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From the Vault

 Came across this from an old journal . . . made me miss my grandfather all over again.

 

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It’s Wednesday.  I’m driving up U.S. Highway 55 North, Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World” playing out it’s pre-historic horror tale through the cassette player.  E sits beside me, alternating between fussing with the straps on her sandals and looking out the window at the overwhelming greenness of Mississippi streaming by.  S and H are fussing and giggling over an esoteric game they play that makes sense only if you are six and two and trapped in the backseat of an Isuzu Trooper for God knows how long.

 

We are headed to Missouri; first to my grandfather’s house, in New M-town, site of the famed New M-town earthquake of 18-something.  Only a few years ago, a seismologist of some reputation insisted that the second great New M-town earthquake was on its way, and the little town over flowed with reporters and scientists, only to be abandoned a few weeks later when the only earth-shaking occurrence was the local merchants filling their coffers from the expenditures of their visitors.  Now I am on my way there, expecting no earthquakes, just a couple of slow, leisurely days where my children will hopefully get a feel for the sweetness that is their great-grandfather, my Poppity.

 

After New M-town, we plan to go further north to F-town, a little, backward place, the county seat of Madison County, Missouri, where both my parents and I were raised, and their parents, too.  A lot of my family has died or moved on, but my father’s people, the Starkeys, are still there and holding a family reunion on Saturday.  I’m taking the girls and, again, hoping that in one afternoon they can glean something from being surrounded by people to whom you are tied by blood that will last them.  I don’t know if it will work, if it’s even worth the trip, but I’m going to try.  We’ll know in the years to come how it turns out, I guess.

 

 

The following Monday, we intend to head southwest to my Cousin P’s place in Harrison, Arkansas, forty-five minutes or so outside Branson, Missouri.  I’m excited to see her – we are very much alike – and a little nervous, too.  Maybe we’re too much alike.  She’s recently divorced and man-crazy, and there’s something about that combination that makes me jumpy.  Afraid of too much information, I guess.  Anyway, the girls are getting to go to Silver Dollar City, an amusement park set in the 1860’s, and maybe to The Shepherd of the Hills park, based on the novel by Harold Bell Wright who, I’ve read, outsold Hemingway and Fitzgerald at one point in literary history.  I can’t help but wonder if it’s Sherman Hemingway and Harpo Fitzgerald he outsold, but it is a book that made me long for a history, whose re-reading made me want to make this trip in the first place, so maybe.  From P’s, we’re headed homeward, a grueling 14 hour drive south that I am hoping will be fueled by an abiding desire just to get home. 

 

Now, however, home is the last place I want to be.  I’m road-tripping, that glorious phrase from my college years.  I started college seventeen years ago, and the words ‘road-trip’ haven’t lost a single shade from the delirious corona they sported then.  Road-trip then meant freedom and new experiences, it meant just maybe drinking too much and just maybe sex with just maybe strangers, it signified potential.  This road-trip has me driving north in an old Trooper with three little girls and a cooler full of bologna and cheese and whole milk for bottles, and the only just-maybe I’m aware of is just maybe getting into an argument with one of my notorious relatives over my father or money, both moot points, and just maybe getting to go out for drinks with P in Harrison.  But it’s still there, the old excitement, the unknown, leaving my own self behind and breaking new ground.  Even with an extra pacifier hanging off the rear-view mirror, even with the back seat littered with coloring books and plastic figures from McDonald’s.  My foolish heart knows no better.

 

Mississippi is a surprise; nicest rest stops I’ve ever seen.  Our first official stop has a Welcome Center, incongruously furnished with antique chairs and a china cabinet, paintings on easels.  Only rest stop I’ve ever been to where I was afraid the girls would break something.  But the people are nice, and the air is cool.  A white-haired man behind the counter offers E and S a soft drink, and S accepts, though I have to hunt her down to accept it once he has it ready for her.  She says thank you without prompting, but he talks over her, and doesn’t hear.  I give her the points anyway.

