Tag Archives: baby
Pregnancy, a poem
(after Alice Neel’s painting, Margaret Evans Pregnant)
Puffy hands clutch the seat
of the ruffled boudoir stool
to keep the woman from tumbling
to the floor, injuring
more than dignity;
her cumbersome belly bulges
taut, looms over the
like a great question mark.
Around her delicate knees
are small white dimples;
the pulse in the blue vein
revealed within a pale breast’s
taps in dreamy rhythm and
though her hair is unkempt,
her eyes gleam with gentle
confidence, patient sureness
that she will pass through
the coming ordeal of body
unharmed, spirit intact; that
everything in the world,
all the movement both inside and
outside her flesh, will emerge
from its hiding place at last….
Heads of Caracalla, a poem
There are three of the ancient busts on display
in the Louvre. Poor soul: he only controlled
his great empire for six years. I’ve been married
for seven, and though it isn’t like ruling Rome,
it’s hard enough. Thus, I can’t imagine how
he managed, even if he could imprison or execute
at will. Maybe stress did him in at twenty-nine.
True enough, during the heated third century
after Christ, the common man was too often dead
by thirty, teeth rotted away to stumps,
complexion scarred and worn, creased deep
like pegged and scraped hides drying in the sun.
Surely Caracalla’s own hands were soft,
languorous and pudgy, with those meticulous
shiny nails? Perhaps he was afflicted
with diabetes, or simply poisoned by his lovely
but illiterate wife. Will anyone wonder
what carried me off after a thousand years —
or even ten? During three decades on earth,
sculptors recorded all his secrets: first the pretty
baby, innocent and round-cheeked as any three-year-old,
blunt-cut curls springing away from his tender forehead
like the petals of an iris. Around the time
of his ascension, he had become sullen, his eyes
impenetrable, glassy, his torso clumsy, thick-necked,
his full, full lips bowed with palpable cruelty.
I must admit, by the year of his death, he’d grown
into his flesh — he looks wise, even kind,
and his drilled marble eyes are lively, holding
a gleam of curiosity for something outside his own
imperial body. I place my finger against the hard marble
cheek, hearing my own frail life tapping its brisk heels.
Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story
“Isn’t there any heaven where old beautiful dances, old beautiful intimacies prolong themselves?”
Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
How can I be “dead” to any of the men I once loved? They are not “dead” to me. Not even H. How can I be “dead” to H.? They — even H. — are each as alive as when I was with them; as alive as the first time they touched me, whether tentatively or with confidence; whether softly or roughly; whether with passion or mere lust. It is shocking and appalling how H. lurched so radically to the right after 9/11. He began that journey to the Tea-Party-Mad-Hatter-Neocon-Bill-Buckley-Wall-Street-Apologist-Fringe-Brainless-Faux-News-Right when Ronald Reagan was shot; I was with him the very night it happened. We had a short affair, right then, because we started thinking the end of the world had arrived and we decided, like the crazy college students we were, to get married to celebrate our courage in the face of chaos! I realized very early on (but still way too late!) I was embarrassed to be seen in public with him. Did you ever start seeing, and marry someone whom you later realized you were embarrassed to be seen with? Perhaps the person in question was “dorky,” “geeky,” dressed “badly,” or had questionable “taste.” H. readily admits he was a “dork” in high school. He was on the debate team; need I say more? When you can’t bear to be seen in your lover’s/spouse’s/significant other’s/partner’s company, things usually don’t work out.
Still, I put in ten dutiful years, trying to make amends for my mistake in marrying H. The second he started making the big bucks, he dumped me. He left me for my best friend! I guess I deserved it, not taking control of my own life & filing for divorce two weeks after we married. And I guess I deserved how my ex-best-friend S. ruined me, as she subsequently did. She was in charge of the whole group we had socialized with: dictating how everyone in our “circle” should think, speak, act, or react. H. was dead wrong about most everything, but, to his credit, he was dead right about her. At the time I thought him merely woman-hating, but I see now, even though he did hate women, there was something more than simply being a “woman” he hated about her. He was covering up the fact he loved her by pretending to hate her. Now, I have no desire to see her, not ever again. She is definitely “dead” to me. Yes, I understand intellectually, a living death (call it shunning) can happen to anyone.
The upshot of all this boring history? I’ve been waiting for something a long time. I can’t blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness, not anymore. There is something dispirited inside me, something empty, drained, and beaten — something sick, something tired, something that has surrendered. I gave up, when? When my first ex-husband arbitrarily said no to children, breaking his solemn vow. When I realized I couldn’t find happiness outside myself — not with an old love, not with a new love, not with any of my subsequent husbands, my friends, my eventual children, or my family. Yes, to casual acquaintances and virtual strangers I am “happy, happier than I’ve ever been.” And it’s true! I’ve never been this happy, this contented, in my life. Yes, there are still problems. My oldest son is still half the world away, fighting an endless war on behalf of my “country.” My youngest son still has an ignorant, racist, rabidly conservative father. I am getting old. My face is melting. My neck is turning into a wattle. I am drooping.
Still, I cannot imagine any of them, the men I have loved or made love to, being dead to me the way my former best friend, S., is dead to me. Yet that is how they must feel about me, the way I feel about her. Wanting her removed from my memories. Wanting never to have met her. Not missing anything about her. She wants to see me, I heard from a mutual friend I still speak to. I don’t want to see her, or even see the mutual friend. I don’t even want to get as close as that! Because of reasons. Top secret, NSA, DOD, CIA, FBI, SEC, IRS, FDLE, GPD, ACSO reasons! No further comment!
Sometimes, I ask myself why I didn’t give her back sooner. Would it have been easier then, before I knew her personality, the sweet meaning of her every sound, every movement? Already I loved her smell, the weight of her small head on my chest, already I’d soothed and fed and washed her forty days running. That other mother gave life, I gave only touch, warmth, comfort. I couldn’t help it; I fell in love, it happens like that, quickly, without thought. I didn’t know how it felt to be someone’s mother. When I couldn’t become pregnant, I cried for days. My insides felt soft and hollow, like an empty purse. This little girl loves me, I know she does. She reflects a rainbow back to my eyes, in her smallest toe resides a perfect universe. I lie next to her at night, breathing the rich, salty fragrance of her hair, feeling her body growing, expanding to meet mine, and over our private nest flows time, but for as long as we can we rest outside death’s pull, allowing all that to pass by, content with this lovely darkness, this small sliver of heaven.
Sometimes I ask myself why I gave her up in the first place. It wasn’t easy, not even then; I haven’t held her since the day she was born, but I know her, like she’ll know me, without thinking. I began her life, I walked with her body in mine for nine months, we were never apart, not for a second. I called her my daughter. That woman has taken care of my poor baby for years, but in her heart it’s only me she’ll call Mama. Any fool knows this, anybody with a brain will tell you adoption can be a mistake. It was a crisis of self-esteem, more than anything. A momentary weakness, where I thought maybe I wasn’t strong enough to keep her safe. Once, during all this trouble, I almost gave up. All I had in my hands was a pink plastic bracelet, but I couldn’t forget holding her, I couldn’t forget how her toes curled against her foot, so small, so much like mine. Now she’ll never have to wonder whether I loved her, she’ll never have to discover where I live. The time we spent apart will soon be forgotten; she’s young and there’s plenty of time for our life to weave itself back together, to re-create our lost paradise.
Sometimes I ask myself why I couldn’t have had them both, forever. Is love so smart that it can tell the difference between one drop of blood and another? Being born was harder the second time, though life at home smells just as sweet; the weight of this new mother, her reassuring size, pressed against me like a sheaf of autumn grain, harvest of all dreams. Dimness is where part of me lives now, the part that slept near the warm shadow-woman of my first days, hands that held fast, then let go. Dimness, and a lifelong vocation to tell people — remember, I have no patience for fools, none at all — nothing is as simple as it seems. A child’s soul can fill even the most tortured shape imaginable. God knows, when I have my own daughter, she’ll ask how it was to be torn apart for love, and I’ll have to tell her: it was a beauty and a terror and a fiery cross, and gaining the knowledge of good and evil has a price… and those of us who’ve paid it don’t for a minute regret our sacrifices. Yes, it hurts, yes, it left scars, and yes, now and again I have trouble sleeping — don’t we all?
The Art of the Javelin
There were certain lovers who never let you go, not even when it was over, officially over ‑‑ the kind of officially over where you both married other people. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s something about chemistry, the chemistry of their skin on yours, your skin won’t ever stop wanting theirs and this is a really, really bad thing. Marriages have been wrecked because of that skin, engagements broken, the valuables pawned. The skin fling always started well, of course, the mad passion, so heated you never thought about the consequences. And there were always consequences: huge, nasty ones. Perhaps those terrible consequences were what doomed the love affair from the very beginning. Nothing so lovely and delicate could survive the stamping black boot of your own despair.
You loved him, but it was never enough. Being with him was not enough. Being without him was not enough. Maybe your children, both dead, would have been enough. You saw the first child, sleeping, its head tilted back, its eyes closed. You do not know what color its eyes were. You never saw its eyes. It saw, and in seeing, died. Suffice it to say the child would have been a master of language. It would have been love, a fountain of it. You left, not taking your child home. You let someone else take it away. Psyche never saw Cupid, and you cannot see him anymore. Psyche is and was whatever Love loved. You were loved by Love. You died with the child. You were crushed like a butterfly hovering in front of a fast-moving truck. You were a crushed soul.
The land was flat, barren ‑‑ the horizon stretched like a satiated woman ‑‑ supine, theatrical, unconscious. You missed the children, and you missed him. Was it a garden you were in? Was it a prison cell? There was never enough air, anywhere.
Who wanted, as a woman wanted, simply to be loved? All the boys wanted something else. Girls, on occasion – and more than once — want abstract worship, admiration from afar, poems, flowers, sweet nothings in the ear. Is that what the boys wanted, too? With that divining rod in front of them it must have been difficult to remain abstract. There was something embarrassing about need rendered visible. They could not hide it from the world. Did boys say, “No?” As often as girls? The urge was outward, not inward – the desire to pierce, rather than contain. The needle ‑‑ the eye of the needle ‑‑ threaded with what, exactly? The female soul? Your feet were so cold in the water, wading for freshwater mussels, that your toenails turned stark white. The mussels were brown and slippery, and the empty shells painted with pale, pearly rainbows in the light. The little girls around you murmured with delight, squealing when they found a really big one. Their little hands were sandy and damp on your arm. Their voices piped so impossibly high. You saw them at age 35, still hunting for the perfect shell.
