On one of those rare mornings when I’m alone, not haggling over Cheerios and milk, stuffing kids into coats and hats before haul-assing out the door to drop them at school and buzzing across town to my own job, I drink coffee. And with the ceramic cup, designed with swaths of red and orange to mimic the landscape of the desert southwest, warming my hands, I look out the window as little non-descript birds hop about on the grass, eating worms or pecking furtively at bits of trash. Acorns are strewn across the yard, muddied by melting snow. The skeletal remains of last year’s indigo still remain, patiently waiting for their resurrection.
My daughter, aged five, has asked me to set up tea time. She is not patient. The stuffed bear looks restless as well, slouched drunkenly in a small wicker chair.
Oh, what a waste I make of time. I’ll sit by the window for longer than I intended, whittling down the minutes and hours of the day, dreaming of writing. Instead of writing, though, I think — which is so much easier than piecing words together. Thoughts are allowed to fold and unfold. You needn’t mold them into a pleasing shape like you must with narrative. And thus, they often feel complete. Writing into your idea is like tapping at the edge of a very still pond and watching the ripples go, arcs of silver bending across the once placid surface. I have another sip of coffee as the orange light of an early morning sun sets the oaks’ bark briefly afire.
We’re using the Plan Toys tea set, which means the tea bags are wooden blocks with pieces of string affixed to the top. In truth, I’ve had better tea. She claps her hands when she gets excited.
Most days I work late and arrive home with the fan whirring upstairs, thick white noise blanketing their small bodies, curved in geometries of sleep. I usually write in the evenings. Though by usually, I mean rarely, or sometimes but not often.
Finally I have time and quiet to work. But first I check Facebook and my e-mail, yearning for some distraction, a reminder like a postcard that someone is thinking of me, or has tucked me away in the drawer of their mind. There is an unquiet place within me that longs so deeply for connection, for affirmation, I’ll stare at the screen or message everyone I know, desperate to catch someone in the web of my thoughts, in the portrait of my day. And I scroll and scroll through updates and ads, children at war in Africa, Republican politics, microaggressions, pictures of dinners, of weddings, of cats on desks.
She’s very meticulous about the tea, matching each small saucer on each plate, handling them with intense care. “Daddy,” she yells. “We need sugar.” The stuffed bear looks obese, but I don’t ask after Splenda.
And like a passing cloud, hung on the curtain of the sky, my time floats away. Soon enough the children will be asking me to peel oranges, to pour milk, to build tracks, to give them pieces of my day. I had an idea for a short story, though I often think I should strictly write essays, their looping form and digressions are a better stylistic fit for my impatient brain—a vessel easily blown off course. Or it may be that I only think I’m better at essays, but am not, in fact, any better at essays. Or maybe other people think I’m better at essays. Or maybe I just think that people think I’m better at essays because I’ve misconstrued a comment or two. Or perhaps I am right in believing people think I am better at essays, but they are wrong because I am not, in fact, better at essays. I am often confused.
I am wearing a small silver tiara and asking for sugar.
The idea was to have a linked set of stories based on math problems. The mathematical problems would hold the story together like ties to a rail. But now I am writing an essay about not writing these short stories, so maybe even the mathematical foundation is unsound, or proof of my errors in logic. Proof is a math joke.
The tea is never warm at these gatherings of porcelain dolls and stuffed bears named Apples.
I had an idea for a story about a village where it starts raining pictures. I think Dutch Golden Age, classical realism raised to the nth degree suddenly hailing down on a remote village from a Rembrandt-inspired sky, puffs of grey clouds limned by shards of golden-hued light, a farmer looking up from his work. I don’t know if the story was going to focus on what was in the pictures, the contrasts Rembrandt created between brown Dutch villages and the background of clouds and mountains, or his fine use of chiaroscuro, or whether it was going to focus on the faces and dispositions of the villagers, scattering about the village, running for their life as Vermeer’s Officer and a Laughing Girl careens towards them, the girl in the picture, usually so timid looking in her maid’s hat, terrifying as she falls.
No one at the table is passing the cream. The conversation is as wooden as the tea, I say, but no one laughs.
