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She Hates Numbers

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Pretzels & Chocolate, a poem

jim-valvis

PRETZELS & CHOCOLATE

(rented room, cigarettes)

I am eating pretzels
and they are hard
but splinter into salty crumbs

with the merest bite
they only satisfy
part of my tongue

(rented room, cigarettes)

so I pick up the chocolate
greedy for it to melt
against my palate

sucking the firm square
feeling it mold to me
the way I imagine

my body molds to yours

(rented room, cigarettes)

retaining the character of sweetness
to complement the salt
to balance my mouth

I am eating chocolate
thinking of us
together

(rented room, cigarettes)

illustration mockingbird mimus polyglottos

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Mr. Rogers Visits Koko the Gorilla, a poem

illustration mr rogers visits koko the gorilla

Mr. Rogers Visits Koko the Gorilla, a poem

 

Koko was clearly in love with him.

He was the human equivalent

 

of what in her world would be a male silverback

& I think she would have adopted him into her tribe

 

in a heartbeat. She took his shoes & socks off

& tickled his feet & pressed them to her own.

 

She kissed his hands & groomed his face & hair

with her fingertips. She wanted his gold cufflinks

 

(to remember him by) & you could hear the anxiety

in his voice when he said “My grandfather

 

gave those to me.” Really, really hoping

he was going to get away still possessing

 

his treasured cufflinks. What if Koko

had insisted? Would Penny have been able

 

to talk her out of it? Distract her to something else?

Mr. Rogers seemed nervous but in awe

 

at the communion with such a “being,”

as he called her. She flirted, playing

 

peekaboo with him, her large eyes knowing & coy

from underneath a cloth covered with pictures of kittens.

 

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Lovely Girl, a short-short story

illustration lovely girl
Lovely Girl, a short-short story

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?

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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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Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story

illustration heavenly dances heavenly intimacies

Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story

“Isn’t there any heaven where old beautiful dances, old beautiful intimacies prolong themselves?”

Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

How can I be “dead” to any of the men I once loved?  They are not “dead” to me.  Not even H.  How can I be “dead” to H.?  They — even H. — are each as alive as when I was with them; as alive as the first time they touched me, whether tentatively or with confidence; whether softly or roughly; whether with passion or mere lust.  It is shocking and appalling how H. lurched so radically to the right after 9/11.  He began that journey to the Tea-Party-Mad-Hatter-Neocon-Bill-Buckley-Wall-Street-Apologist-Fringe-Brainless-Faux-News-Right when Ronald Reagan was shot; I was with him the very night it happened.  We had a short affair, right then, because we started thinking the end of the world had arrived and we decided, like the crazy college students we were, to get married to celebrate our courage in the face of chaos!  I realized very early on (but still way too late!) I was embarrassed to be seen in public with him.  Did you ever start seeing, and marry someone whom you later realized you were embarrassed to be seen with?  Perhaps the person in question was “dorky,” “geeky,” dressed “badly,” or had questionable “taste.”  H. readily admits he was a “dork” in high school.  He was on the debate team; need I say more?  When you can’t bear to be seen in your lover’s/spouse’s/significant other’s/partner’s company, things usually don’t work out.

Still, I put in ten dutiful years, trying to make amends for my mistake in marrying H.  The second he started making the big bucks, he dumped me.  He left me for my best friend!  I guess I deserved it, not taking control of my own life & filing for divorce two weeks after we married.  And I guess I deserved how my ex-best-friend S. ruined me, as she subsequently did.  She was in charge of the whole group we had socialized with:  dictating how everyone in our “circle” should think, speak, act, or react.  H. was dead wrong about most everything, but, to his credit, he was dead right about her.  At the time I thought him merely woman-hating, but I see now, even though he did hate women, there was something more than simply being a “woman” he hated about her.  He was covering up the fact he loved her by pretending to hate her.  Now, I have no desire to see her, not ever again.  She is definitely “dead” to me.  Yes, I understand intellectually, a living death (call it shunning) can happen to anyone.

The upshot of all this boring history?  I’ve been waiting for something a long time.  I can’t blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness, not anymore.  There is something dispirited inside me, something empty, drained, and beaten — something sick, something tired, something that has surrendered.  I gave up, when?  When my first ex-husband arbitrarily said no to children, breaking his solemn vow.  When I realized I couldn’t find happiness outside myself — not with an old love, not with a new love, not with any of my subsequent husbands, my friends, my eventual children, or my family.  Yes, to casual acquaintances and virtual strangers I am “happy, happier than I’ve ever been.”  And it’s true!  I’ve never been this happy, this contented, in my life.  Yes, there are still problems.  My oldest son is still half the world away, fighting an endless war on behalf of my “country.”  My youngest son still has an ignorant, racist, rabidly conservative father.  I am getting old.  My face is melting.  My neck is turning into a wattle.  I am drooping.

Still, I cannot imagine any of them, the men I have loved or made love to, being dead to me the way my former best friend, S., is dead to me.  Yet that is how they must feel about me, the way I feel about her.  Wanting her removed from my memories.  Wanting never to have met her.  Not missing anything about her.  She wants to see me, I heard from a mutual friend I still speak to.  I don’t want to see her, or even see the mutual friend.  I don’t even want to get as close as that!  Because of reasons.  Top secret, NSA, DOD, CIA, FBI, SEC, IRS, FDLE, GPD, ACSO reasons!  No further comment!

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The Art of the Javelin, a short story

illustration the art of the javelin

The Art of the Javelin

There were certain lovers who never let you go, not even when it was over, officially over ‑‑ the kind of officially over where you both married other people.  It’s not anyone’s fault.  It’s something about chemistry, the chemistry of their skin on yours, your skin won’t ever stop wanting theirs and this is a really, really bad thing.  Marriages have been wrecked because of that skin, engagements broken, the valuables pawned.  The skin fling always started well, of course, the mad passion, so heated you never thought about the consequences.  And there were always consequences:  huge, nasty ones.  Perhaps those terrible consequences were what doomed the love affair from the very beginning.  Nothing so lovely and delicate could survive the stamping black boot of your own despair.

You loved him, but it was never enough.  Being with him was not enough.  Being without him was not enough.  Maybe your children, both dead, would have been enough.  You saw the first child, sleeping, its head tilted back, its eyes closed.  You do not know what color its eyes were.  You never saw its eyes.  It saw, and in seeing, died.  Suffice it to say the child would have been a master of language.  It would have been love, a fountain of it.  You left, not taking your child home.  You let someone else take it away.  Psyche never saw Cupid, and you cannot see him anymore.  Psyche is and was whatever Love loved.  You were loved by Love.  You died with the child.  You were crushed like a butterfly hovering in front of a fast-moving truck.  You were a crushed soul.

The land was flat, barren ‑‑ the horizon stretched like a satiated woman ‑‑ supine, theatrical, unconscious.  You missed the children, and you missed him.  Was it a garden you were in?  Was it a prison cell?  There was never enough air, anywhere.

Who wanted, as a woman wanted, simply to be loved?  All the boys wanted something else.  Girls, on occasion – and more than once — want abstract worship, admiration from afar, poems, flowers, sweet nothings in the ear.  Is that what the boys wanted, too?  With that divining rod in front of them it must have been difficult to remain abstract.  There was something embarrassing about need rendered visible.  They could not hide it from the world.  Did boys say, “No?”  As often as girls?  The urge was outward, not inward – the desire to pierce, rather than contain.  The needle ‑‑ the eye of the needle ‑‑ threaded with what, exactly?  The female soul?  Your feet were so cold in the water, wading for freshwater mussels, that your toenails turned stark white.  The mussels were brown and slippery, and the empty shells painted with pale, pearly rainbows in the light.  The little girls around you murmured with delight, squealing when they found a really big one.  Their little hands were sandy and damp on your arm.  Their voices piped so impossibly high.  You saw them at age 35, still hunting for the perfect shell.

You were tired of living your life.  It was satisfactory only in the material sense.  The lights were never turned off for lack of payment.  Your husband went to bed hours before you did; you sat doing needlepoint in the den and watching obscure re‑runs.  You resented your husband’s bulk upstairs in the king‑sized bed, you resented him sleeping turned towards you, resented the warmth of his breath wafting across the hump in the middle of the mattress that had arisen over the years between the depressions your bodies made on either side.  Once or twice you tried to get her husband to talk to you about God; he declined to do so, saying it was “too personal” a topic.  What is the use of a husband, you thought, without conversations about God?

So you wondered whether to leave him.  Suddenly, a young man, black‑haired, black‑eyed, entered your life, with a piercing gaze, but shy, downturned head.  He was marrying his girlfriend:  you thought they were both too young and naive to know what they were getting into.  You tried to talk him out of marriage, saying not that yours was terrible, just that marriage itself was really hard and bound not to live up to anyone’s expectations for it.

He married the girl, anyway, and in about a year was desperately unhappy.  His wife left him, run away several times, stole his money and his car and told him he was worthless both in bed, and out.  In another moment, you found yourself in bed with him, never once considering how you would get out again.  You were not ready to be called an adulteress, but he persuaded you that since you had already committed adultery in your heart, what did it matter in the flesh?  Oh, it mattered, it mattered plenty.  Only in a purely theoretical sense did it not matter.  It certainly mattered to your husband.  He wanted the child, all the money, the house, and your head on a platter.  Everyone told you not to be honest, not to tell him, but you couldn’t deceive him that way ‑‑ it would kill you to be so deceived by someone else.

It first happened on a rainy afternoon, the kind of afternoon that made sitting on a park bench impossible.  All you really wanted to do was talk.  You were lonely, you wanted to be alone with him in a comfortable place where you could take your shoes off and lie down flat and tell him your life story.  He was so kind and understanding.  You wanted everything to happen slowly.  Both he and you were married to other people at the time and you had a broken ankle so you couldn’t walk through the woods or the park, even if it weren’t raining.  You weren’t planning on committing adultery.  You wanted an affair of the heart, of the mind.  You were either hopelessly naive or lying to yourself.

When you were feeling bitter, you wore red clothes, covered with lint, and did not bother to go over them with sticky tape.  You slept only on goose down pillows, and drank only water bottled in France.  When hurricanes were coming, you cooked elaborate cream sauces, and served lemon and honey tea shot with brandy in a crystal cup.  Your rage gave you a sore throat, the tears and tissues a sore nose.  Anger was only depression turned outward.  Always, you received presents in the wrong size, but consoled yourself afterward with icy lime sherbet.  You slept a bitter sleep, on sticky sheets, dreaming of French noses, and purebred geese, white with pink feet.  On Halloween, you changed your name for good.

You took bitter medicine, while he slept through the hurricane.  He gave you red clothes, always the wrong size.  You fed the geese cracked corn with your bleeding hands.  The brandy shattered the crystal glass.  Cream sauces were poured over ice.  You strapped the pillows to the bed with sticky tape.  You cried while he was bleeding.  You whimpered after giving birth.  A deep, abiding melancholy.  Our Lady of Perpetual Melancholy.  The symbolism of the golden arches.  An icon for the ages.  Our Lady of Perpetual Cholesterol.  Our Lady of Sodium.  Our Lady of the Mall.  Where is food for the spirit?  Charge it on your MasterCard.  Ring it up on your Visa.  A deep melancholy, not easily abated or debated.

It happened on a day when you’d been fasting for religious reasons even though you weren’t religious.  A friend called that morning before you’d eaten breakfast and happened to mention it was Yom Kippur.  You felt ready to atone for everything you’d ever done regardless of whether you’d actually caused anybody to suffer.  Your husband, for example.  Your husband was suffering although he didn’t realize it.  He thought he was content, but he was wrong.  You knew that having sex with a woman for 12 years without her having a single orgasm constituted suffering.  You wanted his suffering to cease, quickly and permanently.  And it seemed you were the cause of all suffering, everywhere.  You had daydreams about running away and never coming back, living in a small rented room, anonymous.

So the fasting and the marital woes had taken their toll on your common sense, and the broken ankle had taken its toll on your ability for locomotion.  You were faint from low blood sugar and hobbled wearily into the motel room, collapsing on the lumpy mattress.  Being called a neurotic bitch by your husband had long lost its appeal.  You needed somebody to love you, not somebody to fuck.  But, as your soon‑to‑be lover undressed you, he told you it didn’t even matter whether you actually had sex with him because you’d already committed adultery in your heart.  At the time, you took your lover’s reasoning for spiritual altruism.  You snapped at it like a starving bass would snap at a rubber worm.  Hook, line and sinker, you purchased your fate.  It was silly to think you could ever keep a secret.  You obtained a divorce, slinking away from the ruins of your marriage guilty, nearly suicidal, your ex‑husband spitting contempt and moral integrity even as he made plans to marry his own recently‑acquired lover.

Then over and over again, between your ex‑lover and yourself, things exploded, imploded, burdened by your guilt and remorse and terror.  All this ruined mess wasn’t what you had in mind, you were just lonely and wanted to talk.  He thought everything was conquerable, everything, by the human will and true love.  Slowly, unmet needs that at first seemed unimportant loomed enormous and unsolvable.  He didn’t feel safe with you, nor you with him, albeit for completely different reasons.  You were nastily divorced, and suddenly a major skeptic when it comes to love.  Between your dead marriage and your dead alcoholic mother, you finally learned to cut your losses, and quickly.  What started with a bang ended with a bang?  First the relationship was a misery to you, and then it was a misery to him.

The copper gleam of your helmet hair was blinding.  Ivory soap floated in the tub, pale and fatty.  Hard gray metal breathed like a ghost.  The stains of divorce could not be removed with bleach, no matter how hard you tried.  Women in bikinis reminded you of how you used to feel in summer, naked, nearly free.  You decided to be laid out in a salt pine coffin from Jerusalem, your wake illuminated by jeweled lamps fueled by liquid chicken fat.  Stone gargoyles copied from Paris originals would be worked into bench seats.  For refreshments, cold meats with baked garlic.

You loved him even though you knew it was doomed, and that love kept pulling you back to the maybe‑I‑didn’t‑really‑give‑it‑the‑old‑college‑try sort of mistake.  So you got involved with him all over again, and it was a disaster, again, but to him the fact that you came back only proved the point that you two should never have broken up to begin with.  In the end, he never understood why you kept breaking it off, and each time it got over somehow you couldn’t understand exactly why you ended it, either.  It was the same kind of destructive amnesia that keeps a woman having babies after that first one.  She forgets how hard it was, how much it hurt, how much it broke her spirit.  This entire sad sequence repeated until you finally had enough.

That night, you dreamed your mother was unpacking long‑forgotten boxes ‑‑ animals carved out of brightly colored stone, gold‑glass paperweights, things you loved, and your mother was getting rid of it all.

Six months later you got a bill from the library for $173.00.  You remembered your lover checked out a bunch of library books on your card.  So you called him, asked him to return them so you don’t have to pay.  Time goes by, and you wondered.  You called his house for days, but the line was always busy.  You decided to drop in.

You knocked.  It took a long time, but finally he came to the door, disheveled but looking good, except around the ears.  His house smelled strongly like man.  You were startled by the smell.  Vanilla, cinnamon, and a touch of dirt, of mushrooms.  The rooms of women smelled like yourself.  You have been in other men‑only houses, and it was always the same.  There was a strength to their smell, a lasting power, an earthiness under the scent of the body that made you want to burrow into the bed-sheets.  This time, you did not.  He was growing a beard and wore jeans with holes in the knees which made him look as sexy as the third time you slept with him, the time in his father’s falling‑down barn ‑‑ you couldn’t wait one minute longer so you did it right there on top of some mildewed couches.  You broke up for the last time almost a year ago.  It was shocking, the physical part you’d thought was long gone.

You wanted him again, though you’d never let yourself have him, and he sensed it – that made him really angry, angrier than you had ever seen him.  For once, you ignored the physical passion.  You didn’t touch him, though you wanted to, badly.  He sensed it, and that sensing is what drove him mad.  He screamed.  He accused you of being shallow, insensitive, a manipulative bitch with the emotional capacity of a rock.  You were meant to be his, you did everything wrong, you shouldn’t have broken up with him, because it was meant to be, him and you, forever.  He forgot how you cried all the time, and how you couldn’t quite put your finger on the reason.  He forgot what it cost you to be with him:  half your daughter’s life.  He had no children himself, yet, then:  he couldn’t know how guilt had you in its death‑grip.

He screamed, he let you do things, “get away with things,” he shouldn’t have.  He didn’t want those things to occur, but he didn’t object at the time because it seemed like what you needed to do.  You told him maybe he should have given you his true opinion, back then.  Maybe, if he had given his opinion when it was so desperately needed, you’d have chosen to be with him.  Maybe it was his essential passivity that caused those late‑night crying jags.  Maybe you were crying because you felt like his parent, his dorm mother, his baby‑sitter.  You, too, sometimes wanted to be cared for, nurtured, sometimes you wanted to feel safe, to be warm in your own bed on your own pillows, not scurrying around in the corners playing catch‑up with the dust-balls.

But he did not, could not, and would not hear anything you had to say.  You were supposed to be with him forever — he believed this and never let go of it:  his personal Holy Grail.  He wrote you love letters up until the week you got married for the second time, after that, came only hate letters.  There would never be a remedy for his hurt.  There was no way to make amends.  The wounds between you never healed, because he never stopped being angry with you.  He was, is, and will always be angry with you.  For this reason, your affair with him will never be over.

Will he be angry, forever?  Yes.  Will his jealous wrath burn like fire?  Yes.  Blessed is the man whom God chastens, and God will chasten him in time.  Yes.  His entry into vagina, and your life, was like someone throwing the couch over, slitting all the cushions, smashing the picture glass, sawing the bookshelves into firewood.

Someone knelt.  Someone asked to be blessed, forgiven, and made whole.  Two people danced, and at the same time drew blood from one another.  The man you loved stood remote, erect, unbending.  You died, to him.  You murdered him, years ago — it was an accident, a terrible wreck of the heart and body.  You wanted only to find your true home.  They why did your heart feel like cold‑rolled steel?  It clanged shut — you were alone, again.  And, again, no one could reach you.

While his plane took off, you did jumping jacks next to the runway fence.  The chain link made you feel like you had a vision problem.  The vessel making up your love for each other was glass ‑‑ white but somehow full of colors, opalescent, and its inner lip was scarlet ‑‑ caressing the outside of the vessel were golden-brown, radiating leaves, quivering with life.  Nothing could hold that vessel down ‑‑ it rose of its own accord.  Once shattered, it could never be restored.  Your fault, you never knew how to live in this world.  You always desired things which could not be possessed ‑‑ could be kept, could not be domesticated.  Your own heart was not domestic, but, rather, wild, savage, and cruel.  It was the opposite of serene.  It held mother‑love and murder, sometimes in the same instant.  You were the living damned.  The only answer seemed to be to keep moving.  That is why you decided to entomb your legs in rock, solid and immovable.  That is why you always tied yourself to the ground.  The caged butterfly smashed itself over and over again, beating impossibly against prison bars of cold‑rolled steel.  Finally, its wings shredded, and the butterfly could only remember flying.  It knew only that something had gone terribly, terribly, terribly wrong.

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