Tag Archives: healing

Notes From The Unconscious, a poem

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Notes From The Unconscious

Run me languid over a rusty road,
and you behind, laughing to pursue…
Take only my smooth love chain,
kiss me softly, without injury.

I am essential and lusty…
I will drive through it for her leg diamonds,
and use him at those bare places.
To sea and gone were the sweet peach thousand.

The blood goddess is frantic…
She knows how hard loving is.
All delicate language has arms of iron, so
sing elaborate love from your tongue.

How have I dreamed sordid roses?
Rob them of a tiny pink eternity….
As bees nuzzle, so shall I dive into you,
and sniff your scent like a mama bear.

A man I used to know lives less than anyone
under wool suits. He rips up rocks
as meat, then he must finger petals.
He has no idea this is happening.

For years, I floated bitter in a black lake…
I said, please, no beating,
leave out the ugly juice,
don’t make me drink any more.

No one listened. My eyes turned
red like woman vision…
I am still weaker & falling,
after death, beauty may ache raw & blue.

He let a void crush what we incubated….
Did it in my white bed.
One milk moan from an infants’
fresh red lips, haunting me forever.
Boil away the mist with lick power.
Heave away or use an apparatus….
Near the TV, these fiddles cry for feet
to dance and obliterate pain.

Our sad summer was like a repulsive
shadow of fluff. I floated like a dandelion seed.
But winter could recall a sweet day chant
with cool water, trips to the country like lazy sun…

Did the purple smear on the wall show size?
Why can the mad beautiful boy shake?
I watch a friend produce a luscious lie.
None trudge after me, but time will swim easy…

Blow your smoky symphony,
my green cloud angel,
and put the sacred blaze against a woman,
melting her like caramel.

Dirt will come and time bring ice,
so heal your broken voice, shed the marble
surrounding you like a deep bone prison,
while I bleed champagne.

Ask your heart to squirm, remember
the ship of spring, seek air blue kisses,
pierce the morning, know the color of liquid
magic, speak in a velvet stream, and love me.

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She Hates Numbers

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Surveyor in New England, a prose poem

Surveyor in New England, a prose poem

And so, since there were no detailed official maps, he named small lakes after himself, solitary hills, even shy, dusty lanes marked only by the great thumping hooves of his horse — a patient, taciturn beast, dun-colored, remarkable mainly for the seven white spots on its flank, arranged like the constellation Ursa Major.

Back then, a hundred years ago, electrical-survey men like him sweated gracefully during summer, their cheeks burnt into dark Scotch grain, their hairlines preserved white as milk under the dimpled felt of U.S.-issue hats. Though he was the youngest of the crew, his moustache grew enviably broad and full, waxed close at the tips, bowed under his classical nose like the extended wings of a pigeon.

Reining to a stop, as he slid down, he pulled from the saddle-bags yet another wooden stake flagged with a length of wrinkled red muslin, kneeling to pound it into the rocky Vermont ground, leaving it there for eternity.

As he rode on farther north — past the tall flowering weeds around Lovell Pond, the drunken bees bouncing off his boots — continuing along the route he’d laid out for the electric poles to follow, he thought of his mother: the way her fierce blue eyes glittered on foggy mornings, the way his father caressed her wrist at the dinner table, and, above all, how skillfully she ironed, gripping the rag-wrapped handle, fluttering the heavy, blunt-nosed tool over the damp white cotton of his shirts in rhythms as comforting and certain and lovely as the slow tick of a butterfly’s wings as it feeds from the bright center of a blossom.

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The Analysand, a short fiction

illustration analysand short fiction

The Analysand, a short fiction

“I’ll take your word for it,” she said.

She remembered long-forgotten moments; instances of innocence, of confidence, of hope. Her analyst wanted more from her than pages in her journal, more than frozen images which may… or may not… have actually happened. Four bundles of smooth, shiny, purple rope lay on the coffee table in his office, four beautifully coiled bundles, bound & tied with intricate, ceremonial knots. His eyes met hers; bright blue lamps of inquisitiveness and Inquisition.

“Where do you get that kind of rope?” she asked.

“I make it,” he said. “I dye it with Tyrian purple and condition it with organic beeswax.”

She kept her face neutral; curious. She’d had enough of fake tourist traps for a dozen lifetimes; boring main highways hadn’t ever led her to anyplace she’d want to stay in for long. And the sun rises even after the darkest night. And the sun sets after the sunniest day. Night has its own charms. Her wounds were on the inside… and his? His… would be healed by helping her heal her own. The rope laid on the table, gleaming & inscrutable. Her favorite violin, a Bergonzi, sat silent & helpless on her lap.

She’d been dead so long; she’d wanted her to speak for herself for so long. Her mother had treated her like anything but a daughter; pupil, instructor, heathen, missionary, ghost, confessor, beggar, heir, therapist, patient. So strike a pose; strike a deal; strike a match. What difference does any of it make: preserving body & soul is not good enough; nurture your body and your soul. Peace arises where all paths meet; crossroads for weary travelers. Fevers can burn you up. Water can heal. She put the violin back in its case.

“Okay,” she said. “It’s worth a try.” She stood up off the couch and took off her clothes.

Dr. Zhu tied her up gently, kissing her as he did. Yes. He started at her ankles, and bound her up like a trussed bird. And then he helped her lie down on his soft purple couch and began his work. Where you find the water of life, is home.

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doctor’s report: patient a, a short story

Kimberly Townsend Palmer

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(originally published in Burning Word)

Doctor’s Report: Patient A, a short story

Patient A is a living museum of femininity, and serves as transitory evidence of extensive neo-geo-psycho-socio-eco-political movement. Designed and built in the second half of the twentieth century, she first gained philanthropic prominence with a cynical, witty, overeducated man eight years her senior, Charles F. She stayed faithful to Charles F. for six months, but the intriguing tales of his former romantic partners, then numbering in the several hundred, irretrievably seized her imagination. She left, and never looked back. She shops for new men the way other women shop for new shoes.

She invariably rejects both the too-easy conquest and the too-stubborn resistance. Every season countless men flock near to witness her fleeting, hormonally-induced states of passion, and observe for themselves her classic “XX” architecture.

If it seems that everything has already been said about Patient…

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Things We Never Said, a short story

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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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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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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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Have You Ever Met the Love of Your Life?, a short story

illustration have you ever met the love of your life

Have You Ever Met the Love of Your Life?, a short story

Nasreen, Marion’s dance teacher, was short, dark and wide. She wore black leotards under her frothy, voluminous gold-threaded saris, and glowing silver rings on her largest and smallest toes, which were connected to ankle bracelets by delicate jeweled chains. When she moved, and the big belt of coins around her hips started to sing, Marion often thought of a curtain of water emerging from an alabaster frog’s curving mouth. Nasreen’s lips and toenails were always painted fiery orange, and the air near her smelled of cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves. Nasreen had been famous in her youth — she treated all her students with exaggerated courtesy but for some reason, took a special interest in Marion.

From the start, Eleanor, Marion’s sister, thought Marion was crazy, and the whole Oriental-dance notion (she couldn’t bring herself to say the word “belly” out loud) ridiculous. “Why on earth do you want to get up on stage and wiggle back and forth like a cat in heat?” she had asked.

“I’ve always thought it looked so graceful,” said Marion. “It sort of mesmerizes you, it’s so soothing to watch.”

“Soothing? Graceful?” Eleanor rolled her eyes and tossed her head. Her neat French twist bobbled, and a wisp of hair fell to tickle her cheek. She shuddered and tucked it behind her ear. “Grotesque is more like it. I’ve always thought those women looked like they were trying to eliminate peach pits from their digestive tract.”

The two sisters lived together — they had always lived together — in an apartment across the street from the house they’d grown up in, a gaunt, three-story Victorian. After Mother died, as soon as could be considered decent, they had sold the big place and gotten rid of the ponderous mahogany furniture. They kept only Eleanor’s player piano, some threadbare Persian rugs, and their mother’s elderly miniature pinscher. Marion filled the apartment with pickled-pine French country and delicate ruffled draperies in red toile.

