Tag Archives: girls
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.
Whenever Ella was feeling close to the edge, a hair’s-breadth from lunacy, she liked to shop for groceries. She went up and down all the aisles, methodically picking out food. She threw boxes and jars and bags and cans willy-nilly in her cart, always stocking up for the big one, the storm that would tear the roof off. It’s a habit, one she learned as a child. The women in her family were bony, starry-eyed drunks, with bad skin and lank hair, but by God, they knew how to grocery shop.
She was in this twitchy, nervous state because her mother had showed up again last night. She would never know if it was just a dream: she hoped it was. Ella opened her eyes and saw her mother standing next to the bed, almost touching the mattress. She didn’t smile or speak, but simply shook her head. Mama seemed angry; Ella could tell her mother wanted to hit her. Mama was jealous that Ella was still alive, driving Mama’s car, watching her TV, wearing her jewelry. Ella met her fierce gaze without moving, then closed her lids against the image like hurricane shutters.
The room was so dark, and her mother was like a column of gray smoke, rising over Ella. Meeting death hadn’t changed Mama’s face one bit. How was it that Ella still missed her? That was an embarrassing, childish pain, an overgrown mouth sucking a rubber pacifier. There would never be a second chance for Mama and Ella; Ella wished she could believe in heaven like she believed in hell. If her mother had loved herself, or Ella, even a little, maybe she’d have pulled through the dark waters. But poor Mama was so full of self-hate there was no room for anything else. Now Ella was afraid her mother’s habits were coming after her.
Ella confessed it; often she had hated her mother too, while she lived. She even killed her mother once, in a dream. She stabbed Mama many times with a kitchen knife, and it felt right, like it was the only graceful way out for both of them. There wasn’t as much blood as Ella expected, though there was still enough to soak her mother’s nightgown all the way through. When she woke, clammy and trembling, Ella hurried to Mama’s room to make sure she still breathed. Ella knelt at the side of her bed, watching her mother’s scrawny chest. At first, it didn’t stir, and Ella almost cried out. Then she saw movement, enough to know her mother lived. Forever after, she feared the terrible anger in herself. It was always waiting, a tiger with ivory teeth and steel claws — waiting for her to stumble, to lose her grasp on mercy, on forgiveness, and throw open its cage.
Wishing her mother was dead half the time didn’t keep Ella from breaking down the door in a panic when she thought she’d overdosed. After the first incident, Ella wasn’t all that worried, she knew her mother to be too much of a bumbler, she would screw it up, or not finish, like she did everything else. The door became only an excuse for Ella to use her rage, to make her hatred tangible, give it life, a physical existence. She used a heavy folding chair, swinging it over and over again, watching first the splintered crack appear, then the bit of light, marveling at how the door-frame itself gave way all at once and the entire door fell cleanly into the room. Mama sprawled on her bed, half-clothed, her knobby knees the bulkiest part of her, her huge, brown, doe-like eyes looking puzzled. Even with all the noise, Mama was so out of it, she couldn’t figure out how Ella had gotten in the room. Later, sober, she realized she’d underestimated her daughter, she hadn’t known what Ella was capable of. Much later, a couple of years after Ella left home, after a hundred false starts, Mama managed to finish what she’d begun.
Ella shopped hours for the perfect funeral dress; pulled grimly through all the racks, looking at everything dark. No, not dark, black. “Nobody wears mourning black anymore,” the saleslady said, but for her own mother, Ella insisted. In photographs, she appeared the proper, bereaved daughter. She spent three days wearing the black dress, feeling grimy by the day of the burial, and glad of it.
They buried her mother in front of a croton bush, God, how Mama had hated those things, crotons. Ella stared at the shiny marble urn where it sat in the little hole, the tacky brass plaque glued to the top. She couldn’t object to the shrubbery, not with the priest standing there, tall and lean and handsome like some Marlboro Man, chanting and swinging his billowy canister of incense on its copper chain, the black robes clinging to him under the harsh weight of the sun, his hand so big and hard when she shook it, her knees almost gave way.
That night, Ella left the house long after dark, she walked in shaky high heels down the street and around the corner, ruining the delicate heel tips on the asphalt. She decided to keep walking until she dropped; to walk forever if no one came running after her. She stopped only a couple of miles away, limp from the humid August air. Crickets vibrated, frogs exhaled, stars flickered; the glowing, yellow windows of strangers were her last comfort, her final safe haven. Nothing but love for those strangers kept her from leaving for good, nothing but fear of the anger-tiger kept her from going any farther after her mother; Ella stood alone in the velvet grief of that hot summer night, calling her mother’s name over and over again like a stupid, hungry baby.
Please Speak Well of Me When I’m Gone, a 397 word short story
October 11, 2012
I had the strangest dream, where I was back together with K!!! We were together in this hotel room, packing our stuff, which was a lot, and getting ready to ride on a plane somewhere (what else does he do these days, but ride on planes!). It was as though we were back together, after all these years, something had happened; our subsequent, real-life remarriages were never mentioned. Clearly, we knew it was awkward that we hadn’t been together in so long — but there it was, we were going to try it. We didn’t have sex in the dream, although it was clear both of us were sort of thinking about the concept. But we weren’t anywhere near ready for that! And when I awoke, I started thinking about how sometimes I get confused about my life, about the sharp turns, the complete disconnections from my entire past life, etc., and how sometimes I don’t recognize the current terrain.
And why have I been thinking so much about K. these days, like that song by the Weepies, “Speak Well of Me When I’m Gone?” The one that has made me cry so many times? “I’ve been away, a year and a day….” That’s true of so many people in my life, isn’t it? Only they’ve been gone far longer than that: some have been gone for 35 years. How young, and blind, and ignorant, and how many horrendous mistakes it’s possible to make, etc.
“Looking back now, I only wish I had been kinder.” It’s the truth — some part of me has never stopped loving K. “And when I’m gone, please speak well of me.” Some part of me wishes we had worked out, because he was the first truly committed relationship I had, the first husband, the father to my first child, so many firsts. I met him when I was 22. He was 27.
Wouldn’t it have been sweet, had it worked out? Almost like high school sweethearts. Young — I was so young, so inexperienced. God! And I would apologize to him on my knees, if it would do any good. He wouldn’t, I don’t think, be able to hear me. The way I would want it to be heard. Still, I could try, couldn’t I?
August in Florida
Outside, people crowd around water. Heat, the bright aqua of water, smell of chlorine and sun lotion. Coconut, spice. Young girls with slender hips, high breasts. Mincing, they walk barefoot over the burning concrete. Ankle bracelets. Hairless women, hairy men. Some men look vaguely female–lack body hair, possess slender torso, a feminine grace. They practice diving off the high platform, catapulting through the air like minor gods.
Spindly little children, bowlegged, one girl like a large walking doll, Wedgewood eyes, white skin, hair almost white, but so fierce. She puts her face in the water, proud of herself, comes up spitting, does it over and over. This girl’s mother, slim, pale body like a teenager’s, but her face red and sun-aged, enormous Southern twang. A former cheerleader, rural Georgia or Alabama. Lying on the blistering concrete, eyes closed, listening to the sounds of laughter and splashing. My sore back, the heat melting the ache away.
On the towel closest to me, a young girl, pretty, bleached blonde hair with dark roots showing, golden-brown string bikini that matches her skin, her perfect feet. Sudden thunder, the pool closed, into the locker rooms for 20 minutes. Live oaks, huge spread branches like arms reaching into the sky. The arms are shading, watchful. The oaks are like sentinels. The moss hangs like underarm hair. Young boys, thick and awkward, walk stiff-legged. They turn dark reddish-brown, but look silly next to the black kids. Tall, skinny black boy with red hair, a crew cut. His mama, a large woman in bright blue tank suit and neon orange shorts, matching neon bathing cap. Her earrings graze the sides of her neck. She isn’t ready to leave yet. He watches the girls, pretending not to.
Over there, a skinny, burnt woman with bad teeth, yet her daughters are so lovely, so young and fair and smooth. How did she produce them? A hippie girl with a blonde baby boy, crooning one minute, yelling the next, she holds him on her hip, sways in the sun. More and more women look like those prehistoric clay fertility figurines, heavy hanging breasts, stomach overlapping their thighs. I lie still and watch, lazy with the heat, my own weight.
