Marlena comes to me on the cusp of sleep and wakefulness, when the world blurs grey. She soars through yellow-tinted waves, her bald shining skull pushing through water. Although she never speaks, she makes a gurgling sound, high-pitched like the bottle-nosed dolphins at the Aquarium. I look but never see her face. When I wake up, the bottoms of my feet sting as though I scissor-kicked through 100 laps. Those mornings I call in sick and sleep in the boat’s hold. The gentle rocking hugs me.
My twin sister Maria lives halfway around the world in the Catoctin Mountains. She paints and writes poems about trees. We rarely see each other but the internet tethers us. Maria has the same dreams about Marlena — we think of them as visitations – but she feels the ache in her chest, the left side, a sharp pain like someone has plunged in an icy hand and wrested out her heart. Afterwards she also feels an uncommon, exhausting peace. We wonder if this is how we tangled in our mother’s womb: hands to feet to heart.
I find an old photo of the two of us, a college road trip to Baltimore. Our smiling faces squeezed together, the Washington monument towers behind us. I scan the picture, push send and the image zips to Maria’s mountaintop. Seconds later, she writes back. “There’s a hole between us.” I look closer at the photograph and my soles burn.
Category Archives: Linda Simoni-Wastila
You sit there bleary-eyed morning tired and coffee growing cold. The headlines blur. Your mother’s chitter-chatter segues into wall-paper and you try to remember where you parked the car, whether it’s pulled in nice and tight in the garage or whether you left it curbside, afraid the garage door lifting at god-knows-when would wake mom, but you can’t remember, you don’t remember much of anything, not driving, not stumbling up the stairs, not sleeping. Nothing.
But you remember this: mom already on the couch with her Scotch and week’s worth of Tivo, she assumes you’re with Brad and Mac, and you are, but not at the movies, you’re chugging beer and smoking blunts in Lorraine’s basement while you listen to Zeppelin, Morrison, Hendrix, the stuff your mom plays when she feels old, and for the first time all week you stop worrying how you bombed AP biology and how you missed the Berkeley deadline and what the hell you’ll do about college, you don’t have the dough for Stanford but damn if you’ll go to San Jose State, and then Lorraine pulls you from the couch, so alive, warm, so smiley, and you pile into your Mercury and barrel down the street, windows down, the air smells like sea, the night goes forever.
The milk smell makes you nauseous. Your mom says, “Pity about Stacie, some drunk ran over her dog last night,” and you remember the crunching sound when you took the corner at Beloit and Anderson, tires squealing.
I’ve driven hours now,
Past the derelict Exxon, the sno-cone
Here, the usual kid bicker lessens
Here, we would kiss, the long trip
when the specialist arrived in his shiny white jacket and latex the room stilled, a sterile still life colder than the air used to keep the machinery blipping and bleating pushing red cells through my arteries, gushing antibiotics like city hydrants when summer swelters hot from the pavement into my veins, the frigidity keeping engines cool from shorts that would gum wires and tubes and send electric shocks down lifelines to the system, my system, and when he shook his head, a brief motion, his mouth a hyphen, the air grew colder yet and heaved my heart into a pulsing mass of valves and vessels, one last gasp before it puttered into a puddle of tissue necrotic and grey, of hope gone south with the geese
Tainted love is stained love, a dirty jeans love, mucky
Tainted love is tinted love, a greyer pink love, edges purple
Tainted love is skinny love, skinned and thinned weak
what world is this
when in the parking lot
a man squeezes breakfast
from catsup packets
the girl squats
by Xerox boxes
she calls home
and you send back
with eggs too runny?
The hose squirms in my hands, a fat serpent. Water hits concrete, whirlpools in the chasm below, and steam mixes with smoke that smells like burning tires. The wind drifts the cloud over me, over the ocean and smudges the coming night. Two days ago when authorities called for all firemen to report to the No. 3, I wanted to hide. My wife whispered, “Be a savior for Japan.”
When I drink my tea, steam caresses my face, reminding me of Misaki’s hands cradling the bowl as she places it before me. Outside I am surprised at the sky’s brilliance. I gather stones, not smooth river rocks but sharp angular ones that sparkle with mica. I build the cairn under a wild cherry tree sheltered from wind. In the yellowed photograph, my grandfather’s face calm, serious under the scarf of the rising sun tied around his forehead. He flew his ninth flight 67 spring times ago; when he returned, they shot him for failing to dive into the enemy ship with open eyes. I weight the picture with the top stone, reach for blossoms fragrant, already wilted, and lay them prostrate before the tower.
My arms ache. I think of my wife pouring tea, of my grandfather unable to fling himself to his death. I think of flowers already withered and the invisible seeds of energy falling around me, on me, swallowed by me. I think of honor. Below, steam still rises.
water tumbles stones,
shells, metal, glass — sand glistens
a roar of silence
My daughter gnawed on her honeyed toast, dropping bits into the top of the ant farm. The workers scurried to gather the crumbs. I sipped my coffee slow, to avoid the cup’s bottom, to prolong the moment when I left for work. Sarah and I watched the insects crawl through tunnels and burrows, hauling beige globs bigger than themselves to the queen. The sun warmed the kitchen. A sort of hypnotic peace settled over us.
A bargain, my husband had declared, holding the farm in his arms. He smiled, sweaty from a summer morning spent yard-saling. Sarah will learn about community, he had said. She’ll learn about hard work. What about you? I had thought.
But I let him assemble the structure after he promised to release the insects when Sarah entered kindergarten. A year later and the ants still thrived, unlike the goldfish that went belly-up when Sarah sprinkled in too much Tetra. The farm occupied an entire counter. Somehow the ants escaped and found their way into the sugar bowl and the plastic-sheathed bread. Every time I squished an ant with my finger, I felt a piece of me loosen and chisel off.
