The nursing home on Corbin Place is an eighteen-story establishment of an uneven tawny tinge no one could have predicted, as the brick was originally an inconspicuous off-white. It’s the building in a state of flagrant maturity. No passerby is spared a shudder, to which the only antidote is actually entering the building on a regular basis. The interior anesthetizes. Squalor, I’ve learned, avalanches. I was hired when the slide had already begun, and didn’t complain. The employee schedule—daily baths, regular linen change—had come to serve the same confused function as the motivational quotes in the weight room of the Y, preaching over the bobbing heads of blubbery, post-menopausal women. The winter came, the summer came, winter, summer—after seven such rotations, a winter settled in that was unbearable. I am speaking of the winter that is going on right now, all around, and inside of us. For the first time in my life I made a decision—to take a vacation.
What really happened: my mother called me to supper. I wouldn’t have gone, but while speedwalking that morning she had taken a tumble. The terrain gets rough around the aquarium. She tripped over a jutting board, flew forward into a deformed garbage can, and together they met the ground. Such an event would usually give my mother a week’s dose of joy. It was a family trait, something she took pride in—a propensity to trip, over just about anything. The family thought too much, looked around too little. The family collected bruises, broken toes, swollen wrists, twisted ankles, and she collected the accounts as evidence to back the theory that we were too brainy to stay upright for long. But the contents of the garbage can had ended up all over my mother’s expensive sweatsuit. She sounded morally wounded.
I walked in and the door gasped in its hinges, the freshly painted ceiling said, What’s this? Look at yourself!
And Mama chimed in, Is it your goal to make sure I always have something to worry about? Orange-not-by-mistake wisps defied gravity over the crown of her head. Her housedress let slip to freedom a bouncy, tennis-ball-size nipple. Any sign of physical or spiritual injury went undetected. If anything she displayed an intensified vigor. We ate.
Are you okay? she said.
Fine. What are you looking at me like that?
You look odd, Rita, like something is wrong.
It’s not—not with me. Something might be wrong with you.
How’s the liver?
Good. And the potatoes are good. Everything is delicious.
You really think it’s me? she said and took the initial draw on her slender cigarette.
Yes. I’m doing great.
If so, can’t you just run a comb through your—
It takes ten seconds, she continued solemnly.
Ten seconds I don’t have.
So busy, are you?
I looked down into my food, which looked as if a chicken had been pecking at it.
Today I realized something, she said.
Uh-oh, I thought.
You’ve been working at this place for god knows how long, and you’ve never taken a vacation. This winter you should go away, take a good two weeks off.
Why? I said.
How can you ask why? A person who is doing great, who is normal, doesn’t ask why take a vacation. Because you can, to relax, be warm, think about what next.
To relax, Rita! It would only do you good . . .
Several years ago it had struck them as nothing short of a miracle. They marveled at my ability to hold a job, pay my electricity bill. I was praised for getting to work on time, eating regular meals, maintaining interpersonal relationships. The potential horrors loomed overhead. And they still loom now, I thought, but less vividly, less immediately. They’re forgetting. Now I’m just a nurse’s aide who once overcame some issues.
The refrigerator is where my mother hides food she considers ugly, like potato chips and peanut butter. Fruits and vegetables and cheeses and spreads are arranged in wicker baskets and employed to decorate the kitchen table and counter space. Pests abound, but don’t deter. Maybe this is somehow related to my mother’s tendency to hear phantom knocks and doorbells, to which she responds with an immediacy never lavished on someone present in the flesh, maybe not. In reaching for a scrotumlike plum my hand was slapped away. My mother looked at her own hand in shock, reddened, and tried to cover up her instinct by giving me a limp banana instead.
There are pockets of time at work when the more pressing duties are done, everyone is fed, their blood-pressure measured, and I hear my mother say, now is your opportunity to stand out, which can be done by bathing the seniors who aren’t yet stinking into the hall (an extra rinse wouldn’t do a single one of them any harm), restocking supplies, or asking Elaine, the gaunt frantic manager, what I can do (perhaps, god forbid, learn a new task), but I hide in the invalid’s bathroom stall, pull out a book and choose a sentence to scrub with my eyes, or walk back and forth through the hall as if with purpose. That’s what I was doing, speedwalking on the particularly dire third floor because everyone needs their exercise when I passed Elaine, mumbled a disgruntled greeting, and went on with such urgency it was as if I’d been summoned to someone’s deathbed. But at the end of the hall I just rounded the corner and entered the staircase. There I sat and began to stretch my hamstrings. The door swung open, Elaine entered, I jerked, she gasped. You scared me, she said.