The Art of the Javelin
There were certain lovers who never let you go, not even when it was over, officially over ‑‑ the kind of officially over where you both married other people. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s something about chemistry, the chemistry of their skin on yours, your skin won’t ever stop wanting theirs and this is a really, really bad thing. Marriages have been wrecked because of that skin, engagements broken, the valuables pawned. The skin fling always started well, of course, the mad passion, so heated you never thought about the consequences. And there were always consequences: huge, nasty ones. Perhaps those terrible consequences were what doomed the love affair from the very beginning. Nothing so lovely and delicate could survive the stamping black boot of your own despair.
You loved him, but it was never enough. Being with him was not enough. Being without him was not enough. Maybe your children, both dead, would have been enough. You saw the first child, sleeping, its head tilted back, its eyes closed. You do not know what color its eyes were. You never saw its eyes. It saw, and in seeing, died. Suffice it to say the child would have been a master of language. It would have been love, a fountain of it. You left, not taking your child home. You let someone else take it away. Psyche never saw Cupid, and you cannot see him anymore. Psyche is and was whatever Love loved. You were loved by Love. You died with the child. You were crushed like a butterfly hovering in front of a fast-moving truck. You were a crushed soul.
The land was flat, barren ‑‑ the horizon stretched like a satiated woman ‑‑ supine, theatrical, unconscious. You missed the children, and you missed him. Was it a garden you were in? Was it a prison cell? There was never enough air, anywhere.
Who wanted, as a woman wanted, simply to be loved? All the boys wanted something else. Girls, on occasion – and more than once — want abstract worship, admiration from afar, poems, flowers, sweet nothings in the ear. Is that what the boys wanted, too? With that divining rod in front of them it must have been difficult to remain abstract. There was something embarrassing about need rendered visible. They could not hide it from the world. Did boys say, “No?” As often as girls? The urge was outward, not inward – the desire to pierce, rather than contain. The needle ‑‑ the eye of the needle ‑‑ threaded with what, exactly? The female soul? Your feet were so cold in the water, wading for freshwater mussels, that your toenails turned stark white. The mussels were brown and slippery, and the empty shells painted with pale, pearly rainbows in the light. The little girls around you murmured with delight, squealing when they found a really big one. Their little hands were sandy and damp on your arm. Their voices piped so impossibly high. You saw them at age 35, still hunting for the perfect shell.
You were tired of living your life. It was satisfactory only in the material sense. The lights were never turned off for lack of payment. Your husband went to bed hours before you did; you sat doing needlepoint in the den and watching obscure re‑runs. You resented your husband’s bulk upstairs in the king‑sized bed, you resented him sleeping turned towards you, resented the warmth of his breath wafting across the hump in the middle of the mattress that had arisen over the years between the depressions your bodies made on either side. Once or twice you tried to get her husband to talk to you about God; he declined to do so, saying it was “too personal” a topic. What is the use of a husband, you thought, without conversations about God?
So you wondered whether to leave him. Suddenly, a young man, black‑haired, black‑eyed, entered your life, with a piercing gaze, but shy, downturned head. He was marrying his girlfriend: you thought they were both too young and naive to know what they were getting into. You tried to talk him out of marriage, saying not that yours was terrible, just that marriage itself was really hard and bound not to live up to anyone’s expectations for it.
He married the girl, anyway, and in about a year was desperately unhappy. His wife left him, run away several times, stole his money and his car and told him he was worthless both in bed, and out. In another moment, you found yourself in bed with him, never once considering how you would get out again. You were not ready to be called an adulteress, but he persuaded you that since you had already committed adultery in your heart, what did it matter in the flesh? Oh, it mattered, it mattered plenty. Only in a purely theoretical sense did it not matter. It certainly mattered to your husband. He wanted the child, all the money, the house, and your head on a platter. Everyone told you not to be honest, not to tell him, but you couldn’t deceive him that way ‑‑ it would kill you to be so deceived by someone else.
It first happened on a rainy afternoon, the kind of afternoon that made sitting on a park bench impossible. All you really wanted to do was talk. You were lonely, you wanted to be alone with him in a comfortable place where you could take your shoes off and lie down flat and tell him your life story. He was so kind and understanding. You wanted everything to happen slowly. Both he and you were married to other people at the time and you had a broken ankle so you couldn’t walk through the woods or the park, even if it weren’t raining. You weren’t planning on committing adultery. You wanted an affair of the heart, of the mind. You were either hopelessly naive or lying to yourself.
