Category Archives: short stories

Pretty Young Women, Playing A Game, a very short story

Pretty Young Women, Playing A Game

The stupid party game I suggested that night was called “the worst moment of your life.” A half-dozen of us were playing, sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor. The prettiest, Kelly, resembled a long-past period of fashion, with her trembling dusty-yellow curls, her sharp little chin — her eyes were bright blue, her frame delicate. We had been up all night; the sun was close to rising, but the birds hadn’t started their relentless cheerful, spell-breaking noise.

Kelly didn’t want to play at first, but the rest of us insisted, figuring what? That not making head cheerleader was her life’s worst tragedy? That’s what happens again and again to women like her, they try to explain why they don’t want to talk about it… but no one listens.

The second prettiest one, Vicki, was pale and fleshy, moving with a clumsy, yet charming, slowness that made the rest of us wonder if it was an act… or could she really be that dumb? Across the undersides of her velvety forearms gleamed a network of thin white scars… the baby she’d left at her mother’s that night was not her husband’s. Mistakes get made; the child’s father was never heard from again.

Oh, but now Vicki wanted to get remarried so badly it made every other woman in the room flush with embarrassment just hearing her mention her latest lover’s name. We knew because of the kid that wasn’t his he would never agree to marry her; but she was so beautiful… scars, sad eyes and all… that he couldn’t say no to what she offered up nightly.

So, after being pushed & pushed & pushed & pushed & pushed into participating, Kelly narrated the worst moment of her life. Her twin sister was in the middle of a divorce. We never knew she HAD a sister. A few days before Christmas, the estranged husband called — he had lots of presents for the kids. She agreed to meet him at a gas station down the street. The only thing he gave her was three bullets — one in the spleen, one in the right lung, one in the throat.

“At least he had the decency to shoot himself too,” Kelly says sobbing. “How does marriage turn into murder?” The rest of us watched tears plop out of her eyes like clear glass pearls; we heard the birds finally, blessedly, began to chatter, bringing relentless life back into the world.

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The Analysand, a short fiction

illustration analysand short fiction

The Analysand, a short fiction

“I’ll take your word for it,” she said.

She remembered long-forgotten moments; instances of innocence, of confidence, of hope. Her analyst wanted more from her than pages in her journal, more than frozen images which may… or may not… have actually happened. Four bundles of smooth, shiny, purple rope lay on the coffee table in his office, four beautifully coiled bundles, bound & tied with intricate, ceremonial knots. His eyes met hers; bright blue lamps of inquisitiveness and Inquisition.

“Where do you get that kind of rope?” she asked.

“I make it,” he said. “I dye it with Tyrian purple and condition it with organic beeswax.”

She kept her face neutral; curious. She’d had enough of fake tourist traps for a dozen lifetimes; boring main highways hadn’t ever led her to anyplace she’d want to stay in for long. And the sun rises even after the darkest night. And the sun sets after the sunniest day. Night has its own charms. Her wounds were on the inside… and his? His… would be healed by helping her heal her own. The rope laid on the table, gleaming & inscrutable. Her favorite violin, a Bergonzi, sat silent & helpless on her lap.

She’d been dead so long; she’d wanted her to speak for herself for so long. Her mother had treated her like anything but a daughter; pupil, instructor, heathen, missionary, ghost, confessor, beggar, heir, therapist, patient. So strike a pose; strike a deal; strike a match. What difference does any of it make: preserving body & soul is not good enough; nurture your body and your soul. Peace arises where all paths meet; crossroads for weary travelers. Fevers can burn you up. Water can heal. She put the violin back in its case.

“Okay,” she said. “It’s worth a try.” She stood up off the couch and took off her clothes.

Dr. Zhu tied her up gently, kissing her as he did. Yes. He started at her ankles, and bound her up like a trussed bird. And then he helped her lie down on his soft purple couch and began his work. Where you find the water of life, is home.

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doctor’s report: patient a, a short story

Kimberly Townsend Palmer

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(originally published in Burning Word)

Doctor’s Report: Patient A, a short story

Patient A is a living museum of femininity, and serves as transitory evidence of extensive neo-geo-psycho-socio-eco-political movement. Designed and built in the second half of the twentieth century, she first gained philanthropic prominence with a cynical, witty, overeducated man eight years her senior, Charles F. She stayed faithful to Charles F. for six months, but the intriguing tales of his former romantic partners, then numbering in the several hundred, irretrievably seized her imagination. She left, and never looked back. She shops for new men the way other women shop for new shoes.

She invariably rejects both the too-easy conquest and the too-stubborn resistance. Every season countless men flock near to witness her fleeting, hormonally-induced states of passion, and observe for themselves her classic “XX” architecture.

If it seems that everything has already been said about Patient…

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If You Seek It Like Silver, a short story

illustration if you seek it like silver bohemian rhapsody freddie mercury.jpgIf You Seek It Like Silver

My father was evasive on the subject of ancestors. Emigrating, as he did, from the dark heart of Bohemia, he must have understood that some mixing of races was inevitable. Otherness was part of him — visible in his eyes, in his cheeks, in the reluctant way he wore his necktie. He forced himself to stand still and proper his whole life — in due time even Anglicizing his name — but try as he might, never managed to forget who he was and where he came from. That was why he ended up erasing himself until all that was left with a pen & ink silhouette.

My mother was not evasive about anything. Or so I thought. In fact, she was so brutally honest, she admitted to my father that her idea of “socializing” was to invite everyone in the neighborhood over, once a year, for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres (whore’s ovaries, she called them). Other than that, she kept our family as stiff & guarded as Alcatraz. My father seemed to be quieter, to drink a little more, to sit a little longer in front of the television. Then one day my little brother came home dirty, sweaty & crying, from his very first day of school.

“They all called me a dirty Bohunk,” he sobbed.

“Well, why do you listen to the stupid, mean kids?” my mother grumbled. She sat at the dining room table hand-tinting my little brother’s most recent black-and-white, artsy portrait photograph. In the picture, he leaned against a Victorian-style porch railing, his blond curls glinting in the studio light, caressing a large sailboat. “Quit complaining about your feelings. Feelings were made to be conquered.”

My little brother and I were eight years apart, and were nothing alike. I was tall, angular and dark, and had a talent for rages that seemed to be sudden, but were slow-developing and complex in origin. He had inherited the large-boned, pink-and-ivory glow and the sound, dreamless sleep of my mother’s family.

“But I want to have friends, Ma,” he shouted. His chest, like mine, wheezed & he coughed

“You’re there to get education first,” she said. “In two weeks they’ll have forgotten all about your last name. They’ll go on to other games.”

“No they won’t. They’ll never forget. They’ll keep saying it until I die.” He turned, running out of the room, and then we heard him clatter down the porch steps, banging the porch door behind him.

My mother frowned and stared, as if waiting for me to go after him; instead I began setting the table for dinner. “He’ll get over it,” she said, turning around. “Just like you did.” No, I thought; he’s going to learn to ignore his feelings; just like you; disgust. The last thing I wanted to be was anything like my mother; who freaked me out; who wasn’t comforting; who scolded her way into your brain like a hot branding iron. Imposing her will; all over the place; over your spirit. Branded spirit; oppressed spirit; dying spirit.

My little brother wasn’t gone very long, but upon returning, got into his pajamas and went straight to bed, refusing to eat. This had never happened before. Daddy went up and sat on the edge of his bed. I watched from the hallway. Wake up, I thought; wake the hell up!

“Don’t you want something to eat, sport?” Daddy asked. He hadn’t cared so much about my feelings when this had happened to me. Then, he’d been silent, letting Ma handle the whole thing. I suppose he felt it was different for a boy — when a boy cried, it mattered. You too, Daddy, I thought; you need to wake up, too; ignoring things; postponing things; assimilating yourself into your life rather than creating your life; quit playing possum; get up out of that chair; change the channel; yourself.

I was surprised when the next day, Daddy told us what he wanted to do. So was everybody else. My mother most of all. I had never seen the two of them like this. My stomach fell into some icy, limitless abyss in the universe; I had to get out of it, immediately.

“I’m going to change our family name,” he announced. “I should have done it long ago. I should have done it before we were married.” My mother sat in her chair, breathing in short gasps, as if she’d received a sudden whack to the chest. Finally she spoke.

“But it’s my last name too,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous!”

“It’s not just for him,” my father shouted, slapping the newspaper against his legs. “It’s for all of us. I’m God-damned sick and tired of having everyone get our name wrong. Every time we order something, open an account, write a check, we get these asinine comments. Life’s too short for this. I’m changing my name, and the kids’ names, and that’s that.”

“That’s not a choice,” she hissed, “and you know it.” She kicked her pumps off, throwing them against the floor. “You’ve allowed me no say in this.” Now she was all for individuality; feelings; identity; spirit; it’s always just a question of whose ox is being gored by someone else’s ox. I felt like an ox, dragging my dysfunctional family along. Get out of here, I thought. Get out of here and find something to laugh about; or at least smile about.

And what on earth would I tell people at school? Somehow, facing the teachers with a new name seemed even worse than telling all my friends. It was just like my mother and father to ignore the fact that this whole thing would be the hardest on me. They were already grown up, and Dennis was just a little kid. I was the one stuck in the middle. I sat there examining my nails, not wanting to see their faces at this moment. Fox-holing my soul, stuffing it into a warm, soft hidey-hole; as safe as that icy abyss had been dangerous.

***

The name change happened at the end of summer. On my last day before joining the WASP tribe, such as it was; white bread; vanilla ice cream; whipped potatoes; roasted meats; sugar cookies; freshly squeezed orange juice. The day was bright and sunny and dry; my best friend and I were out in the backyard, perfecting our variety show. That day I was the emcee, she was the sponsor, and we each did half the guest acts. We had tap shoes, and purple and yellow shorts from gym class, and a small piece of plywood to serve as a stage. She also had a fringed felt skirt of her cousin’s and a pair of black kitten heels, for the commercials. Nothing else mattered until tomorrow. Stranded on a desert island, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide; naked but for the protective coloration in my mind. No one outside the family knew about our imminent name-change.

In an attempt to make peace, Daddy let Ma choose the new last name. She picked one which sounded horrible at first, but gradually became appealing. I begged Ma to send out announcement cards to my friends’ parents and to my teachers, but she just closed her eyes.

“You’re going to have to tell them yourself,” she said.

“She’s just scared to tell them she’s not going to be a dirty Bohunk anymore,” said my little brother. “I’m not scared.”

“What do you mean?” I yelled. “Don’t make me laugh. You’re the most scared one of all. You’re so scared, you’re the whole reason we’re doing this stupid thing.”

“No he isn’t,” said Ma. “Don’t blame your brother. Now go find something to do, both of you. I don’t want to hear any more fighting.”

“I bet you like being a Bohunk,” he whispered as we walked down the hallway toward the front door. “You’re stupid, not me. You’re a stupid Bohunk girl.” He ran out the door, ducking my attempted slap with an expert sideways twist.

When he appeared in the backyard, jeering and laughing at my best friend and me, pointing at us and smeared about the face with dirt and grape soda, I picked up a large rock and threw it at the fence where he stood — to scare him. The rock, being inanimate, didn’t understand, and so, obeying the laws of physics, bounced obediently off the fence, then into his head. A large egg-shaped lump sprang out instantly, right in the middle of his forehead. The skin swelled bigger and bigger before my eyes like a balloon. He swayed and fell down on the ground right where he was. Without even looking back at my friend, I ran — out of the yard, down the rear alley, and out of the neighborhood. I ran till my breath burned in my windpipe, then kept on walking.

***

Our house was five and a half miles inland. I walked all the way to the boardwalk in my tap shoes, the metal taps tapping and grinding against the sidewalk with every step. Blisters formed on my heels, but I kept on, walking slower, placing my feet against the sidewalks with more care. The wind had begun to pick up; the decorative streamers on my favorite ice-cream parlor puffed and snapped.

The boardwalk was crowded, as usual, with transient peddlers. Amid the portable push-carts was a large, gleaming Airstream trailer. Its bulbous surface reflected the milling crowd like a funhouse mirror. As I approached, drawn like a magpie to the smooth, shiny aluminum surface, I noticed a young woman sitting at a folding display table in front of the trailer. She was missing several of her front teeth. Other than that, she was beautiful, her eyes large and clear, her skin like velvet. The dumpy baby in her lap was drooling and babbling like any ordinary kid. My heart leaped inside my chest suddenly, for no reason.

The brand-new Airstream was hitched up to a horrible-looking pickup truck: scabrous, multi-layered paint, rotting fenders. I stood, my legs trembling, examining the large array of beaded purses on her table, and also peeking in the side window of the trailer — the built-in furniture inside was pale pink, and sheathed in plastic. I picked up one of the small purses, completely covered with tiny glass beads, sewn in a dark Oriental-rug pattern. The beaded bag was sinuous and heavy in my hands, like a living thing.

“Can you tell me my fortune?” I asked the lady, my heart pounding against my chest like a small fist.

She stared at me for a moment, then laughed, causing the baby on her lap to startle, his small fat arms jerking. But he, too, smiled after a moment, a toothless grin that matched her own. The baby grabbed at her long hair, stuffing a large handful of it into his mouth.

“No, I can’t,” she said, shaking her head. “But if you dance,” she said, pointing down at my dusty tap shoes, “I’ll give you something.”

“You mean right here?” I asked. “In front of all these people?”

“Sure,” she said. “I love tap-dancing. I’ll give you that purse, if you want.”

The purse’s beading was dark purple, amber and bottle-green. I glanced around at the people strolling by, wondering what they’d think, whether they’d laugh. But it didn’t really matter, did it? I had stepped across some invisible line: tap-dancing on the beach was nothing for a Bohunk like me.

“Okay,” I said. I moved away from the table and raised my arms, spreading them like stiff, flightless wings. Nodding at her, I began my spring recital piece, the one I did wearing a silver top hat and spats. Though the sound of my taps was muffled by the rough-laid planks of the boardwalk, I knew my form was perfect. I finished, and she brought her baby’s hands together with her own, holding his wrists and slapping his tiny palms in mock applause, but then she stopped and smiled, and I knew she’d been pleased.

“Take it,” she said, gesturing toward the table.

“Thank you,” I said, letting the prize swing from my fingers, the beaded loops of fringe rustling against my arm like the curious touch of a stranger. I stood for a moment, noticing her eyes, which from a distance had appeared dark brown, edged in black: surrounding her pupils were small featherings of blue, green, yellow, brown and gray. “I think I killed my brother,” I told her, starting to cry.

“No you didn’t,” she said. “He’s not dead. You can go home.”

“How do you know?” I asked, clutching the bag to my chest. The baby snuggled against her, leaning into her generous breasts, sucking his fingers and blinking his eyes slowly, falling toward sleep.

“You dance too well to be a murderer,” she said, frowning. “Go home to your… fortune.”

As I turned to leave, I saw a handsome boy in a vivid yellow windbreaker watching me from the boardwalk’s edge. His lean face was sculptured, his cheekbones and chin jutting out. His mouth was open — not a smile — and his teeth were square and white. As my eyes met his… his face benign, expressionless… he made his hands into tight fists, arms stiff and straight at his sides, and began nodding his head — forward and back, forward and back. Yes, he indicated. Yes.

“Take your new purse and go home,” the woman said again, turning to look at the strange boy. “But first give the baby a kiss, for luck.” So I bent down, kissing the baby’s drool-wet cheek, struggling with the impulse to dry my lips on my sleeve as I turned away.

***

By the time I got home, it was dark. A police car was parked in front of the house. As I tried the front door-handle and started to knock, it opened and my mother stood to one side, holding the door, as I walked into the foyer. She reached out, as if to embrace me, but at the last minute changed her mind and pushed me away. I don’t care, I thought. I don’t fucking care. For a moment? I hated her with every cell in my body. Then Daddy grabbed me, squeezing me so hard around the ribs I couldn’t inhale.

