I awoke to the sound of the unfamiliar. Disturbed by the rustle of feathers and harsh caw of a crimson and teal parrot perched on the balcony railing four feet from my nose. The bird sidled along the railing toward the balcony patio table, eyeing the remainders of a late-night fruit plate. A brilliant green slug curled at the bottom of an empty champagne glass.
I lay still, coming slowly awake, registering another unfamiliar sound: the muffled snores of the man sleeping beside me. The sheets were crisp, expensive linen-hotel sheets. And the bright sunlight streaming in through the filmy drapes was the hot sun of Rio de Janeiro. The man was my lover. I was thirty-one years old, and this was happiness. I had nothing to compare it to, but you know the sweet from bitter, and this was most definitely sweet.
I slipped out of the sheets careful not to disturb Ken and pulled on his dress shirt from the night before, walking through the sliding glass doors to the balcony. A breeze salty and cool whipped in from the sea, carrying the lush green smell of the jungles and bluffs that shouldered the white sands of Ipanema. The beach was visible from our room, a scimitar of glossy heat that ended in a sparkling sea, rimmed by high rises and hotels, exotic gardens as far as the eye could see.
I hugged his shirt close, inhaling the musk and sweat of the man, memories of thrilling guitars and Latin drums, the salsa dancing of the night before. Who travels an entire continent in order to salsa dance in Rio? Ken Grunzweig. "Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could"-the phrase from "Something Good" by Oscar Hammerstein drifted into my head and I hummed the lyric with a smile, flicking a rind of kiwi toward the parrot now hovering in the tree canopy below. My grandfather had sung the song to me as a child. He and my grandmother, on one of their periodic visits east to New York, had booked in at the Plaza, picking up tickets to Mary Martin in The Sound of Music. Broadway, 1959. I was not yet three at the time, but I remember the song, the way Grampa would twirl me and plant a big kiss on my neck as he sang, "Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good."
I looked back over my shoulder at the man sleeping rumpled under the sheets, one arm flung over his forehead in vulnerable disregard for the world. For our many mistakes, the unexpected tragedies, the sadnesses rounded with time, life had produced the unfamiliar. Something good.
If you were to ask me what three things I know to be true of life, I would tell you these three: what you dreamed of yourself at fourteen reflects your purest wish; don't marry the first person you kiss; and all the great questions bounce back from God.
Fourteen is the first time we ever really ask our future selves, "What do I want to be?" and the self answers back, pure and free of rationalization. And love. Romance plops the macaroni salad right beside the ambrosia. Grandmothers tell us not to marry first crushes, unless we're the type of person who has only ever liked bologna sandwiches and always will. And while the question of God himself frames the universe, the great mysteries exist in the human heart, unsolved. What is faith, intuition, if not human sonar-hope that pings the universe, mapping life? Sometimes gut instinct is the only way to answer the big questions for ourselves.
I've learned to listen for the echo of small answers.
My father taught me that science was the puzzle play of God, that the mysteries and theories of all creation were understood in levels of revelation, degrees of understanding. There was no wrong answer, but there were inadequate questions. The scientific path to God, my father believed, was the pursuit of "Why?"
I grew from a child to a young woman, and the question "Why?" seesawed for dominance within my life with the bleakness of "Oh well." Short on answers but long on questions, I learned to protect myself, to avoid the complicated detours in favor of more well-traveled paths. For me, these paths were particularly barren in matters of the heart. Dating the guy sitting next to me in class, on the subway, in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, I encountered a profound lack of imagination and magic.
Needless to say, I made a pretty good hash of things learning about love. I know now that first loves are scooped from reflecting pools, mirroring back to us, as the cool waters revealed to Narcissus, how greatly we yearn to perceive ourselves as lovable. The self, in its innocent quest to survive, takes no prisoners. I think back to the sweet high school boyfriend who just seemed to like me, the pothead intellectual in college whose sense of independence taught me to think for myself, the business graduate student from Wyoming who stepped in and kept the world steady after my father died. What was wrong with me? Why were they all so good and so not right?
Eventually I constructed a layered exoskeleton, a coral reef instead of a life. The structure was there, but the essence was missing.
Quintessence: the essence of a thing in its purest and most concentrated form. Quinte essence. The fifth and highest element in an ancient and medieval philosophy that permeates all nature and is the substance composing the celestial bodies. Stars are not quintessence, but space, believe the physicists, must be. Quintessence, like faith, remains unproven: a deductive belief. A scientific theory suspended between the idea of dark energy, the static glue thought to be three-quarters of the universe, and dark matter, the inevitable clump and form of structure within these fields. Quintessence was the possibility of spark, dynamic vibration suspended at varying levels within time and space.
The smallest bombardment might jostle us from lax energy to subtle vibration. Possibility was everywhere.
Possibility dipped me over his arm last night on the salsa floor, requested one room key for two, snapped my thong as I brushed my teeth at the sink.
Bronzed and athletic in pressed khakis and a white shirt unbuttoned at the neck, Ken waved over a cab. Brazilian conga music spilled out of the open windows as the Land Rover pulled over to the curb. Ken lifted our bags into the taxi and we tumbled in, reaching for sunglasses against the noontime glare.
"Good-bye Rio." I smiled back through the palm avenues of the Intercontinental Hotel as the taxi pulled away from the curb.
"Where to now?" I asked. I really didn't know. This was the kind of mystery I loved best.
"Argentina." Ken smiled, in his dark shades every inch the movie star.
"What's in Argentina?"
In the summer of 1987, the year before I met Ken, I returned home to visit with my mother on her small farm in the Palouse Hills of eastern Washington. I flew in from Washington, D.C., on the red-eye, taking a long weekend away from my management analyst work at the State Department.
An ache had settled into my life in the capitol city. I felt confused and uncertain about the goals I had set out vigorously to achieve and now found so wanting. I had a career in the government, traveled the world, and lived with a hole in the center of my being that ambition could not fill. My instincts were in disarray. Life felt tenuous. I wanted something, a nameless something, that mattered. What was central to work, to life, to love?
Unraveling these threads backward, I began to think about my childhood.
Seeking comfort or something like wisdom from the woman who was the only constant in my life, I left behind Washington, D.C.'s sweltering humidity, and with it my naive failures navigating bureau politics and the ex-boyfriend who would rather drink than be with me. I would visit with my mother and try to forget that I could see every exact day of my unfolding life from where I stood today.
I felt a fierce loyalty to my mother, but she was also my central conundrum, a question with a conjectural answer. The terrain between us was defined by conflict and tumultuous consequence. We lived in a constant state of one influencing the other, bound by the act of observation and intention. I admired her but could not comprehend her reasoning. I rebelled from her law but sought her approval.
The farm marked the great divide in the timeline of my childhood. What formed me, and what drove me away. It had been several months since my last visit, on the somber occasion of my grandfather's funeral. My grandfather had been the cornerstone of strength in our family, his rich Scottish laugh the joyous bell tone of our happiest family gatherings. His decline, in the wake of burying my grandmother, had clearly been a very great burden for my mom. She lived for her parents; one of the oddities of her nature I never fully understood. Most people lived forward through their lives, growing and changing in the company of their spouses and children, celebrating the next generation of grandchildren to come. My mother lived backward. Childhood was the only song in her ear. Her parents were her identity, her sense of security.
We are autochthonous, formed of the familial earth. Was my mother becoming my sense of security?
In my child's eye, my mother opened and closed the curtain on love. Watching her, I observed what it meant to be married and happy, what it meant to be married and not, and what it meant to be alone, living with something in between. I learned that good things that came together might also break apart, and that the joy of loving might ultimately total less than the pain left behind.
