Category Archives: man

Crocuses, a poem

illustration crocuses

Crocuses, a poem

 

I.  Signs of Spring

Suddenly, there they were by the front door,

and at my son’s preschool — purple and yellow

and green, poking through the snow

like small erections, out of the body of the earth,

the earth’s slumbering winter body.

My husband was always at work then,

they, the flowers, were my best companions.

“God is!” they said. “We’re God’s greatest effort,” they said,

“We’re God’s peeping blooms, despair must go to sleep,

and all creatures must go out of their lairs to frolic.”

My husband did not feel the urge.

 

II.  The Mole

Such loneliness I had battled all winter!

I made chicken, hot crescent rolls,

and buttered beans to make us happy,

but my husband was never hungry.

Lots of things took his appetite clean away.

I hadn’t scrubbed the toilet in two weeks,

this distressed him, he was a stern master.

The crocuses were so calm and forgiving,

purple and yellow like bruises;

my husband inflicted bruises without knowing.

He could not see, or did not want to.

His face lit up upon our child, that was all.

He was too important to sweep, or dust, or scrub.

I was the babysitter. I was happy with the crocuses,

and then one day, a dead mole; my son didn’t know

what dead meant, so I had to explain it.

He petted the soft fur, wanted to snuggle it

to his cheek. We paid homage to the mole.

We buried it under the snow, amid the crocuses.

 

III.   Troubling Questions

My husband didn’t know the bruises he left behind;

the flowers were my trusted companions.

His face lit up, gazing upon his son,

his finest possession; my husband would jerk him

away from me, hate in his eyes, when the crying boy

awoke in the night. The crocuses poked their heads out,

asking questions I couldn’t answer. My husband

didn’t want to see the bruises, or he was colorblind.

He was too important to notice the marks.

The crocuses asked, “Where is pleasure?”

“Not here,” I said. “Maybe next door?”

 

IV.  The Body’s Lament

The earth’s body was waking up,

but mine wasn’t, my husband was too important

to worry about my body. The head of his penis

was purple like the crocuses, but it asked no questions.

His body was warm, but not for me:

for the pure idea of sex, the attractive notion.

He wanted a thinner, more charming woman

with a better degree, one who would clean the house

more often, and with a smile.

Oh, he wanted a warm, dark place to set

himself, but one with no conversation.

As I put away the winter wools, the smell of mothballs,

white, crystalline like snow, inflamed my fears.

When the rest of spring arrived,

the warm air did not ease the tightness,

the block of ice around my heart.

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Handkerchief, a prose poem

illustration handkerchief

Handkerchief, a prose poem

 

Made of linen, wide band of tatted lace around the edge, now slightly torn.

 

The linen is white, tinted grayish-green, the lace silvery like sea foam, and that delicate.

 

In 1900, a bride carried this in her bodice, next to her heart, and when she saw her fiancé at the altar, she began to perspire. Her salts are in the fabric still.

 

How she loved him in that moment…. What isn’t here is the rest — six children, five boys and a girl, the farmhouse so cold in the mornings, before she lit the fire.

 

Her husband’s waxy handlebar moustache, his pleated ruby waistcoats, hand-sewn each night until her shoulders ached.

 

How many times had she tried to imagine their wedding night as she tatted her lace, each delicate loop like a caress?

 

 

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The Nearness of Heroism, a short story

illustration the nearness of heroism cracker-jack-eversillustration the nearness of heroism

(Originally published in The Paumanok Review)

The Nearness of Heroism, a short story

They tell me he was the first man I ever saw nude; that when I asked him, pointing, in my high, three-year old’s simper, what “that thing” was, he didn’t even flinch. He stood in the big tiled shower stall, holding the door ajar with one hand, toweling himself off with the other.

“I’m a little teapot,” he sang, in his exuberant tenor. “Short and stout. This is my handle, this is my spout.”

They say I stared, and then frowned, running out to demand of my grandmother on the spot — I want to be a little teapot! Show me my spout! Where is it? Where is my spout?

Where, indeed? If only the gulf could have been reduced to those dimensions. Am I wrong to feel we would have been closer, had I been a boy? Would he have loved me more, or less?

***

I liked to sneak up on him while he used his glove, just out of the shower, a white towel tight around his waist, his hair slicked back, parted precisely. Even from my earliest memories, the old baseball glove was missing one or two fingers, the ball deprived of whole sections of its leather wrapping, worn through to the string-mended core in several spots. Both glove and ball had darkened to the color of cured tobacco, carrying a sheen of sweat-polished grime that lent a gleam akin to the finest shellac. Arms moving, hands a blur, he would move in automatic rhythms of meditation, pounding gloved fist with clenched ball as his lips moved, the words inaudible, his gray eyes focusing up and out at an angle, viewing a corner of patterned plaster, seeing something I wanted to share but couldn’t.

Then he’d notice me. He’d stop in mid-pound, his mouth open for an abrupt chuckle, too embarrassed to be embarrassed. “Hey there, lady,” he’d say, the broad vowels of his Brookline childhood making his words seem exotic.

He kept the glove and ball on the highest shelf of his closet, a level I couldn’t reach, not even with a step-stool.

***

He was, in fact, the only male presence in my life, even after I started to dwell on the concept of boys, the one I ran to in the early morning — crawling into his bed, burrowing deep under the covers, where he sang the old songs he’d learned from his Irish mother and held me in his arms, my nose burrowing into his soft feather pillow, into his wrinkled cotton pajamas, seeking out his bitter-tea-with-lemon smell, seeking out his body’s distinctive shape and radiating warmth, which possessed a steely eloquence no less comforting than my grandmother’s padded torso. Since he was home with us every day, having retired years before I was born, I didn’t realize he was different from other men, other fathers, who were defined not by their presence but by their absence.

“Oh, you dirty little devil,” he’d sing, “Does your mother know you’re out? With your hands in your pockets and your shirttail out?”

I would hear my grandmother fuming from across the room, not speaking but moving the various brushes and trinkets around on the glass-topped surface of her dresser with snappish clinks and taps. At other times, whenever he knew she disapproved, he’d make disrespectful rubber-faces behind her back until my face couldn’t keep a secret any more, and, looking at me, she’d see some sign of what was going on, then wheel indignantly, catching him in some fish-lipped, pouting impersonation of her, their demeanor so ridiculous, so upside-down, that for a moment it seemed that he was a small boy again, no one’s husband, and she his strict governess, no one’s wife.

***

He was related to me by marriage, not by blood, something that seemed to bother him a lot more than it bothered me, especially near the end of his life. From the very beginning, I had pledged my allegiance to him, had given him that affirmative declaration of the heart, and for a short time, during childhood, it seemed that he had pledged the bond in return and accepted me as his own. Not even in dreams did I measure him any differently than I measured his wife, my grandmother. As I grew older, however, and he grew more and more frail, the absence of an actual cell between us appeared to chip away at his feelings. “I don’t have any family of my own, you know,” he’d say, gazing at me as if for sympathy, never knowing how caustic the mild-sounding words were to my ears.

“I’m your family, aren’t I?” I asked him, the first time he brought it up, but he shook his head, smiling at me with a thin-lipped yet dreamy smile.

“It’s not the same,” he answered.

***

On various occasions, as his health became less certain, I promised him one of my eyes, one of my ears, one of my kidneys, half my heart, half my liver, half my stomach: everything and anything he needed to survive, anything he might need to be comfortable, which I swore to give to him when he got “old.”

***

In my last year of college, I had a boyfriend who got physical with me on several occasions. Nothing serious, no marks: a thump on the head with one knuckle, a scuffle in the yard, pushing matches. One day I reacted badly, bolting my apartment door and calling home. He answered on the first ring, but, having expected my grandmother, I found I couldn’t stop the tears. His voice deepened, becoming rough around the edges as he interrogated me. An old man, on six kinds of heart medication, he swore he’d drive the four hundred miles and teach the boy a lesson.

“No, Grampa,” I said. “It’s all right. I’m breaking up with him. Don’t worry.”

“Call the police if he comes to the door again,” he said. “Have him arrested.”

This reaction, despite his often-repeated joke: “Never hit a woman,” he’d say, shaking his head, staring at my grandmother’s back. “Use an axe.”

***

His fourth heart attack came only days before my wedding. He managed to walk me down the aisle anyway, spiffy and broad-shouldered in his plain black dinner jacket, a single pink rosebud clipped to his lapel. Since both my parents were dead, he was “giving me away” to my fiancé, a practice I found offensive on feminist grounds, because it seemed to exclude my grandmother from the giving. So we compromised: when asked by the priest, “Who gives this woman?” he was to answer, “Her grandmother and I do.” Except, when the moment came, he said only “I do.” My grandmother, standing in the front row in her baby blue satin lace and picture hat, whacked the prayer rail with her wedding service programme in frustration. The sound echoed off the front wall of the small church and stayed with me for the rest of the day.

Later, at the reception, he was critical of the music we had selected without consulting him: a wandering string quartet. “All your guests are leaving,” he said, after his fourth or fifth glass of champagne took hold. “Why didn’t you have a real band? Some dancing. It’s like a funeral in here.” I trembled all over from the exertion of holding my tongue. Only if I had screamed at him, my face reddening under its halo of white silk flowers, would he have been happy.

***

I was home for a long-overdue visit when the last battle came. Semi-invalided, by then, Grampa moved only from the bed to his recliner, spending the day reading the paper in a slow, deliberate rustle. The television blared for hours each evening, his expensive hearing aids — the same kind Reagan used, he’d told me — plucked from his canals and discarded, tossed into a dainty porcelain ashtray: hand-painted with a rising, twisting phoenix, it was the only memento he had kept from his service in Germany during the war.

He didn’t like going to bed at night, waiting until two or three in the morning to call for my grandmother to help him to his room. Arising no earlier than noon the next day, he’d swear he hadn’t slept a wink. “He snored like a baby all morning,” my grandmother would whisper.

His appetite was slight too, and then one day, nonexistent. Supper waited out in the dining room: over my grandmother’s objections I took him in a bowl of ice cream. He lay against his pillows while I spooned it into his mouth, noticing how he lipped the spoon as I withdrew it, sucking it like a baby. The bowl finished, he thanked me, his voice hoarse with exhaustion. Turning to leave, I heard him start coughing, a deep cough that seemed to come from his gut, his eyes widening under the thick cataract glasses, his cheeks bulging, seemingly an imitation of his old comic fish-face. For a moment I laughed, thinking it a joke, but he put his hand over his mouth and made as if to hold his lips together with his fingers. He was trying to keep from throwing up all over the bed, I realized, running for a basin, almost too late.

After Gran and I cleaned him up, I felt his forehead. It was hot, dry, but the rest of him was clammy and covered with an oily sweat. As I took his temperature, Gran called the doctor, who told us to get him to the hospital right away. When we told Grampa where we were taking him, he shook his head. “Now what’d you go and do that for?” he said.

He looked so small and frail laying there it was a surprise to find I couldn’t carry him — what remained of him was deceptively heavy, as if his bones were filled with lead. It took both of us to get him out to the car. Each step seemed so difficult, so impossible — by the time he lowered himself clumsily into the front seat, he was glistening with a symmetric pattern of droplets, the sweat beading his skin like opalescent sequins.

***

At the hospital, an orderly dressed in green surgical scrubs helped Grampa from the car into a wheelchair. The orderly was tall and long-limbed, and moved with an ease, a lean fluidity born of professional indifference. His arms were the color of imported chocolate, warm coppery highlights underlying the pigment. His arms were like a god’s: so full of life and possibilities, I held my breath as he lifted the skeletal, ashen old body of my grandfather out of the car. I couldn’t say what the orderly’s face looked like other than that it was — like the motion of his limbs — devoid of both pity and scorn. His eyes remained downcast, looking only at Grampa in the chair — and I wanted to speak, but nothing came to mind, only regret at not being permitted to be similarly borne away, out of my own uncertainty and into a place defined by someone else’s ministrations.

The young man’s arms, in that moment, seemed to emit forensic signals, speaking without words to a pain I hadn’t realized was there, the arms themselves justifying birth, justifying suffering, justifying death: paying for perfection all over again — skin so smooth it looked hairless, poreless, as if it smelled of allspice and cinnamon and blood and salt. The arms were immaculately sculpted; the bones just long enough, granting a perfect inertia between muscularity and leanness. The miracle of such arms and skin held my attention like a time-release dose of whatever manna makes heaven heaven, and so it was that I found myself spiraling into an upward-rushing eddy of panic when the orderly left, forever, just seconds later, rolling my grandfather to the admitting desk like so much cargo, then vanishing into the angular whiteness and pulsing fluorescence of the hospital corridors.

***

We left Grampa there, in the midst of a cotillion of duly licensed strangers — what choice did we have, not knowing, not wanting to know, not capable of that knowledge? By not speaking, we maintained a positive attitude. His room seemed comfortable, his nurses kind. His glasses glinted, the reflection obscuring his eyes, as we waved goodbye from the doorway.

