I’ve started to wonder where the fountain pen went. The one that Patti used to sign my copy of Just Kids. The one she handed back to me, saying nice pen, admiring the weight of it in her fingers as she sat at a table in New York near our apartment sometime in 2011. It broke a few years ago and I stowed it away in a yellow envelope in a box under a staircase somewhere, thinking I would someday send it away to be fixed. It seems this might be a good metaphor for the way I have stowed many precious things aside, writing included, tucking them away for later days, even when the weight of it feels so good in my hands and the memories still captivate.
It was an outrageously expensive fountain pen given to me by an opera singer friend one afternoon in Manhattan after performing the lead role in Hamlet. “You’re a writer. You need a good pen!” It is black and green, with a gold nib and a swan on the cap. You dip the nib into a pot of ink and twist the built in cartridge which vacuums the black within. We chose scented (licorice) ink at the pen store to go with it, and then walked through Central Park in the sun. At the time I dreamed of sweeping stages at the Metropolitan Opera House, of finding a job seating people before the shows began at The Lincoln Center. I absorbed the energy of the drama, the magic, the stories – on every street corner and cherry tree branch in the city. I kept photographs of the opera houses by my desk and fantasized about the children’s books I would write becoming theater performances, the way Maurice Sendak’s The Night Kitchen had, too.
Ten years later, I am exactly where I imagined I might be. A homemaker, a mother, a business woman, a whirlwind of activity wearing me down each day. It’s surreal to feel into this. I am thirty five now and responsible for the wellbeing and satiation of a six year old boy, and many countertops. Somehow I still feel like a child myself. “My family is special because we are builders” my son wrote for his homework the other day. We are builders. We create. We dream. We build. We pay mortgages. And in spite of that, or maybe because of that, we are all still children inside.
I tuck our boy into his bunk bed with the duvet that smells like juice and laundry, having soothed many owies and hurts from sun up to sun down. He woke up in tears this morning, crawling into my bed after a bad dream in which I had died. Splinters and stubbed toes and broken glass and falling and scraping, so many Bandaids – the relentless push of motherhood is exhausting and stressful, though of course immensely meaningful.
When I lived in New York I worked as a nanny for two years, though I never wrote about it, thinking it was not worthy of documentation. I was exhausted from giving everything to the two girls in my stead, carrying a four year old around the East Village, or riding scooters with her and her seven year old sister to the bus stop. My afternoons were spent fixing dinners, playing at the edge of the bathtub with mermaid dolls, dressing and brushing teeth and reading books and answering questions and finally turning lights out.
Though I would count down the final minutes after sundown when I could cash in and leave for my boyfriend, my favorite part of our days was when they would ask me before bed to tell them “a story from my imagination.” I cannot recall any of these stories exactly but each and every time, the marvelous cacophony that emerged from the recesses of my subconscious filled my cup as well as theirs. In the darkness, with only my mind and a ridiculous nonsensical, whimsical story emerging, I was free and in connection. This dichotomy – sovereignty plus mystery – gave me life.
I suppose that’s what I miss about sitting down at the end of the day and putting pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, even though when I lived in New York it was never a chore. I was summoned to the laptop, to the page, to the keys. I felt an infusion, an urgency, a sense of spilling over, and I would know to sit down and let it come. I think a lot of people perhaps confuse this feeling with anxiety or an overcrowded mind. Or motherhood. But I tend to like painting with words, and reading about other peoples lives, not to mention writing about my own, so I suppose that’s why I find myself drawn here. Curious. Called.
At this time of night the unusual silence of my house is very soothing. I can hear the cicadas outside in the distance. I have fed myself and three other dependents (the child, the dog and the sourdough), stacked the dishwasher, checked to see if we’re out of Rinse-Aid, washed some knives and wiped down thousand dollar countertops. I made a Spanish omelette for dinner earlier, having peered into the refrigerator at 7:20pm and coming up short, remembering one other late night dinner I can’t ever forget. It’s uncanny how often I crave this particular potato and egg dish that in fact, the opera singers wife, a ballet dancer, had made for me once at her house in Ealing Broadway after a long day dancing.
I remember how she chopped the potatoes and whisked the eggs, her beautiful Spanish accent, the chorizo, and the way we ate it at their time worn wooden table in the olive tiled kitchen of their house. I was barely twenty at the time and she was in her prime, breathlessly enthusiastic just like her husband, always smiling, radiating, overflowing.
In homage to her, I found potatoes and eggs, a brown onion. Salty sheeps milk feta, a tomato from the garden. I remember her using her skillet and thinking how fancy it felt, when really a skillet is older than time itself. My son was falling about the kitchen chairs reading a book while I chopped the potatoes and played some Spanish guitar music. Instantly, we were transported. Simplicity. History. Skill and tradition. The potato omelette cooks in the skillet until you slide a plate over the top and flip the whole thing over, before sliding it back in to brown evenly. I had forgotten this part but can see why I remembered this dish, and the impressive way a ballerina had made it for me.
We enjoyed this late night dinner for two, and the recipe that emerged from my memory – the evocative music, the cicadas and the sense that I can be whoever I choose from now on. What freedom. What tension. What life. My son sleeps quietly and while I sit in the candlelight with this endless white page, I am the opera fan, the New York muse, the ballerina’s friend, mother, wife, and the woman with the beautiful, heavy pen.
‘I am my own muse. I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to know better.’
– Frida Kahlo