You were tired of living your life. It was satisfactory only in the material sense. The lights were never turned off for lack of payment. Your husband went to bed hours before you did; you sat doing needlepoint in the den and watching obscure re‑runs. You resented your husband’s bulk upstairs in the king‑sized bed, you resented him sleeping turned towards you, resented the warmth of his breath wafting across the hump in the middle of the mattress that had arisen over the years between the depressions your bodies made on either side. Once or twice you tried to get her husband to talk to you about God; he declined to do so, saying it was “too personal” a topic. What is the use of a husband, you thought, without conversations about God?
So you wondered whether to leave him. Suddenly, a young man, black‑haired, black‑eyed, entered your life, with a piercing gaze, but shy, downturned head. He was marrying his girlfriend: you thought they were both too young and naive to know what they were getting into. You tried to talk him out of marriage, saying not that yours was terrible, just that marriage itself was really hard and bound not to live up to anyone’s expectations for it.
He married the girl, anyway, and in about a year was desperately unhappy. His wife left him, run away several times, stole his money and his car and told him he was worthless both in bed, and out. In another moment, you found yourself in bed with him, never once considering how you would get out again. You were not ready to be called an adulteress, but he persuaded you that since you had already committed adultery in your heart, what did it matter in the flesh? Oh, it mattered, it mattered plenty. Only in a purely theoretical sense did it not matter. It certainly mattered to your husband. He wanted the child, all the money, the house, and your head on a platter. Everyone told you not to be honest, not to tell him, but you couldn’t deceive him that way ‑‑ it would kill you to be so deceived by someone else.
It first happened on a rainy afternoon, the kind of afternoon that made sitting on a park bench impossible. All you really wanted to do was talk. You were lonely, you wanted to be alone with him in a comfortable place where you could take your shoes off and lie down flat and tell him your life story. He was so kind and understanding. You wanted everything to happen slowly. Both he and you were married to other people at the time and you had a broken ankle so you couldn’t walk through the woods or the park, even if it weren’t raining. You weren’t planning on committing adultery. You wanted an affair of the heart, of the mind. You were either hopelessly naive or lying to yourself.
When you were feeling bitter, you wore red clothes, covered with lint, and did not bother to go over them with sticky tape. You slept only on goose down pillows, and drank only water bottled in France. When hurricanes were coming, you cooked elaborate cream sauces, and served lemon and honey tea shot with brandy in a crystal cup. Your rage gave you a sore throat, the tears and tissues a sore nose. Anger was only depression turned outward. Always, you received presents in the wrong size, but consoled yourself afterward with icy lime sherbet. You slept a bitter sleep, on sticky sheets, dreaming of French noses, and purebred geese, white with pink feet. On Halloween, you changed your name for good.
You took bitter medicine, while he slept through the hurricane. He gave you red clothes, always the wrong size. You fed the geese cracked corn with your bleeding hands. The brandy shattered the crystal glass. Cream sauces were poured over ice. You strapped the pillows to the bed with sticky tape. You cried while he was bleeding. You whimpered after giving birth. A deep, abiding melancholy. Our Lady of Perpetual Melancholy. The symbolism of the golden arches. An icon for the ages. Our Lady of Perpetual Cholesterol. Our Lady of Sodium. Our Lady of the Mall. Where is food for the spirit? Charge it on your MasterCard. Ring it up on your Visa. A deep melancholy, not easily abated or debated.
It happened on a day when you’d been fasting for religious reasons even though you weren’t religious. A friend called that morning before you’d eaten breakfast and happened to mention it was Yom Kippur. You felt ready to atone for everything you’d ever done regardless of whether you’d actually caused anybody to suffer. Your husband, for example. Your husband was suffering although he didn’t realize it. He thought he was content, but he was wrong. You knew that having sex with a woman for 12 years without her having a single orgasm constituted suffering. You wanted his suffering to cease, quickly and permanently. And it seemed you were the cause of all suffering, everywhere. You had daydreams about running away and never coming back, living in a small rented room, anonymous.
So the fasting and the marital woes had taken their toll on your common sense, and the broken ankle had taken its toll on your ability for locomotion. You were faint from low blood sugar and hobbled wearily into the motel room, collapsing on the lumpy mattress. Being called a neurotic bitch by your husband had long lost its appeal. You needed somebody to love you, not somebody to fuck. But, as your soon‑to‑be lover undressed you, he told you it didn’t even matter whether you actually had sex with him because you’d already committed adultery in your heart. At the time, you took your lover’s reasoning for spiritual altruism. You snapped at it like a starving bass would snap at a rubber worm. Hook, line and sinker, you purchased your fate. It was silly to think you could ever keep a secret. You obtained a divorce, slinking away from the ruins of your marriage guilty, nearly suicidal, your ex‑husband spitting contempt and moral integrity even as he made plans to marry his own recently‑acquired lover.
Then over and over again, between your ex‑lover and yourself, things exploded, imploded, burdened by your guilt and remorse and terror. All this ruined mess wasn’t what you had in mind, you were just lonely and wanted to talk. He thought everything was conquerable, everything, by the human will and true love. Slowly, unmet needs that at first seemed unimportant loomed enormous and unsolvable. He didn’t feel safe with you, nor you with him, albeit for completely different reasons. You were nastily divorced, and suddenly a major skeptic when it comes to love. Between your dead marriage and your dead alcoholic mother, you finally learned to cut your losses, and quickly. What started with a bang ended with a bang? First the relationship was a misery to you, and then it was a misery to him.