 

Outside, I let them run for a bit.  H takes off into a tree-lined clearing, and the big girls chase her. She’s delighted.  She chortles and runs faster, curved legs and blonde hair bouncing across the grass.  We get back in the car and I replenish drinks and snacks from the cooler in the back; we’re all antsy to get back on the road.  Even H doesn’t fuss at the buckles and straps of her car seat.  She wiggles and grins – “Let’s go, Mama!”  and we do.

 

Mississippi, the corner of Tennessee, Arkansas, then Missouri.  We’re getting tired now, and glad we’re close.  I plan to call Poppity when we hit the state line, but don’t.  Just want to keep going.  I find Locust Street easily, and his little house near the end.  I don’t really think of it as his house, still.  He and A have been married for twenty-five years, and I still think of it as her house, hers and Mr. S’s house, I guess.  As though Poppity were a guest who came to visit after Mr. S died and just never left.  When we pull into the drive, Poppity bursts through the front door; he’s been watching for us.  “Oh-ho!” he says, and hurries down the steps.  I get out of the car and come around to hug him, and he squeezes me hard, then pulls back and looks past me into the window where H sits in the car seat.  She looks at him for a split second, then grins broadly, and waves.  I’m tickled – I know this means a lot to him.  I go to get her out of the car, and S runs around the back, hugs Poppity, and they tickle and talk.  E gets out quietly, stands self-conciously, waiting.  As I pull H free and shut the door, Poppity turns to E and says, “Well, this must be our E!  Hel-l-oo, E!”  He hugs her, too.  I am relieved, and I know she is pleased.

 

We all walk up the stairs and into the house. I remember the last time my father and I visited here.  Dad, in his wheelchair, had become accustomed to waiting on the lawn of houses with stairs, waiting in the car, waiting all the time.  Dinner was ready when we arrived, and Dad was prepared to wait outside while we ate in the kitchen.  Poppity was mortified.  Over my father’s protests, he gathered the Sheriff from across the street and a truck driver from next door, and they lifted Dad, chair and all, up onto the porch, and assured him they’d bring him back down when he was ready.  My dad was pleased and embarrassed and grateful, and I remember thinking how humiliating it would be to rely on the passing vagaries of people that way.  I gave Dad the points then, too.  Now we open the full glass front door and step into the living room, and I am not surprised to see that virtually nothing has changed.  It’s a place out of time, with the ceramic basset hound under the end table, the swinging doors into the kitchen, the comfy old couch, the air smelling vaguely of fried bacon and A’S cologne.

 

The first time H is put down on the rug, Poppity opens his arms and she runs straight to him, snuggles into his neck.  He is visibly touched, and their bond is forged.  I remind him that she was named after his sister who died, and he tells people during our visit about this several times, changing ‘sister’ to ‘daughter’.  I correct him once, and then drop it – it doesn’t matter to people, and it’s still a nice story.  I’m thinking that he has his sister H confused with the tiny daughter, Patsy, that they lost. Poppity tries to draw E out a bit, but his real talent is with the little ones.  He brings out his toys – things that rattle and play music, roll across the floor, explode.  H is fascinated by everything, but he gets a little possessive when she starts saying ‘mine’ about his toys, and puts a lot of them away.

 

