The Best and Worst of Firsts

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Out on the deck and under the umbrella, before the real heat of this August day, Sylvia wondered. Would it be more of the same? Coffee, household chores, lists. Or would she experience something new today? Perhaps a first of the best kind? As she gazed out into the woods behind the house, her curiosity wasn’t piqued by the panoramic view of the landscape that had recently changed in her life. From the quiet, seamless lines of blue where sky meets water on the cove to the lush drapes of greenery that fortressed her now, the change marked a beginning and an end. Or an end and a beginning. And that is where she stopped. The order of things had her baffled momentarily, yet with the very next sip from the sweaty tumbler of iced water, she was struck by a concept that she had never really thought about until that very second. Beginnings and endings are always, always, always firsts.

Sylvia: Firsts are daunting, anxiety-ridden, and paralyzing, Erma.

Erma: Firsts are exciting, hopeful, and motivating, my friend. Just think. When something unpleasant ends, it’s the last of it. That leaves you open and eager for the next step, a new lease, a new beginning.

Sylvia: I get that, but it also signifies the end of an era, a final point in the history of a relationship or process. That’s sad, wouldn’t you agree?

Erma: Sylvia, stop. Not every morsel of life needs to be qualified as happy or sad. It’s not that simple–or in your case, that complicated. Some times, most times in fact, firsts and lasts just happen. It’s not until you look back and you are in the thick or thin of another life experience that you can even begin to really define the impact of a beginning or an end.

Sylvia: Okay, for once I’m going to sit back with my mouth shut and let you explain. At this very second, every first of my life is flashing before my eyes and as I see each of them again, I’m becoming more and more distraught. Trapped somewhere between nostalgia and progress.

Erma: Jesus, Sylvia, it’s now afternoon, and we’re just beginning. No pun intended. I’m going to grab something out of your wine fridge. So, clear your mind, and don’t think until I get back. Seriously. Do not think at all. Do not deliberate, contemplate, and above all, do not ruminate. I’m going to share with you the best and worst of firsts over a nicely chilled Pinot Gris today. You’ll see. You can’t catalog the moments of your life as happy or sad, or as beginnings or endings for that matter. You can only define each moment as a first, for better or worse.

Firsts are when and where life takes place. All of it. Every moment. Some actions and events seem repetitive, and indeed they are! That does not mean that they aren’t different though. Two moments in time are never identical. Erma learned this powerful tidbit over the last seven-plus decades, and that fact alone imparted credibility to her words, even as she explained how brushing her teeth each morning had become firsts for her. She illustrated how she had gone from grinning ear-to-ear as she brushed her pearly whites each day of her teens and twenties to watching a reflection of a waning smile as she lost enamel and gained wine and coffee stains in her forties and fifties. And now, as she thought about those decades of brushing, Erma introduced more examples of firsts. Caps, crowns, root canals, veneers, and partials. “See, Sylvia. There are no instant replays or do-overs. Each brushing is and was a first. Each day is a first.” All of this seemed obvious and a bit comical as Erma so often tried to weave a lesson with just a dash of whimsy. It should have been clear, but it wasn’t to Sylvia. Until she and Erma mulled it over and hashed it out, Sylvia hadn’t considered that firsts represent both the best and worst of life.

Through smiles and intermingled tears of joy and sorrow (none of which either woman could attribute to the rich, sweet, golden elixir or to the fact that they had consumed the entire bottle of it as they indulged in one of their ordinary chats), Sylvia sat looking out on the verdant scenery she now called home. She reflected on those singular firsts which transported her from joyful and full of hope and pride one minute to melancholy and brimming with fear and guilt the next. First friend. First sleepover. First move. First date. First kiss. First one to travel abroad. First “D” and “F”. First one to graduate from college. All her firsts. She paused, took a breath in, and then exhaled. She began again. His first breath. His first tooth. His first word. His first step. His first tumble. His first day of school. His first heartbreak. His first paying job. His first apartment. She beamed for a split second. She hesitated, looked out to the woods beyond the fence, and started again. The first time she heard the word cancer. The first night without her. The first morning they woke up to her empty room. The first time he left the water running. The first time he forgot she had passed. The first time he couldn’t remember her name. The first time he needed to be fed. The first time he looked at her and somehow spoke more clearly than ever with his eyes because the words were no longer there. All firsts. Each and every one was the very last first of its kind. The best and worst of firsts, indeed.