The copper gleam of your helmet hair was blinding. Ivory soap floated in the tub, pale and fatty. Hard gray metal breathed like a ghost. The stains of divorce could not be removed with bleach, no matter how hard you tried. Women in bikinis reminded you of how you used to feel in summer, naked, nearly free. You decided to be laid out in a salt pine coffin from Jerusalem, your wake illuminated by jeweled lamps fueled by liquid chicken fat. Stone gargoyles copied from Paris originals would be worked into bench seats. For refreshments, cold meats with baked garlic.
You loved him even though you knew it was doomed, and that love kept pulling you back to the maybe‑I‑didn’t‑really‑give‑it‑the‑old‑college‑try sort of mistake. So you got involved with him all over again, and it was a disaster, again, but to him the fact that you came back only proved the point that you two should never have broken up to begin with. In the end, he never understood why you kept breaking it off, and each time it got over somehow you couldn’t understand exactly why you ended it, either. It was the same kind of destructive amnesia that keeps a woman having babies after that first one. She forgets how hard it was, how much it hurt, how much it broke her spirit. This entire sad sequence repeated until you finally had enough.
That night, you dreamed your mother was unpacking long‑forgotten boxes ‑‑ animals carved out of brightly colored stone, gold‑glass paperweights, things you loved, and your mother was getting rid of it all.
Six months later you got a bill from the library for $173.00. You remembered your lover checked out a bunch of library books on your card. So you called him, asked him to return them so you don’t have to pay. Time goes by, and you wondered. You called his house for days, but the line was always busy. You decided to drop in.
You knocked. It took a long time, but finally he came to the door, disheveled but looking good, except around the ears. His house smelled strongly like man. You were startled by the smell. Vanilla, cinnamon, and a touch of dirt, of mushrooms. The rooms of women smelled like yourself. You have been in other men‑only houses, and it was always the same. There was a strength to their smell, a lasting power, an earthiness under the scent of the body that made you want to burrow into the bed-sheets. This time, you did not. He was growing a beard and wore jeans with holes in the knees which made him look as sexy as the third time you slept with him, the time in his father’s falling‑down barn ‑‑ you couldn’t wait one minute longer so you did it right there on top of some mildewed couches. You broke up for the last time almost a year ago. It was shocking, the physical part you’d thought was long gone.
You wanted him again, though you’d never let yourself have him, and he sensed it – that made him really angry, angrier than you had ever seen him. For once, you ignored the physical passion. You didn’t touch him, though you wanted to, badly. He sensed it, and that sensing is what drove him mad. He screamed. He accused you of being shallow, insensitive, a manipulative bitch with the emotional capacity of a rock. You were meant to be his, you did everything wrong, you shouldn’t have broken up with him, because it was meant to be, him and you, forever. He forgot how you cried all the time, and how you couldn’t quite put your finger on the reason. He forgot what it cost you to be with him: half your daughter’s life. He had no children himself, yet, then: he couldn’t know how guilt had you in its death‑grip.
He screamed, he let you do things, “get away with things,” he shouldn’t have. He didn’t want those things to occur, but he didn’t object at the time because it seemed like what you needed to do. You told him maybe he should have given you his true opinion, back then. Maybe, if he had given his opinion when it was so desperately needed, you’d have chosen to be with him. Maybe it was his essential passivity that caused those late‑night crying jags. Maybe you were crying because you felt like his parent, his dorm mother, his baby‑sitter. You, too, sometimes wanted to be cared for, nurtured, sometimes you wanted to feel safe, to be warm in your own bed on your own pillows, not scurrying around in the corners playing catch‑up with the dust-balls.
But he did not, could not, and would not hear anything you had to say. You were supposed to be with him forever — he believed this and never let go of it: his personal Holy Grail. He wrote you love letters up until the week you got married for the second time, after that, came only hate letters. There would never be a remedy for his hurt. There was no way to make amends. The wounds between you never healed, because he never stopped being angry with you. He was, is, and will always be angry with you. For this reason, your affair with him will never be over.
Will he be angry, forever? Yes. Will his jealous wrath burn like fire? Yes. Blessed is the man whom God chastens, and God will chasten him in time. Yes. His entry into vagina, and your life, was like someone throwing the couch over, slitting all the cushions, smashing the picture glass, sawing the bookshelves into firewood.
Someone knelt. Someone asked to be blessed, forgiven, and made whole. Two people danced, and at the same time drew blood from one another. The man you loved stood remote, erect, unbending. You died, to him. You murdered him, years ago — it was an accident, a terrible wreck of the heart and body. You wanted only to find your true home. They why did your heart feel like cold‑rolled steel? It clanged shut — you were alone, again. And, again, no one could reach you.
