Tag Archives: friendship
You’re So Beautiful, a short story
I met Lainey in seventh grade. That was the year the School Board made everybody, boys and girls, take both Shop and Home Economics. In Shop, we learned to make a bookshelf, a cutting board, and a surfboard key ring out of thick, acrylic, plastic sheets laminated together, making stripes in a sort of mixed up rainbow. The shop smelled good from all the sawdust. The saws were loud, sometimes deafening. The plastic smelled like plastic.
In Home Ec., we learned to make corn fritters out of Bisquick and canned creamed corn, and how to cut out a pattern and sew it together. Other than Lainey, the biggest news of the year was when our Home Ec. teacher came in second in the Miss Nude World contest. Most kids were blasé about that, most teachers were shocked. It wasn’t any big surprise to me — you’d have to be blind not to see how she looked in her clingy knit minidresses, no lingerie lines showing. She was naked under that dress, and radiated something I would realize later was sex.
The first words my friend Lainey ever said to me were, “I love you.” Standing there in shop next to the jigsaw, I felt my lungs seize up. I prayed that nobody had heard. Little alarm bells were going off in my head. “I love you,” echoed through my ears. It was such a new feeling that in seconds my self-consciousness shriveled up and melted away like some bad witch; my lungs unfroze and I breathed. I greedily said, “What?”
Lainey said it again, and reached over and took my hand in hers. Her hand was sturdy, well-formed, warm and dry, her skin a glowing, lightly freckled, golden honey, her nails broad and dark pink. Although she wasn’t implying what I’d thought at first, I was bound to her forever in the innocent, momentary flash of what could have been, and how it might have made me feel. She had been to drug rehab for kids, at a place called The Sprout. Her parents — the usual yacht club, duplicate bridge, reading for the blind types — had found her pot stash, which she kept in an empty Sucrets box. So they sent her to The Sprout, where the counselors taught her to love Jesus — to love everybody — and to renounce drugs. Loving people stuck with Lainey, but Jesus and renouncing drugs fell by the wayside.
What Lainey’s parents couldn’t see was that drugs weren’t the real problem, they were only a reflection of something deeper — some desperate need of hers they didn’t even want to know about. They wrote large checks and prayed for a miracle. To them, Lainey and her siblings were the ultimate accessories, something to complement their house, their car, their memberships and dress-for-success wardrobes.
By high school, junior year, Lainey and I went out to lunch together every day — she refused to take no for an answer. She’d jostle me in the hall outside Trig class, the skin of her arm warm, velvety, against mine. We’d bump-walk our way down the rows of lockers, the other kids staring, open-mouthed, not knowing if we were extreme dorks, or just so cool we didn’t care what they thought. It was the first one for me, the second for Lainey. Why she took such a liking to me, I don’t know. I’m grateful.
“C’mon, let’s go,” she’d say, smiling, opening her lips wide, baring teeth so big and white I almost wanted them to nibble me, just to feel it.
Lainey’s body spoke to anyone, or anything, who’d listen. Animal, vegetable, or mineral, it didn’t matter what she was near: the electrons couldn’t help being stirred on one level or another. Rocks altered their geochemical structure when she sat on them. Grown men wished they could towel the sweat off her skin; maybe just take her just-worn jeans home and sleep with them folded under their pillow. There was a little brown mole next to her mouth, a few golden freckles scattered across her nose, and that jumble of curly red hair. Her skin was darker than her hair, burnished sleek by the hours she spent in the sun.
“What do you want to do?” I asked, my mouth dry.
“What do you think?” she said.
“Going to lunch” consisted of getting in her ‘68 Mustang and driving a long, pre-arranged loop — the “smoking trail” — me with a rolling tray and Sucrets box in my lap, putting together clumsy joints which, when dragged on with the fierceness of Lainey’s inhalations, once in a while fell apart, burning her thighs, or mine.
I knew we’d get back late, and be in trouble. We were in American History, together, right after lunch. The class was taught by a slight, lean woman with a face which seemed to be almost desiccated. American History in those days included a vile, nine-week, shameless, capitalist propaganda presentation called “Americanism versus Communism” which came at the beginning of the school year. The teacher had moved Lainey as far away from me as she could during the second week of school because Lainey and I came back from lunch stoned every single day and we could not stop laughing at the whole farce – I had to literally put my face down on my desk to break eye contact with Lainey in order to stop.
A certain type of girl looked at both of us with frozen marble faces: they hated Lainey on principle. They knew — if she wanted to — she could have any one of their boyfriends in a second. They hated me, too, but only because of Lainey’s aura. It was a time when girls and women were a bit more harshly judged when they were too naturally sexy. Lainey was decades ahead of her time; she knew her body and owned it.
“Okay,” I said. Her eyes, large and brown and thick-lashed, must have been how she’d gotten away with her life so far. One minute they hid everything — the next, nothing — but I knew the truth was somewhere in between. “Tomorrow I absolutely can’t, though,” I said. “I have a quiz in English and I need lunch period to study.”
Lainey rolled her eyes and I frowned and squinted at her, tilting my head to one side. She laughed, I laughed, we linked arms, and stopped off at her locker, stowing our books in the clutter of her grungy ring binders, crumpled term papers and loose lipsticks.
We were idling at a stoplight on 26th Avenue, about to turn onto Bayview Drive, the smoking trail proper, when Lainey looked at me oddly, out of the sides of her eyes, her head tilted to one side.
“So, are you still a virgin?” she said — her tone someplace between medical and
Confessional. Right away I was considering the possible answers. Virginity, for me, was a gray area. I supposed I was, technically. Embarrassing — especially admitting it to her. But I had to be truthful: she’d have known in a second if I lied.
“Yeah,” I said. I was looking out the window, trying to keep my body relaxed. I wondered what was next: she wasn’t the type for random chatter. Then the cigarette lighter popped out, making me jump, and Lainey laughed.
“Grab the wheel,” she said, using one hand for joint smoking and the other for the stick shift. I steered the car from the passenger seat. I got to be pretty damned good at it. Do people even do that anymore?
“Well, whatever you do,” she said, inhaling as she spoke, her voice husky, “don’t have another virgin for your first time. It would be a nightmare.”
She’d already picked somebody out for me, somebody she deemed suitable, somebody she’d trained, even — her thoughtful idea of being a chaperon in reverse.
“You know Roy Stahn?” she asked. “I want to tell you he is one damn good lover. And I know he isn’t going out with anybody since we broke up.”
I was stunned by the Roy Stahn revelation. He was short, 5’3″ or 5’4″, which would have been enough of a problem, except that he also probably weighed 97 pounds to my 130.
The attraction for her was his brain. Lainey was so good-looking she tended to ignore looks in other people. But she was heavily into smarts. That was why, after the initial shock, I started getting a little intrigued. Roy Stahn was probably the smartest guy in the entire school. Total genius, but the real quiet type, smoldering embers and all that. Maybe I could get to his heart the way Lainey’d gotten to his body, I thought, teach him about true love: like Mr. Spock on that Star Trek episode when he inhales the spores, and for once in his life, lets go and really enjoys himself!
