Dr. Roan suggested that a short walk every evening might clear my head. Even an ordinary autumn is beautiful, and the backyard pulls me uphill to the bank of rocks around the creek. The air is chilly but not cold, and snow clouds are billowing up past the horizon. It’s the best weather for hiking. Halfway to a comfortable perch on the biggest boulder, I realize these woods would be the perfect place for kids to explore. There aren’t any kids, though, and if our adoption fund doesn’t get a significant kick start soon, there might never be any. We’ve only been in upstate New York about a year, and we’re mired in a hazy sort of limbo.
Rural New York hadn’t been the plan. Marrying after graduate school, we were just biding time until those fulfilling arts and education jobs presented themselves. The current jobs were limbo jobs – just to pay the bills until we found something with purpose, just until the student loans were paid off, just until we could really start to live the life we planned. That meant sleeping in our rented limbo that had advertised excellent insulation, but was really a drafty former baseball hat factory that guzzled heating oil. There were days and days of frozen pipes and no water, as we duct taped ourselves in each night to keep the drifting snow from piling up on our side of the French doors. Limbo was full of scrimping and saving, being patient until we could afford a vacation or a baby or two. Everything seemed to be so far down the road – never in the present. Was this life, forever waiting for something to happen? People strive to live in the moment, but what if there’s not much going on in your moment? What if everything is a pipe dream’s length away, always just beyond the horizon or around the next bend, just one more paycheck away? How do you savor the life you’ve got when it’s not what you want it to be? Or is that journey the whole point of existence?
Shots echo from deep in the woods. Is it hunting season already? A gust of wind stirs the fallen leaves, and as they swirl by, all of them are dry, crackled brown. The foliage peaked weeks ago, and none of the trees were as gorgeous as last year. The locals say the summer was too hot for good color, and this fall seems more melancholy than most. Autumn is definitely my preferred season, and last year I had interviewed for the job here at the height of the most radiant autumn ever.
The Managing Director had advised caution, “You’re seeing us at our best, but don’t be fooled. It’s not always like this.”
And of course, she was right, but those trees and that Indian Summer sun reflected up from the lake were so intoxicating – why would anyone want to live or work anywhere else in the world? That scenery had beckoned intoxicatingly, calling us to this lovely place to be. How could there not be hope and peace, here along the Glimmerglass?
A year later the vibrant reds and rusty oranges and sunny yellows are missing – and even the warm waxy mochas and chocolatey browns of the autumn palette are few and far between. To be fair, the leaves are certainly brown, but they’re dried up and fragile, bland and bare, ragged and dull. They scuttle by like dirty, amber snow. This wasn’t the anticipated season. Perhaps that other autumn had been a fluke, a taunt, a rare occurrence, happening once every decade or two. Instead of an annual promise of beauty, there had really been a temporary gift that I should have been grateful to experience just once.
There’s still loveliness, but you have to watch carefully. Just when the trees look drab and depressing, a shower of leaves will dance on the wind to remind you that every season has its gifts and its hidden beauty marks. We just don’t always see them when we’re busy mourning what we’re missing.
These limbo days are sad, and I’m struggling, but most days failing miserably. The new anti-depressant, behavioral therapy, joining the gym – I haven’t lost any weight, and I’m sleeping way too much. The feeling is familiar. It’s not about what’s actually going on in life, but that certainly doesn’t help. Work is stressful. The assistant manager was passed over for the job I have now, so he does as little work as possible and sucks the joy out of the office. My husband hasn’t been able to find a job in his field and is working for a miserly boss at terrible pay. This part of the state is as rural as Pennsylvania, but the cost of living doesn’t reflect it. Rent, heating oil, even groceries are a fortune here. Limbo is expensive, too. Four hours from Broadway might as well be a million because there are no funds for weekend jaunts.
The cognitive therapy books say to act like you’re happy until you actually feel it, but more often than not I just feel like a fraud, trying to be something foreign. The books would ask: Can you prove that? Is it helpful? Does it make you feel better? If not, you should discard it and change gears.
A childhood memory flashes to mind. I’m suddenly about seven years old happily coloring with cousins in their basement. The youngest one pulls out a smooth yellow crayon without any paper left on it and asks what my favorite color is. Just one favorite? I preferred to use all the colors so none of them got their feelings hurt. Those were normal thoughts for an only child, right? Looking intently at the big pile of colors, I try to decide which one is the best.
“Brown!” I finally answered excitedly, holding up the waxy well-worn stick that had just been used to make gorgeous tree trunks on manila paper. Brown was the color of furniture and teddy bears and chocolate labs. My hair and my eyes were brown, and so were suede winter boots. No other choice made quite as much sense.
The cousins had laughed at the selection. They said brown was just dirty, the hue of rotten teeth and messy diapers and ugly school shoes. My oldest cousin said brown wasn’t even a color scientifically, just a messed-up shade of orange. Another offered the wisdom that the big mud puddle between their yard and the neighbors’ was brown, and that Tonya the neighbor girl had drunk from the mud puddle and gotten pinworms.