My husband bounded down the stairs, his happy noisiness preceding him. Sarah ran to him, they hugged, chattering, behind me. Pressure welled from my gut to my chest. The room clouded. Outside daffodils poked through snow and the air shimmered blue. I drained my cup, picked up my keys, the morning unbearable.
transfixed i watch your hands
of mud into something pure
later when the body yields
and peer into eternity
Sometimes, under the gauze and yellow salves, under the allografts patching your body like so many potato and corn fields planting God’s earth, I glimpse you, the real you, my twinned soul from before, the brother who rode me on handle-bars, who beat up the bully on the bus, who read me to sleep when we were kids, the way I read to you now, and that’s when I grip your hand, the good one, glad the explosion incinerated the poison inside even if it burned off your smile, because now you are yourself, pure, saved, clean these 17 days.
Coincidence? More like serendipity. I mean, this pink paper flapping under my windshield wiper, the only car on the street? Day care services, the flyer said. Infants welcome. Manna from heaven! Do you know how hard it is to find someone to watch babies? I had to return to work — you know how it goes when you’re single. Besides, she was cheap and convenient.
I hated leaving Sophie with her. I wanted to stay home with my baby. That first week Sophie screamed herself purple when I dropped her off. Me? I bawled at my desk. Called every hour. “Is she all right?” I’d ask, and she’d say, “She’s just fine, Miss Dorothee.”
It got better. We found our routine. That day I was actually relaxed – it was my birthday, you know – so I treated myself to an ice cream cone on the walk home. But no lights were on. She didn’t answer the door, so I kicked in the window, black raspberry spattered all over the front steps, but she wasn’t there, no one was there… oh God, officer, please find my baby.
You pause at the subway entrance. By the blind woman. Every evening she shows up for the commuter rush, rattling her cup, hustling for coins. Tonight you press your bagged lunch, uneaten, into her hands, then pull out the crumpled twenty you found wedged in your pencil drawer. She mumbles thanks, so you stuff your hat and leather gloves and the Ray-Ban’s your ex gave you last Christmas into her waiting lap. So many riches, all at once, and for the smallest instant you wish you were her, you wish you were anyone but yourself. She leans closer, she smells of grease and raw onion and the street, and peers into the Xerox box hugged tight against the curve of your hip. When you question the veracity of her condition, she laughs, a smoke-smoothed cackle, and you think, what does it matter?
The escalator whisks you silent into the dim bowels of the station. At the bottom, the box thuds at your feet: mug, wedding photo, the 25-year pen. You think you should feel lighter, somehow unencumbered, but you don’t. The platform trembles. The cold rush of air precedes the oncoming train.
Drape me with silk
I close my eyes, see the hair. Plastered in a swirl of thalo blue, too short and black to be mine, too long to fall from the brush. I remember tapping ash from my Camel, wondering who trespassed my studio. I reached for that hair and my arm went numb, the air zagged white, and out the window fog huddled grey over the sound. I crumpled on the paint-spattered floor, counting cigarettes and brushes rolled under the easel, the shadows passing.
Now the world is blank canvas – the shades open, the sun pours in, harsh titanium. The television murmurs too low to hear, too loud to think. Nurses turn me, rub my pale unfeeling feet and arms and backside, and swaddle me again in brilliant sheets.
My son comes. I smile but he cannot see it. No one can. He sits by the bed and cradles my hand, stroking the parchment that stitches me together the way the nurses do, but longer, with smaller, tighter circles. He talks to fill in the space, more than he ever talked to me before, and I blink fast. A single tear squeezes past, and I wish I could feel it slide hot and wet down my cheek. His hand reaches. “Oh Mom” he says, and peters out of words, my poet son. I close my eyes, see the hair.
In the meeting house this morning, silence. No machines thrumming, no rumble of moving earth. Six others sit in equal quiet. A blue jay caws from someplace distant. I look down to my clasped hands. The query runs through me: Where there are hatred, division, and strife, how are we instruments of reconciliation and love?
Pews creak. Blue pulses below my wrist, skin thin as hope. The jay cackles again, the same or another I cannot tell, but Franklin rises and slides the door bolt. No one speaks; it is understood the remaining Friends fled South through the excavated tunnels. Decades ago, the Sin Papeles built the tunnels and immigrated North. When they crossed the border, broken and naked, we sheltered and fed them in our safe houses until they ran down our schools, shot the police, and bankrupted our hospital. Their children hold the town captive.
To the light we hold our Friends traveling South. I hold my daughter, her husband and infant to the light. My cousin Lorraine, the kindergarteners I taught. I hold them all to the light.
A shadow in the window. A flutter of blue feathers. Footsteps rustle brittle leaves. Far off, the staccato of gunfire. I smell the smoke before I see it curl past the window. Muriel reaches for me and we grip hands.
We are instruments of peace, we whisper. We are instruments of love.
I hold us to the light.
The preschoolers scampered through the garden, clutching their butterfly nets and insect cages. The teacher pointed out the katydid marching up the daylily scape, the leaf cutter chomping through the Brandywines. Her long hair stuck to her neck, and her inner thighs chafed from sweat. She craved iced coffee, for the coldness, for something to shock her into feeling.
“Look Miss Nancy! Ladybugs!”
The children jostled around the sedum. Nancy moved slowly, trying not to wince. The ladybugs swarmed the waxy leaves, hundreds of them, coupling and uncoupling, falling to the ground. Paler colored beetles took flight. The males pursued, wrestling the females with their tiny legs. The pairs swirled down like maple seeds.
