Tag Archives: child
PRETZELS & CHOCOLATE
(rented room, cigarettes)
I am eating pretzels
and they are hard
but splinter into salty crumbs
with the merest bite
they only satisfy
part of my tongue
(rented room, cigarettes)
so I pick up the chocolate
greedy for it to melt
against my palate
sucking the firm square
feeling it mold to me
the way I imagine
my body molds to yours
(rented room, cigarettes)
retaining the character of sweetness
to complement the salt
to balance my mouth
I am eating chocolate
thinking of us
(rented room, cigarettes)
The Message She Sent, a short story
Geri and her little sister, Rachel, were both deaf. Geri was a year or two younger than I; Rachel was a year or two younger than Geri. I never met their parents, so I don’t know if they were deaf, too. The two deaf sisters latched onto me probably because I was the only kid in the neighborhood who could bear to look them in the eye and try, laboriously, to understand what it was they were trying to say. This was during the era when all deaf children with even a small degree of hearing were made to wear cumbersome, boxy hearing aids strapped to the body and were trained, with varying but always limited degrees of success, to speak. Some deaf children growing up at that time were forcibly kept from using sign language.
The hearing world wanted them to blend in, to not cause trouble. The philosophy was to treat them just like the hearing, well-nigh ignore their disability. The approach had worked only slightly for Geri. She could speak, in a flat, nasal voice, but she left out many of the necessary sounds of the words. Her lips moved correctly, her teeth and tongue worked properly together as she’d been shown, but a word like “hello” would be unrecognizable without great effort on the part of the listener. I had to read her lips, too, just as she read mine.
She taught me the alphabet in sign language, and tried to teach me signs for whole words, but I couldn’t seem to remember them no matter how much we worked together. Sometimes I had her write things down, but mostly, I understood what she wanted to tell me without much trouble. We communicated a lot without any language. In fact, the very best times with Geri were when there was nothing to say, no requirement for communication whatsoever, when all that was necessary was a simple co-appreciation of events, a shared glance and smile. Geri’s hearty, soundless laughter was infectious and could usually cause me to fall to my knees with mutual hilarity.
She was a beautiful girl, far more so than I. Her hair was sun-streaked blonde and fell to her waist — her arms and legs were so long she seemed like a young antelope. Her skin was a clear, delicate buff — her eyes stood out, big, round and blue, set in a long, fine and lively face. Her eyebrows were usually raised in attitudes of curiosity, delight, or occasionally, trepidation. The only thing less than perfect were her buck teeth, but even those were startling white, gleaming, and pushed her rosy, full lips into a charming pout of concern.
Her sister Rachel, on the other hand, was a little troll. Similar to Geri in certain respects, but short-limbed and stout, not fat but packaged with strong, barrel muscles. She could not speak at all, wore no hearing aid, and only grunted. Geri’s hands flew, talking to Rachel. But Rachel, when she came over to my house, was interested chiefly in food, and eventually didn’t wait for an offering but rummaged through our pantry and refrigerator on her own and ate anything she pleased.
The first time she did so, I was shocked and angry because ours was not a house of plenty and I knew I would be in trouble when my parents found out, but Rachel turned her face to me with such complete incomprehension and joy as she ate, that I knew there was nothing to be done. Geri scolded her with her fingers but Rachel wouldn’t turn her head out of the refrigerator to look. She loved sweets, cookies or candy, even fruit yogurt. We didn’t have much, but she ate whatever we had in its entirety. Geri, by contrast, would hold one cookie and make it last, nibbling tiny bites in neat order.
Our daily bike races — Geri’s hair flying out behind her — were evenly matched. Geri always seemed on the verge of flight; sometimes it seemed God’s cruelest trick that she had no wings to carry her about. Climbing trees could take an entire Saturday. So could sitting under the bushes watching an anthill or hunting for duck nests. Geri always seemed to know where to look to find something beautiful. Her favorite game, though, was to give chase or be chased. She’d tap my shoulder and take off. I’d do the same. But the other kids in the neighborhood would leave the area in a hurry whenever they saw Geri and her sister coming.
Slowly, Geri and Rachel began to be my only company. They were always there. First thing in the morning, last at night. Whenever the doorbell rang, it was them. I didn’t mind, exactly, until the kids at the bus stop started conspicuously falling silent as I approached. They’d move their lips and pretend to keep talking. I tried to ignore them, not very successfully.
One day, Geri wanted to brush my hair — her fingers were monkeylike on my scalp, and her touch provoked a tender shiver and the rising of small hairs on the back of my neck and shoulders. Her hands were gentle, even courtly, with the brush. Then she indicated to me she wanted to braid it. She did, but so terribly loose that afterward I was afraid to move my head too far in one direction or the other for fear of spoiling her work.