“Are they going to arrest her for throwing rocks at me?” asked my little brother from the top of the stairs.

“Certainly not,” said my mother. “Go back to bed.”

***

The next day was hot — the smog so thick it dimmed the sun’s rays. Somehow, that weird half-light made the air seem even hotter than the real temperature. We toured the marble-floored courthouse downtown, meeting our lawyer outside the judge’s office. The secretary ushered us in. The judge had a lot of fluffy white hair and a waxed, curlicue handlebar mustache that gave me the shivers. As I walked by him, he winked.

He asked us if we had any dishonest or criminal reasons for changing our names — then asked us if we were all sure it was what we wanted. I wasn’t sure — I saw my mother start to say something, too, but the judge didn’t notice. He looked at me.

“What about you, young lady?” he asked. “Do you want to change your name to something that everybody in the U.S. can spell?”

My heart felt like a fat frog, quivering, and I couldn’t speak. The judge didn’t wait for my answer, just started chuckling to himself, then he signed the sheaf of official papers with a judge-like flourish and changed me from a Bohunk into an American.

***

I went to confession that week with a lot to say. The new priest had a strange kind of beauty — artfully shaped eyebrows, large protruding eyes, fleshy but precise lips, dimpled chin. His English was faintly accented. I liked to imagine he was in love with me, but too saintly to break his vows — he twisted and turned each night upon his hard, narrow cot, praying in vain for relief from the tempting visions of me. In the booth, the words came easily.

“I almost killed my brother,” I told him. I waited in the hot, breathy silence. “I committed perjury.” Still nothing. “I looked on a man with lust,” I said, remembering the taut face of the boy on the beach. Now tell me I’m evil, I thought. Tell me I’m going to hell, talk to me about the pit of fire, the writhing serpents.

“Do you fear for your soul?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “Everything has changed. I’m not the same as I used to be.”

“God knows what’s in your heart,” he said. “Sometimes being ashamed is the most important thing. It’s the first step to changing.” He cleared his throat.

“I’m supposed to be changing? Does changing your name count?” I couldn’t help laughing — then wondered if laughter in the confessional was some sort of sin.

“Changing your name? You mean by marriage?” He sounded shocked.

“No, my family — we all changed our last name. Because my father was ashamed. Because no one knew how to spell it. Because he didn’t want anyone to think we were — strange.” I waited; his silence was interminable. I heard him sigh.

“A name can be very important for the peace of the soul.”

“But nobody asked if I wanted to change.”

“Your father did what he thought was right.”

“But I can’t stop being angry,” I said, almost crying.

“Pray for your anger to be taken from you,” he said. “Pray for guidance.”

But wasn’t he supposed to give me that — guidance? Where was his usual sympathy? I felt weak, dizzy.

“Yes, Father,” I said, though tears had started. “I’ll pray for guidance.”   Pushing the booth’s wooden door open — so hard it knocked against the outer wall of the adjacent confessional — I felt Father startle and jump inside his half of the booth in the second before I slipped my shoes off and ran out of the church.

***

A bunch of us freshman girls journeyed to the first school dance of the year as a dateless yet hopeful group. As we stood talking and laughing — eyeing the large group of stag boys near the gym doors — we fussed with our hair and rattled our charm bracelets. The tall, good-looking boy I’d seen that awful day at the beach approached, and invited me to dance.

“Did you get married over the summer or something?” he asked, tossing his forelock out of his eyes as we twirled out to the middle of the floor.

“Married?” I said, peering up at his face in the dim, dance-floor light. His eyes were large, round and brown, and his lower lip full so that even his scowl had a goofy, angelic quality. “Are you kidding or something?” I asked.

“Well, last thing I knew your last name was different.” He smiled and tapped my name tag with one finger. “So, I figure either I’m going senile, or you got married.” He winked. “Odds are, I’m not senile.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, smiling.

“Well, sometimes I wonder.” He laughed, caressing my back softly as we danced.

“My father changed our last name over the summer,” I said. “Tired of having it misspelled, stuff like that.”

“Well, this one will attract less attention, that’s for sure.”

“Yes, it will,” I said, and then the fast song was over. We stopped, standing together for a moment, then another song began, but we didn’t resume dancing.

“Would you like to go get a soda?” he asked.

“Yeah, sure,” I said, nodding. We went out to the main entry hall, where some members of the student council were selling refreshments: Cokes, brownies, small bags of popcorn.

“It’s hot in there. Let’s walk around the courtyard for a minute,” he said, holding the cold green bottle against his forehead. He held out his hand to lead me, and I noticed it trembling. We sat down on the edge of a concrete planter, hidden from the dance behind its large circular hedge. The music sounded tinny from out here, but a slight breeze was blowing, and the air had a clean smell. He took a long swig of his soda, then put the bottle down. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, sounding like he might cry. He put his hand against my breast, squeezing me as though caressing some exotic fruit, and then, upon discerning no obvious resistance, he leaned forward with his lips pursed. As he kissed me, his hand kept on moving, pulling at the buttons of my blouse, sliding around under my clothing and tugging at the hooks on my brassiere like a small inquisitive animal.

***

My feelings over the next few days were a dizzying combination of exhilaration and despair. I’d let him touch me, and it had felt good — but the fact that I’d allowed it to happen disgusted me. It was part of my body that had betrayed me — some fundamental weakness — a new aspect of myself I’d never be able to get rid of. I kept looking in the mirror: the dark circles under my eyes seemed worse, and my complexion got hazy. My hair seemed altered, losing its shine, its color. I felt suddenly younger and older at the same time. Ma and I were shopping for groceries when I felt caution melt away inside me.

“Did anybody ever try to touch you under your blouse?” I asked her, in the frozen food aisle.

“What do you mean, touch?” she asked.

“Like on a date or something,” I said.

“Of course,” she snorted, throwing half-a-dozen packages of peas into the cart. “What do you think, that’s a recent invention?”

“What did you do, then?”

“I kept their hands away,” she said. “I made them stop.”

“Well, what about Daddy?” I asked. “Did he ever try? He must have.”

“I’m not going to go into the specifics with you,” she said. “Just don’t let things go that far.” She turned and stared at me.

“No, of course not,” I said, feeling the blood heat up inside my lying cheeks, my lying neck. I knew she noticed. No way out.

***

“I don’t know why I bother,” she said, stirring a pot of tiny meatballs in sauce, her hair coiled in gleaming pin-curl clips. “No one invites us back.” My mother was more cranky than usual about her annual cocktail party.

“That’s not why you give the party, is it?” my father asked, laughing. “You wouldn’t go to most of these people’s houses, anyway. No, you just want them to be in your debt.” He patted her. “Just like me,” he added. People were trickling in when one of Daddy’s friends brought up the name change.

“When I got the invitation, I was stumped for a minute,” he said. “I thought, who do I know who changed their damn name? If you’re trying to lose the bill collectors, you forgot the most important thing — get the hell out of Dodge!” He threw his head back and laughed; a braying ass. My mother felt the same way and poured her drink on his shoes. For once, for one blessed moment, I agreed with her completely on something. Common ground. The beginning of our real, far deadlier arguments.

“I don’t care what you think,” she said, waving her arms over her head. “Any of you!” The whole group fell quiet, and after a moment, people who had just arrived began moving toward the hall closet to get their coats.

“Now, wait a minute,” my father said. “He was just kidding!”

“Gee, so was I,” she said. “Couldn’t you tell?” She kicked off her shoes, then ran up the stairs; I watched, then scrambled up after her. In her bedroom, she flopped down on the bed, heedless of the starched, organdy collar and bows on her black dress. She jerked her legs back and forth, back and forth, and her stockings hissed against the satin of the bedspread. “I knew from the day I met your father we’d never be soul mates or anything,” she said. “But I was hoping for something better than this.”