A small girl sobbed. “They’re fighting.”
Nancy stepped towards the child. Pain seared through her pelvis to her sitz bone, reminding her of last night, of Roger stumbling through the dark to bed, rousing her with his beery breath. He’d yanked down her panties and took her from behind, hard. When she cried, he thrust harder. She felt something in her backside crack and she rolled away. He slapped her cheek as he came all over her stomach. The welt stung almost as much as the single word he’d spat at her when he left.
Nancy stroked the crying girl’s hair, translucent in the sun, and considered whether to correct the girl. Fighting, mating. Everything seemed filmy. She touched the end of her sleeve to her eyes.
She found him in the pantry, fly unzipped, tilting over the recycle bin.
“Oh Dad,” she said and led him to the bathroom. She hosed down the urine-soaked container, then returned to the bathroom with a clean pair of boxers. He sobbed into a terry towel. She rubbed small circles between his shoulder blades. Skinny like bird’s wings, she thought.
“For Cripe’s sake, I built this house,” he said. “You’d think I’d know where I put the goddamn can.”
She waited behind the closed door while he changed. He’d installed the second bathroom twelve years ago, during his one week of vacation. Lined up like ghosts on the front lawn, the second-hand porcelain fixtures had embarrassed her. Her father whistled the whole week, annoying Gershwin tunes between his teeth, happier than a hog in poop because he was banging away on a ‘project’. She could barely hem her surgical scrubs.
A string of obscenities punctuated the burbling water. She opened the door. The face cloth dripped in shaking hand, spattering his tee shirt.
“What the hell is wrong with me?”
“It’s the Parkinson’s,” she said. “The neurotransmitters aren’t quite connecting in your brain.”
“Harrumph.” He tilted his head at her, then shuffled down the hall. “My brain’s just fine.”
At dinner time, she found him in the basement. Back to the door, he didn’t notice her as he plowed through the toolbox.
“Loose screws, my ass,” he muttered. “Now where’s the goddamn philips?”
…and when I open my eyes I see what a perfect shot, the arrow stuck in the side of my neck, a fountain of blood sinking the snow like maple sap, and Dave barrels through underbrush, his breath heaves white clouds, he’s lost his hat, there’s a bald spot in back I’d never noticed because even though he’s my little brother he’s five inches taller, and he sinks to his knees, shit, shit, shit, oh shit, then fumbles in his camo for his cell and I laugh, you idiot, you fucking know you can’t get a signal this side of the mountain, but he jabs at the stupid buttons anyway, and then Pa grasps my fingers, odd because he’s never held my hand and he’s dead ten years anyway, and he says with his eyes, it’s time to go, and below spins green and white, this brilliant heat fills me, and I turn to Pa and say, hey it’s true what they say on those tv shows, those people who die and come back, and when he smiles I know I’m dead and it’s okay this peace falls over me, a kind of grace I feel after I mow the hayfield all sweaty and happy, and when I think of Marisa, the swell of her belly, and I wait for the tug, the one that yanks me back to Dave blubbering over me in the cold bloody snow, I wait and wait, but Pa grips me harder and…
The morning Merilee disappeared, my lover died in a fire that started and ended in her queen-sized bed. The fire department declared arson, perhaps self-immolation, although they never found traces of accelerant. But I’d discovered Twenty-One Love Poems spread open on the rug, and remembered the heat from her hands stilled inches above my mons.
I draw the bow across the strings, the trembling G of Chopin’s Largo, and wait for the small gap of time suspended between noise and its absence, the space where the note vibratos into nothingness. I lower the bow, and the hall thunders.
Planes careen into fields and skyscrapers, a cacophony of metal and fire. After, the sky stills, an eerie instant slouching towards an infinity of sorts. I rest my cello in its velvet-lined case, and close the lid.
You enter this world amidst the clack and clatter of machinery, the urgency of voices, and the stench of laser-burnt skin. The surgeon reaches into my abdomen and your head crowns, waxed with blood. The surgical suite melts into white and you yelp your hello.
Your science project involves water tension and other physics I do not understand. I watch you release the eyedropper, amazed at the utter perfection with which each bead breaks the awaiting meniscus. You record the seconds it takes for the water to resume its placid surface.
The hushed morning after the snowstorm, you sleep upstairs. The ground glitters with diamond dust, the only sound the tinkle of flakes falling. I pick up my cello and play to find the space in between.
Grey clouds tangled in leafless tree limbs and telephone lines. Gertrude twisted the watch, puzzling at the liver patches circling her wrist. Almost noon — where was the bus? If she was late who would feed Norry her tomato soup and animal cracker lunch? Who would put her down for her afternoon nap?
The wind whipped leaves into an eddy of bronze and carried the raw smell of impending rain. Perhaps she should not have tarried for coffee after her shift — her co-workers were such awful gossips. But what wicked fun. And she deserved some fun, Gertrude thought. She worked hard to potatoes in the larder.
A bus rumbled past. The Number 9 to City Square. Panic wormed through her stomach and seeped to her chest. Where was the 55 to home? Raindrops splattered her flannel slippers. She looked down at the widening puddle. Where were her white shoes? She touched her wet head. Her nursing cap?
The sky cracked open. Gertrude hiccoughed a rending sob and sank knee-first to the muddy ground. She clasped her hands in prayer. Mother Mary, take care of Norry and bring me to her.
A siren wailed lonesome. She crunched her eyes and prayed harder. Behind her, feet pattered closer. Firm hands grasped her shoulders.
