[ToC]

GINKGO

Lorraine Berry

He was a sweet creature for a man of sorrow (Bruce Smith, "Eating the Man")

 

1.

I keep a bag stuffed in the flat plastic bin that I store under the bed I share with Rob. It's a silver-colored, heavy, opaque sack, the kind you get from a high-end clothing store. It must have been one that his mother had in her laundry room, or had been picked up off Yves' floor.

Inside the bag are three items of clothing. When we went out to dinner that night, I was wearing black boots, black slacks, a red Lycra camisole, a black cardigan, and pink silky panties. At his apartment, he quickly stripped me down to my camisole and panties, and he laid me down on the bed.

I was not passive; we were kissing, I remember, kissing and crab-walking together back through the hallway and around the corner and into his bedroom and then he lifted me up onto his bed.

 

2.

My love and I were driving home after doing laundry. The local Laundromat is next to a bar, so we sit, playing Scrabble on his iPhone and waiting, endlessly waiting, for clothes to dry.

By the time we left to head home, rain spattered us. Big drops, the kind the clouds had been saving for a while, thrown without discrimination on the dirty and the clean. I looked for patterns in the rain and found none.

Headlights on, we watched the spring birds beat their wings toward shelter. Bare trees provide little, so I am not sure where they go to wait out these spring cloudbursts.

 

3.

One winter Sunday, there was a substantial break in the cloud cover, and the sky was a washed-out iris blue. I wanted to get outside, and we went for a walk on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Ontario is large enough to generate a sandy beach, the sand so fine and heavy that it was impervious to the wind blowing off the water. And what a wind it was. The type that cuts your skin with its dagger cold. It only took a few minutes before I could feel myself becoming mute; my face began to numb and soon, my lips felt paraplegic.

What was stunning me into silence, however, was not the cold or the wind. The beach was covered in death. I've never experienced anything like it, and it was the kind of event that, as it was happening, I was furiously taking notes in my head, trying to preserve that sensation of "what the fuck" and the creepy dread I used to feel when I walked in graveyards as a child.

A few years ago, a new species came to Lake Ontario. The zebra mussel, a non-native species, has made its home in the waterways of the Northeast. I'm not a biologist, but it didn't take a genius to see disaster laid out before me.

Normally, walking on a fine-sand beach is not an aural experience, but as we walked, the loud crunch crunch crunch of our steps drowned out the sound of the wind. There were millions of mussel shells on the beach. The tide had washed them into waves and piles, so that at times, my boots were sinking into several inches of shells. It was a sickening sensation, this walking across bones. I felt nauseated by a first-hand encounter with such an ecological disaster.

To add to the ghoulishness of the scene, hundreds of washed-up fish littered the shore. I'm not sure what kind of fish—they were large—probably twelve-to-eighteen inches long, and they had rows of sharp teeth. Despite their numbers, I sensed their winding up there was more natural, the result of normal fish cycles.

They were frozen, many of them in grotesque shapes--as if characters in a Bosch painting, caught in the agony of hell. Some were curled, their heads almost touching their tails. Others seemed to have been laid out by taxidermists in that classic "leaping" position one sees on a trophy board.

One appeared to be rising headfirst from the sand, its eyes glassily aware, its mouth gulping at the air.

 

4.

A poet gave me a gingko leaf once, and it lies pressed between the pages of poetry. The leaf touches the words "shore," and "sackcloth," and I wonder at the symmetry of this as I write about death and the beach.

 

5.

In the week before the funeral, I had asked a favor of his parents: would they be willing to let me have the tee shirt that he had been wearing that night? I told them they would find it tossed on the bedroom floor.

 

6.

Really, nothing was out of the ordinary, until we turned onto the road where I live. Crossing the road lumbered a largish reptilian-looking creature. Not the various mammals who live here: rabbits, squirrels, woodchucks, beavers, weasels, possums, voles, mice, chipmunks, and skunks. And not the tiny amphibians: the peeper frogs, which every spring attempt to cross the road in huge numbers, and in huge numbers become one with the asphalt. No, this creature was six to eight inches long and had a long tail. I watched it ford the rivulet that followed the road’s slope.

We passed over it. Our wheels didn't touch it, but the body of the car went over it, and I still have no idea what it could have been. Too big to be an eft. Obviously not a snapping turtle or toad. All I could think was aquarium escapee. Chameleon maybe? It had the hood on its head, and its color was pale brown.

Whatever it was, I can assume it was an invasive species.

 

7.

