Thursday, Feb. 17, Bellingham YMCA. While I was in line at the drinking fountain, a man approached me, holding out his hand. “My name’s Frank.”
He was wearing a flannel shirt over pastel tie-dye, so I figured he must be nice. “I’m Jo Ann.”
“Do you work here?” His eyes were brighter, maybe, than they should be.
I wore my Y clothes—my old orange Bookshop Santa Cruz T-shirt and sweatpants. “No,” I said, “I just work out here.”
Frank had thin white hair, lifted by static electricity from his forehead and cheeks. The tail of his belt traveled so far beyond the buckle that I couldn’t see the end, and his khakis were a couple of sizes too big. “That’s what I meant,” he said. “I work out here, too. Are you in school?”
Frank didn’t appear to be blind. He couldn’t be suggesting that I looked so young I ought to be in school. “No, I’m a little old for school. I’m 57.”
“Oh!” he said. “I’m still working on my vet degree.” He moved down the line of people waiting for a drink. “My name’s Frank,” he said, holding out his hand to whoever was behind me.
I drank some water, grabbed my book from its cubbyhole, and headed for the treadmill, where at first I didn’t read a word.
I wasn’t worried about Frank. I didn’t know whether he was older or younger than I was, but either way I was pretty sure I hadn’t hurt his feelings. He’d made an announcement—he was going to be a vet—and whether he still had time to become a vet, or was currently in vet school, or was well enough to be thinking about doing much at all seemed to have no bearing on that announcement, just as my remark did not.
What was ridiculous about what I’d said, though, was that I’d been a student myself as recently as 2009. I no more believed there was an age limit on learning than on staring at the moon.
On Tuesday night, I’d read a poem in front of a TV camera for a spot that would run between programs on a local channel. I was one of several people doing this, but we taped our spots separately, and they would run one at a time. The people who did the scheduling, set-up, and filming—and my husband, who came along—were all encouraging and kind, but I was full of dread. I read my poem, “How to Stay,” with just one thing in mind—not rushing through it. But in trying not to read it too fast, I made it sound funereal, and the expression on my face in the first take suggested that the funeral was my own.
In the second take, my reading was livelier, maybe too lively, but we couldn’t use that one because I’d failed to stare into the camera long enough after the last line for what the director called the “fade out.” The third time around, I thought I’d delivered the poem pretty well, about as well as I could. When I viewed the tape, I saw that I had indeed read these lines from “How to Stay” in a celebratory spirit:
Spin the clothesline like a tetherball.
Hang your panties above the fence line.
Let the birds have the strawberries
and the squirrels
the one best bite
of every plum.
Bathe the cats in rosewater.
Line the drawers with mint . . .
But now I saw what I’d missed before, what I must have been dreading all along. I looked old, really old, older than 57, certainly too old to utter the word panties on television.
While on the treadmill, I realized that in saying to Frank, “I’m a little old for school,” I was trying to make an announcement of my own, loud enough so I’d really hear it—that some doors aren’t open anymore, that there are some things I’ll never do, some graces I’ll never recover. Frank didn’t pay any attention to what I said. And you shouldn’t, either. But I have to.
Added March 2: If you have the stomach for it, you can watch this video: