Tag Archives: grief

To My Blood Sister

illustration two women sophia loren

When you drink, your voice thickens sweet &
lethal as syrup. I know that sweetness —
once I let it go all through me, I let it stay & stay.
I don’t know if we will cry together, like sisters,
my nose pressed against your neck, but for now
we can drink together from the same bottle &
descend as one into our true blue depths, united
by our sadness, our terrible failure to be loved
enough. I will not flinch from your bloodstained
towels, your green veins, your broken arms.
I understand why you weep for the dead —
though you never loved them. Still,
the yearning to save rises in you as bread rises,
doubling your volume, your capacity for pain.

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Pretty Young Women, Playing A Game, a very short story

Pretty Young Women, Playing A Game

The stupid party game I suggested that night was called “the worst moment of your life.” A half-dozen of us were playing, sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor. The prettiest, Kelly, resembled a long-past period of fashion, with her trembling dusty-yellow curls, her sharp little chin — her eyes were bright blue, her frame delicate. We had been up all night; the sun was close to rising, but the birds hadn’t started their relentless cheerful, spell-breaking noise.

Kelly didn’t want to play at first, but the rest of us insisted, figuring what? That not making head cheerleader was her life’s worst tragedy? That’s what happens again and again to women like her, they try to explain why they don’t want to talk about it… but no one listens.

The second prettiest one, Vicki, was pale and fleshy, moving with a clumsy, yet charming, slowness that made the rest of us wonder if it was an act… or could she really be that dumb? Across the undersides of her velvety forearms gleamed a network of thin white scars… the baby she’d left at her mother’s that night was not her husband’s. Mistakes get made; the child’s father was never heard from again.

Oh, but now Vicki wanted to get remarried so badly it made every other woman in the room flush with embarrassment just hearing her mention her latest lover’s name. We knew because of the kid that wasn’t his he would never agree to marry her; but she was so beautiful… scars, sad eyes and all… that he couldn’t say no to what she offered up nightly.

So, after being pushed & pushed & pushed & pushed & pushed into participating, Kelly narrated the worst moment of her life. Her twin sister was in the middle of a divorce. We never knew she HAD a sister. A few days before Christmas, the estranged husband called — he had lots of presents for the kids. She agreed to meet him at a gas station down the street. The only thing he gave her was three bullets — one in the spleen, one in the right lung, one in the throat.

“At least he had the decency to shoot himself too,” Kelly says sobbing. “How does marriage turn into murder?” The rest of us watched tears plop out of her eyes like clear glass pearls; we heard the birds finally, blessedly, began to chatter, bringing relentless life back into the world.

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Latin Epidemics, a poem

mane-placidus-et-gnosce-latinLatin Epidemics

Everyone’s caught this bug, talking to the dead, palms upturned.
Hope, long dead, the naked white bones a comfort; leaving homes,
wives, husbands, dreaming toward love; signs of birth.

People so disciplined, so filled with the rules of grammar; staying
married for life, or at least a day. A good day, kiss-filled; warm,
moist lips, not bloodless, cold & grey. How did we catch the fever?

Dreams uncatchable, passion withers; too much hope, too much
trust. Not much honesty; not much logic; a man wanted his wife
to talk to him. A woman wanted her husband to stroke her cheek

with his finger as if she was a flower, a child wanted her mommy
to drink less, wanted his daddy to stay longer… words come easier,
etched on lead sheets thrown into a sacred spring, asking favors of gods.

May he who stole my dog be plagued with gout; may she who
laughed at my husband grow warts on her nose… in a millennium,
nothing has changed except the curses, the fashion, the cheese & wine.

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She Hates Numbers

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Pretzels & Chocolate, a poem

jim-valvis

PRETZELS & CHOCOLATE

(rented room, cigarettes)

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

with the merest bite
they only satisfy
part of my tongue

(rented room, cigarettes)

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

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

my body molds to yours

(rented room, cigarettes)

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

I am eating chocolate
thinking of us
together

(rented room, cigarettes)

illustration mockingbird mimus polyglottos

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Things We Never Said, a short story

img058 alcoholics anonymous big blue book

Things We Never Said, a short story

She was beautiful, as all mothers are to their children, but it was far more than that. Total strangers told me how beautiful my mother was. She was particularly fine-boned and delicate. Her skin was the softest I’ve known, her arms and hands the most stubborn, the most lethal.

Mom was an alcoholic, of course, and the most gruesomely stubborn person I’ve ever known. She went past simple denial and created her own alternative universe. Once, some quack psychiatrist she was seeing told her she wasn’t a “true” alcoholic — that she only drank out of boredom. She clung to that unfortunate phrase of absolution, repeating it like a robot in a variety of situations, until the day she died at 44 from alcoholic pancreatitis.

The only way we ever got her into rehab was when we threatened to call the police about obtaining drugs by false pretenses. She’d call the drugstore and tell them it was Dr. So-and-so’s office, would they please fill a prescription for such-and-such, three refills, please.

She got stiff all over when she drank, not like a normal drinker who gets loose. Stiff, and with a duck-legged walk that made my flesh crawl. I can’t tell you how many times I just let her lay there on the floor where she’d stumbled in a drunken stupor. I couldn’t bring myself to touch her.

If only Mom could have been more like Charity Hope Valentine, the taxi dancer in “Sweet Charity” who, after being pinched, pawed at, fondled, ridiculed, robbed, tattooed, thrown from a bridge, trapped in an elevator, and deserted at the altar, rather meekly accepts the cheery and somehow redeeming gift of a single daisy from a group of 60s flower children, pulling herself out of her misery yet again, and living “hopefully” ever after.

My mother and I both said “I love you,” a lot, and to no avail. Neither of us believed in love. We believed only in self-preservation. Trust was unknown. I have never learned the reasons for staying with another. All I can think of, now that I’m married, is what I’m missing, giving up for the other. How short life is, and how unhappy.

I took a developmental psychology course once, while my mother was still alive. The teacher explained that no child ever actually dreams of killing the mother. Infantile rage exists, yes, murderous anger exists, yes, but the true desire to kill can never be resident in the child’s subconscious. “The instinct for preservation is too great,” she said.

When I told her, later and in private, how I’d dreamed that very act, how in my dreams I’d taken the great butcher knife out of the kitchen drawer and stabbed it viciously and repeatedly into my mother’s fine and delicately boned chest, she shook her head skeptically.

“You didn’t really dream that,” she insisted. “You only think you did.” I didn’t argue. I was still too afraid it might happen in reality to insist that it had happened in dreams.

She was never a very good mother. I was never a very good daughter. After she died, I went to confess my guilt over my record as a daughter once, to an Episcopal priest. “I let my mother down,” I told him.

“No, you didn’t,” he insisted. “You were the child. You had the right to go off and live your own life.” I was angry at him, and never went back.

I still feel guilty about the first time I knew I’d hurt her feelings. She made me a bunny rabbit salad – a scoop of cottage cheese for the bunny’s face, cut up vegetables for the bunny’s ears, eyes, nose, and whiskers. It was adorable. But I hated cottage cheese, and salad. I was four years old. “I don’t like cottage cheese,” I told her.

“Just try it,” she said.

“No.” I refused over and over again. Finally, she ran out of the kitchen, to the bathroom, and I knew she was crying. I sat in the kitchen, staring at the rabbit, not eating it. I didn’t follow her, I didn’t apologize, and I sat there until someone, probably my grandmother, covered the plate with a piece of plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator. I knew I was never going to eat that bunny rabbit salad.

I mailed the invitations to my own daughter’s birthday party today. She’ll be four in sixteen days. Oddly enough, all I could think of as I wrote out the cards was how much my own mother would have enjoyed seeing my child, her first grandchild. I know exactly what my mother’s face would look like if she were at the party — lovely, tremulous, inevitably a little weepy. I also know half of my pleasure would come from seeing the tenderness in my mother’s wide brown eyes as together we would watch my little Katie blow out all her candles.

 

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Lilies of the Field, a short story

illustration lilies of the field

Lilies of the Field, a short story

Harry: Boy With Car

In the picture, Harry leaned back on his car, his arms crossed over his chest, tautly, the muscles bulging underneath his white T-shirt. He wore sunglasses and his hair was blown back off his forehead, as if from great speed. The car was a ‘57 Chevrolet, bright blue, brand new. He’d just left his mother’s house to live with a girlfriend, not Joanna — he didn’t meet Joanna for another 10 years. For a long time, he subsisted off a series of dead-end jobs and girlfriends while masquerading as a college student. The women he lived with all had a few things in common: uneducated but bright, a love of dogs, and perky telephone voices. They leaned against him in the front seat when he drove fast and their hair whipped his forehead. He was confident in those days, nothing had ever broken him. He had not yet been given the gift of suffering.

Joanna: The Queen of Grief

Joanna, in a state of grief and intoxication, returning from her grandmother’s funeral, sat in an automatic photo booth in Atlanta, eyes closed, lips pursed, head tilted back, her skin glowing white, her face blurred, too high to be captured on film. She met Harry in the local airport when she got home. He was intoxicated also, and was leaving to report to the Marines. She gave him her address and phone number and one of the blurry photos. He kept the picture in his wallet and called her every day, collect, from boot camp. She lay awake all night thinking about him, reciting romantic poetry into a tape recorder, then sent him the tape. She was disappointed in love before, but only by herself. She was cold and polite while others were warm and fumbling. How did one love another, anyway? She was, at heart, a hermit, but too much of a coward to live as one. It made for a tumultuous love life.

If Wishes Were Fishes

Harry sat in profile on the edge of a riverbank, his hair dripping forward over his forehead, his shoulders hunched, wearing red bathing trunks, and his black boots lying on his crumpled clothing. He refused to look at the camera. A pale straw hat had fallen off his head and lay directly behind him. The day was bright and clear. He was home from the Marines after 8 weeks, having been excused on medical grounds. He phoned Joanna upon his return. He lived in his car until he moved in with her. Harry said he despised her money and wished she were penniless. Secretly, he realized it didn’t hurt that all the bills were paid regardless of what else was happening. He took to collecting glass paperweights, and Joanna bought one for him everywhere she went. Gradually, Harry started to acquire her taste in champagne.

Woman with Drugs

Joanna stood on a wolf skin rug over a floral Persian carpet, in front of a lace curtain. Her dress reached the floor, white, with puffed sleeves, taken in at the waist by a narrow belt with a small bow. She held a sprig of marijuana in her left hand. Her hair was dark red, her lips painted scarlet. Her skin was only slightly darker than her dress and the curtain. Flowers were scattered in front of her feet on the wolf-fur. Harry was behind the lens, mocking the Impressionists. He admitted to himself for the first time that he was glad Joanna had money, though he would still love her if she were penniless.   He was the opposite of a snob — he made Joanna feel guilty that her family had taken advantage of his by accumulating more than they’d needed. The shadow of her money hung over them like a disused, rotting gallows.

Drawing the Line

Harry and Joanna were dancing. He had his arm tightly about her waist. She wore a red hat and looked away from him, over her right shoulder at the ground. He asked her to marry him, and she refused. He kept asking, and in a year she got pregnant and said yes. She didn’t believe in abortion. He began to ask her to put some part of her assets in his name, for the child’s sake. She refused. He accused her of frivolous spending and waste. She took an extended trip across the country with the baby, leaving Harry at home to care for the dogs. While she was gone, he brought a prostitute home and lived with her for a week. The prostitute wore all of Joanna’s lingerie and jewelry, but Harry didn’t let her sleep in their bed. When Joanna returned, Harry had drunk half a bottle of whiskey and vomited on the kitchen floor.

Acquisition

Joanna stood in the yard wearing a blue silk windbreaker. It was bitter cold and windy. Her hair obscured her eyes. Both she and Harry felt like he was taking her picture for a “wanted” poster. The baby screamed while Harry took the photos. In the beginning, Harry had wanted Joanna to make him feel real, rooted, and loved, to have all the accoutrements of material wealth without having to actually acquire them himself. To acquire material wealth, oneself, was such a tiresome prospect. After all, thought Harry, Joanna did not have to acquire it herself, she got it from her family. Now he’d be satisfied if she paid him with a bit of kind attention. She waited patiently for him to commit adultery, not knowing about last year’s whore. Meanwhile, their life in bed had dwindled down to almost nothing. Partly due to his drinking, partly due to her disinterest.

Disposition

Harry sat on a kitchen chair, elbows on his knees, and hands under his chin. He tried to look cute. Joanna pointed the camera at him and smiled, hoping to hide her inner revulsion. The problem was, they never fought about anything specific — they just fought. She wanted Harry to want her in a way better than the way in which she wanted him. A needier, nobler way of wanting — something that would take the whole heart, not just a sad, tacky corner of it, the way she felt wanting Harry occupied hers. Unfortunately, Harry didn’t seem capable of neediness and nobility, no more capable than she. How much money would Harry want, she wondered? She had an appointment with a lawyer in the morning. Joanna had been lonely when they met. If she expected comfort from Harry, she did not get it. It was too bad about the child, it was always too bad about that.

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Savior, a short story

illustration savior

Savior, a short story

The young man seemed so out-of-place in her mother’s living room. Maria stood in the doorway with her mother’s groceries, her purse on her shoulder, key ring dangling off one numb pinkie, clutching the heaviest bag propped on her hip, the bag that contained her mother’s supply of Diet Coke. Her mother and this man were sitting together on a Victorian loveseat on loan from Maria’s antique shop, their knees almost touching, the man’s arm draped across the ornate wooden back, his fingers curled behind her mother’s left shoulder. Her mother had a photo album spread out, one leaf resting on her lap, the other resting on his. Maria could see herself, at two, nude in the tub. Christ, she thought, what’s she showing him those for?

The young man leaped up after a few moments of uncomfortable silence, running his hand over his hair and smiling. Her mother folded the album closed, holding out her arm, and he helped her up, a gesture Maria herself had never mastered, helping old people up out of their seats. She tried too hard, using the wrong position and too much lift, until their sharp old elbows jutted out at alarming angles but their behinds hadn’t lifted an inch.

He had a medium build, wavy blonde hair, a deep tan — he was almost, but not quite, handsome. His eyes were too close together and his nose too long: as Maria met his direct gaze, she felt uneasy at his obvious affection for her mother, the implication of knowledge which came from his confident manner. He looked as though he was already sure he knew the older woman’s mind; already sure she must be lonely.

“I’d like to introduce you to my daughter, Maria,” her mother said. “Maria, this is David. He found my wallet over at the library and was kind enough to track me down. I couldn’t believe it when he called. I didn’t even know it was missing yet.”

“That is lucky,” Maria said. “Really lucky,” she continued, smiling in her mother’s direction, one eyebrow arched, whereupon her mother shook her head once, violently, and her daughter’s unspoken reprimand was expertly dismissed.

“Oh, it wasn’t luck,” said David, the sound of his voice causing the small hairs at the back of Maria’s neck to rise. “Nothing’s a matter of luck. Life is all planned for us, down to the last detail.” He nodded, smiling at Maria, his arms hanging relaxed at his sides, and the suspicion came to Maria that he was crazy. Crazy but safe, one of the harmless ones, the kind that made her want to go a little crazy too because they seemed so sure of themselves.

Most of Maria’s son Richard’s friends were the same type, that’s how she knew. Richard — she never thought of him as “Kurma-devi-dasi,” although she respected his desires and addressed him that way — was crazy but harmless too, although she knew she couldn’t see him as clearly in that way as she could a stranger. To this day she was able to discern the fuzzy cartoon of his infant features on his serene face when he smiled at her — the memory of his toothless gums clamped like a rhythmic vise on her breast would come to her, looking at his shaved head and his orange cotton robes as he chanted over his prayer beads, and she would be filled with a sorrowful rage that made her chest shrink into itself.

Not his grandmother, though — she had sat with her grandson over at the temple for hours when he first became a devotee, sitting in a rocking chair next to him as he said his prayers in front of the little richly clothed doll of Krishna. She told Maria it made her feel closer to her own idea of God just being in a place like that. In theory, Maria agreed, but the issue wasn’t whether the temple was a nice place to spend an afternoon, the issue was whether it was a good way for Richard to spend the rest of his life — sewing holy Hindu god and goddess doll clothes on an old black Singer?

“I don’t know about a plan,” Maria replied. “I’m lucky if I know where I am, half the time. If it’s Wednesday, this must be my mom’s apartment — you know?”

He said nothing at first, not seeming offended, not defensive, just staring at her with eyes so full of a giddy, knowing light — his face loomed toward her, and tension rolled through her stomach as his mouth moved into a drawn bow of compassion. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t handsome; he radiated an alarming level of charm. “Down to the last detail,” he repeated, arching his eyebrows and opening his eyes a bit wider, his pupils enlarging like a lover’s, and the sound of his voice vibrated within her ears, warm and solid like hands pressed against her temples.

“Then one of the details must be that I’ve got to put this bag down before my arms fall off,” she said, forcing a laugh. “Excuse me.” She turned away and walked up the hall to the kitchen. By the time she’d finished putting the groceries away — rearranging pantry and refrigerator shelves, purposely taking far longer than usual — he’d already gone. Great. Now their lives were stuck together like flood trash swirling down her mother’s raging river. David would be there for her mother — be there always and forever, overflowing with that sickening, confident love, and her mother would never be able to blame him, not for anything.

***

Maria was uncomfortable with the amount of time her mother was spending with David, but didn’t dare say too much. There was nothing overtly objectionable about him, other than his religious fervor — and how could she term that a fault? Her mother wouldn’t listen, anyway. Whenever Maria brought the subject up, her mother would groan, “Oh, boy, here we go again,” and she would frown, which consisted of one sharp, off-center line in the middle of her forehead. “You don’t have to like him, sweetie,” she’d say, “but I wish you did.”

Still, her mother’s interests seemed to be shifting. Odd books and papers came and went on the coffee table, crowding out the usual hodgepodge of half-finished crosswords and literary journals: treatises on wild herbs, population-density maps, computer programming manuals, military histories. Flipping through a ratty emergency-medicine textbook, Maria saw numerous large, yellow-highlighted portions and margin notes in both an unfamiliar, childish hand and her mother’s own neat back slant. “What is all this stuff?” she asked, holding the book out to her mother.

“I’m getting ready,” her mother said. She sat down opposite Maria and picked up a needlepoint pillow, arms crossed, mashing it to her tummy like a teddy bear.

“Ready for what?” asked Maria.

“The end of the world,” said her mother. “You know, Armageddon.”

***

At first, Maria’s son agreed with her concerns, not at all what she expected and a strangely intolerant position for him to take — considering his own lifestyle — his agreement only making her feel worse. They sat in the temple’s empty dining hall. “I’m with you, Mom,” Richard said. “The guy sounds like a real case.” He rubbed his hand over his prickly scalp and yawned, his left hand fumbling inside the peach-colored sack of meditation beads that hung from his neck. He scratched his nose, smearing the delicate yellow makeup lines drawn there that symbolically pointed up: up to God, up to heaven. “Have you checked Grandma’s bank accounts lately? He could be some kind of con artist.”

“No, no,” she said. “That’s not the kind of thing I’m worried about. He seems sincere enough. He’s no con artist. It’s just — your grandmother is really starting to believe what he says — how Armageddon is coming, all that stuff. You should see the books he’s got her reading.” Maria leaned on her elbows, cupping her chin. Richard closed his eyes for a moment, tilting his head to one side like a duck.

“Then again, I suppose the guy could be right on,” he said, his eyes still closed. He looked asleep, his skin pale and fragile. “Maybe that’s what bothers you. I’ve been trying to get through to you on that level for years. At least Grandma’s started thinking about her future.”

“Her future?” Maria asked, her voice louder than before, wanting to reach across the picnic table and shake him by his choke collar of tiny wooden beads. “At eighty-five? People that age should be beyond this kind of worry. It isn’t right. He’s getting her all stirred up — and for what? If all that biblical stuff happened, she’d never survive.”

“You’re just jealous,” he said. He opened his eyes and stared at her, his thick black lashes tangled and dusty-looking. His pupils were pinpricks inside the blotched hazel irises, and as he spoke he stood up too fast, banging his shins on the metal tubing of the cheap table. He grimaced and squatted for a moment, rubbing his leg. “You can’t stand it when someone believes in something you don’t. I thought you were worried this guy was some kind of sleazy fake, but now you’re telling me what freaks you out is that he’s the real thing. Make up your mind. You should be happy Grandma’s paying attention to what’s out there.” He turned and walked away, his robes ruffling out behind him, his rubber sandals slapping the bare wooden floor. “I’ve got devotions to attend to,” he said, not turning back to face her as he walked, his voice thin, echoing across the length of the long, barren room.

***

The earliest occasion Maria could remember wanting her mother’s opinion was in the seventh grade. Maria had just turned twelve, and had her first crush. She was stringy and awkward in those days, large-kneed and carrying a head of vigorous, curly hair she flattened down into a matted-looking cushion in desperation. Then the quiet boy started walking her home from the bus stop.

She remembered him still: pale blue eyes, so large and widely spaced that they gave him a somewhat doe-like expression. His jaw, however, was firm, angular, and thus saved his face from weakness. Warm hands lay against hers, trembling, stroking her fingers up and down in an hypnotic rhythm. “Do you want to go steady?” he’d asked her, unable to meet her eyes. That meant wearing a silver identification bracelet, his name engraved about her wrist for everyone to see; his property. She hoped his name was in block capitals, not that loopy script: it looked better.

“I don’t know,” she said, and went home to ask her mother’s opinion, a matter of form perhaps, but something she wanted; the camaraderie of womanhood revealed at last. This could be the common ground between them.

“Honey, I just don’t think going steady is a good idea at your age,” said her mother. They sat in the dining room, wallpapered with tiny brown pineapples. “You’re too young to get so deeply involved with a boy.”

“But lots of girls do it,” she said, knowing this was a flawed argument, but even as the shipwrecked are driven to drink seawater, her words carried a dreamlike hope.

“You asked for my opinion,” said her mother, “and I’ve given it to you. It’s up to you to make the decision. I’m not saying no, I’m just saying I wouldn’t if I were you.”

In the end, she told the boy no — and was informed that the going-steady offer had been withdrawn in the interim — and she realized by heeding her mother’s counsel she had been saved from a greater and more penetrating level of humiliation than she imagined even existed. But — that wasn’t the point. Maria knew her mother would never have said no to one of her own teenage boyfriends — that was a lie. Safe advice given as a — joke, as an experiment. Didn’t Maria have the right to be strong-willed? Didn’t she have the right to her own losses? She never stopped trying after that, but the drama was gone.

***

Then Maria found her mother in the bathtub. She entered the apartment, carrying her mother’s dry cleaning: a few sweaters, a wool suit, a pink blouse. She heard water running, a slight, far-off sound, as if from the next apartment. The bathroom door was closed. The only sound was a rolling and a swishing, as though a large fish reclining in the tub had shifted position. Alarmed, Maria opened the door. Her mother was sitting upright in the full tub, a small trickle of water dribbling from the faucet. The tub was full to overflowing. Her mother was wearing a purple shower cap embroidered with large seahorses.

“Go away,” she whispered, as Maria stood, confused. A bristling red pincushion sat on the edge of the tub, dangling a red cloth strawberry from a green cord into the water. The strawberry bobbed on the surface. In her mother’s hand was a large straight pin, on her wrist several thin scratches. She jabbed with the pearl-headed pin, her hands unsteady.

“What are you doing?” asked Maria, her voice shrill, terror coursing through her. “What in the hell are you doing?”

Her mother turned to her, her unfocused eyes shining and rolling up toward the ceiling as she spoke. “Trying to kill myself,” she said.

“With pins?” shrieked Maria. “Jesus, Mother!”

“I wanted to flush my head down the toilet,” her mother continued, “but it wouldn’t go down.”

***

On the third night of her mother’s emergency hospitalization, Maria dreamed she was sitting in her living room drinking tea with one of her college professors, a sloppy but verbally precise little man. In reality, she hadn’t liked him at first, but she had taken every course he taught because — unlike the majority of his students — she got A’s from him. She came to admire his sincere and stringent approach, forgiving him his greasy, untrimmed hair, his baggy, stained chinos and ancient, Filipino-style dress shirts.

And so, in the dream, her old professor, uncharacteristically neat, his hair washed and combed, his pants pressed, was explaining to her that he had theater tickets for tonight’s performance — would she like to join him for dinner and a show?

I’m sorry, she said, but I don’t think I can get a baby-sitter on such short notice. It’s already six o’clock.

He raised his eyebrows. I had no idea you were married with a child, he said. Well, that’s too bad, my dear. Perhaps we can arrange it some other time.

As he shuffled off down the sidewalk, Maria wanted to call after him: Wait… I don’t really have a husband… I don’t really have a child… it’s all a mistake. Come back. I want to go with you.

But she was silent, knowing it wouldn’t make any difference what she said. He was already too far away, and could not hear.

***

The next day, when Maria arrived at the hospital, her mother’s newest flowers were wilting in the heat. Her mother had turned the room’s thermostat up to 85 degrees and wore a sweater and cracked pink leather mules. Still, the new additions were beautiful: three dozen roses, white, yellow, and coral, stuffed into a too-small mayonnaise jar, the faded label turned to the wall. Maria stood in the doorway for a moment, holding a brown paper sack full of the day’s requested items — mostly cosmetics — looking at the bright splash of color. “Hi there,” she said to her mother, who sat hunched on the edge of her bed, flipping through a current TV Guide.

“Hi,” said her mother. “Is it cold out? You look chilly.”

“It’s cool, but the sun’s warm,” said Maria. “Who gave you these roses?” She leaned over to smell them, her nose brushing the petals.

“David,” said her mother. “He brought them by this morning on his way to work.” She squinted at Maria, her glasses speckled with bits of dust, so filthy Maria wondered if she could see anything at all. “He didn’t know I was here; he found out just this morning from my across-the-hall neighbor. He was taping a note to my front door.” She unrolled a package of breath mints and placed one on her tongue. “I thought you would have called him by now — it’s been three weeks, after all.”

“I didn’t think it was such a great idea for you to have a lot of visitors.”

“A lot?” Her mother raised her eyebrows, which were nearly invisible. She penciled them in most days, but today she’d left them defiantly natural. “Any, you mean. You’re the only one I’ve seen other than the doctor, until this morning.”

“What did he say about visitors?” Maria asked.

“It’s fine, as long as I feel up to it. They’re still fine-tuning the dosage on the blood thinner, other than that I could go home already.” She held out her arm, shoving the loose sweater back above the elbow. Small scabs dotted her forearm. “They’re sticking me every four hours, round the clock. They’ve got to balance it just right. So I won’t have another stroke but so I won’t bleed to death, either.”

She stared at Maria, her eyes shining. Her mother’s voice dropped low and fluid, almost a murmur; Maria remembered that voice from long-ago midnights, giving comfort to a distraught child. “I know you were scared when you found me all confused like that in the tub, sweetie.” Maria said nothing. Her mother raised her chin with a jerking nod, relapsed motherhood dropping away from her like a fragment of dry skin, her voice back to normal. “But really, I’m okay now. It was a very minor thing — you heard when the doctor told me I was one lucky lady.”

***

An hour later, on her way out, Maria saw David from across the hospital’s visitor parking lot as she stepped on the black mat that made the door swing open. He was dressed in jeans and a pink polo shirt, his hair still wet from the shower, combed flat across his head, just beginning to spring away in wisps where the blond curls regained tension as they dried. She stopped short, turning and walking back inside, toward the gift shop, where she stood in the farthest corner. She picked up a stuffed animal and pretended to scrutinize the price while she watched the door. When he passed, moving toward the elevators, she followed. He entered one and the doors closed. Maria waited and got the next one, her heart pounding.

She got off on her mother’s floor, going away from her mother’s room, back toward the nurse’s station and lounge on the north end. Settling in one of the low, soft chairs, she stared up at the wall-mounted television, the evening news in full swing, recounted events drifting over her, seeming important but incomprehensible, the words passing through the air like puffs of smoke. Muscles tense, palms clammy, she took out a pen and paper and began jotting notes of what she wanted to say.

She jumped, startled, as she heard David speak. She saw his back, visible from the doorway, over at the nurse’s station where he spoke to the charge nurse. “I think there’s something wrong with her call button,” he said. “She says she’s pressed it a bunch of times without hearing anything over the intercom.” The nurse, a thin, tired-looking woman wearing lavender scrubs, nodded.

