A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Impossible Resolutions.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
* * *
Gabe knew there was a way out. He bargained with himself to see how long he could go and if anything in the meantime might be worth his while. Not to turn his life around. Not some big epiphany. Just for shits and giggles while he waited in the queue. That’s all life really was, he reasoned. A long and winding queue towards death. You could get out of line at any point if it didn’t seem worth the hassle.
The crowd seemed restless, or rather, preoccupied. His name was on the marquee but they were the headliners. That’s how New Year’s Eve gigs went. He was the side dish to the main course of their lives. He could either enhance or detract. Worse case scenario he was a flaccid piece of asparagus.
He strummed a few notes. Tuning up. Trying to inspire himself. He had no real plan. It was what he was known for. One of the reasons his small but fierce fan base was drawn to him. They felt he spoke for them and his bravado made them feel, temporarily at least, powerful. He saw it in their faces as they back-slapped each other when he played an obscure favorite. Or as they gazed into his eyes wondering if anyone would ever feel about them the way he did about the woman he wrote his only chart-topping hit for.
Foreigner’s “Hot Blooded” was playing on the club sound system. Decades after the fact it was still a crowd pleaser. Made people feel happy and horny but not aggro. He watched the audience from the side of the stage then, figuring it was as good a time as any, moved forward into the light.
The DJ cut the song mid-chorus causing the audience to groan then in quick succession applaud as they realized Gabe’s arrival. Whistles and yelling out of song titles followed.
“It’s New Year’s Eve!” he said with buoyancy and like he had an itch. The crowd hooted some more. He could’ve sworn he heard someone shout, “Mayonnaise!”
It got quiet. He started playing some familiar chords then got creative with the words . . .
“You say you want a resolution, well, you know . . . I’d love to see the plan . . .”
The crowd appreciated the joke. Someone cat-called for him to show them his tits. He did.
Then he put his head down and swam.
* * *
I take all my resolutions with coffee, no sugar, on the first day of the New Year, on the porch watching the snow fall. If there’s no snow, I take them inside, by the fireplace, with tea. There’s a system to my madness; there are no wrong answers. If a resolution sticks, it stays; if it falls, it crumbles. I twirl them around in my head like batons, like sparklers. I make way too many of them in the end of each year—enough resolutions to fill a world. I write them on cheap Post-its and affix them to the walls. If it snows and I’m outside I wait to see which ones the wind will blow away. If it doesn’t and I’m inside, I stick them on the fireplace and see which ones’ adhesive gives out last. The rest I let go. I forget about them; I don’t give them another thought. The ones I keep I put in my pocket and carry around all year, thinking about them, taking them out and looking at them at frequent intervals. Like, when I brush my teeth at night or when I get in the car to drive to the store. Before I sleep I set them on the bedside table, under a small paperweight in the shape of a bird. I say goodnight to them, sometimes, and sometimes ask them forgiveness if I’ve been neglecting them for too long. I take them out to look at before seeing a movie, right before they turn the theater lights down and I start on the popcorn. I examine them at the beach as I take my afternoon walk, crossing the highway, with the car traffic below my feet. I look at them every chance I get, when I’m alone. Some years are more difficult than others, especially if I had a little too much to drink on New Year’s Eve and wrote something like “do something good for the world,” or “do something that matters,” on a Post-it that didn’t fly away or fall off the fireplace wall. Those years are the worst.
* * *
I decided in celebration of the New Year, I’d stop mistaking my daughters for the dogs. Or the dogs for my daughters. The dogs are all named with Bs, and the girls with Es, so you understand the confusion.
Our oldest spends so much time in her room, sulking as most teenage girls do, with the lock turned on her door (the nerve). So I am forced to yell her name (ELLIE) until she presents herself to the world. Of course, I usually call a different name. Our oldest dog, an ugly, ratty mutt named Buddy ambles into the room as if I’ve summoned him, when really I’m waiting to beat my disgusting daughter for not flushing the toilet. Buddy is a sweet dog, really, but he pisses on the carpet and shits under the dining room table. I shoo him away when he approaches.
