Tag Archives: guilt
Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story
Heavenly Dances, Heavenly Intimacies, a short story
“Isn’t there any heaven where old beautiful dances, old beautiful intimacies prolong themselves?”
Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier
How can I be “dead” to any of the men I once loved? They are not “dead” to me. Not even H. How can I be “dead” to H.? They — even H. — are each as alive as when I was with them; as alive as the first time they touched me, whether tentatively or with confidence; whether softly or roughly; whether with passion or mere lust. It is shocking and appalling how H. lurched so radically to the right after 9/11. He began that journey to the Tea-Party-Mad-Hatter-Neocon-Bill-Buckley-Wall-Street-Apologist-Fringe-Brainless-Faux-News-Right when Ronald Reagan was shot; I was with him the very night it happened. We had a short affair, right then, because we started thinking the end of the world had arrived and we decided, like the crazy college students we were, to get married to celebrate our courage in the face of chaos! I realized very early on (but still way too late!) I was embarrassed to be seen in public with him. Did you ever start seeing, and marry someone whom you later realized you were embarrassed to be seen with? Perhaps the person in question was “dorky,” “geeky,” dressed “badly,” or had questionable “taste.” H. readily admits he was a “dork” in high school. He was on the debate team; need I say more? When you can’t bear to be seen in your lover’s/spouse’s/significant other’s/partner’s company, things usually don’t work out.
Still, I put in ten dutiful years, trying to make amends for my mistake in marrying H. The second he started making the big bucks, he dumped me. He left me for my best friend! I guess I deserved it, not taking control of my own life & filing for divorce two weeks after we married. And I guess I deserved how my ex-best-friend S. ruined me, as she subsequently did. She was in charge of the whole group we had socialized with: dictating how everyone in our “circle” should think, speak, act, or react. H. was dead wrong about most everything, but, to his credit, he was dead right about her. At the time I thought him merely woman-hating, but I see now, even though he did hate women, there was something more than simply being a “woman” he hated about her. He was covering up the fact he loved her by pretending to hate her. Now, I have no desire to see her, not ever again. She is definitely “dead” to me. Yes, I understand intellectually, a living death (call it shunning) can happen to anyone.
The upshot of all this boring history? I’ve been waiting for something a long time. I can’t blame anyone but myself for my unhappiness, not anymore. There is something dispirited inside me, something empty, drained, and beaten — something sick, something tired, something that has surrendered. I gave up, when? When my first ex-husband arbitrarily said no to children, breaking his solemn vow. When I realized I couldn’t find happiness outside myself — not with an old love, not with a new love, not with any of my subsequent husbands, my friends, my eventual children, or my family. Yes, to casual acquaintances and virtual strangers I am “happy, happier than I’ve ever been.” And it’s true! I’ve never been this happy, this contented, in my life. Yes, there are still problems. My oldest son is still half the world away, fighting an endless war on behalf of my “country.” My youngest son still has an ignorant, racist, rabidly conservative father. I am getting old. My face is melting. My neck is turning into a wattle. I am drooping.
Still, I cannot imagine any of them, the men I have loved or made love to, being dead to me the way my former best friend, S., is dead to me. Yet that is how they must feel about me, the way I feel about her. Wanting her removed from my memories. Wanting never to have met her. Not missing anything about her. She wants to see me, I heard from a mutual friend I still speak to. I don’t want to see her, or even see the mutual friend. I don’t even want to get as close as that! Because of reasons. Top secret, NSA, DOD, CIA, FBI, SEC, IRS, FDLE, GPD, ACSO reasons! No further comment!
Filed under artistic failures, assholes, boys, con man, con men, criminal, criminal behavior, criminals, fathers, he, health, humor, hypocrisy, idiots, jerks, karma, love, mothers, mysterious, sex, short stories, tea party mad hatters, ultra right wing loons, users
The Art of the Javelin, a short story
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.
Filed under health, legal writing, mysterious, prose poetry, short stories
Monster to Monster, a poem
Monster to Monster
I did you a favor
to let you go, to push you away,
to release you. You were too conscious
to be my mate. I need someone
who doesn’t think so much,
who is impervious to my suffering.
Even with someone like that,
I feel I am too painful to be borne.
It is a bigger thing than both of us
being monsters. The words I write
are my gift to you, the only thing
I can possibly give now. I took
so much, I have to give something
back. Even if I am a monster,
do you think that means I don’t
suffer when contemplating
my monstrosity? You think because
I did not stay, I did not love.
I loved as much as any wounded
creature can. I loved as much
as a woman without a whole heart
can love. I loved you in my way,
the only way I have.
Filed under mysterious, poetry
After the Shortcut, a short story
After the Short Cut
I’m a pretty woman, at least so the men tell me. “Andrea, you are some woman,” they say. They say that, and then I don’t know if I ever want to see them again. Anybody who would think I’m something special must have a hole in his head. I’m spreading a little in the rear now, after two kids — I’ve got a bit of cellulite on my thighs. It’s all gravy, that’s what I say.
Since I was 14, my life’s been one big bowl of gravy. I’ve tried to learn a little bit about a lot of things — I’ve tried to learn about learning, about how it’s done. It doesn’t matter what fate dishes out to me to go with it, whether I get the tough meat or the tender, the fat or the lean, my life all tastes better because of that gravy. My mom will tell you I blame her for every mistake I’ve ever made, but I don’t, not really. I don’t blame her any more than I blame myself. I blame Katie. I remember Katie in her perfection, the last moment before she got hit, the smile on her lips, and the sparkle in her eyes. That’s how she’ll live forever in heaven. It was her idea, all of it, the boy, the interstate, everything. I blame her, but she paid for her mistake. Sometimes I think she got the easy way out.
I believe everybody’s religion is a way to get to God. I don’t get nervous about having the right one. Why would God shut people out that way? The notion of original sin seems like the most fundamental sort of self-hatred. How is a newborn human baby any more sinful than a kitten? I was in the hospital the morning after my daughter Barbara was born, watching her sleep in her clear plastic bassinet, and I felt like we were both innocent, both trying as hard as we could to do the right thing.
I don’t believe in sin, I believe only in foolishly going against God’s tide, but nobody can keep that up forever, God’s too strong. I try to think right — feelings are another thing, there are no such things as right feelings, or wrong ones. God won’t give up; He’ll pull you up to Heaven no matter how badly you think you want to stay out. Can salmon keep from getting called upstream? Do you think the salmon that get caught by bears along the way are failures? Of course not. Katie and I were like salmon going upstream, going to meet this boy at his house, this boy she had a crush on, the kind of boy that made her heart beat faster — I didn’t get there, neither did she, but she got to see God before I did. I’m waiting for my time. Will he look like my first lover? Is that what Katie saw first and last, the boy she loved, the boy with the brown eyes that made both of us dizzy but gave Katie the most specific intentions?
I sure as Hell didn’t want to cross the interstate on foot. It was Katie’s idea. Do you think that makes me feel any better about what actually happened? I wonder how I’d feel if it had been my idea. Would I feel better, or worse? I suffer when I think about how dumb it was. We acted foolishly, and we’ve both ended up paying. She was brave, I was a coward. I lived, though, I found uncertainty, never knowing which way to go after that moment — I found both cowardice and bravery while she found certainty and sudden death. After I saw her get hit, nothing much mattered until my daughter Barbara was born four years later.
Barbara’s ten now, and she’s got the same powers I have, she can see what’s wrong with people without even talking to them. She can feel where they suffer; she can feel the pins and needles in her own hand when she passes it over their sorest places. She can hear me in her head; I can hear her in mine, without either of us saying anything out loud. Everybody can speak without using their mouth, but very few of us can hear what they say. I run into a few, now and then.