I was still pondering what Roy might look like nude, when Lainey told me he had been a total virgin with her, she deflowered him.
“All last summer I’d go over to his house. He told his parents we were playing chess. We did it right in his room while they were home. A couple of times we even did it when his mom was having bridge parties.”
I got queasy just listening. “You’ve got to learn to get what you want,” she said. The warm skin of her arm brushed mine, seeming an unspoken reproach as she took back the steering wheel.
We got back ten minutes after the tardy bell, and I could tell our American History teacher not only thought we were filthy rodents but wanted to cut off our tails with a carving knife. Lainey did all the talking — I sat through the rest of the class with my head bobbing up and down, stifling the bullet-like giggles that she could trigger simply by catching my eye.
The next day, Lainey got a dozen red roses delivered during class. When the delivery guy poked his head in the door, the teacher shit a brick, but what could she do — she had to let Lainey have the flowers. Eddie, the guy who sent the roses, was much older than she, and rich.
The day after that, instead of the regular smoking trail, Lainey decided to show me Eddie’s apartment.
We stood in his entryway and Lainey flipped through the mail piled on the hall table. She pulled out a copy of some Communist magazine and threw it at me.
“See this?” she said. “You could get on the government’s list just by coming over here.”
I wasn’t even high yet, but for a minute I believed her. Was I going to ruin my life? My college career? My parents would disown me.
She saw my face then, my stricken eyes, and laughed. “Relax, will you? It’s a joke. You want something to drink?” By this she meant alcohol. She led the way into the kitchen.
Of course we ended up skipping school the rest of the day. The apartment was great, with a black leather, comfy as clouds conversation pit, huge sliding glass doors all the way around the back, and a private pool on the water. Time slowed down as we got more and more stoned; I moved through suddenly thick and visible air, everything so cloudy I could barely see.
Lainey sat on one of the leather sections, leaning back with her eyes closed and her bare feet resting on the glass coffee table. Her lips were full but chapped, tiny bits of skin flaking off that made her mouth look even redder. There was a halo of fine condensation around her feet where they’d heated up the cold glass.
“What a buzz,” she said.
“Really?” I said. My mouth felt like somebody had given me a wad of toilet paper to chew on. My teeth were growing hair.
All of a sudden, my heart took a leap. One big thump inside my ribcage, and my bones felt soft, squishy. I sat bolt upright on the couch and laid a hand across my chest like I was getting ready for the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Lainey,” I said, but she was too far away, which in the tiny remnant of my mind that had stayed calm, seemed fortunate. “I feel sick.”
She opened her eyes. Her eyelids were heavy, and when she blinked it was slow. The brown of her irises was scary: so dark, so deep. I had to concentrate hard just to see her through all the silvery glimmers in the air that were whisking by almost like static on a TV.
“Sick how?” she asked, but I knew I couldn’t explain. “Here, let me get you some juice,” she said. She came out of the kitchen with a big glass of juice. She touched my hand, and the contact was like a slap. “Jesus, you’re an ice cube. Let’s go outside.”
I was feeling like a real basket case, but I knew Lainey didn’t mind, she didn’t mind anything I said or did — that was the beauty of her. We went outside by the pool. It was like stepping into a warm blanket and in a few minutes I started to sweat.
“Let’s go swimming,” Lainey said.
I looked at her, then at the pool, turning my head back and forth, back and forth like I was watching tennis. “Swimming?” I said. “I don’t have a suit.”
Lainey smiled. “You don’t need a suit,” she said. “This is a completely private back yard. Nobody can see us.”
“What about those people in that boat over there?” I said. I gestured towards something that looked kind of like a boat, out on the water, where the canal glistened in the hot sun with little rippling waves.
“They can’t see us” Lainey said. “Besides, who cares?” She pulled off all her clothes and dove. Now I had to follow. I took off my clothes, stacking them on the lounge chair, then jumped into the pool after her and went below the surface of the water for what seemed like an hour.
“Are you sure I’m not going to drown without realizing it?” I asked when I surfaced. I’d read the horror stories: “Girl On Drugs Hallucinates — Drowns Self. Parents Say They Don’t Know Where They Failed.” All this physical activity seemed like asking for trouble. “I mean, it seems like I’m holding my breath too long.”
“Jesus,” she said. “I’ll save you, okay? I’ve got my Red Cross certification.” This I knew to be true, because I’d thumbed through her wallet in search of the rolling papers. She preferred ZigZag.
Bubbles of my exhaled breath drifted up in the water, the bright sun turning everything into pure sparkling, wavery glass. I felt curiouser and curiouser, just like Alice, from head to toe more full of emotion than I’d ever imagined I could have all at once. I couldn’t label it: there was a bit of everything, joy and grief and love and fear mixed so smoothly they went down in one easy swallow, and it was as though nothing could ever frighten or confuse me again.
When the sun got too glaring, we went inside. Our fingers and toes were pale and shriveled; Lainey got out some huge, thick towels and we swaddled ourselves, squeaky-clean from the chlorine. She took me into the bathroom and got out her hair dryer and all her makeup and did my face and hair. “You’re so beautiful,” she told me, “don’t you know that?” “So beautiful,” she said again, and she stroked the side of my face with one finger, like a child. No one had ever said that to me before. The shock was physical. I wanted to grab her and hug her and cry, but instead I just sat there, trembling.
It was a couple of weeks later, as we were sitting in her Mustang parked in the school lot, gathering ourselves up to go in and face American History, that she told me she was getting married and wouldn’t be coming back for our senior year in the fall.
“Not coming back?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“I’m going to apply for early admission and skip next year — go from a junior right to a college freshman. That way I can have my bachelor’s in three years.”
What’s the god-damned rush? I thought.
“What are you going to major in?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t know, something in liberal arts.” she said. I fiddled with the door-handle, not knowing what to say except that I thought she was making a mistake.
In the fall, even though I knew Lainey was married and gone, I kept looking for her. When I actually saw her in the hall one day, for a split instant I was afraid I was hallucinating, but she walked up and smiled.
“Ready for lunch?” she said.
We ran out to the visitor’s parking lot, giggling and poking each other in the ribs. She was driving a red 450SL: Eddie must have had a good year.
She gave me a present: three black lacquer and coral bracelets from Hong Kong, where they went on their honeymoon. And she handed me one of her old Sucrets boxes packed full. “Your survival kit,” she said. I still have one of the bracelets – the coral is so delicate I broke the other two, and I keep the last one in a safe place. It’s beautiful, just like Lainey; just like she said I was.
