August 16, 2016
You, a mountain! So many hours spent facing you, traversing swamped dark fields and flourished Edens to reach you, this mountain, with its stony face and harsh edges, with its unforgiving lines and grandvaliant dimensions. You, a beacon making its claim. From every aspect from where she stands, from every perspective, this vital peak looms before her, to the side of her, somehow unmoving and moving, somehow treacherous and safe, somehow this—you—her private rock to move toward and touch, the coarse mineral that defines you and the silken polish that life has worn onto your surface.
Alas. For months, she wandered and slept-walked and hurried off the trail that leads to you, and turned when she could from you, but the face of your summit was too beloved to abandon for long. Alack: January, when you request to see her. January, when the path looms up to meet her footfalls, and what the mountain will be when she reaches it—a gem, or agate, or quarried fulfillment or release or frustration or satisfaction—she does not know.
(The rock was warm when she lay upon it, so unexpectedly warm that her skin prickled and gooseflesh strutted over her forearms, her thighs: the quiet shock and shiver of the first moments when the chill air settles.)
June 1, 2016
From the rocks, the lady trailed her fingertips into the water, then over her keyboard, her instrument, eager to tell of what she has seen reflected in the depths of the ocean. Dependency. Compulsion.
She had her addictions and they played and called and were relentless: they pleaded to be seen and felt. Heard. It was as if, just as was done decades and decades ago when whale watchers spied from atop their lookouts mermen playing the same looping song for their lovers, the melody haunted the landscape of everyday life. Her addictions were more than ghosts because they were active: grinning skeletons dancing a jig on the rocks. She saw the bones but pretended not to.
It was this constant desire for romance and it was family history–genetics–and it was a great wish for more…these were the reasons for her addictions.
For a long time, a sea creature called dependency led forth her fate. The creature: red, foreign and dark now; familiar, white, and cool now. She is typing out all she has seen and drank and felt. She is remembering a childhood spent watching the creature and she is remembering an early womanhood spent dancing it, too. She is looking closely at it, slipping in beside it to touch it and understand its chemical appeal. Peering in close, reading its words, watching it flip around in the great waters and shimmy through all her life, vegetation, barricades, obstacles, details. She understands what she is when she couples with it: confident and courageous in the water, refreshed, invigorated by an easy swimming and the freedom to lift up and breathe. In middle age, she startles to feel a difference, to feel a menace and a dread emerge. Night after night, she has devotedly loved the creature and he has replied by plunging back into the saltwater–fulfilled and strong, ready for another night of this same dance, the synchrony of their swimming becoming a betraying chokehold that means she will—she will–drown.
She is writing outside of time, outside the lines of water and sky, keystrokes that become a tune, which become a ballad, that culminate in a thunderous and sick, great symphony here in the waters in the middle of the Year 2016. Somehow, in ordinary time, near the ruined sandcastles of dashed hopes and elusive happiness, up here against these rocks worn smooth by the incessant battering of life’s waves, here is truth: She must swim away.
May 30, 2016
I have a waking dream.
I have an obsessive fantasy. I dream of sleep, I wish for it compulsively. I find my thoughts turning toward the idea of sleep over and over again, before I can catch them and stop them from crowding out anything else. In the commute, at work, at the market, at my children’s sport functions, while writing and talking: I am secretly plotting how I may get some sleep. I am addicted to the notion of it—to the concept that there are some who get their fill of it, can have it whenever they want or need, who are satiated with it or who somehow have, almost unbelievably, too much of it.
I have never before been a jealous person, but I find I am suddenly overtaken with envy when imagining those who have sufficient sleep. I blink, not understanding, at social media posts declaring that one is “bored.” Bored? Is someone stating that they have nothing to do? That, in fact, they are not even considering sleep as an option in such a phenomenal circumstance?
I do not remember what it is to be bored, and I do not remember what it is to be rested. I do not recall having adequate sleep, not once, in nearly 15 years. I do not know what it is to sleep “soundly” or bound out of bed, reinvigorated.
