30 October 2019

The Heaviness of Being

cinestill 50 | anza-borrego, CA

My grandmother has the softest hands. Growing up, she'd always compliment my slender fingers and my tiny wrists. She'd grumpily look away and tell me she has man hands, worked from raking the lawn or planting a garden, years of sewing sunflower halloween costumes and being her own man after the divorce. Last night, I was holding her hand on the couch while watching the baseball game. The Dodgers were playing the Cubs, game four in the NLCS. While I was dead-focussed on Justin Turner's ginger beard, she was focussed on picking away at my callouses. I asked her what she was doing, and was it really necessary? I need those for climbing. It's funny, how someone who loves me so much can make me feel so self-conscious about things I've worked hard for. I think it's her age. Though, maybe everyone thinks it and she's sick of filtering her thoughts. Decades of hesitation finally depleted. A liberation from thoughtful constraint. Or, darkly, a somber inability to sift what comes to mind, chunks of muddled responses escaping lips painted in coral which leave imprints on my forehead every time we meet and part. My aunt peeked in from the kitchen and told her that the leftovers of Chicken Maison can be her lunch tomorrow, and my grandma scoffed, "Oh, I don't care." and she doesn't. She eats because everyone around her wants her to eat. Everyone around her wants her to be the same as she was before the fall. Everyone around her, including me, worries. I sneak in voice memos whenever I'm around her, silently, secretly documenting the little things. I look at her face, and I mean really look at it. Not at the lines but at the shape and her beauty. She is so beautiful. Elegant. This morning, after I helped her use the bathroom, I tucked her back into bed. She was looking up at me with such innocence and love and admiration. Eyes full of joy, a warm twinkle. Cheekbones illuminated. I kissed her and she kissed me and I held her soft hand between mine. I don't want to ever leave her. I want to fall asleep on her shoulder every night on the couch while she picks away at my hardened skin. I want to go over to her house and bake cookies like old times, dumping in the chocolate chips and watching the old KitchenAid work its magic, chunks of dough sticking up on the sides, begging for clean fingers to dip in and lick. It’s seen pumpkin pie filling and cupcake batter. For my birthday one year, Grandma made chocolate cupcakes infused with espresso cream, quietly working to dig out the heart of the breading to fill with my favorite flavor in the world. I ate those until my stomach ached. Did I ever tell her how much I loved those? I wonder how long it's been since she's taken that out of the cupboard. It's collecting dust. That baking machine is older than I am, but tough as a bullet. It never misses a rotation  and works as well as the day she got it. She takes good care of it – a wipe down with every use, oiling the movable parts when they start showing signs of tensity. She wants it to look good. This focus on appearance exceeds kitchen appliances. She wants to look good for me. She'll look in the mirror after brushing her teeth and remark how old she's gotten. When my grandmother finds out I'm coming over, she'll spend an extra minute in the bathroom putting on lipstick. Shaky hands, but she's careful. Years of experience lining her lips with coral lipstick. Her recent favorite: Revlon Super Lustrous Lipstick Creme Certainly Red Number 740. My heart strings tug when I walk in and she has that on. It's flattering for someone to want to look good to see you, even your grandmother. I'll tell her my recent kick with food, she'll ask me if I'm getting fat, and in her rude way, she cares. It's an age thing, a generation of looking good for your man rather than feeling good for yourself. Sometimes I point that out to her, but mostly I let her kiss my cheek and mark me with coral love. 

As I'm holding her hand while she's in bed, I think of all the other times I've held her hand: crossing the street as she drops me off for second grade, on the couch watching the game, helping her up from a chair. She once told me that baby, newborn, premature Sarah took hold of her hand and could barely reach around her pinky. Purple, alien looking, 14 weeks too early Sarah with tubes attached to her skinny skeleton, oxygen giving her life, an incubator giving her warmth. I think about how that self got here, and what it took. The Dodger game is going, and we're losing, and I ask my grandma something when my aunt and uncle leave the room. "How often do you think about Shan?" She says often, but she's vague. She regrets not holding him after he was born. Those two brief hours of life. A nurse held him, gave him love and warmth and tenderness until he passed. I think about him nearly every day. I feel his presence with each dragonfly, and every time I touch the water. 

As the waves crash against the pier, and the waking sun turns whipped cream clouds a soft pink, my mother tells me what happened the day we were born. Her and her husband holding each other, balling under the fluorescent lights of a hospital room that's a touch too cold and smells like disposable gloves. How, even if she wasn't recovering from surgery, she wouldn't be allowed to hold either of her newborns. The firstborn, me, was sent to the NICU, while the other was held by a nurse. Blue Shan, in his 120 minutes of living, swayed back and forth in the arms of a 5'10" Scottish beauty, red hair illuminated by the morning light. Dr. Miller, an angel if there ever was one. I feel bad, walking along the shore, starting my mother's day with a question so heavy. These are things we never talked about, though. I learned at an early age that I was a twin, that I was born early, that I was a miracle. How uncomfortable it made me, when my mother brought it up with every small baby and guardian she ran into. The baby with a skull shaper wouldn't look at me in that long elevator ride, and we lingered once the doors opened and closed on our floor, a quick encounter turned into a conversation, turned into me looking for the fire escape. We'd stop at Starbucks on the way to a soccer game and she'd see a baby, and suddenly I'm stuck with the "compliment" that I'm such a big girl, and what a miracle it is that you're alive, and there's nothing wrong with you. But it didn't feel that way. How am I to act grateful when, at 5 years old, I'm burdened with survival guilt? Sad Sarah, swinging during recess while the kids who I haven’t yet become best friends with trace white paint on a bumpy tricycle ride, staying within the lines, passing one another, sharp turns and all. 

