It often takes me a long time to finish a project, but I rarely just let work go. Below is an excerpt from the beginning of a novel I’ve be working on for two years. It feels like it’s been so long since I started this story that “working on it” is just a part of my identity. The story wants to be told, but Holy Hell, what a struggle…
There’s more than one way to kill a eucalyptus tree.
I guess the method you choose just depends on how pissed off you are at the moment. When I’m not in a hurry, I use a chainsaw. The upside is, a chainsaw looks and feels powerful and dangerous. You want to feel like a badass? This will get you at least halfway there. The downside is, a chainsaw is actually powerful and dangerous. By the time I get on the safety goggles, and the breathing mask, the gloves, the ear plugs, and the steel toed work boots, it feels like I’ve put in a lot of effort already. Maybe I don’t even cut down anything. I just crack open a beer and rev the chainsaw and stare at the tree. I imagine it staring back at me.
Sometimes, an ax feels right. I’ll chop until I’m tired enough to go to sleep without ruminating too hard or too long or taking any pills. Other times, I can hack away until my hands are covered in blisters. Nothing comes down but my mood. I can’t close my eyes, to see what’s behind them. I lay there in bed, awake all night and remember against my will.
When I’m feeling lazy or plain ornery, I just set the trees on fire.
I try to think deep, cleansing thoughts about the nature of life and death and spirituality and shit like that, as I watch the flames catch and climb. I put in my head phones and listen to old dharma talks recorded at the Zen Center when dharma talks were a thing that happened. Before – it might have been frightening, trying to get a flame to start. The fire could get out-of-control, or blaze up fast, fill my lungs with smoke, and burn me to a crisp.
Maybe I have attained enlightenment because now I can light whole swaths of grove without even a touch of nerves.
Being alive is scary. I accept that now.
You see, in the end, it is all about acceptance.
After breaking into the local Big Box Books and browsing the self-help section for a few days, I have also come to accept that I am going through the stages of grief.
Apparently, there are five or ten or many depending on the book and its author. Most of the books describe grief as something you walk through from beginning to end, from utter loss and destruction to blissful acceptance.
If you keep walking, you will evolve from a crying, broken mess of a woman who can’t get out of bed or bathe herself into someone who can both look and truly be thoughtful and peaceful – like a real-to-life version of an actor in a yogurt commercial — and you will even, one day, one day, one day, be able to breathe deeply without choking, and you will be able to see with great and wise objectivity that it was a hard journey but now: everything is okay!
Fuck those books, and fuck those fucking stages.
Grief isn’t a walk in a park. It’s a spinning wheel, and you just dance along on its edge. You think you get to its end only to find its beginning again. I used to think I’d get some peace watching those old eucalyptus go up in flames, but lately I just feel nothing. I wonder if I’ll be doing this dance forever?
They say the land that used to be the Presidio before it was the Presidio was all dune and flowers and grass. The sun shined down. The wind whipped and wailed up from the ocean driving sand through the atmosphere in silicate sprays. It was like that for thousands, maybe millions of years.
In the 1880s, when the military came, it planted the trees, eucalyptus, Cyprus, and pine in long, straight human lines not unlike those of the grave markers lined up row-upon-row in the cemetery it built overlooking the bay. The land, once nude, was clothed in dark and cold. Fog clung to the trees. Their roots held down the loose sand. The driving wind stopped against their limbs. The whole undertaking was considered a great feat of man.
Years later, the government or some do-good environmental protection group marked all the eucalyptus – every damn last one of those ratty blue gums – with aluminum tags. Each tree had its own number and was logged in a database connected to a satellite up in outer space. If you were bored at your office job or trying to fill the dreadful quiet and lonely moments between digital interpersonal interactions, if you had run out of things to buy or things to report to your friends and strangers about things you ate or shat out or how well your succulent collection was doing or how great your parking karma was or that asshole on BART who kept shoving her elbow in your face, for something to do, you could look any one of those trees up by number and find an image of it online.