“I’m sure he was hoping for something better, too,” I said. “Do you know how horrible you can be? Do you?” I wasn’t going to end up like her, or like him — or like anybody in my family. It didn’t matter what my name was. “If Daddy and I hadn’t been there watching, you wouldn’t have poured that drink on the man, would you?” I hate you, I thought. And you hate me, too. Own it, you fucking cunt.

“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” she snorted, throwing her arm across her eyes. “You and your theories. I was just mad, that’s all.” She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, live for long outside her locked, electrified steel cage of rage, I realized.

She shook her head, and her hair, pinned in a loose bun, fell free and tangled in a soft cloak around her neck. My own breathing became the most delicate of rhythms. I closed my eyes and stood next to the door, swaying in place. She was absolutely right: her daughter was a rebel both by nature and by choice. Too much Order… too much Chaos… then back again, a beautiful, inscrutable figure eight. Ma kept on talking, talking about the right way to do everything, the petulant sound of her voice changing inside my head into a soothing, abstract blur, like river water over smooth, flesh-colored rocks. Grief and guilt flew out of me: sharp arrows of silver, or cobalt glass. My own insatiable needs burst their seed casings; moving shapes cast their inscrutable dark shadows against the walls of my secret cave; I fell in love with the light of my tiny, disobedient candle. I kept on nodding and nodding; pretending to listen; planning my escape.

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Edie Sedgwick Discusses Her Early Years, a Monologue/Poem/Story/Lyric.

illustration edie sedgwickI felt I was Gloria, some angel living in her own hallucination of time. We were angels on LSD, on LPS. I was cheesecake, chocolate-dribbled, sexy & asexual, pop-rocks eye candy. Wrapped in a wealthy, yet tragic, past. DEEP BREATH. With my dreamy tones; those slow, hypnotic lyrics, my subliminal heavenly chorus of all that is female, the goddess inside us. Hypnotic, larger than life.

And so were the commercials. We really were all famous for about 15 minutes, but we couldn’t see that, all we could see was right now, right then. The atom bomb age, the Cold War, suicides, the Third World starving to death… children dropping like flies in Africa from famine. India, hit by an earthquake. Viet Nam cranking up, with war profits for the conglomerating corporations; divvying up the spoils of war. Kennedy, dead in Texas.

Be the girl all the bad boys want. DEEP BREATH. Sex turned into a Technicolor rock show, pure fantasy; turned into reality. People started living according to their own fantasies of what the world was like. The awakening grew harder; grew easer; grew harder; again & again.

Material wealth. An intoxicant. A drug. Addictive behavior. Spread it around. Moderation in everything. Reasonable assumptions? No? DEEP BREATH. Spell it the fuck out. Rules-based understanding. It takes me a long, long, long time to learn all the rules, all the techniques, all the subtleties. But when I figure something out, I have fucking figured the fuck out of it! DEEP BREATH.

I’m a dreamer; I’m a practical schemer. I’m a dreamer with a BMW; I’m a bad-ass schemer; I’m a waterlogged dreamer; I give up when there is trouble; I run like a rabbit. I dig in like a lion at bay.

Falling in love is wonderful. Once you fall in, take care never to fall out. Find something to keep your love alive… anything! Fasten on & fasten hard. In every way, so they say. Rumors fly. Determining actual facts is hard. All the shit I ever believed about myself came true. DEEP BREATH.

So, my body believes, at least. Next, to make my logical mind decipher the hieroglyphs. DEEP BREATH. Then my heart shall feel; then my soul shall live. DEEP BREATH.

It’s what Andy always used to say: artists are artists, no matter their profession or occupation or job or outward circumstances, and artists are the commodities of the very wealthy. DEEP BREATH. We’re all falling prey.

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You’re So Beautiful, a short story

illustration you're so beautiful

You’re So Beautiful, a short story

I met Lainey in seventh grade. That was the year the School Board made everybody, boys and girls, take both Shop and Home Economics. In Shop, we learned to make a bookshelf, a cutting board, and a surfboard key ring out of thick, acrylic, plastic sheets laminated together, making stripes in a sort of mixed up rainbow. The shop smelled good from all the sawdust. The saws were loud, sometimes deafening. The plastic smelled like plastic.

In Home Ec., we learned to make corn fritters out of Bisquick and canned creamed corn, and how to cut out a pattern and sew it together. Other than Lainey, the biggest news of the year was when our Home Ec. teacher came in second in the Miss Nude World contest. Most kids were blasé about that, most teachers were shocked. It wasn’t any big surprise to me — you’d have to be blind not to see how she looked in her clingy knit minidresses, no lingerie lines showing. She was naked under that dress, and radiated something I would realize later was sex.

The first words my friend Lainey ever said to me were, “I love you.” Standing there in shop next to the jigsaw, I felt my lungs seize up. I prayed that nobody had heard. Little alarm bells were going off in my head. “I love you,” echoed through my ears. It was such a new feeling that in seconds my self-consciousness shriveled up and melted away like some bad witch; my lungs unfroze and I breathed. I greedily said, “What?”

Lainey said it again, and reached over and took my hand in hers. Her hand was sturdy, well-formed, warm and dry, her skin a glowing, lightly freckled, golden honey, her nails broad and dark pink. Although she wasn’t implying what I’d thought at first, I was bound to her forever in the innocent, momentary flash of what could have been, and how it might have made me feel. She had been to drug rehab for kids, at a place called The Sprout. Her parents — the usual yacht club, duplicate bridge, reading for the blind types — had found her pot stash, which she kept in an empty Sucrets box. So they sent her to The Sprout, where the counselors taught her to love Jesus — to love everybody — and to renounce drugs. Loving people stuck with Lainey, but Jesus and renouncing drugs fell by the wayside.

What Lainey’s parents couldn’t see was that drugs weren’t the real problem, they were only a reflection of something deeper — some desperate need of hers they didn’t even want to know about. They wrote large checks and prayed for a miracle. To them, Lainey and her siblings were the ultimate accessories, something to complement their house, their car, their memberships and dress-for-success wardrobes.

By high school, junior year, Lainey and I went out to lunch together every day — she refused to take no for an answer. She’d jostle me in the hall outside Trig class, the skin of her arm warm, velvety, against mine. We’d bump-walk our way down the rows of lockers, the other kids staring, open-mouthed, not knowing if we were extreme dorks, or just so cool we didn’t care what they thought. It was the first one for me, the second for Lainey. Why she took such a liking to me, I don’t know. I’m grateful.

“C’mon, let’s go,” she’d say, smiling, opening her lips wide, baring teeth so big and white I almost wanted them to nibble me, just to feel it.

Lainey’s body spoke to anyone, or anything, who’d listen. Animal, vegetable, or mineral, it didn’t matter what she was near: the electrons couldn’t help being stirred on one level or another. Rocks altered their geochemical structure when she sat on them. Grown men wished they could towel the sweat off her skin; maybe just take her just-worn jeans home and sleep with them folded under their pillow. There was a little brown mole next to her mouth, a few golden freckles scattered across her nose, and that jumble of curly red hair. Her skin was darker than her hair, burnished sleek by the hours she spent in the sun.

“What do you want to do?” I asked, my mouth dry.

“What do you think?” she said.

“Going to lunch” consisted of getting in her ‘68 Mustang and driving a long, pre-arranged loop — the “smoking trail” — me with a rolling tray and Sucrets box in my lap, putting together clumsy joints which, when dragged on with the fierceness of Lainey’s inhalations, once in a while fell apart, burning her thighs, or mine.

I knew we’d get back late, and be in trouble. We were in American History, together, right after lunch. The class was taught by a slight, lean woman with a face which seemed to be almost desiccated. American History in those days included a vile, nine-week, shameless, capitalist propaganda presentation called “Americanism versus Communism” which came at the beginning of the school year. The teacher had moved Lainey as far away from me as she could during the second week of school because Lainey and I came back from lunch stoned every single day and we could not stop laughing at the whole farce – I had to literally put my face down on my desk to break eye contact with Lainey in order to stop.

