MOVING PRACTICE

After Bernie had his stroke he was taken to Franklin County Medical Center, and from there down to Bay State Hospital in Springfield, 45 minutes south of us. I still remember driving down US 91, telling his daughter and my brother the news and seeing the ambulance transporting him in my rearview mirror, veering to the right lane to let them pass. Once in Springfield, he was taken to Emergency, then to Intensive Care, then to Neuro-ICU, then down to a regular bed, and then to Weldon Rehabilitation Hospital—all in 6 days.

Some 7 weeks after his stroke he came home. He moved downstairs to an office turned into a bedroom, then two months later upstairs to our bedroom, with a layout and furniture that we have reconfigured time and time again. And at some point during this time I began to think of my life as moving practice.

I had a few modest, nice homes in my first marriage, but in the interim years between that and my marriage to Bernie I traveled light. At times I owned furniture, at times I didn’t. At times I had a car, at times I didn’t. Never a lot of clothes, always a basic amount of cookware; books were a problem, and I parted from them in major waves over the years, and now use the Massachusetts system of libraries.

After I married Bernie I came not just into larger quarters but also into Buddhist art: Japanese sculptures and calligraphy, Chinese paintings, Tibetan thankas, portraits of ancestors, Indian sandstone Gandharas, not to mention plentiful urns of ashes, including the ashes of various dogs, which only this year I finally emptied by the roots of a welcoming maple in the back yard. They’ll be happier there, I told Bernie. Once we mislaid Maezumi Roshi’s ashes for about a year, only to find them in storage.

I don’t want to live in a mausoleum, I also told Bernie; in fact, I don’t want to live in a museum. I would fantasize about several rooms, fully carpeted for weak legs, with no stairs, white walls with only one thing hanging on each, the picture straight rather than askew, clean rather than dusty, and just the right lighting. For years I felt that anything I owned had to be maintained, otherwise I didn’t want to have it. For this reason I do rigorous monthly cleaning of our fancy coffee machine, regular car check-ups and sewer inspections—and never, ever own silver I have to polish (my mother’s lifelong remonstrances notwithstanding).

All this is part of moving practice—where do I live? Under what circumstances? And can I, laden with stone and wooden Buddhas, five or six altars in the house, photos and urns and even gorgeous Japanese kesas, still be light on my feet?

And what about the living Buddhas in the house? When someone walks on two legs and a cane, moving very slowly from room to room, the house feels bigger, the stairs taller, the furniture obstructive. Bernie walked in the back yard yesterday for the first time since winter and sat at the picnic table that just emerged from the shed. Do we really need this much space, I wonder as I look around me, if it’s just Bernie and Stanley, me, squirrels, chipmunks, and hundreds of goldfinches, with occasional visitations by wild turkeys?

In September we will have lived here for 13 years, and still I feel like we’re always moving. Things have a temporary feel. On weekend evenings we settle down to watch a movie on a 50” screen (I know, I know, not portable at all), go to sleep, and the next morning I’m surprised to see the familiar apple tree outside the windows. Even asleep, I expect to be in flux.

Always feel at home, my friend M from Florida told me long ago, when I lived in a tiny studio apartment in Manhattan. And off she took me to Roche Bobois to buy a gorgeous sofa I could not afford, but somehow I knew what she was talking about. It wasn’t about sofas, bookcases, or a massive manzanita dining room table. How do you feel at home while floating in the air? How am I solid in times of uncertainty, of illness, old age, and Donald Trump?

M, who always had beautiful things, has herself done lots of moving lately. From her Vineyards condominium to independent living to assisted living to a psychiatric hospital to a memory care unit to a hospital to rehabilitation—all in six months. At the age of 91 she can’t figure it out. At the age of 67 I can’t figure it out either.

I should call her more often.

 

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WHEN YOU’RE VULNERABLE, YOU’RE AWAKE

Some 10 days ago my friend, Genro Gauntt, came to stay for the weekend and on Saturday morning spoke at the zendo about the street retreats that he’s led all over the world. These are days when you go to live on the streets with no money or change of clothes, sleeping on park benches or in subways, finding food in food pantries, relying on the generosity of strangers. I did such retreats a number of times myself, but it became Genro’s ministry. He has led these in San Paulo Brazil, in London England, in Detroit the US. Not an easy thing for a man approaching 70.

At some point, as he described what it is to look for food, to find out where one can sleep undisturbed by the police or the weather, begging for quarters, he said something very simple: When you’re vulnerable, you’re awake.

Money is a funny kind of barrier. Once, when we needed things, we brought things to market, we bartered and bargained, we joked around and talked with people. Now we go to a store, take out our wallet, put some green paper on the counter, and walk out with what we need. We don’t even have to say hello to the other person, and many don’t, they just pat their pocket as if that’s where the relationship lies.

Nevertheless, that feeling of vulnerability I used to have doing street retreats is dwarfed by what’s faced by immigrants, legal or not. I thought of that when driving Beatrice and her small son, Pedro (not their real names), yesterday. She’s pregnant and hardly speaks any English, and as she sat in the front seat of my car I could start seeing things a little through her eyes. I would have loved to get her story, but couldn’t because of language difficulties. I also honor her privacy and need for safety. But she tensed each time we passed police cars along the highway.

As a white American woman, I never feared the police (though I was mistreated by them twice in my life, once severely). But that’s not how people of color experience the police, or immigrants of all kinds. It’s not how they experience teachers, social workers, and the bosses at the farms. If they are abused by anyone, they don’t trust the system to help them. If they’re hurt by someone in authority, they know better than to go and file a complaint. Instead, they hide.

ICE agents were recently sighted in a nearby town. A text message went out and for four days nobody left the house. Children didn’t go to school, adults didn’t go to the farms, farmers didn’t get much-needed help and their workers didn’t get much-needed money. They hid out. They’ve been hiding for 15-20 years, a social worker told me.

But these are far grimmer times; the razor blade of fear is everywhere. These are not white people taking to the streets for several days, getting into conversations with street people, feeling the cold and wet at night, grateful for the smallest food, the fewest pennies—and always knowing there’s a home to go back to. For several days, life is raw. But for immigrants, their vulnerability is dominated by fear. And that makes all the difference.

The closest I can come to feeling that was when I was 7 years old and we arrived here in this country as immigrants. Legal, yes, but still immigrants who didn’t talk the language, didn’t walk and dress the same as the others. I looked around me wide-eyed at the streets of the Bronx. American children were more out there, more confident, than those I knew from the past. I was a stranger in the wilderness, trying my best to fit in by turning invisible, unable to make any sense of this loud, rambunctious culture. It didn’t help that I was a white minority in a mostly black neighborhood, for I hadn’t seen dark-skinned people in my entire life till then, including not on television (which we didn’t have) or in movies (of which I’d seen 1-2 by that age).

My parents felt no differently. It’s hard to understand that sense of being lost and misunderstood, that the best you can hope for is to be ignored, until you’ve been there. And, I remind myself, we were legal. We had papers. We weren’t afraid of being split apart with one or both parents deported, we weren’t afraid of knocks on the door in the middle of the night.

Was I awake? I was certainly wide-eyed, but with fear, which constricts one, narrows the horizons, causes you to wish to stay home with the door locked behind you. Safety was being shut in at home, where it was boring but you could at least speak your own language and eat your own food, where no one would laugh or point at you, where you wouldn’t stand out, in fact no one would even know you were there.

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FORSYTHIA

Another pickup today. Of Beatrice, let’s call her, along with her 9 year-old son, Pedro, let’s call him. It feels odd to create pseudonyms for a 9 year-old boy and a pregnant young woman looking out the window of the car at the policia lying in ambush on the highway. But the policia leave us undisturbed because I drive slower when I have undocumented immigrants in my car.

She speaks almost no English, relies on Pedro to translate for her. But Pedro has fallen asleep on the back seat and I am reduced to trying out my toddling Spanish learned from Pimsleur tapes I downloaded from the Internet.

So I finally ask her to help me out in Spanish. Como se dice car en espagnol? Como se dice drive (she doesn’t drive)? Es el dia caliente, I mumble, meaning it’s warm today. No, she disagrees, frio. And it is cold, a lot colder than I thought. I seem to have misplaced my jacket and I wonder if I left it in the zendo.

But the highway has blazes of yellow on the median between North and South. Como se dice forsythia? I ask Beatrice. She doesn’t know, but for the first and only time in our rides together she smiles.

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MOUSE IN BIRDSEED

What you’re looking at is a mouse in the bottom of our tall barrel of birdseed. The barrel isn’t as big as the photo implies, but I wonder if it isn’t a little like a bird’s eye view of earth and its inhabitants, our insistent needs to eat, drink, survive at any cost, our deep fears of being discovered and exposed. God’s eye view of all of us.

All winter mice have managed to enter the birdseed barrel. We cover it fully, we put the heavy bottle of laundry detergent on the cover to make sure it doesn’t get moved, in fact when we take out the barrel to feed the birds there’s no hint of infiltration anywhere, but as soon as the detergent is moved away, the barrel uncovered and shaken a little bit, a mouse emerges. Or two.

At first I used to jump back at the sight. Now I practically expect it, and I’ve grown fond of them. What are you doing here? I ask for the umpteenth time. How did you get in?

The mouse shivers, keeps its eyes straight ahead. It tries to scamper up the barrel but all it can manage is a few inches before it falls down again, while I continue my lecture: I’ve told you a million times, I don’t mind if you stay down in the basement during winter. It’s when you come up to the laundry room [where we keep food for Stanley and the birds] and the kitchen [food for us] that I have a problem. Not to mention your nests under the hoods of the cars.

The mouse gives me no promises that it’ll amend its ways. No breast beating (I sinned, I coveted, I gluttoned!) or vow of restitution. I don’t hear it saying the Sh’ma, Hear oh Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One that one says before death, it doesn’t receive last rites or make a final confession. It’s just shaking and trembling, conveying with every shivering hair the knowledge of those high, unassailable walls and the even higher human on top demanding what it’s doing here.

And I feel a little embarrassed about how big I am, the complex scale of my existence in comparison to its so much humbler life, its so much humbler needs. You poor thing, I think to myself, you’re so small, you’re so weak. That’s true, it replies, but I reproduce like crazy.

So I take the barrel outdoors and turn it sideways. The unclimbable walls become bare plastic meadows and the mouse runs out. I was hoping it would freeze with the shock of new life once it feels the soil under its feet (it’s happened before), maybe sound a hosanna and give thanks while I click away at the camera, capturing the moment, but not this time. It scampers down the new grass for all its worth, making a beeline for the forsythia and, behind it, the line where the house meets the ground. It knows how to get right back in.

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IN THE HOUSE OF HORRORS

“Where are you, Stanley?”

“I’m hiding.”

“Get out of there. Dr. Brown can’t take care of you when you’re cowering like that between the wall and me.”

“Good.”

“You’re getting old, Stan. Your back legs don’t move so well, they’re either stiff or they shake. You slip on the wooden floors and over the weekend I could see that you were in pain. So here we are, to start you on pain management.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re going to get an anti-inflammatory to help you through arthritis and the pain of getting old.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s painful to get old, Stanley. It’s harder to walk, harder to stretch. Leeann says that when you’re all in the woods together you’re in the very back of the pack, sniffing everything.”

“I love to sniff. Can’t hear, can barely see, what else is left? Sniffing and food.”

“You’re being left behind.”

“So?”

“Don’t you want to catch up with the other dogs?”

“No, I’m happy being old. Now get me out of here.”

“But Dr. Brown can manage your pain.”

I can manage my pain. I walk slower, try to avoid the stairs, and if things hurt too much I sleep late. That’s what I call pain management. If you gave me more rides that would help.”

“We can do better than that, Stan. With only half a pill every day doused in your favorite cream cheese—”

“–The one with the smoked salmon?”

“–we can get you lighter on your paws, more eager and spry.”

“I don’t want to be lighter on my paws, in fact I’d like to eat more.”

“You’ll be bounding through that dog door in no time, you’ll play with the other dogs—”

“I don’t want to play with the other dogs—”

“You’ll feel younger, more energetic, life will course through your veins just like before.”

“Fuck that, get me out of here.”

