Leaving, An Art


nonfiction by Jill Talbot


At what point do we just re-create the people 
who have disappeared from our lives?
–Sherman Alexie

Years ago, I wrote a poem with the line: “Leaves on the front lawn still.” I remember the season of that line, an October eight years ago when I’d stare out the window of a house that wasn’t mine, where I borrowed a basement and wrote line after line. The leaves in the yard on the day I wrote that line were still, the way I was, believing that any slight shift would dismantle me or the chance you would return. Now, I see the stillness in that line not as an adjective, one of suspension, but an adverb, one of condition. The leaves remain.

I’m doing a Find search through a series of poems I wrote about the two years of our undoing, each section devoted to a particular phase, a memoir in poetic form. The first section, an affirmation of the years we lived in Fort Collins, has no leaves, but there are shadows. And storms. Maybe it’s because I only recall the summers, afternoons reading Carver poems on the back porch, the one you loved about the ashtray, or the winters, when once we watched Streetcar Named Desireand then went out for our nightly run in the cold dark, dodging ice patches and discussing the conflicts of Stanley and Blanche over four miles of snowy streets. Or the rainstorm that morning on the Poudre River that shows up in these lines : “Storms struggled, lurking / The thunder, threatening to disappear / in the distance.” Look, right there, an allusion to what was already bearing down on us, the distance, our respective, yet subtle acts of disappearing.

The leaves appear in the second section, in the line, “the truth of leaves changing,” from one of the poems about my departures to cities built of bottles of red wine, and the speaker, me, the ghost living among us, the self I became after too many glasses, that volatile slide into the second bottle, the way I’d cough to cover the thwop of the cork’s release after you had fallen asleep in our bed you called “The Saddle,” for the way it surrendered in the center, a deep concave that either relegated us to separate sides of the bed or eased your heavy frame, the one over a foot taller than mine, to me. Just writing that line reminded me of the way you’d wake me in the night with the words, “Don’t leave.” You meant come closer, not to unwind my legs from yours and sleep away from the shared space of our intimacy. But maybe you were talking in your sleep, struggling against the subconscious whispers of your disappearance pattern, calling you to perform the act once more.

You used to tell me I sang when I wrote, or talked, and you’d mistake my voice as one meant for you, come to the ajar door of my writing room and pause, realize I wasn’t even really there. My writing, a daily departure you set yourself against, relieved when I’d appear in the living room to read lines, disappointed when the lines were of men from distant seasons; you’d wonder aloud why I had to go back to them, why I couldn’t write about you, us. A pattern, like the shift at the end of summer, when the first hint of chill settles into the sidewalks, the single leaf that surrenders, a sudden call to what has to end, again. My pattern, to write only the months on the calendar that have been folded away, never the ones that hang in the kitchen, marked by quotidian reminders. Such self-consciousness, that afternoon in the living room—the brown chair, the bookshelves you built, your work boots in the hallway, the painting above the futon I bought in Boulder, the simple yellow and blue of a vase of flowers with the words, “Bougainvillea. I love red wine. What will we do when summer ends?” accenting the canvas—a scene suddenly transformed into mere details that might only exist someday in my writing.

And then there’s a line in the third section of the poems, ones of determination, of moving beyond the loss of you and choosing a new sleeping partner “every time the leaves begin to fall,” and another, from the final section, the one of resolution, “My lovers leave when the leaves begin to fall, and I drink red instead of white. Cabernet thickness.” But I wrote that line years before I knew you: My art foreshadowing my life. What is it with me and leaves and wine? And you? The leaves on the lawn, still.

This morning, I stood out in the yard, the lingering green of the grass peeking through leaves heavy with a day’s worth of yesterday’s rain. I tossed a slobbery ball, again and again, for Blue, a heeler/Boxer mix, as she chased it down in the liminal moment of pre-sunrise, initial light through the slats in the back fence, and in turning, I found the moon, sheer white in the darkness of the west. I reveled in the betweenness of it all: night and day, sunrise and moonset, the way Blue never drops the ball at my feet; the way she nearly returns but never comes back all the way. It makes me wonder where the line is between preference and stubbornness. You’re like that. You’ve never returned, but every day, you come back in our daughter’s dimples or the shape of her legs, the curve of her upper teeth, or the way you two both hold your mouth the exact same way during sleep or the look she gives me when she’s not quite sure I know exactly what she has done that she’s not supposed to do. In those moments, you come back, but not all the way.