Sylvia (sighing) : I get it now, Erma. It’s how you look at it and what you learn from it.

Erma: That’s right. You’ve got it, my dear. Love it or hate it? That’s not the point. Appreciate it all. Every first is your last first of that kind, with that person, in that place, at that moment. Beginning or ending.

No Substitutions

Sylvia: Erma, it’s been awhile.  Come on over. I’m in the mood to whip something up in the kitchen and could use some company. 

Erma: Do you need me to pick up any ingredients on my way over? Cake mix? Slice’n Bake cookie dough? Take-Out?  

Sylvia:  Oh no, none of that, Erma.  It’s all about starting from scratch this time…and no substitutions.

Erma: Good girl, now you’re catching on.

Sylvia hung up the phone and hurriedly moved across the kitchen to get the coffee going. After all, that was the beverage of choice for these two ladies when they were about to engage in deep conversation to offset otherwise mundane midday activities.  As Sylvia reached into the cupboard to grab the canister of French roast, she hesitated. Without over thinking, she closed the cupboard door and instead picked up her pace ever so slightly as she ventured to the wine rack in the corner of the dining room and selected a red blend, one befitting their friendship, their past conversations, and the time of day: Dreaming Tree Crush. Yes, by all means, yes.  This is exactly what Sylvia and Erma would need to analyze life’s recent events and to contemplate the future with just the right amount of wisdom and whimsy.  They could only benefit by a a bit of the grape to get them through the cooking portion of the afternoon, lest they forget the actual motivation for their impromptu get-together.

Sylvia, bottle and corkscrew in hand, returned to the kitchen to retrieve the stemless wine glasses she had yet to use, and this occasion seemed more than perfect for them if she and Erma were going to be multi-tasking.  Rustling around counter-tops covered with everything from flour to eggs to spices, and an opened bottle of red of course, called for stemless, much like coffee with her friend necessitated the over-sized, earthenware mugs. Clad in her black yoga pants and a vintage college sweatshirt, Sylvia threw on an apron and used the wine key to uncork the bottle and pour herself a couple of sips (a taste-test, let’s say).  At the very instant the crimson potion touched her lips, Sylvia realized something that for some reason had never occurred to her until that moment- when you want something, you want it. And no matter what anyone tells you, including all of the well-intentioned admonitions you are offered, there is never an adequate substitute for something your palate wants, your stomach craves, or your heart desires. No substitutions. Your decisions, big and small, much like a choice between coffee and wine, are made either painstakingly or swiftly, for better or worse.  In either case, once a commitment has been made, anything and everything else just won’t do. It’s not simply coffee or wine, ice cream or chocolate.  It’s more, much more.   It’s the difference between surviving and living. It’s the difference between living life and loving the life you live.

Sylvia poured herself a few more swallows (yes, sticking with the red) and sat down with the recipe box her mother had passed down to her.  Yep. Going to definitely make something from scratch. “I’ve got all of the ingredients right here in front of me.”

As Sylvia waited for Erma and thumbed through recipes, she kept revisiting the revelation that those first tastes of Dreaming Tree brought to light.  She herself had long been trying to satisfy her cravings with everything except that which appealed to her most. And the exchanges were indeed ridiculous!  In fact, in retrospect, the substitutions she had made to appease herself were neither sufficient nor satisfying in the least. For a few minutes, she thought about what she had done especially in recent months and even about life choices she had made as recently as yesterday.  Sylvia, taking another sip and this time letting it rest on her tongue, came to an unsettling realization: the things, the experiences, and the people that she sought to replace, whether for a brief moment in time or for the rest of eternity, could not be switched out. And as many times as she had tried to rebuild herself, strengthen her resolve to live a happier life, and to allow herself to love, she concluded that somehow her dreams had been crushed.  Her hopes and desires weren’t extinguished by anything or anyone; they hadn’t even become a blend of her wants and the desires and needs of the important others who comprised her tribe. Looking into the bottom of the stemless wine tumbler, she finally comprehended the main source of her discontent. She had settled. She was still settling. Sylvia’s dreams, hopes, desires, cravings, and wants had always been substituted for something other than that which she truly yearned for. She never wanted to be the peacemaker. She never wanted to be the people-pleaser.  She never wanted to be an angst-ridden fifty-something who looked lovely on the outside but who was dying on the inside.  Sylvia realized that she had replaced all that she wanted with everything to make those around her like her, admire her, love her, and respect her.  And while her soul was being whittled away each time she conceded or retreated, she met disappointment head-on because there was no replacement for what she wanted. Sylvia. Sylvia wanted to love and be loved on her terms.  So, while her tribe had been content with her fulfilling their needs and helping them realize their dreams, she had failed to demand or ask of them the one thing that she had wanted from them. She yearned for them to know her and treat her with the respect that she had shown them. She had accepted less, much less. But no more. No substitutions.

