I I I I I I I


While You Are Gone
I stay up late, past the eleven o'clock news, Letterman and Conan, Black Entertainment Television, and the Tae-Bo infocommercial. The radio keeps company with the television, which, in turn, competes for air space with the stereo. I might dance with Bonnie Raitt, well, not the actual Bonnie
Raitt because I'm faithful the entire time. Faithful except for what I do to myself, or what comes up under the sheets that I can't control after about five days if I don't mess with it. I know you know what I mean.

I shower less, but use up all the hot water. The bathroom door stays open when I do my business and when I finish I don't light a match. Without you to kiss and snuggle, some days I forget to brush my teeth or shave back the stubble. Sadly, you are not around to reassure me I'm not getting fat. As a
result, I feel obese, which keeps me from walking around the house naked.

All the coffee is mine and it's all gone by ten o'clock, but I still crave more even when I get that high-pitched pain in my chest. Since you left, my daily research has found that high doses of caffeine create the illusion of an exciting, productive morning. However, by noon all I have to show is an hour of what I believe is an excellent guitar practice featuring variations of one minor and three major chords. (I have accomplished this while still wearing my red, flannel pajamas, the ones with the revealing snap-fly in the bottoms.) To me, myself and I the guitar sounds like Leo Kottke. You might disagree, but you're not here. Nor is anyone else. So I sing my favorite John Prine and Steve Goodman songs and pretend I'm at the Troubadour in Los Angeles and there are important people in black suits and modern eyeglasses favorably evaluating me. After I finish a rousing rendition of "City of New Orleans" that involves a complex finger-picking arrangement performed behind my back, I'm signed to a three-record deal and, as a signing bonus, the company publishes my long-awaited first book of poetry that I wrote in high school.

Food doesn't taste as good as when you make it. My grandmother once left my grandfather alone for several days and because he could not read he ate dog food. "Best stew I ever ate," he declared, wiping his mouth. (I never got a chance to ask him why he thought there was a German shepherd on the label.) Unlike Grandpa I know how to cook (and read), but I'd rather not eat than eat alone. When I finally get hungry, I take my meals hunched over the sink or slouched in front of the television. Weird combinations emerge: cheese burgers and red onions on cinnamon-raisin bagels. Pretzels and mints.
Chicken fried in soy sauce. Saltines dipped in a yogurt-salsa mixture. I'm eating heavily salted crinkle-cut french fries with every meal.

Most of the time, though, I simply lack the energy to eat. Salads take too much time to prepare. All that washing, peeling, and slicing. Fruit now seems inedible and I wonder if I'll get scurvy. Thank goodness for vitamins. So simple, so thorough, so clean. For some dinners, crackers and cheese, and a giant bowl of wholesome, toasted whole grain oat cereal might do the trick. The other night I got so absorbed in reading the back of the Cheerio's box that I almost swallowed a promotional gizmo from a kid's movie. Did you know that Cheerio's has its own website and email address? 

"Dear BigG@mail.genmills.com: 
Please stop producing those hideous blue plastic spoons that you place in specially marked boxes of Cheerios. I almost ate one by mistake. They are a wasteful and unnecessary use of our precious energy resources. By the way, I also found a thumb, an eyeball, and a ferret's head in the same box. Just kidding. There was no thumb."

I pay way too much attention to our beloved cats, Mickey and Toby. They are not as entertaining as when you are here. I note every twitch and physics trick designed to gain the upper hand. They pay too much attention to me through unwavering eye contact. They sense my moods and anticipate my every move. At dinnertime they perch and plead until I feed them. (Forgive me for occasionally snapping their tails.) They are too hungry but have no intention of earning their meals. For the first time I notice that Toby's kibble is shaped in the silhouette of a cat. Mickey's whiskers are a quarter-inch longer than Toby's. (I had the time so I measured.) If I should die overnight from those espresso chest pains I have no doubt they would tear into me within an hour. They see stuff I can't, jumping straight up into the air to grab ghost mice and conquer kingdoms of invisible winged insects. Each morning I trudge downstairs to dig through their box for droppings. This was always your job. Instead of buried treasures, I find a week's worth of throw-ups on the carpet. Have the cats suddenly become bulimic? Are they placing their paws down their throats to show me up? Given the price of the gourmet cat food we buy, I estimate a cost of around fifty cents per vomit. I never wanted to think about any of this.

Different thought patterns emerge. My old self -- the one you first fell in love with -- returns. He comes in without knocking, carrying his old duffel bag of baggage: those two or three shiny tricks that brought him this far. We sit across the kitchen table from each other and watch the sunset in silence. I look him over. At twenty pounds lighter, with a 32-inch waist and only one chin, he looks better than I do. He always does, even with his body pierced in seven places and his newest tattoo, an illustrated history of surfing. Single, of course, but with plenty of recent, exciting experience that he's more than willing to share. He's been out in California, backpacking in the high Sierras, studying Zen masters, learning Spanish and working on his long-range jump shot.

"How long is she gone this time?" he asks, putting his mud-caked cowboy boots up on the table, and rolling a joint the size of Rhode Island.

"Look, I don't want any trouble this time," I answer, digging out an ashtray from the junk drawer and pulling down the shades. "I don't want to blow this relationship. Just stay long enough so I can remember who I was, or am, or whatever. And do you have to smoke that stuff in my house? Everyone on this street is a member of Block Watch."

"Still afraid I see," he says, squinting and inhaling half the joint in one loud toke. "Relax, I don't even exist. Anyway, I can't stay long. I've got a hot date with a little raven-haired senorita in El Paso. She and her sister have this certain game they like to play that involves hot oil. First, they slowly..."

"Please, have mercy on me. My wife has been gone for three weeks. I'm a sexual camel and I don't need to hear any narratives of your conquests."

"Suit yourself," he says, rolling another joint, spilling stems and seeds everywhere. I hear a siren in the distance.

"Man, I've got the munchies something bad. Do you have anything to eat, something salty or sweet? Got any Captain Crunch? What's with the cats? Don't you ever feed them? Their sides are sunk in. And do they have to stare at me like that? They're freaking me out, man."

"The cats are fine," I snap back. I give Mickey, who is obviously sucking in his cheeks for dramatic effect, my most evil human look. "Might have something to do with that cigar you're smoking."

He starts right in at me. "What happened to you? Remember when you first saw the Colorado Rockies, and that glorious fall weekend at the Highland Mary Lakes up above Silverton? Remember when everything you touched felt sacred and surreal? Remember all those chances you used to take -- the time you walked back a mile into an abandoned mine shaft or rappelled into the cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde? I heard you now attend church and are even saving for retirement. How come you don't wear jeans anymore? Have you gained weight, or have you just given up?"

"Be nice." I tell him. "I'm trying to hold on here. I still have forty years of life left. I'm not eternal like you and I'm not currently on an anti-depressant. Besides, I like my modest life."

"Suit yourself," he answers, rummaging through the cupboards, finally settling on stale graham crackers and walnuts. "I'm going to crash on the couch. Where's the remote? Sure you don't want a hit of this weed? It's Garberville's best. You look tense."

"No thanks. I'll stick to coffee and jogging. Could you please take off your boots? God knows what you've stepped in."

"It's called Earth, pal. Organic and sensual. Mother Earth. You might want to check her out sometime. Open those curtains. Take a good look. She's right outside that locked door." He lobs a few more sarcastic cracks my way, then he fades off into the distance. The cats seem desperate to follow. As I watch him head south in the general direction of Texas, I reach for the air freshener and remember why I'm not the man I used to be.

Back in the kitchen, the large cast-iron frying pan, the one in which by accident I made blackened chicken, has been sitting on the stove top for two days. Small, pregnant insects are hovering above the mess. Just calculating the tremendous expense of elbow grease it will take to wash away that caked bird exhausts me. All the items on the Honey-do list you left are completed except for one: to go through my massive paper files and sort and purge. This is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest.

With you gone I have to make all these big decisions myself. Do I watch "Frontline" or "Do You Want To Be A Millionaire?"? Do I clean a little bit each day or do I wait until a day before you return and do one frenzied cleaning convulsion? Do I ski or take a nap? Should I do laundry or start a novel? Bath or meditate?