“Trust me, pain management will make your life a joy. All you have to do is come out of there, let Dr. Brown stick you with a needle and take some blood to make sure you don’t have kidney issues, then stick you again with an injection, penetrate deeply inside your ears to get that dirt out, penetrate your anal sacs to get them cleaned out, clip your toenails, and you’ll be right as rain, happy, bright-eyed, loving every minute of—Stan? Stanley? Where did you go, Stan? Where are you, Stan?”

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GOING TO HELL

I’ve gained lots of insights out of Donald Trump’s election. For instance, I finally realize that many people in this country aren’t like me (not necessarily a bad thing). The second is that they’re also not like themselves. By this I mean that poor people who need help support a government that wants to undermine their medical benefits and give tax breaks to big corporations. Or that farmers who know damn well that global warming is happening voted for a government in denial of it and is now busy dismantling many of the rules and agencies trying to save our air, water, flora and fauna.

I used to call those contradictions, but not anymore. The world is complicated, and we’ve grown complicated along with it, able to hold conflicting viewpoints without much cognitive dissonance, in fact with an acceptance that seems perfectly natural. And here I have to make a confession. While I love to talk to undocumented immigrants and the people who serve them, love to talk to organizers and activists, I love even more to talk to those who wouldn’t be caught dead in the Women’s March on January 21, who love Donald, think he’s doing a great job and would do even better if not for paid and unpaid troublemakers like me (I’m in the second category).

I had some great talks with them in Alabama, and also closer to home. This weekend I’m going to the Stone Soup Café, which not only offers delicious weekly Saturday lunches for the Greenfield community but also gives away lots of free produce and extra food to take home. And that reminds me of one of the best conversations I’ve ever had at the Café. It took place a few years back, when I was still joining the cooks in the morning to help get things ready.

Mike was a cheery, middle-aged man, and I liked to sit with him and the Captain, an army veteran always accompanied by his black service dog wearing a red bandanna. Not for them the opening circle where everyone stood in a circle and introduced themselves, they’d sit in the back table waiting for the warm and fluffy stuff to end so that they could start eating. We’d talk about the food, maybe grouse about the wait till they served seconds. The two of them would compare notes on motorcycle festivals up in Vermont and New Hampshire and how the weather was all fucked up on account of the climate (they either didn’t vote or voted Republican).

I asked them to come to council, a group process of speaking and listening from the heart, which many regulars love because it’s almost the only time they could talk to people about their life and have someone listen. Unsurprisingly, Mike and the Captain laughed and said no, that’s not their thing. And without losing a beat, Mike told me how much he liked me and all, he appreciated lots of things I was doing, but in the end it wouldn’t do me any good because I was going to hell.

Oh, yeah? Nothing I like more than to talk to people who tell me I’m going to hell.

That’s because you’re not saved, he explained. He couldn’t be more nonchalant if he was talking about the weather. You don’t recognize Jesus as your savior. Now don’t take it personally, he adds quickly. I was just like you once, only I went on one of those evangelical cruises, see, and I was saved by Jesus.

Just like that?

Right between Miami and the Bahamas.

What was that like?

He appeared to me and I knew he was my savior.

And afterwards, what happened?

Whaddya mean?

I mean, did anything change? Like, are you different?

Naah, I’m just same old Mike, nothing different about that. Only I believe in him. I believe that after I die I’m gonna join him in heaven.

But I won’t.

He half-raises his hands defensively. Don’t get me wrong, he said, you’re a nice woman, I like talking to you, you cooked all morning for us, but I can’t help it. You’re going to hell.

 

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SCENES OF DOMESTIC BLISS

Photo by Rami Efal

Does your right leg hurt? I ask Bernie in the morning.

I don’t know, does it?

I look at him, bewildered. It’s your leg, you tell me.

But is it his leg if he can’t feel it? This leads to all kinds of philosophical musings.

 

One weekend afternoon I hear him talking to a musician on the phone, someone who’s been in the spotlight for most of his life but now was telling Bernie that he messed up a song, couldn’t remember the chords. I lost my confidence, man, he says.

That means you lost your knowing, says Bernie. If you have confidence, that means you still know something. You lose your confidence, you lose your knowing, and you just go on playing.

 

I’m cold. Can you raise the temperature?

Bernie, you’re on top of the covers.

So?