At the memorial service, I approached his mother and father. They looked sandblasted. His death had given no one time to prepare for it. And besides, how do you prepare yourself for the death of your only son?

Yves' mother handed me the bag, and I took a quick look inside. I began to cry, and she begged me not to: it would make her start crying again, too, and she just wanted to get through this evening without breaking down in front of many people who had been part of Yves' life, but whom she did not know.

I excused myself from the room and walked into the ladies' room. I opened the bag, withdrew the tee shirt. I buried my nose in it. It smelled of Yves, but also of detergent, and I realized--as the chills ran through my bloodstream--that she had laundered the shirt before giving it to me. I crouched down, my back against the wall, underneath the hand dryer, my feet planted on the tile floor.

The sobs that arose from my gut shook me. I cried and cried, wetting the shirt with my tears, and hoping for a few minutes of solitude. I did not want to be comforted at that moment.

The white tee shirt was emblazoned with a balding man astride a Honda motorcycle on its front. On the back, it said "9098. Easy Rupert." I assumed it was some inside joke.

When we had been together that day, the edges of the tee shirt's collar had contrasted with a thin black sweater. The tee shirt still smelled of him, despite his mother's attempts to clean it for me. How could I have explained to her that I wanted his underwear, his socks--anything that his skin had touched that night--and I wanted them unwashed. Would she have understood my desire?

 

8.

I often don’t sleep well. When I'm not sleeping well, I snore—loudly, and eventually, in order to spare my love the torment, I headed for the couch. (It's a lovely couch, but I do miss the warmth of his body curled up around mine.)

I dreamt last night of invasive species. In my body. I'm not sure where those images came from, but Bloody Red Shrimp swam through the rills of my blood.

 

9.

Two women friends—both younger than me—have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. One of them was still nursing her toddler son when she was found to have invasive breast cancer—so aggressive that the tumor they're going after is already five centimeters. Two other friends, slightly older than me, have reproductive cancers.

 

10.

Six months later

I have pulled the panties, the camisole, and the tee shirt out of the bag. I bury my nose in them, and I can smell him in the clothes. I have stored his tee shirt with the panties and camisole that I had been wearing. How could I ever wear that lingerie again, given the circumstances of my last wearing it?

I can smell just the tiniest hint of the perfume I wore that night, and I can smell the tobacco, and then, there's something else. It's not laundry soap--surprisingly, the smell of the soap has faded away and allowed the original scents to assert themselves. And it's not death, because he was naked when he died. I bring the shirt up to my face and I breathe in hard. A blow lands on my solar plexus, and for just an instant, I think that I can't breathe.

 

11.

In our waters. In our bodies. Last night, in my head.

When you see the purple loosestrife growing in the ditches and wetlands you think, "Oh, how lovely." But loosestrife strangles and kills the local wildflowers, destroys the ecological balance of the wetland. How does this stuff get in?

I want to believe that we are closed systems. But all around me, I see evidence that just as the earth is not a closed system, neither are the bodies of my friends. Or my brain. It's not a closed system either.

 

12.

Invasive species. Even the very term has invaded my thoughts this morning, and I find that the ideas I want to think about seem wrapped in the tendrils of something ugly trying to take root.

 

13.

Now

I slide the clothes crate from underneath the bedframe. The bag is buried among my winter clothes, and I note to myself that I never went through this box at the beginning of this winter. Maybe I need to pay attention to the adage that says that if you haven't worn something in a year, it's time to give it away.

So maybe I'll give away the hideous Concord grape jelly-colored footie pjs, which I had bought to combat the bitter cold. Or the two wool sweaters, which, even thinking about, makes me scratch myself in anticipation of the itching they provoke.

I'm trepidatious: part of me doesn't want to subject myself to the grief I attach to those clothes, and I wonder if my actions are somehow disloyal to the man I love now. He knows. He also knows that I've been writing about Yves. He's a writer, too. He gets what it is I'm trying to process through writing.

I unroll the bag, pull apart the opening. I stick my nose into the bag.

Nothing.

After several years, the scents are undetectable.

But touching the shirt is enough of a tactile stimulus that I plant my feet in anticipation of the swell of emotion.

I roll the bag back up.

 

14.

Gingko was once thought to be extinct. Now, only one variety remains: Brooklyn Gingko. Here at the same time as the dinosaurs, Gingko is among our most ancient trees. We have tried to kill it off, but now, just as we need it, its fossilized structure shows us how to clean the air of the invasive pollution in which we immerse ourselves.

 

15.

Shore. Sackcloth.


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Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge and images of [fantastic fish] from centuries’ old texts played through my head while writing this.