While his plane took off, you did jumping jacks next to the runway fence. The chain link made you feel like you had a vision problem. The vessel making up your love for each other was glass ‑‑ white but somehow full of colors, opalescent, and its inner lip was scarlet ‑‑ caressing the outside of the vessel were golden-brown, radiating leaves, quivering with life. Nothing could hold that vessel down ‑‑ it rose of its own accord. Once shattered, it could never be restored. Your fault, you never knew how to live in this world. You always desired things which could not be possessed ‑‑ could be kept, could not be domesticated. Your own heart was not domestic, but, rather, wild, savage, and cruel. It was the opposite of serene. It held mother‑love and murder, sometimes in the same instant. You were the living damned. The only answer seemed to be to keep moving. That is why you decided to entomb your legs in rock, solid and immovable. That is why you always tied yourself to the ground. The caged butterfly smashed itself over and over again, beating impossibly against prison bars of cold‑rolled steel. Finally, its wings shredded, and the butterfly could only remember flying. It knew only that something had gone terribly, terribly, terribly wrong.
I have come to realize that I’m upset mostly because I’m trying to make my life something that it’s not. It once was, but it’s not anymore. The friends I used to have are not my friends now (not all of them, mind you), and the friends that left me when Mike did, were never my friends. I’m not meaning to be sappy, depressed, melancholy, or even trying to evoke some sympathetic reaction (pathetic being the operative word). I am merely acknowledging the fact that what I do have, the people who care about me and are still with me, I have been ignoring in favor of the things that rejected me. Why? Because I hate change. I hate change so much that I make myself pathetic by clinging to it, like a child would its mother’s leg on the first day of pre-school.
Mike was my connection to the world I was leaving. I wanted to hold onto him so that I could straddle that line between new and old, and never really have to face the new for what it was–my life. It was a security blanket that I was happy to carry around until there was nothing left but threads and a memory, and who knows how long it would take it to get there? 30 years? 40 years? 50 years? Was I going to spend my life reminiscing about “the good old days”, or was I going to take charge and and cherish what was infront of me instead of turning my back and mourning what was behind? I’m not an activist. I sit back and wait for things to happen, and I end up being left behind. I waited SO long to apply to SFCC that I was scared they weren’t accepting applications anymore. I took the SAT my senior year, and only once. Never the PSAT. I always want to do things “later” in hopes that somehow they will work themselves out and I’ll never have to deal with it.
But no more. I realized all this, and I realized EXACTLY what it was that I needed to do to raise my spirits.
I thank all of you who accept me, who care, and who love. I am so greatful to have you by my side, and marvel at how lucky I am to have so many people so close to my heart. And to all of you who I don’t really mean anything to: I truly am sorry that I wasted so much of my time trying to pull you back to me. None of you are bad people, in fact I like many of you, but you can’t be friends with everyone. And I realize that now. So to my friends: I love you. You have helped me in ways unimaginable, just by being my friend.
So, to conclude, I am a graduate of high school, I am going to college, and I will take charge and welcome change. Change can bring very good things. And if it doesn’t? Well, I’m sure that will change.
Beautiful Daughter, Handsome Father
Marlene, her father’s lover, is down on the beach, sitting on the sand cross-legged, nursing the baby. If Leah looks out the living room window she can see her there, sitting and facing the ocean. Marlene’s thin cloak is rippling in the breeze, her head held high and tilted back, as though she is worshipping something — her own new status as a mother, perhaps?
Leah’s father met Marlene at the Venice Health Foods Supermarket, where she worked behind the purification supplements counter. He had wandered to browse, got spellbound in front of the blue-green algae, and left carrying her phone number and a gallon of aloe pulp. Marlene quit the supermarket a few months later, soon after they moved in together.
Her father has just shown her the videotape of that moment two weeks ago when the baby finally slid out of Marlene’s body. It took eighteen hours to produce the head and that first shoulder, but then the rest of it — the dangling arms, the loosely curled fists, the puckered knees and feet that seemed sculpted from marzipan — swished free with one last interminable push, followed by a dribbling of translucent fluid tinted pale amber.
He cut the cord himself, took the sterile scissors in his trembling hand and, in between where they tied it off in two places with thick black surgical thread, he snipped. On the video, he looks like he was ready for it to be difficult — preparing to hack away at it until he passed out — but it surprised him and parted smoothly, like a thick rope of licorice.
After shutting off the tape and pointing out the still figure of Marlene down on the strand, he shows Leah around his new apartment. The entire layout is visible from the foyer, but it’s something to do to break the ice. This is the first time she’s visited since high school, when he sold his house. Before that, from the ages of two until twelve, she didn’t see him at all.
“This is the bedroom,” he says, gesturing to an open doorway off the square front hall. There is a mattress lying on the floor, sheets and pillows and thick, Mexican-looking blankets tossed in an unmade rumple. “The bathroom is through there.” He points within, to a half-open door at the far corner of the bedroom. “The kitchen,” he says, waving at another doorway with the other arm, his first arm still aloft at an oblique angle toward the bathroom. For a moment he looks like a ballet dancer, muscles strung on wires.
In the kitchen are two wooden barstools and a commercial-sized juicer. “This is where you’ll be sleeping,” he says, walking two steps in from the foyer. “The living room.” There is no furniture, nothing at all, merely the carpet, grubby beige shag.
Leah says nothing for a moment. The apartment is cold and damp from the ocean. It smells clean, though; a trace of peppermint soap drifts from the bathroom. When she speaks, she tries to sound casual. “Have you got something for me to sleep on?” she asks. “A cot or something?” He looks at her, arms folded. She stands silently. At his old house she had her own room and bath.