“Okay, I’ll be there in a minute,” the nurse said.

David turned to leave, and then he saw Maria and stopped, his mouth forming an exaggerated O, his eyebrows lifting. Maria felt a clammy flush rise up over her neck, a dull enveloping embarrassment. He smiled like a placid baby, walking to her and holding his hand out. She clasped his hand for a moment, feeling the solid meat of it, the warmth and hardness of his callused palm. “You don’t know what to believe in,” he said, his voice calm and slow, “and that’s natural. It’s a process of evolution you’re going through. Think of your mother’s illness as the catalyst.” He opened his arms and bent at the waist, hugging her so hard she couldn’t inhale, then he removed himself and stood looking down at her, his head cocked, his blue eyes luminous and warm, a crinkly-eyed smile starting to show.

“You’re crazy,” she said, feeling her throat seize up as her heart beat shook her ribcage like a wild animal — she had difficulty speaking. She paused as her chest eased, then forged on. “A catalyst?” she repeated. “I know what to believe — I believe you’re causing all my mother’s problems. She doesn’t need your brand of stress right now. And I don’t need this kind of condescension. Telling me I’m OK. I don’t need you for that. You’re not any kind of expert.”

“No, I’m not,” he said, the smile gone from his mouth but his eyes still glowing with a trace of it like a madman’s. “And since when do you care about expert opinion?” He reached out and stroked her hair, saying her name in his gentle murmur, Maria, Maria, and she flashed — it’s finally happening to me, it’s finally here — a jolt of vertigo as if she’d been through all this before, a hundred, a thousand, no, ten thousand times…. “You don’t care about anyone’s opinion but your own,” he said.

Their lives were now joined – with force of will and love he’d plucked her up and tucked her into the golden cup of his heart as quickly and easily as he would rescue a fear-crazed puppy clinging to a torn-off tree limb, just before that puppy swirled away to her doom down a swift, swollen river. Maria wanted to run, to hide, to retrace her steps, but it was too late. David would be there for her — be there always and forever, surrounding her with this… curious compassion of his, and she would never be able to scare this one away, no matter what she tried.

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Inside A Red Heart, a short story

illustration inside a red heart

Inside A Red Heart, a short story

Ella’s life hadn’t always been like this. It was hurricane season, always the worst part of the year, but especially so this time. The cheap, post-divorce apartment Ella had moved to had flimsy sprayed-Styrofoam interior walls so thin she felt she could easily stick a pencil through them. The doors felt like balsa-wood, so hollow and weightless she couldn’t even slam them when she got mad, only sweep air currents through the frames. The rooms were carpeted wall-to-wall in a sticky celery-green shag which she could not bring herself to walk on barefoot. Hurricane preparations were meaningless in such a place, like diamond jewelry on a dying prostitute.

But today, Hurricane Naomi was 52 miles offshore, moving steadily along a stubborn, eerily direct path toward Ella’s apartment, when her father decided they’d better start getting ready, taping the windows. “They say this doesn’t help in the slightest,” she told him after finishing the first window, her arms already trembling and aching from reaching high over her head. She wanted to be an eagle, aloft without moving. “Even in a solidly built building,” she added spitefully.

“I don’t care what they say,” he said. “At least it’ll keep the broken glass from taking our eyes out.”

They finished taping over the second set of windows. She looked up at the sky; the brittle palm-fronds rattled and shook like frantic spiders. The bamboo rustled, probably full of rats. Tiny ants raced back and forth over the side of the house in some sort of military maneuver. Dropping hibiscus blossoms had stained the sidewalk red. A crushed bug was what captivated her attention. A sudden gust of cool air rushed over her neck, then after a moment everything stilled and the sun came out from behind the clouds. Against the dirty gray sky it looked abnormally bright.

“You look good in sleeveless tops,” her father said. “You should wear them more often.”

“Since when do you care how I look?” she asked.

“Is that how you usually take a compliment? No wonder you’re single. Forget I said anything,” he said. “Go inside and get the rest of the tape, please.”

 

Ella was mad about everything. Men especially, all the men she’d tried to get along with to no avail. Now, even strange men spitting on the sidewalk made her gag and retch. The phone rang — it was another man trying to sell her something. Listening to his voice on the machine, she decided she didn’t want any more goods or services, ever. She was fully capable of ignoring the outside world for weeks at a time. Finally, when her mailbox was stuffed so full nothing else would fit inside, she’d empty it and burn the contents.

After her divorce, she had refused to bring any of the old furniture from the house, not a stick. Granted, none of it was in such great shape, but she certainly couldn’t afford to buy new. Instead, she slept on a clammy air mattress for months, kept her clothes in cardboard boxes. Friends told her she was an idiot for not taking everything she could get from that tiresome lying hypocrite she’d married, but she just glared and shook her head, pressing her stubborn mouth against her teeth so hard her lips bleached white. Nobody knew how she managed to pay the rent or bring home groceries on what she made. Flying bullets couldn’t have been any more stressful than this, she thought.

There was a vague analogy between Ella and the rest of the world, that was all. She tried to understand men, but couldn’t quite manage it: they spoke, their lips moved, and sound issued forth, untranslatable. How was it they rose out of bed every morning so chipper? She was missing something they had. She navigated through her day like a ballerina dancing on broken glass.

When they’d finished taping the windows, her father poured a second cup of coffee for both of them. Breakfast consisted of coffee with plenty of cream. There was the long day to get through, then they were going fishing that night off the pier. They would stop at the bait shop for a bucket of shrimp and they would get ice cream cones — mint chocolate chip — and they would sit with their poles and wait for a nibble. Every now and then, without intending to, they’d sideswipe the truth.

