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She Hates Numbers

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Rose, Honey, or Strawberry Moon

illustration rose honey strawberry moon

Rose, Honey, or Strawberry Moon (June)

Roses

We dug up the bushes, moving gifts from my mother’s friends, transported them to our tiny backyard, planted them in rows, a fine garden. Suddenly they took over, bursting into frenzied blooms, the metal tags dangling, all hybrids, expensive, my mother’s friends were rich, we weren’t. Tropicana, Peace, Mister Lincoln — but over the next few years they all gave up the ghost, dwindled away to one or two sticks bearing black-spotted leaves, an occasional bud. My mother & stepfather forgot the roses, neglected them the way they neglected their and my mental health. Cases of beer and gallons of wine were lugged home instead. We sold the house when my mother & stepfather divorced, the new owners didn’t care for roses, I haven’t seen the backyard in decades. I used to swing there, under a Florida holly, on a splintery board, watching the roses in their sweet decline. Remnants of a more splendid time, not mine. My dog and cat were buried in that yard, my girlhood surrendered to a more ominous time, a time of sneaking out the bedroom window. I had a purple and blue room, painted furniture, a globe of the world, matching curtains & bedspread. I lost the room when I lost my cobbled-together family. But the absence of family was no great loss, not the same as losing the roses. It wasn’t my family anyway, though people were always telling me how much I looked like my “dad.” We hardly ever had the heart to tell them we weren’t related. For a while, he liked me, but not when I started showing signs of womanhood. Then he despised me, the way he despised my mother.

I was an ugly, awkward girl. My glasses hid my eyes, my hair hid my face, the only things revealed were arms & legs like jointed sticks, bare feet with black soles, a pair of bright yellow & white plaid shorts & a white cotton shirt. My hair bleached at the ends, stiff like straw from the sun & pool water. My smile was alarming, my sullen face more of a comfort. I met my “real” father that year. He was frightening, a reminder of myself yet a complete stranger. I suffered from vertigo in his presence, the room grew long and thin, the sounds bounced off the walls like rubber, and I was covered with cold sweat. I didn’t want to touch him. After he left, I went to swing next to the roses. That rope and board swing saved my mind over & over. I could carry on after that soothing motion.

Honey

The neighbor across the street decided to keep bees. The two hives were square wooden boxes, painted white, and he kept them in the side yard, past the driveway, against the chain link fence. They buzzed in and out all day, and I was always afraid of being stung. His orange blossom honey was sweet & bright & bland. I was desperately in love with his oldest son, and the man himself hated me. The mother was slightly less hostile. His son was tall & long-limbed & had chestnut hair & dark hazel eyes. His hands were beautifully shaped, the hands of a pianist, but he was not a musician, he was not an artist, not an intellectual. He should have been, he looked the part. Instead he was an athlete, always running or riding or throwing or hitting. I played basketball with him in the driveway, always humiliated, always losing, but it was the only way to be with him. I humbled myself, and years later when I became beautiful, he loved me back, but it was too late. He wouldn’t speak, and I couldn’t stand the silence. I foresaw years of painful silence broken only by my own shouting. I gave him up, my first love. And lived to regret it. I wonder if the silence would have endured. His nervous, awkward kisses were sweeter than his father’s honey. We lay together on my bed and necked for hours. He was so shy. I was willing to let him be that way. The first time we had real sex wasn’t as good as all the times spent in preparation. We were both too young to know what we had. Everything seems possible in June. Everything seems as though it will last forever. I still have a jar with a petrified sugar-crust, remnants of his daddy’s honey.

Strawberries

One year, my grandfather planted a field of strawberries behind his house, my little brother and I wandered up and down the rows, picking the ripe ones and eating them on the spot. We didn’t care that they weren’t washed. They were so warm & sweet & soft & our lips turned red, my brother’s face smeared pinkish, like a lover’s blush. I was madly in love with everyone that summer. I just wanted to be held. Men were foreign to me, I couldn’t understand them at all. My brother and I ate as many as we wanted, then picked buckets full for later. Washed & cut up, they weren’t the same, still good, but the wildness was off them. My grandfather’s hands as he cut them up were beautiful & careful & solid, I wanted to look at his hands forever. They were not delicate, but not rough — a man’s good hands, they looked loving & trustworthy, and even though he never really touched me, I could tell they could transmit all varieties of tenderness & passion. I loved my grandfather for being that kind of man — I wished I could have been a stranger, so that he could have loved me too. All summer long, I ate sweet strawberries & dreamed of love, a man to love me like a piece of perfect, ripe fruit. I was only 14, still gangly & shy, and no one came along for several years, yet still the dream carried me along like a fast ship, driven by a cool wind.

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I was thirteen the first time I had to lie to the police to protect someone I loved, a short story

illustration mom hit the boy on the bike

I was Thirteen the First Time I Had to Lie to the Police to Protect Someone I Loved, a short story

I was thirteen, in my first year of high school, and one afternoon I was home watching TV by myself while my mother went to pick up my little brother from nursery school. The doorbell rang: a police officer stood outside, tall and broad and scary. He had gleaming handcuffs and an oily looking gun buckled to his belt; a long black stick with ominous scuffmarks hung at his side. “Your mother’s okay, but she’s been in an accident,” he said. Less than an hour ago I’d seen the way her whole body swayed as she went out the door. Her empty glass was sitting right behind me in the kitchen, unrinsed and still reeking of Scotch.

Even now I see my mother’s face, soft and drunk, pale and frightful, moving through the darkness, soaring over me as mysterious and unreachable as the moon. Her affection waxed and waned, never constant. When she’d had enough to drink, she loved me, but the way she went about her mother love, pulling at me with sorrowful, clumsy arms given unnatural strength by liquor, made my flesh wither under her touch.

“She hit a boy on a bicycle,” the policeman said. “Do you know if she’s been drinking?” he asked. He shifted his weight from one leg to both legs evenly, spread his feet wider on the cement walkway and moved his arms from his sides to his belly, holding his hands together down low at his belt.

“No,” I answered the policeman, looking unflinchingly into his eyes, which was excruciating but imperative, I knew, if I wanted him to believe me. “She hasn’t been drinking.”

My mother had skin like rose petals, eyes like a fawn’s. There were the rare times when she forgot to be sad, if only when some equally sad eyed man noticed her. If a man loved her to the point of obsession, to the point of contemplating suicide, she imagined she might find the strength within herself to survive, but she eventually rejected all such suitors, wanting only those who were hard nosed and cold blooded, as her father and, later, her husbands were. Remote, a source of funds and orders and criticism, the closest men in her life approved of her external beauty but not her soul. They didn’t care what she wanted: they wanted her to be like all the other girls and women, to be beautiful and obedient. They broke her will; she broke their hearts.

She was memorable for simple things: her rose garden and her Scotch and water, her menthol cigarettes and her Pucci nightgowns, her ladylike hands and her A cup breasts, her bitterness, her resignation, her unending string of sentimental, alcoholic boyfriends. She taught me how not to be. How not to live. A psychic once told me she was my one true soul mate in this life and that my heart had been broken the day I was born, that first hazy time I looked into her eyes and saw nothing there for me. One normal thing I remember is hanging clothes out to dry with her in the backyard when the dryer was broken. Once, she even took me out to the movies.

“Are you sure she’s not drunk?” the policeman said. His face was a smooth blank, revealing nothing, but then so was mine. “She’s acting pretty out of it.”

“She gets that way whenever she’s really upset,” I said.

“We need you to come take care of your brother,” he said. “While we decide what to do.”

The policeman herded me into his car, and we drove to the place Mom had the accident. They’d already taken the boy away in an ambulance; all that remained was his bright yellow bicycle, its frame horribly crooked, its front wheel bent almost in half, sprawled on the ground in front of my mother’s car, a powder blue Cutlass Supreme. I glanced offhand at the front of the car, afraid to look too long, afraid the policemen would be able to tell something from the way I acted, but I didn’t notice dents or blood or anything. Even without that, the bike, obviously brand new before the wreck, was as frightening as a dead body. Mom was sitting in the back of another patrol car, and her eyes were red, her face was wet.

My three year old brother sat beside her, and I could tell he hadn’t cried yet, but I could tell when he did it was going to last a very long time. Then I wanted to tell the police she was drunk, yes, she was drunk today and every single afternoon of my life, but the way she looked — her beautiful hands trembling as she smoked — temporarily severed the connection between my conscience and my voicebox. I couldn’t talk at all, because I knew I’d cry. I’d protect her from the police, make sure she wouldn’t end up in jail, but later, I would coldly steal money from her wallet, cigarettes from her purse, clothes from her closet. In the end, the boy on the bike died, and she died, too.

Toward the end, my mother said she was on fire from the neck down. Her arms and legs felt like they were glowing, orange red, molten. But her head felt like a block of ice. She was emotionally or spiritually paralyzed, she said, and worried about whether the condition was permanent. She felt like the nerves from her head down to her body were cut, and she didn’t know if they would ever grow back.

Right before the end, she said she could not distinguish life from dreams; she slept little, ate even less. She didn’t feel mad, she felt terribly, irrevocably sane. Everywhere she walked the ground seemed on the verge of opening up into blackness, into fire. If only she could go mad, she said. When I found her cold and stiff on the living room floor, she wore nothing but blue nylon panties and her white gold wristwatch, given to her by her own mother in 1958.

A watch which is in my jewelry box, upstairs, right this second, and which I wore to the Palm Sunday service, yesterday, at Holy Faith Catholic Church. I took Communion from Father John, even though I am not now, and have never been, and never will be, officially a Catholic. My friend Clyde, my dear friend, mentor, and fellow lawyer, told me that he thought I would still be eligible for Heaven, regardless of what the Catholic Church, as an institution, might determine.

Because of all this, and a couple of other things which I won’t bother to mention here, I had to hold myself very still, and open my eyes a bit wide, during the reading of Jesus’s betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane in order not to allow the fucking tears to drop out of my eyes. Yes, I am a liar. So sue me. Good luck!

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Filed under legal writing, mysterious, prose poetry, short stories