When you were feeling bitter, you wore red clothes, covered with lint, and did not bother to go over them with sticky tape. You slept only on goose down pillows, and drank only water bottled in France. When hurricanes were coming, you cooked elaborate cream sauces, and served lemon and honey tea shot with brandy in a crystal cup. Your rage gave you a sore throat, the tears and tissues a sore nose. Anger was only depression turned outward. Always, you received presents in the wrong size, but consoled yourself afterward with icy lime sherbet. You slept a bitter sleep, on sticky sheets, dreaming of French noses, and purebred geese, white with pink feet. On Halloween, you changed your name for good.
You took bitter medicine, while he slept through the hurricane. He gave you red clothes, always the wrong size. You fed the geese cracked corn with your bleeding hands. The brandy shattered the crystal glass. Cream sauces were poured over ice. You strapped the pillows to the bed with sticky tape. You cried while he was bleeding. You whimpered after giving birth. A deep, abiding melancholy. Our Lady of Perpetual Melancholy. The symbolism of the golden arches. An icon for the ages. Our Lady of Perpetual Cholesterol. Our Lady of Sodium. Our Lady of the Mall. Where is food for the spirit? Charge it on your MasterCard. Ring it up on your Visa. A deep melancholy, not easily abated or debated.
It happened on a day when you’d been fasting for religious reasons even though you weren’t religious. A friend called that morning before you’d eaten breakfast and happened to mention it was Yom Kippur. You felt ready to atone for everything you’d ever done regardless of whether you’d actually caused anybody to suffer. Your husband, for example. Your husband was suffering although he didn’t realize it. He thought he was content, but he was wrong. You knew that having sex with a woman for 12 years without her having a single orgasm constituted suffering. You wanted his suffering to cease, quickly and permanently. And it seemed you were the cause of all suffering, everywhere. You had daydreams about running away and never coming back, living in a small rented room, anonymous.
So the fasting and the marital woes had taken their toll on your common sense, and the broken ankle had taken its toll on your ability for locomotion. You were faint from low blood sugar and hobbled wearily into the motel room, collapsing on the lumpy mattress. Being called a neurotic bitch by your husband had long lost its appeal. You needed somebody to love you, not somebody to fuck. But, as your soon‑to‑be lover undressed you, he told you it didn’t even matter whether you actually had sex with him because you’d already committed adultery in your heart. At the time, you took your lover’s reasoning for spiritual altruism. You snapped at it like a starving bass would snap at a rubber worm. Hook, line and sinker, you purchased your fate. It was silly to think you could ever keep a secret. You obtained a divorce, slinking away from the ruins of your marriage guilty, nearly suicidal, your ex‑husband spitting contempt and moral integrity even as he made plans to marry his own recently‑acquired lover.
Then over and over again, between your ex‑lover and yourself, things exploded, imploded, burdened by your guilt and remorse and terror. All this ruined mess wasn’t what you had in mind, you were just lonely and wanted to talk. He thought everything was conquerable, everything, by the human will and true love. Slowly, unmet needs that at first seemed unimportant loomed enormous and unsolvable. He didn’t feel safe with you, nor you with him, albeit for completely different reasons. You were nastily divorced, and suddenly a major skeptic when it comes to love. Between your dead marriage and your dead alcoholic mother, you finally learned to cut your losses, and quickly. What started with a bang ended with a bang? First the relationship was a misery to you, and then it was a misery to him.
The copper gleam of your helmet hair was blinding. Ivory soap floated in the tub, pale and fatty. Hard gray metal breathed like a ghost. The stains of divorce could not be removed with bleach, no matter how hard you tried. Women in bikinis reminded you of how you used to feel in summer, naked, nearly free. You decided to be laid out in a salt pine coffin from Jerusalem, your wake illuminated by jeweled lamps fueled by liquid chicken fat. Stone gargoyles copied from Paris originals would be worked into bench seats. For refreshments, cold meats with baked garlic.