By the next morning, he had been moved to the intensive care unit. He was comatose, hooked up to a ventilator, stripped of his pajamas, gleaming plastic tubes invading his throat, his nose, his bladder, his veins — his heart had stopped in the night, from the pneumonia: the doctors speculated he might have had irreversible brain damage before they got it going again.

Machines everywhere, whirring, beeping — my grandmother and I couldn’t even touch him. His chest shook under the ventilator’s control, his whole body quivered. The vent itself hissed, clicking, coaxing his reluctant breath, forcing it when it hesitated. Pushing his lungs in and out without his body’s permission. The respirator had a device to allow him to breathe for himself, if he could, like training wheels on a child’s bicycle, and sometimes he did, but even that primitive desire for oxygen would vanish, and the machine would kick in to bring him the next breath.

We were there when the respiratory people had to change his breathing tube. With the most well-meaning, tender sort of violence, they ministered to the tubes, his whole body curling into a fetal position with the deep, gaglike coughing that resulted. They couldn’t say if he’d ever wake up, or whether he’d come off the ventilator. His arms were twisted, contorted, the hands grasping at nothing with a desperation that made my shoulders quiver in an involuntary spasm of sympathy. I bought him a tiny teddy bear, uncurling his stiff fingers to place the bear against the taut, unyielding palm. His other hand appeared to relax once the toy was in place, but perhaps it was only my imagination.

***

My grandmother and I, without speaking, understood our own feelings clearly enough. We wanted him gone; this kind of life was too painful to watch. We wanted it to come:   but at the same time felt wicked and evil. Who knew what he himself would have wanted? In the end, she signed the thick sheaf of papers authorizing no further “heroic measures.” Each place for her signature was marked with special red removable tabs.

***

In a sort of minor miracle, in several days he did awake, and they removed the intrusion of the ventilator. He was himself, more or less, and knew who we were, but underlying that surface was a terrible confusion. “How’s Jessie?” he asked me calmly, the name of my great-grandmother, dead long before I was born. His memories suffered no restraint; no contradictions existed in his inner flow of time. “Seeing you’s the best present I could have gotten,” he told us. “I’m going to take us all on a vacation when I get out of here.”

He seemed better than he had in years: I left for home, knowing it wouldn’t last; for the first time not wondering whether he would live or not. Later that day, I called him at the hospital from a thousand miles away and let him speak to my husband and my daughter. Say I love you, I told them. Say I love you, Grampa.

***

The next day he slipped back into unconsciousness, gently, easily, as a bar of soap floats downward in warm water. Notwithstanding the papers, the hospital wanted to put him back on the ventilator. No, Gran told them, no ventilator. No more.

***

I asked her what he had looked like, at the end. He lay on his side in the bed, she said, breathing shallowly. He didn’t seem to be in pain. He panted a little, she said, not moving, his face smooth.

I feared perhaps we had decided it the wrong way. Grampa’s doctor, without saying anything, seemed to look at us as if we were bad people, as if we cared more about ourselves than Grampa himself. As if we were selfish.

***

It wasn’t until a couple months after the funeral I thought to look for his glove and ball. I searched his closet first: most of his clothes and things were already gone, and the closet seemed a different space, altered by no longer containing him. When I couldn’t find them I didn’t panic — I knew Gran had put them away somewhere safe for me.

“Where’s Grampa’s glove and ball?” I asked her, not wanting to reveal how much I wanted to have them, now that he wasn’’t there to keep them away.

“What, those old things?” she asked, incredulous. “You wanted me to save those?”

I gaped at her then. The floor under my feet got soft; my knees turned into grating stone stubs lashed together by rusted wire. She was right, in a way, since at the last the glove hadn’t been a glove, just a thumb, the ball not a ball, either, but a roundish wad of wrapped string, its leather covering gone. That was all he’d had left, all I’d wanted: a piece of him I’d thought I was entitled to.

I would have kept them in a little box and looked at them every now and then, touched them with my finger. Maybe, if I was feeling daring, I would have taken the glove thumb and slipped it on, holding the ball in my hand, sliding the brittle thumb piece back and forth over the grimy string. I would have smelled them: a few tentative whiffs of the powdery leather.