I am an insomniac, and I am a mother. These two facts have placed me squarely into a box marked with the term “perpetual exhaustion.” The experience of sleeping, in itself, is a fascinating topic to me. Some people lie down and fall—without pills or alcohol or mantras or deep breathing or rituals—asleep! Some people do not take hours of thinking about sleep to go ahead and experience it. I am painfully aware that, at any given time, all around me are people who slept the night before without the angst and turmoil that comes with overwhelming fatigue accompanied by an inability to fall asleep.
I want to fall asleep easily. And then, I want to sleep until I wake up naturally—no alarm clock, no phone call, no child standing at my bed stage-whispering “mom? mom!”
I want to have nothing planned for the day—except, perhaps, more sleep.
Things I hear: “You look tired.” Yes. Because, you see, I am so tired. I look the way I feel.
“Do you ever nap?” Yes, I try to. It’s rarely a successful enterprise, and I hoard my rare opportunities to lie down during the daytime and rest. But it is invariably “rest” and not “sleep,” and I will attest that these are different things.
“Have you talked to a doctor?” I don’t want to answer this question ever again. I never want to talk to another doctor about this issue. The pills, the well-meaning yet condescending advice (take a warm bath, drink warm milk, try Yoga)—I have tried your remedies and tonics and infusions and I am too tired to finish this conversation.
I have a recurring dream. It is to sleep. To sleep and sleep and sleep and fill my cup with it, to recline in it, to wear it over me. To sleep a deep and curative sleep. To sleep so well that this dream is finally, finally put to rest.
upon the pass, where Cassandra had walked so long, alone
rocks and grit pressed up into the soles of her feet
(it became painful to walk, and she walked)
weary and lonesome, peering into the starless night
she had continued to walk and she was walking to you
she clutched her arrows and water sticks and she walked
she lie down at night in the damp earth and asked the moon for you
in the morning, she rose and walked again, then again
half-blind and cold, Cassandra came around the mountain to a pond
where you had walked and brought the sun and waited for her,
lilies clutched, like beacons, in your hand.
January 14, 2014
I know very few details about how Jo and Philip died and the reason for this is that I don’t want to hear about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about it, because I do.
I imagine the first moments, when Jo slipped over the tall edge of the dock. In the early morning hours, or sometimes late at night in the middle of bathing or brushing my teeth, I will imagine the first startled shouts of the men who jumped in after her. I imagine Philip. I can’t stop myself seeing in horrible technicolor the leaping bodies, all those who thought to rescue her, the splashing. I hear their raspy breaths, coming up for air and filling their lungs, plunging back down, and then doing it again and again. In the mornings when I hear and see these things, I moan into the blankets and roll over, squeezing my eyes, pushing the images far out of my mind’s reach. I imagine something else, the clothing in my closet that I will soon put on, or what wine I will pour in the afternoon for Andres. In the evenings, in the bathtub where all is quiet except for the small lapping sounds that are made in the water when I move the soap over my knees and my stomach, when the pictures come to me wholly unbidden, I swallow hard and stand, briskly drying myself with a towel from the warming bar.
I don’t dream about it, not usually. I am thankful for this one small, yet abundantly generous, thing. I had worried I would never sleep again, that the accident would take over my nights. The pamphlets on grief said that could happen, that I might not sleep. The leader of the grief crisis group was a large woman who had the most sympathetic and warm eyes, though she never looked at me straight on. After that first and only meeting, she had shuffled over slowly, as though she knew that walking directly to me with any sense of speed and looking at me directly would cause me to break. She had held out a pamphlet, printed on nubby paper that seemed to be made of fiber, and I remember thinking that this fit. That printing grief pamphlets on glossy paper would be an abhoration. I had smiled at the thought, or rather, I smiled at the absurdity of thinking such a thing at such a moment. The woman said “glad you are here” in a soft voice and shuffled back to her seat in the circle. It wasn’t until two weeks later that I looked at the pamphlet again, it had been lost under my coat and assorted papers on the passenger seat of my car. I took it to bed with me that night, reading its somber accounting of all the things I wouldn’t be able to do well again: sleep, eat, socialize, concentrate, smile. Over the last six months, I have considered each of these things, and have been relieved when first waking some mornings, realizing that somehow, despite the pamphlet and how it seemed to curse me so sympathetically and tenderly (“if you cannot sleep, consider the time as found hours. Write in your journal, enjoy a cup of tea, or pray to your Higher Power. The pre-dawn hours are a very still and quiet time to remember the loved one who has died.”). But, I do sleep. That’s why this morning I am a little unnerved, a little irritable, and why I snapped at Little Matty to hurry and dress for school (“please, what is wrong with you? Why can’t you hurry and get dressed?”). It is because for the first time in several months, I have had a nightmare. It was one of those unending, long nightmares, convoluted and seeming to go on and on, getting more menacing and complicated as it progressed. It seemed to last for hours, though I know from a psychology class I took back at Sonoma State that the entire dream must have lasted only minutes.