She was guileless, unsullied by the meanness or lasciviousness that was slowly engulfing the other neighborhood kids our age — yet late at night in my bed, when she inevitably appeared in my winding-down thoughts, I was startled to find myself imagining her dancing in the nude — turning her head this way and that, angling her arms and legs in slow Kabuki triangles. She was above the messiness of our lives, lofted into the thin blue stratosphere by an absence of one sense combined with a flowering of something else — a physical sensibility like that of a genius. I was stunned to worship many times by her careful placement of herself — her torso, arms and legs, arranged so gracefully.
I cannot tell you why, 30 years later, the thought and image of Geri renders me still and quiet, hushed and worshipful, feeling clumsy, insignificant and most profoundly inept. No — that’s a lie. I can. She was a beautiful deaf girl who loved me — this was the message she sent into the roots of my hair, lifting each section of braid like it was a rare, dissected, pulsing nerve. She made two careful braids, one behind each ear. The way she parted my hair with the comb was like zipping my head open and rearranging the numb contents. She was a beautiful creation. Her deafness had become to me not a defect, but a gift. She seemed like a butterfly perched on my finger. That delicate — but a butterfly who came back to me over and over.
Other friends grew distant; it took me weeks to notice. I lived in a world of chosen wordlessness. More than once, Geri put on the huge padded headphones from my father’s stereo — signaling me to turn the volume all the way up — and we danced, Geri with the headphones on, trailing the cord. I could hear the beat of the music, tinny, through the cups around Geri’s ears. Geri’s smile grew bigger than her face. Her buck teeth glowed as she tossed her long hair around, and I was happy, too.
Then one particular Saturday, Geri did not appear shortly after the dawn as was her habitual routine. Feeling odd, a bit adrift but also a bit scot-free, I rode my bike aimlessly down the road and ran into another bunch of kids, playing a more or less moronic game we called “TV Tag.” I hadn’t played it with them in a long time. The point of the game was to hide, to run for the base at a strategic moment, but then to call out the name of a television show if and when you were tagged, and if the TV show hadn’t yet been called by someone else, that meant you wouldn’t have to be “it” yet. We were in the thick of the game when someone spotted Geri and Rachel on foot headed toward us.
The sudden, unspoken agreement was for the group — yes, even me — to hide from the deaf girls, not to embrace them in our play, but to banish them utterly. Thus, I learned from the other children who’d been doing so for months how pitifully easy it was to hide from the deaf girls and to stay hidden, since we could call out their moving whereabouts freely to the others, and merely shifted farther and farther down the block away from them, running as fast as we could, shrieking as loudly as we pleased. That day, I learned a most horrible game of hide & seek. I have never forgotten the way Geri’s face looked, alarmed at first, then slowly sad, so very sad and lonely, pale and drawn — and from my ever-changing hiding places I saw her eyes, felt her gaze as she scanned the bushes for me, and heard her calling my name, that nasal and malformed sound I had grown to love. We didn’t stop hiding until she and Rachel had given up and, presumably, gone home.
Yes, I was a droll girl in those days — I hid from my deaf best friend and later the same day fed a morsel of prosciutto, Italian ham, to my Jewish best friend, Melinda. My misdeeds had to keep chop-chop with my brand-new knowledge of my own baseness. I knew it wasn’t a sin for her if she didn’t know it was ham — I told her it was Italian corned beef, and she, with misplaced faith, believed me. I understood I would be the one who went to Hell for it. Oddly enough, Melinda was the least deaf of anyone I knew. She could hear, it seemed, my thoughts. But only Geri knew my feelings.
If I could hold that girl and kiss her now, I would. With delight and affection, as if she were a sweet, melting jelly bean against my lips. I would tell her how I never forgot her, and never forgave myself. Because from that day — when I heard her call my name over and over and could not bring myself to answer — it was as if I was the one who was truly deaf, and she the one who could hear.
(Originally published in The Paumanok Review)
The Nearness of Heroism, a short story
They tell me he was the first man I ever saw nude; that when I asked him, pointing, in my high, three-year old’s simper, what “that thing” was, he didn’t even flinch. He stood in the big tiled shower stall, holding the door ajar with one hand, toweling himself off with the other.
“I’m a little teapot,” he sang, in his exuberant tenor. “Short and stout. This is my handle, this is my spout.”
They say I stared, and then frowned, running out to demand of my grandmother on the spot — I want to be a little teapot! Show me my spout! Where is it? Where is my spout?
Where, indeed? If only the gulf could have been reduced to those dimensions. Am I wrong to feel we would have been closer, had I been a boy? Would he have loved me more, or less?
I liked to sneak up on him while he used his glove, just out of the shower, a white towel tight around his waist, his hair slicked back, parted precisely. Even from my earliest memories, the old baseball glove was missing one or two fingers, the ball deprived of whole sections of its leather wrapping, worn through to the string-mended core in several spots. Both glove and ball had darkened to the color of cured tobacco, carrying a sheen of sweat-polished grime that lent a gleam akin to the finest shellac. Arms moving, hands a blur, he would move in automatic rhythms of meditation, pounding gloved fist with clenched ball as his lips moved, the words inaudible, his gray eyes focusing up and out at an angle, viewing a corner of patterned plaster, seeing something I wanted to share but couldn’t.
Then he’d notice me. He’d stop in mid-pound, his mouth open for an abrupt chuckle, too embarrassed to be embarrassed. “Hey there, lady,” he’d say, the broad vowels of his Brookline childhood making his words seem exotic.
He kept the glove and ball on the highest shelf of his closet, a level I couldn’t reach, not even with a step-stool.
He was, in fact, the only male presence in my life, even after I started to dwell on the concept of boys, the one I ran to in the early morning — crawling into his bed, burrowing deep under the covers, where he sang the old songs he’d learned from his Irish mother and held me in his arms, my nose burrowing into his soft feather pillow, into his wrinkled cotton pajamas, seeking out his bitter-tea-with-lemon smell, seeking out his body’s distinctive shape and radiating warmth, which possessed a steely eloquence no less comforting than my grandmother’s padded torso. Since he was home with us every day, having retired years before I was born, I didn’t realize he was different from other men, other fathers, who were defined not by their presence but by their absence.
“Oh, you dirty little devil,” he’d sing, “Does your mother know you’re out? With your hands in your pockets and your shirttail out?”
I would hear my grandmother fuming from across the room, not speaking but moving the various brushes and trinkets around on the glass-topped surface of her dresser with snappish clinks and taps. At other times, whenever he knew she disapproved, he’d make disrespectful rubber-faces behind her back until my face couldn’t keep a secret any more, and, looking at me, she’d see some sign of what was going on, then wheel indignantly, catching him in some fish-lipped, pouting impersonation of her, their demeanor so ridiculous, so upside-down, that for a moment it seemed that he was a small boy again, no one’s husband, and she his strict governess, no one’s wife.
He was related to me by marriage, not by blood, something that seemed to bother him a lot more than it bothered me, especially near the end of his life. From the very beginning, I had pledged my allegiance to him, had given him that affirmative declaration of the heart, and for a short time, during childhood, it seemed that he had pledged the bond in return and accepted me as his own. Not even in dreams did I measure him any differently than I measured his wife, my grandmother. As I grew older, however, and he grew more and more frail, the absence of an actual cell between us appeared to chip away at his feelings. “I don’t have any family of my own, you know,” he’d say, gazing at me as if for sympathy, never knowing how caustic the mild-sounding words were to my ears.
“I’m your family, aren’t I?” I asked him, the first time he brought it up, but he shook his head, smiling at me with a thin-lipped yet dreamy smile.
“It’s not the same,” he answered.
On various occasions, as his health became less certain, I promised him one of my eyes, one of my ears, one of my kidneys, half my heart, half my liver, half my stomach: everything and anything he needed to survive, anything he might need to be comfortable, which I swore to give to him when he got “old.”
In my last year of college, I had a boyfriend who got physical with me on several occasions. Nothing serious, no marks: a thump on the head with one knuckle, a scuffle in the yard, pushing matches. One day I reacted badly, bolting my apartment door and calling home. He answered on the first ring, but, having expected my grandmother, I found I couldn’t stop the tears. His voice deepened, becoming rough around the edges as he interrogated me. An old man, on six kinds of heart medication, he swore he’d drive the four hundred miles and teach the boy a lesson.
“No, Grampa,” I said. “It’s all right. I’m breaking up with him. Don’t worry.”
“Call the police if he comes to the door again,” he said. “Have him arrested.”
This reaction, despite his often-repeated joke: “Never hit a woman,” he’d say, shaking his head, staring at my grandmother’s back. “Use an axe.”
His fourth heart attack came only days before my wedding. He managed to walk me down the aisle anyway, spiffy and broad-shouldered in his plain black dinner jacket, a single pink rosebud clipped to his lapel. Since both my parents were dead, he was “giving me away” to my fiancé, a practice I found offensive on feminist grounds, because it seemed to exclude my grandmother from the giving. So we compromised: when asked by the priest, “Who gives this woman?” he was to answer, “Her grandmother and I do.” Except, when the moment came, he said only “I do.” My grandmother, standing in the front row in her baby blue satin lace and picture hat, whacked the prayer rail with her wedding service programme in frustration. The sound echoed off the front wall of the small church and stayed with me for the rest of the day.
Later, at the reception, he was critical of the music we had selected without consulting him: a wandering string quartet. “All your guests are leaving,” he said, after his fourth or fifth glass of champagne took hold. “Why didn’t you have a real band? Some dancing. It’s like a funeral in here.” I trembled all over from the exertion of holding my tongue. Only if I had screamed at him, my face reddening under its halo of white silk flowers, would he have been happy.
I was home for a long-overdue visit when the last battle came. Semi-invalided, by then, Grampa moved only from the bed to his recliner, spending the day reading the paper in a slow, deliberate rustle. The television blared for hours each evening, his expensive hearing aids — the same kind Reagan used, he’d told me — plucked from his canals and discarded, tossed into a dainty porcelain ashtray: hand-painted with a rising, twisting phoenix, it was the only memento he had kept from his service in Germany during the war.
He didn’t like going to bed at night, waiting until two or three in the morning to call for my grandmother to help him to his room. Arising no earlier than noon the next day, he’d swear he hadn’t slept a wink. “He snored like a baby all morning,” my grandmother would whisper.
His appetite was slight too, and then one day, nonexistent. Supper waited out in the dining room: over my grandmother’s objections I took him in a bowl of ice cream. He lay against his pillows while I spooned it into his mouth, noticing how he lipped the spoon as I withdrew it, sucking it like a baby. The bowl finished, he thanked me, his voice hoarse with exhaustion. Turning to leave, I heard him start coughing, a deep cough that seemed to come from his gut, his eyes widening under the thick cataract glasses, his cheeks bulging, seemingly an imitation of his old comic fish-face. For a moment I laughed, thinking it a joke, but he put his hand over his mouth and made as if to hold his lips together with his fingers. He was trying to keep from throwing up all over the bed, I realized, running for a basin, almost too late.
After Gran and I cleaned him up, I felt his forehead. It was hot, dry, but the rest of him was clammy and covered with an oily sweat. As I took his temperature, Gran called the doctor, who told us to get him to the hospital right away. When we told Grampa where we were taking him, he shook his head. “Now what’d you go and do that for?” he said.
He looked so small and frail laying there it was a surprise to find I couldn’t carry him — what remained of him was deceptively heavy, as if his bones were filled with lead. It took both of us to get him out to the car. Each step seemed so difficult, so impossible — by the time he lowered himself clumsily into the front seat, he was glistening with a symmetric pattern of droplets, the sweat beading his skin like opalescent sequins.
At the hospital, an orderly dressed in green surgical scrubs helped Grampa from the car into a wheelchair. The orderly was tall and long-limbed, and moved with an ease, a lean fluidity born of professional indifference. His arms were the color of imported chocolate, warm coppery highlights underlying the pigment. His arms were like a god’s: so full of life and possibilities, I held my breath as he lifted the skeletal, ashen old body of my grandfather out of the car. I couldn’t say what the orderly’s face looked like other than that it was — like the motion of his limbs — devoid of both pity and scorn. His eyes remained downcast, looking only at Grampa in the chair — and I wanted to speak, but nothing came to mind, only regret at not being permitted to be similarly borne away, out of my own uncertainty and into a place defined by someone else’s ministrations.
The young man’s arms, in that moment, seemed to emit forensic signals, speaking without words to a pain I hadn’t realized was there, the arms themselves justifying birth, justifying suffering, justifying death: paying for perfection all over again — skin so smooth it looked hairless, poreless, as if it smelled of allspice and cinnamon and blood and salt. The arms were immaculately sculpted; the bones just long enough, granting a perfect inertia between muscularity and leanness. The miracle of such arms and skin held my attention like a time-release dose of whatever manna makes heaven heaven, and so it was that I found myself spiraling into an upward-rushing eddy of panic when the orderly left, forever, just seconds later, rolling my grandfather to the admitting desk like so much cargo, then vanishing into the angular whiteness and pulsing fluorescence of the hospital corridors.
We left Grampa there, in the midst of a cotillion of duly licensed strangers — what choice did we have, not knowing, not wanting to know, not capable of that knowledge? By not speaking, we maintained a positive attitude. His room seemed comfortable, his nurses kind. His glasses glinted, the reflection obscuring his eyes, as we waved goodbye from the doorway.
By the next morning, he had been moved to the intensive care unit. He was comatose, hooked up to a ventilator, stripped of his pajamas, gleaming plastic tubes invading his throat, his nose, his bladder, his veins — his heart had stopped in the night, from the pneumonia: the doctors speculated he might have had irreversible brain damage before they got it going again.
Machines everywhere, whirring, beeping — my grandmother and I couldn’t even touch him. His chest shook under the ventilator’s control, his whole body quivered. The vent itself hissed, clicking, coaxing his reluctant breath, forcing it when it hesitated. Pushing his lungs in and out without his body’s permission. The respirator had a device to allow him to breathe for himself, if he could, like training wheels on a child’s bicycle, and sometimes he did, but even that primitive desire for oxygen would vanish, and the machine would kick in to bring him the next breath.
We were there when the respiratory people had to change his breathing tube. With the most well-meaning, tender sort of violence, they ministered to the tubes, his whole body curling into a fetal position with the deep, gaglike coughing that resulted. They couldn’t say if he’d ever wake up, or whether he’d come off the ventilator. His arms were twisted, contorted, the hands grasping at nothing with a desperation that made my shoulders quiver in an involuntary spasm of sympathy. I bought him a tiny teddy bear, uncurling his stiff fingers to place the bear against the taut, unyielding palm. His other hand appeared to relax once the toy was in place, but perhaps it was only my imagination.
My grandmother and I, without speaking, understood our own feelings clearly enough. We wanted him gone; this kind of life was too painful to watch. We wanted it to come: but at the same time felt wicked and evil. Who knew what he himself would have wanted? In the end, she signed the thick sheaf of papers authorizing no further “heroic measures.” Each place for her signature was marked with special red removable tabs.
In a sort of minor miracle, in several days he did awake, and they removed the intrusion of the ventilator. He was himself, more or less, and knew who we were, but underlying that surface was a terrible confusion. “How’s Jessie?” he asked me calmly, the name of my great-grandmother, dead long before I was born. His memories suffered no restraint; no contradictions existed in his inner flow of time. “Seeing you’s the best present I could have gotten,” he told us. “I’m going to take us all on a vacation when I get out of here.”
He seemed better than he had in years: I left for home, knowing it wouldn’t last; for the first time not wondering whether he would live or not. Later that day, I called him at the hospital from a thousand miles away and let him speak to my husband and my daughter. Say I love you, I told them. Say I love you, Grampa.
The next day he slipped back into unconsciousness, gently, easily, as a bar of soap floats downward in warm water. Notwithstanding the papers, the hospital wanted to put him back on the ventilator. No, Gran told them, no ventilator. No more.
I asked her what he had looked like, at the end. He lay on his side in the bed, she said, breathing shallowly. He didn’t seem to be in pain. He panted a little, she said, not moving, his face smooth.
I feared perhaps we had decided it the wrong way. Grampa’s doctor, without saying anything, seemed to look at us as if we were bad people, as if we cared more about ourselves than Grampa himself. As if we were selfish.
It wasn’t until a couple months after the funeral I thought to look for his glove and ball. I searched his closet first: most of his clothes and things were already gone, and the closet seemed a different space, altered by no longer containing him. When I couldn’t find them I didn’t panic — I knew Gran had put them away somewhere safe for me.
“Where’s Grampa’s glove and ball?” I asked her, not wanting to reveal how much I wanted to have them, now that he wasn’’t there to keep them away.
“What, those old things?” she asked, incredulous. “You wanted me to save those?”
I gaped at her then. The floor under my feet got soft; my knees turned into grating stone stubs lashed together by rusted wire. She was right, in a way, since at the last the glove hadn’t been a glove, just a thumb, the ball not a ball, either, but a roundish wad of wrapped string, its leather covering gone. That was all he’d had left, all I’d wanted: a piece of him I’d thought I was entitled to.
I would have kept them in a little box and looked at them every now and then, touched them with my finger. Maybe, if I was feeling daring, I would have taken the glove thumb and slipped it on, holding the ball in my hand, sliding the brittle thumb piece back and forth over the grimy string. I would have smelled them: a few tentative whiffs of the powdery leather.
I didn’t yell at her, there was no point. It was over. In spite of my outward act of forgiveness, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps what Grampa had said all along was true — maybe people did reserve the deepest sort of caring for their own blood, maybe that kind of caring was inseparable from cells, inalienable from life. Gran hadn’t cared as much about his feelings about the glove as she had about mine, for example. Or was it just that she didn’t care as much about the archival, historical things as I did? Whatever the explanation, it was done: she had not even understood enough to realize the issue existed.
“Why didn’t you tell me not to throw them out?” she asked later. “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted them?”
It was simple: I thought she knew. “I just assumed you’d keep them,” I said. “They meant so much to him.”
“They were ratty old things,” she said. “Just pieces, really. They were unrecognizable.”
I told myself that perhaps it was a good thing that the glove thumb and string ball were gone. I’d wanted them for the wrong reasons. I’d wanted something I didn’t deserve. I felt hungry — empty — but without focus, without specific appetite. He — damn him! — was leaving me all over again, and for the third time: the person I’d wanted him to be; the person he’d been; the person I’d wanted him to remain.
I thought of all the other useless things I already had in my personal archives, from my father’s crocheted baby blanket to clothes worn by my mother in college. I thought of letters they’d written to each other before I was born, airmail letters on thin blue tissue, drawn in irregular strokes of faded ink. I thought of brittle brown paperbacks and the curling edges of photographs. We are naked in our mourning, we cannot speak, and we cannot touch.
Grampa was gone; the glove and ball were gone; I was still here. The hell with it — I didn’t want to know, I didn’t want to hear what the dead had to say anymore. Only in dreams would the dead be able to seek me out again.
The dead never say much, anyway, not even in dreams. They look into my eyes, mainly, their own abrim with a solitary sort of gentleness, hoping to inoculate me against what they know is unnecessary sorrow — unnecessary love? — hoping to protect me from whatever it is that only they can see: all the while, nodding their heads in a slow, assured rhythm, a rhythm nearly invisible to the unaided eye.
Jan. 11, 1979
Kenneth got into a big fight with his father last night. His Dad said that he follows me around like a puppet, and that he’s being bought. Then his Dad told him he was a lazy little bastard for not fixing his car & going somewhere with his mother. Then Kenneth said something back and his Dad tried to choke him and Kenneth left & went to the library.
I have a feeling Kenneth’s Dad hates me, or at least dislikes me. He would probably be a lot happier if I wasn’t going out with Kenneth. I would like to go up to his Dad and say that if he would prefer Kenneth not go out with me — because he thinks Kenneth would be better able to concentrate on sports & school — I will comply.
All I know for sure is that I don’t know anything anymore. Sometimes, I want to go far away – to Europe, maybe – and meet strange people and find out how to live. But then I get scared and I am suddenly glad to be in my safe room with all my possessions that tell me who I am supposed to be. I don’t know who I am – I used to, but things have changed so much, I’m not sure anymore.
Ever since Mom and my stepdad got divorced, it’s been harder and harder to just live. Mom is getting worse with the booze and sometimes I get so angry that I scream at her. Then I feel awful and try to hug her and tell her I’m sorry, but she’s so out of it she just stands there, swaying a little with her eyes half-crossed, and I end up stomping into my room and slamming the door and locking it. Then I lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling and sigh.
It’s the best just after I get home from classes at community college. Mom isn’t here, and I am alone. No one can bother me, and if the phone rings I don’t answer it. It gives me a sense of power – listening to that phone ring and ring and ring until whoever is calling hangs up, frustrated. I close all the curtains and put on records and smoke cigarettes. In my cool, dark cave I find peace for a few hours.
At six o’clock, though, I hear that fucking bitch, my mother, put her key in the lock, and I jump up and run down the hall to my room to get away. If Mom says something to me, I try to be nice, but it’s usually only a few minutes before our voices become sharp and anger is in the air again. Until she’s blotto, that is. Then, wobbling and bleary-eyed, she’s all lovey-dovey, but also by then all I want to do is shake her until her head falls off!
The only positive things in my life are Amy and Kenneth. Amy is my best friend and Kenneth is my lover. They know, and once in a while I can talk to them about it, but I know that friends can only take so much before they are tired of hearing it. The only person that would listen to everything you said and be interested was a psychologist or psychiatrist, and I’ve thought about going to one, but it’s really too expensive. So I just don’t let myself think about things most of the time.
I keep this journal and write my thoughts down, and that helps a little. Most of the time I’m fine, but it’s always there, hanging over me. Actually, I function very well. I graduated in the top five percent of my high school class, and after a year at junior college I have a 3.8 average. And I’ve never gotten into any serious trouble at all. I’m what grandmothers like to call a “lovely girl.” On the outside. Happy? What did happiness ever have to do with any of my fucking life choices?
She is made of wood, a silken hardness that begs touching.
Should anyone reach, trail a fingertip across her flesh,
the man in straps would speak, his mumbled words rasping
through the stopped air, turning beating cells boorish,
piercing desire’s heart, killing a love so old, so pure,
it has no real name. Such is obvious from the way she stands,
lifting her heavy hair, each hand the careful cynosure
of being — she drapes the primal fiber like garlands,
letting it flow free only to capture the thickness of trees.
Her eyes are closed. Under abraded lids resides the look
everyone knows: pupils enlarged by pain; simple refugees
from knowledge received of the body, woman’s final textbook.
The belly asks first. It says come, reside here within me,
neither cold, nor afraid, nor desirous — twirl and dream
of nothing but this spare salt universe, wear only veins, silky
wisps of hair, discreet, pale limbs enfolded by soft cream.
Her feet nourish the ground, her head becomes the forest.
Walk where her shadow falls, seek the margin of her arms,
soothe your tired neck in mother’s lucid heat, hedonist
entity you have become, set in blind motion under charms
worked by no laboratory scientist in a trim white robe.
Rather, you emerged redly from a thousand other deaths,
one messy cauldron holding shapes; the patient, springy web
of chosen elements drawn together, joined by many faiths.
The breasts want, too. Child, they sing in unison, nourish your
body with our thin white blood — suckle, cradle the nipple deep
against the palate, pull the flow from a dozen small pores, gnaw
strong like a velveted vise, drink true until you swallow sleep.
The need to believe is more than skin. Need is the whole glossy
image on this lonely wall; what it means to be such a mechanism!
She never schemed for her fey power — nor does she expect mercy.
You exist, mere fragile accident, in perfect jeweled synchronism.
Not as simple as punishment, nor as complex as grace, her skills
for life reside at a place men cannot enter, no fault of their
own. They build instead the world, of brick, stone; shy stabiles
meant to appease longing, courageous memorials to light, to air.
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.
Whenever Ella was feeling close to the edge, a hair’s-breadth from lunacy, she liked to shop for groceries. She went up and down all the aisles, methodically picking out food. She threw boxes and jars and bags and cans willy-nilly in her cart, always stocking up for the big one, the storm that would tear the roof off. It’s a habit, one she learned as a child. The women in her family were bony, starry-eyed drunks, with bad skin and lank hair, but by God, they knew how to grocery shop.
She was in this twitchy, nervous state because her mother had showed up again last night. She would never know if it was just a dream: she hoped it was. Ella opened her eyes and saw her mother standing next to the bed, almost touching the mattress. She didn’t smile or speak, but simply shook her head. Mama seemed angry; Ella could tell her mother wanted to hit her. Mama was jealous that Ella was still alive, driving Mama’s car, watching her TV, wearing her jewelry. Ella met her fierce gaze without moving, then closed her lids against the image like hurricane shutters.
The room was so dark, and her mother was like a column of gray smoke, rising over Ella. Meeting death hadn’t changed Mama’s face one bit. How was it that Ella still missed her? That was an embarrassing, childish pain, an overgrown mouth sucking a rubber pacifier. There would never be a second chance for Mama and Ella; Ella wished she could believe in heaven like she believed in hell. If her mother had loved herself, or Ella, even a little, maybe she’d have pulled through the dark waters. But poor Mama was so full of self-hate there was no room for anything else. Now Ella was afraid her mother’s habits were coming after her.
Ella confessed it; often she had hated her mother too, while she lived. She even killed her mother once, in a dream. She stabbed Mama many times with a kitchen knife, and it felt right, like it was the only graceful way out for both of them. There wasn’t as much blood as Ella expected, though there was still enough to soak her mother’s nightgown all the way through. When she woke, clammy and trembling, Ella hurried to Mama’s room to make sure she still breathed. Ella knelt at the side of her bed, watching her mother’s scrawny chest. At first, it didn’t stir, and Ella almost cried out. Then she saw movement, enough to know her mother lived. Forever after, she feared the terrible anger in herself. It was always waiting, a tiger with ivory teeth and steel claws — waiting for her to stumble, to lose her grasp on mercy, on forgiveness, and throw open its cage.
Wishing her mother was dead half the time didn’t keep Ella from breaking down the door in a panic when she thought she’d overdosed. After the first incident, Ella wasn’t all that worried, she knew her mother to be too much of a bumbler, she would screw it up, or not finish, like she did everything else. The door became only an excuse for Ella to use her rage, to make her hatred tangible, give it life, a physical existence. She used a heavy folding chair, swinging it over and over again, watching first the splintered crack appear, then the bit of light, marveling at how the door-frame itself gave way all at once and the entire door fell cleanly into the room. Mama sprawled on her bed, half-clothed, her knobby knees the bulkiest part of her, her huge, brown, doe-like eyes looking puzzled. Even with all the noise, Mama was so out of it, she couldn’t figure out how Ella had gotten in the room. Later, sober, she realized she’d underestimated her daughter, she hadn’t known what Ella was capable of. Much later, a couple of years after Ella left home, after a hundred false starts, Mama managed to finish what she’d begun.
Ella shopped hours for the perfect funeral dress; pulled grimly through all the racks, looking at everything dark. No, not dark, black. “Nobody wears mourning black anymore,” the saleslady said, but for her own mother, Ella insisted. In photographs, she appeared the proper, bereaved daughter. She spent three days wearing the black dress, feeling grimy by the day of the burial, and glad of it.
They buried her mother in front of a croton bush, God, how Mama had hated those things, crotons. Ella stared at the shiny marble urn where it sat in the little hole, the tacky brass plaque glued to the top. She couldn’t object to the shrubbery, not with the priest standing there, tall and lean and handsome like some Marlboro Man, chanting and swinging his billowy canister of incense on its copper chain, the black robes clinging to him under the harsh weight of the sun, his hand so big and hard when she shook it, her knees almost gave way.
That night, Ella left the house long after dark, she walked in shaky high heels down the street and around the corner, ruining the delicate heel tips on the asphalt. She decided to keep walking until she dropped; to walk forever if no one came running after her. She stopped only a couple of miles away, limp from the humid August air. Crickets vibrated, frogs exhaled, stars flickered; the glowing, yellow windows of strangers were her last comfort, her final safe haven. Nothing but love for those strangers kept her from leaving for good, nothing but fear of the anger-tiger kept her from going any farther after her mother; Ella stood alone in the velvet grief of that hot summer night, calling her mother’s name over and over again like a stupid, hungry baby.
Even a trip to the local burger joint
is a fright show these days. I observe
with alarm a flock of silvery shriveled
biddies: granted, every one of them’s
probably some kind of genius right down
to her to gnarled toetips, but as we all
know, the quality most admired in women
is not wisdom but rather, blank-eyed youth.
I myself am sliding down that gentle curving
slope to total invisibility, and worse;
in their gentle faces I read the pounded
knowledge of tasks left undone, words not
spoken, tricks never learned. One woman’s
eyes, set deep in bluish sockets, slide over
my small daughter’s body like guilty, halting
fingers. I know she remembers watching her own daughter
sleep night after night, I know exactly how she used to stand
over the child’s bed listening to the sweet
melody of inhale, exhale, sigh, feeling
against her wrist the exhilarating rhythm
of the flying hummingbird heart of her sleeping child. Now, she smiles
to herself, clutching her cup of steaming coffee,
and nods. Near her, at a different table, is a young man, his hair
a glowing honey-blonde, drawn back tight
into a long, curling ponytail, and from his earlobe
dangles a dull silver cross. His narrow hips barely
support his work pants, and in profile his perfect, cruel,
unshaven features promise every solemn gawker,
male or female, an expensive though unique mistake.
And I realize we are all here for the same thing: to fill up our
insides with this cheap, warm sustenance, to travel
homeward bearing an approximation of what we really
long for, which is to keep scrambling for the same
small favors tomorrow, the next day, and the next.
I find myself crying (for all of us) and stage-cough, pretending allergies,
wiping my eyes under my sunglasses and blowing my nose into my paper napkin.
August in Florida
Outside, people crowd around water. Heat, the bright aqua of water, smell of chlorine and sun lotion. Coconut, spice. Young girls with slender hips, high breasts. Mincing, they walk barefoot over the burning concrete. Ankle bracelets. Hairless women, hairy men. Some men look vaguely female–lack body hair, possess slender torso, a feminine grace. They practice diving off the high platform, catapulting through the air like minor gods.
Spindly little children, bowlegged, one girl like a large walking doll, Wedgewood eyes, white skin, hair almost white, but so fierce. She puts her face in the water, proud of herself, comes up spitting, does it over and over. This girl’s mother, slim, pale body like a teenager’s, but her face red and sun-aged, enormous Southern twang. A former cheerleader, rural Georgia or Alabama. Lying on the blistering concrete, eyes closed, listening to the sounds of laughter and splashing. My sore back, the heat melting the ache away.
On the towel closest to me, a young girl, pretty, bleached blonde hair with dark roots showing, golden-brown string bikini that matches her skin, her perfect feet. Sudden thunder, the pool closed, into the locker rooms for 20 minutes. Live oaks, huge spread branches like arms reaching into the sky. The arms are shading, watchful. The oaks are like sentinels. The moss hangs like underarm hair. Young boys, thick and awkward, walk stiff-legged. They turn dark reddish-brown, but look silly next to the black kids. Tall, skinny black boy with red hair, a crew cut. His mama, a large woman in bright blue tank suit and neon orange shorts, matching neon bathing cap. Her earrings graze the sides of her neck. She isn’t ready to leave yet. He watches the girls, pretending not to.
Over there, a skinny, burnt woman with bad teeth, yet her daughters are so lovely, so young and fair and smooth. How did she produce them? A hippie girl with a blonde baby boy, crooning one minute, yelling the next, she holds him on her hip, sways in the sun. More and more women look like those prehistoric clay fertility figurines, heavy hanging breasts, stomach overlapping their thighs. I lie still and watch, lazy with the heat, my own weight.