Our middle child, Ella, has it the best. Some say middle children are mistreated, under-loved. Not Ella. I most often mistake her for Bella, our prettiest dog. Bella is the cleanest, so she’s allowed to sleep on our bed. And she’s the cutest, so she gets picked for the family Christmas photo while the others are behind the camera. Some say parents don’t have favorites. Some say parents love their children and dogs equally. I know that to be untrue. I’ll be the first to admit Bella is my favorite child.
Poor, chubby, little, six-year-old Elena. I’d unconsciously call out for Bama, the fattest of our dogs, when meaning to beckon my youngest. I’m not sure why they’re fatter than the others, Bama and Elena. They eat the same dry meals and are taken for walks to the park. Sometimes I think Bama sneaks treats when I’m not looking, her fat little fingers swinging open the pantry door.
Since the New Year, I’ve thought about taking up a hobby or quitting my job. I’ve thought about having children, not having children, climbing mountains that don’t exist, taking pictures in the dark, cutting my hair off, losing weight, and eating vegetables.
I’ve even thought about becoming a cat person, but cats aren’t as needy as dogs or children, and they don’t look nearly as charming in a family Christmas photo.
* * *
No going all diamond-eyed at the sight of the lit-up rain on London streets. No nighttime fear of the piano’s bared teeth. No more leaving the hard decisions until Mercury’s in retrograde, and absolutely no pasting of the fortune cookie notes to the fridge. A year for the safe passage of spiders. Of the letting-out of skirts. The year of holding flowers at the hip in memory of ghost women; when you (fail to) recall the face in the mirror’s just burnt, brushed sand. A year of catalogues. Of soldering the pencilled calendar dates together to keep the acid leak of the unknown at bay. A year for the striking through of futurity, and for the electronic embrace of a “predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow.” You won’t even wrinkle. All this so, when the monster calls, he’ll slip instead across a neighbor’s threshold. All this so, when you crave brick shuddering against your back, you’ll know instead the safety of the wing-backed chair. The quiet, horse-hair velvet throne that grips the nape and pledges peace. Arterial red. Electric.
* * *
I’ll stop eating the damn Cheez-Its.
* * *
For 2016, I shall become Dox Quixote. Step back, ladies and gentlemen. Please. I beg you. Step back. This is something that involves a high degree of difficulty and requires all my concentration, a bag full of Kanye beats, J. Cole beats, and a horse. I shall wind all the clocks and calendars back to 1605, read up on my knights errant, mount the horse, and—good lord—why on earth would I still bother with a bit of chicanery like that? The curtain has risen. Beautiful fish fill the air. And as events go from magic to prosaic back to magic again, it’s worth asking ourselves—if the world is deeply informed by chaos and bleak, as finite-as-a-period points of death, why is play any different from structured plot? If chaos seeks to strip exegesis from us, to leave us bare, how is play not a brilliant, perpetual, proactive, outwardly expanding counterstrike? How can play not have a structure of its own, one that’s passed down, inherited, and emphatic as the critical canons that we hold so dear to ourselves? So let me grow an apple tree capable of applauding itself, and—if you’re reading this in the future, seated beneath that tree—then let me say: happy new year, and see you soon.
* * *
write every day
* * *
–I can’t eat that.
–You bloody well are going to eat it.
–I just can’t.
Sam’s grandmother was brandishing a browning, near-moldy banana which boasted further dodgy bits down the back of the discoloured fruit, as well as scars on the beyond-mottled skin. She’d just proffered it to his older, more rebellious, and on this occasion, quicker-thinking cousin . . . who’d promptly run off. Sam’s wee sisters were still waking up, bleary-eyed and somewhat confused at their elevated status after spending the night in the pull-down beds above the rear passenger windows.