My mother held the lead role in her own two-part play. Act I Mom was the Beautiful Blonde swirling on the arm of her officer, my dad. There were cocktail parties and muggy summer evenings. Backyard barbecues I watched in shorts and flip-flops from the top step of any of an endless succession of look-alike bungalows on military air force bases. Young and energetic, Mom organized the endless military relocations, aced real estate, packed and unpacked her wedding china. Life was both adventurous and magical. I remember as a child of four or five, watching my parents ready to leave for a Christmas ball. Enchanted, I reached up to touch the stiff undernetting of my mother's scarlet cocktail dress, thrilled at the sparkling rhinestones on her red high heels. She had her hand curled around my father's arm, dark and handsome in his uniform, smelling of Old Spice. Act I Mom seemed always to be laughing.
The last move my mother organized for the family, the last house she shipped boxes to, was here, the home in eastern Washington. A prolonged decoupling had occurred in my parents' lives somewhere between the Officers Club and the farm: My father's drinking worsened, initiating a period of forced smiles and declined social invitations, late-night arguments in the basement family room on the other side of my bedroom wall. Moving back west from suburban Maryland and buying the farm represented the last effort my parents made to save their marriage.
At eight I didn't comprehend what was happening, but it was clear something was. The magic was splintering. I responded as any child might, I suppose. I loaded up the red wagon with my white, long-eared stuffed dog and a box of Cheerios and ran away. When my father caught up with me three blocks from home, heading toward the highway, he bent down, took the handle of the wagon away, and asked, "Where were you going, out here like this?"
Back to how we were before, I remember thinking.
Eventually my younger brother, Tim, and little Judy were to follow my example. It wasn't until the State Patrol knocked on our door, informing my parents they had picked up Tim and Judy walking along the Interstate, that the red wagon was decommissioned.
An American landed on the moon; Richard Nixon resigned.
Act II Mom emerged, the Lady Rancher. Gone were the golf clubs, the party dresses. In their place a collection of motley horses and whitewashed wooden jumps hammered together by my father, a riding ring of soft spring mud. Each year, orphaned lambs to be bottle-nursed were brought down by the neighboring farmer, the lambs soon dead of milk disease. Each lamb was a love affair, each death inconsolable. Stray dogs wandered to the house and seemed to stay, and just as unpredictably vanished the nights the coyotes hunted. The beginnings and endings of connection felt rough and random.
My father slid deeper away. Somewhere in the military, between Greenland and the Pentagon, his quiet nature had dulled into a vodka haze. The detox centers failed and the last-ditch move to eastern Washington, from military to academic civilian life, seemed to remove what vestiges of his self-discipline remained. What my mother demanded my father do for love became what disillusionment did to love. The fighting between my parents grew harsher, and the empty hills only magnified our isolation. There were four of us after Helen was born, and what as children we might have wanted or needed fell away. We were casualties of war.
Within two years, my father was gone. The ensuing divorce battle crossed six states, the bitterness vitriolic and invasive. A teenager, I saw that love could fail, and even within families, bludgeon hearts. Visitations, loyalties, even the mention of my father's name, became conflicts. Tim and Judy, and Helen starting kindergarten, were moved to another school district. I took the bus alone to the old school where "everybody knew us."
My mother stopped answering the phone and answering questions. She worked strange small-town jobs, and of necessity, was often gone. At night, when I made dinner for the five of us, it was either fish sticks or a 49-cent tub of beef liver from the Safeway, fried crisp in a pan with white onions, rice with a dollop of margarine, and reconstituted dried milk, sometimes with the lumps still in it.
My younger siblings learned to love the farm, the apple tree, the orphaned animals. Tim, tall and sunburnt like the late summer wheat, made friends with the other farm-town boys, getting into fast cars and Star Trek and baseball. And although five years apart in age, Judy and Helen, leggy and freckled in matching pigtails, seemed identical in their love for the creatures that came to live in our barn.
My mother found the peace she craved, finally, in a life she commanded alone.
Excerpted from THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE © Copyright 2011 by Glenda Burgess. Reprinted with permission by Broadway. All rights reserved.