The Web

There was a light wind and the sun was just sinking behind the house across the street. The orange light somehow reflected off the tiny threads of the expansive web where, in the middle, the huge black and yellow spider stunned its prey, an unassuming moth caught unaware. There was evidence of the spider’s past prey scattered randomly on the 3 foot wide spiral, which stretched with the wind then receded, in wavelike motions.  I stood and watched for quite some time and the scene of it made me shiver inside, although it was a warm September evening. Maybe it was the starkness of it all. Life and death. Alive one minute, then dead. Nothing else really mattered, once caught on the web. It was simply survival. I walked away from my spider and into my home only to be assaulted by the chaos.

“MOM!!! Come. Here. Right. Now!!” Staccato, and very loud.

I stopped, stunned. My eighteen year old daughter was screaming orders at me. I felt so tired and beyond anger. I even felt a little afraid, because I’d lost my fight.

“Mom, sorry, I’m just so mad.  And I need your help, pleeease.”

Emily was standing at the top of the stairs. I couldn’t see her from where I stood. I felt slight relief that she had come back to her senses. I still stood without moving. Butch, our black lab, who had been watching me since I walked back into the house, tilted his head as he gazed at me.  It made me both smile and want to cry. Only Butch was in tune with me and how tenuous these last few weeks, days and now hours were. Only Butch sensed the escalation, even though that escalation was quite internal.  I was disappointed. If Butch could understand, why didn’t the others living in this house?

I was still standing, immobile, noticing that the kitchen grout needed some serious work. And noticing which paths were the most worn – sink to refrigerator, sink to stove, laundry room to sink.  I just stood, noticing. This was my own web.

I’m not sure how long Howard was standing in the room. I could still hear the TV telling the national news in the family room. I hate TV to be left on in the background and I hate the news. Howard knows these things but if he’s home, that TV is on, and there’s no escaping the sound of it. I look towards Howard and sense that he, like Butch, may also be aware of a change.

“What’s going on Emily? Can I help you with something?”

Howard responds to Emily’s plea for help. I almost drop to the floor in hysterical laughter, or some part of me deep inside is laughing, but it’s a bitter laugh. It’s a laugh that says ‘too little, and far too late’. All of this is going on inside of me but I feel paralyzed, as if I’ve been stunned by the spider’s poison. I can’t decide if I should do the dishes or pour myself a glass of wine – not a life-shattering decision – but I simply can’t come to any conclusion, and so I stand quite still.

Butch walks over to me and nudges me with his wet nose. Howard walks past me, apparently ready to actually help Emily. Bobby steps around me to get to the Gatorade in the refrigerator. He just recently turned twenty and he’s beginning to look like a young man and not my little boy.  He looks at me as he gulps from the bottle – which he knows he’s not supposed to do – licks most of his blue mustache off his upper lip as he grabs a nectarine and walks away. Butch finally sits next to me, committed and loyal, although I wonder if it’s my imagination or if he’s actually looking a little skeptical or concerned.

I realize that I can’t simply stand here but also that I can’t stand being here. I grab my purse and walk into the laundry room and throw a stack of my own clean clothes into my purse, which is quite large. I see Howard’s wallet on the kitchen counter and take all his cash, almost five hundred dollars and I silently thank god for the client who must have paid him in cash that day.  Howard walks back into the kitchen as I’m slipping on some sandals.  I gasp when he walks in, as if I’ve been caught at something.  He looks puzzled and asks me if I’m going somewhere.

“Yeah.” Although I’m really not sure where I’m going or what I’m doing. I just know I’ve got to get out of this place.

“I’m going for a drive. Might stop by to visit Barb. I haven’t seen her for awhile.”

There’s a palpable awkwardness.

“Sofe, you have a bra falling out of your purse.”

“Oh.” Is all I say and I shove the bra deeper into my bag and walk out the door, grabbing a jacket on my way out.

Barb lives way out in the country, about half an hour from town. I’ve always loved the drive along the rolling New England country roads. I head towards her house, as if I’m really going to visit her, although I know that I’m not going to. I pass the turn-off for her street and keep on driving. I have the windows of the car all open and no music playing, just the sound of the wind, the car, the road.  I drive like this for over an hour then say out loud, “I’ve run away from home.”  It comes out sounding matter-of-fact, as if it were possible to simply run away.