Wrapped in my favorite terry robe, one with arms that reach to my fingertips and a hem that flows all the way to my ankles, I walk down the hall with my coffee mug and go stand in front of the bathroom mirror. After several moments staring into my brown eyes, I sigh. The dark circles were inherited from my father, a family trait nearly all my relatives on that side bare. But the dream has left my eyes puffier and I imagine I may have tossed more than usual. My long black hair is frizzy, curly in places it wasn’t yesterday. I take my round brush, the one with the boar bristles that cost one hundred dollars, and I brush through my hair, causing it to puff up all around my face and to lay like a dark airless cloud on my shoulders. I grab a nylon rubberband, pull my hair into a low ponytail and go about brushing my teeth, scrubbing my face, applying fragrant moisturizing cream. I take a couple minutes to pluck a few dark eyebrow hairs that have shown up outside the careful arch I have worked so diligently on since I was fourteen years old. Well, my mother liked them neat, or “tailored” as she liked to say, and she hot-waxed them every other weekend from my fourteenth birthday until the weekend she died when I was twenty-eight.”Beauty is painful,” my mother would say when I would whimper, then yowl, when she pulled the cold wax away from my eyebrow, my upper lip.
I finish plucking, and feeling an almost unbearable regret for having raised my voice at Matty, I go into his room and straighten it up, bending over to pick up his football uniform, his cup that protects his 8-year old bits. I place his helmet on the shelf and stack his story books next to the bed. I think to myself that this is enough, that I have done enough work for one day, and that I still have the afternoon appointment that I need to get ready for. I have always loathed housework, but now it has become even more some kind of menace. A self-inflicted punishment. That’s an odd thought, I think. A punishment for what? I am not sure why, but I force myself to keep at it, to strip my son’s bed and lay cool, fresh sheets over the mattress. Like I’ve seen in magazines, I turn the comforter double-down, and stack the pillows in a way that no neck could lie upon them. But it is a pretty picture, it is. I feel a little better for having done it. I decide to make things even better, that I will make Matty’s favorite dinner after I pick him up, the burger-and-tater-tot casserole he has always loved, a big round pool of ketchup on the side of his old plastic Superman plate.
It is only 10:00 in the morning, but I begin to get ready to go. The drive to Mill Valley will take me at least 40 minutes. I rinse my cup and place it in the rack next to the sink to drain, feeling virtuous that the kitchen is clean and tidy, this little slice of everything having a place and everything being properly stored in my small L-shaped kitchen. The house is not large at all, it’s two bedrooms take up half it’s area, and the one bathroom is small, too. But every room was lovingly and devotedly remodeled by the previous owners. The countertops, with their caramel granite, and the cabinetry, set into the walls like cubbies. The cabinet doors are wavy bronze-tinted glass, and pieces of my mother’s china seem to shine through, the teacups and the bowls with their fluted edges. A tiny chandilier, tiny glass drops dripping from it’s brass arms, hangs above the small dining nook off the kitchen, and under my feet are maple floors, rich in color and warmed by invisible heating coils beneath the planks. It was these kinds of details that had made me want the house so much, the heating coils, the warming globe in the bathroom above the shower, the deep burnt orange paint in the living room that made even the walls seem warm.