I got involved with the rituals of being a senior: football games, the prom, college acceptance anxiety. Someone taller than me finally asked me out! He’d lived across the street from me forever but had only gotten interested in girls this year. It wasn’t as bad as I had imagined; I was surviving. It was close to graduation when I realized I hadn’t heard from Lainey, not in a long time.
My heart was pounding when she answered the phone. “Hey, stranger,” she said, and I wondered — had she missed me, too? I drove over to her house. Her hair was long, and curlier than before. Her face floated, haloed in the darkness of the entryway. At first I thought it was a joke, she’d taped a beach ball to her midriff. It was just like her not to have told me this over the phone.
“Wow,” I said. I was a million miles past trying to act casual, somehow this was just wrong, this was the wrong script or something. It just didn’t figure, this.
“Yeah,” she said, and she glanced down at herself — then her eyes moved back up, pressed on mine with a new glimmer of grown womanhood. “Isn’t it great?” she said. “We’re so excited about this. Eddie wants a little girl who looks just like me.” Who wouldn’t? I thought.
She’d been ironing: the board was still set up in the living room. The TV was on, and the thick drapes were all pulled — it was high summer — so hot — but their apartment was cool and dark and sealed off like a hotel suite. I was trying not to stare, but curiosity grabbed hold and I asked if I could touch her stomach.
“Sure,” she said, and, following the nod of her head in one easy movement, she pulled her billowy flowered dress off; she was just wearing just underwear. She didn’t shave her legs — I’d forgotten. There were tiny golden hairs on her calves and knees and thighs and there was her blinding white underwear, and then there was her watermelon-covered-with-skin belly. I touched it with one finger, softly at first, then, discovering it was as hard and firm as a basketball, pushed on its surface with my whole hand. It didn’t yield at all: I couldn’t imagine a soft, arms-and-legs kind of baby in there.
The baby was a girl, red-haired and brown-eyed just like her mother. Lainey and I met, some months after the baby was born, to go shopping in the mall. She was lying in her stroller, asleep. Her legs were plump and there was a dried-Pablum-crust around her mouth. She looked too messy to be a cherub.
Then, I saw Lainey again right after her rather sudden divorce. I was home for Easter break, and playing pool in the rec room at my mother’s condo with some friends. She walked up behind me as I was getting ready to shoot and jiggled my cue.
“I love you,” she said, real grim and serious, then, after a minute, burst out laughing.
She was there with some new boyfriend, a brawny surfer guy, all frazzled bright blonde hair and huge brown thighs, and she seemed happy enough. She was heavier than I remembered, but more beautiful than ever.
When our ten-year reunion rolled around, I showed up in a fancy silk dress with my hair permed, and stood around chatting awkwardly. I had thought our student-body president was going to conquer the world, but he turned out to be an accountant. I was making small talk, waiting for Lainey. I hoped any minute she would walk into the room in a sleeveless black cocktail dress, her hair pinned up, bright lipstick, high heels with sheer black stockings.
Instead, she’d sent two pictures to the reunion committee. One was a studio portrait of Lainey and her daughter. The kid was a redhead, but she hadn’t really developed her mother’s looks and probably never would. She looked a little sad, a little thin.
The other picture was a grainy, blown-up snapshot. Lainey was outdoors, in front of a windblown group of palm trees, next to a tall, thin man I didn’t recognize, holding a newborn baby wrapped in a blanket. She had the soft, waterlogged look of a recently post-partum woman. Her red hair was cropped, short-short, and she wore big tortoiseshell glasses, wrinkled shorts and a baggy T-shirt. Her smile was blissful, serene, and even prettier than I’d remembered.
Staring down at the pictures, I couldn’t breathe right, my heart pounding like a panicked antelope’s. All this time, I had carried her friendship within me like a talisman, giving me courage. What had I hoped for? Hadn’t Lainey loved me before anyone else? Wasn’t she the first to tell me I was beautiful? I reached out to touch her — I’d finally learned to take what I wanted — my fingertips marring the shiny photographic paper, fumbling against the image of her smooth, glowing skin, the skin I’d always meant to touch; the skin I’d always wanted next to my own.
The Way of All Flesh, a short story
Professor Rathlin was tall and skinny, with a beard and wild red hair. He wore sandals without socks, even in winter. During lectures, I stared at his feet, the toes in particular, the way the nails were so broad and smooth. But all that toe-worshiping was moot, because rumor was he had a girlfriend. Plus, I had Jacob. Despite, or maybe because of all that, I went regularly to Rathlin’s office hours. His office was even better than his toes, insulated with books, one whole wall covered with photographs of his family.
“Look at this one,” he said one day, pointing to a group black-and-white, maybe the third grade. From the clothes, I could tell he was at least as old as my mother, if not older. “You think you can pick me out?” he asked. He leaned back in his swivel chair, browsing through his chin whiskers. I looked hard, mentally shaving off facial hair, pulling his hairline forward, and erasing weather lines. Scanning the photo, row by row, I started to sweat.
I was almost ready to go back to the beginning, which was a disaster in a job like this — they all start to look alike. Then, I saw one boy’s eyes, his mouth, his forehead, a cowlick. I pressed my finger to the glass and said, “Here.”
He squinted to see which face I’d pointed to. He rolled his chair close, the chair-arm touching my leg just above the knee. “Right,” he said, as his chair pushed me, almost knocking me off-balance. “Sorry,” he said, swiveling back. “How about this one?” he asked. He pointed to a bigger photo, three little boys who looked like almost like triplets. They were dressed the same — plaid shorts with suspenders, white starched round-collar blouses, knee socks with saddle shoes. The tallest was missing his two front teeth and the middle one held the smallest — chubby in the face from babyhood — hugged on his lap. “Which one is me?”
“Oh, my God,” I said. I tried to camouflage, make out like I was amused. I knew I’d get an “A” in his class, this spotlight tutorial was about something else. He put his smile away and tried to look neutral. His eyes held anthropological glee.
I saw him in the toddler, the one with the dimpled knees, the brightest eyes. “The baby,” I said.
He laughed, throwing his head back for a moment. “Not many get that one,” he said, nodding his head. “Sit down,” he said, motioning to a chair behind boxes crammed with what looked like field diaries. I sat, and not knowing where to put my backpack, plunked it into my lap, clutching it like an old lady with a purse. Clutching it like my mother would have.
“Would you have breakfast with me next week?” he said, opening his desk drawer and fumbling inside it. He pulled out a ragged calendar.
“Sure,” I said.
“White people like to get the body in the ground within two or three days,” said Mr. Clements, our guest lecturer. “In black families, at least a week goes by before the burial. Black funerals draw more relatives — folks take longer coming by bus and so forth, so you allow the extra time.”
I thought of my first funeral, my great-grandfather, when I was six. Mom bought me a new navy-blue coat and hat for church, but as I was getting in the shiny black car at the funeral home, she decided I shouldn’t go to the church. Instead, I sat with the undertaker’s shy daughter in the waiting room, tapping my patent-leather heels.
The week after midterms, Jacob, Margot and I went out for a beer and some reggae. We sat up front, getting our sternums massaged by the bass. Margot and I drank too much beer and smoked too many cigarettes. She chuckled a lot, high up in her throat, and seemed half in the bag already, but she was tricky that way — in reality, just like my mother, she had a stable middle range of drunkenness that she could stay in for what seemed like forever. Jacob had nursed a warm Perrier for a couple of hours.
Margot leaned over and whispered in my ear. “He is cute, isn’t he?”
I laughed, leaning over and bumping shoulders with her as I spoke, a gesture I thought I’d gotten rid of in the seventh grade. “Isn’t he!” I said. I admired Margot — her well-placed laughter, her cynical, observant eye. When I saw her looking at Jacob in a way I’d seen before, I decided to let her have him.
I’ve never been the jealous, clinging type; I’ve always gotten out at the first hint of trouble. What kind of fool wants to be with someone who doesn’t want them? No, I view romance and love as Fated, unattainable unless bestowed on us by chemicals. There’s nothing gradual about that gut-wrenching attraction — it either springs up full blown or never exists at all. My mom and I proved this a million times over. I knew there was a certain risk. If it turned out against me — if she wanted him, if he wanted her — I’d have to be able to swallow that bitter pill and live.
“Would you mind if I asked him to dance?” she said. Asking permission, as if he were my property — not the way Margot usually acted. Jacob had been a virgin when we met. Margot knew, and the fact was tantalizing; even with the first sharp edge taken off, those boys can look so lovely.
“No, sure, go ahead.” As she leaned over to shout her invitation, her heavy breasts touched my arm.
I watched them on the dance floor. Jacob was long and lean — like a greyhound — dark hair just brushing his shoulders, and narrow, slanted brown eyes. Sometimes his eyes made him look dumb, sometimes a little fierce, but most of the time they made for a sort of refreshing blankness.
He danced with her, but he kept looking back at my table. I smoked and sucked on my bottle of beer, the carbonation stinging my upper lip.
I looked up and saw Jacob motioning, beckoning me to come out on the floor. He was sweating, there were dark spots scattered on his shirt and circles under his arms. When I got there, after wading through the hot bumping bodies, the three of us danced in a sort of conga line. For a couple of minutes I had this bizarre fantasy that somehow we’d all end up naked and in bed together.
Jacob snapped his fingers and swung his head, tossing his long hair, strands catching in his mouth like a girl’s. Margot had a funky Egyptian hand move she seemed stuck on. I concentrated on the looseness and fragility of my shoulders, letting my arms bounce wildly. We laughed, but the music was so loud we couldn’t hear the sound. We watched each other’s mouths gulp, like goldfish.
Jacob leaned close enough to speak. His hand grasped my hip bone. “Margot’s drunk,” he said.
“No, she’s not,” I said, closing my eyes, nodding my head with the music, brushing his ear as I spoke and picking up some of his sweat. “She’s just pretending. She can drink us all under the table.”
Margot screamed, opening her mouth wide, then gasped and laughed, fanning herself. I nodded and pinched her elbow — her arm plump, soft-looking, but hard with muscle underneath — and she minced off the dance floor.
“She felt me up while we were dancing,” Jacob said. “Put her hand on my ass.” His face looked glazed and hurt. I looked over at the band and kept moving and wondered which buttock she had touched and whether he still felt the warmth of her hand, glowing under his jeans.
“She just likes you,” I said. “The way I like you. The way everybody likes you.” I held my arms up and tilted my head back until I was dizzy, in the process almost falling into some other people. Jacob caught me before I fell into the tangle of mike stands and wires at the middle of the band’s stage. I felt my shoulder blade compress under his thumb.
“I thought you loved me,” he said, and I could smell his breath, sour just like his sweat. I wanted to shake him, make his head rattle. “Are you telling me you want me to fuck her?” he asked. A cold, hard, bitchiness drew down over my psyche in an instant, like a reptile’s third eyelid.
“Let go,” I said, shrugging my shoulder out of his hand, away from him — like when Mom would try to hold me down on the bed in one of her drunken vapors.
Jacob kept on dancing, expressionless, his eyes even more blank than usual. If I had been seeing him for the very first time, I might have thought he was insane. He touched my neck with his finger, tracing the angle of my chin.
As I walked away, I turned back to look. His eyes were closed; his face was smooth except for the silly little unshaved jazz bow under his lower lip, which until a couple of minutes ago I had liked. His body was turning and bobbing with the music, but his hands were drawn up into fists and his arms were down stiff at his sides.
“I’ve got to get home — my feet are killing me. Would you mind giving him a ride?” I stared down at Margot, sitting at our table, not meaning to but seeing anyway the cleavage where her full breasts pressed together. For a minute, she looked ridiculous, puffed up with air like some inflatable doll. I wondered what it would feel like to lay my head on that kind of cushion. I looked back at Jacob, dancing in front of the speakers.
“Sure, no problem,” Margot said.
“Talk to you later,” I said, and I left. I wasn’t mad at either of them, not really.
“This is a skull I was asked to identify for a murder trial last year,” said the medical examiner. He looked mild and well-groomed. Lying in a clump of tall grass, the skull was turned away from the camera, its curves a rusty brown except for some scattered patches of pale hair. “This was how it was found.” The slide projector whirred. “Here’s a better view,” he said, and the picture showed the skull head-on, the skull looking paler and the carved teeth glowing white against a formal background of black felt.
I thought of my second funeral, the one where I got to see a body — I was trotted right up to the shabby green kneeler in front of the casket. Great-Aunt Alice’s hair had been given a fresh apricot rinse, the curls prim and dull against the white satin pillow. The flesh of her crossed arms was flattened, as if she’d been pressed in a book. I feared her eyes and lips would somehow fly open and regard me with a blind and terrifying insolence. My remaining great-aunts stood in a cluster around me, weeping, kissing her, the dangling chains of their rosaries sliding, mussing her makeup, her lipstick, her hair.
“Give her a kiss goodbye.” I bent, lips pursed, brushing the well-powdered cheek that felt as cold and hard as my wooden desk at school. A sharp medicinal smell mixed with perfume and hairspray made me sneeze. I creased my forehead to mimic sorrow, all the while barely managing to contain the giddy, shameful laughter bubbling up inside me like silver air through black water.
“I think you should do this professor,” Margot said, when I told her about my date with Rathlin. Jacob and I had made up — sort of. He insisted Margot wasn’t his type, shaking his head and laughing — unkind laughter, I felt, not wanting to join him in his gaiety because it felt disloyal to her — at the same time wondering why on earth I held my laughter back. Nothing had happened between the two of them, Jacob added, and in that I believed him, because the one thing I felt certain of was he could not tell a lie.