Gertrude stopped her prayers. She wobbled up and let the kind-faced lady lead her down the street. Something about her eyes reminded her of Noreen.
After the wolves killed the sheep, then Damien, I fled the backcountry. Without cricket and tree frog song, the silence grew too deep.
On the last night, I siphoned 30 gallons of ethanol to power the ATV, and sloshed the rest around the perimeter of the house, the shed, the still. The timber flared with a loud wumph. The wolves gathered, mesmerized by the flames. Their low snarls trailed me as I drove from the forest, the evening star obscured by smoke.
It took three days to reach the City. From the top of the watch tower, I watched the horizon. The tinny pop of guns from the last of the resistance punctuated the low whine of advancing tanks. For some reason, these noises comforted me.
When Lorelei emerged from the Bentley draped in pink silk and pearls, E.B. Whiting’s heart quaked all the way down to his RocketBuster boots. For over a year he had pursued the Geisha, through the cobbled streets of the French Quarter to the high rises of Hong Kong. Rebuffed in every city, he paid for her best courtesans instead. The next morning, he sent her ivory roses, accepted but never acknowledged.
He strode across the foyer, Dom Perignon clutched in his hand. She followed him to the window. Below, the Dallas skyline glittered. American flags and Whiting banners floated ghostlike from dozens of cranes silhouetted in tiny white lights.
“You have built a kingdom,” she said.
“As have you.” They clinked flutes. “Have you considered my proposal?”
She rested the champagne on the table and took his hand. The subtle scent of vanilla wafted from her. He trembled as she splayed open his palm and traced the left side with her finger.
“Long career line. And success, but the two do not intersect.” She pulled his hand closer, her breath warm on his skin. “Love line also long, but see?” She drew quick perpendicular cross-hatches with her nail. He winced.
“Marry me,” he whispered. “Please.”
“Life line starts here.” She slowly trailed her forefinger from the base of the thumb to the middle of his palm, and stopped. A frown creased her forehead, then smoothed.
Min Zhan sat cross-legged on the floor, his grown daughter beside him, parsing through the detritus of his wife’s death. The trunk was like a Russian doll, boxes within boxes, each filled with Hui-Wen’s treasures: letters, sepia-stained photographs, silk scarves. The grainy ultrasound of Tien, their Winter Surprise. Diplomas, citizenship papers, birthday cards. Holding their formal wedding picture, Hui-Wen smiling in her red qipao, him nervous in his silks, wrung pain from his heart.
In his lap, the last box, silk-covered, the color of bamboo.
He did not know that box.
Tien leaned against him. Inside, a vellum folder embossed Acta Neurologica Science Prize. San Francisco. March 1982. Crisp tissue covered the program and the faded news clip of Hui-Wen accepting the gold cup. Her brightest moment without him; he’d traveled to Beijing tending to his dying mother.
A postcard slid out, gaudy with palm trees and bluest sky melting into sea. Even before picking it up, he knew the card came from Hawaii. A shared dream, never realized.
One week, my Princess, and we celebrate your prize. I shall drape you in leis and love. V
The smudged post-mark confirmed the hard knot growing in his stomach. He gazed at his daughter, her pale eyes foreign as the postcard, and understood why her mother named her Sky.
The map rested in my lap, a useless blur of ‘k’s and ‘l’s and ‘i’s. The GPS bleated unintelligible directives. I’d wanted to take the train, then the bus, to the cabin perched on the brim of the Arctic Circle, but Chris insisted on driving.
But I was in a hurry.
“See? North.” He pointed to the compass, smiling. “So rest. And trust me to get us to our destination.”
I closed my eyes. He was right, trust and rest; the chemo had robbed me of all my energy. The sun strobed through the birch forest, flinging dappled warmth on my cheeks. The crumpled map slid to the floor.
When I woke, the clock said eight at night but the sky looked like mid-afternoon. Chris rolled down the windows. Wind pummeled me awake, smelling of pine and some quality of freshness, of newness, I could not identify. He hummed softly and kept patting my knee.
“Almost there,” he said.
The trees thinned. I wanted to sleep more, but Chris cut the engine.
“Where are we?”
He helped me from the car. My hips ached. I leaned against him. Pine needles blanketed the ground. Then, the woods ended and sky spread before us, a never-ending canvas of liquid silver that melted into water, blue as his eyes, as blue as our daughter’s, now grown.
He squeezed my hand. “We are exactly where we need to be.”
The sign across the street winked neon: Walk-ins Welcome. Bells jingled when I pushed the glass door. A sleepy-looking woman looked up from a magazine.
“Is it too late for a haircut?”
“I can take you now,” she said.
I followed her to the back. Chairs reclined against industrial sinks. She lowered the heft of my hair into the tub. Warm water pulsed over my scalp and her gentle hands worked soap into lather. Head wrapped in terry, I trailed her to the front window and perched in a chair before the large mirror. She unwound the towel and my hair, au-lait brown from the shampooing, cascaded down my back.
“Just a trim?”
“Cut it off.”
“All of it?”
“To my shoulders.”
“But you have beautiful hair,” she said.
I shrugged; time for something new. She combed with care, starting from the bottom. Shears rasped through the strands. I closed my eyes. With each snip, I remembered: Ben slowly unbraiding my hair, kissing my bared neck, sending shivers down my spine.
But he was gone. The blow-dryer seared my cheeks, scattering small bristles down my neckline. On the radio Elton John wailed about yellow brick roads. She swiveled me around to face my reflection.
Long clumps of gold covered the scuffed linoleum floor, my lap, the tips of my shoes peeking beneath the nylon smock. Piles and piles of my hair. My chest filled with unexpected pressure.
