Monthly Archives: August 2014
Sisterlove, a short story
I was teaching my sister to drive that year. We had bought a weird old ’66 Barracuda, silvery-mauve color, and we’d spent weekends compounding the surface, getting ready to give it a coat of wax that would make it really shine. Vickie and I used the car to cruise the strip and troll for boys. My sister loved the boys. The boys loved my sister.
She had long hair, golden brown, with blonde ends. It turned green when she went swimming, then we’d cut the green parts off with nail scissors, her sitting on the toilet, me catching the hair in an ancient orange beach bucket. We’d leave the hair on the compost pile for the birds to line their nests with.
Vickie had gone crazy about this guy Michel she’d met over spring break, and all she could talk about was getting up to Canada to visit him. It might as well have been China. She was still a virgin, but crazy over the idea of sex. I pretended I didn’t care about boys in the slightest, but I did, maybe more than she did. I’d never had a real boyfriend, just a few short flings. Vickie was always falling in love, which made me sick to my stomach.
I was two years older. I was named Edna for my great-grandmother, but everyone called me Jessie, because for some reason that had been her nickname, too. I always wondered how they got Jessie out of Edna, but I was glad they had. Mom got really crabby whenever I asked her about the family history, she never showed old pictures, though we knew where they were, stuffed on the highest shelf of her closet, over the old college dresses she’d kept.
My mother was completely hippied out — she didn’t shave her legs or under her arms, and the compost pile was her altar. She didn’t pay much attention to us unless we were sick and then she was the most wonderful nurse in the world — even though she was a strict vegetarian she’d make us chicken broth with little stars, mostly stars so that it was more of a chicken pudding, a glob of butter oozing on the top. She’d spoon it into our open mouths like a mother bird.
Vickie and I liked to sneak into Mom’s room while she was at work, and dress up in her old clothes and look at her old pictures. She’d been married before she married our dad, straight out of college, and so we always tried to guess who he was from the pictures. Our favorite was the one of her going into a dance, frothy skirt and strapless bodice, her sharp collarbones like exclamation points underneath her satiny, satiny skin. She wouldn’t say, but we figured she’d had a pretty wild career, before we were born.
Neither of us were as pretty as Mom, though. We’d play all day with her makeup, trying and trying to get her look. It was no good — Vickie had her chin, I had her eyebrows, but there was too much of our dad in both of us, and this was unfortunate, because he was homely. Since Mom was drop-dead gorgeous, we came out average-looking.
Not that we didn’t get plenty of attention in our own way. We’d get in the Barracuda and drive up and down the beach road, honking at cute boys. Once in a while they’d motion us over, and we’d park, take our sandals off and hop across the burning sand to find out where they were from. Most were from Boston, a few from New York. We liked the Canadians best, they loved the sun so much they’d fry themselves, joyous to turn red and peel — they thought it looked so healthy. Sunscreen hadn’t been invented, we mixed iodine with baby oil and slathered it on.
Vickie and I had good skin, the kind that never burned, so we looked like Indians, and I’m not talking the American kind but the Hindus. Our brown legs shone — they were our best feature by far, all the boys said so. We learned to kiss from those sunburned Canucks. The ones from French Canada were the best, but they’d never write to you once they left. The other Canadian boys were all earnest and geeky and would write us millions of letters, which eventually we stopped even opening. Instead, we’d take them to the beach, put them in empty juice bottles, then cap them and throw them in the surf.
So, Vickie went more than a little nuts this time, started calling Michel in Montreal every night after Mom was asleep, and when the phone bill came she was put on restriction for a month. Mom yanked our bedroom phone out of the wall. I laughed, but Vickie cried, she was really serious about him. “Love isn’t real,” I told her. “Do you think this guy would ever, ever cry over you?”
“Michel loves me,” she said. “But now he’ll think I don’t love him and he’ll go back to his girlfriend.”
What had caught her eye first about Michel were the brilliant red scars on his back, streaky and painful-looking. We thought he’d been wounded playing hockey or something. His English was so bad, at first we thought he was kidding when we pointed to his back and asked what happened.
