Tag Archives: freedom
If You Seek It Like Silver
My father was evasive on the subject of ancestors. Emigrating, as he did, from the dark heart of Bohemia, he must have understood that some mixing of races was inevitable. Otherness was part of him — visible in his eyes, in his cheeks, in the reluctant way he wore his necktie. He forced himself to stand still and proper his whole life — in due time even Anglicizing his name — but try as he might, never managed to forget who he was and where he came from. That was why he ended up erasing himself until all that was left with a pen & ink silhouette.
My mother was not evasive about anything. Or so I thought. In fact, she was so brutally honest, she admitted to my father that her idea of “socializing” was to invite everyone in the neighborhood over, once a year, for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres (whore’s ovaries, she called them). Other than that, she kept our family as stiff & guarded as Alcatraz. My father seemed to be quieter, to drink a little more, to sit a little longer in front of the television. Then one day my little brother came home dirty, sweaty & crying, from his very first day of school.
“They all called me a dirty Bohunk,” he sobbed.
“Well, why do you listen to the stupid, mean kids?” my mother grumbled. She sat at the dining room table hand-tinting my little brother’s most recent black-and-white, artsy portrait photograph. In the picture, he leaned against a Victorian-style porch railing, his blond curls glinting in the studio light, caressing a large sailboat. “Quit complaining about your feelings. Feelings were made to be conquered.”
My little brother and I were eight years apart, and were nothing alike. I was tall, angular and dark, and had a talent for rages that seemed to be sudden, but were slow-developing and complex in origin. He had inherited the large-boned, pink-and-ivory glow and the sound, dreamless sleep of my mother’s family.
“But I want to have friends, Ma,” he shouted. His chest, like mine, wheezed & he coughed
“You’re there to get education first,” she said. “In two weeks they’ll have forgotten all about your last name. They’ll go on to other games.”
“No they won’t. They’ll never forget. They’ll keep saying it until I die.” He turned, running out of the room, and then we heard him clatter down the porch steps, banging the porch door behind him.
My mother frowned and stared, as if waiting for me to go after him; instead I began setting the table for dinner. “He’ll get over it,” she said, turning around. “Just like you did.” No, I thought; he’s going to learn to ignore his feelings; just like you; disgust. The last thing I wanted to be was anything like my mother; who freaked me out; who wasn’t comforting; who scolded her way into your brain like a hot branding iron. Imposing her will; all over the place; over your spirit. Branded spirit; oppressed spirit; dying spirit.
My little brother wasn’t gone very long, but upon returning, got into his pajamas and went straight to bed, refusing to eat. This had never happened before. Daddy went up and sat on the edge of his bed. I watched from the hallway. Wake up, I thought; wake the hell up!
“Don’t you want something to eat, sport?” Daddy asked. He hadn’t cared so much about my feelings when this had happened to me. Then, he’d been silent, letting Ma handle the whole thing. I suppose he felt it was different for a boy — when a boy cried, it mattered. You too, Daddy, I thought; you need to wake up, too; ignoring things; postponing things; assimilating yourself into your life rather than creating your life; quit playing possum; get up out of that chair; change the channel; yourself.
I was surprised when the next day, Daddy told us what he wanted to do. So was everybody else. My mother most of all. I had never seen the two of them like this. My stomach fell into some icy, limitless abyss in the universe; I had to get out of it, immediately.
“I’m going to change our family name,” he announced. “I should have done it long ago. I should have done it before we were married.” My mother sat in her chair, breathing in short gasps, as if she’d received a sudden whack to the chest. Finally she spoke.
“But it’s my last name too,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous!”
“It’s not just for him,” my father shouted, slapping the newspaper against his legs. “It’s for all of us. I’m God-damned sick and tired of having everyone get our name wrong. Every time we order something, open an account, write a check, we get these asinine comments. Life’s too short for this. I’m changing my name, and the kids’ names, and that’s that.”
“That’s not a choice,” she hissed, “and you know it.” She kicked her pumps off, throwing them against the floor. “You’ve allowed me no say in this.” Now she was all for individuality; feelings; identity; spirit; it’s always just a question of whose ox is being gored by someone else’s ox. I felt like an ox, dragging my dysfunctional family along. Get out of here, I thought. Get out of here and find something to laugh about; or at least smile about.
And what on earth would I tell people at school? Somehow, facing the teachers with a new name seemed even worse than telling all my friends. It was just like my mother and father to ignore the fact that this whole thing would be the hardest on me. They were already grown up, and Dennis was just a little kid. I was the one stuck in the middle. I sat there examining my nails, not wanting to see their faces at this moment. Fox-holing my soul, stuffing it into a warm, soft hidey-hole; as safe as that icy abyss had been dangerous.
The name change happened at the end of summer. On my last day before joining the WASP tribe, such as it was; white bread; vanilla ice cream; whipped potatoes; roasted meats; sugar cookies; freshly squeezed orange juice. The day was bright and sunny and dry; my best friend and I were out in the backyard, perfecting our variety show. That day I was the emcee, she was the sponsor, and we each did half the guest acts. We had tap shoes, and purple and yellow shorts from gym class, and a small piece of plywood to serve as a stage. She also had a fringed felt skirt of her cousin’s and a pair of black kitten heels, for the commercials. Nothing else mattered until tomorrow. Stranded on a desert island, nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide; naked but for the protective coloration in my mind. No one outside the family knew about our imminent name-change.
In an attempt to make peace, Daddy let Ma choose the new last name. She picked one which sounded horrible at first, but gradually became appealing. I begged Ma to send out announcement cards to my friends’ parents and to my teachers, but she just closed her eyes.
“You’re going to have to tell them yourself,” she said.
“She’s just scared to tell them she’s not going to be a dirty Bohunk anymore,” said my little brother. “I’m not scared.”
“What do you mean?” I yelled. “Don’t make me laugh. You’re the most scared one of all. You’re so scared, you’re the whole reason we’re doing this stupid thing.”
“No he isn’t,” said Ma. “Don’t blame your brother. Now go find something to do, both of you. I don’t want to hear any more fighting.”
“I bet you like being a Bohunk,” he whispered as we walked down the hallway toward the front door. “You’re stupid, not me. You’re a stupid Bohunk girl.” He ran out the door, ducking my attempted slap with an expert sideways twist.
When he appeared in the backyard, jeering and laughing at my best friend and me, pointing at us and smeared about the face with dirt and grape soda, I picked up a large rock and threw it at the fence where he stood — to scare him. The rock, being inanimate, didn’t understand, and so, obeying the laws of physics, bounced obediently off the fence, then into his head. A large egg-shaped lump sprang out instantly, right in the middle of his forehead. The skin swelled bigger and bigger before my eyes like a balloon. He swayed and fell down on the ground right where he was. Without even looking back at my friend, I ran — out of the yard, down the rear alley, and out of the neighborhood. I ran till my breath burned in my windpipe, then kept on walking.
Our house was five and a half miles inland. I walked all the way to the boardwalk in my tap shoes, the metal taps tapping and grinding against the sidewalk with every step. Blisters formed on my heels, but I kept on, walking slower, placing my feet against the sidewalks with more care. The wind had begun to pick up; the decorative streamers on my favorite ice-cream parlor puffed and snapped.
The boardwalk was crowded, as usual, with transient peddlers. Amid the portable push-carts was a large, gleaming Airstream trailer. Its bulbous surface reflected the milling crowd like a funhouse mirror. As I approached, drawn like a magpie to the smooth, shiny aluminum surface, I noticed a young woman sitting at a folding display table in front of the trailer. She was missing several of her front teeth. Other than that, she was beautiful, her eyes large and clear, her skin like velvet. The dumpy baby in her lap was drooling and babbling like any ordinary kid. My heart leaped inside my chest suddenly, for no reason.
The brand-new Airstream was hitched up to a horrible-looking pickup truck: scabrous, multi-layered paint, rotting fenders. I stood, my legs trembling, examining the large array of beaded purses on her table, and also peeking in the side window of the trailer — the built-in furniture inside was pale pink, and sheathed in plastic. I picked up one of the small purses, completely covered with tiny glass beads, sewn in a dark Oriental-rug pattern. The beaded bag was sinuous and heavy in my hands, like a living thing.
“Can you tell me my fortune?” I asked the lady, my heart pounding against my chest like a small fist.
She stared at me for a moment, then laughed, causing the baby on her lap to startle, his small fat arms jerking. But he, too, smiled after a moment, a toothless grin that matched her own. The baby grabbed at her long hair, stuffing a large handful of it into his mouth.
“No, I can’t,” she said, shaking her head. “But if you dance,” she said, pointing down at my dusty tap shoes, “I’ll give you something.”
“You mean right here?” I asked. “In front of all these people?”
“Sure,” she said. “I love tap-dancing. I’ll give you that purse, if you want.”
The purse’s beading was dark purple, amber and bottle-green. I glanced around at the people strolling by, wondering what they’d think, whether they’d laugh. But it didn’t really matter, did it? I had stepped across some invisible line: tap-dancing on the beach was nothing for a Bohunk like me.
“Okay,” I said. I moved away from the table and raised my arms, spreading them like stiff, flightless wings. Nodding at her, I began my spring recital piece, the one I did wearing a silver top hat and spats. Though the sound of my taps was muffled by the rough-laid planks of the boardwalk, I knew my form was perfect. I finished, and she brought her baby’s hands together with her own, holding his wrists and slapping his tiny palms in mock applause, but then she stopped and smiled, and I knew she’d been pleased.
“Take it,” she said, gesturing toward the table.
“Thank you,” I said, letting the prize swing from my fingers, the beaded loops of fringe rustling against my arm like the curious touch of a stranger. I stood for a moment, noticing her eyes, which from a distance had appeared dark brown, edged in black: surrounding her pupils were small featherings of blue, green, yellow, brown and gray. “I think I killed my brother,” I told her, starting to cry.
“No you didn’t,” she said. “He’s not dead. You can go home.”
“How do you know?” I asked, clutching the bag to my chest. The baby snuggled against her, leaning into her generous breasts, sucking his fingers and blinking his eyes slowly, falling toward sleep.
“You dance too well to be a murderer,” she said, frowning. “Go home to your… fortune.”
As I turned to leave, I saw a handsome boy in a vivid yellow windbreaker watching me from the boardwalk’s edge. His lean face was sculptured, his cheekbones and chin jutting out. His mouth was open — not a smile — and his teeth were square and white. As my eyes met his… his face benign, expressionless… he made his hands into tight fists, arms stiff and straight at his sides, and began nodding his head — forward and back, forward and back. Yes, he indicated. Yes.
“Take your new purse and go home,” the woman said again, turning to look at the strange boy. “But first give the baby a kiss, for luck.” So I bent down, kissing the baby’s drool-wet cheek, struggling with the impulse to dry my lips on my sleeve as I turned away.
By the time I got home, it was dark. A police car was parked in front of the house. As I tried the front door-handle and started to knock, it opened and my mother stood to one side, holding the door, as I walked into the foyer. She reached out, as if to embrace me, but at the last minute changed her mind and pushed me away. I don’t care, I thought. I don’t fucking care. For a moment? I hated her with every cell in my body. Then Daddy grabbed me, squeezing me so hard around the ribs I couldn’t inhale.
“Are they going to arrest her for throwing rocks at me?” asked my little brother from the top of the stairs.
“Certainly not,” said my mother. “Go back to bed.”
The next day was hot — the smog so thick it dimmed the sun’s rays. Somehow, that weird half-light made the air seem even hotter than the real temperature. We toured the marble-floored courthouse downtown, meeting our lawyer outside the judge’s office. The secretary ushered us in. The judge had a lot of fluffy white hair and a waxed, curlicue handlebar mustache that gave me the shivers. As I walked by him, he winked.
He asked us if we had any dishonest or criminal reasons for changing our names — then asked us if we were all sure it was what we wanted. I wasn’t sure — I saw my mother start to say something, too, but the judge didn’t notice. He looked at me.
“What about you, young lady?” he asked. “Do you want to change your name to something that everybody in the U.S. can spell?”
My heart felt like a fat frog, quivering, and I couldn’t speak. The judge didn’t wait for my answer, just started chuckling to himself, then he signed the sheaf of official papers with a judge-like flourish and changed me from a Bohunk into an American.
I went to confession that week with a lot to say. The new priest had a strange kind of beauty — artfully shaped eyebrows, large protruding eyes, fleshy but precise lips, dimpled chin. His English was faintly accented. I liked to imagine he was in love with me, but too saintly to break his vows — he twisted and turned each night upon his hard, narrow cot, praying in vain for relief from the tempting visions of me. In the booth, the words came easily.
“I almost killed my brother,” I told him. I waited in the hot, breathy silence. “I committed perjury.” Still nothing. “I looked on a man with lust,” I said, remembering the taut face of the boy on the beach. Now tell me I’m evil, I thought. Tell me I’m going to hell, talk to me about the pit of fire, the writhing serpents.
“Do you fear for your soul?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “Everything has changed. I’m not the same as I used to be.”
“God knows what’s in your heart,” he said. “Sometimes being ashamed is the most important thing. It’s the first step to changing.” He cleared his throat.
“I’m supposed to be changing? Does changing your name count?” I couldn’t help laughing — then wondered if laughter in the confessional was some sort of sin.
“Changing your name? You mean by marriage?” He sounded shocked.
“No, my family — we all changed our last name. Because my father was ashamed. Because no one knew how to spell it. Because he didn’t want anyone to think we were — strange.” I waited; his silence was interminable. I heard him sigh.
“A name can be very important for the peace of the soul.”
“But nobody asked if I wanted to change.”
“Your father did what he thought was right.”
“But I can’t stop being angry,” I said, almost crying.
“Pray for your anger to be taken from you,” he said. “Pray for guidance.”
But wasn’t he supposed to give me that — guidance? Where was his usual sympathy? I felt weak, dizzy.
“Yes, Father,” I said, though tears had started. “I’ll pray for guidance.” Pushing the booth’s wooden door open — so hard it knocked against the outer wall of the adjacent confessional — I felt Father startle and jump inside his half of the booth in the second before I slipped my shoes off and ran out of the church.
A bunch of us freshman girls journeyed to the first school dance of the year as a dateless yet hopeful group. As we stood talking and laughing — eyeing the large group of stag boys near the gym doors — we fussed with our hair and rattled our charm bracelets. The tall, good-looking boy I’d seen that awful day at the beach approached, and invited me to dance.
“Did you get married over the summer or something?” he asked, tossing his forelock out of his eyes as we twirled out to the middle of the floor.
“Married?” I said, peering up at his face in the dim, dance-floor light. His eyes were large, round and brown, and his lower lip full so that even his scowl had a goofy, angelic quality. “Are you kidding or something?” I asked.
“Well, last thing I knew your last name was different.” He smiled and tapped my name tag with one finger. “So, I figure either I’m going senile, or you got married.” He winked. “Odds are, I’m not senile.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, smiling.
“Well, sometimes I wonder.” He laughed, caressing my back softly as we danced.
“My father changed our last name over the summer,” I said. “Tired of having it misspelled, stuff like that.”
“Well, this one will attract less attention, that’s for sure.”
“Yes, it will,” I said, and then the fast song was over. We stopped, standing together for a moment, then another song began, but we didn’t resume dancing.
“Would you like to go get a soda?” he asked.
“Yeah, sure,” I said, nodding. We went out to the main entry hall, where some members of the student council were selling refreshments: Cokes, brownies, small bags of popcorn.
“It’s hot in there. Let’s walk around the courtyard for a minute,” he said, holding the cold green bottle against his forehead. He held out his hand to lead me, and I noticed it trembling. We sat down on the edge of a concrete planter, hidden from the dance behind its large circular hedge. The music sounded tinny from out here, but a slight breeze was blowing, and the air had a clean smell. He took a long swig of his soda, then put the bottle down. “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered, sounding like he might cry. He put his hand against my breast, squeezing me as though caressing some exotic fruit, and then, upon discerning no obvious resistance, he leaned forward with his lips pursed. As he kissed me, his hand kept on moving, pulling at the buttons of my blouse, sliding around under my clothing and tugging at the hooks on my brassiere like a small inquisitive animal.
My feelings over the next few days were a dizzying combination of exhilaration and despair. I’d let him touch me, and it had felt good — but the fact that I’d allowed it to happen disgusted me. It was part of my body that had betrayed me — some fundamental weakness — a new aspect of myself I’d never be able to get rid of. I kept looking in the mirror: the dark circles under my eyes seemed worse, and my complexion got hazy. My hair seemed altered, losing its shine, its color. I felt suddenly younger and older at the same time. Ma and I were shopping for groceries when I felt caution melt away inside me.
“Did anybody ever try to touch you under your blouse?” I asked her, in the frozen food aisle.
“What do you mean, touch?” she asked.
“Like on a date or something,” I said.
“Of course,” she snorted, throwing half-a-dozen packages of peas into the cart. “What do you think, that’s a recent invention?”
“What did you do, then?”
“I kept their hands away,” she said. “I made them stop.”
“Well, what about Daddy?” I asked. “Did he ever try? He must have.”
“I’m not going to go into the specifics with you,” she said. “Just don’t let things go that far.” She turned and stared at me.
“No, of course not,” I said, feeling the blood heat up inside my lying cheeks, my lying neck. I knew she noticed. No way out.
“I don’t know why I bother,” she said, stirring a pot of tiny meatballs in sauce, her hair coiled in gleaming pin-curl clips. “No one invites us back.” My mother was more cranky than usual about her annual cocktail party.
“That’s not why you give the party, is it?” my father asked, laughing. “You wouldn’t go to most of these people’s houses, anyway. No, you just want them to be in your debt.” He patted her. “Just like me,” he added. People were trickling in when one of Daddy’s friends brought up the name change.
“When I got the invitation, I was stumped for a minute,” he said. “I thought, who do I know who changed their damn name? If you’re trying to lose the bill collectors, you forgot the most important thing — get the hell out of Dodge!” He threw his head back and laughed; a braying ass. My mother felt the same way and poured her drink on his shoes. For once, for one blessed moment, I agreed with her completely on something. Common ground. The beginning of our real, far deadlier arguments.
“I don’t care what you think,” she said, waving her arms over her head. “Any of you!” The whole group fell quiet, and after a moment, people who had just arrived began moving toward the hall closet to get their coats.
“Now, wait a minute,” my father said. “He was just kidding!”
“Gee, so was I,” she said. “Couldn’t you tell?” She kicked off her shoes, then ran up the stairs; I watched, then scrambled up after her. In her bedroom, she flopped down on the bed, heedless of the starched, organdy collar and bows on her black dress. She jerked her legs back and forth, back and forth, and her stockings hissed against the satin of the bedspread. “I knew from the day I met your father we’d never be soul mates or anything,” she said. “But I was hoping for something better than this.”
“I’m sure he was hoping for something better, too,” I said. “Do you know how horrible you can be? Do you?” I wasn’t going to end up like her, or like him — or like anybody in my family. It didn’t matter what my name was. “If Daddy and I hadn’t been there watching, you wouldn’t have poured that drink on the man, would you?” I hate you, I thought. And you hate me, too. Own it, you fucking cunt.
“That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” she snorted, throwing her arm across her eyes. “You and your theories. I was just mad, that’s all.” She couldn’t, or wouldn’t, live for long outside her locked, electrified steel cage of rage, I realized.
She shook her head, and her hair, pinned in a loose bun, fell free and tangled in a soft cloak around her neck. My own breathing became the most delicate of rhythms. I closed my eyes and stood next to the door, swaying in place. She was absolutely right: her daughter was a rebel both by nature and by choice. Too much Order… too much Chaos… then back again, a beautiful, inscrutable figure eight. Ma kept on talking, talking about the right way to do everything, the petulant sound of her voice changing inside my head into a soothing, abstract blur, like river water over smooth, flesh-colored rocks. Grief and guilt flew out of me: sharp arrows of silver, or cobalt glass. My own insatiable needs burst their seed casings; moving shapes cast their inscrutable dark shadows against the walls of my secret cave; I fell in love with the light of my tiny, disobedient candle. I kept on nodding and nodding; pretending to listen; planning my escape.
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.