After Margot and I hung up, after I’d sipped almost an entire bottle of wine, I sat at the kitchen table with one last glass and a cigarette, writing in my journal. “I think he likes me,” I wrote, meaning Rathlin, alcohol having made my loopy script even bigger than usual. After twelve more pages elaborating on that general theme, I don’t remember how I got from the table to my bed.
“This, of course, is my favorite holiday,” Rathlin said, grinning. He’d taken the video last summer in Mexico, documenting a rural celebration of “el Dia de los Muertos” — the Day of the Dead. Spindly-legged children cavorted in front of the camera, dancing brown and barefoot, wearing cartoonish papier-mâché skull masks and shaking small tin skeletons hanging from long sticks. The painted tin strips rattled against each other like wind chimes. It all seemed less gruesome than absurd.
After Aunt Alice, funerals got easier. My Uncle Frank looked better than anyone — or maybe it’s just easier to do a good job on a man. His hair wasn’t stiff or sprayed at all, just brushed back off his forehead. Even his glasses sat in the right position. I could see my reflection in the lenses as I leaned over the casket to rearrange the lay of his necktie.
“You’re not ready?” Rathlin asked, arriving almost an hour early for our breakfast date. Stiff and hung over, I hadn’t dressed or showered. I felt naked, though I was bundled inside sweatpants, a nightgown and a flannel robe. In the shower, I thought about what I’d say to him over breakfast. The only other professor I’d ever gotten this friendly with had been a Vietnam veteran, still a little strung out by that experience, which I found completely understandable. He’d taken me home to meet his mother. He said that when he looked at me, he saw “healthy children.” Feeling more panicked than flattered — I was eighteen to his thirty-five — and wanting to defuse the situation somehow, I said, “What is that, something like the Grateful Dead?”
After pulling my clothes on over damp skin, I went to tell him I was ready. I stuck my head out of the bathroom to see Rathlin searching through my dresser drawers. My eyes got big. “What are you doing?”
“Field observation,” he said, his lips drawn back and his teeth blazing white at me through the darkness of his beard. I saw he was in the drawer where I kept my vibrator.
I marched over and pushed the drawer shut. Then I propelled him out of my bedroom — laughing through my clenched teeth to keep the action on the level of buffoonery, pretending I had just caught him being naughty. His steps were tiny; he twisted his head around to catch my expression. I kept my face neutral, using the fake laugh as an excuse to look everywhere but his eyes.
I mumbled my order to the waitress and sat silent. It ruined the sight of him, being his measured subject. I knew our studies together would never be the same.
“The traditional color of mourning in Japan is white,” said the tall woman, an old graduate-school colleague of Rathlin’s visiting from Osaka University. “Whereas the normal color of celebration is black.” For the natural sterility of white and the corresponding fertility of black, she explained. I stared at Rathlin, chin on my hand, while she spoke, watching as faint color rose along the sides of his neck and he fiddled with his moustache. She drew a plain white kimono from her bag, holding it spread out against her body, an abstract design woven into the material itself, like a tapestry.
I had worn the traditional American black dress at my mother’s funeral. Up until then, everyone in my family — including her — had slopped around to those things wearing pastels, whatever stuff they seemed to have in the closet, but by then I knew it wasn’t right.
Home from afternoon classes, I was startled to find my front door unlocked and standing ajar. Then I heard Jacob’s voice. “Don’t worry, it’s only me,” he called, as I hesitated outside the door, my heart racing.
“Jesus, you scared me,” I said, dropping my backpack inside the door, clutching my chest and breathing hard as I walked into the room.
Jacob sat on the living room floor, five empty bottles from a six-pack of beer balanced around him, the sixth one half-empty in his hand. He didn’t look up when I came into the room, just tilted the bottle back and took a swig. His eyes were bloodshot from the beer. My journal was lying open on the couch.
“So, what’s going on between you and Dr. Rathlin?” I felt a draining sensation from head to toe, gravity pulling all my organs down, squeezing them into my feet. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. For a second or two, I was afraid; that passed when I saw his eyes. They were petulant, sullen, and his mouth was puckered as if he might cry. I remembered a baby picture he had once shown me, and over all the sickness roiling inside me was a horrible urge to laugh.
“Dr. Rathlin?” I said. “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” And of course it was true — there was nothing — that was the awful part. Even so, I sounded like some ridiculous soap-opera bad girl, and he the walking wounded Boy Scout.
“You’re not having an affair?” He stood up, struggling for his balance — I kept myself from reaching over to help him — and at last he got upright, teetering in the floor space between the empty beer bottles. It reminded me of the first night we’d slept together, the two of us standing next to my bed, the stark white of his jockey shorts gleaming in the darkness, like an angel’s wings against the deep brown of his skin — “Help me through this,” he had said, teetering just like he was now, clinging to me as if I were a pier protecting him from some onrushing wave, and I had been filled with respect for his proffered virginity.
“Honestly?” Through his veil of drunkenness I could see a sort of relief. “I thought….” His chest hitched, a gassy hiccup. “I thought you two must be having an affair.”
He looked out the window, frowning with concentration, as if hoping to catch sight of someone he recognized. “Why?” I asked him, knowing as I asked there could never be enough of an answer.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his body sagging, and when he sagged I saw a glimpse of what he would look like as an old man, when gravity would have gotten the best of even his kind of body. He cleared his throat. “At first, I thought you were writing about us, about me. So I turned one page back, to read the rest.”
“Why on earth would you assume I was writing about you?” I asked, honing the vowels into bright knives of sarcasm, sounding exactly like my mother, riled up into a taut, glossy witchiness. I knew from experience how much blood that voice could draw.
His mouth twitched. He squinted in the slanted afternoon sun that filled the room, and his eyes were like a lizard’s. I realized from the very beginning he had thought of himself as being the smarter one.
After a huge bowl of Margot’s guacamole, which we slathered over corn chips, sucking our fingers pale between each bite, we ended up calling out to order pizza, and thus never got to the half-gallon of ice cream in the freezer. We flirted with the pizza delivery guy when he got there — I don’t remember exactly how, but it consisted of exchanging pseudo-knowing glances between ourselves and then looking back at him and laughing with what we thought was a bell-like, sophisticated tone, the speed of our laughter almost, but not quite, as fast as a giggle, and in retrospect I’m sure the guy pegged us for a couple of crazy, shitfaced sluts and got the hell out of there as fast as he could — and the last thing I remember with any kind of clarity is that first bite of pizza, eaten sitting cross legged on the floor in front of Margot’s coffee table. I know, too, that we kept on talking for hours, but I can’t recall what we said because each couplet of our sentences was so complete, so profound, so far beyond our sensibilities when sober, that the pearls of wisdom thus harvested could not be held, but floated away into the atmosphere, nacreous gems of the moment.
Eventually the conversation hit a lull. I lay down on Margot’s couch, kicking off my shoes, intending only to rest my eyes, and was instantly unconscious.