I have a problem of late, which is that all my ideas for stories are just that, ideas alone, jars unopened on the dusty shelves of my mind. And all my ideas for essays are about riding on trains or not writing essays. Sometimes, when I’m standing in line at the grocery store, basket full of Persian cucumbers, baby carrots, and enough apples to feed a barbarian horde, I’ll have an idea hit like a lightning strike, and I’ll start working out intricate details in my head, precise plot points, ashy clouds, the lips of a girl, or ways an essay can begin to take shape around a simple idea. But I never have a pen. And by the time I’ve loaded up the groceries, driven cross town, read Frog and Toad, tucked the children into bed and watched an episode of Mad Men, I’ll have forgotten that brilliant strike amidst the crush of the day. And so thoughts slip away like bits of smoke into the blued evening.
The half-light of the lamp gives the bear a slightly sinister look and the girl doesn’t seem to notice at all, pouring tea willy nilly for everyone.
What if people start seeing pictures of themselves falling from the sky? Or moments that they’d otherwise like to keep hidden? Is it religious, then, or a cosmic joke, this plague of paintings? Maybe it should be raining postcards. The postcards would say things like this:
I am living now in a cottage in England where my dog has just died. I know you won’t be reading this until after you return. Antarctica is so far away. I wanted to tell you about the red buds on the tree, the rain cutting through the sky and fields of grass that moved like water, dusky pillars of autumnal light that fell across damp floors, spinning out the mysterious day in which we are both present and absent, you somewhere at the back of a ship, eating a can of beans, and me, strangely still here, telling you of my dead dog as though you can know, as though you will care. I cannot write about anything else but the strangeness of life, how a bulb should turn into a purple flower, does it not sometimes strike you as immensely silly? When I am really writing, I suppose I feel less lonely, and I wrap up these letters and lay them out on the dresser as if you will return.
Sometimes I open up old documents on the computer to see if I used to be a good writer, or if I’ve grown, or if I’ve remained static. In truth, I can’t tell if the work is any better. Taste is subjective and what pleased me at twenty-five may not please me at thirty-two, but I have to admit that the writing has remained the same, and it is I who has changed. In short, I don’t know. This is also a short and unsatisfying answer for most of the questions in the universe.
The tea party is over now and no one, especially not the one-eyed doll, is making a move to clean up. It looks like it falls to me.
The sun has been down for hours now. Phosphorescent lamps in the alley cast halos on the oak tree in our yard, giving it a ghoulish pallor, reticulate branches lifting skyward as if casting a spell. And I haven’t written a damn thing. Or only this damn thing, which isn’t really a thing at all. It’s a mess. Everything is always a mess—the universe, afternoons by the pool, hairstyles, relationships, they all tend towards disorder, and one must always be sweeping or dusting, or making lists, or love, or being productive in order to make sense of it. Entropy reigns. If the universe were orderly, this essay would not be a random collection of thoughts, ephemera spun out from an ephemeral and contingent creature. Instead, it would read like a math theorem or a series of syllogisms; the world is all that is the case, though Wittgenstein probably meant universe.
It’s late now, which means that the time to turn this into something coherent has passed. A squirrel roots around inside our walls, making a nest to keep warm, creating a parallel between us, as I work with the warm computer in my lap, in a nest of blankets. I suppose I could give this essay something more coherent like a mathematical notation, or a refrain about a tea party, something to hold it together. But then I’d be going to bed at 12:44 A.M. or 1:17 A.M., and the children wake so early. And if I go to bed too late I will be tired at work, and tired at home, and I will fall asleep at 8:30 PM, or yell at my wife and children, telling them how my life is so tiring and how I can’t get a damn thing done, and then I will nap, and then it will take me a while to go to sleep, and I will stay up until 12:37 A.M. trying to write and failing once again. If only Shakespeare hadn’t written the sonnets, perhaps I could sleep well, knowing that man can only do so much in a lifetime. I creep upstairs and kiss the children on their foreheads, peaceful for a moment, in the quiet of sleep.
The dolls are sitting in the dark, waiting for the next tea party to begin, with the patience of statues, of portraits on the walls of museums.
And time continues to be whittled away, carving away at me as well, hollowing out my insides, making its way towards bone. A cold wind rattles the panes where I peer out into the darkness, this time seeing not a damn thing. Just shades of more darkness, which doesn’t allow me to paint any picture at all. Leaving you instead with this soft patter of words amidst the thousands you’ll see today, an impression only, like that of a single snowflake on a field of white.
© Andrew Bertaina
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley]