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February 19, 2024

Time Traveler 04

By Sand Pilarski

Dinner and homework done, I retired to the patio to listen to the distant boom of the surf against the cliffs. The back of my house sits on a secondary cliff, not the one that gets the pounding waves. On a kind of terrace down below, the city has kindly made a wide bike and hike path along the lower cliff, and that evening there were still a few joggers and bicyclists moving back and forth in the dimming light. The marine layer of fog was rising over the water, with its usual good timing to obscure the late sunset.

If the fog didn't rise nearly every evening to break the rays of the westering sun, I would imagine that with the glass doors and windows that formed the west wall of my living area, my house would have been miserably hot. As it was, there was just enough sun that broke through the fog to make the interior a temperature pleasant for walking around in shorts and a t-shirt. However, there were very few nights when one would do that on the patio.

I had not one, not two, but five polar fleece blankets to choose from for wrapping around me when I sat outside at night -- almost every night that I could. There was a cool-toned blue one for summer evenings when I'd been hot during the day; a rusty red and gold and green one for autumn. A black one that I loved like a teddy bear, and a chic dark blue one with a gold thread border for guests. And my personal favorite, the one I had wrapped around my shoulders that evening, a lurid purple, blue, and green patterned one. Surrounding myself with passionate colors, I watched the mist of the marine layer beginning to race and sift past my face as the swirls jumbled off the ocean to nudge the tourists and joggers away from the streets of town. The warmth of my body started to reflect back even as the air chilled radically, and I snuggled a little deeper into my deck chair, having a sip of my glass of wine.

I was reminded of a book about the Far East, perhaps one of Clavell's, and a fictional conversation in one of them about the heat of the monsoon season; a Japanese woman in a layering of kimonos comments something to the effect of "Whatever did we do before silk?" I could paraphrase: Whatever did we here on the coast do before polar fleece?

Well, not just on the coast, pretty much anywhere it gets cold.

And truly, I know what we did before polar fleece.

En aquellos dias ... zhili bili Dyed y Baba ... once upon a time ... the world was of wool and of cotton; if you were rich you had recourse to furs when the weather was cold; if you were really poor you could stuff newspapers inside your shirt or shoes, and many did so without censure.

With loathing I remember an outfit I was forced to wear for years in the winter time of Pennsylvania, where I grew up. The instrument of torture was hideously bright blood red, a so-called 'snow suit' made of wool, wool batting, and a wool lining. The batting was as uncomfortably lumpy as a beach towel on a gravel driveway, and as stiff as a sarcophagus. At my youngest in the wretched armor, the only activity I could do in the snow was to fall down and not be able to get up without wrenching my muscles squirming, which would only serve to drive snow down my neck and into my boots. Uncomfortable, must go inside.

The accursed thing had gussets and suspenders to allow for growth in the pants and coat, so I had to wear it for what seemed like an age of the earth. As I grew stronger, I could climb to my feet again more easily after a fall in the snow, and was even able to navigate in a deeper snow, but then the continued drawbacks of wool became still more evident: the damned thing let body heat out enough to melt snow and was as absorbent of water as a sponge. Make that cold water, don't forget. Naturally it would take several days to dry out completely, and that meant that I either had to limit my outdoor play in the snow to about twenty minutes to keep dry, or push the limit to an hour and then have to stay inside for the next few days.

Luckier, poorer children were just sent out in their pants and dresses to frolic red-kneed in the worst of weather as they liked.

There were no synthetic blends in those days; there were no synthetics. Silk was a rich city person's toy, and as I recall, my mother was not even in possession of an article of silk. Or did she perhaps have a scarf made of that fabled material? The silk blouses of her youth were all gone with the passage of time.

Wool was for keeping warm in the winter, in stiff coats with cotton quilted linings, and the cotton fabrics were for summer. Not so different from today, some might think, except that there was no such thing as wrinkle-free, 'no ironing necessary' cotton. It was just cotton. Heavy fibered cotton as in duck or denim; lightweight cotton in calico or oxford cloth.

Good steam irons were still a novelty; cotton goods were 'sprinkled' with drops of water, then rolled and stacked to be ironed while still damp. To sprinkle, you have a bowl of water nearby, and then use your hand to scoop some water. In a loose fist, you shake the drops as evenly as you can over the fabric. Took a lot of practice.

People fortunate enough to have a large refrigerator could even sprinkle clothes the night before and keep them in the fridge so that they wouldn't mildew, and then iron the well- and evenly-dampened clothes in the cool of the morning.

Sometimes it astounds me nowadays to see how few people know how to iron clothing, not that I prefer ironing to say, going for a walk, or making a floral arrangement. But it was a required skill in the days of my youth.

Rayon and nylon were the miracles of those long ago days. In hardly a sneeze worth of time, cotton batting was quilted on one side with nylon, increasing heat retention in the winter climes by hours-more worth of outdoor time. Tighter and tighter they wove the nylon fabrics, till wind-breakers were invented, and everyone had them.