Sometime in the night I awoke. The only source of light was a single fat candle we had lit earlier, stuck on the iron spike of a gaudy, wrought-iron coach lantern she had gotten at some garage sale. As best I could make out, given the gluey condition of my eyes, Margot was floating above the floorboards; though her legs moved beneath her, approximating walking, she resembled the silent bouncing ball in a T.V. sing-along.
She was naked. Her breasts were large and round, pale glowing globes tipped in a deeper pink. Below the straight line of her spine followed buttocks so round and firm that, when linked with her bosom by way of her waspy middle, made her torso look fantastic. No cellulite, no jiggles marred her floatation, and upon that dreamlike observation I closed my eyes again. By the time she went back through the room, I must have been asleep, since the next thing I knew was the delicate light of dawn.
“Margot,” I called, standing at the door of her bedroom, a heaped lump of quilt in the center of her bed the only sign of occupancy. “It’s around six-thirty. I’m going to go home.”
No sound, then a rustling of the heavy quilt, and Margot’s pale face and bare shoulder poked out. She’d slept in her mascara, too. “Wait. Let me give you some coffee first,” she said, her mouth so dry I could hear the faint puckering of her lips as they moved over her teeth.
I sat down next to her on the bed. Margot’s arm moved against mine, her skin hairless, soft, radiating a feverish heat. I stared at the rounded curve of her bent elbow, remembering how I’d last seen my own mother’s body, dressed in her nicest, newest dress. Her features had been painted and molded, her nose and chin just a little too waxy, a little too pointed, for perfection.
I leaned over Margot and felt her breasts crush my own into pneumatic oblivion. She flinched as I laid my head on her shoulder, pressing into her living warmth, but I couldn’t help myself. I knew she wasn’t the cuddly type. My mother hadn’t been, either — she was so soft on the surface and so hard underneath. She was dead, and I missed her, but I didn’t really want her to come back from wherever it was she’d gone. My time to follow her would come soon enough, and maybe by that time she would have forgiven me for ruining her life with my pathetic neediness. I knew I was taking liberties with Margot, but I kept holding onto her anyway, waiting for her to gather up the nerve to push me away.
The Message She Sent, a short story
Geri and her little sister, Rachel, were both deaf. Geri was a year or two younger than I; Rachel was a year or two younger than Geri. I never met their parents, so I don’t know if they were deaf, too. The two deaf sisters latched onto me probably because I was the only kid in the neighborhood who could bear to look them in the eye and try, laboriously, to understand what it was they were trying to say. This was during the era when all deaf children with even a small degree of hearing were made to wear cumbersome, boxy hearing aids strapped to the body and were trained, with varying but always limited degrees of success, to speak. Some deaf children growing up at that time were forcibly kept from using sign language.
The hearing world wanted them to blend in, to not cause trouble. The philosophy was to treat them just like the hearing, well-nigh ignore their disability. The approach had worked only slightly for Geri. She could speak, in a flat, nasal voice, but she left out many of the necessary sounds of the words. Her lips moved correctly, her teeth and tongue worked properly together as she’d been shown, but a word like “hello” would be unrecognizable without great effort on the part of the listener. I had to read her lips, too, just as she read mine.
She taught me the alphabet in sign language, and tried to teach me signs for whole words, but I couldn’t seem to remember them no matter how much we worked together. Sometimes I had her write things down, but mostly, I understood what she wanted to tell me without much trouble. We communicated a lot without any language. In fact, the very best times with Geri were when there was nothing to say, no requirement for communication whatsoever, when all that was necessary was a simple co-appreciation of events, a shared glance and smile. Geri’s hearty, soundless laughter was infectious and could usually cause me to fall to my knees with mutual hilarity.
She was a beautiful girl, far more so than I. Her hair was sun-streaked blonde and fell to her waist — her arms and legs were so long she seemed like a young antelope. Her skin was a clear, delicate buff — her eyes stood out, big, round and blue, set in a long, fine and lively face. Her eyebrows were usually raised in attitudes of curiosity, delight, or occasionally, trepidation. The only thing less than perfect were her buck teeth, but even those were startling white, gleaming, and pushed her rosy, full lips into a charming pout of concern.
Her sister Rachel, on the other hand, was a little troll. Similar to Geri in certain respects, but short-limbed and stout, not fat but packaged with strong, barrel muscles. She could not speak at all, wore no hearing aid, and only grunted. Geri’s hands flew, talking to Rachel. But Rachel, when she came over to my house, was interested chiefly in food, and eventually didn’t wait for an offering but rummaged through our pantry and refrigerator on her own and ate anything she pleased.
The first time she did so, I was shocked and angry because ours was not a house of plenty and I knew I would be in trouble when my parents found out, but Rachel turned her face to me with such complete incomprehension and joy as she ate, that I knew there was nothing to be done. Geri scolded her with her fingers but Rachel wouldn’t turn her head out of the refrigerator to look. She loved sweets, cookies or candy, even fruit yogurt. We didn’t have much, but she ate whatever we had in its entirety. Geri, by contrast, would hold one cookie and make it last, nibbling tiny bites in neat order.
Our daily bike races — Geri’s hair flying out behind her — were evenly matched. Geri always seemed on the verge of flight; sometimes it seemed God’s cruelest trick that she had no wings to carry her about. Climbing trees could take an entire Saturday. So could sitting under the bushes watching an anthill or hunting for duck nests. Geri always seemed to know where to look to find something beautiful. Her favorite game, though, was to give chase or be chased. She’d tap my shoulder and take off. I’d do the same. But the other kids in the neighborhood would leave the area in a hurry whenever they saw Geri and her sister coming.
Slowly, Geri and Rachel began to be my only company. They were always there. First thing in the morning, last at night. Whenever the doorbell rang, it was them. I didn’t mind, exactly, until the kids at the bus stop started conspicuously falling silent as I approached. They’d move their lips and pretend to keep talking. I tried to ignore them, not very successfully.
One day, Geri wanted to brush my hair — her fingers were monkeylike on my scalp, and her touch provoked a tender shiver and the rising of small hairs on the back of my neck and shoulders. Her hands were gentle, even courtly, with the brush. Then she indicated to me she wanted to braid it. She did, but so terribly loose that afterward I was afraid to move my head too far in one direction or the other for fear of spoiling her work.
She was guileless, unsullied by the meanness or lasciviousness that was slowly engulfing the other neighborhood kids our age — yet late at night in my bed, when she inevitably appeared in my winding-down thoughts, I was startled to find myself imagining her dancing in the nude — turning her head this way and that, angling her arms and legs in slow Kabuki triangles. She was above the messiness of our lives, lofted into the thin blue stratosphere by an absence of one sense combined with a flowering of something else — a physical sensibility like that of a genius. I was stunned to worship many times by her careful placement of herself — her torso, arms and legs, arranged so gracefully.
