Tag Archives: heartbreak
PRETZELS & CHOCOLATE
(rented room, cigarettes)
I am eating pretzels
and they are hard
but splinter into salty crumbs
with the merest bite
they only satisfy
part of my tongue
(rented room, cigarettes)
so I pick up the chocolate
greedy for it to melt
against my palate
sucking the firm square
feeling it mold to me
the way I imagine
my body molds to yours
(rented room, cigarettes)
retaining the character of sweetness
to complement the salt
to balance my mouth
I am eating chocolate
thinking of us
(rented room, cigarettes)
(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…
View original post 800 more words
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.
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.
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.
Summer Evening, Beaumont, a poem
I was not there. I am only an observer.
The four-year old on his tricycle is
dressed for the heat in loose shorts
and nothing else. His hair appears
disarrayed as he stares at the ground.
The back of his bare skull is as finely
carved as a newborn’s, the delicate
shadows of his shoulder bones ask for
touch. The clumsy chalk lines on the
pavement are from a murder and he
knows it — the blood came out last
night as the torpid sun was going down.
This boy has to make stories up in
his head, but the shy universe he
creates is a notion he’ll never share.
I was not there. I am only an observer.
The dead man was 300 pounds and didn’t
talk much, as he, too, was waiting for a
miracle. Gang members used five or six
bullets, then ran away without taking his
wallet, the item they wanted most of all.
I was not there. I am only an observer.
Hours earlier, the victim had left his
rented home in all-white Vidor; he told
how the folks there threatened to hang him,
he told how lonely it was to wake up every
day and remember where he was. He wasn’t
afraid, he said, just tired of fighting.
Catalyst to a Potato, a poem
Can I perform the miracles of earth, sun, water?
Can I be the warmth that gently pries open
eyes, that coaxes forth pale shoots, that causes
hardness to soften to green? If I throw the potato
against the wall again and again, will I ever cause
the potato to change? For so long, I tried to form
myself in the potato’s image. I tried to become
round, dense and heavy with stability, I tried
to protect myself. It did not work, it failed.
Now all there is left is her, one small girl alone
in the world. Her lips are redder than mine ever
were. Her shoulders are strong, she is not fragile.
You were the potato, the one I could never change.
Lobbing you again and again brought no result,
no visible difference. Yet in your eyes I am
the one who remained indifferent. I am not
ashamed, yet I am the one who needs to change.
You want only to rebuild. Take stock of your
small garden, not everything there is sound.
There is no such thing as healing. There is only
covering over, sweeping under, tamping down.
You know we will never love each other again,
yet you do not weep. This time I will not do it
for you. I am finished with praying for miracles.
Searching for Dreams in Little Havana, a short story
Karen knows it’s a bad sign when she sits wondering whether the man she’s crazy in love with is a liar, or a fool, or both. Fuck first, talk later, yes, that approach seems outdated, rather quaint. Impatience has always been her biggest problem. The way this one calls women bitches, it’s like a warning beacon, but she’s not listening because she already thinks she loves him.
Karen wants this man. Or rather, she wants something, and she is trying to figure out if it is him. She orders a latte made with chocolate milk, lights another cigarette. The waiter serving her is thin to the point of illness — his sharp elbows have worn holes in the sleeves of his chambray blouse. The waiter looks nothing like the man she thinks she wants. She wonders if the waiter wants anyone, right now.
“Can I get you anything else?” he, the waiter, asks.
“An audience with the Pope?” she says. “Eternal life, maybe?” She is only partly kidding. She has had her past lives examined under hypnosis. She remembers being locked in a tomb in France. She did not care for it.
The waiter laughs and shakes his head. He flees from her the way young waiters always flee from her — looking back over his shoulder, tossing his hair out of his eyes, knees trembling like a young mule deer’s.
Karen calls Edward, the man she thinks she wants, from her office. While the phone is ringing, her assistant comes to the doorway. She holds a sheaf of papers which Karen knows is the monthly billing.
“Go away,” Karen says to her, smiling. This is the way she talks to all her employees — imperious jokes, self-mocking but at the same time crushing and heavy with the power she refrains always from using.
“Hello,” says Edward.
“What are you doing?” Karen asks.