It’s still early evening, and A is playing Bingo at the Eagles Club, their home-away-from-home.  Poppity wants to take us there, to buy us dinner and ‘show us off’.  E is nervous, asks if it’s a bar, and I tell her it is, but not to worry.  Poppity drives us; I worry about his driving, but he appears to do very well.  We park outisde the building, and he tells us that people watch for the red flag on his car antenna to know when he’s there.   Inside, it’s the same as it was five years ago, probably the same as it’s been for twenty years.  We choose a table, and a friendly waitress takes our order – burgers and fries, grilled cheese for H, and beer for Poppity.  I don’t remember him drinking beer before, but it’s a nice change from Southern Comfort and Coke.  At least he might get some nutrition from the beer.  A dashes in from Bingo and greets us all; she seems genuinely glad to see us, and I am surprised to see that her hair is now nearly all white.  Poppity, at eighty-three, still has more dark hair than white, but A’S has faded fast.  She used to tease him and tell us that he colored his hair, but the way the white is distributed, I don’t believe it, at least not anymore.  Must be the Cherokee in him, I think.  She dashes back out again before the start of the next Bingo session. It’s an hour and a half ‘til her game is over, and I manage to wrangle H that long, but only with effort and help from E and S.  She’s fascinated with the juke box, and repeatedly runs to it and presses the buttons.  She also discovers a new ‘trick’, stepping up onto the carpeted foot rail on the bar and after much preparation and goading from us, making the daring five-inch jump off into space.  We all clap, and she claps for herself, too.  She’s very loving with Poppity, calling him Daddy and giving him hugs and kisses. E is very uncomfortable; has decided that everyone in the room is a drunk, and that they are all staring at her.  She’s a very pretty girl, and people do notice her, but in this instance I think she’s being paranoid, and it makes passing the time here even more uncomfortable having her talk about it. At last A is finished, and comes in for a single beer before we leave.  Back at their house, we bring in our suitcases and talk until bed time.  They pull out the couch in the living room for the big girls, and H and I sleep in Dan’s old room. S is thrilled to be a ‘big girl’ with E, rather than a ‘little girl’ lumped in with H. She throws on her pajamas and gloms onto E for dear life, and E allows it.  H-baby has a short episode of calling for her Daddy, then falls asleep cuddled against me.  I fall asleep wondering about H’s daddy, if he’s enjoying the solitude, if he’s thinking about me.

 

The next morning, A is in her chair, and gets up painfully to greet us.  She says she’s broken a rib that isn’t healing well, and every movement appears to cause her a lot of distress. Much later we will find out she has cancer, and it takes her life. Now we sit on the couch and make small talk.  Poppity and S sneak off together for his morning walk.  They are gone quite awhile, and when they return, Poppity proclaims that S is a ‘walking fool’, and that he could hardly keep up with her.  They have had a good time, I can tell – S’s face is flushed from exertion, and she’s hanging onto Poppity’s hand.  This is what I came for, I think.  This is what she’ll remember. A insists on making a big lunch, their only meal of the day.  They skip breakfast, have a large meal at eleven, then snack in the afternoon and, although she doesn’t say so, I know they drink dinner.  For lunch today, she makes green beans and new potatoes with bacon, fresh corn, sliced tomatoes, lettuce and green onions from their garden, sliced turkey breast in gravy, a few other things on the side.  Even E eats heartily . . . .

 

 

 

 

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Blade

I like to think I don’t recall when the seduction began, but I do; sitting on the front steps of an office building downtown, anonymous, hot sun warming the concrete and our bodies, he peeled a deep red apple in one, long sinuous strip. With his pocket knife, he scraped the pale flesh of the fruit, then offered it to me to eat from the blade. It never occured to me to take the knife and hold it for myself, or even to refuse. I leaned forward, opened my mouth, and let him feed the soft apple pulp to me from the sharpened edge. As I sit here now, I can feel the metal in my mouth, taste the apple, see the way his eyes took in my lips. He fed half the apple to me that way, occasionally taking some for himself, and I was aware from time-to-time of passers-by pausing to watch this oddly erotic interlude.  I like to think I don’t remember how this thing of ours began, but this was it – tempered steel and summer fruit inside my mouth and I at his mercy by choice.

The man was not handsome. He was not tall, nor well-built. He moved like a dancer, though, and his hands were delicate, like a woman’s.  His skin was a light, golden, Spanish brown, nearly hairless and soft, so soft. He was broke, this man, barely able to pay for his own liquor, of which he drank too much, too often. His clothes were second-hand, and outwardly there was little to recommend him.

But he fed me from the blade of a knife.  Would my sweet, safe husband have ever done that? Would anyone, seeing me out about my day, button-downs and loafers, wrangling children from school and dogs from their walks, choosing flowers for the dinner table from the display at the grocer, would anyone think to scrape the naked flesh of an apple and offer it to me on the edge of a steel blade?  This man did, and in a certain way, I belonged to him from that moment.