Why? I do not know what for.
Back then, it meant something just to catalogue the position of plants. There was time to do all sorts of things like that, and someone must have made a good living collecting the data from trees – which one twisted this way or that way in the breeze, how much scrap bark per annum each dropped on the earth – or someone had convinced someone else with some kind of money that more money could be made from collecting whatever data those trees were producing.
The average lifespan of a blue gum eucalyptus in San Francisco is about sixty to one hundred years. Some people say they live a lot longer, hundreds of years more. I know this because I read about it on the Internet. All those facts still exist there in perpetuity, alongside all those pictures you uploaded to your profiles and that dumb journal you kept about your middle school drama and your period starting and some anime character you really, really wanted to bang, not thinking anyone was ever going to read about it and hold it against you when you went looking for a job at thirty-five.
When the world ended, we – the people who were still alive – decided those stupid things were still important, maybe they were the most important, so the servers will run at maintenance, and they’ll keep running.
Even now, if you want to look up the position of a tree planted in the Presidio by someone a long time ago, you can.
However, you might not be able to find it anymore, if you visit IRL, because I plan to uproot every last one of those abominable stinky, sheddy, bitches right out of Mother Earth with my own two small hands.
Before I take down a tree, I make sure to strip it of its tag.
I have a whole collection of those things now.
At first, I kept the tags I had gathered, and I stowed in the wooden jewelry box Alan gave me when we first started dating. He found it at a thrift shop in the Mission, and we used to go back there each year on our anniversary to look for treasures. On those nights, no matter what our year had been like, no matter if we loved each other more or less, or fought or took each other for granted, I would feel this deep crush on Alan, something so sweet, it almost made my teeth hurt, like the first time I knew we would be together, which was the first time we met.
I had always thought I would end up with some patchouli scented Burner who liked to do yoga and talk about feelings, and that we would spend an era compassionately tolerating each other before splitting up. I had counted on being a sassy old divorcee pretty much since middle school.
Don’t ask me why. It was just a gut feeling. All my childhood fantasies of later life starred me alone. Most of my boyfriends up until Alan had been a variation on a theme, putting me well on the path to spinsterhood.
I ate a lot of quinoa and kale salad on my way to him.
We met at one of my readings. Alan wasn’t a fan of my column, Travel for Misanthropes, which ran weekly in the SF Star. He just happened to wander into Pages bookstore as the event was starting. Later, he told me, he never went to places like that and not for “culture-type things,” but he needed to kill some time before meeting a visiting friend at one of Emeryville’s big dumb safari themed tourist restaurants.
Listening to me read excerpts from the column and recount anecdotes about lonely travel moments to a small crowd of polite middle age readers under the bright glaring lights of Big Box Books must have been preferential to spending an hour sitting beneath a giant animatronic elephant wearing a monocle and sipping on overpriced, watered down drinks with names like Bikini Bourbon and Tiger Tonic.
I wouldn’t have been caught dead browsing in a place like that either. You could not have paid me to buy a book there, but the paper had set it up. It was the best regular writing gig I had ever had. I went without complaint, but with the conviction that I shouldn’t try too hard. I swear, if I had heard another small bookstore was closing, the personal guilt of it would have killed me. I hadn’t bothered with make-up, and I noticed the soup stain on the cuff of my wrinkled dress only at the last minute before going on.
It was a long time ago. I look different — especially after all the stress of the world’s ending thinned me out, back to the weight of my youth and then past it to someplace glamorous and tiny on the scale. In the old days, when there were people around to notice, I would have allowed myself to smile; there would have been a delicious thrill of accomplishment when I saw the number – though the mirror-me might have said, There’s still some more to lose. Most women’s mirror-selves had something like that to say in those days.
Now mirror-me says, eat something.
