I think it allows an introvert like me to observe so much without getting involved; I can participate in the wonder of the world without expending the energy to interact, to please others, to represent myself. 

We have a six bed cabin, fold down the upper berths for the overnight trip. My mom has sewn me a lightweight sleeping mat made from two soft bedsheets, a pillow case sewn in at the end. I unroll the mat onto the thin mattress and climb in. The train’s to and fro is soothing to the weary traveler, but the early morning hour is punctuated with the pre-dawn calls of “Chai! Chai!” throughout the train car as peddlers distribute the milky drink. 

It’s morning, just barely, and tea time is in order. The spicy sweet scent mixes with the intense body odor of too many people who haven’t showered in too long. I look out the window and take in the grey morning light. I can just make out the shadows of the passing landscape, the new Indian day as it takes form. 

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Free Write Friday: Cabin

They like to take the ferry, run to the front or the back deck as soon as we embark, salty wind whipping their tiny faces. Their small bodies lean up against the kelly green railing, white foam erupting as the boxy boat rips through the murky waters of Puget Sound. We’ll have some Ivar’s clam chowder for lunch, too many saltines or oyster crackers dumped in the compostable bowl. Their dad will douse the fish ‘n’ chips in sour vinegar and the middle child will follow suit. 

Once we arrive to the island we’ll stop for groceries. Just the basics, just the staples of milk and bananas and eggs and coffee, then wind across the narrow strip of land. Leaving pavement, curving down a gravel-lined lane, slender sticks of evergreen trees reach to the pale sky. They look as if they could topple, bend at the whim of a strong gust, but they’re deceptively sturdy, roots diving deep to anchor. Like toothpicks they taper at the top, their branches fanned out, curved upward. Sometimes an eagle will rest on an upturned branch, as we all rush to observe the regal creature before it stretches its wings to take flight.

We unpack, get reacquainted with the comfortable surroundings. Giant windows and a spanning deck overlook the water below. Down a sharply steep path, dozens of stairs treacherously slick in mid-winter mossy dampness lead to the rocky beach. I like to sit above it all, the steely water below is calming; a constant motion that, strangely, evokes stillness. I wonder if the eagle feels the same; looking down from afar details are missed but the larger picture, the grandness of a distant perspective is captured.

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Free Write Friday: Treadmill

Someone just wanted it out of their house, a bargain at $100, less than a month’s membership at the local gym. Her husband had been wary; another contraption in the basement? But she was pregnant with her third baby, knew there would be no escaping once this little one came, no time to leave for exercise or much of anything. With three under five, it would be difficult to even make it around the lake with the jogging stroller anymore. So she took up the space, hoping it would run, it would work, it would fit into her new morning routine. 

It’s old, dusty when she first folds it down. The belt is loud, too loud to hear the TV over the grating whir. She winces, hoping it won’t wake up the children, but down in the basement the sound that rises to the second floor must just be a pleasant buzz, converging with the white noise machines in their bedrooms. 

Nothing fancy, no bells, no whistles, but it runs. She starts slow, a brisk walk, but quickly accelerates to jogging pace; no time to dilly dally. Heavy legs pumping, headphones jammed into her ears. She can just barely make out the words from the morning news, the NPR co-host waxing poetic about immigration, about divisive politics, about the latest breaking headline. It’s turned up too loud, probably not good for her ears, she thinks, but the cardiovascular exercise makes up for the auditory damage, right? 

The baby monitor is perched precariously where the magazine should be set. She never understood this: how could someone read while running? It always seemed foolhardy to turn a magazine page while jogging on a moving floor, always seemed impossible to lean in to decipher the miniscule type while working up an active sweat. 

Sometimes she’ll see the baby stirring on the monitor, she’ll hear a whimper from the floor above, children starting to argue over their morning cereal. So she runs faster, picking up the pace: 6.5 mph, 7.0. Must. Finish. Run. She starts sprinting. Sometimes she makes it, finishes the 3 miles before the children take over the morning. Sometimes her preschooler comes down to watch, cozy blankie and pull-up in hand, eager to get his day going. He might play with his cars for a bit, watch her quizzically, examining the contraption that lets her move so much without going anywhere. “Mama, a pulley!” She smiles, nods. Lately he’s been obsessed with finding pulleys everywhere. 

She misses running outside, rain on her face, dodging puddles, watching the seasons change around the nearby lake’s circumferential path. Fellow runners are motivating and she seems to run so much faster when she’s exercising outside. But this, it gets the job done; it gets the endorphins rising before 6 a.m. She gets her daily exercise, the muscles worked, the healthy fatigue. And, a year later, she thinks: this may be the best $100 I’ve ever spent. 

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Free Write Friday: Current


I was a cautious child, hesitating to do anything that might jeopardize a fragile status quo. But I grew up spending my summers on the beaches of the north shore of Kauai and grew comfortable with the fickle ocean, the swells of the sea, the ebb and flow of the tide.  