He took me dancing, this man. I who had not danced since college, and even then only to the fast songs, never the slow, romantic ones. The first time he led me onto a dance floor and pulled my body to him, began to lead me across the floor, graceful, in control, I thought I might swoon. Ridiculous, I know, a woman my age, and yet this is the truth. I was, I am, a strong woman, a woman who speaks her mind, who has things her own way, a woman who makes the tough decisions, and there I was, being moved backward across a polished wood floor, unable to even see where I was going, let alone choose my direction. And I felt light, and adored, and sexy. God, did I feel sexy. And the man pulled out all the stops for me – he taught me to twirl and dip, led me to respond to the slightest touch of his hand, to know by pressure alone whether he wanted me to turn this way or that, to know when to spin away and when to come back to him, pressing our bodies together, moving together.

There was no sex. There was innuendo, there was witty conversation. There were side-long glances and other cliche’s, but there was no sex. I was both grateful and bereft, knowing he wanted me, and knowing that while what passed between us was wrong in light of my marriage, it wasn’t irretrievably wrong as long as it didn’t go too far. My nice husband wouldn’t be too concerned about an emotional involvement, as long as there was no intercourse. I know that the time I spent thinking of this man, and the abject joy I felt in being with him was in fact a much larger betrayal of my marriage than simple fucking would have been, but my husband – like most men, in my experience – would not have seen it that way, and this was both comforting to me and desperately sad.

How my husband did not know about the man and I is unclear, and nearly unbelievable. The man tapped on the window of my bedroom late at night, while my husband slept in the front of the television in our living room, and I would slip into clothes and let myself out the back door to meet him.  We would wander the streets of our city, with its open-til-dawn bars, sweating at sidewalk cafes, washing shots of Jack Daniels down with domestic beer, always laughing, always holding hands. Or, some nights, when he would tap, tap at my window, I would step out the back door barefoot in a white summer nightgown, and we would sit in the swing on my front porch, watching the boats on the river, and talk until the sky lightened, and still, still there were things to say.

I did not neglect my children, though my mind was often somewhere else. I cooked and shopped and washed clothes, I cleaned my house or didn’t, but no more or less than before I knew this man. I helped with homework and volunteered at PTA meetings, I met my husband for lunch, I planted flowers in the boxes on the windowsills. I am not saying this was fair, I am not saying this was right, I am only saying what it was, and what it was not.

At night, in bed, he was there all around me. My husband had never really liked sex, or so he said. I know he didn’t like to have it with me. Deep into the night I would lie under the cool sheet and founder in the sense memory of my time with the man, the not-sex, the feel of his hand on the small of my back when we danced, his hand reaching for mine when we walked, the way he watched my lips when I spoke. I pleasured myself to these thoughts, if pleasure is what it was, to his image, both wanting and fearing him, stifling my voice, muted by the hum of the air conditioner.

This man was not gentle, not kind, not decent. The seemingly sweet or romantic things he did with and for me were an aberration, an exception to the way he lived his life.  In the brief glimpses of his every day that I was privy to, I found him coarse, even mean. He could be brutal in disagreements, and I am sure there is part of me that liked this, liked knowing that potential for violence existed in him, yet he chose to be otherwise with me.

One night, very late, after my family slept, he came to get me, told me to wear something sexy. I fumbled quietly through dresser drawers using only the faint light from the open bathroom door, finding stockings bought for an anniversary and never worn, a black dress cut too low, painful stiletto heels bought on sale. I dressed in the bathroom, put on too much perfume, too red lipstick, and locked the back door behind me when I left. At the sight of me, he smiled broadly, almost handsome under the streetlight, and told me I was about to feel sexier than I ever had. We drove into a neighborhood unfamiliar to me, and parked next to a run-down building with the word, “Taqueria” painted in peeling pastel paint above the door. He led me by the hand inside to a bar teeming with Hispanic men, all focused on a big-screen television shouting and cheering over a soccer game in progress. Other than the barmaid, I was the only woman in the room. I felt over-dressed, conspicuous, but the man watched me with a smile at the corner of his mouth, and I knew I would not protest.

