Tag Archives: dreams

Have You Ever Met the Love of Your Life?, a short story

illustration have you ever met the love of your life

Have You Ever Met the Love of Your Life?, a short story

Nasreen, Marion’s dance teacher, was short, dark and wide. She wore black leotards under her frothy, voluminous gold-threaded saris, and glowing silver rings on her largest and smallest toes, which were connected to ankle bracelets by delicate jeweled chains. When she moved, and the big belt of coins around her hips started to sing, Marion often thought of a curtain of water emerging from an alabaster frog’s curving mouth. Nasreen’s lips and toenails were always painted fiery orange, and the air near her smelled of cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves. Nasreen had been famous in her youth — she treated all her students with exaggerated courtesy but for some reason, took a special interest in Marion.

From the start, Eleanor, Marion’s sister, thought Marion was crazy, and the whole Oriental-dance notion (she couldn’t bring herself to say the word “belly” out loud) ridiculous. “Why on earth do you want to get up on stage and wiggle back and forth like a cat in heat?” she had asked.

“I’ve always thought it looked so graceful,” said Marion. “It sort of mesmerizes you, it’s so soothing to watch.”

“Soothing? Graceful?” Eleanor rolled her eyes and tossed her head. Her neat French twist bobbled, and a wisp of hair fell to tickle her cheek. She shuddered and tucked it behind her ear. “Grotesque is more like it. I’ve always thought those women looked like they were trying to eliminate peach pits from their digestive tract.”

The two sisters lived together — they had always lived together — in an apartment across the street from the house they’d grown up in, a gaunt, three-story Victorian. After Mother died, as soon as could be considered decent, they had sold the big place and gotten rid of the ponderous mahogany furniture. They kept only Eleanor’s player piano, some threadbare Persian rugs, and their mother’s elderly miniature pinscher. Marion filled the apartment with pickled-pine French country and delicate ruffled draperies in red toile.

Soft-hearted Marion said the rosary thrice daily and didn’t care much if her clothes matched; Eleanor, the younger, was a late-blooming atheist, but knew how to dress. Eleanor had been engaged once years ago but they had never managed to decide on a wedding date — the hopeful young man had insisted she keep the ring anyway, a flawless one-carat diamond set in platinum. She looked at it every night, sitting in her jewelry box, but never wore it.

***

Marion’s first formal belly-dancing costume was to be hand-tailored by her teacher Nasreen’s younger brother, Ahmet. He was known all over the world belly-dancing community for his brilliant costume designs; the only reason she was able to afford him at all was Nasreen’s incessant wheedling on her behalf — as one of his sister’s most deserving pupils, Ahmet finally agreed to let Marion have the outfit at cost.

“I see you in red,” said Nasreen.

“I was thinking of pink. Maybe powder blue?” said Marion.

“Red, it must be red,” said Nasreen. “Ahmet, what do you suggest?”

He leaned back, folded his arms across his chest, and squinted first at his feet, then at Marion, then at the stacked bolts of silk gauze rising to the ceiling, and then at his sister. “Yes, red for the trousers and the outer sari,” he said with a faint smile. “And the front of the bustier heavily sewn with pierced and gilded centimes.”

“Perfect!” said Nasreen, and she and Ahmet gave each other conspiratorial smiles. “Remember the one you made for me so many years ago?” she asked.

“Of course!” said Ahmet. “Now get up on the stool. I need to get your measurements,” he said to Marion, his smooth, warm fingertips galvanizing her arm as he prodded her into compliance with the tape measure.

When Marion described Ahmet’s fitting and design process, Eleanor was incredulous. “You’re going to wear red see-through pants and a bra made of nothing but gold spangles and call yourself Ayita?” she asked.

“It’s my stage name,” said Marion. “It means dancer.”

“Well, isn’t that cute!” said Eleanor, slapping the kitchen table with a rolled-up newspaper she’d been using to pursue a small green fly. “I suppose next you’ll be getting your nose pierced and wearing a veil.”

“Good Lord, no,” said Marion.

“I hope you won’t ever expect me to come see you make an idiot out of yourself,” said Eleanor.

“No way,” said Marion. “You’d make me a nervous wreck. I’d never be able to concentrate on performing.”

“Ah, yes — the great artiste needs her concentration! What a load of manure!” said Eleanor.

“I just want to have some fun. I need a change.” asked Marion. “Why are you making such a big deal?”

“Because I think a woman your age parading around dressed like a harem girl is absurd,” said Eleanor. “Because every Arab I’ve ever met treated women like second-class citizens. Because I know you’re doing this just to irritate me. Hobby, my eye. Why couldn’t it have been needlepoint, or gardening?” Eleanor glared, but Marion just shrugged and continued eating her toast.

Marion’s finished dance outfit was a huge success. As a precautionary measure, she danced privately in Ahmet’s workroom for Nasreen. Nasreen stood with her arms folded across her chest. As the music started and Marion began to dance, Nasreen’s eyes narrowed and her lips grew thin. She tilted her head and stared. Marion felt awkward, but after the first few seconds, the music and soothing movements overwhelmed everything else. The glittering red costume transformed Marion; she lost herself to something bigger, her hands were two white birds flying, twirling, graceful on the fluid stalks of her arms. Her smile was steady, effortless. The glittery silk billowed around her legs like cool wind. For the first time, her body moved on its own, strong and agile. “That’s it, you’re ready,” said Nasreen.

“For what?” asked Marion, wiping her damp forehead with a jingly forearm.

“A trip. To Paris. A month from Saturday. I’m putting an international dance exhibition together. I want you to go with me, to dance.”

Marion protested. “I couldn’t. I’m not that good.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you are.” Nasreen pulled a passport application out of her cavernous black purse. She shook Marion’s shoulder. “Why did you want to learn to dance in the first place? What are you waiting for?”

            ***

Eleanor wouldn’t let Marion travel to Paris with only Nasreen and Ahmet for company. Eleanor put her foot down; Marion hadn’t been able to say “no” loud enough. It was Marion’s first overseas journey: she’d underestimated jet lag. She awoke abruptly at 2 a.m., trembling through her arms and legs as if on amphetamines. Eleanor – she’d been to Ireland and Spain, she knew better, she’d taken four different pills to zonk herself out — was sound asleep, mouth open, a tiny puddle of saliva glistening on her pillow. Nasreen also slept, lying curled on her side, hands tucked under her chin, emitting the most genteel and melodious of snores. Marion didn’t want to turn on the lamp and produce chaos, there was enough of that within her; instead she went downstairs to seek light and order in the lobby.

The desk clerk on duty — a tall, thin Algerian graduate student — was very eager to demonstrate his grasp of English. His dissertation was going to be about the evolution of American street slang, curse words or something. He announced himself to be Muslim; this formality alarmed her briefly, but he seemed to possess abundant humor, lightness, reason. His name was Badr, which meant “full moon.” The image suited him. His smiling face was boyish, benign; his moustache highlighted the fact his skin was silken as a girl’s. Dark chestnut hair lay in soft curls against his cheeks. His clothes were rumpled and mismatched, like an absentminded schoolboy’s.

The small lounge area was arranged with delicate birch wood cafe tables and slippery turquoise-upholstered armchairs. She noticed Ahmet sitting over in the farthest dark corner, wearing a long yellow silk tunic over his rumpled jeans, pretending to read the newspaper. Marion raised her hand in greeting; Ahmet nodded. Badr served her mineral water and orange juice. She tried to read the French newspaper lying open in front of her, understanding only every third or fourth word. Every time Marion glanced over to see if Ahmet was still there, his eyes were upon her. He folded, inspected, and re-folded his own paper for several odd minutes, then picked up his drink and wandered over to the bar.

“May I sit here?” he asked, pointing to the stool next to her. He seemed embarrassed, or shy, or ill.

“Sure,” she said, shrugging.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked.

“Not a chance. They’re both sound asleep, though.” She adjusted herself on the stool, crossed her legs at the ankle, then at the knee, and then rested her elbows atop the bar. Her hands clung to each other like nervous gerbils.

***

“You’re jealous,” said Marion four hours later, when she finally got back to the room she shared with her sister and found Eleanor livid with rage. “For once I’m having a good time, and you just can’t stand it. It’s not my fault you’re so lonely.”

“I’m not lonely,” said Eleanor, glaring at Marion with laser beam eyes of death.

“Yes, you are,” said Marion. “We both are.” She thought then of the way Ahmet’s lips had tasted when she kissed him goodbye before opening the door to the brightly lit hallway. She thought of the way his hands felt, stroking the small of her back, running down her hips past the hipbones down to the upper thigh. She thought of the way he held her when he came, murmuring her name into her ear like a tiny puff of wind, carrying a sound she couldn’t quite recognize at first. Her name. The man knew how to say her name.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion asked Eleanor.

“Oh my god! You’re in la-la land,” said Eleanor.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion asked again.

Eleanor stared at her, her lips moving, but no sound coming forth. Her hand struck out quick as a venomous snake and slapped Marion’s forearm viciously, which hurt like the devil — but Marion was so amused she laughed, which only made Eleanor slap her arm again and again, harder and harder. The harder Eleanor slapped her, the harder Marion laughed. Suddenly Marion grabbed both Eleanor’s wrists and twisted them so hard Eleanor shrieked.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion whispered. A full minute ticked by in silence. Marion waited. She felt Eleanor’s arms relax and go limp.

“I’ve never even thought of asking that question,” said Eleanor.

When both sisters shocked themselves by starting to cry, they pulled each other close, each of them bear-hugging the other — grouchy/beatific, horrified/overjoyed — as though both their lives depended on it – which they suddenly realized was now, always had been, and would always be, the truth. Marion and Eleanor had finally let each other in, all the way in.

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Muir Woods, a poem

illustration muir woods

Muir Woods, a poem

 

The eye is drawn, farther and farther

toward thin blue sky until the green feathery

 

tops of the trees are like the northern pole

on some dream planet. Your carsickness

 

from the ride up the mountain begins to fade,

leaving behind a breathless, weepy echo

 

not unlike your first religious fervor.

Then, you stared at Jesus’ sad face for hours,

 

wondering what it was that made him

love you. Here, it is the usual paralysis,

 

nerves made dumb by the unaccustomed

richness of perfect light. Vague, starry eyes

 

like yours feel at home. The air is weighty,

burdensome, solemn. Tall and slender, your guide

 

touches your wrist, and for a moment, you too

want to leave the surface of the earth

 

forever. Shyly, she picks up a tiny

pinecone, smaller than a toy. You laugh

 

when she tells you this is their seed:

all around, their ravaged, hollow

 

corpses litter the ground

like the bones of God.

 

In this place you feel helpless,

childlike, and you can understand a wish

 

to die here, never leave this hush.

They’re only trees, you tell yourself.

 

Yes, only trees, you think, standing still with

your neck bent back; wondering if they hear you.

 

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The Nearness of Heroism, a short story

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

(Originally published in The Paumanok Review)

The Nearness of Heroism, a short story

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

“It’s not the same,” he answered.

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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Going To Sea, a poem

Apache, 105-foot D. Presles and J. Pierrejean charter yacht

illustration barry huplits high school photo

 

Going To Sea

(for Barry Huplits)

 

She is a great white boat, carved

of wood, lacquered to a blinding

sheen, her sails immense, floating

 

over my head like the wings

of a fearsome angel. I sit

on her prow, clinging to the slight

 

metal rail, and together we leap

over the waves like some illiterate,

dangerous god. I am a mermaid,

 

a brightly colored figurehead,

thrust into the salt spray to bring luck.

The power of the water flings me to and fro,

 

but I hold fast, panting, the rich smell

of the sea making me drunk. As we pass

the ragged rock walls of the inlet,

 

I see the towering dwellings of men,

though these quickly fall behind our path,

growing tiny, frail to the elements

 

I have momentarily harnessed. We brush

great clumps of weeds, then the color beneath

changes from murky green to depthless indigo,

 

the froth of the peaks suddenly

light, riddled airy like the childish,

gladdened heart inside my chest.

 

In my net are jerking glass shrimp,

Tiny, tassled fish that look like

bits of leaf, one lone needle-nosed

 

eel, sinuous even in his distress,

and when I have stared long enough,

I fling them back to their wet lives

 

without regret. Under the sharp

edges of the sun, skin grows heated,

reddened as if by love’s rough brush,

 

yet we keep on, moving into the horizon,

towards the vanished place of wildness,

full of an impeccable, golden light.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Searching for Dreams in Little Havana, a short story/novel excerpt

illustration searching for dreams in little havana

Searching for Dreams in Little Havana, a short story

Karen knows it’s a bad sign when she sits wondering whether the man she’s crazy in love with is a liar, or a fool, or both. Fuck first, talk later, yes, that approach seems outdated, rather quaint. Impatience has always been her biggest problem. The way this one calls women bitches, it’s like a warning beacon, but she’s not listening because she already thinks she loves him.

Karen wants this man. Or rather, she wants something, and she is trying to figure out if it is him. She orders a latte made with chocolate milk, lights another cigarette. The waiter serving her is thin to the point of illness — his sharp elbows have worn holes in the sleeves of his chambray blouse. The waiter looks nothing like the man she thinks she wants. She wonders if the waiter wants anyone, right now.

“Can I get you anything else?” he, the waiter, asks.

“An audience with the Pope?” she says. “Eternal life, maybe?” She is only partly kidding. She has had her past lives examined under hypnosis. She remembers being locked in a tomb in France. She did not care for it.

The waiter laughs and shakes his head. He flees from her the way young waiters always flee from her — looking back over his shoulder, tossing his hair out of his eyes, knees trembling like a young mule deer’s.

 

Karen calls Edward, the man she thinks she wants, from her office. While the phone is ringing, her assistant comes to the doorway. She holds a sheaf of papers which Karen knows is the monthly billing.

“Go away,” Karen says to her, smiling. This is the way she talks to all her employees — imperious jokes, self-mocking but at the same time crushing and heavy with the power she refrains always from using.

“Hello,” says Edward.

“What are you doing?” Karen asks.

“Paying bills,” he says.

“Can I come over?”

“Right now?”

“I told you I was impatient. I’m tired of dictating.”

“I need to dust off,” he says. “Shower, change.”

“Twenty minutes?” she says.

“Make it forty,” he says.

Before she gets out of the office, her ex-husband calls. Donald is furious, he is always furious, it is the reason they are no longer married. Donald has forgotten how to have fun. Either he has forgotten, or he never knew. He is a very practical person, he runs a tidy house, a neat garden, a solid social life. Karen is no longer sure what drew her to him in the first place. She tries to remember, often when she lies down to sleep she thinks of what it was like to live with him — the predictable days, the fully planned weekends. He never kissed or bit her in the throes of passion, merely covered his face with his hands, as though trying to block her out. He never talks about religion, nor politics, nor his health.

“Where have you been?” her ex-husband says. “You missed Sara’s school open house. I tried calling you all day. Didn’t your secretary tell you?”

“I had an emergency to attend to,” she says. “One of my clients was stranded in Baltimore.”

“Well, there’s always a reason,” he says. “There’s always a reason for the way you neglect your personal life.”

“I guess that’s why you divorced me,” she says. Karen remembers the day she told him she didn’t want to stay married to him — he threw his shoes at her , but they landed in the kitchen sink, splattering her with soapy water. She can have no doubts.

She kept waiting for Donald to have an affair, so she wouldn’t have to. But he was lazy, he put aside passion and loveliness and focused only on money. He could make a lot of it, it was his best talent.

 

At thirty-five, Karen gets carded one last time for cigarettes, tells the clerk she’s really old, takes off her sunglasses to show him her crow’s feet. Later, her man Edward says with heat, oh, he wanted you. She laughs nervously. No man is able to endure her — it comes from how her father left, how he wanted to stab her when she was born, how her secret heart is looking for some man to make up for that, to endure every hateful thing she can say but never leave.

Most of her adult life has been spent sleeping, so when Karen develops insomnia, she assumes it’s her own fault, always having been a slugabed. She has the blues every day even before she gets up. Life is both too full and too empty to tolerate. Like a snake, she holds everything in fierce embrace, she has loved it all so much, it is dead. She has slept enough, she decides, she’ll make the best of these wakeful hours. She takes up needlepoint, cross-stitch, knitting and crochet, and soon her living room is filled with her creations. Still, she misses her dreams.

Karen goes to a shop in Little Havana, searching for some harmless herbal remedy, something almost, but not quite, a placebo. She’s a firm believer in the power of the mind over the body. Witchcraft is another thing entirely, so when the pale shop-woman draws back a beaded curtain and motions her in to the back room, which smells of burnt sugar, she hesitates. She takes in the woman’s hairy upper lip, her gold canine tooth, her precisely lined red lips, her sexy upper arms — decides it’s worth a try.

Hirsuteness notwithstanding, the pale woman is abnormally beautiful, the kind of beauty women admire and men find frightening — hard, pristine, with sharp angles everywhere. This lady’s nose is a work of art, of architecture, of poetry. All Karen wants is to close her eyes and dream of this moment, twist it into a candy fluff to sustain her through the miserable waking hours.

It’s her desperation, Karen guesses, which has aroused the shop-woman’s sixth sense, a sympathy so strong her pale hands shake as they hold the tangle of beads behind her. Karen blinks back tears, surprised. The bottle the woman chooses is purple, with a gold foil label. Imported from Cuba, it reads. Cuban witchcraft — Castro hasn’t killed every colonial superstition, evidently.

And the voice in Karen’s head says: do what you must, and break your heart down even farther, you haven’t touched the depths yet, of where I will take you. And you will weep for your own folly, and still not be satisfied. You ask for sleep. What can you live without most easily? What can you give up, forever?

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Rosalia (Rosa multiflora), a poem

illustration rosalia

Rosalia (December 13, 1918 – December 6, 1920), was a child who died of pneumonia.  Her father was so grieved by her death, he hired a famous embalmer to preserve her body.  It is still nearly perfectly preserved, nearly 100 years later.  This poem was written after observing a  garden near her tomb, planted with the flower she was named for, Rosa multiflora, commonly called Rosalia, an especially fragrant and vigorous climbing rose.

 

Rosalia (Rosa multiflora)

 

The haughty snail rears up, large and indolent,

its creamy shell ponderous, though rakishly tilted.

The knowing eyes unfurl on stalks greyish-violet,

above tender undulate flesh, faintly quilted

 

as if by past misdeeds. Near a warm slate path

thrust through the damask-brown earth, a small bird

dips wings, cocks head, perches on the birdbath

shaped in the lithe innocence of a fair-haired

 

Roman cherub. The rose-heads swoon in the sun,

lazy petals curled inward to form delicate bowls

ravished by enormous bees, whose silvery finespun

wings vibrate, ceaseless keepers of love’s oversoul.

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Hungry Baby, a short story

hungry child

Hungry Baby

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.

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Eleven Random Questions, and please submit your own answers as replies!

DSC01247

ELEVEN RANDOM QUESTIONS

What do you think of keeping a journal?

The real issue here is not that of how journal writing affects all the other forms of writing.  There is much to be said about journal writing, both positively and negatively, and probably all of it is true at one time or another for all writers who face changing circumstances over the course of their writing lives.  Sometimes journals can help our other projects, sometimes they can’t.  Each person’s situation is best handled by themselves.  The real issue here, the issue that has people so stirred up, and rightly so, is the fundamental arrogance displayed in both the “writer” Jimmy V.’s original essay condemning journaling out of hand, and his later condemning replies to any and all responses proffered to him.  Arrogance of the intensity he displays has always been a substitute for actual wisdom.  This truth is one of the fundamental truths of human nature, and I am not the only person to realize it.  “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”  (Bertrand Russell)  That, little Jimmy V., spoiled rotten “writer,” is the central issue you should concern yourself with.

 

Which celebrity would you like to bitch slap?

Dr. Laura wins by a light-year.  I only slap those who’ve been guilty of slapping others.  She’s angry and cruel and gives just plain bad advice to her callers.  I listen to her all the time to remind myself how wise and kind I am by comparison.  King Solomon, she isn’t.  She’s a one-note piano with a bent wire.  She sounds like she needs heavy meds, and pronto!  Wouldn’t we all just leap at the chance to come back as her husband or son?  I’d rather be eaten alive by a swarm of rats.

 

Do you remember your dreams?

I remember my dreams often, but not every single night.  My dreams run the gamut of emotional response — from terror to euphoria.  I write down most of the dreams I remember.  They are usually very long & complicated & sometimes make perfect sense but sometimes don’t contain the slightest thread of logic.  My favorite dreams are the ones I call “therapy dreams.”  Often, when I’m upset or angry with someone, I’ll dream about that person & act out my feelings in the dream & achieve some sort of resolution which flows over into waking life & is vastly superior to any traditional therapy I’ve tried.  I’ve done everything in my dreams — flown without mechanical aids, been wonderfully fluent in foreign languages, had phenomenal sex with friends & strangers & celebrities, lived as a member of the opposite sex, written best sellers, killed people… my dreams are in many ways the best part of my life because they’re absolutely limitless in scope & action & intensity.  Sometimes dreams are a lot more “real” than real life & more enjoyable.  Surrealist dreams are the most interesting — upon waking I always try to puzzle out what was the link between seemingly unrelated events or objects.  I’ve even accurately prophesied the future in dreams.  I tend to think it’s because the subconscious is free to express itself rather than any supernatural explanation.  We’re just that smart when we’re not weighed down with all our conscious baggage.  Thanks for asking about dreams!

 

What’s your Wu-Tang name?

Contagious Specialist

 

What’s the deal with long hair?

You’re right, it is 40.  Not 30.  Sometimes long hair can make the face look thin & drawn, but that’s also true for teenagers.  Some of them shouldn’t have long hair.  On the other hand, I’ve seen old ladies in wheelchairs with long fluffy white hair & it can be quite charming.  I think if you look good with it, who cares what the rules are?

 

What are five good things about springtime?

1.  Getting the taxes filed & out of the way

2. Wanderlust & regular lust & spring fever

3. Plants waking up & showing off & intoxicated

4. Putting the hand lotion away till next year

5. Birds, bees, butterflies & bikini underwear

 

What are your irrational annoyances?

Noise, noise & noise.  Ungrateful children who view me as their maid.  Children who, rather than empty the trash, stuff the can so full you can’t get the bag out.  Children who leave dirty dishes & empty snack containers scattered around the house.  Children who are, currently either at the movies or sleeping.  Thank you, God.

 

Does springtime make you horny?

Nope.  For me the season of lust is definitely winter.  But then, I live in Florida.

 

Why do you love your pets?

I love my pets because they’re far less demanding than my children.

 

What do you think of the name game?

I have a former sister-in-law who collects unusual names.  A couple of her favorites are Shithead (pronounced Shi-THEED) and Lemonjello (pronounced Le-MON-jello). Also PsalmCIV (pronounced PIZUM-siv).  These are actual legal names, no joke.

 

What do you think of magazines with articles titled “Ten Steps to a Killer Orgasm!”?

I used to read Seventeen as a child… then read Glamour as a young woman… then read Mirabella as a grown-up.  It figures Mirabella went bust, it was the most intelligent in a sea of dreck.  Redbook was pretty good until they quit publishing short fiction. Jane’s okay, but too young for me.  I hate Martha Stewart but her magazine’s got the best art direction, I think.  And I like when she runs those articles about 27 varieties of tomatoes, or whatever, with a poster illustration.  Gourmet is an old classic, still living up to its past.  Vanity Fair has great writing & an eclectic subject matter.  Rolling Stone & Sports Illustrated also win for good writing that crosses subject lines.  I find I don’t have enough time to read all the magazines I subscribe to — they languish in piles.  W is nice just for the outsized format but their writing is negligible.

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Please Speak Well of Me When I’m Gone, a 397 word short story

illustration please speak well of me when i'm gone

Please Speak Well of Me When I’m Gone, a 397 word short story

October 11, 2012

5:00 a.m.

I had the strangest dream, where I was back together with K!!! We were together in this hotel room, packing our stuff, which was a lot, and getting ready to ride on a plane somewhere (what else does he do these days, but ride on planes!). It was as though we were back together, after all these years, something had happened; our subsequent, real-life remarriages were never mentioned. Clearly, we knew it was awkward that we hadn’t been together in so long — but there it was, we were going to try it. We didn’t have sex in the dream, although it was clear both of us were sort of thinking about the concept. But we weren’t anywhere near ready for that! And when I awoke, I started thinking about how sometimes I get confused about my life, about the sharp turns, the complete disconnections from my entire past life, etc., and how sometimes I don’t recognize the current terrain.

And why have I been thinking so much about K. these days, like that song by the Weepies, “Speak Well of Me When I’m Gone?” The one that has made me cry so many times? “I’ve been away, a year and a day….” That’s true of so many people in my life, isn’t it? Only they’ve been gone far longer than that: some have been gone for 35 years. How young, and blind, and ignorant, and how many horrendous mistakes it’s possible to make, etc.

“Looking back now, I only wish I had been kinder.” It’s the truth — some part of me has never stopped loving K. “And when I’m gone, please speak well of me.” Some part of me wishes we had worked out, because he was the first truly committed relationship I had, the first husband, the father to my first child, so many firsts. I met him when I was 22. He was 27.

Wouldn’t it have been sweet, had it worked out? Almost like high school sweethearts. Young — I was so young, so inexperienced. God! And I would apologize to him on my knees, if it would do any good. He wouldn’t, I don’t think, be able to hear me. The way I would want it to be heard. Still, I could try, couldn’t I?

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