Tag Archives: childhood
Night Blooming Jasmine, a poem
After dark, anything could happen – each
moment was disconnected from the last.
There was no logical progression to our lives:
most events had the dramatic essence of a car
accident. One evening, my mother decided
to sneak out my bedroom window when my
stepfather cut her off. He was drunk himself,
but for some reason decided she shouldn’t have
more Scotch. I remember her butt, in white
nylon undies, decorating the center of my open
window. I both fretted and hoped that she might
fall and hurt herself. Another night, my stepfather
decided it was time to throw all the pillows away,
including mine, because to him they smelled like
“horse piss.” My mother followed, protesting
loudly, wrestling him for the pillows. She lost:
the pillows went into the garbage cart. This
happened in our front yard, on a warm night scented
with night-blooming jasmine. I watched the two
drunken grown-ups, distancing myself from the scene.
I watched it like a T.V. show or a movie. When
I try to tell people about these things now, I can’t
keep a straight face. The laughter chokes me,
renders me unable to speak. I am silenced.
They’re both long dead now… but I’m still here.
The Way of Tiny Swordfish, a prose poem
Sitting in the living room next to the indoor fish pond. Watching the tiny swordfish jump up the miniature rock waterfall, knowing and empathizing with their drive to go somewhere farther along, somewhere even unknown, somewhere presently unattainable.
Sitting on the floor next to the black Naugahyde, Father-Knows-Best chair and matching ottoman, which no one actually ever sat in, as if knowing we were not worthy occupants. Wanting a father badly, asking my stepfather if I could call him Daddy. My mother made me ask him myself, but I wanted her to ask him for me!
They married when I was four, then went away to New York City – actually the Dick Van Dyke show suburb of New Rochelle – for a year, while I lived with my grandmother. My mother worked as an “executive” secretary for Norelco, and every time I saw the commercial with Santa riding the Norelco razor down the snowbank I swelled with pride.
I started kindergarten at four, Catholic school. Nursery school, kindergarten, and first grade with the Catholics. They say if they have you until age seven, they have you for life. Saint Teresa for Halloween! I came home, told Mommy I couldn’t wait to die and go to Heaven, so I could be with Jesus; pictures of Jesus taped to the headboard of my four-poster bed. Mommy said, “That’s enough Catholic school!” So public school for second grade.
Loving the families shown in black-and-white on TV, where the biggest problem was fighting over your curfew, getting a bad grade on a test, not being allowed to go to some party where, in the end, father knew best because some kids got in a car wreck either on the way there, or after.
Having a kitchen where there were no roaches living in the toaster, or the silverware drawer. Where I could ask my mother for advice, and not have it be wrong, not have it break my heart. Dreaming of and longing for a life of being saved and shepherded by your parents, like on TV. Trusting their wisdom. I wanted to trust mine.
The Way of All Flesh, a short story
Professor Rathlin was tall and skinny, with a beard and wild red hair. He wore sandals without socks, even in winter. During lectures, I stared at his feet, the toes in particular, the way the nails were so broad and smooth. But all that toe-worshiping was moot, because rumor was he had a girlfriend. Plus, I had Jacob. Despite, or maybe because of all that, I went regularly to Rathlin’s office hours. His office was even better than his toes, insulated with books, one whole wall covered with photographs of his family.
“Look at this one,” he said one day, pointing to a group black-and-white, maybe the third grade. From the clothes, I could tell he was at least as old as my mother, if not older. “You think you can pick me out?” he asked. He leaned back in his swivel chair, browsing through his chin whiskers. I looked hard, mentally shaving off facial hair, pulling his hairline forward, and erasing weather lines. Scanning the photo, row by row, I started to sweat.
I was almost ready to go back to the beginning, which was a disaster in a job like this — they all start to look alike. Then, I saw one boy’s eyes, his mouth, his forehead, a cowlick. I pressed my finger to the glass and said, “Here.”
He squinted to see which face I’d pointed to. He rolled his chair close, the chair-arm touching my leg just above the knee. “Right,” he said, as his chair pushed me, almost knocking me off-balance. “Sorry,” he said, swiveling back. “How about this one?” he asked. He pointed to a bigger photo, three little boys who looked like almost like triplets. They were dressed the same — plaid shorts with suspenders, white starched round-collar blouses, knee socks with saddle shoes. The tallest was missing his two front teeth and the middle one held the smallest — chubby in the face from babyhood — hugged on his lap. “Which one is me?”
“Oh, my God,” I said. I tried to camouflage, make out like I was amused. I knew I’d get an “A” in his class, this spotlight tutorial was about something else. He put his smile away and tried to look neutral. His eyes held anthropological glee.
I saw him in the toddler, the one with the dimpled knees, the brightest eyes. “The baby,” I said.
He laughed, throwing his head back for a moment. “Not many get that one,” he said, nodding his head. “Sit down,” he said, motioning to a chair behind boxes crammed with what looked like field diaries. I sat, and not knowing where to put my backpack, plunked it into my lap, clutching it like an old lady with a purse. Clutching it like my mother would have.
“Would you have breakfast with me next week?” he said, opening his desk drawer and fumbling inside it. He pulled out a ragged calendar.
“Sure,” I said.
“White people like to get the body in the ground within two or three days,” said Mr. Clements, our guest lecturer. “In black families, at least a week goes by before the burial. Black funerals draw more relatives — folks take longer coming by bus and so forth, so you allow the extra time.”
I thought of my first funeral, my great-grandfather, when I was six. Mom bought me a new navy-blue coat and hat for church, but as I was getting in the shiny black car at the funeral home, she decided I shouldn’t go to the church. Instead, I sat with the undertaker’s shy daughter in the waiting room, tapping my patent-leather heels.
The week after midterms, Jacob, Margot and I went out for a beer and some reggae. We sat up front, getting our sternums massaged by the bass. Margot and I drank too much beer and smoked too many cigarettes. She chuckled a lot, high up in her throat, and seemed half in the bag already, but she was tricky that way — in reality, just like my mother, she had a stable middle range of drunkenness that she could stay in for what seemed like forever. Jacob had nursed a warm Perrier for a couple of hours.
Margot leaned over and whispered in my ear. “He is cute, isn’t he?”
I laughed, leaning over and bumping shoulders with her as I spoke, a gesture I thought I’d gotten rid of in the seventh grade. “Isn’t he!” I said. I admired Margot — her well-placed laughter, her cynical, observant eye. When I saw her looking at Jacob in a way I’d seen before, I decided to let her have him.
I’ve never been the jealous, clinging type; I’ve always gotten out at the first hint of trouble. What kind of fool wants to be with someone who doesn’t want them? No, I view romance and love as Fated, unattainable unless bestowed on us by chemicals. There’s nothing gradual about that gut-wrenching attraction — it either springs up full blown or never exists at all. My mom and I proved this a million times over. I knew there was a certain risk. If it turned out against me — if she wanted him, if he wanted her — I’d have to be able to swallow that bitter pill and live.
“Would you mind if I asked him to dance?” she said. Asking permission, as if he were my property — not the way Margot usually acted. Jacob had been a virgin when we met. Margot knew, and the fact was tantalizing; even with the first sharp edge taken off, those boys can look so lovely.
“No, sure, go ahead.” As she leaned over to shout her invitation, her heavy breasts touched my arm.
I watched them on the dance floor. Jacob was long and lean — like a greyhound — dark hair just brushing his shoulders, and narrow, slanted brown eyes. Sometimes his eyes made him look dumb, sometimes a little fierce, but most of the time they made for a sort of refreshing blankness.
He danced with her, but he kept looking back at my table. I smoked and sucked on my bottle of beer, the carbonation stinging my upper lip.
I looked up and saw Jacob motioning, beckoning me to come out on the floor. He was sweating, there were dark spots scattered on his shirt and circles under his arms. When I got there, after wading through the hot bumping bodies, the three of us danced in a sort of conga line. For a couple of minutes I had this bizarre fantasy that somehow we’d all end up naked and in bed together.
Jacob snapped his fingers and swung his head, tossing his long hair, strands catching in his mouth like a girl’s. Margot had a funky Egyptian hand move she seemed stuck on. I concentrated on the looseness and fragility of my shoulders, letting my arms bounce wildly. We laughed, but the music was so loud we couldn’t hear the sound. We watched each other’s mouths gulp, like goldfish.
Jacob leaned close enough to speak. His hand grasped my hip bone. “Margot’s drunk,” he said.
“No, she’s not,” I said, closing my eyes, nodding my head with the music, brushing his ear as I spoke and picking up some of his sweat. “She’s just pretending. She can drink us all under the table.”
Margot screamed, opening her mouth wide, then gasped and laughed, fanning herself. I nodded and pinched her elbow — her arm plump, soft-looking, but hard with muscle underneath — and she minced off the dance floor.
“She felt me up while we were dancing,” Jacob said. “Put her hand on my ass.” His face looked glazed and hurt. I looked over at the band and kept moving and wondered which buttock she had touched and whether he still felt the warmth of her hand, glowing under his jeans.
“She just likes you,” I said. “The way I like you. The way everybody likes you.” I held my arms up and tilted my head back until I was dizzy, in the process almost falling into some other people. Jacob caught me before I fell into the tangle of mike stands and wires at the middle of the band’s stage. I felt my shoulder blade compress under his thumb.
“I thought you loved me,” he said, and I could smell his breath, sour just like his sweat. I wanted to shake him, make his head rattle. “Are you telling me you want me to fuck her?” he asked. A cold, hard, bitchiness drew down over my psyche in an instant, like a reptile’s third eyelid.
“Let go,” I said, shrugging my shoulder out of his hand, away from him — like when Mom would try to hold me down on the bed in one of her drunken vapors.
Jacob kept on dancing, expressionless, his eyes even more blank than usual. If I had been seeing him for the very first time, I might have thought he was insane. He touched my neck with his finger, tracing the angle of my chin.
As I walked away, I turned back to look. His eyes were closed; his face was smooth except for the silly little unshaved jazz bow under his lower lip, which until a couple of minutes ago I had liked. His body was turning and bobbing with the music, but his hands were drawn up into fists and his arms were down stiff at his sides.
“I’ve got to get home — my feet are killing me. Would you mind giving him a ride?” I stared down at Margot, sitting at our table, not meaning to but seeing anyway the cleavage where her full breasts pressed together. For a minute, she looked ridiculous, puffed up with air like some inflatable doll. I wondered what it would feel like to lay my head on that kind of cushion. I looked back at Jacob, dancing in front of the speakers.
“Sure, no problem,” Margot said.
“Talk to you later,” I said, and I left. I wasn’t mad at either of them, not really.
“This is a skull I was asked to identify for a murder trial last year,” said the medical examiner. He looked mild and well-groomed. Lying in a clump of tall grass, the skull was turned away from the camera, its curves a rusty brown except for some scattered patches of pale hair. “This was how it was found.” The slide projector whirred. “Here’s a better view,” he said, and the picture showed the skull head-on, the skull looking paler and the carved teeth glowing white against a formal background of black felt.
I thought of my second funeral, the one where I got to see a body — I was trotted right up to the shabby green kneeler in front of the casket. Great-Aunt Alice’s hair had been given a fresh apricot rinse, the curls prim and dull against the white satin pillow. The flesh of her crossed arms was flattened, as if she’d been pressed in a book. I feared her eyes and lips would somehow fly open and regard me with a blind and terrifying insolence. My remaining great-aunts stood in a cluster around me, weeping, kissing her, the dangling chains of their rosaries sliding, mussing her makeup, her lipstick, her hair.
“Give her a kiss goodbye.” I bent, lips pursed, brushing the well-powdered cheek that felt as cold and hard as my wooden desk at school. A sharp medicinal smell mixed with perfume and hairspray made me sneeze. I creased my forehead to mimic sorrow, all the while barely managing to contain the giddy, shameful laughter bubbling up inside me like silver air through black water.
“I think you should do this professor,” Margot said, when I told her about my date with Rathlin. Jacob and I had made up — sort of. He insisted Margot wasn’t his type, shaking his head and laughing — unkind laughter, I felt, not wanting to join him in his gaiety because it felt disloyal to her — at the same time wondering why on earth I held my laughter back. Nothing had happened between the two of them, Jacob added, and in that I believed him, because the one thing I felt certain of was he could not tell a lie.
After Margot and I hung up, after I’d sipped almost an entire bottle of wine, I sat at the kitchen table with one last glass and a cigarette, writing in my journal. “I think he likes me,” I wrote, meaning Rathlin, alcohol having made my loopy script even bigger than usual. After twelve more pages elaborating on that general theme, I don’t remember how I got from the table to my bed.
“This, of course, is my favorite holiday,” Rathlin said, grinning. He’d taken the video last summer in Mexico, documenting a rural celebration of “el Dia de los Muertos” — the Day of the Dead. Spindly-legged children cavorted in front of the camera, dancing brown and barefoot, wearing cartoonish papier-mâché skull masks and shaking small tin skeletons hanging from long sticks. The painted tin strips rattled against each other like wind chimes. It all seemed less gruesome than absurd.
After Aunt Alice, funerals got easier. My Uncle Frank looked better than anyone — or maybe it’s just easier to do a good job on a man. His hair wasn’t stiff or sprayed at all, just brushed back off his forehead. Even his glasses sat in the right position. I could see my reflection in the lenses as I leaned over the casket to rearrange the lay of his necktie.
“You’re not ready?” Rathlin asked, arriving almost an hour early for our breakfast date. Stiff and hung over, I hadn’t dressed or showered. I felt naked, though I was bundled inside sweatpants, a nightgown and a flannel robe. In the shower, I thought about what I’d say to him over breakfast. The only other professor I’d ever gotten this friendly with had been a Vietnam veteran, still a little strung out by that experience, which I found completely understandable. He’d taken me home to meet his mother. He said that when he looked at me, he saw “healthy children.” Feeling more panicked than flattered — I was eighteen to his thirty-five — and wanting to defuse the situation somehow, I said, “What is that, something like the Grateful Dead?”
After pulling my clothes on over damp skin, I went to tell him I was ready. I stuck my head out of the bathroom to see Rathlin searching through my dresser drawers. My eyes got big. “What are you doing?”
“Field observation,” he said, his lips drawn back and his teeth blazing white at me through the darkness of his beard. I saw he was in the drawer where I kept my vibrator.
I marched over and pushed the drawer shut. Then I propelled him out of my bedroom — laughing through my clenched teeth to keep the action on the level of buffoonery, pretending I had just caught him being naughty. His steps were tiny; he twisted his head around to catch my expression. I kept my face neutral, using the fake laugh as an excuse to look everywhere but his eyes.
I mumbled my order to the waitress and sat silent. It ruined the sight of him, being his measured subject. I knew our studies together would never be the same.
“The traditional color of mourning in Japan is white,” said the tall woman, an old graduate-school colleague of Rathlin’s visiting from Osaka University. “Whereas the normal color of celebration is black.” For the natural sterility of white and the corresponding fertility of black, she explained. I stared at Rathlin, chin on my hand, while she spoke, watching as faint color rose along the sides of his neck and he fiddled with his moustache. She drew a plain white kimono from her bag, holding it spread out against her body, an abstract design woven into the material itself, like a tapestry.
I had worn the traditional American black dress at my mother’s funeral. Up until then, everyone in my family — including her — had slopped around to those things wearing pastels, whatever stuff they seemed to have in the closet, but by then I knew it wasn’t right.
Home from afternoon classes, I was startled to find my front door unlocked and standing ajar. Then I heard Jacob’s voice. “Don’t worry, it’s only me,” he called, as I hesitated outside the door, my heart racing.
“Jesus, you scared me,” I said, dropping my backpack inside the door, clutching my chest and breathing hard as I walked into the room.
Jacob sat on the living room floor, five empty bottles from a six-pack of beer balanced around him, the sixth one half-empty in his hand. He didn’t look up when I came into the room, just tilted the bottle back and took a swig. His eyes were bloodshot from the beer. My journal was lying open on the couch.
“So, what’s going on between you and Dr. Rathlin?” I felt a draining sensation from head to toe, gravity pulling all my organs down, squeezing them into my feet. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. For a second or two, I was afraid; that passed when I saw his eyes. They were petulant, sullen, and his mouth was puckered as if he might cry. I remembered a baby picture he had once shown me, and over all the sickness roiling inside me was a horrible urge to laugh.
“Dr. Rathlin?” I said. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” And of course it was true — there was nothing — that was the awful part. Even so, I sounded like some ridiculous soap-opera bad girl, and he the walking wounded Boy Scout.
“You’re not having an affair?” He stood up, struggling for his balance — I kept myself from reaching over to help him — and at last he got upright, teetering in the floor space between the empty beer bottles. It reminded me of the first night we’d slept together, the two of us standing next to my bed, the stark white of his jockey shorts gleaming in the darkness, like an angel’s wings against the deep brown of his skin — “Help me through this,” he had said, teetering just like he was now, clinging to me as if I were a pier protecting him from some onrushing wave, and I had been filled with respect for his proffered virginity.
“Honestly?” Through his veil of drunkenness I could see a sort of relief. “I thought….” His chest hitched, a gassy hiccup. “I thought you two must be having an affair.”
He looked out the window, frowning with concentration, as if hoping to catch sight of someone he recognized. “Why?” I asked him, knowing as I asked there could never be enough of an answer.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his body sagging, and when he sagged I saw a glimpse of what he would look like as an old man, when gravity would have gotten the best of even his kind of body. He cleared his throat. “At first, I thought you were writing about us, about me. So I turned one page back, to read the rest.”
“Why on earth would you assume I was writing about you?” I asked, honing the vowels into bright knives of sarcasm, sounding exactly like my mother, riled up into a taut, glossy witchiness. I knew from experience how much blood that voice could draw.
His mouth twitched. He squinted in the slanted afternoon sun that filled the room, and his eyes were like a lizard’s. I realized from the very beginning he had thought of himself as being the smarter one.
After a huge bowl of Margot’s guacamole, which we slathered over corn chips, sucking our fingers pale between each bite, we ended up calling out to order pizza, and thus never got to the half-gallon of ice cream in the freezer. We flirted with the pizza delivery guy when he got there — I don’t remember exactly how, but it consisted of exchanging pseudo-knowing glances between ourselves and then looking back at him and laughing with what we thought was a bell-like, sophisticated tone, the speed of our laughter almost, but not quite, as fast as a giggle, and in retrospect I’m sure the guy pegged us for a couple of crazy, shitfaced sluts and got the hell out of there as fast as he could — and the last thing I remember with any kind of clarity is that first bite of pizza, eaten sitting cross legged on the floor in front of Margot’s coffee table. I know, too, that we kept on talking for hours, but I can’t recall what we said because each couplet of our sentences was so complete, so profound, so far beyond our sensibilities when sober, that the pearls of wisdom thus harvested could not be held, but floated away into the atmosphere, nacreous gems of the moment.
Eventually the conversation hit a lull. I lay down on Margot’s couch, kicking off my shoes, intending only to rest my eyes, and was instantly unconscious.
Sometime in the night I awoke. The only source of light was a single fat candle we had lit earlier, stuck on the iron spike of a gaudy, wrought-iron coach lantern she had gotten at some garage sale. As best I could make out, given the gluey condition of my eyes, Margot was floating above the floorboards; though her legs moved beneath her, approximating walking, she resembled the silent bouncing ball in a T.V. sing-along.
She was naked. Her breasts were large and round, pale glowing globes tipped in a deeper pink. Below the straight line of her spine followed buttocks so round and firm that, when linked with her bosom by way of her waspy middle, made her torso look fantastic. No cellulite, no jiggles marred her floatation, and upon that dreamlike observation I closed my eyes again. By the time she went back through the room, I must have been asleep, since the next thing I knew was the delicate light of dawn.
“Margot,” I called, standing at the door of her bedroom, a heaped lump of quilt in the center of her bed the only sign of occupancy. “It’s around six-thirty. I’m going to go home.”
No sound, then a rustling of the heavy quilt, and Margot’s pale face and bare shoulder poked out. She’d slept in her mascara, too. “Wait. Let me give you some coffee first,” she said, her mouth so dry I could hear the faint puckering of her lips as they moved over her teeth.
I sat down next to her on the bed. Margot’s arm moved against mine, her skin hairless, soft, radiating a feverish heat. I stared at the rounded curve of her bent elbow, remembering how I’d last seen my own mother’s body, dressed in her nicest, newest dress. Her features had been painted and molded, her nose and chin just a little too waxy, a little too pointed, for perfection.
I leaned over Margot and felt her breasts crush my own into pneumatic oblivion. She flinched as I laid my head on her shoulder, pressing into her living warmth, but I couldn’t help myself. I knew she wasn’t the cuddly type. My mother hadn’t been, either — she was so soft on the surface and so hard underneath. She was dead, and I missed her, but I didn’t really want her to come back from wherever it was she’d gone. My time to follow her would come soon enough, and maybe by that time she would have forgiven me for ruining her life with my pathetic neediness. I knew I was taking liberties with Margot, but I kept holding onto her anyway, waiting for her to gather up the nerve to push me away.
The First Time I Met My Father, a very, very short story.
The first time I saw him, I was not dazzled. He was too tall and wiry, and he had too much red hair, flying off his head like an unmown hayfield. His eyes were too chilly, a piercing blue that made me feel like an insect on a pin. He was brimful of himself, but at the same time tried to project a false humility. When he found out I was trying out for cheerleading, he tried to talk me out of it. He’d only met me for the first time and hadn’t even met my friends, but somehow he’d already found them incomplete, just because they weren’t political radicals. “Why do you want to be a cheerleader?” he asked, chewing on the straw of his soda while he squinted.
“Because it’s fun,” I said. I shook my head, throwing my bangs back out of my eyes to glare at him. “Because it’s good exercise.”
“Do you know that the players will feel like it’s their right to sleep with you?” he asked.
“I’m not sleeping with anybody,” I said.
“I hope not.”
“You think anybody’s going to be able to talk me into something I don’t want to do?”
The arrogance he displayed made me want to slap him, punch him, kick him, or at least knock a couple teeth out.
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.
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?
Rose, Honey, or Strawberry Moon (June)
We dug up the bushes, moving gifts from my mother’s friends, transported them to our tiny backyard, planted them in rows, a fine garden. Suddenly they took over, bursting into frenzied blooms, the metal tags dangling, all hybrids, expensive, my mother’s friends were rich, we weren’t. Tropicana, Peace, Mister Lincoln — but over the next few years they all gave up the ghost, dwindled away to one or two sticks bearing black-spotted leaves, an occasional bud. My mother & stepfather forgot the roses, neglected them the way they neglected their and my mental health. Cases of beer and gallons of wine were lugged home instead. We sold the house when my mother & stepfather divorced, the new owners didn’t care for roses, I haven’t seen the backyard in decades. I used to swing there, under a Florida holly, on a splintery board, watching the roses in their sweet decline. Remnants of a more splendid time, not mine. My dog and cat were buried in that yard, my girlhood surrendered to a more ominous time, a time of sneaking out the bedroom window. I had a purple and blue room, painted furniture, a globe of the world, matching curtains & bedspread. I lost the room when I lost my cobbled-together family. But the absence of family was no great loss, not the same as losing the roses. It wasn’t my family anyway, though people were always telling me how much I looked like my “dad.” We hardly ever had the heart to tell them we weren’t related. For a while, he liked me, but not when I started showing signs of womanhood. Then he despised me, the way he despised my mother.
I was an ugly, awkward girl. My glasses hid my eyes, my hair hid my face, the only things revealed were arms & legs like jointed sticks, bare feet with black soles, a pair of bright yellow & white plaid shorts & a white cotton shirt. My hair bleached at the ends, stiff like straw from the sun & pool water. My smile was alarming, my sullen face more of a comfort. I met my “real” father that year. He was frightening, a reminder of myself yet a complete stranger. I suffered from vertigo in his presence, the room grew long and thin, the sounds bounced off the walls like rubber, and I was covered with cold sweat. I didn’t want to touch him. After he left, I went to swing next to the roses. That rope and board swing saved my mind over & over. I could carry on after that soothing motion.
The neighbor across the street decided to keep bees. The two hives were square wooden boxes, painted white, and he kept them in the side yard, past the driveway, against the chain link fence. They buzzed in and out all day, and I was always afraid of being stung. His orange blossom honey was sweet & bright & bland. I was desperately in love with his oldest son, and the man himself hated me. The mother was slightly less hostile. His son was tall & long-limbed & had chestnut hair & dark hazel eyes. His hands were beautifully shaped, the hands of a pianist, but he was not a musician, he was not an artist, not an intellectual. He should have been, he looked the part. Instead he was an athlete, always running or riding or throwing or hitting. I played basketball with him in the driveway, always humiliated, always losing, but it was the only way to be with him. I humbled myself, and years later when I became beautiful, he loved me back, but it was too late. He wouldn’t speak, and I couldn’t stand the silence. I foresaw years of painful silence broken only by my own shouting. I gave him up, my first love. And lived to regret it. I wonder if the silence would have endured. His nervous, awkward kisses were sweeter than his father’s honey. We lay together on my bed and necked for hours. He was so shy. I was willing to let him be that way. The first time we had real sex wasn’t as good as all the times spent in preparation. We were both too young to know what we had. Everything seems possible in June. Everything seems as though it will last forever. I still have a jar with a petrified sugar-crust, remnants of his daddy’s honey.
One year, my grandfather planted a field of strawberries behind his house, my little brother and I wandered up and down the rows, picking the ripe ones and eating them on the spot. We didn’t care that they weren’t washed. They were so warm & sweet & soft & our lips turned red, my brother’s face smeared pinkish, like a lover’s blush. I was madly in love with everyone that summer. I just wanted to be held. Men were foreign to me, I couldn’t understand them at all. My brother and I ate as many as we wanted, then picked buckets full for later. Washed & cut up, they weren’t the same, still good, but the wildness was off them. My grandfather’s hands as he cut them up were beautiful & careful & solid, I wanted to look at his hands forever. They were not delicate, but not rough — a man’s good hands, they looked loving & trustworthy, and even though he never really touched me, I could tell they could transmit all varieties of tenderness & passion. I loved my grandfather for being that kind of man — I wished I could have been a stranger, so that he could have loved me too. All summer long, I ate sweet strawberries & dreamed of love, a man to love me like a piece of perfect, ripe fruit. I was only 14, still gangly & shy, and no one came along for several years, yet still the dream carried me along like a fast ship, driven by a cool wind.
“I’ve met a nice girl,” Martha’s divorced son, Paul, had announced one Sunday. “Her name’s Lidia. I want you to meet her sometime.”
“Well, why don’t you bring her to dinner with you next week?” she said. As she put her coffee cup down into the saucer, her wrist twisted suddenly and she nearly dropped it, making a terrible chipping sound. Holding her breath, she ran her hand over the bottom of the cup but found it unharmed. She smiled at Paul and touched her necklace. “Call me by Wednesday to let me know for sure.” Then she decided she’d sit and sip coffee and smile at her son; she was entitled. Paul looked just like his father only better, his shoulders wider, his hair thicker, his teeth larger, his eyes a purer blue.
This year, in honor of Thanksgiving, Martha’s second daughter-in-law, Lidia, wore a white jumpsuit, gold belt and shoes, and a great deal of white plastic jewelry. A long bead necklace was wrapped twice and knotted around her neck, bangle bracelets in random widths jangled everywhere, too-heavy earrings sagged the little holes in her lobes. There was a brooch too, some sort of spidery circle with a gold anchor dangling in its center.
Unfortunately, the white Thanksgiving jumpsuit was tight everywhere that Lidia wasn’t. Martha breathed deep and smiled anyway, gripping the hot solid hand firmly, glad to be helped up the front stoop even by a woman like this. Well, at least she’s got him going to church again, Martha thought — we’ll just see how long that lasts. Before his and Lidia’s wedding day, Paul hadn’t set foot in a church of any kind for twenty-five years, not since the last day he hung up his altar boy outfit. He’d had a civil ceremony with his first wife. Maybe that was her fault too — hell, everything seemed to be the mother’s fault, these days.
Martha should have known from the beginning how this second marriage would turn out. Lidia had no hesitation in her voice. Brassy. From the very beginning, she just blared right out with everything. “Hello, Mom,” she’d say to Martha, her cheeks round and orange with too much makeup, front teeth stretching her upper lip, keeping it from ever completely closing, making the words come out slippery-sounding: too loud, too bright. Not a lisp, but damned close. All she needed was a fluffy tail to snap behind her, Martha thought — it would go right with the rest of her chittering.
Not like Neal’s mother, Paul’s first wife, Joanne. Martha sighed, remembering Joanne as she sat down on the too-soft living room sofa, some rattan thing covered with the kind of material she would have expected to see worn by a belly dancer. Why, for all her problems, Joanne had been a lady. Martha had told her son that when he’d brought Joanne home for dinner for the very first time. “This girl’s too good for you,” she had said, right at the table in front of everybody. Damned if her conscience wasn’t clear on that one. Poor Joanne hadn’t known what she was getting into — none of them had. Not that Paul was a monster, just lazy. Almost spineless except when it came to his expensive toys. Those damned boats. Martha couldn’t stand it, but what could she do?
“Happy Thanksgiving, Mom,” Lidia said, plopping herself down next to Martha. “I hope you brought your appetite.”
Martha smiled. “Thank you, dear,” she said, patting her daughter-in-law’s hand lightly.
Martha’s china was Limoges. There was a border of tiny flowers, handpainted pink and green and a broad line of gold around the edges, the coffee and demitasse cups so thin you could see through them when you held them up to the light, like eggshells. Martha had inherited it from her mother and father when she was eight.
The accident that killed them had involved electricity. Whether it had been lightning or wiring, she never knew. In any case, she tried to imagine their final moments based on what she knew of electricity from watching movies and reading the encyclopedia. Waking early in the mornings, she would throw off the covers and lie there in the pearly dark, stretching her arms and legs out, stiff, at right angles. She would open her mouth until she heard her jaw pop. Her body would tremble, her lips sting. When she finally let herself go limp it was a relief to be back.
Martha was sent away to boarding school the following year; her parents’ money was managed by some cousins of her father’s. During her senior year, she was called in to the headmistress’ office and informed: fiduciary malfeasance. Of course she would receive her degree with the rest of her class. The words “charity case” were never used. Much later, memory and resentment molded the set of her mouth, pinching her lips with sharp lines: by the time she was fifty, no one guessed she had once been smoothly, delicately beautiful, the kind of looker other women couldn’t even bring themselves to dislike, although their first impulse was always to try.
“Where’s Paul?” Martha asked.
“Oh, he had to run out to the store,” Lidia said. “I forgot the cranberry sauce.” She chuckled, shaking her head. A small fleck of saliva flew from her lips as her teeth drew back. “Brain like a sieve sometimes. He’ll be back any minute now.” She stood up and walked over to the door leading to the T.V. room. “Neal! Eddie! Get off that Nintendo and come say hello to Grandma Bergen.”
Their boys had been five when Lidia and Paul married. It hadn’t bothered Martha at the time that they wanted Lidia’s boy, Eddie, to call her Grandma, too.
“Hi Grandma,” said Neal. “Happy Thanksgiving.” He bent and kissed her shyly and she felt a slight prickling fuzz tickle her face with the kiss. He was so white-blonde it wasn’t something she would have noticed from a distance. He was growing up, that was clear. He had a small pimple on his chin.
“Grandma, how’s it going?” Eddie said, and he stuck out his hand. She shook it, his hand warm and heavy like Lidia’s.
“Very well, Eddie,” she said. “Thank you.”
In the end, “fiduciary malfeasance” notwithstanding, young Martha had been able to keep the china and the silver, and her father’s monogrammed, twelve-piece dresser set. There was a little cash left over. She managed to graduate from Boston University by wearing the same dresses all four years and waitressing at Woolworth’s, not precisely what she would have chosen, but good enough for a Massachusetts teaching certificate. She interviewed at high schools all over but ended up teaching back in Brookline, where she had been born. Wanting to keep her figure, she joined the municipal tennis league. They played tournaments once a month. It seemed like a good way to meet people, better than church, which is what the other teachers did. Using God as a dating service was hardly a ticket to heaven.
“Can I get you anything, Mom?” Lidia asked her. “Some iced tea or a Coke?” Paul and Lidia were born-again Baptists now: no alcohol, even on holidays.
Martha smiled slightly as she remembered the old joke: What’s a Methodist? A Baptist who can read. “Iced tea sounds nice,” Martha said. She heard the gravel in the driveway crunching and the dogs started to bark. “That must be Paul. Go tell him his mother’s here.”
“Oh, he probably saw your car already,” Lidia said. “I’ll be right back with the tea.”
Martha’s ex-husband, Fred Bergen, had been a handsome young man, five years older than Martha. He was well over six feet, blue-eyed and blonde, with smooth Scandinavian skin that turned a dark, clear brown every summer. Martha was dark, eyes and hair, except for her skin, which was thin and light, looking almost transparent in the sun, a raised mole in the inside crook of her elbow the only mark on her. Next to him she looked like a foreigner, but her ancestry was English on both sides. He had gone off to Dartmouth to study Engineering but came home to Brookline to be a gentleman.
He was an ace tennis player; she was ready to get married. Her china saw frequent use. The teaching certificate moved into her scarf drawer. They had one child, a boy, named Paul, after her father.
The first few years after Paul was born, they lived just outside Concord, on the farm her husband Fred had inherited from his family. The three of them rode through the woods almost every Sunday, Paul on his Shetland pony, the reins tied to the side loop of her saddle. She especially loved the fall woods, the bare trees making everything look so clean. Everything was gray, but there were no real shadows.
“Well, hello there!” Paul said, pulling his satin baseball jacket off as he stood in the living room doorway. Throwing it over a chair, he sat down across from her. His smile was broad, his square white teeth perfect. The skin around his eyes wrinkled heavily as he smiled, pulled up into bags thrown into even harsher relief by the lenses of his glasses, something that still surprised her. If her son was getting old, she wondered, what was she?
“Hello there, yourself,” she said. She held one arm out to him, summoning. Heaving himself up out of the chair, he bent for a kiss. She smelled shaving lotion and dandruff shampoo; he fumbled at her cheek. She took one of his hands in hers, feeling the hard, dry skin of his fingers, squeezing it twice. Sitting down next to her this time, his breath whooshed out as if he had been holding it.
“How’s your father?” she asked. Their divorce had come years ago, when, of course, she was considered too old for it. Separated for a long time already, she nonetheless wanted the formality of the piece of paper. She took her own Social Security, not Fred’s, so it didn’t really change anything in a practical sense. It had been the kind of case the judge laughed at right in court. That irked her more than any of the rest.
Family holidays, of course, nothing had to change.
Martha had blamed herself the second time the money went. Not as much as she blamed Fred, of course. But she, of all people, should have seen it coming. The gin games at the country club were no surprise, but as for the horse races — she had had no idea. They sold the farm to pay off his gambling debts, land that had been owned by the Bergens for three hundred years. Neither of them had ever lived anywhere but Massachusetts. It was Fred who promoted Florida. He’d heard there were still bargains to be had in Miami.
They bought three lots with the money they had left, building an apartment building on the water in Coral Gables. Fred’s tan became year-round. He had started to put on weight, but it came off now that he was busy with the yard work and repairs around the building — five units — wearing swim trunks and sandals, beachcomber style. Martha packed her wool suits away in a trunk under the stairs. They both looked ten years younger, so maybe it was for the best.
Paul started first grade, then second, then third. When she found him rummaging through the old trunk full of woolens for a Halloween costume, she realized it was finally time to clean house. She got rid of all that heavy winter clothing, except for one pair of jodhpurs, sort of a souvenir, not having any use for them anymore but afraid she’d be sorry later.
She used the Limoges every Thanksgiving and Christmas, but then the company finally discontinued the old pattern, and she was afraid of ruining the set. Counting the different pieces, she wrote the numbers down on a 3×5 card taped to the inside of the china closet’s door. She’d dust the outside of the closet, telling Paul — someday, when you get married, this will be yours. Okay, he’d say, nodding. Is it all right if I go fishing with Gary this afternoon after school? She’d tell him yes, then watch him run out the door, worrying he’d never know what he had really come from.
But had knowing where she, herself, “came from” ever done her any good, she wondered?
“Oh, Dad’s the same as ever,” Paul said to Martha, rolling his eyes. “He ought to be here soon. I called Yellow Cab this morning. They were supposed to pick him up at one-thirty.”
Fred’s eyes were shot, but it was really the drinking that kept him from behind the wheel: the way his hands shook.
“Now, why did you go and do that?” Martha said. “I could have picked him up on my way.”
“I knew you’d say that,” Paul said. Then he chuckled. “I figured the cab deal was easier for everybody. If you really want to, you could drive him home, I guess.”
“I was only married to the man for forty-five years,” Martha said. “I can put up with him for one more hour in the car. Besides, then he won’t be able to stop and get loaded.”
Paul snorted, a half-laugh. “I don’t worry about it. I’ve already told him if he wants to kill himself he should go ahead.”
When Paul flunked out of the University of Miami his junior year, he had two options: the Coast Guard or Vietnam. It wasn’t really much of a choice. He spent the first eighteen months in Greece, working on Radio Free Europe. His letters home were short. The girls are beautiful here, he wrote. Martha was relieved when he was sent back to the States and stationed in Key West — no Greek wife, and that was fine. Every week or so he’d drive up for dinner.
She loosened up a little about the china. What’s the point in having something you don’t use? She would ask herself. She felt relatively safe using it for coffee and dessert since there were fourteen each of the small plates, cups and saucers. She could break two and still have a set of twelve.
Paul pressed his lips together and twisted them to one side. “Besides, as long as it’s not in my house, I really don’t care how much he drinks. It’s not my problem anymore.” He shook his head as if trying to convince himself.
Lidia came back in, holding a glass of tea in one hand and a magazine in the other. The ice tinkled as she walked. “Mom,” she said, “this is something we’re really proud of.” She handed the magazine to Martha, putting the tea on the coffee table. “It’s on the last page,” she said.
Martha opened her purse for her reading glasses: frosted blue frames with half lenses, on a silver chain. She held them to her nose, the chain rattling against her string of amber beads as she fiddled with the magazine. It was last month’s copy of Florida Sportsman — on the last page was a photograph of Paul on the deck of his boat, holding up a very large and very dead bull dolphin, his fingers hooked in the poor creature’s gill covers. “My, my,” she said, looking up from the magazine and raising her eyebrows. “Isn’t that something!”
“The fish was forty-nine pounds, even,” Paul said. “Half a pound over the local record.”
Martha smiled, peering at her son over her glasses. He wasn’t a outright gambler, that was true, but in a hundred other ways he was exactly like his father. This fishing obsession: did he really think it was enough? A person she raised from a baby — living his adult life primarily through jerkings and spinnings felt from the end of a pole.
“Congratulations,” Martha said, removing her glasses and folding them carefully, setting them on the coffee table in front of her. “I hope you’re having the fish mounted.”
“Of course,” Lidia said, leaning over the back of Paul’s chair, her solid brown arms wrapped around his neck and her chin resting lightly on the top of his head. “The boys and I are giving it to him for an early Christmas present.” Paul twisted his head and smiled up at her.
The dogs barked again. A cab pulled into the driveway. The noise of the idling engine echoed against the stuccoed concrete block of the house. Fred climbed awkwardly out of the back seat, wearing an old plaid patchwork sport-coat and thin wire-rimmed glasses, his wispy gray hair blowing crazily in the breeze. Martha heard him call toward the open living room windows.
“Hello!” he said, his voice strained. His hand trembled as he futilely tried to smooth his hair. Finally he put both hands to the sides of his head, cupped behind his ears, calling again. “Somebody come out here and help me, would you? I’ve got some pies to bring in.”
Paul looked at Lidia and then back over at Martha, rolling his eyes. “The mincemeat,” he said. “I told him we already had dessert this year. Oh, well.” He got up and went out to help his father.
Martha had cooked a leg of lamb in honor of meeting Joanne. Putting real butter out for the mashed potatoes, she even brought out the big serving platter and the covered vegetable dishes from the Limoges. The dessert plates and coffee cups were on the table too, as usual.
Joanne was a nice girl, Martha saw that immediately. She wore a green linen suit and matching pumps; her hair was long, just past her shoulders, with square bangs, a white headband holding it back neatly. Her hand was small and cool in Martha’s own as she said hello. “It’s so nice to meet you, Mrs. Bergen,” she said.
“Oh, please call me Martha.”
“All right,” Joanne said, smiling. Her teeth were as glossy and prettily shaped as kernels of white corn. “Your home is lovely. It seems so nice and cool on the water.”
“Yes, we enjoy it,” Martha said. “Are you a native of Miami?”
“Not quite,” said Joanne. “I was born in Delaware. But we moved here when I was three, so I really have no memory of the cold.”
“We moved down from Boston when Paul was just a little older than that,” Martha said. “I don’t think I could survive a New England winter now.”
Joanne admired the table. “It’s so beautiful!” She touched the covered tureen in front of her. “Is this Rosenthal?”
“No, Limoges,” said Martha. “It belonged to my parents. The pattern is discontinued, you know, so I don’t use it very often. But this is a special occasion.” She looked over at Paul and smiled.
She gave Joanne and Paul the Limoges as a wedding gift.
“Fred’s always loved mincemeat pie,” Martha said. “It’s the only thing he ever learned how to cook himself. The man eats out of a can, breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
“It’s cute,” Lidia said. “My father couldn’t boil water without instructions. I like a man who cooks, even if it’s only one thing.”
Martha stared at her. “Pie crust is quite an accomplishment, when you think about it that way,” she said, nodding her head and smiling. “I suppose I could break down and have a piece this year. The heck with watching my weight on Thanksgiving.”
Fred puffed his way into the living room, wiping his glasses. His eyes looked small and defenseless, his face flushed even more than usual. “Well, that was a rare event,” he said. “An American cabdriver, white to boot. I asked the guy what he was doing driving a cab.” Shaking his head, he put his glasses back on, then took out a hard rubber comb and swiped at his hair. “He must be a real loser.” He lowered himself into the armchair next to the sofa. She caught a whiff of him: dry, musty. His pants were creased smartly but there was a faded grease stain on the knee. Turning to Martha, he held out his hand to her, which trembled although she knew he strained to hold it firm, and she felt a piercing of loss for him. I suppose in his own way, he pities me too, she thought. She must appear just as sad to him, even without a tremble.
“Hello, my dear,” he said, and he kissed her hand, his lips warm and slightly moist.
Poor Joanne hadn’t wanted to quit her job at the bank, but Paul insisted after Neal was born. “No son of mine is going to be raised by a babysitter,” he said. Martha felt he had a point — but what good was it if Joanne was miserable at home? She herself had missed teaching, although she’d never seriously considered going back to work until Paul was in high school. But she certainly wasn’t going to come between husband and wife. Her two cents, she kept to herself. Then Paul told her Joanne was having a problem with her drinking. He’d seen enough of that with his own father, he said, to last a lifetime. After he filed for divorce and custody of Neal, she didn’t mention anything to anybody, just decided to reclaim all she had left of her barely-remembered parents.
“Well, hi,” Paul said, when he opened the door and saw her, unannounced. His eyebrows were raised, but he didn’t ask. “Joanne’s with Neal down the street at the Gallagher’s. Kids’ birthday party.”
“That’s no problem. I’m here to get the china,” she said. Paul stared at her. He didn’t seem to understand. “The Limoges.”
“Oh, that,” he said, moving back out of her way as if he were afraid, and an odd memory of him at two years old flew by her, making her weak, making her want to squeeze him. They hadn’t hugged in years: they weren’t the huggy type, like some. Still, she had some idea what she was missing.
“Let me think a minute where we keep it,” he continued, taking his glasses off and rubbing one eye slowly. It reddened and he put his glasses back on. “That cabinet over there, maybe?” he said. “Underneath?”
“I know where it is,” she said. Joanne would never forgive her, but it couldn’t be helped. She packed the china in the special boxes she’d bought on her way over; Paul carried the boxes to the car for her.
Before the divorce was final, she called Joanne to explain. She realized Joanne knew her history, but still, she was ready to apologize — but Joanne hung up on her in the middle of it.
“Well, it’s about time we sat down at the table,” said Lidia. “Neal! Eddie! Turkey time!”
Martha hauled herself up, out of the overstuffed sofa. She held her arm out to Fred, still struggling in his armchair like a snail trying to flip its shell. “Let me help you,” she said.
“It’s a nice chair, but it’s hell to get out of,” Fred said. His touch was strangely comforting, and she held his hand firmly even after he was up out of the chair. They had the past in common if not the future. At my age, that’s about all you can ask for, she thought.
She led Fred into the dining room and they sat down opposite the boys. “What a beautiful turkey!” Martha said. And what an ugly serving platter, she thought.
She had given the old Limoges set back to Paul on his and Linda’s fifth anniversary, hoping to see it on the table on holidays, hoping Paul knew what t meant to her. But this platter was a cheap ceramic. I don’t know why I ever imagined Lidia would appreciate my Limoges, she thought. It looks like she picked this piece of junk up for a buck ninety-eight at K-mart — worse yet, at a church rummage sale. You’d think Paul would say something, though.
“This is an interesting platter,” Martha said to no one in particular after she sat down, putting her fingers out and stroking the edge. The feel of it was clumsy, the overglaze too shiny, far too thick: like somebody brushed it on with a pair of old socks. “Such bright colors.”
“Do you like it?” Lidia asked, smiling. “Paul picked that out just last week. It’s from Italy. Really perks up the bird, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” Martha said. She looked around the table. Surely there was something? But it was all the same. Thick peasant pottery — vegetable dishes, gravy boat. It was everywhere. “I suppose it is nice to have a change of scene at the table once in a while.” She unrolled her silverware and placed her napkin in her lap, smoothing it down over her knees.
They were slicing the mincemeat pie when she asked for coffee. “Mom, I’m sorry, I didn’t brew any,” Lidia said, frowning. “We’ve gotten out of the habit now that you’re the only person who drinks it. I’ve got some instant, is that all right?”
“Of course,” Martha said. “As long as you’re going out to the kitchen for it, would you mind putting it in one of the old cups for me? They’re so nice and thin it makes the coffee wonderful.”
Lidia turned and looked at Paul, although it seemed she still spoke to Martha. “The old cups?” she said. “You mean from the set you gave us?”
“Yes,” Martha said, nodding, adjusting her plate of mincemeat with two fingers. She turned to Paul expectantly as well.
“Paul,” Lidia said finally, when he said nothing. “Didn’t you talk to her about that?”
He looked up at the ceiling and forced air out of his closed lips, a burbling inter-spousal sigh. “Oh, boy,” he said. “Here we go again. I told you it was okay to donate it. We’ve used that stuff maybe five times in five years.” Looking back down from the ceiling, he turned to face Lidia. His face wavered, an uncertainty seeped in around the corners. “Actually, I don’t think I did mention it to her.” Turning to his mother, his head moved slowly, as if he had slept on his neck wrong and had a terrible crick. “You didn’t want it back again, did you, Mom? I don’t think they’ve had the sale yet. All the stuff is just sitting in the vestry meeting room.”
Martha sat perfectly still, taking in the light as it reflected off his face, which suddenly seemed ten, no twenty, years younger. Her breath held fast, but not trusting herself to let it out, she drew her napkin from her lap. Stalling, she used the napkin to clean her glasses, now hanging around her neck on their beaded chain. The thick polyester was wrinkle-proof but hardly absorbent, so all she managed to do with it was smear the lenses, making them worse than before. Dust and grease wouldn’t leave. “What sale?”
Lidia answered. “The annual white elephant sale. We sent over the china as a donation.”
“Oh,” Martha said. She picked up her fork and nipped the point off her piece of pie, scraping the tines harshly along the pottery surface as she scooped up the mincemeat. “If it’s not too much trouble I would like you to get the china back.” She looked across the table at Paul as if they were the only two in the room. “Don’t you think you should have asked me first?”
“I didn’t realize it was still your property,” Paul said, his face reddening. “It seems to me when you give somebody something that ought to be the end of it.” He stood up and leaned over the table, balanced on his fingertips. “I’ll get the china back, don’t worry. And then I never want to see it again.”
“I’m sorry,” Martha said. What’s wrong with me that I didn’t see this coming? she wondered. C-plus motherhood, is that what I’m left with?
“She’s been nuts over that china since I met her,” Fred said, shaking his head. “I’ve tried to tell her she shouldn’t let something like that get such a hold over her. It’s not healthy.”
Martha grabbed his arm, hard, and Fred turned to her, his eyes wide with surprise. She shook his arm a little as she spoke. “You keep out of it. It’s nothing to do with you.”
“You see what I mean?” he said, winking in Lidia’s direction.
“I’ll go get your coffee, Mom,” Lidia said.
After finishing her pie and a cup of microwaved instant, she had Neal walk her out to the car. Paul would have to call Fred a cab after all. “My back’s bothering me,” she explained. “I want to get home and right into a hot tub.”
“Grandma,” Neal said, holding her arm as she walked slowly down the slippery gravel drive. “Don’t take it personal. The china, I mean. They don’t have anything old in the house. They aren’t into antique stuff.”
She felt as lightheaded as when she awoke in the middle of the night, fighting to remember some crazy dream. There’s no panic like the panic of an old woman, she thought — though we’re supposed to have wisdom. The panic ebbed a little as she exhaled, and she sighed. “I wanted them to save it for you, Neal. For when you get married.”
Neal shook his head. “That’s a long way off, Grandma.” He laughed shortly, running his fingers through his long bangs. “Maybe never, who knows? Anyway, it’s better if you keep the china at your house. It takes up so much room.”
“Is that what Lidia says?” she asked him, but he only shrugged. The boy had learned something she hadn’t, she realized. “Oh, never mind,” she said, suddenly limp. She opened the car door and sat down heavily. “Bend down and let me give you a kiss.”
“Goodbye, Grandma,” Neal said. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
As she looked in her rear view mirror, driving off, she could see him standing out in the middle of the street, waving to her. Well, what did I expect, anyway? she thought bitterly. A memory pricked her suddenly, making her eyes water, partly from tears gathering but partly from the glare off the road and the way her thoughts shifted her eyes’ focus from the road itself to something impossibly far-off — a forced gaze she found difficult to wrench out of. She idled for a long time at the first stop sign out of sight of Paul and Lidia’s. Years ago — her mother’s hand, stroking her hair, leaning over the edge of the bed in the darkness. A firm touch, though it tickled and made her shiver just a little. For the life of her, though, she couldn’t recall the sound of her mother’s voice. Just one word, she thought. Just one. She waited to hear.
A horn sounded behind her and she jumped, startled so brilliantly it hurt to breathe for a moment. “All right, all right, what’s the rush, buddy?” she said, jerking her gaze back to business, blinking as her eyes finally overflowed, fat round drops. But the fabric of her black skirt instantly absorbed the tears, and so, looking down at her lap for confirmation, before she pressed the gas pedal, she saw only the faintest of shadows staining the darkness of the fine wool.
he didn’t know he would die on december 19, 1979. a beautiful letter, regardless. my daddy. i loved him.
Thurs. 9-27 (1979)
Hello my beautiful daughter,
I haven’t checked my mail at Steve & Etta’s in a couple days, so I don’t know if you’ve written or not. When I wrote you last and asked to hear whether you’d gotten it, that seemed important. When I’ve thought about it since, it hasn’t. That is, if you’re supposed to get my letters, you will; and if I’m supposed to/need to hear from you, I will. I love you, and one of the things that means is that I enjoy expressing myself to you. Don’t get me wrong: I also really like hearing from you, hearing you/listening to you expressing yourself to me. That’s what I want, and what I get will be what I need.
I hope you’re enjoying yourself and learning and growing. I know you’re doing the latter two; the first is the only thing I’m unsure about.
Things are really interesting & exciting for me: seeing some patterns in my life, some big ones, for the first time ever. They are really far out: mostly they have to do with my history of relationships with women (including your mother & going back further than her) and how I use/have used those relationships to work out my feelings about my mother & her inability to give me love, affection, respect, hugs, kisses, TLC… that kind of stuff. (I’m unclear about how much of this I “should” be sharing with you… when, if ever, should I relate to you like a peer? Or: when a father tells his child about his own emotional/psychological struggle/growth/insights/development, is that OK? I guess I should go with my feelings and it feels OK to go this far; I’ll go as far as it feels OK to. Part of my desire is for you to maybe learn a little something about your own psyche, and to know me as well as you can… given our… the way our relationship has gone (off the main point: I want you to know that I am not threatened or bothered at all, any more, by your relationship with your stepfather. I accept that he was your father, is your father, in many ways. And I think it’s beautiful that you have two of us. How many young women have a straight dad and an unconventional dad?) At any rate, the genesis of this recent big insight was George Oliver, from whose apartment I called you the other week. I was talking to Geo. about my feelings of longing for Barbara & he told me that what I was saying sounded just like what I’d said & been feeling right after separating the last time from your mom. That blew me away, because it was real true. In essence, my largely unconscious/subconscious need/wanting to “get back at” my mother for what some part of me sees as her deliberate refusal to give me what I wanted, love, has led me over the years to play the game with women (who I’ve viewed as mother-surrogates) of “when I’ve got you, I don’t want you; when I haven’t got you, then I want you back.”
All this realization is so new I’m still trying to get my mind around it. I’m pretty sure I want to stop playing it: it sure doesn’t feel good for those involved, myself included. (I realize that, at some level, it had to be satisfying some real deep need in me; otherwise why go on doing it for 30 plus years?)
Exciting and scary times. The prospect of opting out of the game is exciting. And scary: the game-playing part of me says, “gee, what will I do if I don=t play that game?” or “But that’s all I know how to do!”
Incidentally, I have no regrets about having come down to Florida & having been there 3 & 1/2 months. It all needed to happen, I’m sure of that. And our time together was beautiful.
And something else that needs to happen is going to the first part of next week: I’m heading south again. I’ll be driving in the van down Baja California to La Paz & taking the ferry across to mainland Mexico again. I’m going to revisit some of the places I raced through (e.g. 3 hours in Oaxaca) and visit some of the places I chose not to make side trips to. And drink in that delicious tropical sun & sea for a while. I guess I’m feeling that I’d rather go to Europe in the spring, warmer weather. (Sat.) A feeling that’s really been reinforced by the last couple days in LA, real cool here, rainy & overcast on the beach today.
My current thinking about my travelling is that I’ll do Mexico again until Dec. or Jan. then go to the Caribbean. I’d love to visit Jamaica, St. Martin, Puerto Rico, etc. And then in summer go to Europe. Rather than going to London now, then immediately to warm weather in Africa then going back to Europe next summer. But, it’s real hard to stay definite.. I don’t know what this does to our talking about travelling together, but if we’re supposed to, we will. And I would love to see the Caribbean with you.
I don’t know whether I’ve told you or not: when I came out here in Aug., my first stop was San Diego, where I talked to my Aunt Cecelia (who also was my godmother) & the lawyer that drew up my mother’s will. Cecelia, after hearing that I felt humiliated, hurt and angry about Mom’s will, said that Mom had felt all those same things & ways about what I’d done in living my life. Which is no doubt true. And sad, that my efforts to live & be happy were taken so personally by her, and that she chose to be so upset about them. There’s a lesson there, for sure.
I will write you from Mexico and I’ve decided to assume you will get my letters & stop worrying about whether Gail might intercept them.
My thoughts are with you a lot. Know that I love you. (The thunder outside seems to punctuate my writing with an exclamation point after that sentence!!) Allow yourself to be who you are; remember that if you were supposed to be different, you would be.
Incidentally, I asked Sheila’s lawyer how long before I get my money from the estate & he said he couldn’t be definite (you know how lawyers are) but he thought it’s be sooner than 6 mos.!
(You can write me in Mexico if you want. I’ll be stopping in La Paz, in the state of Baja Calif. Sur and mail will be held for me if you send it c/o Lista de Correos, for that city & state. La Paz is 1000 miles or so south of San Diego so I shouldn’t be there until at least a week or so, more like 2 weeks, after you get this.) I’ll let you know other cities later. The next one after La Paz will be Puerto Vallarta, but I forget the state name, but you can just check an atlas.