***

I didn’t yell at her, there was no point. It was over. In spite of my outward act of forgiveness, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps what Grampa had said all along was true — maybe people did reserve the deepest sort of caring for their own blood, maybe that kind of caring was inseparable from cells, inalienable from life. Gran hadn’t cared as much about his feelings about the glove as she had about mine, for example. Or was it just that she didn’t care as much about the archival, historical things as I did? Whatever the explanation, it was done: she had not even understood enough to realize the issue existed.

“Why didn’t you tell me not to throw them out?” she asked later. “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted them?”

It was simple: I thought she knew. “I just assumed you’d keep them,” I said. “They meant so much to him.”

“They were ratty old things,” she said. “Just pieces, really. They were unrecognizable.”

***

I told myself that perhaps it was a good thing that the glove thumb and string ball were gone. I’d wanted them for the wrong reasons. I’d wanted something I didn’t deserve. I felt hungry — empty — but without focus, without specific appetite. He — damn him! — was leaving me all over again, and for the third time: the person I’d wanted him to be; the person he’d been; the person I’d wanted him to remain.

I thought of all the other useless things I already had in my personal archives, from my father’s crocheted baby blanket to clothes worn by my mother in college. I thought of letters they’d written to each other before I was born, airmail letters on thin blue tissue, drawn in irregular strokes of faded ink. I thought of brittle brown paperbacks and the curling edges of photographs. We are naked in our mourning, we cannot speak, and we cannot touch.

Grampa was gone; the glove and ball were gone; I was still here. The hell with it — I didn’t want to know, I didn’t want to hear what the dead had to say anymore. Only in dreams would the dead be able to seek me out again.

The dead never say much, anyway, not even in dreams. They look into my eyes, mainly, their own abrim with a solitary sort of gentleness, hoping to inoculate me against what they know is unnecessary sorrow — unnecessary love? — hoping to protect me from whatever it is that only they can see: all the while, nodding their heads in a slow, assured rhythm, a rhythm nearly invisible to the unaided eye.

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Weightlifting, a short story

illustration weightlifting 2illustration weightlifting

Weightlifting, a short story

Laurel stood in the alley beside the entrance to the Flower of India’s outdoor patio, and the stifling, smoggy Burbank sun was so hot she could feel droplets of sweat rolling down her back and her ribcage and between her breasts, soaking her nurse’s costume. She was hemmed in by a dented maroon B210, a smelly green garbage dumpster, and by the presence of her spurned lover. Jason had drawn himself erect to his full 4-foot-9-inch height (a foot shorter than Laurel herself) and was trying not to tense his neck — specifically his sternomastoid muscles — because he knew how much that pissed her off.

“Jason,” she said. “It’s not worth this. We should both calm down, O.K.?”

“I am calm,” Jason said. “I’m completely calm. I’m just confused. You’re very confusing, Laurel. Maybe you could go over it one more time?”

“I’m late for work,” she said. “I told you I only had an hour for lunch. I don’t know anything I could add to make it clearer. How many times do you want me to say I don’t want to see you anymore?”

Jason stared up at her. Without realizing it, he tensed his sternomastoids, his neck vanishing in the thick round cords. Jesus, Laurel thought, there he goes again!

He blinked his eyes. “I’ll be home tonight. Could you please call? Please?”

“Oh, God,” she said. “All right. If it helps. I’ll call.”

Jason nodded. His neck relaxed. He looked more normal, but not completely normal, never completely normal. That was one of the problems. He looked like an an eleven-year-old in an inflatable Halloween “muscle” bodysuit. People stared at him everywhere he went; and stared at Laurel when she was with him.

In the beginning, she thought she’d be able to handle it. After all, his face was beautiful, startling eyes, neat brows, and strong chin. The proportions of his body were perfect, if you viewed him from a distance. And the physical side of the relationship was fantastic. He was a perfect little doll: an expensive toy, like from the Black Licorice Whip on Santa Monica and Sunset. But she was wrong. She couldn’t handle it.

“Bye, Jason,” she said.

She started to move, edging her body through the narrow space between him and the dumpster, but she didn’t do it fast enough. Jason reached out. He wanted to embrace her, sweep her back in his arms, and carry her off like Clark Gable with Vivien Leigh. But nine times out of ten he didn’t have the leverage; he had the strength but not the right angle of lift. If he’d tried, he would have toppled Laurel into the open dumpster.

So all he could do instead was hug her. His nose rested atop the shelf of her breasts; his breath caught a little in his chest and he inhaled deeply, almost a sob, and that was his big mistake. Through her costume — today she was a bit player on a soap — through the thin white material, he smelled her perfume, the heavy frangipani oil she got at Mrs. Gooch’s in Redondo, and when he smelled that oil he couldn’t help himself.