He was visiting Ella for a week. He lived down in the Keys now, where he had always wanted to live; he loved to fish. Her mother had died three years ago, totally unexpected. No cancer for her, just a heart attack, plain and simple. Her parents had been happily married, but as soon as her mother died her father sold the house and went as far away from his past as he could get. Illness, for Ella, was something she would not allow time for, in that way she was exactly like her mother — though Ella wanted a good, solid tomb as a memorial when her time came to be one of the dead.

Her dog growled at her father as he moved his feet under the table. Ella’s crazy dog — he growled at everybody but he didn’t mean anything by it. He had long white whiskers and a moth-eaten coat.

“That damn dog,” her father said.

“I know, Pop,” she said.

“I don’t know why you put up with that,” he said.

“He’s harmless,” she said.

“I suppose he’s a good watchdog,” her father said.

“Not really,” she said. “He only growls when it’s someone he knows.”

“You mean he doesn’t growl at strangers?”

“No.” She laughed. Was he going to find a moral in this somewhere?

“Should I be flattered that he growls at me, then?”

“Sometimes he even growls at me.”

“I wouldn’t keep a dog like that.”

 

Since childhood, she’d loved to watch her father bait fishhooks. His long hands were careful and slow and the deliberateness of his touch delighted her. Not like her — she’d been falling over herself since puberty. Invariably she felt like a nuisance underfoot. She missed the neat quick grace of childhood. Whatever synthesis produced her from her mother’s and her father’s body, she couldn’t now imagine. Her father’s laughter was musical — her mother’s and her own like the braying of an ass. She secretly decided her mother had been cheating on him with someone else when she was conceived.

Until adolescence she’d been a precious little thing — then a hostile barrage of hormones turned her into somebody she didn’t even recognize: braces, knobby knees, confused skin, rebellious hair. To call her a girl was a misnomer of the highest magnitude. Something dark had entered the world along with her own blood the first time she got her period.

Once, in high school, her father had walked in her room without knocking and caught her masturbating; what a shame, he said, if you didn’t have so many pimples you might be able to get a boy to do that for you. His mind, like his body — like his heart — was angular; without softness; without love — he wouldn’t give her a second chance. The walls had zoomed in and out like they were breathing. She remembered the dress she wore, white with red and blue sailboats. Just like a ship being launched, only she kept running aground.

To this day, she wore only plain pearls, believing her skin too pasty to carry color. The only exotic thing about her was the color of her hair. Her hair was the color of rust; decaying iron. Growing up, her father never told her how pretty she was. But one night after a bad dream he took her back to her bed and rubbed her back.

Woken in the middle of the night like that, he was a different person, wordless and gentle. He’d held her so tight she couldn’t inhale. His silent, bulky warmth radiated through her and she wasn’t scared of anything. Everything in her room was painted either blue or green — how was painting any different than telling a story? He started rubbing her arm below the elbow; she was his. She wanted him to touch her underneath her nightgown but he didn’t. It made her feel awful to remember that now.

 

The TV was on with the volume turned down, and she was tracking Naomi on a grocery bag chart. She perched stiff on the couch, uncomfortable in her ragged cutoff shorts. Her father took a chair from the dining table and sat on it turned backwards, leaning toward her, his big perfect hands hanging over the chair’s back, his legs spread out like a cowboy’s. The dog growled from under the table.

“If you died right now,” he said, “you would go straight to Hell because you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior.” Pop loved his simple theories. He loved his cut-and-dried formulas. From the time her mother had died, her father had become born again and worried far too much about the condition of Ella’s immortal soul.

“How do you know?” she asked. “Isn’t God the only one who can judge a person?”

“It’s very simple,” he said. “Right now you’re a Nonbeliever. Nonbelievers go straight to Hell.”

“Says you,” she said.

“Says God,” he said.

“So according to you I could break every single one of the Ten Commandments, but as long as I accepted Jesus one second before I died, I wouldn’t go to Hell?”

“God’s grace,” he said. “His gift to us. Ask, and you shall be forgiven.”

Her father was telling her to ask for forgiveness! Selling all the gifts he’d ever given her and frittering the money away with nothing to show for it appealed to her. The flowers he sent for her birthday always wilted immediately, anyway.

“So God will forgive me for whatever I’ve done,” she said. “But will you?”

“First, you have to ask,” he said.

 

Hurricane Naomi wouldn’t arrive until tomorrow or the next day. Though at first Ella had looked forward to fishing off the pier, dusk arrived too soon; the coming darkness was like a funeral shroud. Her father drove his old rattletrap pickup truck towards the beach like it was a priceless antique. At the bait shop, they stood in line behind a girl, about 10 or 11, and her mother, also buying bait. The girl got into a silly argument with her mother about what they should buy, what sort of bait. “Shut up,” the girl said to her mother. Ella recoiled. Was there ever a place to be, truly, anonymous?

She remembered a time she’d told her own mother to shut up. Upon hearing, her father had slapped her across the face and broken her glasses. Her skull buzzed for a long time afterward, her jaw aching where the heel of his hand connected. She didn’t believe she’d been the same person at all back then.

She almost never cried in front of him, and especially not then, not about being slapped: she flat-out refused her tear ducts the indulgence. Nothing physical he did could get her crying — he had to use his voice, his drawling sarcasm, to knock her senseless enough for tears. She’d be so ashamed to cry in front of him like a big, blubbering idiot.

But then, getting her fishing pole ready over on the pier, a hook jabbed her finger. She’d been stabbed with hooks before; she didn’t remember it hurting so much. Was the air pressure from the coming hurricane making her stupid? She sucked blood out of the puncture. Her eyes started to sting, her throat to burn. She froze, her body paralyzed by embarrassment. She couldn’t help it, she started to cry, the convulsions shaking her.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Is your finger that bad? Let me see.”

“It’s not my finger,” she said, still in the grip of the horrible tears. He took her hand and held it close to his face, peering.