“Well,” he says, rubbing his chin. “I thought we’d get a roll of three-inch foam-rubber for you. A mattress.”
“Oh.” She is embarrassed, and sorry she brought it up. She moves to the window, touches the gauze curtains, faded Indian print with fluid girls twirling on their toes.
“I planned to get it today. There’s an upholstery shop down the street.”
“Oh?” she says. He has not prepared for her visit, is she that unimportant?
“I didn’t think you’d really come. Not after the last time.”
“When is Marlene coming back up here?” Leah says.
“She’ll be down at the beach until we go to get her. I wanted us to have some time alone first.”
“How much did the baby weigh?”
“Nine pounds,” he says. He stands at the window, gazing at the beach. Leah fidgets and stuffs her hands in her pockets.
“Were you going to name me Jedidiah, if I’d been a boy?”
“Who told you that?”
“Well, she didn’t like the name in the first place. I doubt she’d have let me give it to you.” He sighs. Leah looks down at the rug. “Why do you ask?” he asks.
Her father takes a step toward Leah. He touches her cheek and shakes his head. Then he strokes his beard with both hands, smoothing his hair back. “Well. I’m going to make some juice. Do you want some?”
“I’m not sure. Let’s go see.” He opens the refrigerator and bends down, rooting through the shelves, opening bins. The juice machine on the table is an old appliance, dull and scratched white with rounded corners and a big shiny metal “GE” logo on the center of the motor. It goes with the rest of the place — his usual ceremonial shabbiness.
He crouches and Leah’s view of him is blocked by the open door. “Hello, beautiful daughter,” he says, leaning his head around to smile at her.
“Hello, handsome father,” she says, and sticks out her tongue.
He laughs. “There are beets, carrots, celery, some apples. I think I’ll have beet-celery.” He leans back against the counter, and scratches his head. “Have you ever had fresh-squeezed juice before?”
“Not this kind,” she says. “What is it like?” Her idea of health food is banana yogurt.
“It’s a lot stronger-tasting than the bottled stuff. We’d better start you off with some fruit, but I don’t think you’d like plain apple. How about apple-carrot?”
“I guess so,” she says, rubbing her damp palms against her pants.
He stands at the sink, scrubbing the beets and the carrots with a brush. Rinsing the apples and the celery, he does not peel, core, or seed anything, just cuts it into chunks and lays it on the counter next to the enormous juicing machine. His off-white fisherman’s sweater is thick and luxurious, a jarring contrast to his dingy ripped jeans and his skinny, emaciated wrists. She turns away from him and looks out the window at the pale blue, slow-rolling waves.
“I’ve been doing a lot of juice fasts,” he says. He is much thinner than last time; she is skittish about touching him, feeling the sharp edges of his bones everywhere. He seems in good enough shape, though: who else his age can jog twelve miles in wet sand?
Because of his shoulder-length, strawberry blond hair — just a touch of silver running through it — and the leanness of his jawbone, her acquaintances from college flirted with him, sometimes just to measure her reaction, but sometimes not. They all thought she was lucky.
“Surely you’re not trying to lose weight?” Leah says.
“No, I drink a hell of a lot of juice. But it’s just that and water for twenty-four hours. It really cleanses the system.”
“Don’t you get hungry?”
“No, not at all. See, you have all the sugar in the juice to keep you going. So you are eating, in a sense.”
“But you’re already so thin.”
“Juice fasting isn’t to lose weight,” he says. “I don’t lose a pound. It’s to give your system a rest. To eliminate toxins.” He starts feeding the chunks into the juicer. The beet juice is blood-red, frothy, and then the celery goes through, diluting it to a muddy pink. “Want a taste?”
“No, thanks,” she says. “It looks gross.”
He takes a sip of the juice, the froth clinging to his mustache. Then he feeds some carrots and apples through the grinding machine. After tasting it, he hands her the glass. Leah drinks. The juice is pungent, the earthy sharpness of the carrots drowning out the sweetness of the apples. As she tilts the glass, a heavy layer of sediment from the skins and peels falls out and settles to the bottom.
“I can’t drink this,” she says, her tongue coated with a cloying thickness, the taste in her mouth like liquid chalk.
He watches her as he drinks from his own glass, sucking the foam from his upper lip. “Well, it’s something you’ve got to get used to. An acquired taste.”
Leah puts her juice down on the counter. Unsnapping her barrette, she tosses her head once to loosen her hair, and then puts the barrette into her jacket pocket.
“I’m hungry,” she says.
“We could go over to the Meatless Mess Hall.”
“Great,” Leah says. She picks up the glass of juice again, and then puts it down without drinking. “I’m sure it’s good for you,” she says. All she can think about is getting out of his apartment. Her mind races and she can’t even label what she’s feeling. “Why don’t we go to the beach?” she says. Her voice is high, her face hot.
They walk downstairs. The old hallways are dim, smelling of cooking grease, clove cigarettes, and Lysol. The stuccoed walls are painted a glossy institutional green. Following him down the creaking steps, she stares at his spindly buttocks — barely brushing the inside of the narrow seat of his jeans — as his legs propel him before her. When she saw him again, after ten years, he couldn’t get enough of her sitting in his lap. His thighs were lean, his hipbones sharp, and she herself felt too large, too awkward to be his daughter.