“What’s that got to do with brown?” I had demanded.
She thought for a moment and then said, “Well, the pinworms are prob’ly brown, too. Brown’s a stupid color.”
Everyone was staring, judging the choice, and their negative comments seemed to make sense all at once. Shamed and searching for another tint, one that was clean and pretty and right, I glanced at my manila picture with its sturdy trees and giant four-leaf clovers.
“I was just kidding,” I said smiling desperately and holding my breath, using every one of my night-star wishes that my new choice would be acceptable. “My real favorite color is green.”
The oldest cousin was suspicious. He didn’t quite buy the sudden shift, like he knew in his heart of hearts that I really did love a shameful color like brown, but mercifully he said nothing. Maybe he felt sorry for me because my Daddy had left, while he still had his, and because I didn’t have straw blonde hair like the other girl cousins, or sparkly blue eyes like summer skies full of puffy sheep clouds. Those girls liked pink and red, for hearts and love, and their fathers told them bedtime stories and took them to the zoo. Their hearts never looked like sliced apples that had turned brown inside. So, whatever the reason, he let me pretend that green was my favorite color, and the coloring commenced as the afternoon grew long.
Well into college, I was still claiming that green was the loveliest hue in all the world, and a decade after that, still measuring my responses, making sure to always say what I thought people wanted to hear. That way people would like you and never single you out, but that didn’t always mean you would be happy with yourself. That didn’t mean you would be bold and decisive and the life of the party that everyone admires. Just because you were kind and principled didn’t mean you’d have the skill to express yourself without losing your cool or the argument, and just because you were taking up space on the planet didn’t mean you would feel like an important and effective part of the world.
Leigh suddenly came to mind, a funny and sarcastic friend from undergrad with a gorgeous voice but not so perfect body. She had never been satisfied with her life either, always striving toward something else. Sometimes she made terrible decisions. Some of the things she had done over the years seemed truly scandalous, but she was her own person. She hadn’t liked being overweight in college. As soon as she could afford it, she had bariatric surgery. She wanted to be married and not live alone in a studio apartment anymore. She married a great guy who made good money. She wanted to work in the arts. She practically created a job for herself and produced children’s theatre full time. She wanted a baby. She went through every fertility option, and then when it turned out her husband was sterile and not all that interested in kids, she left him and found another husband who was as eager as she was to procreate. And eventually she ended up with that baby, Arabella, a lovely little girl just like she wanted.
When we last spoke, Leigh had been planning the myriad of details for Arabella’s first birthday, over a month away. Everything was already ordered exactly to mom’s specifications. Leigh was busy, but was she happy, satisfied? Did she want more? Was she savoring every moment of Baby Ara’s first year – or was she just planning ahead? Was she so consumed with the birthday, that she missed a first step, a first word, a new expression? Did she ever sit in her yard on a boulder and think of childhood insecurities, mentally whining about not living up to her personal standards? Was she ever plagued by depression, paralyzed by anxiety? Was her life enough?
I’ll never know. A week before Arabella’s birthday, Leigh died in her sleep, the shocking and unexplained death of a thirty-something woman. Was it drugs, alcohol, her heart, bariatric complications, an aneurysm, an unforeseen stroke? Or had she just gotten everything she wanted, and her journey was over? Did she slip away peacefully with a smile on her lips?
What lessons could Leigh leave behind for those of us still on the journey? How could we keep climbing our mountains, knowing that even for the young, sometimes the next bend is the last one? The last spectacular fall vista? The last birthday party? Can you prove it? Not until it’s too late. Is it helpful? Not in the least. Does it make you feel better? Not even a little.
Taking a deep breath, I will myself to focus on something else. Four things to see, three things to hear, two things to smell, and one that I can touch. The sun is slipping behind the hill now, and the crisp air is starting to bite a little. A twig cracks sharply as the critters start to venture out for the night. The scent of frying hamburger wafts out to mingle with the creekbank and faraway wood smoke. The cold breeze is fresh and filling. I hold my breath as long as I can and pray that I will be stronger tomorrow.
Like an answer, three toffee-tinged maple leaves drop from above, twirling gently until they rustle to the ground. Tucking one into a pocket, I head toward the house. The winter is coming, but I’m still fighting and hanging on tight. So, Dr. Roan was right about the walk. This limbo afternoon is now golden brown, and there’s hope after all, because brown is my favorite color.
M.H. Lee has been published in The Quotable, Green Eggs and Hamlet, Forge Journal, and RearView Mirror. She graduated with an MA in theatre from Texas A&M University-Commerce and a BA in journalism and theatre from Southeastern Oklahoma State University. She has studied with Billie Letts and Stoney Hardcastle. Having lived in several states growing up, she is now working as a foster care recruiter for DHS in Oklahoma.