The door bell rang, and as she opened the door widely to welcome her trusted friend and confidante, Sylvia smiled and declared, “I’m ready to start from scratch.  Come on in.”

Are you there, Sylvia? It’s me, Erma. Pick up.

Sylvia, Sylvia, for Christ’s sake, pick up the phone. Did you make it to your final destination? How was the layover in Charlotte? 

So, what do you think? Did she make it to her final destination?  Well, here’s the thing about going places. Each step that one takes, each stop along the way- no matter how big or small-each wrong turn or unexpected detour is by itself a destination. Part of one’s journey and perhaps even in the bigger picture part of one’s fate or destiny. So, yes, Sylvia made it. In fact, she made it to several destinations, o-ver and o-ver and o-ver again. 

Sylvia and Cam sat quietly at the bar, and as all of the extraneous noise dissipated around them and all of the onlookers, patrons, and passersby faded into the background, they remained there next to each other, fingertips now gently touching, gazing intensely and wantingly into one another’s eyes, and smiling so big that all that existed between them was warmth and desire. Heat. Pure heat. Palpable sexual tension. Tension if left leashed would surely suffocate them. 

Sylvia never realized that her fingertips were so sensitive, but with each gentle brushing of his against hers, a shiver traveled; her heart raced, and butterflies began to flutter. And just when the fingertip dance seemed as if it was waning, Cam laid his hand on the bar next to hers, palm up, all the while inviting her with his eyes to put her hand in his. In the very instant she obliged, their eyes met and then their lips. 

Her lips had not been kissed so fully, gently, and yearningly in forever. And although they had just met, their connection flowed naturally. No awkwardness. No apprehension. For the first time in a very long time, Sylvia thought of no one but herself.  Perhaps even thoughts of herself escaped her when Cam invited her into that instant. She wasn’t obsessing about anything or anyone. Her world, the one that Erma had encouraged her to take a break from, ceased to exist.  The only vision that Sylvia had was of that “steamy, hot cup of coffee” and at the moment, it was real. He was real. With the meeting of lips and seamless intertwining of tongues, Sylvia’s body and soul awakened. She and Cam were no longer sitting side by side, although exactly when their bodies had changed position she was not aware. They faced each other, and taking a momentary reprieve from the deliciousness of their soft, gentle kisses, they looked at one another and knew that something special-something so simply sensual and new yet inexplicably pleasing and familiar – was happening. 

Just as they stood hand in hand ready to set off and explore one another, the loud speaker beckoned, “American Airlines flight 136 to Chicago is now scheduled for departure. Anyone holding a boarding pass should proceed to Gate C15.” Sylvia,however, wasn’t hurrying for the flight. Intrigued by and eager to continue this adventure rather than what awaited her in Chicago, she made a bold move, one that was spontaneous and unlike her (or maybe this was the real Sylvia-champing at the bit to explore uncharted territory). As they held hands tightly and their energies fueled one another, she asked, “So, what’s your schedule?” His reply came quickly and unrehearsed, “I’m planning on taking a day or two to become well-acquainted with a new friend if she has the time.” Unable to resist the twinkle in his eye and the sincerity in his voice, Sylvia commented, “Perfect. Just perfect.” 

Flight 136 departed without Sylvia.  And in what seemed to be an instant, the layover in Charlotte became her destination. Their destination. 

“And if I didn’t think, I’d be much happier,” said Sylvia.* And lo and behold she was; and it was only the beginning. 

*The final quote in the above blog post is taken from Sylvia PlathThe Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath