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I have a story to tell. This just happened and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I am sitting in the back of a great Hall with soaring ceilings, dark murals on the wall. The place reminds me of the neo-gothic mess hall at West Point, a hub with six spokes, each a cavernous wing which allows the over 4000 cadets to eat all at once. The tables are dark wood and rectangular with maybe ten of us seated together. I pick up the cup at my left hand and drink the milk, when I realize the woman next to me is staring. I set it down, apologizing because it was not mine.
She is silent and I stand, nodding in apology, whispering something about going to get her another cup. This is a ritual I knew well from my days as a young cadet who was responsible for serving up beverages according to preference. But there is something else and I can’t grasp it. Conversation, the ruckus of the event and eating, fill my ears. I walk away in search of the waiter’s station, weaving between tables, striding the length of the long hall. The milk tasted cool and refreshing, and I really want more for myself. There is no drink station so I continue walking and looking, to discover I am in this casino like building. There is laughter, and lights. I stare and scan the place, moving without knowing I’m moving, almost floating. The place has no clocks or doors and I am reminded of an underworld, a Hotel California where You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. The sounds of lottery machines, coins clinking, the buzz of human greed and gluttony.
I find a waiter and follow him through some side door, a dark alcove. I ask for milk and get this blank look, a nod of the chin to keep going. My legs are tired and I feel tired, the kind of heaviness you have after a run when your legs feel like dead weights. It can’t be that hard to find a cup of milk. I see it, then step into the kitchen – and I don’t smell anything, like tomatoes and garlic simmering or the smell of steak roasting in the ovens. No. just the absence of aromas and the lingering memory of that sweet taste, my stolen swig. I ask for milk. He has a dead-eye stare, a cadaverous look. There is wine and whiskey, beer.
But, Milk? The man sets what looks like muffin cups and paper towels in my hands because that’s all they have. And he takes from under the counter, a carton and pours what is left into the flimsy cups and of course it doesn’t hold. I dump the mess into the trash. What is the matter with this guy?
I slip out the door, into the alcove and begin to scan the casino. Why am I looking for milk, in such a place? Is the dinner over and my friends gone? Is my husband still at the table and does the woman even care? I am determined to find milk, its rich cold taste, the kind that chases down warm chocolate chip cookies, fresh out of the oven. I move through the casino, the machines, the players and find my way to an aisle. It is like MGM Grand or Bellagio, these Las Vegas casinos which seem to go on, no sign of daylight or a window anywhere, the sculpted glass in the ceiling, the neon lights, the souls hoping to cash in. No one drinks milk here.
I reach the other side and I see pianos, grand pianos in the aisle. No one is playing them. Every room seems to have a piano, more than one. I find a larger kitchen. They must bake here, and they should have milk. Yes! — at last. I pour a cup, maybe two cups, and I begin to head back. But I am not sure where back is. I am not thinking right. The casino owners want me to play, and all I can think of, is that the meal is over and my friends have left. I retrace my path to the great Hall, passing pianos, pianos with no music. The hall is nearly empty and as I make my way towards the back, I see everyone at the table is gone. I blink and find myself splayed out, my legs and arms like a starfish and I’m horizontal, too heavy to pry myself up. I struggle to lift my head, and I hear the sounds of water.
I pull myself over the edge, exhausted, like I just ran a marathon. The room is dark and I have on only a large tee, when I push the door in. My husband looks back at me from his reflection, his jowls covered in shaving cream.
” The milk,” I gasp, with morning breath. “I didn’t get the milk in time.”
To myself: Why do I need to get the milk to her, when I just want it myself? All of it, the whole search – was I afraid of slighting her? But that can’t be, because she fades away and I don’t remember her face. The hunt for milk – that feels raw, alive.
Mark taps his razor against the sink basin, towels his face dry. He asks me about what shirt to wear.
“This is real,” I say and follow him into the closet. “I’m exhausted.” I tell him the story, the one in my head. Maybe I’m missing out and I need to start drinking for real, as in alcohol, beer, wine, spirits. I haven’t yet, not really, and at mid-life, at 50, I am a teetotaler. I don’t drink. I don’t know how to drink. I feel like a kid in a grown-up world. An imposter. I think I’ve missed the feast completely on this search for a glass of cold milk.
Last summer my family visited a dairy in Switzerland. The guide brought a tray with glasses of milk, sprinkled with a bit of cinnamon, frothy and sweet, the cream clung to the upper lip. It was like manna, truly, the stuff of the Gods. Then we had a tasting of the yogurts and a tour of the factory, the wheels of cheese on the shelves. Was there anything more heavenly? The cow bells in the alpine summer fields just days before echoed in my ear when I saw the life-sized poster of the Swiss Brown Cow.