Blankets are meant to cover you, be on top, not under.

Are you sure?

 

In the evening Bernie tells me a joke.

I don’t get it.

It’s a non-gettable joke, he informs me.

We start laughing. But Bernie, is a joke still a joke if it’s non-gettable?

Of course it is, see how you’re laughing?

That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

But by now we’re both laughing hard, Bernie with high-pitched giggles.

 

Don’t talk to him, Jessie, I tell Jessie who works in the office. He’s talking with his left hand.

Bernie gesticulates as he talks, which he should do with his right hand. More use of that right hand equals more strength and versatility.

Where’s my mitt? he says, looking around his desk for the white mitt which he brought back with him from the Taub Clinic, in which they inserted his left hand, forcing him to use the right.

Of course, someone suggests, you can just use your mouth to talk and leave your hands out of it.

I’m from Brooklyn, he says, putting his left hand inside the mitt. And as he talks, the right hand comes to life.

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HABLO ESPAGNOL MUY POCO

The other day I got into my car in mid-afternoon and drove down the river where farms are clustered all the way down to Hadley and further south. It was a nice day, for a change, since we’ve had so much rain. I enjoyed the sight of the river rising up the banks, the sound of tractors and the earth (and farmwork) coming back to life, thinking of the farm stands that will soon open up with their fresh vegetables.

I am so blessed; we are so blessed, are phrases I hear a lot around here. Frankly, I dislike them. Not just because they’re clichés, but because if that’s the case, what should I say about Carlos (fictional name), whom I was picking up, who has no legal papers and can’t drive, so how will he get to work or anywhere else in this rural area, and who worries about knocks on the door in the middle of the night? Should I say he’s cursed?

You’ll find him in the barn, someone in a truck tells me, and I go in there, smell the fragrances of herbs, and a short, broad-chested man comes towards me, a tentative smile on his face and surprisingly sweet features. I introduce myself as I always to do Spanish-speaking people: Eva, with a short rather than a long E.

I’ve been learning a little Spanish online, just enough to tell him Hablo espagnol muy poco. His English is a lot better. I put my phone camera away. No photos here for sure, though I’d love to photograph his sweet face. We used to make heroes out of people who risked their lives multiple times to escape poverty and persecution, and now we can’t take photos, have to change names, use different computer servers. Don’t say undocumented workers, say agricultural workers. And there’s a page worth of cautions in your instructions about what to do if stopped by the police. First caution: Don’t speed.

So off we go to the courthouse where Carlos has an appointment. He’s married, no children here. My ears pick up on here, aqui. He’s worked in various farms here for a number of years, always for very good American people. I believe that, if only because I know how farmers here value and need this kind of help. He’s lived in bigger cities further south, but he likes the quiet here. Same for me, I tell him.

He’s from Mexico, somewhere from the south. He’s interested to hear that we were once in Chiapas, with Payasos sin Fronteras, Clowns Without Borders, and he laughs at the name. Who knew there was such a thing as clowns without borders? Who knew there’s anything anymore that’s without borders? But actually there are lots: hard work, taking care of your family, sending money back so your aging parents can live a little longer, love.

He doesn’t go to class to learn English, he’s afraid. I’ll tutor you, I tell him, or more like it, I’ll find someone to do that for you. I know he’s looking dubiously at me even as I keep my eye on the road. He’s nervous about trusting too much, wondering what trouble he’ll get into and if I won’t send ICE agents his way. Really, I tell him, without making a big deal out of it. You have my phone number. If you want to learn more English, call me, I can arrange it.

He doesn’t know we are trying to arrange Circles of Care for these families, groups of 5-10 people surrounding each family and providing them with the services they need: drives, child care, translation help in the doctor’s office or meetings with their children’s school teachers. Many look for help with papers giving legal guardianship of their children to others in case they’re taken away. We’ll do what they want and need.

But the distrust and fear are so palpable that we must tread softly. Even in generosity, I don’t want to be the imperialist Norteamericana. Bear witness, find the small place in their meager, endangered world where you can fit in with humble but good intentions. Listen, listen, listen. You’re not blessed, they’re not cursed, the loss of friends, parents, spouses, and loved ones is just around the corner for all of us. It’s what makes us all equally human, it’s why we all need help.