Even before the match ended, men began to drift over to where were seated at the bar. Old, young, they spoke to the man in Spanish, and admired me openly. I was enthralled, embarrassed, excited, all at once. Thes men found me desirable, and did not care what aI thought or had to say. I was a beautiful object in that moment, and while it is not politically correct and I would not be content to live my life in this way, the man was exactly right – I felt incredibly sexy.  At one point, a young man addressed the man in English, saying the man was very lucky to be with such a beautiful woman. The man looked into my eyes and answered that we weren’t together; I was just a friend, and if the young man wanted me, he should take me.

I was crushed by this, nearly physically ill, suddenly thrown off-balance. I wanted to go home, and when we left a short time later, he was distant, and hardly spoke to me when he pulled up near my house, leaned across me to open my door, looked away out his own window as I gathered my purse, my shoes, and stepped in stocking feet out of the car. Looking back, I think it was purposeful, a way to push me away and draw me in further at the same time. I didn’t know for certain then, and I don’t know for certain now.

I cried easily for the next few days, inexplicably to my family, and was something of a mess. I told my husband I thought it was PMS; I didn’t think he’d understand if I were to explain that my boyfriend had offered to give me away to a stranger in a Spanish soccer bar. But the man wasn’t finished with me, nor I with him. It was just another step in moving us toward what we would eventually become.

When I write this, it seems almost as if he had a plan, a well-wrought way to get from Point A to Point B, but truthfully, I’m not at all sure he was that clever. And I still don’t know how much of what happened was me, my needs, my fantasies, my greed moving this forward. I have not addressed his feelings here, either. I have come to believe that he loved me, or that he thought he loved me – who is to say if there is a difference? You may say that I am fooling myself, rationalizing my actions by endowing the man with feelings he did not possess, and I can’t say that I know you are wrong. But I believe, I do, that he loved me and may in fact love me to this day. (more, later, maybe)

First Day of School

It’s nearing 8am this morning, and everyone is safely out the door for the first day of school. As I do every year, as my mother did before me, I get up extra-early on this first day and head out to the yard, and sometimes the neighbor’s yard, to find flowers for the table. This morning I picked morning glories from my own backyard, and some weedy-looking plant that nevertheless has tropical leaves and lovely pale pink flowers. In the next door neighbor’s yard I broke off a few small low-lying branches from a flowering tree that drops its petals all over my car. I put them all loosely in a small tin bucket in the middle of the big round table, and then carefully set out the ruffle-edged plates, the matching saucers and delicate round cups of the First Day of School Dishes.
 
They have never been anything else to me. They have been on my breakfast table on the first day of school since I began kindergarten, and my daughters have eaten first-day-of-school breakfast on them since pre-school. The eldest moved away and on her own several years ago, now it is my 17 year-old, headed off into her last year of high school, and my 13 year-old, beginning her last year of middle-school. As the girls ate this morning – tomato and cheddar omelets and chilled mandarin oranges – our conversation about the dishes is the same one we’ve had since their respective first, first days of school. I begin by asking them if either of them can remember or guess how old the dishes are. This morning, the youngest one, H, offered, hopefully, “Fourteen?” whereupon the elder, S, told her that she was a) stupid and b) wrong, but refused to make her own guess. So I told them again about the dishes being a gift to my mother at her wedding, and that they were at that time extravagant, and are now at least 48 years old. And again, as they do every year, they pick up the little turquoise cups, and marvel at their thinness, their luminosity, their beaded handles. I tell them how my sister and I sat at breakfast tables and ate from these dishes, nervous just like they are (S interrupts to tell me she is not nervous at all, but I have H’s full attention) for the first day of school, feeling just like they do that this year, this year, will be the great one, the one where we are victorious, or popular, or simply the best at something. 
 

S finishes her tea (English breakfast with soy milk, this morning) and heads upstairs to finish getting ready, calling a “Thank you Mama” back to me as she goes. H looks at me with big eyes.
 