In seven days you'll return. At first we'll be shy with each other. But the initial awkwardness will vanish with the first kiss. (How I look forward to that!) All the cellular subtleties will click into place; the comforting pheromonal smells, tastes and touches that draw us to each other. Our thought patterns and emotions will shift back to the co-dependent way we've developed over the past five years. I hope you will tell me I look thin, that I may have lost some weight. Your brown eyes will look prettier than ever. While we wait for the luggage, I'll tuck you in just beneath my shoulder, where you fit so perfectly.

I'll have our home sparkling in domestic tidiness. Clean sheets and pillowcases; towels and wash clothes. I'll even polish the wood. I may bake bread or cook my famous onion soup: equal parts butter to equal parts onions. I'll stock ample supplies of your favorites: fig bars and animal crackers. The toilet bowl will smell like an English garden. You will be able to see your reflection in the bathtub. The little hill of crumbs in front of the television will be vacuumed away. Dust balls destroyed. Cobwebs corralled. Litter box liberated. Plates and bowls will be so clean you could eat off of them. Upon your arrival the cats will immediately calm down, but still demand to be fed. You pick them up to see how much weight they have gained. They will try to tell you about the excessive tail snapping and the few (very few) times I sprayed water at them, but their meows will be incomprehensible. It will remain our little secret.

You won't unpack right away. This is always worrisome to me, as if you're re-evaluating the situation. So I'll be on the my best behavior and give you acres of space just in case. We'll start off slow like we're courting-lots of hand holding and close hugs. I will realize it's been a month since another human has embraced me. You will have one of your hot relaxing baths and I'll peek in to take a good look. I'll prepare the coffee for tomorrow. Mickey and Toby will eat again.

In just a couple of hours my entire orientation has gone from solitude to grateful accommodation. That uninterrupted internal voice, so loud and persistent for the last four weeks, is speaking a different language now. And what is this language? When we speak it together we are talking about our home, our simple life of books and birds, music and faith. A vocabulary of love. As you slip under the covers to join me in bed the last thought I have is, "I do OK alone, but I sure do better with you."

This article first appeared in Salon.
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About the author:
Stephen Lyons is a native of the South Side of Chicago and, after living for almost thirty years in the West, now resides in a small farming town in central Illinois. He's been employed in nine different states as a tree planter, daffodil picker, dude ranch cook, ice cream vendor, magazine editor, phone solicitor, newspaper reporter, professional tofu maker, grain truck driver, assistant dairy herdsman, and agricultural extension editor.
He once worked for a week in Colorado pulling nails out of two-by-fours, and for one twelve-hour day picking hops in southern Oregon. He was fired from the hops job after accusing the foreman of having bad karma. He was also fired from the phone solicitor job when he was overheard telling prospective customers that the deal (a lifetime of magazine subscriptions at creative interest rates) was a scam.
Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart: Writings on Daughters and Journeys, a single father's memoir. Author Terry Tempest Williams wrote about the book, "Stephen J. Lyons has offered us his grace and compassion...These essays are the deliberations of a sensitive and intuitive mind, a mind not afraid of exploring regions of the heart, so often side-stepped by men. Mr. Lyons's writing reads like poetry and has the effect of a lingering memory of love."
Stephen writes articles, reviews, essays, and poems for a variety of national magazines, newspapers, and journals including Northern Lights, Salon, Newsweek, Sierra, USAToday, High Country News, Manoa, Commonweal, The Sun, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Whole Earth Review, Hope, and The Christian Science Monitor. He is a member of National Book Critics Circle.
Lyons' poetry appears in the anthologies Passionate Hearts, Bless the Day, and Split Verse. His prose appears in Living in the Runaway West and Idaho in Black and White. Lompico Creek Press published an essay by Stephen in its just-released anthology Love is Ageless: Stories about Alzheimer's Disease. University of Iowa Press will publish prose by Stephen in its forthcoming anthology Father Nature, writings by fathers about children and nature.
This past year Lyons was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for "Seymour's Last Dollar," an essay about his step-father that appeared in the October 2001 issue of The Sun. This year he received a 2002 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Prose Writing.
Stephen is a lively reader and he has appeared at many writing venues including Elliot Bay in Seattle and as guest writer at the YMCA's Writer's Voice in Billings, Montana. For appearance fees or to send Lyons feedback, email him at: midlife@austinmama.com

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I I I I I I I