Katie and I were crossing the interstate on foot. We wanted to go to this boy’s house from the mall, and it was a short cut. Without the crossing, it would take 45 minutes to walk there, with the crossing it would take 15 minutes. We wanted to get there faster. We didn’t know we would never make it. If we had known, we would have taken the long way around. We thought that long walk would be boring. We were so impatient, so full of life, giddy with the thought of kisses. We wanted to see that boy — rather, Katie wanted to see him and I wanted to watch them watching each other. But no one could come pick us up from the mall; everyone was too busy to give us a ride. It was wintertime, dark early. That night was so dark, even the sky was clouded over so you couldn’t see the stars. The pavement was like black velvet from the side of the road, an endless ribbon of black velvet and the cars going by were like jeweled bugs, busy on their secret business, their buggy errands.
I had on a jacket. As soon as I saw her get hit I tore it off my body, I used the jacket like a signal flag to wave over her body to try and stop the oncoming cars. I knew she was already dead, I felt her spirit go through me, entering the top of my head, leaving through the soles of my feet. I saw her draw her last breath — even with all the noise, all the cars zipping by on the other side of the road and around us, the wind and the fear and the hiss of burning tires and brake linings, I heard her last gasp, through her cracked ribs, I heard the air leaking through her perforated lungs, I heard the last breath bubbling through her blood. I saw her laying there, her black hair spread over the road like a wet curtain, and I knew.
I rode in the ambulance; they worked and worked on her body, probably just to comfort me. I knew she was dead, but they wouldn’t actually tell me until my mom got to the hospital. My mom, who was even at a moment like that more interested in her bottle of Scotch and her dying friend and her rising fever than in me. She wanted to know why we hadn’t called her. Did she forget we did? We did call, all we got, all we ever got was the machine, and she was in bed nursing her hangover, nursing her sorrows, nursing her case of the flu.
Mom wasn’t perfect, but wasn’t a total screw-up either. She’ll never forgive herself. Thank God we were supposed to be in the care of Katie’s mom. Katie was an only child then. Her mom had another child after Katie died, a boy — she didn’t want another daughter, that would have been too painful. That second child was an accident — just like my oldest — Katie’s mom was so grief stricken for a while she’d go out to bars and pick up strange men, and forget to wear her diaphragm. Or maybe it was the pills she forgot to take. Either way, we were both on the same train after Katie.
Does Katie see me now? Does she forgive me? Will she help me forgive myself? Katie was in love with that boy — she sat behind him in math class. She worshipped him from afar, she was obsessed. After my friend died, I slept with him, for her. He never knew why I came on to him or why I broke it off — I never told him. One time after we’d made love I asked him to tell me about her, he didn’t know anything. I felt sorrier for that than for anything. Katie died a virgin; I’ve made up for her in that way. The joy of knowing what is true can be dampened by the pain of knowing you’re not going to be able to live in the truth, yourself. I don’t care, it’s all gravy now.
Since I was 14, it’s been gravy. I’m not any better or worse than Katie. I say that to myself, but I don’t really believe it. She was good, she died. I lived. Clear enough? When I feel like I haven’t gotten what there was to get out of my life, when I feel how much I’ve missed from inattention or carelessness, Katie comes back to me with a still wind, rushing through my ears like she did the night she died. I’m waiting for my time to come.
Hope it’s not on the interstate. Not like that, not with my hair spread out on the wet pavement like a pretty, pretty fan. Not with my ribs sounding like popcorn when I breathe. The driver of the car cried for days. I suppose his situation might have been the worst of all. Thinking he could have stopped in time. But he couldn’t have. I wonder if it made him a better father to his own kids. I tell my own daughter, Barbara, honey, don’t ever be afraid to take the long, safe way to wherever it is you’re going. You’ll get there, even though you don’t think you will and you’ll see things you never would have seen otherwise. I don’t want her to miss out; I don’t want her to have to live off gravy for the rest of her life like me. Please, God, anything but that. Patience, I tell her when I kiss her goodnight, smelling the hair right in front of her ears, the place she can never manage to reach with the shampoo, the place that smells of sweat and tears and dreams, just like mine did. Patience, my beautiful girl — I tell her every chance I get — patience is a virtue.
