The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Hot Thing

By

Bitter winter. The boiler in my hundred-year-old house is dying. Before it dies, it overdoodles. Overdoodle is the word my daughter uses when things boil over, like oatmeal, always, no matter how fast I turn down the heat. The boiler overdoodles, working so hard the machine bleeds, perpetually, onto the basement floor (please let it last till spring). Bitter winter, but I don’t need the boiler. I have my own. I wake in the dark in bed and there’s a furnace, a turncoat thermostat inside my body; there is no limit, there is no overdoodling, no crescendo. No hot enough, only hotter.

*

But you’re young, the doctor says.

But I’m forty-eight, I say.

Forty-eight, within range, when many women start toward menopause.

*

I’m not sure about the experience of others; I am sure I’m not alone.

*

How to put words to this heat.

*

Menopause. Mine is not a sweaty pause. Mine is dry, Midwestern body leaning West to the land of “at least it’s a dry heat.”

*

The acupuncturist asks whether it radiates from my feet or my torso. Just torso, I think. But then I doubt my memory. This is a grasp, reaching to recall what it is, what it feels like. I will have to wait until the next one, feel it, then answer. I’m new to the practice of paying such close attention to the sensations of my body. (He’s heard that some women feel it from feet upward. Full bodily. Should I be grateful it’s only my torso in flames?)

*

Is this a threshold, a burning ring to survive, or is it a pyre? Do these metaphorical flames inside me imply that from my half-life, a phoenix will rise?

*

Has my pre-menopausal time been half a life?

*

phoenix1One day, I am notified of a big ugly change at my job, meaning I must find other work. The image of the mayor in Buffy the Vampire Slayer arises. (The mayor character’s evil core and intentions are hidden behind the mask of a fatherly germophobe. He plans to transform himself into a giant snake demon and then obliterate the town.) I grab hold of the image, the demon-mayor-snake, and decide: that’s me, my new self, emerging. I’m not a politician, nor afraid of dirt, but I tell my husband I’m becoming the mayor, and this is good. (My husband understands that I won’t use my new splendor to destroy our little town. One reason I love him.) Drafting an essay a few days later, performing an Internet search for an image of a phoenix, what I find reminds me of Buffy’s mayor. I do another search for photos of the mayor. Tabs open, I switch back and forth between the two. They could be sisters, these creatures, the phoenix and the mayor. Though I bet family reunions would be untidy.

*

Facts, science, math, numbers. Like timing contractions during labor, I decide to time a hot flash, see how long it lasts. (Am I poised to birth the mayor, or the phoenix?) It seems as if each hot flash lasts two minutes; the idea of two minutes gets stuck in my head, though I haven’t timed one yet. I talk to another woman about hot flashes; unbidden, she says two minutes. Two minutes could be that other trick about time, where something so intense seems to last longer than it actually does. Time perception, temporal illusion? I start writing equations in my head. Will I do this math? Which matters, how long they actually last, or How It Felt To Me?

The cracked crab that I recall having for lunch the day my father came home from Detroit in 1945 must certainly be embroidery…the day’s events did not turn on cracked crab. And yet it is precisely that fictitious crab that makes me see the afternoon all over again, a home movie run all too often, the father bearing gifts, the child weeping, an exercise in family love and guilt. Or that is what it was to me.

—Joan Didion, “On Keeping A Notebook”

From Writing True, by Mimi Schwartz and Sondra Perl, I steal a writing exercise, give it to my students, and to myself, write a memory in two parts: first the facts, and then how it felt to me. Does it matter if my hot flash lasts thirty seconds or two minutes—what would Didion say?

*

The wisdom of dressing in layers takes on the proportion of opera: If I could peel off my skin, I would. This act would symbolize my transformation. But because I’m still inside this transformation, I can’t yet fix on an apt metaphor. Life becomes a dress rehearsal. I pretend I have no skin.

*

Thanks to luck, or possibly good living, I’m not tormented enough to peel off my actual skin, but I let the metaphor melt in my overheated mouth as I think-say it. (Does my mouth feel hot then, too? My tongue? When I speak, will my words burn whatever parts of you it is that reads them?)

*

(I want cracked crab, the taste of cracked crab, the sound of cracked crab on my ear’s tongue, but I don’t want it as fervently as I wanted crab legs when I was pregnant. How it felt to me: those crab legs, the most powerful random craving I can now recall.)

*

The first few times I had a hot flash, it was such an unusual sensation, I took my temperature. Months later, the feeling has become so familiar that, sitting in front of my class, I am barely distracted.