For some reason, I thought I would feel lighter.
Three sabbatical applications. One slot.
The Department Chair taps the manila envelopes into a pile then splays them over her desk like a short deck of cards.
She sips her Tazo Lotus and Zen tea. Dinner. What she’d really like is a porterhouse rare and a Tanqueray martini with extra olives. But like most nights, she’s in her office catching up on administrative detritus. The Dean expects her decision tomorrow morning. Who to choose?
Dr. R-W: The rising star: three graduate students win prestigious dissertation awards, eleven first-author manuscripts, an impressive NIH grant portfolio. Up for promotion to Full Professor in two years but already can check ‘Distinguished’ in service, scholarship, teaching. All while popping out two kids.
Dr. S: Emeritus. Proverbial dead wood, but so agreeable with the Chair – on everything. Smiles a lot. Does as told. Tremendous talent greasing the Dean’s wheels. Aims to re-energize flagging research.
Dr. W: Highly productive, well-connected, funds half the programming staff. Asshole prima donna — he threw a pencil at a post-doc, who’s now rumbling about suing the university on charges of bullying and harassment. Her greatest headache.
She leans back and stares at the empty cup, looking for an answer, but the tea’s bagged not loose. She weighs the data: expedience or merit? Seniority or promise? Hell, she never got a sabbatical — she deserves a break.
She types the recommendation. Tonight she’ll treat herself to a congratulatory dinner after all – work will be more pleasant next year.
Wind slams the trailer. Dolores and Marty cook through the Nor’easter. JJ’s late.
“He ain’t coming,” Marty says. “Time to sample the goods.”
The blade slices the white mound, tap-tap-tapping crystalline lines on glass.
“JJ’s gonna be pissed.” Dolores malt-liquored breath scatters the powder.
Marty shrugs, rolls the twenty. Saliva gushes.
The door blows open.
She sat with me in the white bathroom, holding my hair while I upchucked in the once-pristine commode. When there was nothing left to hold, she rubbed small circles between my shoulder blades. At the wig shop, she held up a red bob.
“Spunky,” she said. “And sexy.”
She drove me to radiation, to acupuncture and support group. She brewed herbal concoctions that smelled of twigs and dirt. She brought casseroles and cookies, and later, applesauce and other soft sick-foods. She painted yellow happy faces on my toe nails, upside-down so my piggies smiled up at me during infusions.
After I survived the treatment, I weighed the possibility of reconstruction. She came with me for the fitting. I cried at the scars cratering my chest, mourning how my husband once caressed the soft fullness of my breasts, kissed my rosebud nipples. She squeezed my hand the way only a best friend could reassure.
“He loves all of you, not just your body parts.” She held up a C-cup mastectomy bra, a full size bigger than what I’d lost. “So let’s go, Dolly,” she said, and we both laughed.
Turns out she brought more than food for comfort. Now my husband begs me to take him back, but I don’t return his phone calls, or hers. Nights I climb the stairs to the empty bedroom, rubbing the stubble growing newly black on my head, the prosthesis stashed deep in his underwear drawer.
Rule #1) Never hurry home. After soccer, hang out at the library. Try to get invited to Marcy’s house for dinner. Just don’t act too desperate.
Rule #2) Don’t have friends over. If they ask why, say, “My mom works nights and sleeps in the afternoon.”
Rule #3) When you do come home, don’t change the TV channel or mute the volume, even if she’s sleeping on the couch. It’s not worth the fight.
Rule #4) If anyone asks, she works nights.
Rule #5) Never talk about it, even with Nana on the phone. Never, ever with teachers or the counselor. Better here than with your dad.
Rule #6) Never water down the bottle. Then you’ll have to explain the bruises.
Rule #7) Keep the babysitting money in your locker for lunch and tampons.
Rule #8) Don’t sign up for band because you’ll need a ride to the concerts and she’s always losing her license.
Rule #9) Always listen when she says she loves you, even when she’s too drunk to remember the next day. Tell her you love her too, even if it’s a lie, and hope Jesus understands.
Rule #10) Hide your journal in the cellar behind the dryer – she never washes clothes and besides, she’s afraid of spiders and falling down the stairs. But don’t stash it under the same loose tile as the Stoli, in case she gets desperate.
Yang to my yin, you attack my defenses, hard-wired to protect against hepatitis, Clostridium and any number of God’s afflictions. Ever vigilant, even in your latency, your troops spread from bone and lymph to destroy mine, antibodies and white blood cells. You gnaw on epidermis, feast on capillaries and nerves feeding into larger organs – tendon, kidney, liver, brain. Soon you will swallow my soul.
Every morning a new battlefield. Puffed up on prednisone, I drowse, immune to most skirmishes. Now you gather at the border of my heart, Capulets to my Montagues. But this is no mere guerilla tactic — I know, the x-rays confirm. So I shore up my armamentarium – corticosteroids, ibuprofen, Plaquenil, acupuncture – to beat back the cells you’ve suborned and inflamed.
When you claimed the sun as your friend, you almost won. I admit, I mourn the day warming my face while I sit with my morning coffee, the slant of sun through dappled leaves, the buzz of birds and insects. (I do not miss butterflies.) When I found my anger, I allied with the night. In dark safety, I shovel my holes. Children make fun of me. “Werewolf,” they whisper. But I do not dig graves, only cradles, for wolfsbane and moonflower, evening primrose and columbine. When the plants are sunk, I sit on moon-licked grass, swaddled in the earth’s loamy must and the flutter of moths, the night sounds louder than my howl.
|At the hospital, we know the routine. I haul out my laptop, emailing students, writing papers no one reads. You stare at the same first page of the John Grisham you’ve carted here for weeks. An hour passes. A nurse finally walks you to the bathroom to pee in a cup. Another hour. The phlebotomist ambles in and pricks your arm. Blood fills the tubes, purple and thick. Three hours. No doctor, no saline drip, no reassurances of ‘soon, soon’. On the way out for coffee, I blast the woman behind reception. I should realize when she says pharmacy hasn’t received orders to prep your erlotinib. But I don’t. I fume through the hospital lobby, paging the clinical trial coordinator, rescheduling lectures and exams, scowling at my watch.