Eradicating a once much beloved forest has muscled me up, and I need to remember to feed those muscles, no matter what I feel. You’re strong, Maria. I say back to mirror-me. Maybe in the best shape of your life. But some things remain the same: I’m short, thin on top, small breasted, with round hips and thick thighs. My skin, always closer to my father’s dark complexion, has darkened more with the sun. My eyes are still the same boring brown; I guess eyes don’t change. My hair is still straight and the same boring brown as my eyes — though I cut it short for convenience sake.
There’s more gray. If my friends were around, they would say it was stress. I think it’s because I’m getting old. I’ll be forty-one in a few weeks. If my friends were here, they would celebrate with me. I’d buy a new dress. I’d buy a box of dye. Now I can just go take one from one of the empty pharmacies. There are some rules, but no one cares about boxes of dye. No one cares about gray hair, either. I’ll leave it as it is.
My love story is pedestrian.
Alan was there by coincidence. He was wasting time when we all still had so much time left to waste, and I was there, reading some stories from my column about places I had been, places I had been mostly alone, seeking aloneness, looking for solitude even surrounded by people, when now, no matter where you go, you can find solitude anywhere. It’s the company of other humans that’s a lot rarer.
Alan had stopped to listen, and I noticed him there, standing in the back, not committed to a seat, leaning up against a shelf, a book clutched in his hands, his face grizzled from a few days of not shaving, his dark hair less gray then, his silhouette a bit thinner, wearing a button down shirt, some jeans, and work boots. He looked like a man – more so than any man I had ever dated.
I kept catching his eyes, losing my place and getting flustered. Alan wasn’t even doing anything. It’s just that he existed. He was something different – exotic in his utter normalness, his short hair, his stiff jeans, his button down shirt. There was nothing remarkable about him, nothing I could say, like you read about in romance novels or hear in stories retold again and again by long time couples: The first thing I noticed was his eyes. The first thing I noticed was his smile. The first thing I noticed were his calves or his ass or his arms or his gut or that hollow place at his hipbone…
That night, Alan missed his drinks at the tourist bar with his out-of-town friend. He stayed through the reading. After, he came up to my table, and he asked me to sign a book. It wasn’t even my book. It was a book about nautical knots. Then, he asked if he could take me to dinner.
I said, “Yes.”
We walked to a nearby diner and ate hamburgers and fries and shared a Guinness float.
On anniversary nights, we would go to that thrift store in the Mission and to others, too, and we would wander, and I would wonder at him, the line of his jaw or his dark eyelids, which grew darker when he was tired, his hands holding fast to dust covered paintings and spice racks, his curly, thick hair just in need of a haircut, maybe thinner or maybe grayer each year.
On those nights, I would watch him, and I would feel the sharp pain of love when it is something new. I wonder if he felt that, too. I think so. We rarely said words like that out loud.
Alan had a knack for finding the right thing, the thing we needed, salt and pepper shakers, board games, kitschy lamps. Given the cramped urban circumstances of our life together, our shared anniversary gift had to be pragmatic. His gift was so accurate, I wondered if he scouted the stores beforehand to find that year’s present. I liked the idea of him putting all the thought into it, though it was the wishful, expectative part of me that did.
After thrifting for hours with time to browse a record shop thrown in for good measure, we would eat Mexican food at this loud, cheap but clean place with an amazing salsa bar and a roving mariachi band that came up to your table and didn’t leave until you shoved a tip in their jar. Alan would give them a bigger tip than was necessary- it was our anniversary after all- then he would reach across the table and touch my hand. His own hands were calloused. His fingernails, I remember, were always rough and short. He chewed them, though I never once saw him at it.
Then these things were gone: the thrift shop and the loud Mexican place, and pretty much everything down on Mission and Valencia that we could remember. There were new shops with new things we didn’t want and couldn’t afford to buy, things with no meaning, things like handmade stationary and decorative stained glass feathers. There were new restaurants, places where we couldn’t afford to eat a meal between us, nor did we want to, with words like corkage fee and pris fix on the menu.