*

My skin is dry. My eyes are dry. My lips are dry. Various professionals say this drought could be hormonal.

*

Yes, a dry heat. Dryness becomes theme in my body; I am a leaf in autumn, I am a late season. I am a metaphor that’s hit-you-over-the-head-obvious for this stage of life. I start to crackle in my parts. I threaten to crumble, blow away. The skin around my lips becomes flaky, horrid-looking. (Please don’t look.) Leftover lanolin from nursing (geriatric pregnancy, advanced maternal age, labels now immortalized in prose), what’s left of my vanity wipes lanolin across my lips, and honey, too. These remedies barely work. Skin peels and peels. I wonder whether all of me will dry out and blow away. Or I wonder not whether, but when.

*

One way or another, the skin is coming off.

*

Maybe this is how women of a certain age begin to feel invisible. Maybe something of us truly has blown away, so the ever-increasing mass of younger people can’t help overlooking us.

*

My husband hasn’t commented about this shift in his wife. I haven’t worried about not being attractive to him; he’s older, we joke I’m still his young trophy. (Relief. And inside, conflict, over the question, “Why does this idea even occur to me?” Over “Should this even matter?”)

*

(Attractive. The word I misspelled at the fifth-grade spelling bee, which earned me an Honorable Mention. I wonder now how long I’ll remember tripping over the three Ts of that word, wonder now how long I will feel that moment, that memory in my bones every time I write the word on paper…but oddly, not when I type it. Wonder now about the brain science of that sensation, the divide between brain-hand-pen-paper and brain-hand-keyboard-screen.)

*

There’s sometimes an absence of sexual desire. Instead, my soul turns on by small changings of the world, betterings, helping someone, almost anyone. At a huge conference, I make eye contact with strangers, say hello, and send a silent message, “I see you, even if you don’t feel yourself being seen.” My urge is to bring beauty, the invisible kind. To connect. Nothing else matters. But I want to want actual sex, too; I don’t want to fall into the cliché of middle-aged apathy.

*

I read that the more you do it, the more you want it. I try to do it more so I can find out what’s true.

*

I speak with increasing authority, before I even notice its sound. Less need to fake it till I make it, less need because (could it be?) I’m closer and closer to making it, to becoming an authority.

*

(Such relief, to feel the self-doubt diminish, hot flash burning off the dross; such relief to feel whole and complete and finally rooted in soil—here I first typed “soul”—finally rooted in soul that matters, soul stronger than dirt.)

*

In that pseudo-Buddhist way, not knowing (not caring?) whether it’s even Buddhist, I notice how irritable the hot flash makes me feel; I notice without attachment. I sit in a circle with other women who know this is part of our collective tale. I imagine that if I didn’t have that circle, or if I were missing context and support for this time of life as a natural and gorgeous transition in my humanity, or if I weren’t essentially happy in my skin…put another way: if I weren’t me, in my present life, I imagine I might hate this time of life. Might give up and surrender to becoming invisible.

*

(The good thing about being invisible is that you can sneak around and do whatever the hell you want.)

*

Invisible. Still living. This invisibility signifies mileage. Contains my stories. Is also living, or part of it, it must be, at least part of it.

*

It must be part of it. The one who knows, the one awakening inside me, knows.

*

I decide and decide and decide to speak freely. Grieve. Wallow. Do nothing. Be. As much time as I have, or as much time as I need.

*

I need to read more.

I need to get out more.

I need to get more sleep.

How many more books will I read.

How many more books will I inhale exhale.

How many more breaths.

*

(All this vitesse toward the eventual last.)

*

(Why do I think of the French, vitesse? Do I need the linguistic lingerie of that word leaning forward, its italics, its I tal licks?)

*

Vitesse, this mess.

*

This mess is beautiful, too. This mess is where we get to be human together.


Rebecca Kuder’s short story, “Rabbit, Cat, Girl” was chosen for the Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 3, forthcoming from Undertow Publications. It previously appeared in XIII: Stories of Transformation. Her essays and poems have been published in Mothering Magazine, The Knitter’s Gift, Midwifery Today, The Manifest Station, and Jaded Ibis Press. Rebecca has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. All of Rebecca’s work (writing, teaching, living) is rooted in the centrality of storytelling to our collective humanity. She lives in Yellow Springs, with her husband, the writer Robert Freeman Wexler, and their daughter. Rebecca blogs at www.rebeccakuder.com. More from this author →