Look Out, Look Over, Look Past

by Jacqueline Lyons

 

“When it gets really difficult you want to disentangle rather than to cut the knot”
–Gertrude Stein, Poetry and Grammar

 

Begin Trikonasana, Triangle Pose, with a wide stance.

When I hear marriage mentioned, the muscle around or the muscle that is my heart stiffens. I meet couples engaged to marry, newly wed or newly coupled, and think how slender the chance for their success. I am inflexible toward remarriage, cannot think why I would ever marry again. Once upon a time I was married, then winter arrived and I moved across town, back to base level in a downstairs apartment alone, looking for the nearest grocery store, watching the weather, hoping to be surprised by how the story unfolded.

 

Arms in a T, right foot turned out 90 degrees.

The 60-something man leading the yoga workshop has been giving attention to different students in the class, but none to me until we do Tolasana, Pendant Pose, which requires a lot of upper body strength. The other students drop out of the pose after a breath or two and I am holding for five, seven, ten breaths. Now I have his attention. Then we do Trikonasana, Triangle Pose, an intense stretch in the hips and hamstrings, and the instructor says to me, I wish you were more flexible.

Before marrying, in my 20s, I travelled to 18 countries, spent 1000 days abroad. I regretted small things like eating too much ice cream, or chickening out of talking to someone I liked. During the decade of marriage I left the country one time, for one week and a half, visited one place. After separating, it took one year before I could consider a date, and even then it felt strange. Though not yet forty when marriage ended, I thought—imagine!—that the romantic part of my life might be over.

 

Reach right arm out over right leg, tip from the hips, right hand reaching for right foot, left hand reaching straight up to sky.

Lover and I make plans to go to Death Valley for spring break. We guess at the wind: 30? 40 miles an hour? At the lookout point a gust of wind nearly flings me over the edge. In one future I go over, and he has to figure out what to do with my body. My feet and hips adjust my weight and save me. In evening, I sit cross-legged to bring everything close.

A widow whose husband died in the World Trade Towers says during an interview, “I have no plans.”

In spring I am offered a place on a two-week trip to Europe with my university. A colleague who receives the same invitation but already has plans tells me to wait, we could both take the trip the next year. How to explain. I once invested ten years in something that dissolved, and now I have no time to wait. Do you keep your eye on what might be a leaf or a one hundred dollar bill lofting on air, or pin the nearby five beneath your heel. Do you say yes to an invitation now, or fling it into the wind, as if it may be better next year.

 

Stack left hip over the right, left shoulder drawing back as if pressed between two panes of glass, or practice the pose with your back pressed against a wall.

It must have happened at a particular moment that instead of leaning into touch, I flinched. Trust reversed upon itself, flowed instead toward distrust.

Flatten the plane (imagine) to see all the angles at once.

The opposite of husband reached to touch me, and I instinctively pulled back. I stood close to a wall, so my elbow met a hard flat plane.

Once nothing but tender with each other, ex’s anger and outbursts of expletives intensified until I had to tell him: it was unsettling to be around him, I no longer felt at ease. His response was, “That’s your problem.” Who would have guessed he could see it that way.

When I pulled back and hit my elbow on the wall, he was indignant. “Why do you flinch when I try to touch you!”

If I flatten the plane, the last face I saw of his fills the frame, angry and distorted. When I was pressed up against the wall, the truth came out. The air was quiet—what could I say. My body told the truth of how I felt.

  

Keep the body on one plane.

If I moved into Maslow’s A-frame, I’d buy an area rug in warm brown, gold and gray tones in an asymmetrical pattern named Cosmos evoking blown open dandelions, intimacy and self-actualization, and place it in the center to tie the room together.

Somewhere between needs and esteem is an invitation to play ping pong in my new friends’ garage and share a makeshift dinner.

If I camped outside Freytag’s plot triangle I’d hang new lingerie out to dry with no intention of sleeping with anyone.

Somewhere outside of rising and falling action is imagination shaping something real. Some day remarrying might make sense, the way leaping across a chasm might be the best way to stay alive.

Somewhere outside of tradition is an awkward and lovely variation, more isosceles or scalene than equilateral, more one arm extended or one leg lifted or the whole pose upside-down.

Somewhere between grilled chicken for dinner and belonging to the universe while gazing up at the stars are Lover’s eyes glistening when he reads aloud the poem I wrote for him in the dead of winter.

 

Radiate in all directions.

When Lover’s touch makes me shudder with pleasure and prompts a sudden in-suck of breath he says, “I love the way you wince.” If that’s not quite the right word, no matter, actions speak louder, and I trust. He walks up behind me, reaches out, and I do not startle. I expand as in the warmth that collects between two panes of glass.