The people and the streets all looked the same. They were clean and made up, as if part of a design portfolio for the young, hip, and affluent conceived in a gleaming studio someplace in SOMA or the Financial District. There was no hint of the undergird of danger, or dirt, or differentness that once defined the place, and definitely none of the things we maybe sometimes had wished there had been less of, like the light or strong smell of urine and cigarettes and the rough looking lost souls gathered at the mouth of the 16th Street BART station looking for handouts and salvation.
On our last anniversary, when we found the thrift store closed, I pretended it didn’t matter. But, I couldn’t stop the tears from coming. I told Alan it was because I was getting hormonal. He took my arm, and we walked block after block trying to find a place to eat, but I had lost my appetite. I felt the air had been knocked out of me.
It all made me mad and scared. Alan said it was always that way. We were just getting old. This happened to everyone. Things change. Sometimes they change very fast.
The jewelry box Alan gave me is decorated with the signs of the Zodiac, and it plays Happy Birthday when you open its lid. There’s something so creepy and sad and tender about it. It gives me the chills even these days after the whole wide world got creepy.
Since neither Alan and I were big believers in God before the shit hit the fan — and I certainly was not after – I had no mystical place to take my shit to for comfort or to ask for help in making any good sense of what had happened to us. These things could not come to pass without it twisting up the insides of my brain. If I was okay after all this, I wouldn’t be a human. There are rituals I need to follow through with these days.
In the beginning, there was the ceremony of the jewelry box, winding the key to the music box and letting the notes float over the tines into the quiet, dark late at night when there was no other sound. I’d light a candle in remembrance. Candles were so precious in those first days, and the process felt artful and public even in my solitude, like I was under the lens of some cosmic camera, and I needed to be extra reverent and sacrificial for whoever or whatever was bearing witness.
I took down a lot of trees at first, and the box was full of tags before long. Now, there are so many, I string the tags up on fish line and hang them wall-to-wall like Christmas lights from the ceiling of the main ballroom. And, there were other incarnations of the remembrance ceremony, but I have settled on something that works for me – my own non-denominational, post-apocalyptic mass.
When the mood strikes, I drink a bottle or two of wine, light a joint, put a glittering cocktail dress on my body and a record on the turntable, turn up the volume, and take a spin underneath the swaying tags, sliding back and forth across the parquet floor in socks I looted from the Sock Shop up on Haight.
At night, when the place is all lit up, you can see the strings of tree tags from outside on the street. It looks like Christmas. I like that.
Alan, this shit is for you. I hope you’re looking down and laughing or getting gruff and crabby or whatever. Don’t worry; I don’t need a sign.
Right now, I’m renting an old mansion on Baker just across the street from the Palace of Fine Arts. It’s a lovely view, not too expensive, and a few weeks ago, the landlord offered me the place right out. To be honest, though, I’m not sure I want stay here much longer.
Yesterday, I caught a tourist peeking through the ironwork gate, trying to get a closer look. I had to go out there and shoo him off. Last week, there was that Japanese family taking pictures of the swans down by the water, too. People are traveling again. Things like this are going to happen more often. I don’t like that.
Way back – before — Alan and I would pass by this same mansion on our way to or from Marina Green. There were easier ways to get there, but we liked to catch the bus up from the edge of Chinatown to Union and Pierce and walk down through the neighborhood pretending it was ours.
“This is really my place,” Alan would always stop and say. He was predictable, if he was anything. We would stare together at the ornate architecture, the ironwork and smile. “I’ve been pretending to be a poor man all along.”
“Can I live here with you?” I would ask. I was also predictable, if anything.
Alan would take my hand in his. “Nope.”
“What about in the dog house out back?”
“No way. That’s where the dog lives.”
There aren’t any dogs anymore, though.
It turns out, the same thing hit them as hit us. At least that’s what the scientists said, even if they couldn’t explain it, so many of them went down with the ship. We know the virus was harder on the dogs because, at least there are still some of us humans left around.