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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)

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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Seventeen years.

Yesterday was one of the anniversaries in my life. My father died seventeen years ago. I was eight months pregnant with my first child, single, staying temporarily with my mother (they had divorced many years earlier) at a yacht club in New Jersey. A friend had taken the train up to visit from Washington, D.C., and the three of us had gone on a hayride that night. We arrived late back at the condominium where we were staying, tired and laughing, and hadn’t been home long when the telephone rang.

Unless you are in the midst of a terrible fight with someone you love dearly, or waiting for news of a child out past curfew, the ringing of the telephone late at night is almost always bad news.  Do I remember exchanging worried glances with my mother when the phone sounded that night, or have I edited that into the memory after-the-fact? I don’t know this, but it feels true. Anyway, I was the one who picked up the handset.

“Sweetheart,” a voice said, “this is your Uncle Don. Your dad’s gone, Honey.” I know that afterward he gave me the few details he had on the massive heart attack that took my father, assuring me that no decisions would be made regarding the funeral until I arrived in the small town where my father spent his life, but I don’t really remember any of what was said. I know my mother and I cried, and I do remember being surprised that she was as stricken by the news as I was. I wonder if even then it occurred to me that I’d run out of time to make him like me.

My mother remarried just a few years ago after having been single for nearly thirty years, and in the swoon of new love announced to my sister (through whom I sent a message to my mother to please for the love of God to never say it to me) that with this new husband she had found the first love of her life; that she never actually loved my father, that she hadn’t known what love was until she met this new man. But I was there when she wept, inconsolably, for a man she had met and married so long ago, and from whom she had been divorced for nearly sixteen years, and I know for certain that she had, indeed, loved him. I don’t know if she would recant if asked, now that the bloom of her new marriage has faded, after a few years of sharp words and dirty laundry, procrastinations and the day-to-day grit of life together has worn much of the shine away, and I’m not going to be the one to ask. I don’t know why hearing, second-hand, that she had denied loving my father hurt me so much, but it did, and I think of it still.

My father wasn’t a ‘hands-on’ dad, or maybe he was, if you include the physical contact of corporal punishment. He was big on spankings, whether with his hand, or a hickory switch, or one of his shoes, or that all-time favorite, his leather belt. He enjoyed threatening with the belt nearly as much as using it – folding it in half and making a loud cracking noise as the leather slapped against itself. You knew it was going to be your hind end it smacked against unless you did whatever it was he was demanding at the moment. He also liked to smack you up-side the head at the dinner table, often hard enough to knock you out of your chair and onto the floor, but not tell you why. So you picked yourself up off the floor (knowing better than to cry, or he’d do it again), sat back down, and tried to figure out what you had done wrong. Were you holding your fork wrong? Did you forget to close your mouth when you chewed? Did you forget to say please, or thank you, or did you just look at him wrong? So you’d carefully begin to eat again, and like as not, he’d knock you out of your chair again. This would continue until you figured out what had him angry, or all the food was gone. Dinner wasn’t over until everything had been eaten. I often wonder if this contributed to the weight problem I have dealt with all my life. You never know.

My father had a cruel sense of humor, and his approach to his children was a punitive one. He believed children should be seen and not heard. He wasn’t much different from the fathers of the other children I knew, in that way. He cheated repeatedly on my mother, bought and sold firearms under the table, liked to hunt, got into fist fights and even beat people for money. And I hope he loved me. Women invariably found him charming, and he was handsome, green-eyed and dark blonde, like me, like my sister. My mother, who is French and Cherokee in heritage and looks, didn’t even resemble her children for most of our lives, though as we all age, I find that we look much more alike. I know for sure that I loved him, and will until I die. For better or worse, he was my father, and I so wanted him to notice me, to approve of me, to love me. My first child was born not long after his death, and I named her after him. I’m not sure what my beliefs are about the after-life, but I’d like to think he knows, and approves. Finally.

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