When the Sonoma Complex fire came to Elisa Stancil Levine’s California doorstep in 2017, her world changed overnight. She writes about that experience and what it sparked in her new book, “This or Something Better: A Memoir of Resilience,” excerpted here. This excerpt examines the nature of trust between adults and children caught in the middle of divorce and new relationships.
Diamonds and Rust
In Colorado, a couple of months after we met, Chuck and I hiked blissfully at high elevation, polished all over after hours of reunion sex. As we marched up a steep trail, I shared the story of never seeing or holding my first baby. When I glanced back, I saw tears tracing down Chuck’s face as he quietly trudged along behind me. Yes, we were different. But only as different as a red M&M and a yellow M&M; our operating personalities formed this thin bright shell designed to attract attention and at the same time protect our interior selves. When we spent time together, our hard candy shells melted away.
On that Colorado afternoon, under a daytime full moon, I knew. Here was my man. In the years that followed, I would struggle because of our differences, because of my fears, because of my intense attachment.
My mother, who had been skeptical about most of the men I dated, liked Chuck. Long ago she said she hoped I would find an “engineer type, someone who thinks you’re fascinating.” Was this her indirect way of saying I was complicated and unpredictable? She must have hoped a linear thinker would find these traits compelling. To be considered fascinating would be a plus.
After several months, Chuck wanted me to meet his 6-year-old daughter, Lisa. We set off in his sports car to pick her up from school. How would she feel, meeting me for the first time and having to sit on my lap? In the school lineup, as our car came to a halt, I heard a brisk tapping at my side window, then Lisa whipped open the passenger door, swung her book bag down by my feet and scrambled in.
“My dad told me you like rocks. I found this rock on the playground. I think these shiny things might be diamonds,” she said breathlessly. Lisa leaned against my arm and twirled a black chunk of sparkly asphalt in the sunlight between us. Her head turned this way and that against my chest as she looked for the seat belt buckle. I could smell little girl sweat and dust in her long, golden-brown hair. Though she appeared carefree, I noticed her back was stiff, and her tan legs felt a bit rigid. I buckled the belt across the two of us as Chuck navigated the crowded parking lot.
“Wow. Hi, Lisa. You’re right. I love rocks. This is so cool! Thanks.”
Chuck idled along the school circle behind the lineup of cars and turned down the music. Lisa softened, and I took some slow deep breaths. We rose and fell in a discreet tandem rhythm. Somehow, we were already holding hands. I cradled her as we studied the rock, then both of us instinctively braced ourselves as Chuck reached the street. Revving the engine, he zoomed us toward home.
Later, when she was in the bath, I showed her a game with two washcloths, a mommy and a baby swimming all around. She traced my movements, and then looked up. Her dense eyelashes, dotted with giant drops of water, captured the light like Man Ray dew.
“Are you a real artist?” she asked.
“Well, sure. You are, too. Anyone who does art and tries to show what they feel by drawing or painting is an artist. We can do some artwork together if you want.”
Lisa’s paintings of vibrant watery hearts and rainbows covered the refrigerator and some of the walls in Chuck’s kitchen. In her room, I had seen notebooks filled with carefully printed pony stories, the pencil pushed so hard to the page the words looked embossed.
She asked me into the bath with her. After considering a moment, I stripped off my clothes and settled in behind her. We turned the hot water to a thin stream, and she slipped around, over and beside me like a soapy, muscular fish. Later, when she stood before me to be toweled off, I saw she had a beauty mark deep in a crease where almost no one would see. Like mine. Even on the same side. After wrapping her hair turban-style, I did the same and lifted her up beside me. We gazed at ourselves in the misty mirror.
I wondered, was she truly fine, could she be so very trusting? Could it be this simple? Just leap into change like she jumped onto my lap and then away we go into the everlasting unknown? Her willingness to trust seemed like a miracle. Maybe this was what it was like to feel safe. I wondered if I could let myself trust in the future, though not everything I wished for was present in this moment. Chuck deserved some time to air out after his 15-year marriage, but how much time?
Marriage had not worked for me. I was certainly no expert on relationships. I decided to take my mother’s advice and focus on what Chuck brought into my life, not on what was missing.
Almost every other weekend I flew to New Jersey, and on Saturdays and Sundays we watched movies, flew kites and made cookies. Lisa and I painted countless pictures on rainy afternoons. The whole year, I kept checking to see if Lisa still seemed fine. I checked less and less because, for the most part, she did look like she thought she was fine.
We went for walks in the nearby nature preserve to our secret place, where the twigs of a large bush lay over and made an arching patch of shade. One day, we stopped to look at a huge purple thistle in bloom. As we studied the big puff of deep violet, we realized the thick stalk below held two giant praying mantises, their color matching the stalk so perfectly we mistook them for twigs. Both of them looked our way, swiveling their flat, triangular heads. Just then, a fat, bright yellow bumblebee landed on the center of the puffy thistle. As the bee burrowed, the stalk swayed side to side. Yet the pair of mantises still watched us, undisturbed. They turned their heads, keeping us in sight, as they swung to and fro beneath the fluffy bee.
We were dazed with awe. Wordless twins, we looked back at each other, in a ring of magic; the closer we looked, the more life we found. And because we truly looked, we, too, were seen. Serenaded by the high hum of June locusts, we trudged back to the house in the late afternoon sun. When we tried to explain our experience to Chuck, we realized that our discovery in that moment was simply too deep for words.
One afternoon not long after our mantis encounter, Lisa and I were in her bedroom folding towels and sheets warm from the dryer.
“Elisa, do you like Mike?” Lisa asked me quietly. Mike was her mother’s boyfriend.
“I think he’s nice, I don’t know him, really. Do you like him?” I answered in a neutral tone.
“Well, but if you did know him, you might really like him, you know? And he would probably really like you too. Maybe if you did really like him, he could be your boyfriend,” she answered. Lisa leaned against her headboard and traced the stitching on her new comforter. She regarded me quickly with a sideways glance, then looked down again.
“Oh. You mean, maybe if Mike and I were together, then your mom and dad could be together again, like before?”
“Yes, and no one would have to be lonely.”
I sat down next to her, looping one arm around her, smoothing her hair, and took a long breath. I was humbled. How could I forget the complicated figuring that had gone on in my own head at her age, trying to make sense of things I could not change? I was grateful she showed her lonely, hopeful self to me. Without any way to answer her, I asked if she was “having some feelings.”
“I guess so,” she answered, then hopped off the bed and started playing with one of her Breyer horses, trotting it across the bookcase with vigor. I didn’t press for more, but from that day forward, “having some feelings” became our code phrase, a careful opening when we wanted to explore something sensitive.
Lisa is 36 now, just married, and lives only half an hour from us in Sebastopol, Calif. Her pony stories came true, and she rides every day. She’s probably coming in from the barn right now. I try her cell, hoping to catch her. Before the call, I don’t stop to assemble some kind of cover. I just jump in, taking a hint from her leap of trust that first day.
“Lisa,” I say when she answers. “I just realized how long it’s been since I told you I love you.”
Elisa Stancil Levine is founder of the decorative art company Stancil Studios. “This or Something Better” is her second book.