“My girlfriend,” he said, shrugging his shoulders and smiling. We were so dense, we didn’t know what he was talking about for days, until Vickie came across this ratty copy of the Joy of Sex while she was babysitting for our best client, a lady who danced Polynesian-style at a big tourist restaurant downtown.
“Scratches are given during the throes of passion,” she whispered over the phone.
“Bring the book home,” I said. Later that night, we snuck out of the bedroom window and went driving. I let her drive and held the book on my lap, reading it to her while we went up and down A-1-A, bending down and swigging our beer at the stoplights.
“His girlfriend scratched hell out of his back, and he let her do it,” I said. “He seemed happy about it, even.”
“He was,” she said. “Let’s drive to Canada.” She put her foot down hard on the gas and passed a couple of cars.
“No way,” I said. “We’d get caught before we got out of Florida.”
“I’m going,” she said. “I want to see him again. You can come if you want to.”
“This is insane,” I said. “You don’t even have your license.”
“There’s only one first time,” she said. “I want mine to be with Michel.”
“You’ve been loony over a dozen boys this past year,” I said. “How is this different? What makes you think this’ll last more than a week?”
“So what if it doesn’t?” she said, and the look in her eyes was fierce. “You’re missing the point.”
“The point is, we’ll be in jail,” I said.
“Where do you want me to let you out?” she said. She swerved over to the side of the road and slowed way down. Her hair rippled over her face like a million tiny whips. I knew I couldn’t let her go alone.
“God damn you,” I said, and she threw her head back and laughed.
“Hijacked by your baby sister,” she said.
“Hijacked by a victim of raging hormones,” I said.
“Damn right,” she said. “And deep down, you’re not any different.”
“Oh, yes I am,” I said. “I’d never drive to fucking Canada to lose my virginity.”
“I feel sorry for you, then,” she said.
“Shut up and drive,” I said. “The farther we get tonight, the better.”
“Mom is going to be so pissed,” she said.
I felt my stomach twirling with fear and excitement. “I would say Mom is the least of your problems.”
Ode to Ex #3
You were no Gautama Buddha;
turns out, you were a barracuda!
Or a rat, old hat, who scat with a blat,
up the creek, with a squeak — imagine that!
Just an ender, an offender, a greedy over-spender —
your destructive feud, was horribly rude,
and my tongue has been in-cheek
during this opera comique, you pipsqueak!
But your latest is your “greatest,” so now I exclude
your ineptitude, dude! Myself, I won’t delude.
You’re unproductive, so you go splat!
I’m not destructive, but thoroughly instructive!
You can’t handle my words?
I know, you prefer turds.
Have a nice life;
thank god I’m not your wife.
Kimberly Townsend Palmer
I am a Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jew
I am a Christian, Bhuddist, Pagan and few
I can be Sunni, Shia, Sufi too
Cathholic, Protestant can be true
I am what I am, what I will be
placed in my coffin people will see
from all the religions I just call
I am a Human above all
Sometimes, I ask myself why I didn’t give her back sooner. Would it have been easier then, before I knew her personality, the sweet meaning of her every sound, every movement? Already I loved her smell, the weight of her small head on my chest, already I’d soothed and fed and washed her forty days running. That other mother gave life, I gave only touch, warmth, comfort. I couldn’t help it; I fell in love, it happens like that, quickly, without thought. I didn’t know how it felt to be someone’s mother. When I couldn’t become pregnant, I cried for days. My insides felt soft and hollow, like an empty purse. This little girl loves me, I know she does. She reflects a rainbow back to my eyes, in her smallest toe resides a perfect universe. I lie next to her at night, breathing the rich, salty fragrance of her hair, feeling her body growing, expanding to meet mine, and over our private nest flows time, but for as long as we can we rest outside death’s pull, allowing all that to pass by, content with this lovely darkness, this small sliver of heaven.