I’m not sure what happens in my subconscious when I sleep. I have seen my father there, though it’s been many years. I have found answers, ideas, even suggestions about my conscious life. My mother has seen my father there, in her sleep, the night he died, sitting at the foot of her bed in the pajamas he wore when he departed this mortal world. She hadn’t known about these pajamas, though she described them to me, confounded as to why he would be wearing brown PJs. She was a thousand miles away from him in Florida.
Not long into our marriage, I remember my husband scoffing at my breakfast which included little more than a tall glass of milk. It’s full of protein, I told him. And it is liquid food, all nutrition – it sustains life after all. My mother always said to drink milk and eat beef and I’d grow big and tall like the Americans. As a Vietnamese woman who was for the most part lactose intolerant, maybe milk symbolized all she could not have: fresh American milk, liberation for her country, freedom from life’s routines. I didn’t have fresh milk when I lived in Vietnam and the powdered version was awful. After Vietnam fell to the communists, she imagined this milk-and-beef diet would fortify me, give me the strength I’d need. My brother and I drank milk by the gallon, often more, in one day. No soda, no sugary drinks, no water even. We could have a soda when guests came, or on special occasions, but day in and day out, it was milk.
Maybe milk has made me strong, physically. I was one of the tallest girls in school and I have strong bones, so far. I love everything dairy, that which my mother cannot digest. The milk of my dreams is more than the expressed product of bovine mammary glands.
Manna more like, sustenance, meaning. I tell myself: The milk’s about the search, stupid! The clear eyed and hazy, the linear and circuitous, the rapturous and zombie-like plodding I’ve made of this one wild and precious existence. I haven’t stayed at the table or in the great hall or in the casino long. And the shadow creature, the woman whose milk I stole seems to push me on, and maybe it is my unsettled and dark self, the side I don’t understand. I crave solitude, a recluse who loves books, being in my head, and often that means I’ve cut myself off from family, from friends, for what? I miss them and value them more when I’m with them. And for many people and social interactions, wouldn’t you just rather be with a good book, or audio book, or podcast?
What about the pianos — what’s that all about? Music. And music for me is truth, often an escape from the mundane, maybe the highest and purest form of truth I know, in a language we all speak. I wonder it is not the engine that powers the train. The concert grands, the walnut and ebony colored cases, stretched across the aisle, the backs fitted against each other, and the baby grands were strewn about the casino, like a dispersed elephant herd on the Serengeti, the gaming tables and machines and the people nearly invisible. I think the pianos are there for me. I need to stop and sit down to play, to tease out sound from silence.
To listen closely to a pianist is to hear the inner-workings of that performer, hammered against the strings and rising off the soundboard, filling the air. I’m still listening after the music stops. There are the bar lounge and department store players working at a job, the Musak of the mall, but even the young budding pianist can make music. You can hear the difference, if you’re listening.
I sent my daughter the piano music for Demelza’s Song. The melody recalls Cornish folk tunes and actress Eleanor Tomlinson sings it a Capella for her husband, when she is put on the spot by a grasping poser who hopes to see her grovel. I first heard it in this series based on Winston Graham’s 1945 books titled Poldark, for the protagonist, and set in England after the American Revolution.
It’s a stirring and raw profession of love, a turning point in the story. I wasn’t alone. Hundreds of thousands listened to her song online, in addition to the millions who have watched the show. For Demelza, the singer and wife of Ross Poldark, maybe the song and her love are the sweetest gift.
My father was a guitar picker and strummer. His memory was long and he could recite more than sing when he played. The Big Rock Candy Mountain is a folk song he and I would play together, a boxcar Utopia with cigarette trees, lakes of stew and whiskey too. I don’t remember the whiskey or stew, but the cigarette trees stand out. Here’s a verse
On a summer day in the month of May
A burly bum came a hiking
Down a shady lane through the sugar cane
He was looking for his liking
As he strolled along he sang a song of the land of milk and honey
Where a bum can stay for many a day
And he won’t need any money
(Big Rock Candy Mountain, Lyricsfreak.com)
I heard it first in this old folk song, the original reference likely a biblical expression of the Promised Land. In the old testament, God had instructed Abraham to follow his laws and worship the one true God, then he would found a nation where the land would flow with milk and honey.[*] This Promised Land was called Canaan. It is no small wonder to learn this, since I live in New Canaan. I feel a little like Santiago in Paulo Coelho’s Alchemist who journeys around the world to discover the treasure he seeks is where the whole story began.
The search for milk ain’t new. Not new at all. I play my dad’s old songs on the piano and my daughter took a digital piano to college this fall. I asked if she had much time to play. She said she plays every day, several times, just a spin of her chair from the desk to the keyboard.
Dream or story or life. What is most real about it all: the milk and the pianos, missing the feast and leaving family and friends? Most of it. It IS real. A friend whose family fled from Kosovo confided recently, “you know those people who can make music, it’s special. Really. I listen when I walk the dogs. I can hear them playing when I’m outside. You play piano?” she asked me. “Really?”
“Yes, yes. I play,” I said.
Sometimes I even make music.