I told her that I intended to go on vacation, for ten days, at the end of February. She seemed happy for me, and politely inquired where I’d be going. Central America, I said. Oh wow, she replied dully. Mainly to study birds, I elaborated. Her airtight face rearranged so that all the closed doors were now ajar, letting in a pleasant breeze and light. She hadn’t known I was interested in birds.
Since it’s often the case that you are the last to be informed of your own sensibilities, it isn’t wise to dispose too readily of spewed nonsense, which can potentially contain important clues. As soon as I got home I looked into the heart of the matter, and quickly got lost in the facts. There are birding hotspots. There are deals, options, hotels. Meals are occasionally included. There are birding tours and birding vacations and birding packages. Bird, it appears, is a tempting concept for many. Of all creatures, the bird is the most more than itself. Its biology makes use of the language of dreams. It flies and sings; there are seemingly infinite varieties, beautiful colors, impossible patterns, and even more implausible quirks. What are feathers? What are finches and eagles and swans in a world of garbage dumps, drive-thrus, politicians?
A bird is neat. Loving birds is like taking a vacuum to the inside of your head. Love birds and suddenly your brain is squeaky clean—there’s no muddle, mush, dust balls. The consummation of this love is bird watching. You buy the perfect trail shoes, sweat-wicking hat with neck flap, binoculars, and set off on an expedition, with a group and guide. You’re still an amateur. At first you’re surprised by your own avid interest. Birds are fascinating. Yes, this was just the right idea. Then, as the guide drones about ecological niches, your mind wanders. Bad mind! After hours and hours you see a rare wing disappear, hear an antiphonal something or other—success! Sleep comes, the next day comes, you’re in a healthy routine, you’ve acquired a ruddy glow. You are now officially Bird-lover. But why is the guide so utterly a bird-lover? It’s okay—give it fifteen years, you can be a guide. People will say about you: midlife, she gave up everything, day job, NYC apartment, and became singularly focused on birds, authoring three books, two ornithological, one memoir. You believe only in the birds you’ve seen or read about. There is no elusive, rumored to exist yet never seen species for which you are persistently, most say madly, searching. You keep to what is known, and manage to find a comfortable place for yourself in it.
The truth, of course, is that bird watching requires a willed deafness to the inherent tragedy—that bird is good in theory, not practice. It is a vulgar hobby. You must deceive yourself continually. You will never be a bird. You won’t live in the treetops or soar over cliffs or be a graceful message from the gods. Nor will you ever decode that message. It will remain locked and you will go about trying to unlock it in the most superficial ways.
No, I would not be pressured into an impulse buy, some sort of package—spend ten days with agile, life-affirming senior citizens, learn a few bird-calls, eat unlimited quantities of mush, and pay how much for the experience. An epiphany! Why not drop the pretenses and go for an all-inclusive resort in Mexico? But why Mexico? Why not some beautiful island? The prices for islands were different. Did I need that pinch of class? I suddenly imagined very clearly that the sand in Mexico was of an uneven tawny tinge, and shuddered. On my classy island, however, the sand was as white as the enamel of an angel. Pebble beaches or shingle beaches or gravel or plain old sand? Painful pebble . . . but clean pebble. Sand in my scalp and crotch! And what about wild beaches, without “the trappings of modernity”? Swimming in the ocean damages hair, when really, I already have so little going for me.
A single woman on vacation, in a big floppy hat and dress that beheads the knees, a shock of white calves, mannish gait, endearingly plump, puttering around aimlessly, but when she at last gathers the momentum to awkwardly strip by the pool her figure is equal parts sturdy and soft, with an invisible, nature-made corset. That she might be sexy throws everything off-kilter—luckily, her face under that floppy hat is just goofy enough, fleshy nose that instantly reddens, hint of mustache…and yet those plump, top-heavy lips. She must be reevaluated from every angle, at different times of day. The quality of light is capable of changing her whole story. She eats three meals a day, overuses utensils, chews deliberately.
Well. That’s not me. I won’t find the rhythm. On the seventh day I’ll finally get everything right, hat, calves, knife, but when it comes time for sleep I’ll peel the sunburned skin off my face, succumb to the vending machine, dry-heave on a pillow of candy-wrappers. The eighth day will be worse than the first. My reputation at the resort will be ruined. I’ll think everyone is watching and ridiculing me, in the dining room, by the pool, when in reality no one is, I’ll tell myself, you are such an egotist, I’ll tell myself, but of course they really are. People on vacation are bored savage. Families have nothing to talk about so they pluck apart unwitting single women. But this is my one vacation! It’s been years. I must make the most of this. The winter rages on every corner. I’ve never been philosophical enough to withstand the bare trees, and as a character trait I’ll take any shortcut to misery.
Weeks passed. I’d hesitated too long, then decided that I thought I’d hesitated too long too early, when there was still time. Mistakes accumulate by domino effect. February was a quick slap of a month, intended to bring you to your senses.