When I was a little girl I tried to run away a few times. I’d walk down the long driveway and past the neighbors’ houses where I was allowed to go.  Once I was a good three or four houses past my safety zone, I’d sit and I would tell myself that they’d probably just be noticing that I wasn’t in my room or in the playroom and that they were probably just getting really nervous about where I might be and that any minute I would hear someone screaming “Sofi!! Sofi!!  Where are you?! Please come home!  We miss you!!”  I would keep on telling myself that they must be noticing.  I waited there and waited there. I waited for hours.  Eventually I got hungry and bored and made my way back home, only to realize that no one had ever noticed.

Now, driving, and having been gone for several hours, I wonder if they’re missing me but it strikes me that there’s something wrong. How can I be having the same wants and concerns as my childhood self?  Have I learned nothing?  The problem is that I don’t know what I was meant to learn, so I stop to ask myself what I know.

For some reason what comes to mind is the scene in my house a few weeks ago. I had picked up some color samples because I had decided that we needed a new look in the family room. That strikes me as funny now, the metaphor. Nothing that a coat of paint can’t gloss over! I’ve laid out a blue, a green, a red and a yellow and I’m trying to get each family member to weigh-in on the new tone and feel – for the family room.  They each look at me with complete indifference and act as though they’ve been inconvenienced. At least Emily and Bobby do. Howard doesn’t even bother to look at the options. I think he just sort of grunted in my direction.  Bobby went on to hand me his Academic Calendar for the upcoming fall term at Dartmouth and Emily ran to see if she could find her calendar from Boston College so that they could compare. As she ran up the stairs, she was saying something about finding the perfect comforter set at Nordstrom’s and could she have my credit card.

I feel lost in the thoughts of my family and hear the soft harp chords, which is my latest choice in ring tones, a meager attempt to bring calm to my chaos. It’s my mother. I panic briefly, unsure of what I can say when she asks where I am or what I’m up to.

“Hello.”  I feel oddly tentative, as though I could still get in trouble.

“Sofi. Thank God I caught you. I have my bridge group coming over tomorrow and wanted to break away from the nuts, cheese, crackers thing that is all I ever get to these days but couldn’t think of anything then I remembered the time we had that shower at Howard’s parent’s house. Wasn’t it a shower? Maybe it was a holiday. Oh – who remembers.  Anyway, what was it that we were eating that was so tasty and everyone went on and on about it.  I think I remember you said you made it once. Do you remember?”

I marvel at my own concern that she’d ask anything about me. She never asks anything about me.

“Baked brie. It was a baked brie with raspberry jelly wrapped in that croissant dough. I made it. . .”

“Yes, yes.  That was it.  Thank you darling. Good bye.”

“I made it for your seventy-fifth birthday party, because you had really liked it. That’s what I was going to say, Mom.” I say out loud, although my mother is long gone.

I realize that I’ve been driving for hours and really have to go to the bathroom. I start looking for a place to stop and, as if on cue, my stomach growls loudly and I remember that I never ate any of the tofu tacos that I had served for dinner. We had long since stopped sitting down to eat together as a family. For a time, I would set the table for Howard and me – wine glasses and all – and he grabbed his plate and headed to the TV one time too many, so I gave up.  I still cooked a healthy meal every night and whoever was home would grab it when they wanted it. I usually picked at it along the way. I guess loneliness and frustration dampens my appetite.  I’m considering this as I walk up to the all-night truck stop where I’m guessing that the coffee’s fresh all night long. I catch my reflection in the dark glass. At first I don’t realize that it’s me and I take a step back and look again. My jeans have gotten terribly baggy, and not in an attractive way.  I look sunken in, or drained, which is how I’ve been feeling but I hadn’t realized that my actual body was betraying me so blatantly.  I looked a little closer and was deeply grateful to recognize a fire in my own eyes.  Yes, I am still here, beneath the layers of. . .  and that’s just it. I’m not sure what it is, exactly.

I go straight to the ladies room and, thankfully, it’s clean. I take my time washing my hands. Every moment seems to be stretched somehow, longer than usual, and my senses are extremely heightened. It reminds me of times in college when I’d be stoned and trying to carry through a regular day of classes. I never liked that feeling. Again I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror but have a different sense of myself here.  The light is bright, almost purple, and this time I notice the effects of my efforts. My eyebrows are perfectly shaped and my hair color is a natural reddish-brown, the same color it’s been all my life – but not without much effort by my colorist to make the perfect color match. I see him every 5 weeks, religiously. My face isn’t wrinkle free but I don’t have a perpetual frown like my mother did by my age. I’ve made a concerted effort to either be smiling or poker-faced. My mother’s face made a big impression. My hands are now dried and lotioned – I always apply hand lotion after washing, to keep my hands young.