When I return, the doc stands over you scrunched in the arm chair. He taps an x-ray and shakes his head. You push yourself up, using the armrests for leverage. It takes three tries, but at last you waver on your feet, hand extended. You thank him. The doctor leaves, not recognizing me when he passes, and you collapse. What looks like tears on your cheeks is sweat.
I wheel you down to valet parking. It’s late afternoon, the ride home will be hell. You reach back for my hand, squeeze it. A fine cool mist falls from the opaque sky and splatters crystals in your hair. You smile and try to say something, but the car arrives.
Gimme lucky three.
Third wife, a trio of kiddos, three-bedroom rancher. Once, in Reno, I rolled threesies, won 30k. Still owe that much on the trawler.
Now, damn boat’s on blocks — three years ’til the shrimp come clean. No jobs except drinking. Plum outta luck, one bullet left.
At the metro, I don’t take the escalator – too many pick-pockets. My feet crunch on the abandoned peanut shells, cigarette butts, and gnawed chicken bones littering the granite steps. A covey of young men loiter by the exit, voices excited, muscle tees framing black-inked tats. Absorbed in their furtive closed palm exchanges of rolled-up bills for baggies, they ignore me.
Outside, summer’s swelter carries the usual market smells of over-ripe fruit, worn-out peanut oil, and stale urine. I walk quickly, breathing though my mouth. Around the corner I bypass a puddle of vomit and almost trip over the legs of a woman propped against the Market’s brick wall. Sweat pours down her face; I fight the strong urge to yank off her puffy purple parka so she can cool off. She stares at me, eyes filmy from glaucoma or some other affliction, but I walk past, averting my gaze to the crab grass pushing through broken concrete, the spent condoms, the empty vodka nips rolling at her stockinged feet.
Campus security patrols the intersection. We smile at each other, as we do every day, small reassuring grimaces. The ham and Swiss hangs heavy in my lunch bag like a bad conscience. The light changes. I hurry across to the air-conditioned safety of the hospital, to the day of running yesterday’s numbers: admissions, discharges, dollars, death. But first, I stop for a latte, hoping to usher energy enough to feel the morning’s sting.
The garbage bag bumps behind you through the glass-strewn median. You startle when the 18-wheeler barrels past, the cigarette spattering orange on the pavement.
“Cochinos.” You stab a soggy diaper. “Pigs. All of them.”
You check the watch you found last week shining Indy-Glo green. Two more hours, no more breaks. You keep walking. Rats stare at you, their eyes fearless pinpricks, but you reach around them for the Corona empties, the crumpled McDonald’s bags, and wait for dawn to spill, a broken yolk across the desert.
You scrape crushed rabbit from the asphalt, gagging at the smell. Dead animals still get to you, haunting your dreams. Those nights Simona soothes you, reminds you of Spring, of picking berries in the valley, then asparagus, almond, and, when the baby comes, grapes. Sometimes you curse yourself for listening to her, for leaving La Paz, but she wanted a better life for the child. It’s not her fault construction dried up. You gaze at the orange-flecked clouds. The cool breeze reminds you of the Coromuel winds, and you try to thank God for this job, but you can’t. You can only pray for this shift to end.
You hear the thrum of blowflies before you see the white-swaddled object, larger than the rabbit; a dog, perhaps, or small coyote. At one end, a thatch of black. Your heart races even as your walk slows and somehow, you know, even before you reach down to unwrap the sheet, expose the face, you will never pick trash on a highway again.
Sweet Jesus, what’s that boy doing in there – taking a bubble bath? This one’s weird, cleaning himself before and after, but now he’s gotta go, before Keshon comes for his money. I strap on my new shoes, all glittery red. They make my legs look real good. “A gift for my best sugar doll,” Keshon said. Well he better find himself another doll cuz I’m outta here, mama’s gonna take my sorry ass back. I rub the locket she gave me, for luck, my only goodness inside, and stretch on the mattress for a little shut-eye.
In between ambulances the medic mutters, “Worse than fucking Afghanistan.” I’ve no idea, all I know is I’m 36 hours straight running triage on gang-bangers ODing on whatever crap they shoot up their veins. I need some goddamn sleep, but gurneys line the hall from here to Timbuktu, this one with a ridiculous red shoe wedged between sheeted feet. Still conscious, brown eyes stare at me, wide, scared. I should pat her hand, comfort her but there’s no time, another ambulance pulled into the bay. Besides, with all those stab wounds no way I’m betting on her odds anyway.
He studies the body, measures the depth and width of each slash. The camera flashes. No ID, no clothes, clean tox screens, just like the other prostitutes in the mortuary. Only a single stiletto and a necklace. He photographs the infant smiling from the locket before pressing his hand over the dead girl’s open eyes.