It is 3:12 am on a Saturday in February, a snowstorm drapes the windows, and the Rolling Stones are playing a song, though I can’t remember which one. I had asked for Sinatra, but they said they didn’t have any in the OR, so I settled for a Classic Rock station. I wanted her to be greeted by good music; I wish I could remember the song, and I wish I could ask you if you remember, but even before she was born, you began making small departures: a suspicious errand during my thirty-three hours of labor that emptied our bank account of all but four dollars; the days after in the hospital room where you were simply not there, and I checked out film after film from the volunteer, seeing Sunset Boulevard for the first time; back home, silence and attention to Junk Yard Wars on evenings when we’d sit far apart on the futon, when I’d ask you to change her or check on her noises from her yellow room–the one you painted, the one you bordered with that paper of pastel giraffes and elephants and dancing hippos, the border you took a piece of and affixed to the light switch as a final touch–but you’d refuse to even turn from the television and mutter, “I don’t want to get too attached in case I leave.” And then came the morning when you finally allowed yourself to do just that. It was September, and the contained lines of poetry were no longer a wide enough field for all I needed to say, and my lines spilled over to paragraphs, to pages; I was essaying my way through your departure. Every line an attempt to reverse the leavings or to open them up, ask why. But I can’t ask questions to the ghost you have become, and so, I write them again and again. I’m still writing you, years after you have gone. Leaves on the lawn, still.

Maybe it’s because I’ve never written about the moment I knew you were gone. I’ve written an entire book around it, eschewing that indelible scene of one morning and instead focusing the lens on its prologue: the patterns and the choices that preceded, might have precipitated, or the epilogue of emptiness ushered in after it, that one line in chapter sixteen, describing the tree in my front yard in winter, its “branches spread across the snow” that reminded me of “reaching for nothing.” Actually, that night, sitting on the front porch with wine and my despair hours into Indie’s sleep, it was the shadows of those empty branches splayed across the blank canvas of the snow that unsettled me. That moment’s stillness was a suspension, a precarious scene with the weight of all my wine shivering against such a delicate portrait.

People ask where she got her name, Indie, and during the first years, I told them that you chose it during my pregnancy, because you did, on one of my non-teaching afternoons when we were home together and you came out of the bedroom and offered it as the most obvious choice, though it would be two weeks later, as I drove home in the rain and passed through an intersection that I concurred, realized it was. Now, I tell a different story, a truer one, the one in which the doctor comments every pre-natal visit about how she is the most independent baby he has ever seen, moving the monitor over my belly again and again because Indie avoids it, shifts and darts, an insistence that will bear out as she grows—leave me alone, I can do it myself. Maybe someday I will tell her that you named her, but if so much of who she believes herself to be is separate from you, will it widen the space within her that has been carved out by your absence? Or will it comfort her, perhaps confirm that you truly did know her.

A couple of years after your leaving, I wined my way into rehab. During one of my weekly sessions with the counselor, he asked for an example of the ways in which my relationship with wine had taken over my life, or as they asked in rehab, “How has your drug of choice caused you to leave your own life?”

I tell him this story: It is the season of fallen leaves, and Indie is four. It is a Sunday, early afternoon, the rake too large for her, though she drags the wide mouth of its tines across an entire half of the yard, creating an impressive mound of brown, yellow, and orange from the tree, which, according to neighbors’, is the largest one in the city, so our yard, by October, is weighed down with leaves, walking through them is like wading through knee-deep water. I am standing inside the living room, watching her, seeing the distance between us as far, though she is only a porch, a few steps, and half a yard away. I am the far away one, the one who sits in the living room seeing the world as separate, the views of my life merely a projection I cannot connect with, like a painting in a museum that you know has nothing to do with what moves you. I put down what I’m sure is my second or third glass of chardonnay, force myself to be present, go out and acknowledge her, and when I do, she asks me to jump in the pile. I tell her, “Not now,” and I turn to resume my chardonnay. I’ll be inside, I mumble to myself, drinking.

When I’m done with my story, Gary, my counselor, asks what I want to change when I go back home. Realizing how far wine has taken me from my life, I tell him, “I want to play in the leaves with Indie.” He makes me write it down in the notebook I carry. “On the first page,” he says, “so every time you open that notebook, you know why you are here.” Gary, an alcoholic himself, had a degree in English, so he knew how important it was for me to write words down. Just now, I went to the hall closet to look at that page in the notebook, where I keep it in a box with all my other rehab writings, and I read the words, discovered the addition I had forgotten: “without hesitation.”