Filed under short stories
hungry baby, a short story
(originally published in Cenotaph)
Whenever I’m feeling close to the edge, a hairsbreadth from lunacy, I like to shop for groceries. I go up and down all the aisles, methodically picking out food. I throw boxes and jars and bags and cans willy-nilly in my cart, always stocking up for the big one, the storm that’ll tear the roof off. It’s a habit, one I learned as a child. The women in my family were bony, starry-eyed drunks, with bad skin and lank hair, but by God, they knew how to grocery shop.
I’ve fallen into this twitchy, nervous state because my mother showed up again last night. I don’t know if it was a dream: I hope it was. I opened my eyes and saw her standing next to the bed, almost touching the mattress. She didn’t smile or speak but simply shook her head. She seemed angry; I could tell she wanted to hit me. She was jealous that I was still alive, driving her car, watching her TV, wearing her jewelry. I met her fierce gaze without moving, then closed my lids against her image like hurricane shutters.
The room was so dark, she was like a column of gray smoke, rising over me. Knowing death hasn’t changed her face one bit. How is it that I still miss her? That is an embarrassing, childish pain, an overgrown mouth sucking a rubber pacifier. There will never be a second chance for her and me; I sure wish I could believe in heaven like I believe in hell. If she’d loved herself, or me, even a little, maybe she’d have pulled through the dark waters. But she was so full of self-hate there was no room for anything else. Now I’m afraid her habits are coming after me.
I confess it; often I hated her too, while she lived. I even killed her once, in my sleep. I stabbed her many times with a kitchen knife, and it felt right, like it was the only graceful way out for both of us. There wasn’t as much blood as you’d expect, though there was still enough to soak her nightgown all the way through. When I woke, clammy and trembling, I hurried to her room to make sure she still breathed. I knelt at the side of her bed, watching her scrawny chest. At first, it didn’t stir, and I almost cried out. Then I saw movement, enough to know she lived. Forever after, I feared the terrible anger in me. It’s always waiting, a tiger with ivory teeth and steel claws — waiting for me to stumble, to lose my grasp on mercy, on forgiveness, and throw open its cage.
Wishing my mother was dead half the time didn’t keep me from breaking down her door in a panic when I thought she’d overdosed. After the first incident, I wasn’t all that worried, I knew her to be too much of a bumbler, she’d screw it up like everything else. The door became only an excuse to use my rage, to make my hatred tangible, give it life, a physical existence. I 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. She sprawled on her bed, half-clothed, her knobby knees the bulkiest part of her, her wet brown eyes looking puzzled. Even with all the noise, she couldn’t figure out how I’d gotten in the room. Later, sober, she realized she’d underestimated me, she hadn’t known what I was capable of. Much later, when I left home, after a hundred false starts, she managed to finish what she’d begun.
I 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 my own mother I insisted. In photographs, I appear the proper, bereaved daughter. I spent three days wearing the black dress, feeling grimy by the day of the burial and glad of it.
We buried her in front of a croton bush, God, how she hated those things, crotons. I stared at her shiny marble urn where it sat in the little hole, the tacky brass plaque glued to the top. I 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 I shook it my knees almost gave way.
That night, I left the house long after dark, walked in shaky high heels down the street and around the corner, ruining the delicate heel tips on the asphalt. I decided to keep walking until I dropped; to walk forever if no one came running after me. I 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 my last comfort, my final safe haven. Nothing but love for those strangers kept me from leaving for good, nothing but fear of the tiger kept me from going any farther after my mother; I stood alone in the velvet grief of that hot summer night, calling her name over and over again like a stupid, hungry baby.
Filed under short stories