Soft-hearted Marion said the rosary thrice daily and didn’t care much if her clothes matched; Eleanor, the younger, was a late-blooming atheist, but knew how to dress. Eleanor had been engaged once years ago but they had never managed to decide on a wedding date — the hopeful young man had insisted she keep the ring anyway, a flawless one-carat diamond set in platinum. She looked at it every night, sitting in her jewelry box, but never wore it.

***

Marion’s first formal belly-dancing costume was to be hand-tailored by her teacher Nasreen’s younger brother, Ahmet. He was known all over the world belly-dancing community for his brilliant costume designs; the only reason she was able to afford him at all was Nasreen’s incessant wheedling on her behalf — as one of his sister’s most deserving pupils, Ahmet finally agreed to let Marion have the outfit at cost.

“I see you in red,” said Nasreen.

“I was thinking of pink. Maybe powder blue?” said Marion.

“Red, it must be red,” said Nasreen. “Ahmet, what do you suggest?”

He leaned back, folded his arms across his chest, and squinted first at his feet, then at Marion, then at the stacked bolts of silk gauze rising to the ceiling, and then at his sister. “Yes, red for the trousers and the outer sari,” he said with a faint smile. “And the front of the bustier heavily sewn with pierced and gilded centimes.”

“Perfect!” said Nasreen, and she and Ahmet gave each other conspiratorial smiles. “Remember the one you made for me so many years ago?” she asked.

“Of course!” said Ahmet. “Now get up on the stool. I need to get your measurements,” he said to Marion, his smooth, warm fingertips galvanizing her arm as he prodded her into compliance with the tape measure.

When Marion described Ahmet’s fitting and design process, Eleanor was incredulous. “You’re going to wear red see-through pants and a bra made of nothing but gold spangles and call yourself Ayita?” she asked.

“It’s my stage name,” said Marion. “It means dancer.”

“Well, isn’t that cute!” said Eleanor, slapping the kitchen table with a rolled-up newspaper she’d been using to pursue a small green fly. “I suppose next you’ll be getting your nose pierced and wearing a veil.”

“Good Lord, no,” said Marion.

“I hope you won’t ever expect me to come see you make an idiot out of yourself,” said Eleanor.

“No way,” said Marion. “You’d make me a nervous wreck. I’d never be able to concentrate on performing.”

“Ah, yes — the great artiste needs her concentration! What a load of manure!” said Eleanor.

“I just want to have some fun. I need a change.” asked Marion. “Why are you making such a big deal?”

“Because I think a woman your age parading around dressed like a harem girl is absurd,” said Eleanor. “Because every Arab I’ve ever met treated women like second-class citizens. Because I know you’re doing this just to irritate me. Hobby, my eye. Why couldn’t it have been needlepoint, or gardening?” Eleanor glared, but Marion just shrugged and continued eating her toast.

Marion’s finished dance outfit was a huge success. As a precautionary measure, she danced privately in Ahmet’s workroom for Nasreen. Nasreen stood with her arms folded across her chest. As the music started and Marion began to dance, Nasreen’s eyes narrowed and her lips grew thin. She tilted her head and stared. Marion felt awkward, but after the first few seconds, the music and soothing movements overwhelmed everything else. The glittering red costume transformed Marion; she lost herself to something bigger, her hands were two white birds flying, twirling, graceful on the fluid stalks of her arms. Her smile was steady, effortless. The glittery silk billowed around her legs like cool wind. For the first time, her body moved on its own, strong and agile. “That’s it, you’re ready,” said Nasreen.

“For what?” asked Marion, wiping her damp forehead with a jingly forearm.

“A trip. To Paris. A month from Saturday. I’m putting an international dance exhibition together. I want you to go with me, to dance.”

Marion protested. “I couldn’t. I’m not that good.”

“Yes, I’m afraid you are.” Nasreen pulled a passport application out of her cavernous black purse. She shook Marion’s shoulder. “Why did you want to learn to dance in the first place? What are you waiting for?”