Sometimes I ask myself why I gave her up in the first place. It wasn’t easy, not even then; I haven’t held her since the day she was born, but I know her, like she’ll know me, without thinking. I began her life, I walked with her body in mine for nine months, we were never apart, not for a second. I called her my daughter. That woman has taken care of my poor baby for years, but in her heart it’s only me she’ll call Mama. Any fool knows this, anybody with a brain will tell you adoption can be a mistake. It was a crisis of self-esteem, more than anything. A momentary weakness, where I thought maybe I wasn’t strong enough to keep her safe. Once, during all this trouble, I almost gave up. All I had in my hands was a pink plastic bracelet, but I couldn’t forget holding her, I couldn’t forget how her toes curled against her foot, so small, so much like mine. Now she’ll never have to wonder whether I loved her, she’ll never have to discover where I live. The time we spent apart will soon be forgotten; she’s young and there’s plenty of time for our life to weave itself back together, to re-create our lost paradise.
Sometimes I ask myself why I couldn’t have had them both, forever. Is love so smart that it can tell the difference between one drop of blood and another? Being born was harder the second time, though life at home smells just as sweet; the weight of this new mother, her reassuring size, pressed against me like a sheaf of autumn grain, harvest of all dreams. Dimness is where part of me lives now, the part that slept near the warm shadow-woman of my first days, hands that held fast, then let go. Dimness, and a lifelong vocation to tell people — remember, I have no patience for fools, none at all — nothing is as simple as it seems. A child’s soul can fill even the most tortured shape imaginable. God knows, when I have my own daughter, she’ll ask how it was to be torn apart for love, and I’ll have to tell her: it was a beauty and a terror and a fiery cross, and gaining the knowledge of good and evil has a price… and those of us who’ve paid it don’t for a minute regret our sacrifices. Yes, it hurts, yes, it left scars, and yes, now and again I have trouble sleeping — don’t we all?
The Tortoise and the Hare
My grandmother told me 80 million times when I was young that I would be a good mother, and I stupidly believed her, since I had an easy time babysitting. I could always trick kids into distraction, get them to stop fighting, whining, whatever. I was a master with other people’s children. When my own child was born, I fell apart. I forgot everything I’d ever learned about babies except that she could stop breathing at any moment. My husband took to sleeping in the guest room, and I didn’t blame him. If I could have, I’d have slept somewhere else, too. Mostly, my husband didn’t understand why I got angry at my five-years-dead mother all over again, after Shana was born.
“Aren’t you ever going to let it go?” he asked. “Your mother was only human.”
“I was helpless, I was small, as small as Shana. I know now what it’s like to be someone’s mother.”
“She was only nineteen when you were born.”
“So? I’m only twenty-six. What does age have to do with it?”
“It was a different time. Expectations were different.”
“What do you know about it? You come from that fucking Ozzie-and-Harriet background.” He had no idea, none at all. He didn’t get it; he couldn’t get it. You cannot see what you have never seen. Your mind cannot recognize the pattern and identify it. My husband’s parents had not caused him any major trauma, ever. It was like trying to explain the solar system’s position in the Milky Way Galaxy to someone who believed the world was flat, had edges you could fall off, and was centered under God’s hand-held bowl of stars. He sighed.
“You’re right. But I know it’s not healthy to stay angry about things you can’t fix.” It was to become his endless refrain.
His mother stayed home and took care of him, and his brothers and sisters. I was the only child of a divorced and badly-remarried working mom, growing up in the first generation of latch-key kids, addicted to the soaps and the talk shows and Star Trek. I’d turn the air conditioner down icy-cold (against strict instructions to keep it on “Low Cool”), lie stretched out perfectly straight like a contented slug in my purple beanbag chair, and rejoice in the house’s stillness. When my mother and my stepfather got home, the horror movie started. Mostly I’m still mad because my mother was an unrepentant drunk. She didn’t take care of me, she wasn’t my friend: she was the enemy.
My own daughter, Shana, was filled with dancing, and when she was a tiny baby I nicknamed her “the tortoise,” since the image was in such sharp contrast to her true nature. Shana moved as quickly and easily as spring wind blows through tree limbs, her body twirling round and round like fresh green leaves until she would laugh with dizziness. Even when she’d done something she wasn’t supposed to and I was mad, she’d break into some cockamamie imitation of a Broadway show tune and start high-stepping, and despite myself, I’d laugh. I’d bite my lip to keep a straight face, but she always knew. Not once did she ever get spanked.
