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Election-Week Thoughts and Goodbyes

I nod. Because I have no words to shape this catastrophe. For over 48 hours, now, Leonard Cohen’s been gone. That’s what they say, the radio-voices, though the story’s only breaking today. And just that fast—one moment I know nothing, the next I understand too well—another death climbs beneath my skin and I stop short as I’m walking from kitchen to dining room, coffee splashing over the lip of my mug, my breath knocked from my chest, just punched, so the bruises are already rising black and blue.

Leonard Cohen, fierce and beautiful. Steven and I saw him perform only four years ago. Cohen with his voice. Capitalize it—his Voice. Like pointy stones tumbled in molasses. With his gentleman’s hat, which he tipped to every woman in the audience while he sang I’m Your Man, and we all felt it behind our eyes, in the low ache in our bellies—never mind Cohen was in his late 70s at the time. And in the historic Fox Theater in Midtown Detroit, I leaned over in my seat, whispered in Steven’s ear. Is it wrong I want to sleep with that man?
Is it wrong I do too? replied Steven.

 

Democracy (Nov 26, 2012)

Best damn show I’ve ever seen. Never mind I’d burned myself earlier that day, on stove or teakettle—can’t remember which, doesn’t matter. And the heart-shaped blister formed and popped in the space of an hour so my palm, raw and red by the time Cohen reached for the microphone, throbbed in rhythm to the drums, to the bottomless grumble of his words. How he stalked the stage like a leopard, like it couldn’t contain him and we all knew it. Then he dropped to his knees, making of himself an offering—giving himself to us whole. So when he ended the show with Democracy is Coming to the USA—because Obama just got reelected—because everybody knows Leonard Cohen’s politics—we all, all the mothers and grandpas and hipsters in the audience, we all got to our feet and swayed. We all sang along.

 

Political yard signs (Nov 9, 2016)

The pointed metal stakes, hard plastic posters affixed atop them. How shiny and hopeful they seemed when I first lugged them home from campaign headquarters. Put ’em in the ground! I sing-songed to Steven.
On it, he sing-songed in return. 

To the recycling bin for them. Separate stakes from signs and shove everything in the can willy-nilly. Ignore impulse to just leave them where they are, stabbed into the leaf-covered dirt of my yard—my fuck you to any passersby who might be gloating. Anyway, I live in Detroit. Most cars zooming past my pretty house belong to people who live here also, so they’re probably stressed out like me, cursing the moonlight and whatnot. Mind you, lots of my neighbors—already dispirited, exhausted from working two and three jobs to get by—didn’t bother to vote in any case. So I’m angry at them, too.

Never mind my poor efforts at volunteering for the Clinton campaign, the phone calls I made, my trudging door-to-door—past houses burned and gone so I had to skip those, to houses filled with old ladies in dirty housecoats, with young families. With moms and their furious, teenaged sons—or maybe they’re just frightened. Half-crumbled houses, cracked windows held together with duct tape. Brick houses and colonials with late fall flowers blasting from planters and window boxes in the midst of this warmer-than-usual autumn. Everybody promising to come out on election day. Of course, they say. Of course we’ll be there, it’s so awfully important.

But never mind. What’s done is done. In every moment, peace is a choice—I repeat the mantra I read somewhere, when I can quit singing Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love for a moment or two. All the words swirling round and round in my head like crumpled leaves tossed by the wind.

 

Supermoon (Nov 13, 2016)

Nasty old sack of rock! Coming to visit this month with more than its usual gusto, approaching so close we all cringe a little and have to shade our eyes when we step outside at dusk. How it tempts the tides that love it so, lifting them to record heights. Never mind the descent to come. Such buyer’s remorse is to be expected.

Biggest moon we’ll see in decades, say the meteorologists. Closest it’s been since 1948, 30% brighter than normal. True, true, true. 

So what of us humans? Leather suitcases we are, packed to the brim with water—everyone sloshing about the place. Of course that enormous moon is making us wacky, more than a little unbalanced. Of course we’re making weird choices in the days leading up to its full, terrible splendor, as it waxes across the over-lit landscape—it stands to reason, doesn’t it?

Outlandish moon, huge as a cyclone, a whopping snow cone strutting across the black sky. Great, unblinking eye staring down, down, down.

 

Innocence (Nov 14, 2016)

Husband-Steven and I discuss the supermoon—the perigee full moon. This on the evening when it’s fattest. The final night that white beach ball dangles there in its full brilliance, jeering at us through the wide-open window. 

This is when Steven returns from his classroom, when I return from chores and school and daughter-schlepping. Steven says of his students: they were frantic. One girl swallowed 12 Tylenol and we had to rush her to the hospital. Another girl locked herself in the bathroom and screamed over and over that her vagina burned. None of us could calm her down. And the boy who threw the chair. All in one day!

I tell Steven about driving Woodward Avenue that morning, about the guy swerving beside me, how he wore earbuds and shouted into his phone while punching something onto a screen attached to his windshield. And all the while, his wipers on high, frantically swiping at nothing.

Was it raining where you were? asks Steven.

One little cloud overhead, and it was minding its own business, I say. Then I tell him about the three—three! I repeat—other drivers who cut me off that afternoon. How the last time I had to drive on the curb to avoid disaster. How I’ve been twitching like a hummingbird all day long. I tell him about the frantic emails from my students, about my auntie who just hung up on me. 

But you can’t blame the moon, says Daughter-Celia. Of all things, the moon must be innocent. Then she begins to weep, about midterms and the stress of being human. And she doesn’t stop until the entire family watches a rerun of Twin Peaks on Netflix.

So fuck you, Supermoon. Fuck you very much. You can’t leave soon enough for me.