            ***

Eleanor wouldn’t let Marion travel to Paris with only Nasreen and Ahmet for company. Eleanor put her foot down; Marion hadn’t been able to say “no” loud enough. It was Marion’s first overseas journey: she’d underestimated jet lag. She awoke abruptly at 2 a.m., trembling through her arms and legs as if on amphetamines. Eleanor – she’d been to Ireland and Spain, she knew better, she’d taken four different pills to zonk herself out — was sound asleep, mouth open, a tiny puddle of saliva glistening on her pillow. Nasreen also slept, lying curled on her side, hands tucked under her chin, emitting the most genteel and melodious of snores. Marion didn’t want to turn on the lamp and produce chaos, there was enough of that within her; instead she went downstairs to seek light and order in the lobby.

The desk clerk on duty — a tall, thin Algerian graduate student — was very eager to demonstrate his grasp of English. His dissertation was going to be about the evolution of American street slang, curse words or something. He announced himself to be Muslim; this formality alarmed her briefly, but he seemed to possess abundant humor, lightness, reason. His name was Badr, which meant “full moon.” The image suited him. His smiling face was boyish, benign; his moustache highlighted the fact his skin was silken as a girl’s. Dark chestnut hair lay in soft curls against his cheeks. His clothes were rumpled and mismatched, like an absentminded schoolboy’s.

The small lounge area was arranged with delicate birch wood cafe tables and slippery turquoise-upholstered armchairs. She noticed Ahmet sitting over in the farthest dark corner, wearing a long yellow silk tunic over his rumpled jeans, pretending to read the newspaper. Marion raised her hand in greeting; Ahmet nodded. Badr served her mineral water and orange juice. She tried to read the French newspaper lying open in front of her, understanding only every third or fourth word. Every time Marion glanced over to see if Ahmet was still there, his eyes were upon her. He folded, inspected, and re-folded his own paper for several odd minutes, then picked up his drink and wandered over to the bar.

“May I sit here?” he asked, pointing to the stool next to her. He seemed embarrassed, or shy, or ill.

“Sure,” she said, shrugging.

“Can’t sleep?” he asked.

“Not a chance. They’re both sound asleep, though.” She adjusted herself on the stool, crossed her legs at the ankle, then at the knee, and then rested her elbows atop the bar. Her hands clung to each other like nervous gerbils.

***

“You’re jealous,” said Marion four hours later, when she finally got back to the room she shared with her sister and found Eleanor livid with rage. “For once I’m having a good time, and you just can’t stand it. It’s not my fault you’re so lonely.”

“I’m not lonely,” said Eleanor, glaring at Marion with laser beam eyes of death.

“Yes, you are,” said Marion. “We both are.” She thought then of the way Ahmet’s lips had tasted when she kissed him goodbye before opening the door to the brightly lit hallway. She thought of the way his hands felt, stroking the small of her back, running down her hips past the hipbones down to the upper thigh. She thought of the way he held her when he came, murmuring her name into her ear like a tiny puff of wind, carrying a sound she couldn’t quite recognize at first. Her name. The man knew how to say her name.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion asked Eleanor.

“Oh my god! You’re in la-la land,” said Eleanor.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion asked again.

Eleanor stared at her, her lips moving, but no sound coming forth. Her hand struck out quick as a venomous snake and slapped Marion’s forearm viciously, which hurt like the devil — but Marion was so amused she laughed, which only made Eleanor slap her arm again and again, harder and harder. The harder Eleanor slapped her, the harder Marion laughed. Suddenly Marion grabbed both Eleanor’s wrists and twisted them so hard Eleanor shrieked.

“Have you ever met the love of your life?” Marion whispered. A full minute ticked by in silence. Marion waited. She felt Eleanor’s arms relax and go limp.

“I’ve never even thought of asking that question,” said Eleanor.

When both sisters shocked themselves by starting to cry, they pulled each other close, each of them bear-hugging the other — grouchy/beatific, horrified/overjoyed — as though both their lives depended on it – which they suddenly realized was now, always had been, and would always be, the truth. Marion and Eleanor had finally let each other in, all the way in.