If I take out the depth of time, will I see all the angles at once?

 

The pose forms several triangles.

Lover guessed I was younger than my years, and when I suggest claiming thirty instead of forty he suggests the opposite—I should say fifty, so everyone will be amazed at how young I look. His sense opens up space around numbers. He is surprised not everyone thinks the way he does.

In our long-term plans, Lover and I map individual routes toward opposite coasts. In the microcosm of evening, though, our plans are aligned. We order pizza or cook, go to bed early and stay up late. Talk about watching a movie or watch a movie while talking. In the shelter of evening we pretend we have never had other lovers. To merge the space between divergent plans, between a flinch and a touch, between now and next, we lean in and kiss.

What shape best reflects conflict, complications, crisis? From what position should we consider moments, or into which moment will we gather perspectives? Will we be Picasso’s Cubism, an image seen from multiple angles all at once? Or will we be Duchamp’s Cubism, Nude Descending a Staircase, one image seen from multiple moments in time, figure become figures stretching accordion-like down stairs? Will we narrate or stir within? Will we include fact, imagination, reflection, or all three?

 

Feel the spine align, open the left side.  

If I flatten the plane and change curves to straight lines, will I give movement to a story.

If I call myself “Divorcee,” will I feel elegant in evening.

If in winter I shatter the frame or cry at night, will color multiply.

If I dig myself into a hole then climb out, am I ascending.

If I refuse to say ex’s name does it flatten him, if I refer to him as ex husband, does it send him out to pasture.

If I re-frame vertigo, tight breathing and flickering light as “fascinating sensation,” do I transcend anxiety.

If I step out one morning blurry-eyed along a path of color and light and crush a snail, will calling the fragments “shell” make them cohere.

If I capitalize Lover, do I make him the hero.

If despite being shattered the body moves all at once, does it/she/I look kaleidoscopic/ prismatic/confident.

 

Feel energy extending through each foot into the earth.

I have an early memory of falling down uncarpeted stairs. It is dream-like and true repetition, unvarying because remembered, inflexible because symbolic. It is a scene pulled from a longer story called Split-Level House or Lack of Belonging or Poor Me. The uncarpeted stairs meant a precise edge and visible nail heads. I must have seen the walls as I tumbled, maybe unpainted, but remember only the wood stairs with their snags and slivers—no need to sand what the carpet would cover—and the shine of nail heads. I don’t remember the first or last stair, or someone warning me or comforting me, only the falling.

 

Feel energy extending shoulder to fingertips.

My first impossible plan was to be together-forever with a beagle named Daisy. I also plotted to protect birds killed in their nests by cats, and protected cats centered in my dad’s rifle sight by running at them until they scattered. To escape punishment for scattering the cats, I climbed into the attic’s inverted V to look at my pre-school drawings whose images told the story of my first loves and fears. Or I went to the furthest corner of the house’s lowest level and cultivated a cubist vision by closing one eye at a time, but then my left brain looked down the path of cause and effect—if my dad saw me doing what looked like nothing he’d make me weed the garden. I didn’t know Maslow’s hierarchy or Freytag’s triangle, but knew I wanted to eat dinner and that to avoid being triangulated by my dad and sent outside—crisis—into the garden’s fog of mosquitoes at the edge of the woods I had to calculate his speed as he ascended the basement stairs and avoid crossed paths.

 

Hold the pose for seven to ten breaths.

One year in February or March or April, when it was 60 or 70 or 80 degrees in Las Vegas, ex and I were coming back from two or three days in Fresno, during what may or may not have been spring break, my student loan interest going up or down, somewhere a volcano or hurricane or tornado. Ex drove and I sat in the passenger seat. When he slammed on the brakes to stop short of the red brake lights in front of us, I felt both relieved and annoyed. We came to a stop but barely—why follow so close? And then a car crashed into the back of ours so hard I was flung to the edges of the seat belt, lifted from the seat. Later when my back and neck felt sore and I asked ex how he felt, he said Fine. I saw the car coming in the rear view mirror and relaxed.

Years before in early spring we were traveling across Wyoming. I was driving, and when the truck hit ice and slid off the highway, my right arm flung out instinctively across ex’s chest in the passenger seat. As the steering wheel spun in my left hand and the snowy ditch rushed up to meet us I said Hold on!

Dream, memory and imagination all begin with the real then travel away from it. In the dream the car is always about to crash, both not yet and already. Memory holds its breath, prepares for impact, then is flung again from its seat. Imagination pauses and elongates the moment to give ex a chance to say Hold on!, but the story ends the same way, my hand on my neck while phoning insurance to arrange to get the smashed-in bumper replaced. I call it Failure of Loving Instinct, Cutting the Knot, Why Was I the One Calling Insurance, then pause and rewind because it still doesn’t make sense.