“You know exactly what it’s like,” she says. “I do want to be the best at something. And I think I am really going to be popular this year. Really.” I nodded, hoping to appear wise. “I think you can do it. I think this is your year,” I say. She thanks me for breakfast, too, and hugs me; she smells of Ivory soap. In a moment I hear her size 10 Vans half-stomp up the stairs after her sister.
 
I’m left sitting at the kitchen table alone with the First Day of School Dishes, remnants of omelet, discarded tea bags, toast crusts. And I want to tell my daughters so many more things. I want to tell S to suspend her cynicism if she can, try not to be in such a hurry to just-get-through this last year of school and take some time to feel the music that is inherent in every day, instead of rushing past it, pushing her way through to get to the other side. I want to tell H that I felt just like she does every school year of my life except the first, before I knew any better. And that it was never really my year, and it may never be hers, but that there are graces in every day and they can be enough.  But S wouldn’t be able to hear me through the rush and noise of seventeen-year-old blood rising and buzzing in her ears. It says, “Got to get out. Got to go do. Got to go be.” It’s louder than I can ever be. And the things I would tell H might make her more content to be who she is, if she could take them to heart, but it would cost her the dreams she carries with her, the hope in her heart, and even knowing it is likely that she will be continually hurt, that hope, as they say, is a thing with wings, and I don’t have the right to take that away.
 
I thought of telling all this to the First Day of School Dishes, so innocent in their strange, luminous, soft Paris-blue way. But they’ve been there for the long haul, and I suspect – no, I’m certain – that they already know. I washed them carefully, dried and put them back in their place where they will sit for another year, and wonder if they know, as I do, that it is likely only one set of them will see the kitchen table and the early morning sunlight come next fall, and several falls after, until my babies set the table with them for their babies, as my mother did for me.

Betray

I lay in the damp dark, listening to him piss in the sink of the filthy bathroom. He didn’t run the water afterward, just pulled the chain on the single bulb and walked back to the bed where I lay, waiting.

 

It was raining and the window was open, second story, rotted windowsill, bed centered tight against it. He lay beside me, naked, his skin frosted by the light from the streetlamp. His skin was fine and soft, like his body, his face looking unfinished now and falsely kind in the half-dark. I moved to rise on one elbow and he pushed me back onto the rain-spotted mattress, hard, and mashed his mouth onto mine, one hand crushing my shoulder, working my mouth open, sucking my tongue hard, too hard, and throwing a thigh across mine. I did not resist, did not hesitate. I kissed back, if it was kissing, his mouth that tasted like cigarettes and like beer, but most of all, like mine.  I breathed his breath, locked my fingers in his thick hair, groaned deep in my throat as he scraped his teeth against my lips and sucked at my throat. And I waited to feel . . . something.

 

He had been my constant companion for nearly a year now, in spite of my husband, in spite of my children. He was funny and entertaining, but he was mainly bad, and everything my life was not. He was my dark side, and I was going to change him, or be owned by him, or something in between. He saw me where I had become invisible to my husband, my children, my other-life friends. I was going to have this life and my other, make a fool of the good man who loved me, all because I could not, would not walk away from him.

 

Pulling me now, onto my side against him, unhooking the bra over my full, soft breasts, tearing it away, and mouthing them roughly, squeezing them painfully in his hands, pulling at my nipples, biting them where they pressed between his fingers, nearly drawing blood. Now, I thought, surely now it will come – the grinding heat and throb I had labored over night after night, squeezing my thighs together as I stiffened and came, thinking of this man, this stained mattress, this soft brutality. Surely, now.

 

Unkempt nails scratched my skin where he dragged my panties down my hips, past my knees, and I moaned again, and writhed, as expected. He hooked his elbows beneath my knees and forced my thighs apart, spreading me. He must have expected me to be wet, but he said nothing, just began to lick me, long, slow strokes, his tongue flat and warm and slick, then worked his mouth faster against me. I lifted my hips toward him, made the sounds I should make, but there was nothing. Nothing! I wanted to push him away, grab my rain-damp, scattered clothes, fly down the worn, slanting stairs to the street and run until I couldn’t anymore.