You loved him even though you knew it was doomed, and that love kept pulling you back to the maybe‑I‑didn’t‑really‑give‑it‑the‑old‑college‑try sort of mistake. So you got involved with him all over again, and it was a disaster, again, but to him the fact that you came back only proved the point that you two should never have broken up to begin with. In the end, he never understood why you kept breaking it off, and each time it got over somehow you couldn’t understand exactly why you ended it, either. It was the same kind of destructive amnesia that keeps a woman having babies after that first one. She forgets how hard it was, how much it hurt, how much it broke her spirit. This entire sad sequence repeated until you finally had enough.
That night, you dreamed your mother was unpacking long‑forgotten boxes ‑‑ animals carved out of brightly colored stone, gold‑glass paperweights, things you loved, and your mother was getting rid of it all.
Six months later you got a bill from the library for $173.00. You remembered your lover checked out a bunch of library books on your card. So you called him, asked him to return them so you don’t have to pay. Time goes by, and you wondered. You called his house for days, but the line was always busy. You decided to drop in.
You knocked. It took a long time, but finally he came to the door, disheveled but looking good, except around the ears. His house smelled strongly like man. You were startled by the smell. Vanilla, cinnamon, and a touch of dirt, of mushrooms. The rooms of women smelled like yourself. You have been in other men‑only houses, and it was always the same. There was a strength to their smell, a lasting power, an earthiness under the scent of the body that made you want to burrow into the bed-sheets. This time, you did not. He was growing a beard and wore jeans with holes in the knees which made him look as sexy as the third time you slept with him, the time in his father’s falling‑down barn ‑‑ you couldn’t wait one minute longer so you did it right there on top of some mildewed couches. You broke up for the last time almost a year ago. It was shocking, the physical part you’d thought was long gone.
You wanted him again, though you’d never let yourself have him, and he sensed it – that made him really angry, angrier than you had ever seen him. For once, you ignored the physical passion. You didn’t touch him, though you wanted to, badly. He sensed it, and that sensing is what drove him mad. He screamed. He accused you of being shallow, insensitive, a manipulative bitch with the emotional capacity of a rock. You were meant to be his, you did everything wrong, you shouldn’t have broken up with him, because it was meant to be, him and you, forever. He forgot how you cried all the time, and how you couldn’t quite put your finger on the reason. He forgot what it cost you to be with him: half your daughter’s life. He had no children himself, yet, then: he couldn’t know how guilt had you in its death‑grip.
He screamed, he let you do things, “get away with things,” he shouldn’t have. He didn’t want those things to occur, but he didn’t object at the time because it seemed like what you needed to do. You told him maybe he should have given you his true opinion, back then. Maybe, if he had given his opinion when it was so desperately needed, you’d have chosen to be with him. Maybe it was his essential passivity that caused those late‑night crying jags. Maybe you were crying because you felt like his parent, his dorm mother, his baby‑sitter. You, too, sometimes wanted to be cared for, nurtured, sometimes you wanted to feel safe, to be warm in your own bed on your own pillows, not scurrying around in the corners playing catch‑up with the dust-balls.
But he did not, could not, and would not hear anything you had to say. You were supposed to be with him forever — he believed this and never let go of it: his personal Holy Grail. He wrote you love letters up until the week you got married for the second time, after that, came only hate letters. There would never be a remedy for his hurt. There was no way to make amends. The wounds between you never healed, because he never stopped being angry with you. He was, is, and will always be angry with you. For this reason, your affair with him will never be over.
Will he be angry, forever? Yes. Will his jealous wrath burn like fire? Yes. Blessed is the man whom God chastens, and God will chasten him in time. Yes. His entry into vagina, and your life, was like someone throwing the couch over, slitting all the cushions, smashing the picture glass, sawing the bookshelves into firewood.
Someone knelt. Someone asked to be blessed, forgiven, and made whole. Two people danced, and at the same time drew blood from one another. The man you loved stood remote, erect, unbending. You died, to him. You murdered him, years ago — it was an accident, a terrible wreck of the heart and body. You wanted only to find your true home. They why did your heart feel like cold‑rolled steel? It clanged shut — you were alone, again. And, again, no one could reach you.
