You get dumped after four years and you look around to find that everything has shut down while you were out. Not only is this boring but it's also lonely, and you sit there in the neon chill of your cubicle at Weisman, Sellers, and Frank way up in Burlington thinking I'm alone, all all alone, not to mention practically in Canada. Or that—here's the thing—you're edging out of your natural childbirth years and moving on toward frozen sperm. You don't cry because forty-three and counting is too old to cry. You call your best friend, the one you don't see much anymore because she's done it all already—house down in Silver Springs, great job, great kids, her own Mr. Right. Well, her own Mr. Okay.
Just thought I'd say hello.
You don't sound like yourself.
You ought to get out of that apartment of yours.
I am. I'm at work.
You know what I mean, Em. Your hermit tendencies. I bet you're holing up again. Get out, meet some people. Maybe you ought to join something?
Oh, how about the Buddhists? Or a class of some kind. Isn't there something you'd like to learn?
Sure, scuba diving. But in Lake Champlain? In the winter?
Maybe there's an indoor tank.
Pottery? You liked that back at school.
You might meet people there.
Nope. Pottery is women.
What's wrong with women?
They're not men.
You hang up. Actually, messing around with clay at night might be better than sitting home in your digs over a dry cleaning store in the trendy part of town, checking the window now and then to see if your own particular He might be below. After all, he does live here. You moved up here to be near him. He's sure to be out on the streets once in a while, isn't he?
But it seems you never spot him. To increase your chances, you allow yourself more time in the public sphere. For instance, when walking home from work, you stop in front of an art store on the corner. There's a posting of workshops about to start up: Pottery: Hand Building, Larger Cookware and Vessels. Larger cookware? It's been years since you've rustled up anything that couldn't fit into Tiny cookware. You open the door, a bell jingles, you walk into the store, sign up, charge one hundred eighty dollars to your Visa, and walk out. Holding your breath against the chemicals from the dry cleaner's, you climb the stairs. You open your mail—a snapshot of your mother's dog. You stand at your window. Is that Him below?
You eat left over saag paneer and sit down to wait for Grey's Anatomy. Maybe Derek will leave Meredith.
On Thursday evening you show up at pottery class, one among a half-dozen nondescript women with no more to do at night than you. The instructor, Marya, demonstrates how to roll a snake, then how to coil a lot of snakes around and build them up higher and higher. You make a sort of prehistoric-looking pot. Marya says it might be useful as a planter. So much for cookware. You've got yourself a planter.
Then it's back to your place where you stand at the window until your mother calls. She suggests Match.com. Again.
A few more lessons and you're hooked. You love pots. You roll more coils and jam them together and smooth them into a wall and take your wooden-handled tool—the one with the circle of metal on one end—and dig out a little hole. You make holes all over the pot. You make deep lines around the rim and it's ready to bisque. You set it on the kiln shelf.
That night you don't think about Him when you're watching TV. You think about your pot. You wonder how it's doing.
The women in the class are younger, older, fatter, thinner, darker, lighter, smarter, dumber, and you're painting something called slip on your new bowl. You don't look at the women. They don't look at you. You look at each other's pots. And in one glance, you know who's really good and where you stand as a potter. Toward the bottom, but you don't care. A pot that's better than yours becomes an idea for next time. It's not like getting dumped. It's like getting a handle on who you are. And speaking of handles, they're coming up next.
On the way home, you see Him walking into Starbucks. He isn't alone.
Now it's sheets of clay. You take a big ball of clay and flatten it in the press and cut out the right amount, lift it up, make the edges meet and you've got a mug, or the start of a pitcher. The handle—a small, fat snake—goes on the side, thumbed in at top and bottom. Styles develop, or rather get revealed, from inside these heads around you. The plump woman who teaches fifth grade makes extenuated shapes. The thin woman who's a pediatrician turns out short, sturdy shapes. You make Chinese shapes. You don't know why. Your great grands were from Glasgow, not Guangzhou.
In the middle of Grey's, your mother calls. A dog isn't enough. She herself has joined Match.com.
You drape a clay sheet over a wooden bowl and the following week it peels right off the wood and you've got yourself a clay bowl. You join in with the others as they talk about jobs, men. Cutbacks in state funding have put the social worker out on the street. The architect just got her first big commission, an H-shaped house with a lake view. The day trader, that's you, confesses that she broke up with her boyfriend. They believe you. The teacher met a guy while standing in line at the video store. The therapist's boyfriend has breast cancer. Her boyfriend? Yes. That stops everybody. The boyfriend. It's rare. It happens. Whatever.
The pots on the shelf have finally been bisqued and they come out of the kiln the same tan color they were when they went in. It's time to glaze! Glaze is a liquid glass and it's a murky tan in color, just like the pots. The metal containers are labeled yellow or green or red but the liquid in each is tan. So, see? If you paint some yellow zigzag lines for lightning on one of your pots, they vanish. And if you add some yellow dots for rain, they fade out as fast. How can I see where I've painted? you ask Marya. Call it a leap of faith, she says.
At home, you press a button on the remote whenever people kiss.
Next week, the social worker is still waiting for unemployment while the architect is having trouble with her prize client and your boyfriend has been spotted with a twenty-two-year-old. But would you believe it? Your pot is still clay-colored while the zigzags and the rain are a glorious sunshine yellow. The women compliment you on your yellow raindrops. Thanks. You smile.