Rayon was problematic; it looked good and was very durable, but the slightest bit too much heat from an iron or dryer, and pow! melted blouse. That wonder fabric burst onto the textile scene like a falling star, bright and wondrous, and then disappeared, not versatile enough. My father worked in a rayon factory, and nearly lost his job and our house when they stopped producing rayon, leaving the poor orphan strands to gather mildew in warehouses while they courted a new lover, a Wonder of the Modern World: Polyester.

Polyester was a tramp. In solid form, it was a mysterious plastic cube. Melted down, it could be shaped and drawn and teased into soft strands of cord, or yarn, or thread. The yarn, woven into a mat, would take the wear of a hundred mats of jute. The thread, drawn finely into delicate strands, would weave into a cloth that could last ten, maybe twenty years without the wear pattern and gradual thinning and weakening of cotton. And capture heat? Hah! With polyester, the trick is to keep the body cool and let the sweat escape, even in winter weather. They blended the polyesters and nylons with cotton and wool, and made miracles of wrinkle-less shirts and pants, and lightweight winter wear that was so inexpensive there was no reason for anyone to freeze to death ever again.

Arachne challenges wise Athena to weave cloth. Athena spins thread of finest cotton, and makes a cloth of cotton gauze so delicate that when its folds brush the skin, the wearer thinks that the currents of air are kissing her like a lover. Arachne laughs like a child and weaves a gown of polyester that shimmers like the Sun upon the River and sheds stains like rainwater off a leaf. "I can do more with my thread Polyester than you can order Cotton to do in a lifetime!" she brags, and Athena kicks her right out of the temple of the gods with a boot print on her ass.

"You fool," Athena tells her, "Polyester is like an infestation of poisonous insects. True that your thread is durable and the master of disguise. True that it will weave warmly and hang neatly. But once made, it cannot be destroyed completely. Even fire will only melt it to blobs, nuggets of sterile matter which will endure until the end of time, monuments to your foolishness and pride, clogging the sewers and dirtying the earth. My thread will live a life of honor close to the skin of its wearer, and in the end, go back into the earth to feed the other living creatures. For your presumption and stupidity, you get to join the poisonous insects and get swatted off the walls where ever mankind finds you. And believe me, you're getting off easy."

On her eight legs, Arachne trundles off to the world of Men, shifting her suitcase of sample yarns from foot to foot, to sell Mankind a product he and she cannot resist. She will be swatted and loathed, but Polyester will become a staple of the textile industry.

If I have my choice, I'll stay with cottons and wools and silks. They just feel better to me. And they're made better now. Not so limited in scope. Poor old rayon has made a comeback, too, with technology keeping it, too, wrinkle free and even machine washable in many cases.

But in cold, damp weather none of them can hold a candle to polar fleece for wonder and comfort. I don't know yet how long this fuzzy soft child of Arachne's wonder thread holds up; I've never had to throw out or give any object made of it away.

What made me choose the passionate purple and green blanket tonight? I wondered. Sure as hell wasn't being out to lunch with Radigan. Don't men like that ever figure out why they don't have a lot of repeat dates or why they can't attract a spouse? Of course I was silly to assume that Radigan might want a wife. An audience, perhaps, but not a constant companion who might make demands on him, demands like "Neil, I do not enjoy field trips to look for phallic symbols."

Neil's conversational casual questions about Moersgard? Secretly missing Jacob's attention? I watched the white trailers of the fog, like the white of Moersgard's beard, though not as neatly trimmed. If he knocked on my door tonight, what would I say to him? I chuckled a little, placing the wineglass against my forehead, safely snuggled in my warm blanket, ready to imagine the white-haired horny dean at my door.

"Did the young honey kick you out?" I might ask him. Or, "Couldn't keep up with her, could you?" With relief I realized what I would not say to him was, "Come on in and come to bed, you old fool."

I really didn't have a problem with his switch of interest from me to a young woman who was enjoying his influence. He was a wonderful man, talented, vigorous, and charming. But I'd never been in love with him, and I hadn't been the least put out that he backed out of our clandestine relationship. Indeed, I was more than a bit relieved that I wouldn't be breaking his heart to leave when I began to feel restless.

On the other hand, perhaps I held a teeny bit of rancor (but only a miniscule drop) that he'd sidestepped me to a younger woman -- in her twenties by all accounts. He had to know that she was only interested in his prestige, (at least one thought so), whereas I was interested in his prestige and his intellect. Pondering this, I laughed aloud. He was probably as interested in her big tits as in her youth. I had neither, and wanted neither. But I thought, damn you, Moersgard! We had some fun times together.

I finished my last bit of wine and went indoors, hanging the polar fleece over a kitchen chair to let the droplets of mist evaporate.