He plunged his face into her breasts, and though he felt absurd he couldn’t stop himself; it happened and he could do nothing, not even after he remembered that this was one of the things she really hated. His face snuggled into that frangipani scent, into the soft flesh of her bosom, and his head wiggled back and forth like a rooting newborn.

Laurel stood, her chin resting on his head, tangling his straight, silky blonde hair as his head moved back and forth at her breasts. She had an urge to rise up and smash him on the crown of his head with her chin. She had read somewhere that you could kill a person with your chin, supposedly it was one of the hardest bones in the body, but, no — maybe that was the elbow. Anyway, this was all her fault.

“I’ve got to go,” she said.

He untangled himself and stepped back. His eyes were red and his face was red and his thick hair was wild.

“Goodbye,” he said. And as soon as he saw her car drive off toward the studio, he attacked the wooden fence of the restaurant’s patio with his bare fists. Then he went home, and spent an hour peroxiding his hands and pulling splinters out with an eyebrow tweezers Laurel had left at his apartment, on one of the rare occasions he had persuaded her to spend the night.

***

Back at work, Laurel went to the makeup room. The hair lady pulled one of the hot curler sets over and started re-rolling Laurel’s hair. Laurel closed her eyes, and let the brushing and tugging lull her.

Jason was an actor, too, and in her heart Laurel had to admit he was much more talented than she. If he’d had maybe two or three inches more in height, he could have been cast in a slew of parts. But as it was, being 4-foot-9, he was shut out. Oh, he got a few far-out costume alien roles, and the occasional little person job, but the irony was that he was actually too tall for the best of those parts. Like when they were making that Star Wars sequel and they needed people for the little fuzzy things, the Ewoks, Jason wasn’t even called to audition. Too tall. Laurel had just met him then, and she never forgot how he reacted.

He got totally bombed — must have drunk at least three six-packs of beer. Being as small as he was, relatively speaking, that was probably enough to have killed him. He showed up at Laurel’s apartment, the third-floor place in West Hollywood with the center courtyard and pool. He danced around like a maniac in the open-air hallway outside her front door. Laurel literally peed in her pants when all of a sudden he vaulted over the railing. She ran to the edge, feeling the iron grillwork vibrating from his push off, but by the time she looked down she’d heard the blessed splash. She ran down to drag him out of the water.

This white-haired biddy on the first floor had screamed at her as she tried to half-carry, half-drag the semi-comatose, muttering Jason upstairs.

“Is that your son?” the crone yelled. “I’m going to report you to the welfare department. Letting a little boy jump off a third-story railing — he could have been killed. You should have been watching him better, lady!”

Laurel got him up to the apartment and put his head in the toilet and told him to throw up. Then she put him on the couch and covered him with a blanket.

The next morning, when she awoke, Jason was already gone, but there were flowers everywhere. He had gone around the corner to Lucky’s and bought their entire cut flower stock. Every pot and pan and glass she owned was stuffed, crammed, overflowing with flowers.

***

Laurel opened her eyes and saw Freddie standing over her, ready to touch up the makeup. She leaned her head back, he tilted the chair, and then she could feel him brushing her lids with fresh eye shadow.

Today was the fourth time in eight months she had tried to break it off with Jason. She had to make it clean, this time, otherwise it was going to take both of them right over the edge. Usually, Laurel was better at this sort of thing. With Jason, though, the relationship had lingered on her doorstep like a yowling, starving cat. She’d get to a certain point, then Jason would suck her in with his green eyes; her courage would fall away. She would backtrack; afraid she was making the wrong move. For a few weeks, she would be filled with hope. She would think, maybe Jason and I can make ourselves a place in the world.

“Open your peepers, darling,” Freddie said.

“You’ve given me eyes again! And lips. Too bad I can’t have you come over to my house every time I have a date.”

“You flatter me, honey,” Freddie said. “Nothing here that nature didn’t give you. Just me and Max Factor helping out a little.”

Laurel went off to her dressing room to look over the script. This morning she’d spoken two lines, this afternoon she had three. In this afternoon’s scene, she had to cut ski pants off the legs of the character of “Sue Roper,” after a tragic fall on the slopes. Her three lines were, “Hold her down while I remove her pants,” “There’s a lot of bleeding here,” and “We need to get this young woman to X-ray, pronto!” If the director tried to “direct” her today, with this garbage, she thought she might bite his hand off at the wrist.