“Paying bills,” he says.
“Can I come over?”
“I told you I was impatient. I’m tired of dictating.”
“I need to dust off,” he says. “Shower, change.”
“Twenty minutes?” she says.
“Make it forty,” he says.
Before she gets out of the office, her ex-husband calls. Donald is furious, he is always furious, it is the reason they are no longer married. Donald has forgotten how to have fun. Either he has forgotten, or he never knew. He is a very practical person, he runs a tidy house, a neat garden, a solid social life. Karen is no longer sure what drew her to him in the first place. She tries to remember, often when she lies down to sleep she thinks of what it was like to live with him — the predictable days, the fully planned weekends. He never kissed or bit her in the throes of passion, merely covered his face with his hands, as though trying to block her out. He never talks about religion, nor politics, nor his health.
“Where have you been?” her ex-husband says. “You missed Sara’s school open house. I tried calling you all day. Didn’t your secretary tell you?”
“I had an emergency to attend to,” she says. “One of my clients was stranded in Baltimore.”
“Well, there’s always a reason,” he says. “There’s always a reason for the way you neglect your personal life.”
“I guess that’s why you divorced me,” she says. Karen remembers the day she told him she didn’t want to stay married to him — he threw his shoes at her , but they landed in the kitchen sink, splattering her with soapy water. She can have no doubts.
She kept waiting for Donald to have an affair, so she wouldn’t have to. But he was lazy, he put aside passion and loveliness and focused only on money. He could make a lot of it, it was his best talent.
At thirty-five, Karen gets carded one last time for cigarettes, tells the clerk she’s really old, takes off her sunglasses to show him her crow’s feet. Later, her man Edward says with heat, oh, he wanted you. She laughs nervously. No man is able to endure her — it comes from how her father left, how he wanted to stab her when she was born, how her secret heart is looking for some man to make up for that, to endure every hateful thing she can say but never leave.
Most of her adult life has been spent sleeping, so when Karen develops insomnia, she assumes it’s her own fault, always having been a slugabed. She has the blues every day even before she gets up. Life is both too full and too empty to tolerate. Like a snake, she holds everything in fierce embrace, she has loved it all so much, it is dead. She has slept enough, she decides, she’ll make the best of these wakeful hours. She takes up needlepoint, cross-stitch, knitting and crochet, and soon her living room is filled with her creations. Still, she misses her dreams.
Karen goes to a shop in Little Havana, searching for some harmless herbal remedy, something almost, but not quite, a placebo. She’s a firm believer in the power of the mind over the body. Witchcraft is another thing entirely, so when the pale shop-woman draws back a beaded curtain and motions her in to the back room, which smells of burnt sugar, she hesitates. She takes in the woman’s hairy upper lip, her gold canine tooth, her precisely lined red lips, her sexy upper arms — decides it’s worth a try.
Hirsuteness notwithstanding, the pale woman is abnormally beautiful, the kind of beauty women admire and men find frightening — hard, pristine, with sharp angles everywhere. This lady’s nose is a work of art, of architecture, of poetry. All Karen wants is to close her eyes and dream of this moment, twist it into a candy fluff to sustain her through the miserable waking hours.
It’s her desperation, Karen guesses, which has aroused the shop-woman’s sixth sense, a sympathy so strong her pale hands shake as they hold the tangle of beads behind her. Karen blinks back tears, surprised. The bottle the woman chooses is purple, with a gold foil label. Imported from Cuba, it reads. Cuban witchcraft — Castro hasn’t killed every colonial superstition, evidently.
And the voice in Karen’s head says: do what you must, and break your heart down even farther, you haven’t touched the depths yet, of where I will take you. And you will weep for your own folly, and still not be satisfied. You ask for sleep. What can you live without most easily? What can you give up, forever?
Whenever Ella was feeling close to the edge, a hair’s-breadth from lunacy, she liked to shop for groceries. She went up and down all the aisles, methodically picking out food. She threw boxes and jars and bags and cans willy-nilly in her cart, always stocking up for the big one, the storm that would tear the roof off. It’s a habit, one she learned as a child. The women in her family were bony, starry-eyed drunks, with bad skin and lank hair, but by God, they knew how to grocery shop.