The worst part is, the entire month before Shana died, I was living in a motel. Things at home had gotten too gruesome. My husband wouldn’t allow Shana to spend any nights with me at the motel, because the kiddie divorce counselor didn’t think it was a good idea. I went along with him because I felt so guilty for leaving. When she was in the hospital, in the coma, I slept with her every night — I had missed her so much at the motel. I’ll never forget the look on her small face when she got hit by the car out in front of the house: she was laughing; she literally didn’t know what hit her.
Funny thing is, it was somehow worse than if she’d seen the car coming at her and gotten scared. Of course, I secretly blamed the accident on my husband. And of course, he secretly blamed it on me. Neither one of us could look the other in the eye after that. He wanted nothing to do with her while she was in the coma, though he cleared out her room afterwards. I took two sleeping pills and when I woke up, it was as if she’d never lived in her room. Everything was bagged. “Don’t throw it out,” I said.
“Put in the attic. Please.”
“We might have another child someday.”
“No,” he said, but he did as I asked. I just wanted him to cry with me. I wanted to try understand what it was like to be our dead daughter’s surviving father; I wanted him to try to understand what it was like to be her mother. I wanted us to make allowances for each other’s frailties. Neither of us knew how.
Shana was born in a brick house, in our king-sized bed, under the supervision of a plump, red-headed midwife who wore the dowdiest clothes I’d ever seen — but that made me trust her. She cared nothing for fashion trends, only for delivering healthy babies. My husband was out of town when my water broke, since we hadn’t expected Shana for another week, but he caught the first flight home. I had wanted him to cut the cord, but I did it instead. I thought of eating the placenta and laughed. The midwife took it away in a Ziploc bag.
“Look at that little rosebud mouth,” the midwife said as she wiped Shana with warm, damp washcloths.
All I could see was my baby’s crushed nose. I didn’t know then that it would unfurl in a matter of hours. She looked like a boxer who’d had a bad fight! Being born is, apparently, no picnic. She’d been stuck in the birth canal for hours. She whimpered quietly when the midwife laid her on my chest. She had no interest in nursing — so of course I immediately worried she’d starve to death.
Despite our physical closeness, Shana was always emotionally closer to her father than me. I was of a piece with the wallpaper, the carpet, the furniture. Finally, after her father and I separated and I wasn’t just part of the wallpaper or the carpet or the furniture any more, she started missing me too. Until then, I truly believed she did not love me. Don’t tell me all children love their mothers — I know it’s not true. I didn’t love mine, for example, not after the age of eight.
As a child, I even dreamed I killed my mother. Years later, my developmental psychology teacher told me I couldn’t possibly have dreamed such a thing, I must be mistaken. But I knew I had. I had stabbed her with a large kitchen knife, then thrown the knife into the lake out back of my old house. Many times I consciously, very consciously, wanted to kill her. I saw the same ferocious glare of death in my tiny daughter’s eyes, too, but unlike a child, I understood and forgave: it was my job.
I’ve been bleeding for three days. I feel like a bad person for hoping it’s a miscarriage. On the other hand, since I’ve already scheduled an abortion, I feel a miscarriage would be the best possible luck. Julie says maybe I should have it. She doesn’t know I’ve already ruled that out. Though I have enough money to raise a kid on my own, I don’t have the energy, mental or physical. I had a hard enough time with Shana, and I only had her for six years, and my ex-husband helped when he wasn’t too busy.
It was stupid, really, really stupid. The kind of mistake that teenagers make, or virgins. See, Benny thought he was sterile. His wife had only gotten pregnant twice the whole time they were married, and both times she’d had miscarriages. He wasn’t even sure the pregnancies were his. She cheated on him a lot. Anyway, he had convinced himself he was sterile. And the funny thing is, I believed him. I am usually a skeptic. But he was always so sure about everything; it blows my mind. My ex-husband, when he found out that I believed Benny to be sterile, asked me how I could be so stupid. I didn’t feel stupid; I felt sheltered. Benny told me he couldn’t get me pregnant, and I thought, how compassionate of him. He seemed like the most considerate man alive. I had sex with such perfect confidence.