It's been nearly four years since I've pumped my legs back and forth on a swing. The slow shuffle of gaining momentum was an every-day ritual a baker's dozen years ago. I never had rhythm, could never time the leg positions right, but when I finally got that speed and that height that shifted dragonflies in my gut, I'd shift my hands down by my belly button, tilt my head back and let my hair brush against the sandy gravel underneath me. I was all about the upside-down before Stranger Things was even a forethought to the Duffer Brothers. Head back, I'd watch 3rd graders and 2nd graders play tag or kickball on the grass ceiling until the blood whooshing through my face brought me right-side around. I do the same in pools, now even. Legs kicked up to the ledge, arms fighting against the volume of water to swim me down until my back touches the concrete wall. Lungs comfortable under the pressure, nostrils carefully balancing a bubble of air. My life changed when the Cushmans' left a pair of goggles one sweltering day. Floating hair, wavy telephone line clarity. I like the support of a wall against my back, less anxiety inducing than the open air of a swing. There's more silence, which I lean towards.  

I'm a leaner by nature – give me a wall or a ledge or the ground and I will find a way to rest uneasily on it. I went climbing last weekend in Malibu Creek Park, where the sun shot hot rays on our shoulders, and my fingers blistered blood, and chubby smokers took pictures of us top roping with their phones, squinting through the glare of 3 PM light. My back found a tilted boulder, a perfect spot to rest between climbs. Hand behind head, I closed my eyes. The hand feels so much, filters touches and grazes. Fingers can be the source of  butterfly brushes, a tinge of touch so delicate, it requires attention to notice. It's odd to feel your hand rather than feeling things your hand touches. My palm fell asleep in cold tingles, electric blue pulses, cold under a pure azure sky. It's a blue I take for granted. It's a color so pure, I forget it exists until I open my eyes and it's all I see. I feel small but safe, and all at once relieved. A good hug does something similar to me. When I'm in your arms and my head fits perfectly in your neck, I am overcome with the heaviness of being. And when you look at me, and your eyes reach my lips, there's this moment of limbo, of in-between, where anything can happen. That's a blue sky with no clouds in sight. 
I adjust my hand for comfort, sending shocks to my wrist. Sweat drips down my face from an indian summer sun, but my hand tingles blue. When was the last time I saw the snow? Actually went in it? I've hiked in Big Bear recently, though “recent” is relative, it’s been nearly a year, but falling and slipping on dirty ice isn't what good-winters makes. We'd be in the car for hours, asleep, shifting uncomfortably. Usually I got stuck in the third row with the luggage and pillows falling on me every sharp turn. Hours of indian music and Kenny Chesney, and finally the windows fog over. I rest my cheek against it, the cold side of the pillow. I draw hearts that are never symmetrical. I write "Sarah Serrano" or just "Ambreen," testing a name to see if I fit it, to see if it fits me. Snow trickles the sides of the streets, dirty, black. A slow transition to white the further we climb up the mountain. We're getting restless, seeing all the powder. It's begging for deep footsteps, crunches, wet socks. Dad parks the car on the side of the road. He looks behind him at all the women in his life, breaks out a grin and starts running. We shove blankets, wrappers, pillows away, digging for shoes in the cave that is a car on a long drive. Dad's prepping. I lunge myself over the back of the second row, spring open the door, racing my sisters across a field. And we're pummeled. My dad throws things. Launches. Pillows when we don't expect it, the bird when he's pissed on the freeway, a fit when he doesn’t take his blood pressure medicine, and now: packed snow. He was all around varsity at boarding school, and clearly hasn't lost his aim. Sofia's laughing the only way an 8 year old can: pure, unfiltered, unapologetic. Samira's hugging herself for warmth. I'm digging my hands in, cupping cold into a shape that's anything but spherical. I hear mom's voice by the car, "Irfan, be careful!" We're all in this now, each on our own team, everyone missing throws too short to maim a loved one. Our hands turn numb and our teeth chatter. Sofia and I make snow angels, competing for a prettier wing. Snow trickles down my back into my jeans as we gorilla hop back to the car. The heat is cranking. Pink hands hurt to move, hurt to warm up, though try as we do with the heater on max and blankets spread. There are some colds that only time and movement heal. Polar-bearing at camp, competing to out time other girl scouts holding breath in winter mountain run-off. I never got past 18 seconds. The swim in Catalina, jumping in the water and forced to swim to shore, shocked into shallow breath. It's a cold crush. Surfing in a January sea, the El Segundo waves guiding me up and down as I float on my back, grinning despite purple hands. The first quiet night after heartbreak. It's summer outside, and there's no air conditioning inside, but my fingertips are white-cold, and it hurts to take a deep breath. It hurts to get up to pee because her hair tie is still next to the sink. And every attempt to drown thoughts out with music just ties all lyrics back to her. No amount of oversized shirts or warm tears can break the electric numbness of a broken heart. Only time. And movement. And a drive through car wash. The mind cannot think of past-lovers while a hum surrounds a metal safety bubble, giant sponges swish, water spurts, and rainbows pop up in corners of the eye.