I decide to sit at the counter and realize that this is one of the first times I’ve actually sat in a restaurant alone.  Although I’m frequently alone, I usually opt for eating at home or picking food up somewhere and eating in the car or even in the park. In the past I’ve pitied people sitting alone and I have the realization of how wrong I’ve been in making that assumption and, like some mini-explosion in my awareness, I see that many of my assumptions are probably simply wrong. It’s almost funny to me that I could assume to know what motivates another person when I’m so out of touch with myself. Or maybe it was my avoidance of myself that made everyone else so interesting and presumably available for my own conclusions. I sigh out loud and am startled by the voice of a man sitting on the stool next to me.

“Tough day?” He has a beautiful deep, melodic voice and a warmth that is palpable.

I sort of chuckle and feel nervous. “Uh, yeah, I suppose it was a tough day, or, I guess, just kind of like different. Yeah, definitely different.” I’m surprised at how difficult it is for me to string a few words together into a sentence. I laugh softly but it feels inappropriate or at least incongruent to how I’m feeling which, although not clear to me, my feelings are definitely not light or funny. And this man is still looking at me intently, as though he were truly trying to understand. I find this quite disconcerting, so I keep on talking.

“See, I’ve never been in a truck stop before and now I’m sitting here and it’s past ten o’clock and, well, I’m usually asleep by now.” He’s glanced briefly at the clock and my eyes followed his and I realize that it’s after midnight, which almost frightens me for some reason.  “Oh, shit! Oh, excuse me, I’m sorry. I’m just shocked at how late it is. Wow! This has been the weirdest night of my life.”

The waitress comes over and is standing in front of the two of us. She assumes that we’re together, or I realize that I’m assuming that she’s assuming that we’re together and I instantly feel a waft of freedom in letting go of thinking I know what she thinks and also realize that it doesn’t matter to me what she thinks. I think I’m smiling, or I look intoxicated or something because both the waitress and this man are looking at me with such odd expressions.

“Ma’am?” She’s holding a pot of coffee in her right hand and a big white mug in the other. She’s quite old and I notice that even though her arm is quite muscular, she has “granny-flab” dangling down. I actually love “granny-flab” because it reminds me of my grandmother, who lovingly coined the term, referring to her own sagging arms. She found a way to embrace aging and was fascinated by the changes in her body. She watched with curiosity, instead of the horror that many of her friends suffered in their march towards, well, death, I guess.

“Yes, please. I’d love some coffee.” And my mug is full before I finish the sentence.

“Cream? Sugar? Will you be having anything else?”  She’s returned the coffee pot to the burner and is waving a menu, fanning herself with it briefly before placing it in front of me.

“Cream, please. And, uh, yes, I want something to eat but I’m not sure what yet.” I’m looking over the menu quickly, front and back, while the waitress still stands there, hand on her broad hip.  I’m nervous and fear that I’m taking too long and that she’s getting aggravated but when I look up I see that she’s almost smiling.

“I’m pretty good at guessing out customers. You know, figuring out what they’ll order even before they do. It’s just kind of a game that I play to pass the time, you know. I’ve been working the night shift for a long, long time and you got to find something to make it through those witchy hours.”  She’s much friendlier that I first assumed.

“Yeah, I’m usually asleep during the witchy hours and don’t usually eat at this time.  I’m curious to know what you think I’ll order.”

“Well, it kind of ruins the game, but I’ll tell you anyway.  I was thinking a grilled cheese with French fries. Then a little later on, you’ll talk yourself into one of our delicious blueberry cobblers, a la mode, of course.”

My stomach growls loudly, as if in response, and the three of us laugh.

“I’ll take that as a yes and put your order in” she says, smiling broadly. “My name’s Mabel. Let me know if you need anything else.”

“Mabel.” I repeat it out loud, as I pour cream into my coffee and stir.

The man next to me nods at my purse and says, “Your phone.”  Odd, because I hadn’t heard anything. It surprises me that I hadn’t thought to check my phone again. I rarely go more than several minutes without checking it.  It says that I have fifteen missed calls and, as I’m looking at it, a call is coming in, silently. “Home” is calling.

“Why did you tell me to check my phone? It wasn’t even ringing.”

