Fresno, California. 1973.
Not everyone gets a chance to watch their parents fall in love.
I was six when it happened. My mother tended bar at the Airport Marina Lounge, where she first met Marshall. She’d wake me late at night and I’d yawn and shuffle after her in my pjs with a stuffed alligator under my arm as the three of us went out for breakfast at the only place serving after midnight—the Cedar Lanes Bowling Alley.
Biscuits and gravy. Scrambled eggs. Waffles, sometimes. A large glass of milk.
The occasional bowling bowl would roll over the alley’s oiled maple and pine surface until it reached the pin deck with a collision that sent pins spinning sideways with a clatter of sound.
It was the year of the Paris Peace Accords, Roe v Wade, Wounded Knee—though Jimi and Janis and Morrison were already gone. Pioneer 10 flew past Jupiter, and the furthest known planet in the entire cosmos was Pluto. Beyond that? Who could say? Neil Armstrong had sent back messages from another world, but it was one we could look up and see right in front of us, flooded with sunlight or shadowed in thought.
Looking back, it’s clear that they were exhausted lovers—famished from several hours in bed. The bowling alley became a kind of late-night ritual for the three of us. In part, I think this may be the reason why I’m a night owl to this day. I’d learned early on that some sweetness remained, and it would be a shame to miss it—even if the rest of the world had slipped into dream.
Earlier in the evenings during that first summer of love, when the park would transform at dusk and I wouldn’t be sent to bed for a few hours, the two of them would drink from a bottle of Amaretto and curl into each other on an afghan blanket as the grass turned bottle blue in the fading light.
The dragonflies were out. So ephemeral and strange. Magical. There were so many I couldn’t count them all. They’d hover and fly a few feet overhead, and I ran after them—trying to time my throw so that a pillowcase might rise into the air and catch one just as it banked to turn toward the last rays of light fanning out across the horizon.
I had no idea what the future held for us. I couldn’t have imagined Marshall’s chest being opened with a rotary saw as surgeons worked to repair his heart and extend his life after he’d already been dead for several minutes, the shock of electric paddles bringing him back. Nor could I have envisioned my mother in a neck halo after a car crash shattered vertebrae at the base of her skull. But in years since I’ve thought of the love and determination it took for each them, and the two of them together, to survive those moments. The willpower it took to get out of bed each day. To walk. Breathe. Take a shower. My mother tells me that Marshall helped her to bathe early on in her recovery. Imagine the stress and apprehension in doing that. One wrong placement of the foot, one slip along the curving surface of the tub, one fraction of an instant spent looking the other way—and she might never have walked again. But even more than this, imagine the tenderness involved. Bathing her. Shampooing her hair. Guiding water through the channels of her auburn hair until the soap rinsed away at their feet. The two of them coated in water and light.
Madera County, California. 1980s.
When I was a teenager, Marshall would often wake me before dawn.
Summertime. We’d stand out back behind the house as he drank coffee and smoked a Marlboro. Sometimes you could hear coyotes hunting calves off in the rangeland beyond.
We were two silent figures standing in the predawn dark. Two figures waiting for the sunrise, our thoughts punctuated by stars.
It was something like an unspoken prayer. We watched the world take form. The dead grass of the valley around us rolled up into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where Yosemite’s snowy peaks shifted from peach to tangerine and on into a molten stream of light too concentrated and beautiful to bear.
We lived at the bottom of a dead sea. There, in the San Joaquin Valley. In that stillness. That deep silence.
I don’t know if Marshall could see the challenges that lay in store for me in my own life. But he was a wise man. He would have known the value of solitude. The cultivation of it. The resiliency it might bring in times of sorrow, or pain.
The Netherlands. 2012.
Remember making love in the artist’s apartment near the canal bridge on Nieuwe Lagendijk? Not the night-love, but the sleepy morning-love that came after, that warm we’ve-just-slept-on-a-cloud love. Our lazy day love. The tall windows were cranked open, their loose curtains diffusing the light to a buttery cream. The carillon bells rang in the square and cyclists made their way to work on the pavement below. Time seemed to blur, no matter the outside world’s insistence.
You wrapped yourself in the loose folds of the bedsheet and we raided the fridge for any fruit and yogurt and leftovers we could find.
That afternoon we crossed the bridge and wandered through a large park. We paused to watch dragonflies darting over the tops of the hedges which lined each side of the path and stretched as far as we could see in both directions.
I thought of the glazed ceramic tiles we’d bought during the last market day—and the dragonfly depicted on the square surface of one of them. Its paired sets of wings, so delicately hand-painted by an artisan sometime in the 1700s, were stilled in flight over wetlands that can be seen in The Netherlands to this day. What I couldn’t have imagined then was the urn that I would need to commission from a raku potter afterward—that housing where you wait for me to join you. The dragonfly glazed forever in flight there. The way I now feel as if I need to grow a second set of wings beside the bony framework of scapula in my own back now. So that you might continue on somehow. Within me.
But none of that had happened yet. The afternoon lay open before us. The artist’s apartment awaiting us back in the city center. The windows open. Our bed of clouds. A slight breeze moving the curtains in waves. Birds I couldn’t name called out to one another from the leafy crowns of the trees around us, as if the trees themselves were singing in response to the sunlight showering its gold upon them.
That’s when you reached out your hand. The nearest dragonfly shifted left, then right, before hovering in the air a few feet in front of us. It seemed to consider the invitation you held suspended in the air, the soft palm of your hand facing the sky.
I held my breath.
I was transfixed by the moment. The sweetness of it. The look on your face as the dragonfly alighted on your palm.
Brian Turner is a writer and musician; author of My Life as a Foreign Country, two poetry collections (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise), and a debut album with The Interplanetary Acoustic Team. His most recent work is The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers (W.W. Norton & Company). He directs the MFA at Sierra Nevada University.