The Sandbox

Amnesia, Art, Healing


Chapter One


The first voices I hear are the Mean Team. 

More than one, less than twenty, they come to me as a group, a herd, a gaggle.  A team.  I hate the name they give themselves as much as I hated the name my mother gave my dog when I was growing up. So much so that I never used it. 

Imagine, I think, to never say your own dog’s name. 

I hate the name but then again I don’t have much choice in the matter. 

“Who are you?” I ask. 

Hell if we know. 

“You’re so loud, so mean. Are you the Mean Team?”

Yeah, sure. We like that. 

Immediately I don’t like it, regret ever suggested it. This stupid rhyming Mean Team, I’m left though to live with it. 

Mean Team. 

I cringe as I type it. But I leave it, let it be. Anything else would require thinking and there’s a rule I have which is to allow everything that’s happening. And what’s happening is that there’s a blizzard inside my head, a frantic snowstorm in words, sentences and paragraphs pelting down from voices I hear that are me, are mine—at least I am told—am reassured. And since there’s no editing of a snowstorm, no going back and telling it to be something else, to fall from the sky any differently, the Mean Team it is. 

The Mean Team tells me that I am nothing, that I am damaged and worthless and hopeless. They’re there when I’m doing the dishes, there before bed, loudest though right as I’m waking. It’s as if sleep is their meal, their fuel, where they gather up steam to berate me before dawn. 

The voices have no shape, no body. They come to me in words, large black typewriter font. They tap away, a ticker tape in my mind. 

Get up. Get the FUCK up. 

I lay in bed listening, watching the font. 

You piece of shit, get UP. Dyke. Fucking ugly DYKE.

I plead with them, argue back that I loved Pete, genuinely, I did 

Not anymore, asshole.

***

Eileen is my therapist. Twice now. 

In my first round with her I’m in my late thirties. I arrive depressed, in a long term relationship with one woman and openly having an affair with another. I feel unhappy enough that I’ve begun daydreaming while driving back from the gym about swallowing all the pills I can scare up in my medicine cabinet. I’d been given Eileen’s name years before I ever reached out to her. A friend of a friend pressed her card into my hand with the recommendation that she’d be perfect for me if I ever needed someone to talk to. I kept the business card and years later, old and tattered, I pulled it out of my wallet and called. 

“I was given your name by Jan,” I say over the phone to Eileen. And the next day I am in her office.

Round one she was in the cozy office, tiny and windowless, a little cave that contained us both and in which I felt a seamless connection and instant rapport. Never once from that first appointment was there room for question or pause. Never once would the though occur to me that   any other business card existed, that fate would have it any other way. Like a heart beat or breathing, being with Eileen in this cave was something vital that worked without thought or hesitation. Every Thursday at 5pm for five years I showed up and like magic, my life changes. I give the credit to the therapy though I have no idea how it worked. I’d come to Eileen in a relationship with a woman that was passionless and by the end of the therapy I’d fallen in love with a man. It’s completely new for me, something wholly unanticipated. But it’s real and good. Pete is someone I connect with on levels I didn’t think possible, someone, despite all the uprooting I’ll need to do in my life, I can not and do not walk away from. Wrenching as it ends up being, I choose to end my thirteen year relationship with my girlfriend to be with Pete. Shortly thereafter I end treatment. 

This time when I reach out to Eileen I’m in my fifties. And I don’t call. I email here. 

Her hints fall like 

Thick rain drops

I want her here—with me

I cannot stop

Poetry has gone off in my head, music too to which I need to write lyrics. And there’s prose, pages pouring out of me by the bucket. I’ve become obsessed, suddenly, with another woman and it’s erupting in words. 

She asked me out

She asked me in

Something’s coming

About to begin

I hope the obsession, which is painful and unrequited, will fade. But after three weeks it’s amplified. I capitulate and write to Eileen, asking if I can come see her. “Something’s come up,” I write. Eileen gets back close to immediately, thrilled to work together again. She adds that she loves my poem. 

“Or are these lyrics?” she asks. 

I’ve been obsessed with women before. Always painfully. Always blindly. The pain either fades relatively quickly or if it doesn’t its resolution for me is found in having an affair or some kind of romantic relationship. Since being with Pete I’ve not found myself obsessed until, suddenly, after being together with him for ten years, it happens. It feels stronger than anything I’ve felt before and comes with a disturbing dividing line, a specific date and moment in time between my loving Pete the way I had for years and my feeling not a thing. 

The date is January 9th. And my change of heart is the opposite of something that has been eroding, something corrosive in our relationship, insidious that finally erupts. Rather I’d loved Pete, solidly, fiercely that same morning. That morning, a decade in, I still could not have ever imagined wanting to be with anyone else. But by the late afternoon he will mean nothing to me. I’ll arrive back at the house from a hike, everything seemingly in tact, everything looking the same but my heart has shifted, moved out, taken its most precious belonging which is my love, packed up and moved elsewhere. 

There is nothing about the date except that the shift in me occurs then, nothing special around it except for what it becomes to me which is a line between what was and the beginning of something completely other. 