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HE AND HIS SHADOW

It was just before supper. The sun was setting to the west, I looked towards Bernie, saw the shadow against our yellow wall, and ran upstairs to get the phone camera.

What are you doing? he asked. Oh, you want to take a photo of me.

Not of you, I said, your shadow.

I was startled because the profile in the shadow on the dining room wall looked just like the profile of Bernie I remembered from the past: the arching forehead, the tips of thick eyebrows (just like Daruma, Japanese visitors used to say, referring to Bodhidharma who brought Buddhism from India to China), the long, deceptively sharp nose (deceptive because it’s actually quite thick when seen up front), and finally, the stubborn, pugnacious chin.

Oh, that chin! How often I remember it jutting out just like it did on that wall, only then it was in the face of difficulties, impossibilities, pissed-off board members, and pissed-off students. Barack Obama’s Yes we can! was uplifting. Bernie’s was more in-your-face, more Brooklyn, more Yes I can! Chase Manhattan wants to close Greyston down? Like hell (my word, he never swore)! The neighbors don’t want us to bring homeless families in? We’ll show them. The board is telling me I can’t do this or I can’t do that? Watch me. Recalcitrant students demand I teach like other teachers, give talks the way I used to, stop walking the streets of the neighborhood and trying to make more deals? Too bad!

His shadow seemed to be just as I remember it from the past, still evincing certainty and strength. And then I look at the person full front, the soft face, the old, sad eyes, the still ruddy features, the thin hair, the thinner body, the fragile loveliness, and I feel as though past and present are staring me in the face simultaneously.

If nothing stays the same, how come the shadow looks like it did years ago? Does it never get old? Does it never fade?

We used to have arguments about the past. Why did you do it like that? Why were you so tough? How come you didn’t pay attention? And he would say to me, I’ve changed, Eve, I’ve changed.

But not your shadow, I think to myself, looking at the wall, looking at my own dusky mind. We think of shadows disappearing with the movement of sunlight, but actually they don’t seem to change half as fast as the human being.

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I ONLY REGRET I HAVE BUT ONE WAY TO LOVE YOU

I get out of bed and Stanley looks up from where he’s lying on thick, furry blankets. Food!

Later!

Now!

Later!

After my shower and raising the thermostat, I give him his breakfast. A few minutes later he follows me upstairs. Walk!

Later, I say.

Now!

Later!

I hate that word.

I know. Later!

Now-later-now-later is our lifetime tug-of-war. Stanley, with his eager, sparkling eyes only seems to know now!; later doesn’t exist. In his life, it’s literally now or never. Now!, when I pick up his collar, he dances back and forth by the front door (even at this age with his crippled back legs), tail wagging furiously, eyes on no one and nothing but me. Later!, and he flops down on the rug, inconsolable, his world at an end.

I prepare to go out to the car and he heads happily towards the garage door. Drive!

Later!

Now! I’m 13-1/2 years old, there isn’t much later.

Later!

Or he’s waiting out for Bernie’s leftovers. We trained him to wait till the end of the meal, but his memory’s not so good anymore.

Now! he says to Bernie.

Later.

Now.

Later.

There are times when it’s turned around. We’re going to Dr. Brown, I’ll say in the car once we reach that familiar low building with the mat saying Welcome to All Paws and the fascinating smells in the grass out front. He has to be seen by the vet because his back legs have gotten worse and he seems to be in more pain.

The House of Horrors! Later!

Now, Stanley!

Later!

Now!

He lies on the red blanket that covers the couch downstairs, waiting for me to give him food in the morning. I sit by him. Another wonderful day with Stanley, I murmur, because I don’t know how many more of these we’ll have. He squirms and rolls from one side to another, begging for strokes, then rolls back onto his belly and thrusts his muzzle up to lick my chin with endless urgency, as if he’s saying, I only regret I have but one way to love you. And though it causes my skin to itch and sometimes turn pink, I fervently, gratefully shut my eyes at the feel of that tongue because I know that very soon we’ll have a different conversation:

Time to go, he’ll say.

Later, I’ll say.

Now.

Later, please, Stanley!.

Now, Eve. Now.

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