You so much don't want this class to end. But of course it's graduation night and everything that's come out of the kiln the last few weeks sits on the long table to be viewed together—round, wrapped cauldrons on three legs, squared-off wrapped boxes on four legs, black and white slab pots with indented waists, others bulging out. Chinese-looking serving plates on pedestals. There are teapots with spouts and handles and lids that settle in where they're supposed to, and one pot sitting on four round extensions shaped like breasts, nipples down; in fact, the nipples are what the vessel rests on. You laugh at that, all of you.
And then it's over.
Back at your place, you stand by the window. Far off you can see the great black void that is Lake Champlain on a winter night. You sit down and stare at the picture of a tall bride and an almost as tall groom: Cressa and George, the letters announce in calligraphy. And there you are, Emily, not even named in the caption, popping out from behind your mother's skirt holding your flower girl basket. Your own father lives in a mansion in Rhode Island and has not inquired after you since the day you were born.
It's too late for Grey's so you turn on the TV for the local news. The university will be shut down on Presidents' Weekend and that happens to be the anniversary of when you met Him. You've got to get out of here.
On the next channel, they're showing tropical colors, warm places, Belize, Guatemala. You call your friend.
My pottery class is over.
I don't know.
How about some travel? Think adventure. There's a world out there.
Yeah—you glance at the glowing TV screen—I'm thinking.
My god, why Guatemala?
You can get killed there! You don't even speak Spanish!
Too late. I'm going.
Expedia opens its arms and in a couple of weeks you emerge from an airplane in total darkness onto an actual land mass. Next morning, in the city of Antigua, you watch women hawking their fabrics and small impressive girls beside them dazzling you with how instantaneously they can multiply and divide by the exchange rate of 7.5 in three languages at once. At Lake Atitlan, you watch an old woman walking barefoot with a basket on her head. She covers the cobblestones quickly, her toes spread as wide as you can spread your fingers. These women can do anything. These women could raise babies from frozen sperm all by themselves. Their men are mostly drinking beer.
In Chichicastenango, you rise before dawn and find the men hard at work, mountain men bent at the waist, carrying huge poles or blue plastic baskets heaped with goods on their backs. They reach the street below your window, unshoulder their poles, assemble a market stall, unpack the baskets, hang up the fabrics. Right outside your hotel women are unfolding the legs of shallow steel boxes that—ta dah!—turn out to be portable stoves. They make fires in the boxes with bits of wood or—what's this?—charcoal briquettes from a plastic bag you could get at your local Agway. They search among the ever-present fabrics they've been knotting into bags for millennia and bring out turquoise-colored aluminum pans you've actually spotted at Wal-Mart. They set these on the burners and pour cooking oil into them from used plastic milk jugs.
Time to get out there, mix and mingle.
But wait. Danger, the guidebook reminds you as you eat breakfast. Chichi is where most tourists get robbed. You stuff your cards and money into your pockets before you head out into the wildly colorful market, all the makeshift stalls jammed together and roofed with fabrics in brilliant blues and reds and greens. You pass stalls offering food and kitchenware, down-at-the-heel pre-worn shoes and a selection of bicycle parts, wooden animals in bright coats of paint, the wonderful woven fabrics, pocketbooks, flowers. Stall after stall. Little girls bargain with you. People bump against you. When they do, you check the pockets of your pants, the pockets of your vest, the secret pocket inside your jacket. Remember, you're alone, alone among strangers. Maybe even pickpockets. Your plane ticket, your passport, your credit cards—you could lose your identity before you even find it!
You could be disappeared.
At the far side of the market you spot the church that the guidebook tells you is part Christian, part Mayan. You go there to calm yourself with familiar images, to take a break from alien bustle. Inside, at the north wall—that's the direction of eternity for the Maya, says the guidebook—old men pray aloud in a language that doesn't sound like Spanish. One of them prays in front of a framed picture of Jesus. When he's done praying, he bends at the waist, pulls a bottle of booze from his hip pocket, and pours a bit of it into the bottle cap. He straightens up, prays again, and hurls what's in the bottle cap at Jesus. It runs down the glass like blood from the crown of thorns. You stiffen at the assault. In long swigs the old man finishes off the bottle, and when you walk away and stumble over a rope that's marking off a number of pews, he laughs at you.
You could be rolled into a ditch.
Outside, you slip into a building marked MUSEO and find yourself in an entry hall where a man sits at a table. You give him some coins and he gets up to open the door into a room and turns on a light. You step in to find revealed a whole lot of glass cases filled with Mayan pottery fired some two thousand years ago. And guess what's here—the same shapes as those from your pottery class! Look, a cauldron with three legs like the one made by the woman whose boyfriend has breast cancer. And here's a whole case of black bowls with red stripes, some bulging in, some bulging out. Hey! Here are bowls that go in at the top and bowls that go out at the top. And what about those half-dozen footed Chinese serving plates rather like your own? You start to smile. Wait till you tell them back home, your friends from pottery. Anything is possible. It's not too late. What's that? Over there? A pot with breasts for legs and it's resting on—yes, it is—four nipples! A placard explains that the ancient potters put dried seeds in the breasts to make a pleasant rustling sound whenever such a vessel was to be set upon a table. Of course they did. Why not? To a baby it might sound like the coming in of milk.
Title graphic: "Constructing the Vessel" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011.