In my bedroom, there is a makeup table, a vintage affair from the 1950s. It’s elegant curves and chipped ivory paint appealed to me when I first began to furnish the house. Hiding in the back room of an estate auction market, it was slightly run down, perhaps too authentically a part of the shabby chic aesthetic that had become so popular, but easily evoked a graceful time when women spent un-rushed minutes seated at just such vanities, carefully making themselves up, or “dollying up,” as my grandmother had called it. The whole bedroom was crafted around the little table, inspired somehow by the romantic stories I imagined it could tell. So, there are long sweeping curtains with filmy layers of lace, a tall bed with a feather comforter in a soft pink and ivory broacade, lamps with ropey silk tassles hung around their urns. A large oriental rug with a floral pattern in pale blue and mauve helped make the room feel cozy and somehow hazy and soft. Along the walls were a scattering of framed pictures depicting monochromatic shots of the backroads of West Marin. Sitting at the table, I flipped on the lamp and begin to prepare myself. Bottom to top. I have a routine. I pull a knee up under my chin and look at all of my toes, first on one foot, and then I repeat this on the other. I make certain my toenails are short and smooth, that the paint has not chipped. If it has, I dab on polish where it’s needed, and then continue on to the bottoms of my feet. They should not have any rough patches, and I take sesame oil and pour drops of it into the palm of my hand and rub it into the soles of my feet, between my toes, around the smooth curve of my ankles. Next, legs. I peer at them closely, making sure there is no stubble visible, and while I massage the sesame oil into my thighs, over my calves, I do a touch test, making sure that no hair can be felt against my fingertips. Stomach, torso. Again, the oil. Over and between the bones of my clavicle, down over forearms. On my neck, I apply a rich creme that smells faintly of gardenia.
December 4, 2013
It’s the first real coldsnap in a good long while.
And I don’t feel the same way about the holidays anymore.
Old timey memories that aren’t memories at all but rather campaigns
For how it should be, once could have been, if things were nearer to perfect.
But anyway. The holidays now surge through bright and slick
And I wish they only came around a few times in a lifetime, not every year.
You see, we only count things very dear to us when they are very rare.
(Fa la la la laaa, la la la-la.)
August 29, 2013
She found you, Mark. Most people hunt online, searching for their past loves, those flames whose embers haven’t burnt out, and it’s true she burned a long time for you. But not quite that way. Or some go online and play amateur sleuths and look up old friends from grade school, but she doesn’t have any old friends from grade school, Mark. You know that. You made sure of that.
It was easy. The Internet makes everything so easy. When she typed your name in and hit enter, she found you. Her great bully–The One.
There was never a doubt that you were The King. Yes, of course there were others, because you recruited others to help you. But she doesn’t look them up. She doesn’t care about them, Mark. It was always you. It was you who always started it and when she remembers, well, it is always you she remembers. And the flames don’t lick any more–they are only memories, but the ash, the residue of you lays across her skin some two decades later and she hasn’t found a bath for it. She looks you up because she wonders if you have found a bath for it?
In the news these days, there are reports of cyber-bullying. You didn’t get to do that to her, Mark. You had to rely on old-fashioned methods–taunts in the hallways, or harsh laughter mouthed into her ear while pushed up against lockers. Or whispered inquiries about whether or not today she’d like to be beat up. Her walks home would have been lonely ones, but you were always there, behind her, using your slingshot to aim rocks at her back and gathering your posse to join you in your jeers. You taught them your names for her, you taught them to form crosses with their hands, as if to ward off evil spirits, and you taught them how small things could hurt big. You were never clever, but my God…you were devoted. For years and years, you were right there.
“Mary the Goon! You guys, there she is! Mary the Goon, hey! Do you hear us?” Yes, she heard you. She always heard you, Mark. Your associates would change, or become bored, or leave, or stop, but you always were there, and she always heard you. From second grade, and for nearly ten years on, she always heard you. Even after she had left, she heard you. Through her 20s, she heard your voice, in her 30s it finally began to fade, at 40 she prays her own children will never hear voices like yours.
Your online photos tell your story, Mark. She had wondered at what she would find when she went looking. Would you have turned into a good family man? Would you have children now, maybe a daughter as ugly as she was in her youth? Would you have become someone she would admire?
She stares at your pictures, you with your muscles and brawn, your wide, frowning mouth and your sad eyes. Somehow, gazing at the pictures, she knows you have not changed. She hears a voice now, but it is her own. She thinks of the things she would tell you, and strangely, they are different than she once imagined they would be. And she discovers, she wouldn’t tell you much. There is all this ash that remains. But you never went looking for a bath for it, she just knows. Somehow she knows, Mark, and you would never understand.