On the beach, Marlene’s face is stark and beautiful, the bones jutting and declining, transforming the clean ocean light of December into a solemn sculpture.
The baby is wrapped in several layers of flannel receiving blankets, striped pink and blue on white, the blanket corners fluttering in the chill breeze. Leah peers over the edge of the blanket, seeing the baby’s cafe-au-lait forehead, his black, damp-looking corkscrew curls and his eyes, shut tight against the light and wind.
Leah and Marlene look at each other. The wind slams into Leah’s body like a giant animal. A few plump gulls glide over the waves. Her father clears his throat. “Marlene. This is Leah. Leah, Marlene.” She nods to Leah, one slow, dignified sweep of her head. Several heavy bracelets, open bangles with knobs like acorns molded at the ends, glow against her skin, the gold dulled by a dense network of minuscule scratches. “And this is,” he says, holding his arms out and taking the wrapped bundle from Marlene’s arms, “Jedidiah.” He snuggles the baby against his thick sweater, bending and brushing his lips against the silky fine fuzz on its head.
Leah bends and leans forward, her hair falling into her eyes so that she must twist it to one side, making a thick rope over her shoulder. She squints up at Marlene, who nods at her like a queen again. Marlene takes the baby back. “I’ve got to get him inside,” she says. “It’s getting cold.” She turns away, her robe billowing up, punctuating the sweep of her long legs.
“Wait a minute,” her father calls, hurrying after her, leaving Leah alone. “We were just on our way over to the Meatless.”
Marlene stares at the ground. Leah’s father looks down, too. “All right,” Marlene says, looking up and nodding, her face set harder around the mouth.
At the Meatless Mess Hall, they sit at a table in the back corner. The vinyl tablecloth is stiff and slippery when Leah tries to lean on it with her elbows. Her arms keep sliding, so she gives up, sits back on the wooden bench and hangs her arms down at her sides like a child in church. Marlene folds her robe to one side over her shoulder and nurses the baby. Though Leah doesn’t want to look, she manages to catch one sideways glimpse of the purplish-brown, swollen nipple. Once the baby latches on, Marlene drapes the robe back into place, covering herself.
“I’ll have the millet casserole and a pot of herb tea,” Marlene says, when the waiter comes. “And honey with the tea, please.”
“I want grilled tofu and a side order of steamed vegetables,” her father says.
“I’m not hungry,” Leah says. The waiter has two tiny diamond studs in his nose, and from her seat, Leah can see up his nostrils to the backs of the earrings.
Taking her barrette out of her jacket, she puts it in her mouth and pulls her hair back with both hands. She reaches behind her head with the barrette and hears the tiny snap of the clasp. “Is this my half-brother?” she says, glancing over at Marlene with her arms still bent over her head.
Marlene’s forehead crinkles, and then relaxes. “No,” she says, looking not back at Leah, but across at Leah’s father, her eyes twin chocolate stones. “I was already pregnant when we met.”
“Why didn’t you tell me that?” Leah says, turning to face her father. Her elbow slips off the table, accidentally jabbing the waiter.
“Excuse me,” the waiter says. He sops up spilt tea with a dingy rag.
Marlene’s face doesn’t move at all. It is smooth and dark, the kind of face where expressions leave no permanent mark, unlike her father’s thin Slavic skin, where a shadow of everything he’s ever done or said or thought still lurks. He glances at Leah, then turns to look out the restaurant’s long row of windows.
“Why are you doing this, if it’s not your child?” Leah asks.
“Why not?” he says, smiling a small, thin-lipped smile.
She blinks at him. “I see,” she says. “Better late than never?”
Leah’s father reaches over and touches Leah’s hair, stroking the side of her head, something she is barely able to tolerate. His hands, long and slender, feel tentative like a cat’s paws. When he hugs her, his arms press in, then release, press in, and release — the movement comes like waves, it makes her seasick, but she can’t seem to draw away from him until he’s ready to let her go.
Her father and Marlene sit and eat. When Marlene is finished, she stands up, drawing the baby out from under her cloak where it fell asleep after nursing. She cradles it, murmurs to it, and readjusts its blankets. There is something — a grain or two of millet — stuck to the corner of her mouth. It looks like a beauty spot against her skin. “I’m so tired,” she says. “See you at home.” As Marlene turns to leave, she puts her hand on Leah’s shoulder, patting her like a dog.
Her father pays the bill and he and Leah walk back to the strand. She remembers years ago, the first time he brought her here, to see the roller-skaters and the old black man who played scratchy blues guitar. Leah had picked up a piece of driftwood and scratched words in the sand. “I love you, Daddy,” she had written. The wind had been icy cold and what she mourns most of all from that time is the way he felt so big and warm and solid when he hugged her, shielding her from the wind, lifting her up off her feet. They stood together like that for a long time. He had smelled so clean, so pure, like the ocean, a sweet yet salty moistness that she’d found nowhere else but on the Pacific.
They turn to go back to his apartment. “Dad,” she says. “Would you mind if I stayed with Grandma tonight? It’ll be easier. You won’t have to bother with the mattress.”
He takes her wrist, his fingers encircling it like a heavy bracelet. “You can’t stand being here?”
“No, I can’t” she says. “I feel awkward. A fifth wheel.”
“Well, I hope I haven’t done anything to make you feel that way,” he says.