I cannot tell you why, 30 years later, the thought and image of Geri renders me still and quiet, hushed and worshipful, feeling clumsy, insignificant and most profoundly inept. No — that’s a lie. I can. She was a beautiful deaf girl who loved me — this was the message she sent into the roots of my hair, lifting each section of braid like it was a rare, dissected, pulsing nerve. She made two careful braids, one behind each ear. The way she parted my hair with the comb was like zipping my head open and rearranging the numb contents. She was a beautiful creation. Her deafness had become to me not a defect, but a gift. She seemed like a butterfly perched on my finger. That delicate — but a butterfly who came back to me over and over.
Other friends grew distant; it took me weeks to notice. I lived in a world of chosen wordlessness. More than once, Geri put on the huge padded headphones from my father’s stereo — signaling me to turn the volume all the way up — and we danced, Geri with the headphones on, trailing the cord. I could hear the beat of the music, tinny, through the cups around Geri’s ears. Geri’s smile grew bigger than her face. Her buck teeth glowed as she tossed her long hair around, and I was happy, too.
Then one particular Saturday, Geri did not appear shortly after the dawn as was her habitual routine. Feeling odd, a bit adrift but also a bit scot-free, I rode my bike aimlessly down the road and ran into another bunch of kids, playing a more or less moronic game we called “TV Tag.” I hadn’t played it with them in a long time. The point of the game was to hide, to run for the base at a strategic moment, but then to call out the name of a television show if and when you were tagged, and if the TV show hadn’t yet been called by someone else, that meant you wouldn’t have to be “it” yet. We were in the thick of the game when someone spotted Geri and Rachel on foot headed toward us.
The sudden, unspoken agreement was for the group — yes, even me — to hide from the deaf girls, not to embrace them in our play, but to banish them utterly. Thus, I learned from the other children who’d been doing so for months how pitifully easy it was to hide from the deaf girls and to stay hidden, since we could call out their moving whereabouts freely to the others, and merely shifted farther and farther down the block away from them, running as fast as we could, shrieking as loudly as we pleased. That day, I learned a most horrible game of hide & seek. I have never forgotten the way Geri’s face looked, alarmed at first, then slowly sad, so very sad and lonely, pale and drawn — and from my ever-changing hiding places I saw her eyes, felt her gaze as she scanned the bushes for me, and heard her calling my name, that nasal and malformed sound I had grown to love. We didn’t stop hiding until she and Rachel had given up and, presumably, gone home.
Yes, I was a droll girl in those days — I hid from my deaf best friend and later the same day fed a morsel of prosciutto, Italian ham, to my Jewish best friend, Melinda. My misdeeds had to keep chop-chop with my brand-new knowledge of my own baseness. I knew it wasn’t a sin for her if she didn’t know it was ham — I told her it was Italian corned beef, and she, with misplaced faith, believed me. I understood I would be the one who went to Hell for it. Oddly enough, Melinda was the least deaf of anyone I knew. She could hear, it seemed, my thoughts. But only Geri knew my feelings.
If I could hold that girl and kiss her now, I would. With delight and affection, as if she were a sweet, melting jelly bean against my lips. I would tell her how I never forgot her, and never forgave myself. Because from that day — when I heard her call my name over and over and could not bring myself to answer — it was as if I was the one who was truly deaf, and she the one who could hear.
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!
May 5, 1998
Billy Charles Cantrell died on April 28th. I hardly knew him, but I had known of him for a long time. He had a waxed handlebar moustache & worked at the downtown post office. I trusted him with many, many packages & important letters & documents over the years. He stood out in a crowd. He made customers feel safe, you knew something you put into Mr. Cantrell’s hands was definitely going to arrive at its’ destination.
Someone I hardly knew died the other day, but I sat & stared at his obituary for a long time. I had always wondered about him, I had always wondered what he was like during his off hours. He worked at the downtown post office in Gainesville, where I have lived since 1981. He worked for the post office for 40 years. I hadn’t known he was retired. I think he died of cancer. He was 69 years old. He had college degrees in anthropology & archaeology, which I never knew. He’d been in the Army, he’d lived in Gainesville 44 years. He must have retired pretty recently. They’ve remodeled the lobby of the downtown post office now, so when I walk in there’s no trace of the old feeling, the old feeling that Mr. Cantrell gave us, the postal customers. He was handsome, and had sharp, penetrating eyes, but a good-natured smile & manner. He was unfailingly polite, unfailingly efficient. You could tell he was smart. I wish I’d known him better, I wish I’d met him for coffee or something. He had no children.
I wonder how long he’d been sick. Maybe he retired at 65? Should I call his widow? Tell her what he meant to me? His picture was in the obituary, otherwise I’d never have known who it was. I’m so glad she included his picture. So very glad. I’ll bet Shelley knew him, or at least knew who he was. Oh, I hope he didn’t die of a brain tumor.
Dear Mr. Cantrell, we hardly knew ye. But thanks anyway, thanks for working 40 years in that post office, thanks for taking the envelopes and boxes so very gently and firmly and wonderfully. Thanks for your sensitive looking hands and your brisk manner, your occasional smile, that glint in your eye of humor. You were always thinking a lot of things, that was clear. You were very much alive from the neck up.
a critical review of equatorial rhythms, “written” by rak, former coast guard seaman
Equatorial Rhythms, “typed” by RAK, is the pathetic, badly written “story” of a young coast guard seaman (who enlisted in the United States Coast Guard because he knew his lack of basic survival skills, and in fact, life skills in general, wouldn’t enable him to survive being drafted to Vietnam for even one full day, nay, not even one full hour during the Vietnam War), crossing the equator south for the first time. This self-absorbed, narcissistic young man’s self-pitying past and dismal present intersect with the foreknowledge of his bleak, frightening, and boring future, which he will spend lying on his wife’s couch, letting her pay the bills for ten years, then suddenly dumping her after she survives devastating brain surgery, because suddenly she isn’t content to pay all the bills and be a quiet, crocheting robot anymore. This dull, depressing “story” examines life aboard a coast guard ship, with all its gray-tinted, salty, and decaying “friendships,” petty complaints about stuff that should be barely worth mention by normal humans, the author’s unique, sadly unfunny, bathetic humor and what the narrator incorrectly terms “violence,” a couch-potato-wannabe life, clumsily contrasted with the power of the impossibly vast, eternally wild open sea: a power and majesty the narrator will never, ever, ever understand, or even appreciate with the respect it, the open sea, is due.
After the Short Cut
I’m a pretty woman, at least so the men tell me. “Andrea, you are some woman,” they say. They say that, and then I don’t know if I ever want to see them again. Anybody who would think I’m something special must have a hole in his head. I’m spreading a little in the rear now, after two kids — I’ve got a bit of cellulite on my thighs. It’s all gravy, that’s what I say.