 

But what I wanted more was to hit him in the face with my fists, not once or twice but until the skin on my knuckles split and his face ran red and unrecognizable with blood.

 

Tentatively happy.

I’ve been happy for the last few days. It isn’t until I’m in the actual throes of happiness that I realize I’ve missed it, and how fragile this state of being is for me, maybe for everyone, I don’t know.

No, I think I do know; there are some people whose default is a kind of general contentment, and while they move in and out of it, it is the base level to which they return. I think I am basically, if not unhappy, then at least in some form of unrest. Living in the here and now is difficult for me. I seem to always be in a state of flux, waiting for something, wanting to go somewhere, or regretting something just passed, and about which I can do nothing. So happiness, while welcome, always comes as a surprise.

The smallest thing can trigger my mood. This time, I’m happy because I was able to gain some closure with an issue that I’ve worried over for a long, and I mean LONG, time. It felt like a ton of rock lifted off my shoulders; a rare opportunity, one most people never get, and one for which I am appropriately grateful. I also had the chance to escape my middle-of-the-road existence, if only for a short while, and play at being young and charming again. I had a wonderful time, and it helped me remember why living is worth the bother. I know, I have children that are an amazement and a wonder, but there has to be something just for me sometime, doesn’t there?  And, okay, I’m happy because I got to spend time with someone I’ve missed very much. I’m never sure if I miss the person themselves, or the person I am when we’re together, but either way, it was pure joy for me.

I’m enjoying the happiness while it lasts. It’s delicate, this state of being, and the smallest thing can end it. If nothing in particular comes along, it will eventually die on its own, fading away until I return to my own unease. But, ah, while it lasts: I’m beautiful, funny, charming, kind. See you in awhile, when I’m just me again.

You know how people always say the dead look like they’re sleeping? I even remember thinking that myself about Grandmother Joss, who died when I was nine, and whose hard cheek they made me kiss in her coffin. But Daddy? They’d put too much makeup on him, I thought; too much blush, and it looked a little like he was wearing eyeshadow, and pink lipstick. He just looked dead. Like a painted husk I could blow away with one good breath. They put his glasses on him, and the tie clip from his father, who’d been a Mason. Daddy had tried to join the Masons once, but they blackballed him. Just as well; Benedict Arnold was a Mason, and look where it got him. A rule of thumb: never put anything shiny on the chest of a corpse. It has a way of catching the light, so that when you walk past, it looks as though the person were still breathing. Even though you know they can’t be alive, waxy makeup-faced and stiff, a caricature of the person you knew and loved, cheap navy suit and sideburns all funny, even then, when that Masonic tie clasp catches the soft overheads in the funeral home, it looks for all the world like he’s still breathing. Much as I love my father, much as I miss him already, the thought that he could be lying in this polyester satin-lined box and still be breathing scares the living hell out of me. Dead folks need to stay that way. 

I lie in bed.

I lie in bed.  The ceiling fan stirs the wisps of hair around my face, whirring like the whisper of a companion.  I’ve gotten so I can’t sleep without it, even on the coolest nights.  The toilet flushes,  a brief glimmer of light – door open, light switch flipped – and my husband slips into bed beside me.  He stretches, shifts his weight, yawns hugely and settles in. His body touches mine for only an instant – it’s an accident, and he pulls away quickly.  I wait.  I hear him clear his throat and shuffle under the quilt and think, maybe, but he goes still again. I lie very still, faking sleep; I know it doesn’t matter if I am sleeping or awake, but it makes me feel better to pretend.  When he raises his body suddenly, I am sure he intends to kiss me goodnight, but he reaches for the clock glowing on the night stand, and I see he’s forgotten to set his alarm.  He finishes with the clock and again furrows beneath the covers; within minutes his light snore competes with the fan overhead for my attention, and I, too, roll over, shifting and settling my body for sleep.   A year and a half, I think, and surprised by this I begin to do my count.  The last time we made love was the middle of March, last year, in a hotel room in Paris . . . it is now the fifth of November of the following year, and we have, indeed, passed the eighteen-month mark. Nom myoho renge kyo, I chant silently.