Pulling up to the curb to park with Stella in the back seat I wonder if she can sense the change, if a dog’s intelligent nose could smell this type of shift in a human’s state of mind. 

“Up, up, Stells,” I say when I open the back door out she goes. 

Stella is a Greyhound, long and sleek. I run my hand over her chest to feel her ribs, as if checking to make sure she’s there, that I’m not dreaming. I observe the same black saddle across her white back, the same large black circle that covers a portion of her tail and tail bone. I am steady on my feet, I don’t stumble on my way from the car to the front the door. But I feel a sense of wooziness as I enter the house. 

Inside, Pete looks up from the television and smiles big at me like he always does. 

“How was the hike?” he asks, turning down the volume with the remote. 

Stella trots over to him and pushes her head into his lap. She’s trained him on how exactly to rub her soft black ears, her greying face interrupted by a white stripe down the middle. There is no entryway into the house so I land in the living room where I focus on the paint color, peach, which never ended up feeling like the best choice once it was done. 

“Good. Overcast but then it cleared.”

The space we share is small. The the living room hosts a couch for two, an unused wood burning stove that sits on tiles and a large flat screen television. The kitchen is basic and old—everywhere in every way; pealing paint job, sticky drawers, outdated appliances. We have two equal and modestly sized bedrooms with a bathroom between them. 

It’s a simple grid divided into four. 

This winter has been rainy and our shoes are piled up near the tiling around the wood stove. Shoes, boots, some blankets and towels for Stella too.  

I stand in the living room trying to understand what is going on, this shift I feel in me, a faint and muffled whaling inside, half pain, half promise. It feels like a noise and an undercurrent that’s always been there but that I’m being forced to stop and notice. 

I look at Pete feeling disoriented, removed, transported somehow to a vantage point where I’m viewing my life with him from a distance, from an airplane, where I can make out a patchwork quilt of scenes and rituals stitched together from ten thousand feet: there’s Pete backing into the driveway with his truck and concrete pump hitched to it, Stella’s tail wagging wildly from inside the house in anticipation. There are our Sunday pizza nights in the city, the pasta Pete makes once a week for us. Baseball season March through September, the Christmas lights ritual where we pop our own popcorn and go for drives to see how everyone’s decorated their homes. We have his family and mine, this little grid house Pete keeps after his divorce, the small house I bought after moving away from my girlfriend that I’ve hung onto. And the decision we’ve made together, woven into this quilt, to not get married, to not turn what has been so special and organic and unexpected into something ordinary and manufactured. 

Pete’s laid out the newspaper on the coffee table in front of him, pen in hand to start working the Sodoku. He pats the beige couch, a request for me to come sit down. But I’m frozen, stuck between the space between the front door and the couch.

For ten years, nearly every night I’ve rested my feet on Pete’s lap right on this couch, usually falling asleep while he watches television. But I won’t—can’t—walk over there. Pete looks just like he did that morning, burly, green-eyed, strong. Nothing has changed between when he kissed both my cheeks and left the house for a job. But he feels like a stranger to me now, three feet and a thousand miles away both. 

“I’m gonna check email,” I look away, distracted. 

I go into the bedroom and grab my laptop. I locate my old therapy document. I’d written one hundred fifty pages in the five years worth of Thursdays I’d seen Eileen. 

I begin again on page one hundred fifty one. 

I want to brush her hair

My hands against all that’s bare

Three weeks after this first entry I’ll be back in treatment. 

I will start hearing voices screaming in my head a few months after that. 

***

Mara is objectively beautiful. She has long thick brown hair, dark eyebrows, symmetrical features—dark eyes too. She looks like Frida Kahlo, I think. And when I’m eventually invited to her house I see knick knacks, magnets, post cards—gifts with images of Frida Kahlo on them and I conclude I’m not alone in my assessment. Mara is the woman I become obsessed with, a stranger to me who will become, after our second hike together in the hills, suddenly and in force its opposite.  Stella—walking Stella—will become my excuse for seeing Mara, rain or shine. Mostly, this winter, it will be been rain. 

“Out into another downpour?” Pete raises an eyebrow from the beige couch. 

Mara was someone with whom I crossed paths during a long battle to save a local park, to preserve it for play and for aesthetics. Saving the park was something my heart told me—compelled me—to do. For the first time in my life, never once having felt a political or activist bone my body, I couldn’t look nor walk away. This park had no voice and everything inside me was on high alert to give it one. 

Four years later and over two thousand concerned neighbors who’d written letters gathered up into a database on my laptop and sent to city hall, the park was saved. I emailed everyone, all twenty two hundred people to let them know. Mara was one of those names in the database, someone I’d met in person along the way at meetings too. Mostly though she was a stranger, a woman I didn’t know who, after getting my last email, reached out and asked if I’d like to go for a drink or a coffee. 

“Or maybe you’d like to take a walk?” she asked. 

Not usually that excited about making new friends, I was feeling untethered. Without the park to work on I was at a loss, wondering why I took it on to begin with, where I should go next. I’d added the park work to my usual schedule that included operating my own small internet business; I’d made room for the park, had shifted priorities, had fit it all in. Now, with the park saved, I felt the space I’d created for it filled with emptiness and question marks. I was feeling at loose ends, in between things and something inside me, the same insistent force that pushed for me to give this park a voice and to save it, pushed again.