She was in this twitchy, nervous state because her mother had showed up again last night. She would never know if it was just a dream: she hoped it was. Ella opened her eyes and saw her mother standing next to the bed, almost touching the mattress. She didn’t smile or speak, but simply shook her head. Mama seemed angry; Ella could tell her mother wanted to hit her. Mama was jealous that Ella was still alive, driving Mama’s car, watching her TV, wearing her jewelry. Ella met her fierce gaze without moving, then closed her lids against the image like hurricane shutters.
The room was so dark, and her mother was like a column of gray smoke, rising over Ella. Meeting death hadn’t changed Mama’s face one bit. How was it that Ella still missed her? That was an embarrassing, childish pain, an overgrown mouth sucking a rubber pacifier. There would never be a second chance for Mama and Ella; Ella wished she could believe in heaven like she believed in hell. If her mother had loved herself, or Ella, even a little, maybe she’d have pulled through the dark waters. But poor Mama was so full of self-hate there was no room for anything else. Now Ella was afraid her mother’s habits were coming after her.
Ella confessed it; often she had hated her mother too, while she lived. She even killed her mother once, in a dream. She stabbed Mama many times with a kitchen knife, and it felt right, like it was the only graceful way out for both of them. There wasn’t as much blood as Ella expected, though there was still enough to soak her mother’s nightgown all the way through. When she woke, clammy and trembling, Ella hurried to Mama’s room to make sure she still breathed. Ella knelt at the side of her bed, watching her mother’s scrawny chest. At first, it didn’t stir, and Ella almost cried out. Then she saw movement, enough to know her mother lived. Forever after, she feared the terrible anger in herself. It was always waiting, a tiger with ivory teeth and steel claws — waiting for her to stumble, to lose her grasp on mercy, on forgiveness, and throw open its cage.
Wishing her mother was dead half the time didn’t keep Ella from breaking down the door in a panic when she thought she’d overdosed. After the first incident, Ella wasn’t all that worried, she knew her mother to be too much of a bumbler, she would screw it up, or not finish, like she did everything else. The door became only an excuse for Ella to use her rage, to make her hatred tangible, give it life, a physical existence. She used a heavy folding chair, swinging it over and over again, watching first the splintered crack appear, then the bit of light, marveling at how the door-frame itself gave way all at once and the entire door fell cleanly into the room. Mama sprawled on her bed, half-clothed, her knobby knees the bulkiest part of her, her huge, brown, doe-like eyes looking puzzled. Even with all the noise, Mama was so out of it, she couldn’t figure out how Ella had gotten in the room. Later, sober, she realized she’d underestimated her daughter, she hadn’t known what Ella was capable of. Much later, a couple of years after Ella left home, after a hundred false starts, Mama managed to finish what she’d begun.
Ella shopped hours for the perfect funeral dress; pulled grimly through all the racks, looking at everything dark. No, not dark, black. “Nobody wears mourning black anymore,” the saleslady said, but for her own mother, Ella insisted. In photographs, she appeared the proper, bereaved daughter. She spent three days wearing the black dress, feeling grimy by the day of the burial, and glad of it.
They buried her mother in front of a croton bush, God, how Mama had hated those things, crotons. Ella stared at the shiny marble urn where it sat in the little hole, the tacky brass plaque glued to the top. She couldn’t object to the shrubbery, not with the priest standing there, tall and lean and handsome like some Marlboro Man, chanting and swinging his billowy canister of incense on its copper chain, the black robes clinging to him under the harsh weight of the sun, his hand so big and hard when she shook it, her knees almost gave way.
That night, Ella left the house long after dark, she walked in shaky high heels down the street and around the corner, ruining the delicate heel tips on the asphalt. She decided to keep walking until she dropped; to walk forever if no one came running after her. She stopped only a couple of miles away, limp from the humid August air. Crickets vibrated, frogs exhaled, stars flickered; the glowing, yellow windows of strangers were her last comfort, her final safe haven. Nothing but love for those strangers kept her from leaving for good, nothing but fear of the anger-tiger kept her from going any farther after her mother; Ella stood alone in the velvet grief of that hot summer night, calling her mother’s name over and over again like a stupid, hungry baby.