–BRYAN?! Get back here.
They were camping. Somewhere in the southern Lakes on one of the many short trips undertaken partly to give Sam’s father, the mid-thirties widower, a break, but mainly it seemed to provide his grandmother with the chance to torture the children with increasingly dubious comestibles in enclosed spaces—in this case: the back of their yellow VeeDub campervan.
There was no escape, unless, like Sam’s cousin, you got on the other side of her and slipped out through the sliding side door when she wasn’t looking. Sam knew he was trapped, but he wasn’t budging.
–I’m not eating it. Make Bryan eat it!
–Bryan’s already had some.
This was a lie. She had grown up during wartime rationing and still had the memory of deprivation ingrained in her everyday demeanour. She was also not above a little emotional blackmail.
–Your mother would not have been impressed with this sort of behavior.
Who cared? She wasn’t here to see this and anyway Sam was pretty sure she would have seen his point of view on this one particular banana, agreed and made a smoothie out of it, or something.
She wasn’t here to witness this UN Convention-defying scene because a few years earlier, upon returning from the hospital with Sam’s youngest wee sister and—more importantly to Sam—a celebratory present of a small grey transforming figure which became first a train and then a space shuttle—she had gradually begun to turn yellow. Their mother’s brown eyes had gained a slight tint of yellow ochre around the edges, the first hint of the jaundice betraying the septicaemia, disguising the hairy-cell leukaemia—which had ultimately done for her.
The color was not unlike that of moldy banana.
–I won’t be telling you again, Samuel.
* * *
Last year, I had to kill my father. At first, I let the knife sink slowly, as if filleting for sashimi. When I splayed him open, I felt the sharp edge of regret, a guilt that returns when I read what I’ve done, when I see my father laid out on a page.
I dug deep, wishing the heart was where we stored our love. I pored over organs like I was reading through his history. He made no noise, his mind completely elsewhere, supposing his daughter could never hold his heart in her hand. But I did. I held it to the light like an agate at the beach.
I gauged where I thought his kidney might be and arched the blade until it hit the corrugated bumps of rib. If the body were more like a fish, I could run the knife smoothly, ass to throat.
Over and over, I split my father open, then patched him back together, sewing piece by piece with fishing line. A puzzle made of flesh, teeth, and bone. When I’d finish, I’d slip out under cover of night, as if I’d never been.
Sometimes, there are no answers. I will stop killing my father. No poems or essays, no unlacing the delicate flesh, trying to find where he keeps his penchant for absence. He will wake tomorrow as a healed man and brush the metallic taste of death from his mouth. But will he smell the decay on his hands? Will he see the clear strings that dangle from his skin? Just one tiny pull and he can come apart so easily.
* * *
About five years ago, on a damp Wednesday evening, I drove from my home in Maine to the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center outside Boston to take the Refuges and Precepts, a ceremony that’s essentially a Buddhist declaration of faith. About thirty of us gathered in the attic that serves as the meditation room. Our teacher said he didn’t care if we took the precepts or not. This must have been some kind of Zen tough-love. After some chanting and quiet contemplation, we promised, to ourselves and each other, to refrain from killing, from stealing, from misusing sexual energy, from harmful speech, and from using alcohol and drugs. Afterward, my pledges and I shared some delicious, impossibly red pomegranate tea that was ladled out of a large metal cooking pot. There was fellowship and conversation. Then, checking the time, I bowed to my fellow Buddhists and drove back to Maine in the rain. When I got home, about three hours later, hungry and wired from the drive, I made myself a roast beef sandwich, washing it down with a Narragansett tall boy.
* * *
For over twenty years, my grandmother worked as a knitting machine operator in a Communist factory. Under her expert touch, the bulky metalbed machine turned yarn into knitted parts that would later be sewn into hats, dresses, and so many turtlenecks. She wore a dark blue lab coat with deep pockets in which she kept extra needles, cash, mint hard candy, handkerchiefs, and toilet paper. Her boss, a tall woman named Vica who wore high heels, got manicures and led the type of life in which she put herself first, wore a white lab coat, and sat at a desk in a spacious office right behind my grandmother’s machine station.