I can’t wait till I’ve saved enough money from this goddamn gig slinging tacos at the Tastee-Kone and can pay off my old man for the Chrysler cuz then I am so out of this numbfuck place, this tired valley full of dumbshit farmers and their almond trees, and me and Mariah will drive up the coast, past pussy Big Sur and Russian River and disappear into the woods, maybe Oregon, hell, who knows, just like all the hippies did thirty years ago, and she’ll grow organic shiitakes and reishi on moldy logs and I’ll farm sensi from the killer weed seeds hidden in the origami crane, the one the Japanese woman on the corner gave to me two years ago in the Haight when I was high as a fucking kite, my right eye bashed in because The Dude said I owed him money, but I needed to score, and this tiny Jap, lady really, though all her stuff was in plastic bags, was selling these folded-paper creatures on the corner, a buck each, and I looked at the money stashed in the cup between her knees, my hand fisted and spit gushed in my mouth just thinking of the baggie, but she looked up at me, her white-streaked hair tied into a tight little — what do you call it, a chignon? – and anyway, she looked up at me and handed me this crane and said, “I will pray for you.”
There, behind the dusty heaps of crumpled doors and rusted engines, hidden from streetlights that banished the thin curve of the moon, they escaped. Below the hillock where they lay spread-eagled under Pegasus and Cassiopeia, the creek’s thin gurgle whispered through cracked earth. Grass poked spears into the girl’s thighs, and she momentarily worried about ticks and snakes, about today’s school suspension and her mother’s wrath still stinging her cheek. The boy reached for her hand, and squeezed. Night swaddled them.
“I always wanted to be an astronaut,” she murmured.
She closed her eyes and the sky opened. A star cascaded in rainbows, fireworks in reverse, scattering spent ash. The warmth sanctified her, a mother’s softer touch. Heaven tilted, the jinn spirits catapulted her higher faster towards the pock-marked orb, shining satin with benevolence. Asteroids showered silver rain as one horizon opened, then another, and another, galaxies bursting in an infinite slide-show of the absolute, and she reached up up up into blinding white to touch to hold to know to be.
“God?” she cried, and shuddered.
The boy leaned close, his breath golden clouds. “Fly, baby, fly,” he said. “Fly to the moon.”
Dew-wet fingers traced her lips, pushed in another bit of fleshy mushroom. The universe expanded, taking her with it.
Annoying little dog, yipping next door all night. I lug the pseudoephedrine and stew-meat from the grocery bag. There. That should fix it.
Even at night the desert swelters. Sweat drips from my forehead, fogging the scope, veneering the sparse mustache tracing my lip. Perched in the granite outcropping and hidden behind camel thorn, I wait for dawn, when animals venture forth for food, for water and mating, before the sun sends them back to shadows.
“Do it for honor,” the elders said. “Do it for your manhood.”
I am blessed with a sharp eye, a steady hand, and do not yet taste fear. The elders chose me for this hunt, for of all our clansmen, I have the greatest accuracy. With one shot I can kill a hare from a stone’s throw or fell a bat in flight. This week I killed the leopard preying on our goats after other men had failed.
But I am a poet, not a hunter; even as I crouch amidst the rocks I weave words in my head.
Listen to the sand, to the tale it tells,
the spirits of the prophets joined with the One.
Gold silhouettes the distant ridge. My arms tremble, from the heat, from the weight of the Kalashnikov, from the exhaustion of anticipation. Below, a pale rectangle of light spills from the hut onto the scorched poppy field. My finger curls around the trigger, and I pray for the animal souls I’ve taken – panther, gazelle, hyena, vulture.
“It is only meat,” I murmur as the Commander greets the day.
I think of us as a Venn diagram, two ovals making
union, my yin seeking optimal overlap with your
yang. But north-facing magnets perpetually
polarize our perimeters, every minor interaction
implodes into a push-me-pull-me tug-o-
drama – the toothpaste cap rolling in the bathroom sink,
the crusted cans cluttering the recycle bin, the
maxed-out (again) Visa. Tits-for-tats, our minefields
of petty disgruntlements escalate, words carelessly
scattershot – always, never, fault, hate — leaving
behind crumb trails of unarticulated ultimatums.
But then, we sleep or, perhaps, make love – no, it’s
fucking pure and simple – and we lose ourselves in
the animal noises, the words peel away, and our
amalgamations circle to their singular intersection.
Winter I hated the most. Winter, and days when rain pelted the ground in sheets too thick for space. Smoke curled, a yellow tsunami steam-rolling from the front seat towards the back where I sat with my sister. I made myself tiny as I could, imagining I was Houdini shackled underwater, holding my nose and practicing my escape. An hour into the drive I’d crack my window and sit on my knees to suck the moist air trickling in like a thief. Mother would turn around, the Pall Mall a fiery sixth finger. “Shut the goddamn window, Missy. It’s cold outside.” The smoke never bothered my sister; she wallowed in the fumes, a gill-breathing dragon. When we arrived at our destination, I’d tumble from the car, refilling myself with pure oxygen for the return trip.
Later, my sister and Mother shared a special intimacy, talking on the patio and tapping ashes into coffee cans. I’d sit inside the cool kitchen and watch from the window. When Mother died last year, felled by a stroke induced by her pack-a-day habit, my sister kept smoking and started running charity 5ks. In her last race, the contestants lined up, waiting for the gun; I watched from the sidelines. The air smelled electric, reminding me of riding with rolled-down windows, the shimmering wind pummeling us in a furnace blast. I remembered those summer months and wondered if they saved me from worse — though what could be crappier than living life tethered to an oxygen concentrator?
Stars pepper the sky. The solemn swells of the orchestra fuse with the crowd’s low drone and the gentle slap of water against the boats. A breeze passes over the darkened river and stirs in the flaccid sails. I lace my fingers through Phoebe’s, and wait. A light flickers on the picnic table and levitates towards us. Althea cradles the sparkling cupcake, singing “happy birthday” in her breathy voice. She totters over the boat, holding the cake for Phoebe.