Say yes. 

“A walk sounds nice,” I email back. “My dog Stella could use a hike in the hills.” 

I suggest a trailhead, one I’ve hiked and run a thousand times, one I know so well the views have become like wallpaper, background to the conversations I focus on. 

It’s just a new year when we meet the first time and the afternoon feels stale to me, the way January always feels for me, intimidating with all the blank calendar pages in front of you, daring you to fill the days and months. Someone at some point said to me that there’s nothing like a new year, and I am completely in awe of a perspective so different from mine. 

“Do you like being a pediatrician?” I ask Mara as we walk up our first steep incline. 

“I do,” she says. 

“Is it the kids? The patients?” 

“Yeah. But I’m a hospitalist. I work shifts versus patients, so I usually don’t stay with any one patient for long.” 

“Which kind of shift do you like most?” I continue. 

“Not the night shifts, not the doubles.” 

“How so?”

The questioning continues like this the whole way and Mara likes my curiosity, the stance I usually take which is to interview people, to want to know more and more. It’s genuine; I like to get lost in someone else’s life, how it feels to live it, to be them, what the little room Mara sleeps in on an overnight looks and feels like, so I ask questions and with the answers I create a place for me to go to, to escape to. I ask about where Mara went to med school, where she’s from. Brothers, sisters, places lived. I find out her mother late in life became a lawyer, that her father who’s deceased was a psychiatrist. Up and down the wet green hills I gather information where Mara gathers none. If this walk is a test to see if this will be a two sided relationship, a fair give-and-take, by all counts it signals failure. Yet at the end of it, together we agree to schedule another.  And just two days later the three of us are back at the same trailhead, Stella happily prancing in and out of deep puddles where the rutted trails have caught the morning’s rain water. During this second hike, like the first, I ask questions and gather information. I also question silently why I’m doing this, why I’ve said yes twice. Why I’m here. 

I look down at my boots, one foot in front of the other while at the same time listening to Mara. As we cover the miles I absorb the information I am hearing, but I’m also becoming more sensitized, more attuned to the light int he sky and how the cloudy weather is making me feel. “I love to dance but my back injury sidelined me for nine months..” I am listening to Mara but also deciding that I love the rainy weather and am excited by a forecast that’s calling for lots more of it. I notice the grey clouds ready to burst, the sun blocked by the dark clouds and I think about the way the wildflowers, the lupin and poppies will soak up all the rain, how they’ll explode in a chorus of purple and orange song the minute we get a warm spell. 

“I’ve rejoined a group though and I try to get there as much as I can,” Mara continues about her tango dancing. Left and right, I follow my feet as they walk, and I decide I like this feeling, listening to Mara and falling in love with the idea of rain, the mud on Stella’s paws, the crackling of thunder that sometimes happens. 

“How’s the schedule looking?” I ask when we’re done, as I’m getting Stella back into the car. I already have an idea because she’s told me that it’s tight and varies wildly. But I’m curious to see if there’s room for me, if my listening skills are appreciated. 

“Free all of early next week,” Mara says. 

This is a game that feels vaguely familiar, one I recall being good at long ago. And I like how winning it makes me feel. 

“Another hike then?” I ask.

“That’d be lovely.” 

Mara smiles, catches my eye and my stomach suddenly registers a kind of ancient happiness and hope I’d not felt in so long it hurts to be reminded. Standing next to her car I notice her skin in the late afternoon, a complicated familiar yellow undertone that feels familiar. Her brown eyes, the color and distance between them and her brows, whatever number of millimeters that is, feels familiar as well. 

“Bye bye,” Mara says, reaching into the back seat of my car to pet Stella, talking to her in a way I imagine she does to the children she sees at the hospital. “See you next week.” 

For a few moments I stand in the parking lot. The winter cold and rain has scared off most other hikers so there’s only a few other cars. Mara leaves quickly and I spend some time knocking mud off my boots, looking around as I chip away. The clouds we had during the hike are starting to clear and the sun is now peaking out. I feel confused by the change, stirred up, pressured to decide but unable to choose which I prefer; rain or dry, clouds or sun. 

Finally I get in the car. The house isn’t far away, less than a ten minute drive. But it happens then, in between the park’s parking lot and the house. If I’d known to look at a clock I could have reported the exact time. But I didn’t know.

Driving down the hill I glance in the rearview mirror to see Stella sitting up tall in the back seat. I get a glimpse of the sun lower than it was when I left the park. There’s plenty to take in, to notice around me; a grocery store, apartment buildings, a eucalyptus grove, wet roads now half dried. But the backdrop to everything is the sky, blue and grey and stained with uneven high clouds. The sun is giving up on the day I decide and I absorb the melancholy of the moment.

It is then that I start to feel a distinct tugging at my heart then a rushing in like a tsunami. I feel pangs of desire and pain and longing for that I don’t understand but that over take me. I ache for Mara, instantly and insistently in need of her.

And Pete, like a village on the shore of my life beforehand, will be washed away.