A certain type of girl looked at both of us with frozen marble faces: they hated Lainey on principle. They knew — if she wanted to — she could have any one of their boyfriends in a second. They hated me, too, but only because of Lainey’s aura. It was a time when girls and women were a bit more harshly judged when they were too naturally sexy. Lainey was decades ahead of her time; she knew her body and owned it.

“Okay,” I said. Her eyes, large and brown and thick-lashed, must have been how she’d gotten away with her life so far. One minute they hid everything — the next, nothing — but I knew the truth was somewhere in between. “Tomorrow I absolutely can’t, though,” I said. “I have a quiz in English and I need lunch period to study.”

Lainey rolled her eyes and I frowned and squinted at her, tilting my head to one side. She laughed, I laughed, we linked arms, and stopped off at her locker, stowing our books in the clutter of her grungy ring binders, crumpled term papers and loose lipsticks.

We were idling at a stoplight on 26th Avenue, about to turn onto Bayview Drive, the smoking trail proper, when Lainey looked at me oddly, out of the sides of her eyes, her head tilted to one side.

“So, are you still a virgin?” she said — her tone someplace between medical and

Confessional. Right away I was considering the possible answers. Virginity, for me, was a gray area. I supposed I was, technically. Embarrassing — especially admitting it to her. But I had to be truthful: she’d have known in a second if I lied.

“Yeah,” I said. I was looking out the window, trying to keep my body relaxed. I wondered what was next: she wasn’t the type for random chatter. Then the cigarette lighter popped out, making me jump, and Lainey laughed.

“Grab the wheel,” she said, using one hand for joint smoking and the other for the stick shift. I steered the car from the passenger seat. I got to be pretty damned good at it. Do people even do that anymore?

“Well, whatever you do,” she said, inhaling as she spoke, her voice husky, “don’t have another virgin for your first time. It would be a nightmare.”

She’d already picked somebody out for me, somebody she deemed suitable, somebody she’d trained, even — her thoughtful idea of being a chaperon in reverse.

“You know Roy Stahn?” she asked. “I want to tell you he is one damn good lover. And I know he isn’t going out with anybody since we broke up.”

I was stunned by the Roy Stahn revelation. He was short, 5’3″ or 5’4″, which would have been enough of a problem, except that he also probably weighed 97 pounds to my 130.

The attraction for her was his brain. Lainey was so good-looking she tended to ignore looks in other people. But she was heavily into smarts. That was why, after the initial shock, I started getting a little intrigued. Roy Stahn was probably the smartest guy in the entire school. Total genius, but the real quiet type, smoldering embers and all that. Maybe I could get to his heart the way Lainey’d gotten to his body, I thought, teach him about true love: like Mr. Spock on that Star Trek episode when he inhales the spores, and for once in his life, lets go and really enjoys himself!

I was still pondering what Roy might look like nude, when Lainey told me he had been a total virgin with her, she deflowered him.

“All last summer I’d go over to his house. He told his parents we were playing chess. We did it right in his room while they were home. A couple of times we even did it when his mom was having bridge parties.”

I got queasy just listening. “You’ve got to learn to get what you want,” she said. The warm skin of her arm brushed mine, seeming an unspoken reproach as she took back the steering wheel.

We got back ten minutes after the tardy bell, and I could tell our American History teacher not only thought we were filthy rodents but wanted to cut off our tails with a carving knife. Lainey did all the talking — I sat through the rest of the class with my head bobbing up and down, stifling the bullet-like giggles that she could trigger simply by catching my eye.

The next day, Lainey got a dozen red roses delivered during class. When the delivery guy poked his head in the door, the teacher shit a brick, but what could she do — she had to let Lainey have the flowers. Eddie, the guy who sent the roses, was much older than she, and rich.

The day after that, instead of the regular smoking trail, Lainey decided to show me Eddie’s apartment.

We stood in his entryway and Lainey flipped through the mail piled on the hall table. She pulled out a copy of some Communist magazine and threw it at me.

“See this?” she said. “You could get on the government’s list just by coming over here.”

I wasn’t even high yet, but for a minute I believed her. Was I going to ruin my life? My college career? My parents would disown me.

She saw my face then, my stricken eyes, and laughed. “Relax, will you? It’s a joke. You want something to drink?” By this she meant alcohol. She led the way into the kitchen.

Of course we ended up skipping school the rest of the day. The apartment was great, with a black leather, comfy as clouds conversation pit, huge sliding glass doors all the way around the back, and a private pool on the water. Time slowed down as we got more and more stoned; I moved through suddenly thick and visible air, everything so cloudy I could barely see.

Lainey sat on one of the leather sections, leaning back with her eyes closed and her bare feet resting on the glass coffee table. Her lips were full but chapped, tiny bits of skin flaking off that made her mouth look even redder. There was a halo of fine condensation around her feet where they’d heated up the cold glass.

“What a buzz,” she said.

“Really?” I said. My mouth felt like somebody had given me a wad of toilet paper to chew on. My teeth were growing hair.

All of a sudden, my heart took a leap. One big thump inside my ribcage, and my bones felt soft, squishy. I sat bolt upright on the couch and laid a hand across my chest like I was getting ready for the Pledge of Allegiance.

“Lainey,” I said, but she was too far away, which in the tiny remnant of my mind that had stayed calm, seemed fortunate. “I feel sick.”

She opened her eyes. Her eyelids were heavy, and when she blinked it was slow. The brown of her irises was scary: so dark, so deep. I had to concentrate hard just to see her through all the silvery glimmers in the air that were whisking by almost like static on a TV.

“Sick how?” she asked, but I knew I couldn’t explain. “Here, let me get you some juice,” she said. She came out of the kitchen with a big glass of juice. She touched my hand, and the contact was like a slap. “Jesus, you’re an ice cube. Let’s go outside.”

I was feeling like a real basket case, but I knew Lainey didn’t mind, she didn’t mind anything I said or did — that was the beauty of her. We went outside by the pool. It was like stepping into a warm blanket and in a few minutes I started to sweat.

“Let’s go swimming,” Lainey said.

I looked at her, then at the pool, turning my head back and forth, back and forth like I was watching tennis. “Swimming?” I said. “I don’t have a suit.”

Lainey smiled. “You don’t need a suit,” she said. “This is a completely private back yard. Nobody can see us.”

“What about those people in that boat over there?” I said. I gestured towards something that looked kind of like a boat, out on the water, where the canal glistened in the hot sun with little rippling waves.

“They can’t see us” Lainey said. “Besides, who cares?” She pulled off all her clothes and dove. Now I had to follow. I took off my clothes, stacking them on the lounge chair, then jumped into the pool after her and went below the surface of the water for what seemed like an hour.

“Are you sure I’m not going to drown without realizing it?” I asked when I surfaced. I’d read the horror stories: “Girl On Drugs Hallucinates — Drowns Self. Parents Say They Don’t Know Where They Failed.” All this physical activity seemed like asking for trouble. “I mean, it seems like I’m holding my breath too long.”

“Jesus,” she said. “I’ll save you, okay? I’ve got my Red Cross certification.” This I knew to be true, because I’d thumbed through her wallet in search of the rolling papers. She preferred ZigZag.

Bubbles of my exhaled breath drifted up in the water, the bright sun turning everything into pure sparkling, wavery glass. I felt curiouser and curiouser, just like Alice, from head to toe more full of emotion than I’d ever imagined I could have all at once. I couldn’t label it: there was a bit of everything, joy and grief and love and fear mixed so smoothly they went down in one easy swallow, and it was as though nothing could ever frighten or confuse me again.

When the sun got too glaring, we went inside. Our fingers and toes were pale and shriveled; Lainey got out some huge, thick towels and we swaddled ourselves, squeaky-clean from the chlorine. She took me into the bathroom and got out her hair dryer and all her makeup and did my face and hair. “You’re so beautiful,” she told me, “don’t you know that?” “So beautiful,” she said again, and she stroked the side of my face with one finger, like a child. No one had ever said that to me before. The shock was physical. I wanted to grab her and hug her and cry, but instead I just sat there, trembling.