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The Nearness of Heroism, a short story

illustration the nearness of heroism cracker-jack-eversillustration the nearness of heroism

(Originally published in The Paumanok Review)

The Nearness of Heroism, a short story

They tell me he was the first man I ever saw nude; that when I asked him, pointing, in my high, three-year old’s simper, what “that thing” was, he didn’t even flinch. He stood in the big tiled shower stall, holding the door ajar with one hand, toweling himself off with the other.

“I’m a little teapot,” he sang, in his exuberant tenor. “Short and stout. This is my handle, this is my spout.”

They say I stared, and then frowned, running out to demand of my grandmother on the spot — I want to be a little teapot! Show me my spout! Where is it? Where is my spout?

Where, indeed? If only the gulf could have been reduced to those dimensions. Am I wrong to feel we would have been closer, had I been a boy? Would he have loved me more, or less?

***

I liked to sneak up on him while he used his glove, just out of the shower, a white towel tight around his waist, his hair slicked back, parted precisely. Even from my earliest memories, the old baseball glove was missing one or two fingers, the ball deprived of whole sections of its leather wrapping, worn through to the string-mended core in several spots. Both glove and ball had darkened to the color of cured tobacco, carrying a sheen of sweat-polished grime that lent a gleam akin to the finest shellac. Arms moving, hands a blur, he would move in automatic rhythms of meditation, pounding gloved fist with clenched ball as his lips moved, the words inaudible, his gray eyes focusing up and out at an angle, viewing a corner of patterned plaster, seeing something I wanted to share but couldn’t.

Then he’d notice me. He’d stop in mid-pound, his mouth open for an abrupt chuckle, too embarrassed to be embarrassed. “Hey there, lady,” he’d say, the broad vowels of his Brookline childhood making his words seem exotic.

He kept the glove and ball on the highest shelf of his closet, a level I couldn’t reach, not even with a step-stool.

***

He was, in fact, the only male presence in my life, even after I started to dwell on the concept of boys, the one I ran to in the early morning — crawling into his bed, burrowing deep under the covers, where he sang the old songs he’d learned from his Irish mother and held me in his arms, my nose burrowing into his soft feather pillow, into his wrinkled cotton pajamas, seeking out his bitter-tea-with-lemon smell, seeking out his body’s distinctive shape and radiating warmth, which possessed a steely eloquence no less comforting than my grandmother’s padded torso. Since he was home with us every day, having retired years before I was born, I didn’t realize he was different from other men, other fathers, who were defined not by their presence but by their absence.

“Oh, you dirty little devil,” he’d sing, “Does your mother know you’re out? With your hands in your pockets and your shirttail out?”

I would hear my grandmother fuming from across the room, not speaking but moving the various brushes and trinkets around on the glass-topped surface of her dresser with snappish clinks and taps. At other times, whenever he knew she disapproved, he’d make disrespectful rubber-faces behind her back until my face couldn’t keep a secret any more, and, looking at me, she’d see some sign of what was going on, then wheel indignantly, catching him in some fish-lipped, pouting impersonation of her, their demeanor so ridiculous, so upside-down, that for a moment it seemed that he was a small boy again, no one’s husband, and she his strict governess, no one’s wife.

***

He was related to me by marriage, not by blood, something that seemed to bother him a lot more than it bothered me, especially near the end of his life. From the very beginning, I had pledged my allegiance to him, had given him that affirmative declaration of the heart, and for a short time, during childhood, it seemed that he had pledged the bond in return and accepted me as his own. Not even in dreams did I measure him any differently than I measured his wife, my grandmother. As I grew older, however, and he grew more and more frail, the absence of an actual cell between us appeared to chip away at his feelings. “I don’t have any family of my own, you know,” he’d say, gazing at me as if for sympathy, never knowing how caustic the mild-sounding words were to my ears.

“I’m your family, aren’t I?” I asked him, the first time he brought it up, but he shook his head, smiling at me with a thin-lipped yet dreamy smile.

“It’s not the same,” he answered.

