The Story of Tom and Monica:
A San Francisco Serial Memoir
This story is written as a series: you can start here
I floated above a sea turtle at Anini Beach in Kauai. It lay against a rock in the shallow waters, a rock that was shaped almost exactly like the turtle. Its head was tucked into a crevice…it was resting like that, like a poem waiting to become a song, and I was hanging above, patient, suspended, at peace. When he was finally ready he flapped his little flipper legs and swam to the top, took a long breath, sank down and swam. I followed behind, gently waving my own arms and legs, attempting to neither fall behind nor surpass him. For a long time I was not conscious of myself as a self at all, but simply as an extension of something much older, much bigger and much more permanent.
Once a week I sit across from Rachel whose calm seems to reach inside of me and then shake me up. She sees what I can’t see, or what I don’t want to see.
“How are you?” she asked me on Thursday.
“Great,” I said. “I just came back from vacation.”
“But … I’m thinking about something Mati said to me yesterday, something about the men I’m choosing, something about them not being worthy of me. I don’t think that’s true, but I’m trying to figure out what she meant.”
In her direct, intuitive and relentless way, Rachel said she felt sad. I thought I saw real tears in her eyes and suddenly and without warning I was sobbing.
“Do you know what it means to feel worthy?” she asked, “Not because someone tells you you’re wonderful, not because of the good things you do and not because of what you accomplish?”
“No”, I answered, “Do you?”
“Yes”, she said.
I’m trying to rest in that concept, trying to lie calmly against the rock of that, but it’s more like I’m hiding or drowning. I feel like a child who needs to be constantly admired. I want to hear how beautiful or wonderful or amazing or talented or fun or clever I am… and when it goes away for a moment I feel as if I’ve hurdled off a cliff, as if I’ve fallen to the bottom of an enormous canyon.
My friend Sara and I climbed up to the top of Waimea Canyon in Kauai on a day when it was pouring rain. I’d lost my raincoat before I ever used it, so on the one day I finally needed it I shivered with cold inside my soaking wet clothes.
I felt completely alive, if a little frightened, as we slipped and stumbled on the slick, rocky path down to the waterfall that was highlighted on our soggy trail map. One thing I had wanted to do in Kauai was hike to and swim under a waterfall, come rain or shine. But by the time we finally reached it we were way too cold to get in the water. So there we were, admiring the waterfall as rainwater rushed past our eyes and down our noses and chins in a kind of sympathy with that wonder of nature.
Soon we turned back and again climbed up to the top where we stood over the vast canyon. The view was mostly shrouded in mist and fog, but felt awesome and majestic nonetheless. As we stood there, far, far away from civilization, my phone suddenly connected to a distant cell tower and rang. It was Tom.
“Tom”, I exclaimed. “I’m at the top of Waimea Canyon. Remember when you were here 20 years ago?”
I could feel him struggling with that, quietly pulling at my words to conjure the images.
“You were with Doug, it was before we even met. You told me all about it and now I’m here.”
“Oh, yes”, he said politely. “That’s wonderful.”
The rain was dripping down my face, my hands and phone were soaking wet, but I didn’t want to hang up and he didn’t, either. I could feel the long line that connects his soul and heart to mine though our thinking minds have drifted so far apart, a vast canyon apart.
“Guess what?” He said. “I just beat Vera at Scrabble. The score was 243 to 242, can you believe that?”
My tiny mother opened the door and hugged me and then hugged Tom, pulling us into the warm house that smelled of lentil soup and evergreen. A big decorated pine tree stood in the corner of the living room under the stairway, where one had stood at Christmas time every winter for 37 years. The walls were red, the carpet green, a perfect house for the season.
Morty wagged his tail, his whole back end moving excitedly as he circled my Mom and then greeted her german shepherd mix, Kiva, who was obviously the dominant one but tolerated Morty because he knew his place. I looked at Morty with sympathetic understanding.
Tom and my Mom were laughing and talking over each other and I suddenly realized how similar the two of them were…both of them born storytellers, both visual artists, and both of them most comfortable at the center of any gathering…but also generous, admiring of others of their same ilk. But I wasn’t worried about my Mom, she was always charming, always warm with friends.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked.
“He’s in his bedroom. Go see if you can make him come down”, she said, unconsciously imperious. Even in her role as an overworked housewife she could never disguise the air of her Spanish nobility. She doesn’t talk the talk, but she walks the walk.
I climbed slowly up the stairs and called out to him to let him know I was coming. He was in his arm chair in a red and green plaid robe. He looked so much frailer, so much more vulnerable than the last time I’d seen him. My heart cracked open a little bit and I let myself feel some of the love that I’d buried in resentment for so long.
“Monica”, he exclaimed in the voice of an old man. “Come closer and let me look at you. Aren’t you beautiful?”. He was not only old, but old-fashioned, a gentleman when he wasn’t a terror. His eyes were deep-set, like mine; blue and full of tenderness. My feelings for him were so complicated. There was nothing easy or straightforward about him. He was both the most wonderful and most difficult person I knew, a man who had set me up for a life of tolerating the intolerable.
I walked over and gave him a hug.
“Who’s this fellow you’re seeing?”
Right on cue Tom walked through the door as if he had already been invited. I could see that my father was a little put off and I was nervous that Tom would do or say something to upset him. But Tom had a kind of shield around him. Not obliviousness, though he always seemed un-phased, it was something else. He could read the room and then make things go his way. He was a match for my father.
“Pilar wants you to go downstairs, Monica.” Tom said, already more at ease in my childhood home than I was.
I looked at them both and reluctantly left the room. I was half-way down the stairs when I heard my father let out a huge laugh and my heartbeat slowed down, my feet sped up and I ran to the kitchen to catch up with Mom.
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