Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A New Level of Self-Indulgence: "Valuables"

I know I keep saying this, but truly, THIS will be the most self-indulgent thing I’ve done on this blog. (At least it sets a new bar.) Here is a personal essay that I wrote several years ago that was never published. Maybe there are good reasons for that, but maybe not.

Part of the reason might be that after a certain point this piece felt dated to me, so I stopped sending it out since it’s non-fiction and I can’t change the dates around to suit my writing needs (one of the 10 zillion reasons why I find writing fiction easier than non-fiction).

But I also know that another part of the reason is what we all know: that the business side of our writing lives is always at the mercy of the subjective whims of strangers who may or may not get what you’re saying, who may or may not like the first person point of view, who may or may not like the font you’ve presented your piece in, who may or may not have a killer headache when they slit open your hopeful envelope, who may or may not think the piece you’ve struggled over is any good and who may or may not be right about that two-second assessment.

So, the joy has to be in the process of writing itself, in the desire to find and tell the story artfully. And for me, self-indulgent or not, this is a story that I don’t feel quite right locking forever into a drawer.

(Sorry this is so long—I still haven’t figured out how to continue posts to another page.)

a personal essay by Leslie Pietrzyk

My engagement and wedding rings are in a business-size envelope at the bottom of my safety deposit box. I’ve kept them there for about six years, since my husband died of a heart attack when he was thirty-seven and I was thirty-five. I wore the rings for about six months after his death, then one day I took them off. For a year after, a pale indentation circled the third finger of my left hand—sort of a ghost ring—but that’s gone now, though occasionally my thumb reaches to stroke the diamond of the missing engagement ring.

There are no children to pass the rings to. Anyway, these rings are not spectacular. One is a plain gold band, not even engraved with a date or name. The other is a standard mall jewelry store engagement ring: a small diamond solitaire, not worth a great deal of money, though at the time, my future husband cleared out his savings account to buy it for me. Frankly, no one else would want these rings, though they are exactly what I asked for back then.

Recently, I decided to keep my passport in the safe deposit box, and instead of quickly dropping it into the metal box and leaving the vault, I impulsively carried my box to one of the nearby privacy cubicles, which was little more than a short, walled-off area with a hard chair, built-in counter, and a half-door with no lock. Sitting there reminded me of being in a stall in the ladies room, that same faux privacy.

The envelope with the rings was at the very bottom, buried under the car title and computer disks containing my book manuscripts, some photographs, our marriage license, my birth certificate, and the other documents one is expected to keep in a safe deposit box. The bank’s vault is lined with rows and columns of metal boxes, each filled with mortgage pay-offs and appraisals—the things we are told to safeguard against a fire burning down the house, a tornado striking, a flood, someone breaking in like the Grinch and stealing the absolute last scrap of everything. No one expects to need the implied safety of that 3x5x16 inch metal box—in the newspaper or on TV, the houses that catch fire at two in the morning are never ours.

I lift the engagement ring out of the envelope and slide it onto my finger; it still fits perfectly, Cinderella-like; why am I surprised? My finger hasn’t changed. I tilt my hand, trying to make the diamond flash, but the stone won’t catch the fluorescent light. I wonder if there’s security camera surveillance on me—every inch of the bank seems to be under scrutiny—and consider that someone watching me might think I’ve come to the bank specifically to slip on a locked-away diamond ring in the privacy cubicle.

Actually, I hadn’t been thinking about the rings at all. I was just making an ordinary trip to the bank, one of the countless errands to cross off a to-do list, few of them memorable in any way. But here I am, looking down at a ring on my finger. My thumb sneaks inward to touch the diamond, then spins the ring, that old tic apparently not forgotten.

Robb and I were married ten and a half years, together for a total of almost thirteen, which means that right now—six years and these few months—is about halfway to the point where I will have been without him longer than I had been with him. I want to say I catch my breath at this realization, but truthfully I’m not surprised. You don’t want your mind to make these calculations, but it does, trying to make you believe for half a second that life is not as random as it appears—that there actually is a reason to find yourself in the bank, twirling an engagement ring around your finger.