***

On various occasions, as his health became less certain, I promised him one of my eyes, one of my ears, one of my kidneys, half my heart, half my liver, half my stomach: everything and anything he needed to survive, anything he might need to be comfortable, which I swore to give to him when he got “old.”

***

In my last year of college, I had a boyfriend who got physical with me on several occasions. Nothing serious, no marks: a thump on the head with one knuckle, a scuffle in the yard, pushing matches. One day I reacted badly, bolting my apartment door and calling home. He answered on the first ring, but, having expected my grandmother, I found I couldn’t stop the tears. His voice deepened, becoming rough around the edges as he interrogated me. An old man, on six kinds of heart medication, he swore he’d drive the four hundred miles and teach the boy a lesson.

“No, Grampa,” I said. “It’s all right. I’m breaking up with him. Don’t worry.”

“Call the police if he comes to the door again,” he said. “Have him arrested.”

This reaction, despite his often-repeated joke: “Never hit a woman,” he’d say, shaking his head, staring at my grandmother’s back. “Use an axe.”

***

His fourth heart attack came only days before my wedding. He managed to walk me down the aisle anyway, spiffy and broad-shouldered in his plain black dinner jacket, a single pink rosebud clipped to his lapel. Since both my parents were dead, he was “giving me away” to my fiancé, a practice I found offensive on feminist grounds, because it seemed to exclude my grandmother from the giving. So we compromised: when asked by the priest, “Who gives this woman?” he was to answer, “Her grandmother and I do.” Except, when the moment came, he said only “I do.” My grandmother, standing in the front row in her baby blue satin lace and picture hat, whacked the prayer rail with her wedding service programme in frustration. The sound echoed off the front wall of the small church and stayed with me for the rest of the day.

Later, at the reception, he was critical of the music we had selected without consulting him: a wandering string quartet. “All your guests are leaving,” he said, after his fourth or fifth glass of champagne took hold. “Why didn’t you have a real band? Some dancing. It’s like a funeral in here.” I trembled all over from the exertion of holding my tongue. Only if I had screamed at him, my face reddening under its halo of white silk flowers, would he have been happy.

***

I was home for a long-overdue visit when the last battle came. Semi-invalided, by then, Grampa moved only from the bed to his recliner, spending the day reading the paper in a slow, deliberate rustle. The television blared for hours each evening, his expensive hearing aids — the same kind Reagan used, he’d told me — plucked from his canals and discarded, tossed into a dainty porcelain ashtray: hand-painted with a rising, twisting phoenix, it was the only memento he had kept from his service in Germany during the war.

He didn’t like going to bed at night, waiting until two or three in the morning to call for my grandmother to help him to his room. Arising no earlier than noon the next day, he’d swear he hadn’t slept a wink. “He snored like a baby all morning,” my grandmother would whisper.

His appetite was slight too, and then one day, nonexistent. Supper waited out in the dining room: over my grandmother’s objections I took him in a bowl of ice cream. He lay against his pillows while I spooned it into his mouth, noticing how he lipped the spoon as I withdrew it, sucking it like a baby. The bowl finished, he thanked me, his voice hoarse with exhaustion. Turning to leave, I heard him start coughing, a deep cough that seemed to come from his gut, his eyes widening under the thick cataract glasses, his cheeks bulging, seemingly an imitation of his old comic fish-face. For a moment I laughed, thinking it a joke, but he put his hand over his mouth and made as if to hold his lips together with his fingers. He was trying to keep from throwing up all over the bed, I realized, running for a basin, almost too late.

After Gran and I cleaned him up, I felt his forehead. It was hot, dry, but the rest of him was clammy and covered with an oily sweat. As I took his temperature, Gran called the doctor, who told us to get him to the hospital right away. When we told Grampa where we were taking him, he shook his head. “Now what’d you go and do that for?” he said.

He looked so small and frail laying there it was a surprise to find I couldn’t carry him — what remained of him was deceptively heavy, as if his bones were filled with lead. It took both of us to get him out to the car. Each step seemed so difficult, so impossible — by the time he lowered himself clumsily into the front seat, he was glistening with a symmetric pattern of droplets, the sweat beading his skin like opalescent sequins.