“It’s ringing now, though, isn’t it? Why don’t you answer.” I feel confused by this.

“Hello.” I hadn’t let myself feel how afraid I was to answer the phone and have no idea what I’ll say. But I don’t want them to be worried and I know that I’d be furious if any of them wandered off the way I did and didn’t at least have the courtesy to take my call.

“Sofi? Is that you? Oh my God. I’ve been trying to reach you for hours.” I can hear the panicked concern in Howard’s voice and feel a twinge of what I’d have to call satisfaction.  I feel pleased. My absence was noticed. I feel the wave roll through me: I feared that they wouldn’t notice. I also feel badly that I’ve caused him concern. I start to try to explain, “Howard, I . .”

But his concern has given way to rage and he’s screaming, enough to where I find I’m holding the phone almost a foot away from my ear, and I can still hear him clearly – and so can the waitress and the mysterious man next to me.  They’re both looking at me which somehow gives me a boost of courage.

“Howard.”  I try to interrupt but it’s impossible for him to hear me over his own ranting.  “Howard. I will not listen to this berating.  My coffee is getting cold. You’ll have to call me when you’re calm.” And I hang up.

Mabel looks at me and raises one eyebrow. “How’s that going to sit with him, you think?”

“Don’t know.  We’re in a place we’ve never been before.”

“Well that’s something you know. What else do you know?” That voice, his voice, does something to me.

I look at him now. “Yes. I definitely know that this, this current set of circumstances, has never been before.” I pause. “Wait a minute, though, what did you ask me?”

“What do you know? It’s something I ask myself when I’m trying to get clarity about something.”

I’m having déjà vu or whatever you’d call this, where another human being, a total stranger, is speaking out loud my own thoughts. Is this what happens after midnight? Waitresses and strangers know you better than you know yourself and – oh, this one carries a sting – care more about you than the people you’ve lived with for more than twenty years.  I decide to go for it.

“Well, I know that I’m getting more attention from you and Mabel than I get from everyone at home, except Butch, my dog, who really does love me unconditionally.  Let’s see, I know that running away, like I did tonight, is not the best thing.” I hesitate. “I take that back. I don’t know that, actually. Running away may actually be the best thing.”

“Perfect.  Stick to what you really, really know for sure.” Ah, his voice. And his eyes are equally appealing, more in their expression of understanding than in their deep green color.

“Ok. What I really, really know. Hmm. I know that I really like French Fries and never let myself eat them.”  Mabel has set my sandwich and fries in front of me and I was surprised at how much I liked the first fry.  We smile at each other, and then laugh as the ketchup bottle makes embarrassing sounds as I squeeze a pile of red onto my plate. How did I lose touch with such simple pleasures?  I’m eating, thoughtfully, and am amazed at how delicious the grilled cheese tastes. I smile at Mabel and think I hear her mumbling “Damn I’m good” as she walks back into the kitchen.

I look back at my nameless friend – for some reason the anonymity feels safer – and continue.  “I really, really know that I’m really, really tired.” And before I even realize it, tears are running down my face. “Not sleepy tired but a down-to-the-bone, can’t-do-it-another-minute kind of tired.  The kind that makes you snap, which is what got me here, eating French fries after midnight.  I somehow lost the thread and something unraveled in me. I don’t know. I don’t think that my life is that different from a million other moms out there but there has got to be more to life than this.”

“Is that something you know?”

“What?”  He’s really listening to me and I’m not used to being really listened to. I love it and feel odd, like I’m going to get caught.  Like when we played “Marco Polo” in the pool when I was a kid and someone would scream “Fish out of water” and there I’d be standing, caught where I wasn’t supposed to be.

“It sounds like you really know that there’s more to life than this.”

Oh my God, he really is listening. He cares. Why does he care?

“Well, yeah. I mean, this seems odd to say but you’re paying more attention to me than anyone at home has in. . “ I pause because this is really hard to admit, mostly to myself.  “In years. We’ve been going through motions, playing our roles, for years.  I guess I thought that it would be more rewarding, being a mother and a wife.  I feel like I missed out on something.”

“What is it that you want?” I look at my friend and have the thought that he’s a wizard, or a genie, or maybe an angel and, maybe, if I can identify what it is that I’m missing, he can – poof! – give it to me. And then I can go back home and. . .

“Wow, much to my own surprise, I guess I want to go home. Maybe not tonight but riding off into the sunset is not the answer, and I actually thought that it might be.”