In the afternoon sun I could float on my body board for hours, waiting to catch a wave. I got to know the patterns of the ocean; a swell would come and I could predict if and when it would crest, white foam spilling over onto itself. I could anticipate if the swell would falter, just a tease of a wave really, petering out before it reached the sandy shore. 

Sometimes I’d get lost in my own reverie, daydreaming with the hypnotic rise and fall of the waves. I’d look up to realize I was far from my mom on the shore who was pretending to read a book. A worrier, like me, I suspect she was always half watching us rather than lounging, making sure we weren’t caught in a current or by a wave we couldn’t withstand. 

Sometimes her arms would flail back and forth over her head, like windshield wipers, her miniature form signaling from a distance. Maybe it was time to go, head back to the condo to wash off the sand that stuck in nooks and crevices of sunburned skin or was trapped beneath the mesh lining of my Lycra swimsuit. Or maybe she had noticed all the swimmers veering off to her left or to her right, a strong current carrying away her babies in tow. She’d put down her unread novel and signal us to the safety of the shore. 

A momentary flash of panic, my mother’s voice echoed in my head that it was better to swim parallel to the shore, not directly perpendicular, if caught in a riptide or strong current. Not the most direct route, it seems counter intuitive, but it’s the key to safely reaching solid ground. I’d heed her advice, tanned arms pumping overhead, one after the other, slowly carrying me back to white sands. 

When I reached the shore, my feet on solid ground, and looked back at the water it all looked so innocuous, so unassuming. But the metal warning signs posted on sturdy rods stuck deep in the sand and my mother’s furrowed brow admonished: don’t underestimate its power, be careful. If you’re not, it might just carry you away.

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Free Write Friday: Spoon


He carries the spoon everywhere, has for the last few weeks. It’s a wooden spoon, sturdy and stick-like, good for digging and rapping along a concrete wall on the way to preschool. His constant companion, the spoon is good for a lot of things.

He has an affection for the spoon, like he does his cozy blankets or baby sister. The spoon can’t be left at home without an uproar. It accompanies him to bed for naps and nighttime, it rests on his lap for episodes of Octonauts, it’s enclosed in his hand when he’s having his diaper changed or in his car seat, it lays in front of him when he’s brushing his teeth or eating his yogurt.

He knows never to use it to hit others but he brandishes it enthusiastically, swinging this way and that as he gestures emphatically telling animated stories. It’s become an extension of his upper appendage. I have to remind him to not accidentally knock his baby sister on the head. It’s been a magic wand, a shovel at the beach, a fishing pole, a drumstick, a golf club. 

He’s had obsessions before: rope, treasure maps, kites. But the spoon in its simplicity, its practicality, has staying power. It stirs, it points, it protects. It’s a tool, it’s a weapon, it’s a musical instrument.

The spoon is a steady, sturdy companion to rely on; I can see why he keeps it by his side. I know at some point he’ll move on to his next obsession, the next important thing in his singularly focused world. But I suspect he’ll always remember this ratty spoon fondly, and treasure it as so much more than it seems to be. 

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Free Write Friday: Band


We played musical chairs in the high school band, every few weeks had the opportunity to challenge the seat in front for a better position in the concert band hierarchy. The director limited the frequency of a challenge so it wasn’t an incessant churn. It was a matter of pride, a source of anxiety. On the designated day we’d draw slips of paper to tell us who would perform first. The challenged and the challenger would retreat to the hallway behind the band room for the sake of fairness, ensuring anonymity, playing the chosen piece, notes echoing across the linoleum floor. 

I played the clarinet because my older brother played the clarinet and I suspect my parents didn’t want to buy another instrument. So I was convinced that the clarinet was the only instrument I wanted to play. A practical choice, a safe choice, a non-choice. Easy to lug home as a fifth grader, enough compatriots to sink into a sea of black woodwinds. Disappearing was the thing you wanted as a preteen anyway. Some brave souls chose the French horn or the tuba, the cello or the oboe. The coolest kids played the drums or saxophone.

I did practice, was decent enough. No real musical talent but I could play with feeling. It got me far enough to be one of the first few chairs. I was challenged or challenging all the time. Sweaty palms, I’d retreat behind the heavy classroom door with my opponent, often a friend. Fingers slipping off the silver rings, compressing and popping in cadence. I liked to go first because I got it over with. I liked to go second because I could tailor my performance to the weaknesses of my opposition. I liked to win first chair; felt full of myself, a boost to my fragile teen self esteem. I liked to be second chair so I didn’t suffer the angst of playing solos in the heavily attended concerts. 

Now, decades later, I have nightmares that I’m supposed to play in a band concert and haven’t practiced at all, can’t read the music, don’t remember how to play a single note. I’m embarrassed, mortified I arrived so unprepared. I try to disappear into the sea of instruments, remain undetected. Instead I realize that not contributing to the wave of melody is just as problematic as inserting an errant note. 

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