***

After work, she went to dance class. She wasn’t with it; the teacher kept coming over and fussing with her arms, her legs, pushing her hips down, tucking her butt under. When it was her turn to do a solo, she almost forgot the routine. Snapping her head around for the turns, she nearly lost her balance.

Leaving class, she shivered as her tired rump touched the icy vinyl of the car’s upholstery. At Ralph’s, she bought one single-serving Chocolate Supreme frozen cupcake. As she opened her front door, she noticed the message light on her machine flashing. The light flashed one-two-three-four-five-six-seven. Seven calls! She hoped they weren’t all from Jason.

She kicked off her shoes and dropped her bags, pressing the Play button.

“Hi, Laurel. Oh, are you working? This is Katherine. If you want to eat, I’m meeting a bunch of people at El Coyote around eight, hope we see you?” Click. Beep.

“Uh, this is The Strand Bookstore. The book you ordered, uh, the poetry book, is in. Thanks.” Click. Beep.

“Laurel. I’m sorry about today at the restaurant. I’ve got to see you tonight. Please call.” Click. Beep.

“This is Dr. Petersen’s office, calling to confirm an appointment for Laurel Bragg on Wednesday, the eighth of December, at 3:30 p.m.” Click. Beep.

“Hi there. Remember me? I’m back from the Oregon festival, it was terrific. Give me a buzz; I’ve got a nice script sitting here with your name on it.” Click. Beep.

“Laurel. I’m sorry. I’m waiting for your call. I’ll sit by the phone all night.” Click. Beep.

“I know we can get through this. I have faith.” Click. Beep.

Faith. What a crock, Laurel thought. What did Jason have faith in? Did he look at everything in his life the way he looked at his weights? Did he think if he pushed hard enough, if he pushed enough times, that he could push them both into a happy ending?

She unwrapped the frozen cupcake. She nuked it, poured herself a glass of milk, and sat cross-legged in the middle of her living room. Three calls. She would have bet on all seven. Maybe this time, he knew. Maybe this time they’d both be smart enough to let it die with a little dignity.

She finished eating and lay down, staring out the window at the wispy gray clouds passing over the full moon. She pulled her knees up to her chest, feeling her aching spine crack. Then she heard a knock at the door.

“Who is it?” she said.

She could barely hear his voice; looked like he was in one of his whispering moods.

“It’s me,” Jason said.

She dragged herself up and looked out the peephole. The top of his head was just visible through the dirty lens.

She opened the door: he looked down at the ground, staring at his feet. He wore his leather jacket with the sheepskin collar, the one from the little boy’s dress department at Magnin’s. Wound tight around his neck was a red and black striped muffler with long black fringe, but the jacket was open all the way; he didn’t have any shirt on underneath. His lips were turning blue.

His eyes were bright, the whites clear, but the rims of his eyelids were deep red. “Can I come in?” he said.

A chest-bursting sigh heaved out of her; she clicked her teeth together in her jaw. He looked like he was going to crumple up in a heap on her doorstep.

“Sure,” she said. “I’m just tired. I had a depressing dance class. Come in. You must be freezing.”

She sat down on the couch. He closed the door, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Well, what’s it going to be tonight? she thought.

“Laurel,” he said. He sat down next to her. Reaching up, he pulled her head down to the center of his bare chest and held her like that, bent over, her face chilled by the leather and the cold zipper of his jacket. Her cheek was against his smooth chest — not a hair on it because he had it waxed, and she could smell the soap he used, Jesus, he was always so damned clean. Then she felt drops on her face, warmish drops, first one, then another, then drop-drop-drop-drop.

He let go and stood, pulling her to her feet; sometimes she forgot how strong he was. All he needed was the proper leverage and he could pick her up, carry her. Not the Gone With the Wind scene again, she thought — I don’t know if I can take it.

He picked her up and kissed her; his lips were pale and cold as he opened his mouth, pushing his tongue past her lips, over her teeth, moving it back and forth over their sharp edges. For a moment — as he held her without effort, as she felt his body through the thick leather and the canvas of his jeans — she imagined that things were different, that when they went out together nobody gave them funny looks, nobody gawked at her like she was a pervert or a dwarf-hag or a pedophile.

He lowered her legs and her feet touched the ground. She straightened her legs and stood. He craned his neck back to look her in the eye, and she saw that his eyes were dry, but the whites weren’t clear now, they were webbed in red, matching the inflamed edges of his eyelids.