June 4, 2013
Our youngest son says, “the last word I said to him was ‘day.” I raise my brows and continue to untie his shoes. I ask, “what do you mean? Day?”
He’d said “have a good day” to you. This he remembers. He remembers that he didn’t say goodbye in any way that spoke to the coming loss. I reassure him that of course, of course!, he could not have. And I say that “have a good day” was a nice thing to have said. “But mom, he didn’t have one. He didn’t have a good day! He diiiiiiied!” he cries out this last part, his voice pitching high with outrage and injustice, the tone of it striking this mother’s heart worse than a blow across the face. I gather him against me. I silently pray and curse and plead and hope. And I rub his trembling back.
They will tell us all about stages, those counselors we seek out. We feel better to think there will be a progression, and that at some point, there will be an end to this process we didn’t want. We hope for that magical stage…when we will reach sweet “Acceptance” and we will have come to the end of this episode. But this is a dirty little lie. There is no end. It goes on, and on. We will mark anniversaries: your birthday, Father’s Day, Christmas, the first anniversary of your passing…but in those markings, we find our hearts still constricting, our breathing still stilted. I find myself squeezing my eyes shut, pushing away the terrible sorrow, trying to write with tentative hands…finding my keyboard bathed in tears, thinking of you and the absence of you.
Our eldest stands in the goal, his brown hair lifting on the wind and his narrow shoulders tense. He is crouched in that intense way he has, ready to block a goal, and I think how many hours we stood on these fields, and how we would both teasingly take credit for his athletic abilities. After this game, I will tell my child how proud you would have been, and I know I will be greeted with a quick look filled with questions. But I know I will not be asked anything–the questions are too painful to form, to be uttered aloud. This child cannot bear to give life to the ache of it. And so, to assuage his tender heart, I will guess at the questions and will provide answers I hope will somehow help: “He’d be proud because you have worked really hard. He’d be proud because he was really sure you’d become a great goalie, and look, you have!”
I comfort them and remind them in the ways that I can. Still, I cannot drive that stretch of road without remembering you. Always, I remember you.
I imagine you in the car, I imagine the radio station you must have been listening to. I wonder if you had your coffee that morning, if you’d watched the news. I cannot help the grief from descending every time I let my head dwell on these things—my cheeks become wet again, my throat aches with unsung sobs. I am astonished at this grief, like a scientist who discovers a clinical truth where they weren’t looking for one. I did not know how changeable and odd this would be. I didn’t know how demanding and brutal mourning would be. I didn’t know that it would come and shake me until I rattled, and that it would unceremoniously release me to go make dinner or help with homework or drive to baseball practice. It is odd, grief.
And a year is not a long time.
But the days that constitute 365, the sun ups and sun downs, the progression and the monotony and the marching onward–those moments that merge together into a song lasting one year have cut a wide swath over my life. We have earned a golden lull in the pain, and we have paid for our household peacetime over this year. It was bought with sorrow, our broken hearts and the embraces that we needed to keep ourselves whole (how many times I thought we would fly into a dozen pieces, unable to keep body and soul together, so many nights wishing wishing wishing it had been me, if it had to be someone). Peace has been an expensive commodity, purchased by the currency that is anguish, those coins plunked one, two, three, into that miserly vending machine where all you get for your money is a great, shaking intake of breath, a swipe at the eyes to wipe away the tracks left by weeping, again (and again), and the courage to somehow get up out of bed.
I see you in the children, in the way their faces and hands move, in their senses of humor. I feel you in their hugs. I find mercy and hope and caring in their love. We hold each other aloft, surrounded by the succor of my partner, by the company of our friendships, by the support of family, by the camaraderie of sports teams and the school community, with the aid of therapists and professionals who trade in the business of helping mend the fractures in our hearts, in our lives. We move forward, defining our family and learning to live on earth without you, but not forgetting what it was to have you in our lives. We remember you. We remember you. With love, we remember you.
April 6, 2013
“I’m going to repeat that last part back to you.”