 

Big brown spider (Nov 15, 2016)

The one I just murdered. After I felt it creeping across my foot in the early morning shadows, the barely-there prickle of eight thready legs fluttering against my skin. Me tottering beside my bed, not yet fully awake, shaking a little with the dreadful new day in this new America. Then the creeping, so I flick on the light and hop and kick, and the spider goes flying, lands in a heap across the room. Then my screaming, just a little, so Steven shouts up the stairs, what the hell?

It’s nothing, I reply, because I know Steven won’t be sympathetic. But the truth is I’m pissed off—I’m so often pissed off these days—because that spider broke our tacit agreement, the one I’ve made with all the minuscule wildlife inhabiting my house: stay out of my territory and I’ll leave you to your private intrigues. That means out of arms’ reach, far enough up the walls so I, with my progressively dodgy vision, can’t see more than dots and dashes against the white paint.

You sure? calls Steven, while I stand there watching this benign-to-me creature who nonetheless sets my bones shuddering. Watch as it stumbles upright, shake itself off, and comes tiptoeing back in my direction. Hell no, I say, and scoop it into a tissue, go to flush it. 

Instead I squeeze, just hard enough, it turns out. So when I open the tissue, the spider falls to my feet in bits. Legs over here, still waving wildly at the world, round belly over there, half smashed, oozing onto the floor. It’s hardly the first spider I’ve killed, but still, I find myself apologizing as I wipe at the spider-juice, try to gather the legs now floating lose from the frame, scattering at my breath. I’m sorry, I say to the carcass. I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean for this to happen.

 

Man on the moon (Nov 15, 2016)

Do you see him? asks Daughter-Celia as we plod to the car, Celia lugging her 400 pound backpack. It’s still early morning, still dark, two hours after the spider, which Celia slept through. We’re standing in the driveway squinting upward at the finally-dwindling spotlight that is the perigee moon. This on a Tuesday, a week after disaster. Last day I’m letting myself bathe in that rage and despair. Before I figure out how to sidle through this divided, this broken America. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. The truth is, I don’t want to get over it, don’t want to squander the vigor of my fury, my indignation. What, after all, is left for me then?
I’m not sure what I’m looking for, I say. Honestly, I’ve never really known.
Yeah, says Celia. I think I see it wrong, anyway. I’ve been staring at moons since I was little, and I’ve never found the jolly old man everybody talks about.
What do you see, I ask.
I can make out a face, but it’s dismayed, anguished.
Ooh. Good words, I say.
Celia nods. Gets back to her point. It’s all wide eyes, gaping mouth. Like he’s horrified at what’s happening below him.
I squint some more. Yes, I can see that. Maybe he’s just surprised?
Maybe, says Celia. Maybe that’s it, after all.

 

Promises promises (Nov 7, 2016)

This is before. Before the death, the spider, the vote. The moon is still plumping above everyone’s heads, not yet reached the summit of its awful luster. And I’m on a mission, leaflets in hand. I clomp up and down porch steps in my shiny Doc Martens, smile stitched wide into my cheeks. You gotta stay cheerful, says Fellow-Canvasser-Vaneequa who’s been at this far longer than I. No one wants to see your worry.
Aren’t you scared, if it goes the wrong way? I ask.
Vaneequa shrugs. What’s the point? You do what you can, then you pick up the pieces.

Smiles all around then, until I reach the house of the angry man, beautiful man with tapered fingers and defined arm muscles I can’t help but notice when he comes to the door in his t-shirt. Man who looks me over, says, what are you doing in this neighborhood? And I don’t have to guess at what he means. He’s maybe 30, African-American. I’m white, middle-aged, Jewish. But of course, that last doesn’t show. I don’t think.
But it’s my neighborhood, too, I tell the man. I live just over there. And I point over my shoulder. In the University District. Just the other side of Livernois.
And when I go to pass him the leaflets—the voting guide and the comparison of candidates—Handsome-Man doesn’t bother to open his metal security door. I start to pass them through the bars, but he holds up a hand, says, they’re both the same, you know, and he points to the two faces atop the glossy cardboard, one of them scowling, the other smiling benignly. They both just want to send our boys to prison, to the grave.

I try to say no, that’s not right at all. Not exactly, anyway. But he cuts me off—he’s just livid. And I understand, because those boys are mine, too, at least a little. When they slouch into my classroom, when they play basketball in front of my driveway and I grumble under my breath, but still I wave as I roll by and tell them to be careful. It’s not the same, it’s not even very much, but still it’s something and I claim it—so I wish Angry-Man well and turn to leave.

Bet you didn’t expect this, he says before I take a step, his arms spread to encompass the half-empty block, the grey geese flapping and honking in the distance. Or perhaps he means his frustration, his refusal to agree with me, with the pamphlets still clutched in my hand.
I lift my shoulders, drop them like rocks. I don’t know what to say. Far above, a handful of puffy white clouds scratch-scratch across the sky, across the arc where, come nightfall, the feral moon will slot into place.
Don’t you be afraid of me, now, says the man.
Okay, I tell him. I promise.
Well, hallelujah, he says. A promise I can maybe believe. He smiles wide. Just maybe, he adds. Then he tells me his name, and I tell him mine, and he unlocks his security door and opens it just enough to reach out, shake my hand. So it’s a good day, and I claim it also. Even as nothing’s settled anywhere, not in all the world. 


Laura Bernstein-Machlay is an instructor of literature and creative writing at The College for Creative Studies in Detroit, MI where she also lives. Her poems and creative nonfiction have appeared in many journals including Concho River Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Oyez, Redivider, Soundings East, and upstreet. Her first full-length collection of creative-nonfiction essays, Travelers, is forthcoming in early 2018 from Sonder Press. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.