“All I want is this, Laurel,” he said. “You don’t have to go anywhere with me. I won’t expect anything.”

She looked down at his face. “What are you saying? What have you come down to? There are ten thousand women in L.A. who would be good for you. Can’t you see it’s not worth it?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t see much of anything. I curse you all day under my breath, I bad-mouth you to my therapist, and I have a dart board with your picture on it. But at night, it’s not like that. Then, it’s like nothing bad has ever happened.”

He turned his face away and she stared at the top of his head. I can’t believe this groveling, she thought, this is really bad, sick, and pathetic. I can’t believe I have robbed another human being of so much dignity. It isn’t Jason who’s being weak here, it’s me, I’m the weak one who can’t do what has to be done.

“Jason, I’m sorry,” she said. “This isn’t any good. You don’t really want to slink in here after dark like some criminal.”

“Yes, I do,” he said.

“Well, forget it,” she said. “Believe what I am saying to you. This thing cannot work. This is the end of it.” His neck tensed, his sternomastoids swelling and rising until he looked like an alarmed turtle. There he goes again, she thought. Will he ever stop?

Jason’s eyes got shinier, water building up inside his lower eyelids, about to spill out, over the edge. Suddenly, his hand flew up; he leaned in towards her to follow through with the swing; his open palm connected with the center of her chest and her body bounced off it. The thud of the blow and the echo throbbed in her sternum, in her breasts, in her spine; her teeth snapped together and she bit her tongue, tasting blood, as her knees gave way, sending her to the floor.

“I never wanted to tell you this,” he said, “but as an actress, you stink.”

As she bucked and heaved on the rug, trying to force some air back into her lungs, he was moving out the door, slamming it as he ran; the wall of the apartment shook and the brass guard chain rattled back and forth; tick-tick, tick-tick. Jason was right — she’d chosen the wrong line of work; the wrong life. She went to sleep for the night where she had fallen, rolling atop her rumpled satchel, in her sweat-stained leotard, the remains of Freddie’s makeup job smeared over her face like the greasy ashes of a penitent, and though the next morning she couldn’t remember her dreams, she knew that they had been filled with a great heat and a great darkness, and most of all, the sensation of a relentless, unforgiving gravity.

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Blood Mother, a poem (sculpture in the Orsay Museum, Paris)

illustration blood mother
Blood Mother, a poem (sculpture in the Orsay Museum, Paris)

She is made of wood, a silken hardness that begs touching.
Should anyone reach, trail a fingertip across her flesh,
the man in straps would speak, his mumbled words rasping
through the stopped air, turning beating cells boorish,

piercing desire’s heart, killing a love so old, so pure,
it has no real name. Such is obvious from the way she stands,
lifting her heavy hair, each hand the careful cynosure
of being — she drapes the primal fiber like garlands,

letting it flow free only to capture the thickness of trees.
Her eyes are closed. Under abraded lids resides the look
everyone knows: pupils enlarged by pain; simple refugees
from knowledge received of the body, woman’s final textbook.

The belly asks first. It says come, reside here within me,
neither cold, nor afraid, nor desirous — twirl and dream
of nothing but this spare salt universe, wear only veins, silky
wisps of hair, discreet, pale limbs enfolded by soft cream.

Her feet nourish the ground, her head becomes the forest.
Walk where her shadow falls, seek the margin of her arms,
soothe your tired neck in mother’s lucid heat, hedonist
entity you have become, set in blind motion under charms

worked by no laboratory scientist in a trim white robe.
Rather, you emerged redly from a thousand other deaths,
one messy cauldron holding shapes; the patient, springy web
of chosen elements drawn together, joined by many faiths.

The breasts want, too. Child, they sing in unison, nourish your
body with our thin white blood — suckle, cradle the nipple deep
against the palate, pull the flow from a dozen small pores, gnaw
strong like a velveted vise, drink true until you swallow sleep.

The need to believe is more than skin. Need is the whole glossy
image on this lonely wall; what it means to be such a mechanism!
She never schemed for her fey power — nor does she expect mercy.
You exist, mere fragile accident, in perfect jeweled synchronism.

Not as simple as punishment, nor as complex as grace, her skills
for life reside at a place men cannot enter, no fault of their
own. They build instead the world, of brick, stone; shy stabiles
meant to appease longing, courageous memorials to light, to air.

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