Kenneth pointed at me. “About the ugly duckling. That you were an ugly duckling. You’ve said that twice now and I’m not sure I know what that means.” He paused, waiting. I waited, too. He smiled, pointed again. “What does it mean?”
I wished he would put his finger down, but he kept it pointed straight at me, scooting to the edge of his leather chair, waiting patiently for my answer.
I shrugged. “Just that I was unattractive, I guess.” He nodded, made a rolling motion with his finger: go on. “In my youth.” It was my turn to nod. “And that was the message I gave myself all my early years. Yeah.”
Kenneth lowered his finger, his wide face splitting into a satisfied smile. “Yes.”
I smiled, pleased. I had passed a test. A thought came over me, quick, a bee sting. My smile slid away, dropped heavily to the floor and I spoke without looking down at it for long. “By framing it that way, I guess I always sort of believed I would become a swan. I mean, at some point. Become beautiful like a swan.”
“And did you?” Kenneth’s face turned expectant, and he leaned back, crossed wide freckled arms over a round belly. His watery blue eyes were wide under barely-there red eyebrows and I sensed that he would wait the rest of the hour for my answer.
I looked down at my lap, looked at my nails. Polished, a pale nude color. A turquoise ring on my right hand, large and rough. The kind of big ring that someone with long fingers wore. My lap was nothing noteworthy while sitting, but I knew that when I stood, my tweed pencil skirt with its cinched waist was ahead of the season, and my legs would end in killer pointy-toed slingbacks that would shoot me up to nearly six feet tall. I had learned to dress well.
“Can’t you put an outfit together?” My head snapped up, eyes darting to Kenneth. He sat absently stroking his stomach, a pale Irish Buddha, waiting benevolently.
I swallowed. “My mom said I couldn’t match my clothes. And my hair…” I shrugged. Fiddling with the ring, I went on, “I did not know how to style my hair, make myself presentable. But I’ve learned those kinds of things.” I waved my hand, dismissed the phantom voice I had heard. Go away, mom.
“And?” Kenneth’s Hush Puppies came up off the floor as he gently rocked back in his seat.
“And well, I can put on makeup and whatever. I’ve figured out hot rollers. So I guess I’m okay. Maybe not a swan.”
The finger came back up, the rolling motion again. I took a breath and nodded. “Okay, and maybe not an ugly duckling any more. I’m okay.”
“Yes.” Kenneth got up out of his chair faster than you would have thought a 350 pound man could. He walked over to his desk, grabbed a small spiral-bound calendar off it. “Yes, you are okay. Now, when would you like to have our next appointment?”
March 19, 2013
Twelve is a sea. It is a sea, and a cave too, a place you enter and where all vision becomes absent. Lost in twelve, and too far afield from even customary survival instincts, too inexperienced to know to put a hand out to feel your way. Instead, you stop. You come to a dead stop right where you stand, and the water rushes past, or the bats rush past. There is no sound, no way to go back from where you came. The world is a haunted place when you are twelve.
The land between the ebbing and relative freshness that is grammar school and the gleaming sophistication and promises of unimaginable experience, this land is known by the terms “middle school” or “junior high school,” but these terms are such poor and diminishing identifiers for the initiation into the categorizations and judgments and brutalizations that occur in those bleached halls, locker doors slamming. No, call it what it is: the sea, the cave. Where you will strip yourself or be stripped and where you will remake or be remade. That is what happens when your head is under the water, the salt on your tongue. And that is, very surely, what is happening, when at long last, somewhere around the second semester, you finally reach an unsure hand out into the dark and touch the moss and slime that coats the tunnel walls.
That slick wall. Mid-April, seventh grade. The mother-daughter luncheon. I dressed the way I always did, by staring first into my closet, then at the pulled out drawer of my dresser, finally reaching into my hamper and pulling out yesterday’s clothing. Holding the dark t-shirt to my face, searching for the fragrance of mold. A trace, maybe. But only a trace, and I pull the shirt over my face, pull my jeans up over my hips. I do not bother to smell the jeans. They are dirty. It is Thursday, my fourth day this week with them. I wish I had washed them last night, wish I had remembered to wash my clothes, but I had been reading, and later, practicing piano. I had remembered to take a bath. Now there are larger and sturdier conflicts; I go about finding socks, and saying goodbye for the day to Mr. Buttons and then, the most hateful chore of all, I try to brush short hair that stands in cowlicks. Such proud cowlicks, tenacious and bristled, shunning the half-hearted attempts of the girl who tries to tame them. I walk to the corner with my brother and and we wait for the bus.