The bank’s interior is tired and dated, everything with a dingy feel, as if dipped in yellow wax. The fluorescent lights buzz, a quiet, insistent, hissy whzz-zzzz. A phone rings softly in the distance, high heels tick across the floor. This is a very secure place, this bank, purposely giving the impression that nothing much has changed since it was built.

Shouldn’t I understand intuitively how a point in time halfway to another point in time is significant—if it is? I stop spinning the ring, place both hands flat on the counter in front of me.

Robb’s gold band is not in this box. When you don’t expect you’re going to die, others are forced to answer those difficult questions for you, like, Do you want to be buried wearing your wedding ring? Of the countless things I suddenly couldn’t imagine, I especially couldn’t imagine Robb’s hand stripped bare of its familiar ring. So I left it on. Some people told me that was the right decision, some said it wasn’t. If I had decided otherwise, his ring would be here with mine in the envelope and I could look at right now. And think what? Feel what? Would a ring make me remember my dead husband better or more clearly or differently?

Then why are my rings here, locked away at the bottom of a safe deposit box? I’m not unique in having rings that can’t be thrown away, pawned, passed along, or worn. The world heaves and overflows with death, divorce, broken engagements—widows, divorcees, girls left at the altar. But my rings are different simply because they’re mine, and I’m remembering my dead grandfather, and that pencil can stuffed with dozens of McDonald’s coffee stirrers that we casually threw away when we cleaned out his house after he died. This? Junk. Gone in two seconds—though it was 1995 when he died, and it’s still vivid to me: that can in the exact center of the dresser, in front of the mirror, precisely where you’d place a trophy.

In the endless week after my husband’s death, I learned that an aunt of his had died unexpectedly, in her early thirties, of a heart attack. No one—including my husband— had ever mentioned her to me, which at the time made me angry. Heredity! Genetics! If only I’d known! Most likely no one had thought of her untimely death as anything other than random misfortune—and maybe her heart attack—and genetics and heredity—have nothing to do with my husband and his heart. Maybe if I had known about the aunt nothing would have changed or maybe everything would have changed.

Is all of it important? None of it? A can of coffee stirrers may not equal a diamond ring. Or it may. Does the ring mean the same thing if I have a jeweler mount the diamond in a necklace? If it sits in a desk drawer instead of a bank vault? If no one knows that here it is, carefully hidden away in a safe deposit box? If my husband hadn’t died and I could have worn it until I was a hundred years old? My brain, so keen to calculate time and assign meaning, is unexpectedly useless at answering these questions. Yet I keep asking, assuming there will be a day when everything makes sense.

I slide the ring off my finger and I suppose this should be a significant moment, seeing my hand once again unimaginably empty. But it’s time to go—that to-do list, a lunch date with a friend…. I drop the ring into the envelope, where it clicks against the wedding band. Then I tuck the envelope underneath all the other papers and disks and things that I’m keeping safe. I open the half-door and leave the cubicle, looking for the bank clerk who will lock up my stuff again.

We step into the vault, heading for Box 628, on the left side of the wall, twenty-two columns in, seven rows from the top—its position could be charted on graph paper. The clerk slides my box into its slot and pushes shut the tiny door. She inserts her key, then my key, and turns them simultaneously. The box is now locked. Who knows when I’ll look inside it again? She sets my key in my outstretched hand and smiles. “Have a great day,” she says.

I will. It’s sunny and bright and blue outside, not too hot. Vietnamese food for lunch—yum. We will always insist on numbers, reasons, answers, logic, because everything is so much tidier that way—six dozen coffee stirrers thrown into the garbage, the aunt who is never mentioned, and the problematic ring—maybe worth about seven hundred bucks—forever locked up and safe in Box 628. His ring, buried. Of course, the number, reason, answer, or logic to any of these things will never exist, but does that matter when flames are racing across the random, dark night?


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.