Since I was 14, my life’s been one big bowl of gravy. I’ve tried to learn a little bit about a lot of things — I’ve tried to learn about learning, about how it’s done. It doesn’t matter what fate dishes out to me to go with it, whether I get the tough meat or the tender, the fat or the lean, my life all tastes better because of that gravy. My mom will tell you I blame her for every mistake I’ve ever made, but I don’t, not really. I don’t blame her any more than I blame myself. I blame Katie. I remember Katie in her perfection, the last moment before she got hit, the smile on her lips, and the sparkle in her eyes. That’s how she’ll live forever in heaven. It was her idea, all of it, the boy, the interstate, everything. I blame her, but she paid for her mistake. Sometimes I think she got the easy way out.
I believe everybody’s religion is a way to get to God. I don’t get nervous about having the right one. Why would God shut people out that way? The notion of original sin seems like the most fundamental sort of self-hatred. How is a newborn human baby any more sinful than a kitten? I was in the hospital the morning after my daughter Barbara was born, watching her sleep in her clear plastic bassinet, and I felt like we were both innocent, both trying as hard as we could to do the right thing.
I don’t believe in sin, I believe only in foolishly going against God’s tide, but nobody can keep that up forever, God’s too strong. I try to think right — feelings are another thing, there are no such things as right feelings, or wrong ones. God won’t give up; He’ll pull you up to Heaven no matter how badly you think you want to stay out. Can salmon keep from getting called upstream? Do you think the salmon that get caught by bears along the way are failures? Of course not. Katie and I were like salmon going upstream, going to meet this boy at his house, this boy she had a crush on, the kind of boy that made her heart beat faster — I didn’t get there, neither did she, but she got to see God before I did. I’m waiting for my time. Will he look like my first lover? Is that what Katie saw first and last, the boy she loved, the boy with the brown eyes that made both of us dizzy but gave Katie the most specific intentions?
I sure as Hell didn’t want to cross the interstate on foot. It was Katie’s idea. Do you think that makes me feel any better about what actually happened? I wonder how I’d feel if it had been my idea. Would I feel better, or worse? I suffer when I think about how dumb it was. We acted foolishly, and we’ve both ended up paying. She was brave, I was a coward. I lived, though, I found uncertainty, never knowing which way to go after that moment — I found both cowardice and bravery while she found certainty and sudden death. After I saw her get hit, nothing much mattered until my daughter Barbara was born four years later.
Barbara’s ten now, and she’s got the same powers I have, she can see what’s wrong with people without even talking to them. She can feel where they suffer; she can feel the pins and needles in her own hand when she passes it over their sorest places. She can hear me in her head; I can hear her in mine, without either of us saying anything out loud. Everybody can speak without using their mouth, but very few of us can hear what they say. I run into a few, now and then.
Katie and I were crossing the interstate on foot. We wanted to go to this boy’s house from the mall, and it was a short cut. Without the crossing, it would take 45 minutes to walk there, with the crossing it would take 15 minutes. We wanted to get there faster. We didn’t know we would never make it. If we had known, we would have taken the long way around. We thought that long walk would be boring. We were so impatient, so full of life, giddy with the thought of kisses. We wanted to see that boy — rather, Katie wanted to see him and I wanted to watch them watching each other. But no one could come pick us up from the mall; everyone was too busy to give us a ride. It was wintertime, dark early. That night was so dark, even the sky was clouded over so you couldn’t see the stars. The pavement was like black velvet from the side of the road, an endless ribbon of black velvet and the cars going by were like jeweled bugs, busy on their secret business, their buggy errands.
I had on a jacket. As soon as I saw her get hit I tore it off my body, I used the jacket like a signal flag to wave over her body to try and stop the oncoming cars. I knew she was already dead, I felt her spirit go through me, entering the top of my head, leaving through the soles of my feet. I saw her draw her last breath — even with all the noise, all the cars zipping by on the other side of the road and around us, the wind and the fear and the hiss of burning tires and brake linings, I heard her last gasp, through her cracked ribs, I heard the air leaking through her perforated lungs, I heard the last breath bubbling through her blood. I saw her laying there, her black hair spread over the road like a wet curtain, and I knew.
I rode in the ambulance; they worked and worked on her body, probably just to comfort me. I knew she was dead, but they wouldn’t actually tell me until my mom got to the hospital. My mom, who was even at a moment like that more interested in her bottle of Scotch and her dying friend and her rising fever than in me. She wanted to know why we hadn’t called her. Did she forget we did? We did call, all we got, all we ever got was the machine, and she was in bed nursing her hangover, nursing her sorrows, nursing her case of the flu.
Mom wasn’t perfect, but wasn’t a total screw-up either. She’ll never forgive herself. Thank God we were supposed to be in the care of Katie’s mom. Katie was an only child then. Her mom had another child after Katie died, a boy — she didn’t want another daughter, that would have been too painful. That second child was an accident — just like my oldest — Katie’s mom was so grief stricken for a while she’d go out to bars and pick up strange men, and forget to wear her diaphragm. Or maybe it was the pills she forgot to take. Either way, we were both on the same train after Katie.
Does Katie see me now? Does she forgive me? Will she help me forgive myself? Katie was in love with that boy — she sat behind him in math class. She worshipped him from afar, she was obsessed. After my friend died, I slept with him, for her. He never knew why I came on to him or why I broke it off — I never told him. One time after we’d made love I asked him to tell me about her, he didn’t know anything. I felt sorrier for that than for anything. Katie died a virgin; I’ve made up for her in that way. The joy of knowing what is true can be dampened by the pain of knowing you’re not going to be able to live in the truth, yourself. I don’t care, it’s all gravy now.
Since I was 14, it’s been gravy. I’m not any better or worse than Katie. I say that to myself, but I don’t really believe it. She was good, she died. I lived. Clear enough? When I feel like I haven’t gotten what there was to get out of my life, when I feel how much I’ve missed from inattention or carelessness, Katie comes back to me with a still wind, rushing through my ears like she did the night she died. I’m waiting for my time to come.
Hope it’s not on the interstate. Not like that, not with my hair spread out on the wet pavement like a pretty, pretty fan. Not with my ribs sounding like popcorn when I breathe. The driver of the car cried for days. I suppose his situation might have been the worst of all. Thinking he could have stopped in time. But he couldn’t have. I wonder if it made him a better father to his own kids. I tell my own daughter, Barbara, honey, don’t ever be afraid to take the long, safe way to wherever it is you’re going. You’ll get there, even though you don’t think you will and you’ll see things you never would have seen otherwise. I don’t want her to miss out; I don’t want her to have to live off gravy for the rest of her life like me. Please, God, anything but that. Patience, I tell her when I kiss her goodnight, smelling the hair right in front of her ears, the place she can never manage to reach with the shampoo, the place that smells of sweat and tears and dreams, just like mine did. Patience, my beautiful girl — I tell her every chance I get — patience is a virtue.