“Doesn’t look that deep,” he said.

“It’s not,” she said. Her nerves were strung out, yes, aptly put — as if her spine had been stretched, her entire body hanging off it in tiny sections which at any moment might start whirling away in terror.

She grabbed his shoulders and stood on tiptoe, leaning into him with all her weight. She kissed him full on the lips, pressing the whole length of her body against him the way she had when she was still too young to know any better, and for once he actually let her. She kissed him as though her life depended on being kissed back. And it did. And he did.

 

He had never told her she was pretty until after her mother died. Family tradition was for the parents to wait, remote icebergs, for warm currents of love to reach them from their children. She didn’t see the harm in that. The truth was, she had always wanted him as much as he wanted her. Tall and silvery-blond, his pool-water blue eyes fringed with gold lashes, he was still handsome for his age. He only smoked those awful cigars when he fished. Since her mother died, he hadn’t so much as looked at another woman, romantically speaking.

Even her ex-husband had been jealous of her father. He, her husband, was smaller than her father in every way measurable, emotionally as well as physically. Her ex-husband was such a small man. He had mewled incessantly about his boundaries, his boundaries — which didn’t keep him from stalking her and her post-marital lovers whenever his feelings were hurt. But if she read his journal, she was guilty of a great crime. What were boundaries, anyway? Even her ex-husband’s new wife was commiserating with Ella now about his smallness.

Too late, Ella had figured out she only got excited by what was forbidden, by a body’s unfamiliarity to her. Anybody like her who chose to marry was making a mistake. Once a thing became familiar, that took all the life out of her desire. She and her string of relative-stranger lovers ate Chinese takeout in bed, soy sauce dripping on their skin, which added another flavor to their mouth play. Fried rice, hot and greasy.

What neither Ella nor her father talked about that night on the fishing pier or any other night was how, way back when, she had left the back door unlocked one day and the baby, Ella’s little brother, had gotten into the backyard unsupervised and drowned in the canal. The water had seemed too shallow for anyone to die in. She was eleven — the next day she bled on her underpants for the first time. She wondered which was the bigger reason her father never looked at her the same way again.

Just now her father’s lips had tasted like his cigars, sour and sweet all at once, when she kissed him. Ella removed herself from his arms only after her skin against his grew slick with perspiration. The two of them finished up their bucket of shrimp after that, but they spoke little and caught nothing worth keeping. Back at her apartment with its ridiculous taped windows, her father began packing his small suitcase. The bellicose dog lay on the armchair across the room, for once not growling. “Damn hurricane,” he said. “Maybe I can get all the way home before they evacuate the island.”

“Are you crazy?” she asked. “You’ll have to leave again as soon as you get there.”

“I don’t think I can stay here tonight,” he said.

“You’re blaming me, aren’t you?” she asked. “Like you always do.”

“It’s not that, Ella,” he answered. “It’s got nothing to do with that.”

She touched his arm, and he flinched, then caught himself. “It was all my fault,” she said.

“No, it wasn’t,” he said. “If you’re asking, I’m answering.” He looked up from his suitcase, and for the first time all day his eyes looked old and tired. “Please don’t ask me to stay,” he said.

 

At midnight she sat awake, wondering what would happen next. Nothing good, she imagined. She didn’t know how she’d become such a curiosity. She was looking for what had gone wrong with a vengeance. Rooting through out-of-date phone books, through cards and letters she’d kept packed away since college. Excavating her past life, like an archeologist, was a great haven of sanity; as soon as she opened the first box, she felt safe from the present, it was suspended from happening, nothing more would ever happen to her until she straightened out all the previous mistakes. A pale blue chiffon scarf of her mother’s was folded underneath a stack of them. She was perennially accused of wanting to rehash the past. But it hadn’t been properly hashed over the first time, couldn’t any of these dolts see that?

A spider laid in the bottom of the box, its legs curled tightly. Though clearly dead, she worried lest it should somehow jump on her. A handmade Valentine’s Day card stuck out of the jumble like a sore thumb. The card was unsigned, but she recognized the handwriting. It was hers. She’d drawn a picture of a naked man inside a red heart. Her first boyfriend, a creative type, had insisted they make each other cards. How had she ended up with all this stuff? Ella flung herself back onto the bed so hard her teeth snapped together and she bit her tongue. Her bones ached. Her desire was killing her; she didn’t even know what it was she desired. She had to get out of the house for a bit, hurricane or no hurricane, or she’d go nuts.

She dragged her quivering dog — not so crazy after all — out to the car and drove over to her parent’s old house through Naomi’s outer fringes. Thunder rolled above her along with heavy sheets of rain like pronouncements from God. The dog cowered in her lap. She turned the car engine off and got out, the dog in her arms, hiding his head in her armpit. She stood searching the horizon, letting the rain wash over her face. It was the same whenever she made love to a man, she made sure to shower afterward.

Behind the house she’d grown up in, behind the canal her baby brother had drowned in, sat the northern edge of the Everglades. A flat, wet landscape — one she never tired looking at. Dun-colored saw grass, rippling under the steady currents of wind, stretched as far as she could see. Her mother’s chiffon scarf, monogrammed with her maiden initials, was her new good-luck charm. There was, as usual, no witness to her actions.

At least I’m brave enough to come back here, she thought. Her hair blew into her eyes and she held the dog tighter. She was startled when from behind her headlights moved over the undulating saw grass; she turned to see who it was. Squinting against the light, she saw her father’s tall figure get out and stand next to the car, calling and waving — she couldn’t hear much of what he was saying over the wind but she could tell he was crying. Like a flag on a pole, her mother’s scarf whipped in the wind around her neck, causing her to lift her chin and stand taller and straighter than she had for a long time. She could feel it. Her life was going to change.

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The Message She Sent, a short story

illustration the message she sent

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.

 

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