***

At the hospital, an orderly dressed in green surgical scrubs helped Grampa from the car into a wheelchair. The orderly was tall and long-limbed, and moved with an ease, a lean fluidity born of professional indifference. His arms were the color of imported chocolate, warm coppery highlights underlying the pigment. His arms were like a god’s: so full of life and possibilities, I held my breath as he lifted the skeletal, ashen old body of my grandfather out of the car. I couldn’t say what the orderly’s face looked like other than that it was — like the motion of his limbs — devoid of both pity and scorn. His eyes remained downcast, looking only at Grampa in the chair — and I wanted to speak, but nothing came to mind, only regret at not being permitted to be similarly borne away, out of my own uncertainty and into a place defined by someone else’s ministrations.

The young man’s arms, in that moment, seemed to emit forensic signals, speaking without words to a pain I hadn’t realized was there, the arms themselves justifying birth, justifying suffering, justifying death: paying for perfection all over again — skin so smooth it looked hairless, poreless, as if it smelled of allspice and cinnamon and blood and salt. The arms were immaculately sculpted; the bones just long enough, granting a perfect inertia between muscularity and leanness. The miracle of such arms and skin held my attention like a time-release dose of whatever manna makes heaven heaven, and so it was that I found myself spiraling into an upward-rushing eddy of panic when the orderly left, forever, just seconds later, rolling my grandfather to the admitting desk like so much cargo, then vanishing into the angular whiteness and pulsing fluorescence of the hospital corridors.

***

We left Grampa there, in the midst of a cotillion of duly licensed strangers — what choice did we have, not knowing, not wanting to know, not capable of that knowledge? By not speaking, we maintained a positive attitude. His room seemed comfortable, his nurses kind. His glasses glinted, the reflection obscuring his eyes, as we waved goodbye from the doorway.

By the next morning, he had been moved to the intensive care unit. He was comatose, hooked up to a ventilator, stripped of his pajamas, gleaming plastic tubes invading his throat, his nose, his bladder, his veins — his heart had stopped in the night, from the pneumonia: the doctors speculated he might have had irreversible brain damage before they got it going again.

Machines everywhere, whirring, beeping — my grandmother and I couldn’t even touch him. His chest shook under the ventilator’s control, his whole body quivered. The vent itself hissed, clicking, coaxing his reluctant breath, forcing it when it hesitated. Pushing his lungs in and out without his body’s permission. The respirator had a device to allow him to breathe for himself, if he could, like training wheels on a child’s bicycle, and sometimes he did, but even that primitive desire for oxygen would vanish, and the machine would kick in to bring him the next breath.

We were there when the respiratory people had to change his breathing tube. With the most well-meaning, tender sort of violence, they ministered to the tubes, his whole body curling into a fetal position with the deep, gaglike coughing that resulted. They couldn’t say if he’d ever wake up, or whether he’d come off the ventilator. His arms were twisted, contorted, the hands grasping at nothing with a desperation that made my shoulders quiver in an involuntary spasm of sympathy. I bought him a tiny teddy bear, uncurling his stiff fingers to place the bear against the taut, unyielding palm. His other hand appeared to relax once the toy was in place, but perhaps it was only my imagination.

***

My grandmother and I, without speaking, understood our own feelings clearly enough. We wanted him gone; this kind of life was too painful to watch. We wanted it to come:   but at the same time felt wicked and evil. Who knew what he himself would have wanted? In the end, she signed the thick sheaf of papers authorizing no further “heroic measures.” Each place for her signature was marked with special red removable tabs.

***

In a sort of minor miracle, in several days he did awake, and they removed the intrusion of the ventilator. He was himself, more or less, and knew who we were, but underlying that surface was a terrible confusion. “How’s Jessie?” he asked me calmly, the name of my great-grandmother, dead long before I was born. His memories suffered no restraint; no contradictions existed in his inner flow of time. “Seeing you’s the best present I could have gotten,” he told us. “I’m going to take us all on a vacation when I get out of here.”