Science first. Then English 1A, and then Art. A schedule of courses, shuffling from one session to the other. This is new, as you’ve spent the first several years in an American education looking at one teacher per year, seated in one desk. You develop a familiarity in grade school with that one teacher, you learn their ways, their mannerisms. A mouth pulled tight means a particular thing when you are in third grade and your teacher is Mrs. Manlow. Her quirked mouth is saying that the class is dangerously close to losing recess, and in fourth grade, Mr. Black’s firm mouth meant a story about his own young childhood was being prepared for delivery. And, most frightening and astounding, was Miss Samuels in fifth grade, when she said shhh, shhh, shhh, and the room would not quiet, and her lips formed a terse frozen line for a prolonged moment, and then she lifted her hands to her head and noiselessly began to cry.
I am not good at science, the table of elements laminated in plastic over the chalkboard makes no sense and I wonder at the scientists who name these things. I wonder why H20 means water, why it would not be abbreviated as WTR. I don’t ask, but copy the table into my notebook. I listen to the teacher talk about air and water, about how there are opaque objects that sunlight cannot penetrate. He talks of soil, of its structure. I turn the word “minerals” over in my mouth, liking it, and add it to my list I keep in a separate notebook. My list of favorite words.
English class, the teacher’s hand making arrows around a sentence written on the chalkboard, and I am at ease. Then Art, and I am tense again, as proportions are discussed and I look out a window. The bell rings and we parade out to the cafeteria, where half of the room has been marked off with pink crepe paper and there are white carnations on the tables for the luncheon.
What are you wearing? My mother exhales a stream of smoke and eyes me. My mother’s eyes are like an Italian starlet’s that glow. Her eyes are dark and large, I swear they are not brown but black, and she sets them upon my t-shirt and then upon my own eyes, and asks if my shirt is clean. It does not look as though it has been washed. No, it is clean, I say. We stand in the line, and I say that I don’t think she can smoke in here.
Is that right? My mother sighs and takes a long draw on the cigarette, sashays over to the trashcan where she tosses it and arches her eyebrows at me. Happy? she asks me. Sorry, I mumble, I just don’t want to get in trouble.
My mother laughs, murmurs to herself. She is looking at all the girls with their mothers, and I know she must know some of the other moms. This is a very small town and we have lived here a long time. But she seems to not recognize anyone. She shifts her weight from one foot to the other and looks at my hair. I look away but feel the weight of her gaze on my head, the assessment and the weariness, and I cannot bear to look back up.
I become lost in the tile floor, mesmerized in the pattern of the green and beige squares, a checkerboard. I look at the tiles and then my mother’s cream-colored pumps. I know without looking up that she is striking in her white jacquard suit, the white a contrast to her long dark hair, gold jewelry in her ears. I know without glancing up that she is the prettiest woman here. Somehow, I know that every mom here knows who she is, and that she is being studiously ignored. Her effect has been made. I know she has been noticed by those around us, and when I do look up, she has a small smile on her face, and I see again that she has prepared carefully for the luncheon, her makeup is beautifully applied and I see that she looks like she is from a movie. Suddenly, I feel a stab of pride and I swallow. My mother! She is mine! I meet my mother’s eyes, excited and feeling somehow bonded to her. If I am not like the others in my school, if I do not fit in or know how to make friends, neither does she. It is okay. Better than okay. It’s the way it should be, for people like us. We’re different, aren’t we, I want to ask. Even she doesn’t belong here, with her magazine good looks, her aerobicized calves and clear skin. I smile, suddenly triumphant and light, and my mom reaches forward and takes my hand, pulls me nearer, and I feel my face stretch and grin, eager to be close to her, this luminescent figure in white. I lean in and feel her smoky breath on my face. We are going to put you on a diet. Nobody else here looks like this. She touches my stomach. You don’t want to start high school like that.