While his plane took off, you did jumping jacks next to the runway fence. The chain link made you feel like you had a vision problem. The vessel making up your love for each other was glass ‑‑ white but somehow full of colors, opalescent, and its inner lip was scarlet ‑‑ caressing the outside of the vessel were golden-brown, radiating leaves, quivering with life. Nothing could hold that vessel down ‑‑ it rose of its own accord. Once shattered, it could never be restored. Your fault, you never knew how to live in this world. You always desired things which could not be possessed ‑‑ could be kept, could not be domesticated. Your own heart was not domestic, but, rather, wild, savage, and cruel. It was the opposite of serene. It held mother‑love and murder, sometimes in the same instant. You were the living damned. The only answer seemed to be to keep moving. That is why you decided to entomb your legs in rock, solid and immovable. That is why you always tied yourself to the ground. The caged butterfly smashed itself over and over again, beating impossibly against prison bars of cold‑rolled steel. Finally, its wings shredded, and the butterfly could only remember flying. It knew only that something had gone terribly, terribly, terribly wrong.
A Lot of Men That Year, a novel fragment
I was going through a lot of men that year. All men seemed like works of art to me, like sculpture. With body hair, without ‑‑ the buttocks, the thighs, the chests. They were all quite lovely to look at. Their emotional content was something else completely. They seemed cruel, without love ‑‑ not that it mattered that much to me; I kept myself armored against hurt pretty well. It was all casual dalliance, a form of gymnastic exercise, no permanence intended. That was how I was protected.
Francisco was the handsomest man I’d ever dared let myself be attracted to. We were cast in the same play, that’s how it started. His friend, Vincent, was also quite handsome, though not my type ‑‑ blonde, blue‑eyed.
During this same time, my father and I were trying to get to know each other, 20 years too late. He wanted instant fatherhood: I was just confused by it all.
His VW van ‑‑ his hippie ways. He thought I was so conservative. When he told me he was attracted to me physically, sexually, I was only half‑shocked, because I suppose I had felt it too. I almost wished he would act on it, just to see what it felt like. It wasn’t like I really saw him as a father figure.
Meanwhile, I slept with every guy who interested me, except the ones who had love in their eyes. Lust, intellectual curiosity, and admiration for my body ‑‑ these were all OK. But love? It gave me the willies. Long‑term commitments were the last thing on my mind.
My father was living in his van ‑‑ I didn’t want to see him all that much, and that hurt his feelings. I don’t know what, exactly, was going through my mind. Attraction and repulsion, like magnetic phenomena.
Then there was the boy who punched the wall and broke his hand. The short boy, musclebound. He had sort of, kind of, almost-but-not-quite fallen in love with me. He wanted to sleep with me, but I refused him. He didn’t understand why. I was sleeping with everybody else. I sensed that a sleeping relationship with him would get too messy. He would be jealous, passionate, moody, and neurotic. I only wanted men who were vaguely indifferent?
I loved my film as literature class teacher from afar. He was balding, blonde, and wore thick glasses. I mean Coke-bottle thick. I wanted everybody to make passes at me. I was almost offended if they showed no overt interest in taking my clothes off. My only excuse? I was nineteen years old.
The Swiftness of Dream-Time
She confides unduly in strangers, asking
inappropriate, intimate questions. She has
startling, beautiful eyes, a pale luminous brown,
fringed by heavy black lashes. The fair skin
of her lids glistens like the wings of a moth,
and the expansive way she smiles makes her
delicate pink lips almost disappear. She lives
in the dream-time before marriage and children,
unschooled by the constant companionship of small
relentless demands, unaware of the eternal
ramifications of peeling herself raw
like a thick stalk of sweet cane, exposing her pithy
heart to people who don’t care to understand
the need to be loved, hidden warts and all.
Some people can never be trusted, she feels this
in her bones, yet she doesn’t want to believe it;
the ache of betrayal is like cancer of the marrow,
an oily red liquid pouring from her center
to drown the most fragile of her cells.
On personality tests, she engages in flights of fantasy:
happiness wings past just out of reach, grazing
her face with its sharp, heavy wings, ruffling her fine
hair with the remarkable swiftness of its passage.
Sitting in her green armchair, she becomes
engrossed in old forgotten novels, flipping
the tissue-thin paper with impatience,
sweeping the fallen crumbs of leather binding
off her taut, bony lap with fingers sticky
from futile perspiration. If the man she thinks
she loves asked her to marry him, she would say
yes without hesitation, but it wouldn’t make her
happy — nothing will ever satisfy her, for very long.
She doesn’t know what she wants and never will.