On the Kennedy Center Stage, Anthony Quinn smiled, twirling a last red rose. Four rows into the center orchestra section, a 25-year-old woman applauded, her long brown hair in contrast to the permed heads of the engineers’ wives. He kissed the rose and tossed it right at me. An older woman, in row three, leaped higher.
I lost one by sleeping with him too late. Another by jumping into sex too early. Perhaps I should have worked on my timing. Who knows? Undo the first, and I would have stayed in Baltimore for another year. Undo the second, and I could have run away to Italy. Either way, losing them was inevitable.
I won’t forget my artistic friend’s look: disappointment mixed with a little disdain. He had quoted a line from a poem of mine, written years before, and I had not recognized it. I should have told him, “But I wasn’t really listening to you.” I didn’t, because in that moment I couldn’t decide which was worse.
You could meet anyone on a city bus in Baltimore. I met Andrei Codrescu on a bus headed downtown, toward Lexington Market. He told me that I should leave Johns Hopkins because the undergraduates there weren’t normal college students; they weren’t whole-heartedly embracing life while sitting in the grass debating great ideas. I thought, “You’re cute.”
We live in the woods. Not exactly true. We live surrounded by woods, but the neighbors are an acre away. In the colder seasons, the tree cover thins. I know this. But I still manage to find myself naked in the living room, lights on, realizing that I’m spotlighted if someone looks out a kitchen window.
I sat with the other moms in the church basement. My boys blended in, as much as possible, with the home-schooled kids. I nursed a Styrofoam cup of coffee, my mind wandering. Suddenly, Mary turns to me and says, “So how are you keeping Duncan pure?” I wish I’d said, “Buying him a box of condoms.”
In that one day, we passed quietly through Nan Madol, disrupting generations of blue-tailed skinks warming on the basalt. Our boat sped across a shallow bay, racing eagle rays. We stepped over puddles clotted with invasive toad tadpoles. And while swimming under the cascade of Kepirohi, we watched Nihlo lure eels with hunks of dry bread.
Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, three blocks from home. We followed a father and son down our street. They were not from here. We knew, because we were two of the four white people in our neighborhood. The kid tossed a drink cup.
I yelled, “Pick that up! You don’t live here!”
Scared white people move fast.
A grove of old-growth hemlock, pine, and oak marks the end of an easy trail in Ricketts Glen. I found an open space between several of these ancients, a deeply shaded ground, thick with the leavings of trees: twigs, bark, and needles. With my eyes closed, I breathed in their exhalation. I know only these gods.
There was a series of cats named Muffin, all agreeable tabbies, patient with children, and fertile. Back then there was no extra money for veterinarian visits, no coddling allowed, in fact, no inside house time at all, unless the weather turned brutal. Disappearances were common.
My dad said, “Cats run away – they do.”
He knew better.
While my dog endures his treatment, I sleep with him in my son’s bed which sits lower to the floor, and requires less exertion from the canine heart. With the change of rooms, the change of windows, the nightmares return. Always a looming shape, a whispered word, and a jolt into consciousness. The light stays on.
Depending on how you evaluate the threadbare evidence, my mother’s parents might not have been married. They were first cousins, already a problem. He was 20 years older than her, a widower with a passel of kids. Two couples took off for California in the 1920’s: my grandfather and a great-aunt, my grandmother and some guy….
…City records show him married to the great-aunt, living in Philadelphia with my grandmother in the household. Then Robert and Mildred return to upstate New York, with no record of the sister, or a divorce recorded. They claim to be married. Six children later, he dies of a heart attack. Fiction runs rampant in my family.
I blame my sister. There was an episode of “Lost in Space” where an alien with a blank, faceted face threatened Will Robinson. The alien moved with a strange rocking walk, much like an older woman who needs a knee replacement. My sister rocked into the bedroom night after night to my shrieks. “Danger, Will Robinson!”
When Flight 427 dove into a hillside, I was working a flight on A Concourse with Ed. Final call, no problems, so he pulled the jet way. Then the supervisors disappeared. Something was happening on B, where people were waiting for a flight from Chicago. The coward in me was thankful that I worked on A.
I got pregnant on every form of birth control. First, Billy and his god damn condom. Then the mess of diaphragm and foam. Bingo! Conception two. Who knew I was part of the two percent for the pill? Then the IUD. That one broke my heart. Rick and I were almost ready. I wanted that baby.