He seems truly pleased. “Awesome! Isn’t it cool how our own answers come when we just stop and let ourselves have a minute.”

I think I might be annoyed by him but I also want to thank him and hug him. Mabel’s just warmed up my coffee, again, and winked at me as she did. I definitely won’t be sleeping anytime soon.  Again, as if he could hear my thoughts, my friend says to me, “Look, nobody here’s getting sleep tonight, after all this caffeine. Why don’t you tell me your story?”

My story. I’ve never even considered that I had a story. The story of my life. It’s my story. I have one. This simple thought is a revelation to me in that it implies choice and possibilities. My perspective. My opinion. Of course I have these things, which have just been dormant, out of my own, I don’t know – ignorance? Naivete?  At any rate, I text Howard, apologize, tell him I’m ok and just need a little time to think and that I’ll be in touch in the morning and please, not to worry. And not to try to call because I was turning my phone off, to conserve the battery.  I assumed that I would be going home in the morning but didn’t want to make any promises.

I turned to my friend, “Are you sure you really want to hear this? I mean, don’t you have anyplace to be?”

“No,” he said sincerely, “I’m just right here.”

And so I talked and he listened. He interrupted, gently, every now and then to ask questions to help him understand any ambivalence or lack of clarity in my words, or in what I wasn’t saying. I didn’t hold back and found myself verbalizing things about myself that I had forgotten were true. I had allowed my persona, that façade of a person I had created, to bury me. Me. I still had a me underneath it all. I think there were hints of a sunrise, a slight change in the color of the sky, as I pushed through a paradox which had me all knotted up. What I felt I lacked was a connection to the people who were closest to me – or supposed to be closest to me – so I had been trying to pull them closer to me, really trying, and all I was getting as a result was tension. It seemed that each of them had pulled as far away from me as they could. But as I sat and looked at myself, talked about myself, told my own story, it felt like I could see Howard and Bobby and Emily as I hadn’t been able to in such a long time. Almost like I needed to gather myself in tightly and clearly so that we could then each reach toward each other. I had been repelling the people I loved the most by wanting them so badly.  I was reminding myself of the neighbor’s dog, who loved to chase cars and actually looked shocked and dismayed each time he wasn’t able to keep up.  I was living Einstein’s definition of insanity – trying the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It was time for me to stop.

As I talked, I remembered myself. I was lighthearted. I laughed easily. I was sometimes clumsy and generally didn’t do what everyone else was doing. I liked my freedom.  My friend asked me if I made it clear to my family what I needed and wanted and if they knew what was important to me. At one point, when we were both laughing at something I had said, he asked me if I let my family see this funny and wonderful part of me, which I hadn’t. And although I felt some sadness and some regret, I now also felt hopeful.

Mabel came to us at the end of her shift.  The place had slowly been coming alive. I offered to buy my friend’s coffee and it was a sweet moment. I had learned something about making assumptions but this time I knew that he felt my gratitude, that in offering to buy his coffee what I was expressing was that this night and his role in my life were priceless, valuable beyond measure.  I started to try to say that, to express my gratitude to him and he stopped me.

“Thanks for the coffee,” and he smiled and walked out to his rig.

I gave Mabel a hundred dollar bill and said “Keep the change” because she deserved it – and I always thought that would be a fun thing to say. She smiled warmly and it felt like a hug.

I guessed that I was about three hours from home, although last night’s drive felt like a long distant memory. I decided not to turn on my phone. I had no idea what I would find when I walked in the door. I felt more curious than anything.  What I knew was that I would be ok, and I hadn’t known that just last night. I found my own reserves, my own strength. I had been trying to fix things from the outside when all my strength and abilities were on the inside. I felt like Dorothy, in the Wizard of Oz – I had what I needed all along.

I got in my car and headed home.

Howard’s car was in the driveway when I pulled in. I inhaled deeply. I felt tired from the drive but content. Before getting to the door, I noticed that the spider had moved her web and it now stretched between where I stood and the door to my home. “You’ve been busy,” I whispered to her, marveling at the intricacies of the web, all newly spun. Then the door burst open, pushing through the web.

“Thank God you’re home, Sofe.”

I hadn’t seen this Howard in quite some time. He looked young and concerned. His guard was down. I watched the spider scamper into the bushes, knowing she’d soon be rebuilding. It’s what she knew to do. Howard held the door open for me and I walked back into my home.


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