I was a six-year-old with glasses, a blunt short haircut, and an unfortunate plaque swoosh on my front teeth when my grandmother got me my first white lab coat. It was the summer of 1990. The coat was crisp, had long sleeves, and two heart-shaped patches of red, green, and brown plaid—one on each pocket. It was also large, much larger than I ever imagined I would grow as an adult. “Mama got you a halat from Caritas for when you will start working.” As thrift stores became a fixture of post-Communist Romania, many lab coats made their way to our closet. Some were glossy, others matte, some had details like golden buttons or puffed sleeves. One was monogramed “PS” just like my name, Patricia Stepan.
When I was twenty-one and a senior in college, I got a competitive corporate job with a French company. My grandma prayed for weeks that I get that job. She was elated. I went home to visit her the weekend after I signed my offer. She made tomato soup with semolina dumplings. While the soup was reheating on the woodstove, grandma stepped out of the kitchen. She returned with a plastic bag packed with lab coats. “There,” she said with pride in her eyes, “for your first day at work.”
“I imagine you walking in tomorrow,” my friend Miha said, “in a lab coat,” and then she burst into a laugh. The way I remember my first day is like this: I arrived at the office and used my security card to make my way through the tall glass doors. I made a right turn. I took off my jacket and hung it on the rack. I arranged my lab coat and walked in.
* * *
The argument begins in the parking lot next to Rodeo Beach. The only witnesses are seagulls and surfers shimmying into wetsuits. She: disappointed we missed the sunrise. Me: angry she is upset so quickly, so early. The hike is to the top of Hill 88, a decommissioned military installation with a view of the bay. We both love a good ruin.
The climb is steep and we lose the breath we need to fight each other. Instead, every step is quiet defiance. She is ahead of me, fierce and beautiful. But on New Year’s Day, there is no one else on the trail to see her winning.
A few minutes later we arrive at the first gunnery. Carved into the land, the turret extends over the ocean like a stage. Inside the concrete bunker, we wander in circles and stretch. I say something just to hear the echo. Before long, we are climbing again.
Top of the hill, we reach the buildings the army abandoned at the end of the Cold War. Scrawled with graffiti, they are hollowed out like dollhouses. Toward the edge of the mountain is a faded helipad. We stand in its center and look down into the valley below. Birds of prey are circling, gliding in the crosswinds.
Hikers come up here with guidebooks and cameras. Teenagers bring beer, get high, form makeshift camps on the ledge. But even with the occasional visitor, this place is wild.
It’s not lost on either of us that this is a lookout station with nothing left to look out for. Rendered obsolete by peace, it’s been reclaimed by the original inhabitants: the field mouse, the beetle. A rattlesnake we do not see or hear, but know about. She offers me her canteen and I accept. Both gestures mean “I’m sorry.”
After we came home from last night’s party, she suggested we write down resolutions and read them aloud to one another. Buzzed from champagne and the company of friends, we tore pages out of a notebook and made two lists.
Her list read: Go outside. Get moving. Face the bigness of everything without being afraid. This hike is her down payment.
My list was just one sentence: Be a better man. She nodded and took the paper from me, then with her pen struck out the last three words.
“Don’t over-promise,” she said. And I couldn’t argue with that.
* * *
In 2016, I resolve to stop going blind. To stop the needles, the shots to the eye that medical science has me hooked on.
I tell people I don’t have an addictive personality. That addiction doesn’t run in my family. And yet, here I am, still nursing a lifelong eye disease habit.
I’m done hiding this, done living in denial. This year I’m quitting you, rare eye disease. Everyone else I know is getting by just fine without you.
–Joshua James Amberson
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.