I punished myself with college courses. Why else would I have endured a whole semester of Milton? Or another focused on the reading of Marx’s Das Kapital? Or later, notwithstanding how charming the Irish professor was, a graduate seminar in James Joyce? I beat myself senseless with books, and that is the simple truth of it.
Mary and I attracted small foreign men. We were tall Irish girls with broad shoulders and hips. “They know we can plow the fields…without the mule,” said Mary. One night, on the inbound Blue Line, two men sidled up. “Here, you have,” one said, holding out a cassette of Guatemalan disco music. We left them disappointed.
The secret ingredient of my relationship with my Mother is the unspoken half-truth. (That and the fact that she lives four hours away.) This has allowed her to embrace an ideal image of her daughter: able housekeeper, expert budgeter, dedicated mother and wife. She doesn’t know that I’m still in my pajamas, right now, at 3:00.
The runway closed to large aircraft midway through my trip, so I flew to Kosrae with other exiles, hoping to catch a ride on the missionary plane to Pohnpei. That night a vicious dog fight erupted under my cabin cancelling sleep. I shared the pale dawn with the reef herons, who stalked between the baby mangroves.
I’ve grown to hate foodies. No one wants to see your pictures of tonight’s dinner. No one wants a recitation of the rare ingredients, or an extensive culinary sourcing noting organic or non-GMO certifications. Face it: nothing beats the aroma of a sun-warmed tomato or the sweetness of a tiny raw pea stolen from the garden.
Sometimes I see her circled in light
as if a director had turned the giant spot
onto a girl, starring in her own life story.
On cue, the chin lifts enough for the shadows
to carve out the thin bones of her cheeks,
light streaming down her neck and glancing
off pale shoulders. Nothing is curved ….
[to be continued]
about her, only knotted angles shooting off
into the darker places. These are not simple
secrets to be shared, bread broken between
sheets of discrete longing. The fact that light
finds in her something hard to touch reflects
my frozen arteries my numb fingers
my heart resting on basalt columns,
black and beating. A devil’s causeway ….
rises above a somber plain; March rain
has pooled deep in forgotten furrows,
breaking corn stubble like bleached bones.
Shall I cross this bridge knowing that stone,
weakened by wet and frost, may slide?
She resides beyond my reach, and perhaps
no distance traveled will make a difference.
Desire – not love, not pain – nothing will change.
We’ve been lying to each other for some time now. I’m not fine. You’re not happy. There’s nothing in this house that I want for breakfast. You have no clue where the manual is for the dishwasher. I have absolutely no idea what time it is. Plans for the weekend? Heavens. When did we plan this?
Kate and I met Frank, the tour manager last night after the show. We were drinking post-kd cocktails at Tessa’s. At some point, between the Manhattans and rabbit cavatelli, we decided to change our lives. I don’t know how we convinced this burly, Australian man, but we’re traveling with the Ingenue tour now. Carpe damn diem!
Similar properties can go for much more, the woman explained patiently. This brownstone is “museum-quality,” she said, sniffing slightly and waving at the woodwork. “Can we make 17 rooms work for us?” I asked Kate. Probably. But six levels? Won’t we get confused having so many floors? Can we see the park from any of them?
I have certain unspeakable secrets, ones I can’t disguise as lies. For me they are the dark underpinnings to my social edifice; I wouldn’t appear to be the person you know if I wasn’t hiding a few things under my foundation. When I’m in my 90’s, either dementia or not-giving-a-damn will bring the whole house down.
Three tornados have missed me. One bounced over Bellevue, PA, landing briefly in Mount Washington. Another ripped a line through Bonner Springs, before rising over our Kansas City neighborhood. The sky turned a dull swamp green that day. But the scariest was the funnel that passed right behind my car on route 70, east of Indianapolis.
I hated her. That is not specific enough. We grew up a block apart. My mother was strict; hers was a tyrant. We had years of history, sleep overs, little girl dreams and plans. Then I crawled out my bedroom window to go to a party senior year. Marcie told her mother. We never spoke again.
We finally did talk, years later, after we graduated from college. In fact, Marcie asked me to be in her wedding, and I stupidly agreed. She sent me a package containing a Vogue pattern and yards of baby pink cotton damask. The dress was a horror of puffs and bows. She had her revenge.