It was a couple of weeks later, as we were sitting in her Mustang parked in the school lot, gathering ourselves up to go in and face American History, that she told me she was getting married and wouldn’t be coming back for our senior year in the fall.

“Not coming back?” I said. “What do you mean?”

“I’m going to apply for early admission and skip next year — go from a junior right to a college freshman. That way I can have my bachelor’s in three years.”

What’s the god-damned rush? I thought.

“What are you going to major in?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know, something in liberal arts.” she said. I fiddled with the door-handle, not knowing what to say except that I thought she was making a mistake.

In the fall, even though I knew Lainey was married and gone, I kept looking for her. When I actually saw her in the hall one day, for a split instant I was afraid I was hallucinating, but she walked up and smiled.

“Ready for lunch?” she said.

We ran out to the visitor’s parking lot, giggling and poking each other in the ribs. She was driving a red 450SL: Eddie must have had a good year.

She gave me a present: three black lacquer and coral bracelets from Hong Kong, where they went on their honeymoon. And she handed me one of her old Sucrets boxes packed full. “Your survival kit,” she said. I still have one of the bracelets – the coral is so delicate I broke the other two, and I keep the last one in a safe place. It’s beautiful, just like Lainey; just like she said I was.

I got involved with the rituals of being a senior: football games, the prom, college acceptance anxiety. Someone taller than me finally asked me out! He’d lived across the street from me forever but had only gotten interested in girls this year. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined; I was surviving. It was close to graduation when I realized I hadn’t heard from Lainey, not in a long time.

My heart was pounding when she answered the phone. “Hey, stranger,” she said, and I wondered — had she missed me, too? I drove over to her house. Her hair was long, and curlier than before. Her face floated, haloed in the darkness of the entryway. At first I thought it was a joke, she’d taped a beach ball to her midriff. It was just like her not to have told me this over the phone.

“Wow,” I said. I was a million miles past trying to act casual, somehow this was just wrong, this was the wrong script or something. It just didn’t figure, this.

“Yeah,” she said, and she glanced down at herself — then her eyes moved back up, pressed on mine with a new glimmer of grown womanhood. “Isn’t it great?” she said. “We’re so excited about this. Eddie wants a little girl who looks just like me.” Who wouldn’t? I thought.

She’d been ironing: the board was still set up in the living room. The TV was on, and the thick drapes were all pulled — it was high summer — so hot — but their apartment was cool and dark and sealed off like a hotel suite. I was trying not to stare, but curiosity grabbed hold and I asked if I could touch her stomach.

“Sure,” she said, and, following the nod of her head in one easy movement, she pulled her billowy flowered dress off; she was just wearing just underwear. She didn’t shave her legs — I’d forgotten. There were tiny golden hairs on her calves and knees and thighs and there was her blinding white underwear, and then there was her watermelon-covered-with-skin belly. I touched it with one finger, softly at first, then, discovering it was as hard and firm as a basketball, pushed on its surface with my whole hand. It didn’t yield at all: I couldn’t imagine a soft, arms-and-legs kind of baby in there.

The baby was a girl, red-haired and brown-eyed just like her mother. Lainey and I met, some months after the baby was born, to go shopping in the mall. She was lying in her stroller, asleep. Her legs were plump and there was a dried-Pablum-crust around her mouth. She looked too messy to be a cherub.

Then, I saw Lainey again right after her rather sudden divorce. I was home for Easter break, and playing pool in the rec room at my mother’s condo with some friends. She walked up behind me as I was getting ready to shoot and jiggled my cue.

“I love you,” she said, real grim and serious, then, after a minute, burst out laughing.

She was there with some new boyfriend, a brawny surfer guy, all frazzled bright blonde hair and huge brown thighs, and she seemed happy enough. She was heavier than I remembered, but more beautiful than ever.

When our ten-year reunion rolled around, I showed up in a fancy silk dress with my hair permed, and stood around chatting awkwardly. I had thought our student-body president was going to conquer the world, but he turned out to be an accountant. I was making small talk, waiting for Lainey. I hoped any minute she would walk into the room in a sleeveless black cocktail dress, her hair pinned up, bright lipstick, high heels with sheer black stockings.

Instead, she’d sent two pictures to the reunion committee. One was a studio portrait of Lainey and her daughter. The kid was a redhead, but she hadn’t really developed her mother’s looks and probably never would. She looked a little sad, a little thin.

The other picture was a grainy, blown-up snapshot. Lainey was outdoors, in front of a windblown group of palm trees, next to a tall, thin man I didn’t recognize, holding a newborn baby wrapped in a blanket. She had the soft, waterlogged look of a recently post-partum woman. Her red hair was cropped, short-short, and she wore big tortoiseshell glasses, wrinkled shorts and a baggy T-shirt. Her smile was blissful, serene, and even prettier than I’d remembered.

Staring down at the pictures, I couldn’t breathe right, my heart pounding like a panicked antelope’s. All this time, I had carried her friendship within me like a talisman, giving me courage. What had I hoped for? Hadn’t Lainey loved me before anyone else? Wasn’t she the first to tell me I was beautiful? I reached out to touch her — I’d finally learned to take what I wanted — my fingertips marring the shiny photographic paper, fumbling against the image of her smooth, glowing skin, the skin I’d always meant to touch; the skin I’d always wanted next to my own.

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Filed under adolescence, fiction, friendship, high school, love, short stories, women

The Way of All Flesh, a short story

illustration the way of all flesh 4illustration the way of all flesh

The Way of All Flesh, a short story

Professor Rathlin was tall and skinny, with a beard and wild red hair. He wore sandals without socks, even in winter. During lectures, I stared at his feet, the toes in particular, the way the nails were so broad and smooth. But all that toe-worshiping was moot, because rumor was he had a girlfriend. Plus, I had Jacob. Despite, or maybe because of all that, I went regularly to Rathlin’s office hours. His office was even better than his toes, insulated with books, one whole wall covered with photographs of his family.

“Look at this one,” he said one day, pointing to a group black-and-white, maybe the third grade. From the clothes, I could tell he was at least as old as my mother, if not older. “You think you can pick me out?” he asked. He leaned back in his swivel chair, browsing through his chin whiskers. I looked hard, mentally shaving off facial hair, pulling his hairline forward, and erasing weather lines. Scanning the photo, row by row, I started to sweat.

I was almost ready to go back to the beginning, which was a disaster in a job like this — they all start to look alike. Then, I saw one boy’s eyes, his mouth, his forehead, a cowlick. I pressed my finger to the glass and said, “Here.”

He squinted to see which face I’d pointed to. He rolled his chair close, the chair-arm touching my leg just above the knee. “Right,” he said, as his chair pushed me, almost knocking me off-balance. “Sorry,” he said, swiveling back. “How about this one?” he asked. He pointed to a bigger photo, three little boys who looked like almost like triplets. They were dressed the same — plaid shorts with suspenders, white starched round-collar blouses, knee socks with saddle shoes. The tallest was missing his two front teeth and the middle one held the smallest — chubby in the face from babyhood — hugged on his lap. “Which one is me?”

“Oh, my God,” I said. I tried to camouflage, make out like I was amused. I knew I’d get an “A” in his class, this spotlight tutorial was about something else. He put his smile away and tried to look neutral. His eyes held anthropological glee.

I saw him in the toddler, the one with the dimpled knees, the brightest eyes. “The baby,” I said.

He laughed, throwing his head back for a moment. “Not many get that one,” he said, nodding his head. “Sit down,” he said, motioning to a chair behind boxes crammed with what looked like field diaries. I sat, and not knowing where to put my backpack, plunked it into my lap, clutching it like an old lady with a purse. Clutching it like my mother would have.

“Would you have breakfast with me next week?” he said, opening his desk drawer and fumbling inside it. He pulled out a ragged calendar.

“Sure,” I said.

***

“White people like to get the body in the ground within two or three days,” said Mr. Clements, our guest lecturer. “In black families, at least a week goes by before the burial. Black funerals draw more relatives — folks take longer coming by bus and so forth, so you allow the extra time.”