Sunday morning, after I'd read the newspaper and looked at some of the ads just to annoy myself enough to get moving, I decided that for my Sunday dinner I would grill some chicken and then toss it with some of that wonderful salad I'd had at Giammarino's Delicatessen a few days before. So I showered and blew dry my hair to make it puff up into a bleached blonde mane, painted my face and -- gasp! -- drove down town. Normally I would take the bus, having an almost fanatical belief in the necessity of use of public transportation, but I was getting hungrier by the second thinking about that herb and cheese dressing on the veggies, and wanted my big meal NOW, not later in the day. Was it the sunshine? The last time my end of town had seen the sun was when Radigan and I were at the Deli, and here on a late weekend morning, the sun was able to subdue the marine layer. Instant Pavlov's dog with sunlight and crisp taste of herbs in olive oil?

I went to the parking garage rather than dick around with hunting curbside spaces. I hate looking for curbside parking. Makes me feel like one of those fat slow flies that circle dumpsters. I walked along the crowded sidewalks (the sun brings everyone out) past Dollonger's Warp and Woof (grandest sweaters I've ever seen or worn) and Wordsmith's (stationery, reference books, and some art supplies), and three black men playing saxophone, bass, and keyboards, with about fifty people standing around listening.

On the next block was a man playing the violin, only six people standing to listen, which was a shame, because he sounded good. I paused to listen, being a sucker for violin pieces, even though I have no musical talent and probably couldn't, in a pinch, tell talent from hack. I twitched in surprise, and moved on at a brisk pace. The man playing the violin was the dark haired fellow I'd seen looking at me in the Deli the week before.

Poor fellow, I thought. No wonder he looks so worn. I'd drop some bills in his cup, but there was that look of recognition he gave me ... No stalkers for Dr. Renoir, no indeedy. I let the photographer in my brain look back over the scene, from his all-black outfit (god, did any artistic types in these coastal towns ever wear anything but black -- including me?) to his curly hair, to his closed violin case, and an empty sidewalk around him. No cup. No begging bowl. Just a man playing a violin, his curls tossing a little with the movement of his arms. Aha, a nut case.

I paced on to Giammarino's and made a bee line for the deli cooler. Yes! They had the savory vegetable salad, so I scooped up and paid for two. Turning to go back to the parking garage, I saw the dark haired man carrying a violin case headed toward Giammarino's. I stopped, and as I looked at him, he saw me and stopped, too. Shit, I thought in sudden fear. This is not good. I looked in the other direction down the street, and decided to play fox like Kimsky taught me in our sophomore college days when James got mad at me not waiting for him to call in the dorms. We would leave notes on our door, "Stopping by the library" and then we would stop by for a drink in the library lobby, and from there wander around town, keeping an eye out for James' blue car. Kimsky could spot it a block away, and we would duck into stores and out their back doors and back track and cut through narrow alleys and across campus lawns ... Mislead, misdirect, flat out lie, but don't get tracked. I turned left and walked briskly through the meandering people until I got to St. Bartholomew's Episcopalian Church on the same block as Giammarino's, and ducked in a side door. There was a door to the main church, and one with a stairway. I opted for the stairway, as I had attended quite a few concerts in the big church and had on a few occasions toured the loft areas to enjoy the incredible panorama of stained glass windows that were the choir's reward for singing. Moreover, I knew there was a stair on the opposite side as well. Up, over, down and out the other side. As I closed the stairway door behind me, I thumbed the deadbolt lock on it, and silently sneaked up the steps to the choir loft. There I peered over the balcony rail at the door like a cat seeing an intent dog approach.

The side door opened, and the dark haired man entered the church, still carrying his violin case. I sunk down, slinking to the far end of the balcony as he went back out to the side foyer and tried the door to the loft. He came back into the main body of the church and looked around, a disappointed expression on his face. I was watching him through a small cutout in the balcony wall, and as he went back out the side door, that was my cue to sneak down the steps on the opposite side of the choir loft (thank god for a bolthole!) and out of the church on that side. I all but ran down the alley to Center Street, turned left, and took a long way around on busy streets to the parking garage, got in my car, locked the doors immediately, and flew home to my haven.

Fucking weirdos, I mumbled to myself more than once that day. The grilled chicken diced up with the feta herb sauce vegetables was wonderful, but I was not about to enter the downtown district again without an escort for a while.

Sometime in the middle of that night, I awakened, sweating and fearful in the dark, having dreamt that James was the man who followed me to the deli. Years ago I had made as certain as I knew how that he would never know where I was. It was my belief that he didn't know that I had changed my name, and thus could not know what my name was now. My number was always unlisted in the phone book; I corresponded with no one back east except Kimsky in Ohio. Even so, the horror still lingered in my subconscious, after more than twenty years, that somehow James would come knocking at the door of my house and destroy my paradise.

For all I knew, he could be married again, with a family; what I did know was that he was still listed in the phone book of the same town we lived in when I left him. I'd done a directory listing search on him on my computer two years ago, just to satisfy myself that there were still about three thousand miles of continent between me and him.

Nevertheless, I got up in the dark and checked every door and window to make sure they were all locked.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-08-08
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