“You haven’t,” she says. She stares at him. His palm against her wrist is cool and dry. She bites the inside of her cheek. “Didn’t you wonder how I was doing, all that time?”
“I thought about you every day,” he says, holding her wrist tighter.
They walk back to his apartment building. Leah turns and tilts her head. Putting his hands on her shoulders, he stands in front of her, leaning on her with most of his weight, pressing down a bit, causing her to bend at the knees, their old game.
When her father gets to the top of the steps, before entering the dark vestibule, he pauses and looks at her. “Goodbye, beautiful daughter,” he calls.
“Goodbye, handsome father,” she answers.
Dearest, dearest God, my old teacher, my new teacher,
my classmate, my expedition, my mountain, my valley,
my sea, my river, my lake, my cloud, my tree, my rock,
my butterfly, my sweet love: Your new minister is a dear,
from New Orleans, young and trembling and with a pretty,
shy wife and two darling baby girls. Picture of earnestness
and kindness. Admirable. I felt my soul blossoming today,
I was moved, shaken, made warm and soft and open
by the children’s beauty. And part of all that was You
inside me. So much love for You, it hurts my damn chest.
I confessed my sins today and was absolved. Do I believe?
Well, partly. Enough that I don’t feel like a hypocrite.
Perhaps I should. I don’t know. I have no answers and
hardly any coherent questions. Mostly I am struck dumb
by all of this, all of this happening in my body and my mind
and my heart and my soul. It is profound. It is an opportunity.
I will not squander this precious gift, rest assured.
Simple things have become all the more profound and
complex things all the more understandable. Just heard
a strange noise coming from my daughter’s bathroom.
Both cats were on the counter with the goldfish bowl
up to their little catty elbows in same. Dripping wet,
they looked at me guiltily. I hissed, “Get your paws
out of there, ladies!” They fled, in haste and apprehension.
I did not follow to administer further lectures.
They’re cats, after all. Cats will fish, given the chance.
And absent lovers will pine. And awakened souls
will soar heavenward. Doesn’t life contain much
logically predictable inevitability which is nonetheless,
each time it presents itself, a mystery and a revelation?
I have gone mad with gratitude. Every thing
existing seems a gift. An opportunity. Priceless.
Even if I never get to live in Your arms again, know this:
I am Yours, forever. It is the first time I have felt this way
toward someone not my own child. I cannot imagine
the set of facts that would alter my feelings for You.
While watching Your last meteor shower, I thought of all our
souls — how we are all like meteors, our pinpoint of brilliance,
the variability of our paths — some meteors appear bright
but have no echoing trail — others are dimmer but leave
a long streak of fire in their wake — some travel in twos
or threes, others singly. I am dancing on the razor’s edge
between gratitude for this passion existing at all, and greed
for more of it, more of it, always more of it. No patience.
No patience with Your plan — wanting more knowledge,
even knowing how Cassandra received foreknowledge and
killed herself in the end, because it was too much for her.
So glad I don’t know but panicked that I don’t know
all at the same time. What Baby said: the sky
was gray and overcast, yet there was no rain,
borderline gloomy but also very pleasing in a way —
she said, “It’s a beautiful day today.” I agreed.
The sun was behind a layer of gray, you could still tell
it was there, you could see the disc behind the gray,
it had a translucent light, and though you couldn’t see,
exactly, the brightness, you knew it was there. Like You.
Today was a miracle, You were there with me
everywhere I went, except I couldn’t see You.
And neither could anyone else. I stood on the beach
between the surf and the dunes and listened to the waves
roar their white noise of love. There I met a cockatoo
named Pumpkin, she was gorgeous snowy white
with orange eyes, and I lulled her to sleep. “Pretty girl,”
I said to her, stroking her sweet feathers. “Pretty girl.”
She cocked her head and trilled at me. I think
her owner was surprised when she didn’t want to go
back to his arm from mine. Later, I bought a nightgown
printed with leaves, that makes me feel like a tree nymph.
I wish I could wear it for You. What I’ve learned:
the correct question is not, after all, could I/would I
kill Hitler. The question is, could I/would I love Hitler?
Thank You, God, my tutor, my scholar, my journey,
my height, my hollow, my ocean, my stream, my shore, my billow,
my standing timber, my paving stone, my mortar, my luscious beloved.
so, my little brother’s birthday is today. he would be turning 42, if he hadn’t passed away from me & this world at just 37. i miss him every single day. every. single. day. but even more on sundays & holidays, anniversaries & birthdays. he always made time for me; he actually & literally saved my life after i got divorced for the second time & he moved in with me, coming up to gainesville from the keys. he loved the sea, yet for me he moved inland, as he had once before when he gave everything he had of himself to his wife and she wanted to move to from fort lauderdale to atlanta (unfortunately they divorced years before he passed away). he was one of the sweetest, kindest, most compassionate people i have ever known. he was an angel child & i learned a lot about parenting from him, being his big sister by 10 & 1/2 years. i hope everyone who ever knew or loved him thinks kindly of him today. he was so scared of getting his hair washed; that was my job, bathing him at night. we developed a method of rinsing the shampoo out that worked, and he was the cutest little frogman playing in that tub of suds! what a person he was! how much he taught me about love, and living! and, somewhere where i cannot yet completely see or hear him, i know he still IS. my baby brother was a real, genuine MAN.