Without hesitation. Elizabeth Bishop’s command to herself in “One Art,” “Write It!” comes to mind, so here goes: I am gripping the counter at the kitchen sink on the third floor of our family housing apartment at the University of Colorado, staring out a window I have been looking through for months of nights when you have not come home. I am holding on as hard as I can, because inside, everything is falling. It is as if I have stumbled on a precipice of a canyon on the moment of its collapse, my toes on the edge, my gut being pulled down by the gravity of a sudden, new reality. I turn and pace through the rooms of the apartment, stop briefly to throw myself across the new bed—the one we named the George W., because we bought it with our election money that year he thanked everyone with a three-hundred dollar check—or I’d stumble against the walls into the bathroom, look at myself in the mirror to visually verify the fact that yes, this is me, and this is real—unable to stay still for fear if I stop moving then the reality of the moment will settle into the reality of my life. I go back to the sink, throw up, my feet even come up off of the floor, my weight thrust into my shoulders, hunching over into the truth of this schism between the life I chose and the life I would now live. Wailing, I think, is the word for the sounds emanating from a place so deep I did not know it was a part of me, and now, as I write the moment, I realize since that morning, it has never gone away. You are behind me, in that brown thrift-store chair, where you have been sitting for two hours, you say, which means you came home at 5:30 this morning. You keep telling me to calm down, to stop screaming, that I will scare the neighbors. Where was Indie that morning? I have blocked that out. Was she sleeping? No, she’d wake at six am and never nap, never has, even now. She must have been somewhere else, because I would have never allowed myself such abandon with her in the apartment. I’d go check essays of mine, the way I sometimes do to remind myself of what I cannot recall or to see if I did indeed write that, but I’ve never written this. But you do not move from that chair, even as I rush through rooms, grip my stomach, white- knuckle the counter at the sink. Why did I keep going back to that sink? Sturdy, I think. After all, the third floor structure beneath me had encountered a ground swell, and I did not trust it. You just sat there in that chair, the way the man in the Carver poem does, waiting for the woman to stop weeping. It is the chair where you cried after finishing Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and when I asked you from across the room why you were crying tears that seemed beyond the maudlin ending of a guy walking back to the hotel in the rain, you said you shouldn’t have read it, that now you knew what it would be like if you ever lost me. That night, one of those nights I heard you in your sleep, “Don’t leave.”

My tears that morning began at 7:30 and kept on off and on for years had little to do with the failure of us, or what I assumed then was the failure of me. I braced myself against the steepness pulling me down, because I knew it was not mine, but Indie’s. You see, I knew your leaving me meant that you were gone for good. You would not share custody, you would not call on Christmas or send cards on birthdays, you would vanish, poof, disappear, and I would stay behind and stand every day on the edge of that gaping hole beside her, hoping to make some sense of the landscape of absence she carries in the west of her heart. It was the moment I first realized I was, indeed, Indie’s mother, but it was also the moment I became a single mother.

I am not a single mother who is divorced, because we never married. I am not a single mother who lives on welfare. I am not a single mother whose husband is in prison. I am not the single mother you pity. I am not a victim. I am not the single mother who has the kids all nights except Wednesdays and a week in the summer. I am not weak; in fact, no single parent has the cabinet space for weakness, or much cabinet space at all, for that matter. But I am not a cliché. I am a strong woman with four college degrees, including a doctorate, who loved you with an intensity that distracted me from the truth, that you are the kind of man who leaves, and who, wherever you are now, will leave again. I am a woman who is raising our child by myself.

I am a single mother, one of many, many other mothers, who hopes beyond hope that her child will never feel pain, but for Indie and me, as we have discussed during extended bouts of her questions, my answers, our shared tears, we live with an absence, or as she describes it, “a hole in her heart,” one that is brought to attention every time a kid at school or a friend continues to ask, “You don’t have a dad?” No. She has a father, a vanishing act, a magician who, with one tug of the gear shift on his truck in the parking lot, pulled an irreversible sleight of hearts.

Not long before you drove away on that September Sunday, she was in the middle of the living room floor on her alphabet blanket playing with her toys, the monkey you named Spencer, the portable mobile she liked to hide under, and she turned her head and looked at you. Holding her stare, you said to me, “She’s stronger than I am.” I could feel then, you were right. No matter how many times I write you, I find more words in the recesses of my memory, and those have just came back to me in the past few months. “She’s stronger than I am”: And now that she has grown into her own sense of self, I know you were right.

Last night, Indie appeared at the front door, beckoning me with her bright face to leave the words I was sifting through and come outside. She has been playing in the leaves every afternoon this week, raking them into a large pile until the sky darkens, threatens the end of her revelry, and I convince her to come inside with the words: hot chocolate on the table. I want to tell you that she wears her yellow rain boots every day, even when the sun is out, that she is now eight (Do you know that? Do you ever add it up in your head?), that she has your build, your height, so that she and I are almost the same size now, that she never wears an outfit without a peace sign somewhere, that she designs her own haircuts, that she can swim a mile and goes to a rock climbing camp every Saturday with her buddy, Sam, and she loves to read and draw and watch Brothers and Sisters with me on Sunday nights. I have no one else to share these moments with—so she and I live our moments together, and every day, I think how much I love being the one who gets to walk alongside all of her moments.

She is urging me to come out and see something before it disappears, blows away. I hurry out, see that the has created a circle of leaves, a circumference of brown and yellow and hints of deep red that almost covers our yard. She tells me it is a fort of leaves, adding that no one is allowed inside except for her and Blue, who at that moment, runs out and intuitively leaps over the fort’s imbricate walls. In this instant, I see that leaves are not just words in my poems, words in these paragraphs; they are remnants of lost seasons, of what can follow, can linger, can cast a shade from the trees as a signal of a coming shift in seasons.

Indie dances inside her fort, defies loss as a means of shadows across a landscape and revises the cycle. She is dancing a ceremony of leaves, and I stand on the porch clapping and singing a made-up song about the fort, without hesitation.



Jill Talbot