I thought of my first funeral, my great-grandfather, when I was six. Mom bought me a new navy-blue coat and hat for church, but as I was getting in the shiny black car at the funeral home, she decided I shouldn’t go to the church. Instead, I sat with the undertaker’s shy daughter in the waiting room, tapping my patent-leather heels.

***

The week after midterms, Jacob, Margot and I went out for a beer and some reggae. We sat up front, getting our sternums massaged by the bass. Margot and I drank too much beer and smoked too many cigarettes. She chuckled a lot, high up in her throat, and seemed half in the bag already, but she was tricky that way — in reality, just like my mother, she had a stable middle range of drunkenness that she could stay in for what seemed like forever. Jacob had nursed a warm Perrier for a couple of hours.

Margot leaned over and whispered in my ear. “He is cute, isn’t he?”

I laughed, leaning over and bumping shoulders with her as I spoke, a gesture I thought I’d gotten rid of in the seventh grade. “Isn’t he!” I said. I admired Margot — her well-placed laughter, her cynical, observant eye. When I saw her looking at Jacob in a way I’d seen before, I decided to let her have him.

I’ve never been the jealous, clinging type; I’ve always gotten out at the first hint of trouble. What kind of fool wants to be with someone who doesn’t want them? No, I view romance and love as Fated, unattainable unless bestowed on us by chemicals. There’s nothing gradual about that gut-wrenching attraction — it either springs up full blown or never exists at all. My mom and I proved this a million times over. I knew there was a certain risk. If it turned out against me — if she wanted him, if he wanted her — I’d have to be able to swallow that bitter pill and live.

“Would you mind if I asked him to dance?” she said. Asking permission, as if he were my property — not the way Margot usually acted. Jacob had been a virgin when we met. Margot knew, and the fact was tantalizing; even with the first sharp edge taken off, those boys can look so lovely.

“No, sure, go ahead.” As she leaned over to shout her invitation, her heavy breasts touched my arm.

I watched them on the dance floor. Jacob was long and lean — like a greyhound — dark hair just brushing his shoulders, and narrow, slanted brown eyes. Sometimes his eyes made him look dumb, sometimes a little fierce, but most of the time they made for a sort of refreshing blankness.

He danced with her, but he kept looking back at my table. I smoked and sucked on my bottle of beer, the carbonation stinging my upper lip.

I looked up and saw Jacob motioning, beckoning me to come out on the floor. He was sweating, there were dark spots scattered on his shirt and circles under his arms. When I got there, after wading through the hot bumping bodies, the three of us danced in a sort of conga line. For a couple of minutes I had this bizarre fantasy that somehow we’d all end up naked and in bed together.

Jacob snapped his fingers and swung his head, tossing his long hair, strands catching in his mouth like a girl’s. Margot had a funky Egyptian hand move she seemed stuck on. I concentrated on the looseness and fragility of my shoulders, letting my arms bounce wildly. We laughed, but the music was so loud we couldn’t hear the sound. We watched each other’s mouths gulp, like goldfish.

Jacob leaned close enough to speak. His hand grasped my hip bone. “Margot’s drunk,” he said.

“No, she’s not,” I said, closing my eyes, nodding my head with the music, brushing his ear as I spoke and picking up some of his sweat. “She’s just pretending. She can drink us all under the table.”

Margot screamed, opening her mouth wide, then gasped and laughed, fanning herself. I nodded and pinched her elbow — her arm plump, soft-looking, but hard with muscle underneath — and she minced off the dance floor.

“She felt me up while we were dancing,” Jacob said. “Put her hand on my ass.” His face looked glazed and hurt. I looked over at the band and kept moving and wondered which buttock she had touched and whether he still felt the warmth of her hand, glowing under his jeans.

“She just likes you,” I said. “The way I like you. The way everybody likes you.” I held my arms up and tilted my head back until I was dizzy, in the process almost falling into some other people. Jacob caught me before I fell into the tangle of mike stands and wires at the middle of the band’s stage. I felt my shoulder blade compress under his thumb.

“I thought you loved me,” he said, and I could smell his breath, sour just like his sweat. I wanted to shake him, make his head rattle. “Are you telling me you want me to fuck her?” he asked. A cold, hard, bitchiness drew down over my psyche in an instant, like a reptile’s third eyelid.

“Let go,” I said, shrugging my shoulder out of his hand, away from him — like when Mom would try to hold me down on the bed in one of her drunken vapors.

Jacob kept on dancing, expressionless, his eyes even more blank than usual. If I had been seeing him for the very first time, I might have thought he was insane. He touched my neck with his finger, tracing the angle of my chin.

As I walked away, I turned back to look. His eyes were closed; his face was smooth except for the silly little unshaved jazz bow under his lower lip, which until a couple of minutes ago I had liked. His body was turning and bobbing with the music, but his hands were drawn up into fists and his arms were down stiff at his sides.

“I’ve got to get home — my feet are killing me. Would you mind giving him a ride?” I stared down at Margot, sitting at our table, not meaning to but seeing anyway the cleavage where her full breasts pressed together. For a minute, she looked ridiculous, puffed up with air like some inflatable doll. I wondered what it would feel like to lay my head on that kind of cushion. I looked back at Jacob, dancing in front of the speakers.

“Sure, no problem,” Margot said.

“Talk to you later,” I said, and I left. I wasn’t mad at either of them, not really.

***

“This is a skull I was asked to identify for a murder trial last year,” said the medical examiner. He looked mild and well-groomed. Lying in a clump of tall grass, the skull was turned away from the camera, its curves a rusty brown except for some scattered patches of pale hair. “This was how it was found.” The slide projector whirred. “Here’s a better view,” he said, and the picture showed the skull head-on, the skull looking paler and the carved teeth glowing white against a formal background of black felt.

I thought of my second funeral, the one where I got to see a body — I was trotted right up to the shabby green kneeler in front of the casket. Great-Aunt Alice’s hair had been given a fresh apricot rinse, the curls prim and dull against the white satin pillow. The flesh of her crossed arms was flattened, as if she’d been pressed in a book. I feared her eyes and lips would somehow fly open and regard me with a blind and terrifying insolence. My remaining great-aunts stood in a cluster around me, weeping, kissing her, the dangling chains of their rosaries sliding, mussing her makeup, her lipstick, her hair.

“Give her a kiss goodbye.” I bent, lips pursed, brushing the well-powdered cheek that felt as cold and hard as my wooden desk at school. A sharp medicinal smell mixed with perfume and hairspray made me sneeze. I creased my forehead to mimic sorrow, all the while barely managing to contain the giddy, shameful laughter bubbling up inside me like silver air through black water.

***

“I think you should do this professor,” Margot said, when I told her about my date with Rathlin. Jacob and I had made up — sort of. He insisted Margot wasn’t his type, shaking his head and laughing — unkind laughter, I felt, not wanting to join him in his gaiety because it felt disloyal to her — at the same time wondering why on earth I held my laughter back. Nothing had happened between the two of them, Jacob added, and in that I believed him, because the one thing I felt certain of was he could not tell a lie.

After Margot and I hung up, after I’d sipped almost an entire bottle of wine, I sat at the kitchen table with one last glass and a cigarette, writing in my journal. “I think he likes me,” I wrote, meaning Rathlin, alcohol having made my loopy script even bigger than usual. After twelve more pages elaborating on that general theme, I don’t remember how I got from the table to my bed.

***

“This, of course, is my favorite holiday,” Rathlin said, grinning. He’d taken the video last summer in Mexico, documenting a rural celebration of “el Dia de los Muertos” — the Day of the Dead. Spindly-legged children cavorted in front of the camera, dancing brown and barefoot, wearing cartoonish papier-mâché skull masks and shaking small tin skeletons hanging from long sticks. The painted tin strips rattled against each other like wind chimes. It all seemed less gruesome than absurd.

After Aunt Alice, funerals got easier. My Uncle Frank looked better than anyone — or maybe it’s just easier to do a good job on a man. His hair wasn’t stiff or sprayed at all, just brushed back off his forehead. Even his glasses sat in the right position. I could see my reflection in the lenses as I leaned over the casket to rearrange the lay of his necktie.