He seemed better than he had in years: I left for home, knowing it wouldn’t last; for the first time not wondering whether he would live or not. Later that day, I called him at the hospital from a thousand miles away and let him speak to my husband and my daughter. Say I love you, I told them. Say I love you, Grampa.

***

The next day he slipped back into unconsciousness, gently, easily, as a bar of soap floats downward in warm water. Notwithstanding the papers, the hospital wanted to put him back on the ventilator. No, Gran told them, no ventilator. No more.

***

I asked her what he had looked like, at the end. He lay on his side in the bed, she said, breathing shallowly. He didn’t seem to be in pain. He panted a little, she said, not moving, his face smooth.

I feared perhaps we had decided it the wrong way. Grampa’s doctor, without saying anything, seemed to look at us as if we were bad people, as if we cared more about ourselves than Grampa himself. As if we were selfish.

***

It wasn’t until a couple months after the funeral I thought to look for his glove and ball. I searched his closet first: most of his clothes and things were already gone, and the closet seemed a different space, altered by no longer containing him. When I couldn’t find them I didn’t panic — I knew Gran had put them away somewhere safe for me.

“Where’s Grampa’s glove and ball?” I asked her, not wanting to reveal how much I wanted to have them, now that he wasn’’t there to keep them away.

“What, those old things?” she asked, incredulous. “You wanted me to save those?”

I gaped at her then. The floor under my feet got soft; my knees turned into grating stone stubs lashed together by rusted wire. She was right, in a way, since at the last the glove hadn’t been a glove, just a thumb, the ball not a ball, either, but a roundish wad of wrapped string, its leather covering gone. That was all he’d had left, all I’d wanted: a piece of him I’d thought I was entitled to.

I would have kept them in a little box and looked at them every now and then, touched them with my finger. Maybe, if I was feeling daring, I would have taken the glove thumb and slipped it on, holding the ball in my hand, sliding the brittle thumb piece back and forth over the grimy string. I would have smelled them: a few tentative whiffs of the powdery leather.

***

I didn’t yell at her, there was no point. It was over. In spite of my outward act of forgiveness, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps what Grampa had said all along was true — maybe people did reserve the deepest sort of caring for their own blood, maybe that kind of caring was inseparable from cells, inalienable from life. Gran hadn’t cared as much about his feelings about the glove as she had about mine, for example. Or was it just that she didn’t care as much about the archival, historical things as I did? Whatever the explanation, it was done: she had not even understood enough to realize the issue existed.

“Why didn’t you tell me not to throw them out?” she asked later. “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted them?”

It was simple: I thought she knew. “I just assumed you’d keep them,” I said. “They meant so much to him.”

“They were ratty old things,” she said. “Just pieces, really. They were unrecognizable.”

***

I told myself that perhaps it was a good thing that the glove thumb and string ball were gone. I’d wanted them for the wrong reasons. I’d wanted something I didn’t deserve. I felt hungry — empty — but without focus, without specific appetite. He — damn him! — was leaving me all over again, and for the third time: the person I’d wanted him to be; the person he’d been; the person I’d wanted him to remain.

I thought of all the other useless things I already had in my personal archives, from my father’s crocheted baby blanket to clothes worn by my mother in college. I thought of letters they’d written to each other before I was born, airmail letters on thin blue tissue, drawn in irregular strokes of faded ink. I thought of brittle brown paperbacks and the curling edges of photographs. We are naked in our mourning, we cannot speak, and we cannot touch.

Grampa was gone; the glove and ball were gone; I was still here. The hell with it — I didn’t want to know, I didn’t want to hear what the dead had to say anymore. Only in dreams would the dead be able to seek me out again.

The dead never say much, anyway, not even in dreams. They look into my eyes, mainly, their own abrim with a solitary sort of gentleness, hoping to inoculate me against what they know is unnecessary sorrow — unnecessary love? — hoping to protect me from whatever it is that only they can see: all the while, nodding their heads in a slow, assured rhythm, a rhythm nearly invisible to the unaided eye.

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