“Make a wish, girlfriend!”
Phoebe concentrates, and blows; the flame splutters out.
“Happy birthday, Phoebe.” Althea weaves on the dock’s edge. “I’m glad you’re with Ben, he’s good folk, deserves the best. And you’re the best too, girl, cuz you make him happy, keep him outta trouble. He’s one crazy guy, but good as gold as long as he takes his lith–”
“Shut up, Al.” The boat pitches when I stand. My hands draw into tight fists.
“Just shut the fuck up. You’re drunk.”
“Oh shit.” She covers her face, her giggles. “So sorry.”
A low whistle screams overhead. The sky erupts in orange, incandescent streamers shower into the river, fizzing into smoke. In the light-splattered night, Phoebe’s eyes glitter, questioning me.
“She’s toasted,” I say. Her fingers squeeze mine, seeking more, but I look away, into the shivering sky, and breathe, just breathe, until the only noise is my pulse thumping through my brain and all I see are smoky-white trails of spent fireworks echoing against my closed eyelids.
Air undulates over steaming pavement. I zoom in to capture the shimmering heat, but the mirage disappears. Instead, glass rectangles come into focus, all but one curtained off from sun or stuffed with thrumming AC units.
Two more minutes. I pan back to the street. Kids swoop around the ice cream truck tinkling merrily on the corner. Chaos straightens into a line. Birds gather in weed trees hoping for dropped cones.
The camera seizes. I tap the on button.
Damn machine. Put me back a week’s pay, it better not futz out. Not now. I thump the barrel with my fist. The lens eye closes with a whir.
I power back on, shift back to the brick façade. Third floor, second window from the right. The curtain rustles. Right on time. I smile and zoom in.
His hand tosses the hardhat onto the futon. I imagine the hollow thud, the back of my head pushed into those pillows. He moves into sight, framed by the open window. Back to me, he peels off his muscle tee. His skin glistens and all I want is to tongue each sweaty trail. He flexes his arms, every muscle defined.
I lick my lips, and wait. For him to tug off his Levi’s, stretch along the futon, and fall asleep. But he keeps his pose, not moving, a museum-quality bronze. I lean forward, inner thighs damp, but still he does not move. I shake the fucking camera, too late.
Today my head’s at war: good versus bad, logic versus emotion, high versus low. I’m in the middle of my raging melodrama when Patty opens our session with a cheery hello.
The others squeak back, reminding me of those sunny Happy Faces. Everyone “checks in” with what they’re feeling, doing, thinking. I slouch in my chair, transport myself to some other place, any place but here. I conjure up my kitchen, my trusty Wusthof. An excellent knife, an eight inch, ten/twelve carbon steel forged blade. Perfectly balanced. In my mind, the blade flashes bright and swift, decimating whatever lies underneath.
“Earth to Ben.” Patty interrupts my daydream. I open my eyes. “How are you today?”
I dismiss her with a wave of my hand. Laurel someone yammers about her depression. Everyone offers support. They’re so freaking chipper it makes me sadder, lonelier. Isolated in my melancholy. I continue rambling through my apartment to the bathroom, an ideator’s paradise: the hard surfaces, the mirror, the razor blades, the scalding water. The medicine cabinet: Motrin, aspirin, antihistamines, cough syrup, and lithium. Lithium will kill you, not very nicely, if you take enough of it. Inside the box of Trojans, a stash of benzodiazepines. Not enough to do me in, but taken with a glass or two of Dolce d’Alba, a hot bath, some Mahler , and the knife, they’ll make for a pleasant evening. My dark mood lifts. Yes, I think to myself, this is how I will do it.
Nothing jiggles. Not a hair out of place. Skin a perfect bronze, museum-quality. The bather stoops to the warm water, buttocks tight mounds. Water dribbles down the flat back, outlining hips and an ironing board stomach. Liquid crystals reflect sun and sky, almost blinding me. Jealousy surges, stronger than the languid swells lapping the beach’s edge.
I lean back on my elbows. Kids kick up sand as they run past the faded whales of their suburban hoi-polloi parents. I feel more than see Sam flip on his back, watching me behind polarized lenses. I turn towards him. Already his shoulders streak red where he’s missed the sunscreen. Sweat glistens on his forehead which, suddenly, looks higher than this morning. He follows my gaze.
“He’s not so great,” Sam says.
“Who?” I say.
His head swivels to the shoreline, to the Perfect One, joined now by another taut body. “That guy in the blue thong,” he says. “I mean, look at that gut.”
As if on cue, the man turns in profile. A small, very small, roll of skin flubs over the speedo’s top.
“Oh,” I say. “Yeah.”
Sam stares towards the horizon. I carefully push up from the sandy blanket, pulling down on my top. I look down at the fleshy mountains straining against spandex. Still perky, still firm. I suck in my stomach, clench my ass muscles, and make my way to the water, to better compare the competition.
If you look close enough
in the mirror
soft creases trample
from your eyes,
so many tired circuits
relaying books read,
Closer still, lines
surround your lips
carved canyons of past belly
laughs, false and true,
of smiles held too long,
of child’s play, of day lilies
before they spend themselves
in summer’s swelter.
If you dropped your robe
I could touch the crescent
under the clavicle
left from dog’s teeth;
the roughened skin
that failed to take
after the burn ran us
from the farm; the
indent too small to see
by the aureole but
certain to touch, souvenir
of the biopsy; the cleft
beneath once linked
to your mother,
where son, then daughter
The mirror reveals all,
map of your life, meager, full.