The orgasms were the other issue. I’d never had one before that wasn’t self-administered. Everybody thought I was so fucked-up to leave my ex-husband. They didn’t know how bad our sex life was. I had sex with him only because he got so depressed and grouchy otherwise. Irritable and angry. It was awful. I’d give him blow jobs, hand jobs, anything to avoid intercourse. Maybe we did it once a month, on average.
Once, in the car, Benny and I almost came from just kissing. Why is this even remotely interesting? Death, that’s what the real issue is. Death comes too soon, and I’m bringing it to something even sooner. This isn’t a baby mouse we’re casually discussing, you know. Benny and his joints and antique Time magazines. How dumb I was, sitting there getting high with an idiot like that! Benny looked like some kind of young Father Christmas. Even had the belly. Benny sat there, sucking on his joint, sucking on my lips, worried about his random drug tests. God-damned Army shit. Why I didn’t just leave him there, I’ll never know.
I don’t feel good. Blood clots keep slipping out between my legs. I want another child, just not one I’ll have to raise by myself. Not that Benny wouldn’t make an effort — it’s just I don’t know what his effort would consist of. My ex-husband would have at least provided money and some child care. Benny isn’t in a position to help me with a child; he can’t help himself. This is terrible. I wanted another child, and this is terrible. I can’t seem to get a grip on anything, on any part of my life whatsoever. Without Shana here, I feel my head floating off into outer space. I’m waiting for a visitation from God or something. Everything seems so fucking profound. I’m so restless. I’m going to jump out of my skin.
Whether I miscarry or not, I’ll probably have to have surgery anyway, because the “tissue” hasn’t passed out yet, and with that much bleeding, that’s worrisome. The nurse said people differ on this issue, because women have been having “incomplete pregnancies” since the beginning of time. Who am I to make the decision to bring, or not to bring, another person into the world right now? I can’t even tie my own shoes anymore. God help me if I had to earn a living and be a single mother. I’m a rotten speck of humanity. I hate myself. Oh, God, just what Mother used to say. I swore I’d never say it.
God help me. God save me. I want to die. I can’t think of what to do next. Nothing seems appropriate. I have too much responsibility, yet not enough. I am worthless. I am a worthless woman. I am a woman. I wanted to be a boy when I was fourteen. That was twenty years ago, and I’m still not sure what the advantages of being a woman are. I tried to find them. Maybe it is a punishment, like that old Hindu neighbor of mine used to say.
I’m drinking wine, just like Mom. I’m following in her footsteps. Eight years left to live. Then who will find me on the floor? My mother is dead, so is my daughter, so it won’t be them. I’m skating down the slope and cannot stop. Speed attracts more speed. Fools attract only other fools. Benny and his blue-collar ethics, his chain-smoking mother offering to raise this child. I feel so parasitical and Wasp-y in comparison. So effete, so elite. So worthless. Such a stinking piece of garbage. The dogs don’t even love me anymore. What is Benny doing now? Why didn’t I want him here? I wish for some company, yet I’m glad I’m alone. God, oh God.
What men and women like about marriage is the stability. What they don’t like about it is the stability. My first lover was a good introduction to sex. Very few hang-ups. Two or three times a night. He had good muscles. He’s married, but he still calls me occasionally. Is that a good sign, or a bad one? And exactly who is it good, or bad, for? Dude says he would love to have an affair with an ex-girlfriend, specifically me, and his wife doesn’t mind either. He’d like to come over tonight, but he lives 3000 miles away — a bit far. Besides, I’m busy having or not having a miscarriage, or having or not having an abortion, or having or not having a D&C, as the case may be. I’m really just dreaming of a white Christmas. Just like the ones I never, ever, ever knew except from the movies. “May all your Christmases be white,” isn’t that how the song goes?