***

“You’re not ready?” Rathlin asked, arriving almost an hour early for our breakfast date. Stiff and hung over, I hadn’t dressed or showered. I felt naked, though I was bundled inside sweatpants, a nightgown and a flannel robe. In the shower, I thought about what I’d say to him over breakfast. The only other professor I’d ever gotten this friendly with had been a Vietnam veteran, still a little strung out by that experience, which I found completely understandable. He’d taken me home to meet his mother. He said that when he looked at me, he saw “healthy children.” Feeling more panicked than flattered — I was eighteen to his thirty-five — and wanting to defuse the situation somehow, I said, “What is that, something like the Grateful Dead?”

After pulling my clothes on over damp skin, I went to tell him I was ready. I stuck my head out of the bathroom to see Rathlin searching through my dresser drawers. My eyes got big. “What are you doing?”

“Field observation,” he said, his lips drawn back and his teeth blazing white at me through the darkness of his beard. I saw he was in the drawer where I kept my vibrator.

I marched over and pushed the drawer shut. Then I propelled him out of my bedroom — laughing through my clenched teeth to keep the action on the level of buffoonery, pretending I had just caught him being naughty. His steps were tiny; he twisted his head around to catch my expression. I kept my face neutral, using the fake laugh as an excuse to look everywhere but his eyes.

I mumbled my order to the waitress and sat silent. It ruined the sight of him, being his measured subject. I knew our studies together would never be the same.

***

“The traditional color of mourning in Japan is white,” said the tall woman, an old graduate-school colleague of Rathlin’s visiting from Osaka University. “Whereas the normal color of celebration is black.” For the natural sterility of white and the corresponding fertility of black, she explained. I stared at Rathlin, chin on my hand, while she spoke, watching as faint color rose along the sides of his neck and he fiddled with his moustache. She drew a plain white kimono from her bag, holding it spread out against her body, an abstract design woven into the material itself, like a tapestry.

I had worn the traditional American black dress at my mother’s funeral. Up until then, everyone in my family — including her — had slopped around to those things wearing pastels, whatever stuff they seemed to have in the closet, but by then I knew it wasn’t right.

***

Home from afternoon classes, I was startled to find my front door unlocked and standing ajar. Then I heard Jacob’s voice. “Don’t worry, it’s only me,” he called, as I hesitated outside the door, my heart racing.

“Jesus, you scared me,” I said, dropping my backpack inside the door, clutching my chest and breathing hard as I walked into the room.

Jacob sat on the living room floor, five empty bottles from a six-pack of beer balanced around him, the sixth one half-empty in his hand. He didn’t look up when I came into the room, just tilted the bottle back and took a swig. His eyes were bloodshot from the beer. My journal was lying open on the couch.

“So, what’s going on between you and Dr. Rathlin?” I felt a draining sensation from head to toe, gravity pulling all my organs down, squeezing them into my feet. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. For a second or two, I was afraid; that passed when I saw his eyes. They were petulant, sullen, and his mouth was puckered as if he might cry. I remembered a baby picture he had once shown me, and over all the sickness roiling inside me was a horrible urge to laugh.

“Dr. Rathlin?” I said. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” And of course it was true — there was nothing — that was the awful part. Even so, I sounded like some ridiculous soap-opera bad girl, and he the walking wounded Boy Scout.

“You’re not having an affair?” He stood up, struggling for his balance — I kept myself from reaching over to help him — and at last he got upright, teetering in the floor space between the empty beer bottles. It reminded me of the first night we’d slept together, the two of us standing next to my bed, the stark white of his jockey shorts gleaming in the darkness, like an angel’s wings against the deep brown of his skin — “Help me through this,” he had said, teetering just like he was now, clinging to me as if I were a pier protecting him from some onrushing wave, and I had been filled with respect for his proffered virginity.

Honestly?” Through his veil of drunkenness I could see a sort of relief. “I thought….” His chest hitched, a gassy hiccup. “I thought you two must be having an affair.”

He looked out the window, frowning with concentration, as if hoping to catch sight of someone he recognized. “Why?” I asked him, knowing as I asked there could never be enough of an answer.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his body sagging, and when he sagged I saw a glimpse of what he would look like as an old man, when gravity would have gotten the best of even his kind of body. He cleared his throat. “At first, I thought you were writing about us, about me. So I turned one page back, to read the rest.”

“Why on earth would you assume I was writing about you?” I asked, honing the vowels into bright knives of sarcasm, sounding exactly like my mother, riled up into a taut, glossy witchiness. I knew from experience how much blood that voice could draw.

His mouth twitched. He squinted in the slanted afternoon sun that filled the room, and his eyes were like a lizard’s. I realized from the very beginning he had thought of himself as being the smarter one.

***

After a huge bowl of Margot’s guacamole, which we slathered over corn chips, sucking our fingers pale between each bite, we ended up calling out to order pizza, and thus never got to the half-gallon of ice cream in the freezer. We flirted with the pizza delivery guy when he got there — I don’t remember exactly how, but it consisted of exchanging pseudo-knowing glances between ourselves and then looking back at him and laughing with what we thought was a bell-like, sophisticated tone, the speed of our laughter almost, but not quite, as fast as a giggle, and in retrospect I’m sure the guy pegged us for a couple of crazy, shitfaced sluts and got the hell out of there as fast as he could — and the last thing I remember with any kind of clarity is that first bite of pizza, eaten sitting cross legged on the floor in front of Margot’s coffee table. I know, too, that we kept on talking for hours, but I can’t recall what we said because each couplet of our sentences was so complete, so profound, so far beyond our sensibilities when sober, that the pearls of wisdom thus harvested could not be held, but floated away into the atmosphere, nacreous gems of the moment.

Eventually the conversation hit a lull. I lay down on Margot’s couch, kicking off my shoes, intending only to rest my eyes, and was instantly unconscious.

Sometime in the night I awoke. The only source of light was a single fat candle we had lit earlier, stuck on the iron spike of a gaudy, wrought-iron coach lantern she had gotten at some garage sale. As best I could make out, given the gluey condition of my eyes, Margot was floating above the floorboards; though her legs moved beneath her, approximating walking, she resembled the silent bouncing ball in a T.V. sing-along.

She was naked. Her breasts were large and round, pale glowing globes tipped in a deeper pink. Below the straight line of her spine followed buttocks so round and firm that, when linked with her bosom by way of her waspy middle, made her torso look fantastic. No cellulite, no jiggles marred her floatation, and upon that dreamlike observation I closed my eyes again. By the time she went back through the room, I must have been asleep, since the next thing I knew was the delicate light of dawn.

“Margot,” I called, standing at the door of her bedroom, a heaped lump of quilt in the center of her bed the only sign of occupancy. “It’s around six-thirty. I’m going to go home.”

No sound, then a rustling of the heavy quilt, and Margot’s pale face and bare shoulder poked out. She’d slept in her mascara, too. “Wait. Let me give you some coffee first,” she said, her mouth so dry I could hear the faint puckering of her lips as they moved over her teeth.

I sat down next to her on the bed. Margot’s arm moved against mine, her skin hairless, soft, radiating a feverish heat. I stared at the rounded curve of her bent elbow, remembering how I’d last seen my own mother’s body, dressed in her nicest, newest dress. Her features had been painted and molded, her nose and chin just a little too waxy, a little too pointed, for perfection.

I leaned over Margot and felt her breasts crush my own into pneumatic oblivion. She flinched as I laid my head on her shoulder, pressing into her living warmth, but I couldn’t help myself. I knew she wasn’t the cuddly type. My mother hadn’t been, either — she was so soft on the surface and so hard underneath. She was dead, and I missed her, but I didn’t really want her to come back from wherever it was she’d gone. My time to follow her would come soon enough, and maybe by that time she would have forgiven me for ruining her life with my pathetic neediness. I knew I was taking liberties with Margot, but I kept holding onto her anyway, waiting for her to gather up the nerve to push me away.

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