I remember, after Daisy the beagle and before the Vegas car crash, choosing the improbable promise of marriage. I didn’t know about living with an addictive personality, and I was, maybe, willingly naïve. I imagined I could move danger out of his reach, but there are so many things one can be addicted to, and even the grocery store has booze. Had I been able to peer into his brain I might have seen dangerous sparking, and since no one could stop it, or convince him there was something to stop, I may as well have wandered off for as much good as it did to stay and watch. The left brain calculated: a six-pack meant one for me and five for him. The chance of me being the designated driver on Saturday nights and him in the passenger seat with slurred speech: 100%. The right brain kept trying to see the whole, us at the center, wanting to balance the extremes. But there is no aligning with that kind of personality, no strong foundation to be dusted off, no solid center revolving from which the unwanted could be flung. Call it Should Have Seen It Coming.

 

The pose forms several triangles.

Though I love a good story, I am disinterested in plot.

The child falls down the stairs and the story ends when she reaches the bottom, thunk. The imagination is in how she remembers it.

The car will or will not crash, nothing to do about that, but what is memorable is how the people in the car react: “Hold on!” or “Watch out!” or silence, and after, “Are you okay?”, “Are you?”, or moving to opposite ends of the house.

 

The pose forms several triangles.

Lover and I are years apart, unlikely we will end up in the same story. He’s longing to get back to the East coast, and I like the West. I wish he would eat better—his story is that preservatives will keep him young. Doubtful, I say, laughing, though I notice his smooth skin and perfect teeth. Half the time I don’t know when he’s joking. Half of my friends think we are great together, the other half don’t get us at all. I like a window open when I sleep, he likes it closed. Liking different things sometimes doubles our plans—a weekend in Walla Walla includes wine tasting and a hot air balloon race. We are both all wrong and perfect for each other, and I’m surprised not everyone sees it this way.

 

Breathe and feel energy radiating blue-white from the crown of the head.

When I hear denouement, I imagine a heavy rope, its visible knots have a comforting heft, each twist and turn of the thick rope apparent. To resolve conflict requires effort, time, and commitment, all of which will be rewarded, the knots loosened one by one.

Gertrude Stein’s early awareness of death did not trouble her, but hearing that civilizations could and had dissolved disturbed her deeply. An end was a manageable idea, but the dissolution, the “loss of identity in total blankness” was large, dark, and roomy.

In the month before the official decision to split, when everything felt terrible, tangled, surreal, then-spouse went on a hunting trip. Lying awake in bed one night, out of some corner of the blue-black dark came a thought, edged, revolving, “Maybe he won’t come back.” Somehow the thought of an accident or disappearance had cleaner lines than the thought of splitting up. I don’t think this was the same as wishing him dead. What I wished for was an end without the erasure of an identity, I wanted a solution, a loosening, a release from marriage without it dissolving.

At the end of some stories there’s resolution. At the end of one day I receive in the mail what I have been thinking of as a divorce agreement and see that it is called Decree of Dissolution. Somewhere between union and dissolution is disillusion, a fake coherence and shards poking through, nothing like the decipherable logic of knots. At the end of the day you are no longer a child, your best-laid plans scattered.

Does the story of divorce begin with two people, their wedding the moment of crisis, and divorce the denouement. Or does the story begin with marriage, and conflict leads the married ones to the moment of crisis, divorce, and what’s the resolution then? In the story of loveless marriages there’s no single peak to the conflict, more of a serrated saw of daily dull crises wearing away. In true love, in ideal marriage, the crisis must be the death of the beloved, and if in old age the falling action mercifully short, then resolution in the widow or widower’s death. The equilateral plot triangle is an ideal that rarely translates to real life. Once you depart from the trajectory, there’s no structure. Only you, belief suspended.

 

Radiate in all directions. 

 


JACQUELINE LYONS is the author of the poetry collection The Way They Say Yes Here (Hanging Loose Press) and the poetry chapbook Lost Colony (Dancing Girl Press). Her nonfiction has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes and cited in Best American Essays. She has received a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship, a Peace Corps Writers Best Poetry Book Award, the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, a Utah Arts Council Award, and a Nevada Arts Council Fellowship in Nonfiction. Her poetry and essays have appeared in literary journals AGNI, Barrow Street, Bellingham Review, Colorado Review, Fourth Genre, Sonora Review and many others. She teaches creative writing at California Lutheran University.

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