WHEN THE BEE STINGS
by Lisa Romeo
I had towering crushes on all of my sister’s boyfriends, who
were all correspondingly smitten with me too. Brad always hugged me
tightly, Patrick kissed the top of my head and fingered my hair, Mark
winked at me, and Allan often told me I was pretty. A few even took me
along on their dates, sitting beside me to whisper secrets at the
movies or ice cream shop. Those kinds of things can happen when your
sister is 12 years older than you are, when your sister is more or less
your mother too.
Our newly affluent Italian American family included our real
mother, of course. But much of the nurturing, the nuance, fell to
Cathy, either because of our mother’s early menopausal vexations, or
because of the way eldest daughters in the 1960s buoyantly accepted the
mother-helper role. This was fine with me, terrific in fact, since I
knew nothing else and loved my sister in a fierce way that sometimes
The summer before I started kindergarten, Cathy and I plopped
down on the lumbering green and white slider swing in our suburban New
Jersey backyard, sucking on root beer ice pops.
“Why do you have to live at college?” I asked.
“To have lots of time to study and to learn. I want to learn
everything there is to know about math.” She told me how her college
was in the prettiest part of Massachusetts and how much fun we would
have on the drive up in the fall.
Cathy was a contemplative and pious teenager who intermittently
avowed that she wanted to be a nun. My parents insisted she attend a
coed Catholic college for at least two years before binding herself to
a novitiate. I worried whether nuns – or college girls – visited their
little sisters. Held their hands? Shared peanut butter and jelly on
crackers? Or sat on the front steps chanting “he loves me, he loves me
not” and plucking daisy petals, as we did that summer.
“Who loves you? Billy?” I asked her. The boy across the street
once came to our door three times in one afternoon selling Boy Scout
"And who do you like? Paul?” she teased.
“He’s the cutest Beatle, right?”
Cathy did not shrug me off or push me away. She never said,
“She’s so annoying” or “Leave me alone!” the way it was with my cousin
Emma and her older sister Patty. Cathy did not shush at me when she was
on the phone with a girlfriend, or jilt me when she and her friends
walked to Bond’s for ice cream.
So why did she want to abandon me now? My older brother was
already away at New York Military Academy. My father worked six days a
week at his polyester manufacturing company and spent many evenings and
weekends reading The Wall Street Journal or
visiting his parents. I trailed along with my mother to the beauty
shop, the seamstress, upscale department stores, and her bowling
league. But at home, without Cathy, I wondered what I would do, who
would play jacks with me.
“Why do you want to learn about math?” I asked her.
“I think numbers are really neat, and I want to be a teacher,” she said. “What do you want to be?”
“I want to be a writer,” I declared. “I want to write newspaper
stories and books and poems and everything. On a typewriter, like a
One afternoon that August, Cathy returned from her part time
job as a sales clerk at E.J. Korvette carrying a big blue and white
box. “It’s for you, so you can write me lots of letters.” Inside was a
manual Junior Secretary Smith Corona typewriter. She had already taught
me, when I was four, how to read and print words.
I stood beside Cathy when she packed a low green trunk with
white socks, hair rollers, and two new pairs of penny loafers. I idly
fingered the dusting powder and jewelry box and other items remaining
on her side of the bureau in our shared bedroom.
“Are you taking your slippers and robe too?” I asked.
“Of course, silly. What would I wear in the morning and at night?” Cathy ruffled my pixie haircut.
“You’re taking the pictures, too?”
She considered the formal 8 x 10 high school graduation
portrait, and the smaller framed and slightly blurry snapshot beside
it. A statue of Mary stands over the two of us on the church lawn,
Cathy still in her graduation robe. My arms are clutched around her
waist, crushing and pulling up her robe so that an inch of white dress
shows at the hem. She leaves the large one, lays the small one in the
trunk atop a pale blue sweater, her hand emerging with her favorite
bottle of Christian Dior perfume, setting it gently back on the
dresser. “Can you keep this for me till I come home?” she asked. “You
can wear a drop sometimes.” I burrowed my face in her long chestnut
hair, breathed in the Dior, and squeezed my eyes tight.
Every afternoon after getting home from kindergarten that fall,
I typed a letter to my sister on plain white paper. Real writers did
not use the kind of flowery stationery my mother had bought me. I
reported the day’s news – how Mrs. Bartosh’s dog Sir Bum got loose and
pooped in Mr. Hufnagel’s driveway, that we had veal cutlets for dinner
and Mommy didn’t burn them, who was on The Ed Sullivan Show.
They were one or two-page, single-spaced missives, long for a six year
old, but good training I figured for a future world famous writer, and
lengthy enough I thought so that Cathy would not forget me.
About once a week, I got a thick envelope back, neatly printed
on several pages of daffodil stationery, stories about her roommates
Kay (Katherine), Pat (Margaret), and Liz (Elizabeth), and about which
boys were cute (many). The cafeteria food was good and she had two
favorite teachers, including Professor Peterson. “He has hair like John
Lennon and he never combs it and it’s always in his eyes and we wonder
how he can see what he’s writing on the board!”
I missed Cathy in every corner of the house – in the bathroom
when I brushed my teeth and used to perch on the narrow sink ledge so I
could watch her in the mirror doing the same. I missed her in the
kitchen where we filled bowls with milk and dropped in ripped doughy
chunks from yesterday’s loaf of Italian bread. In the backyard where
she always turned on the sprinkler for me on stifling summer days, and
did not care if I splashed her.
Mostly I yearned for my sister in the big double bed we had
shared since I was two. My mother said I could stretch out now, but
that was where Cathy used to lie with me almost every night, singing
songs from movie musicals or Broadway plays. When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things….
I missed all the things we used to talk about. So
what happened on I Love Lucy today? I bet you would love to work in a
chocolate factory! Are horses still your favorite animal? Were there
any good games at Margie’s birthday party? Now my mother brushed
a kiss on my forehead, clicked off the white lamp with pink flowers,
and closed my door, jobs that once belonged to Cathy.
In one letter, Cathy asked about the boys in my class, but I
only pined for My Three Sons, Beaver, and even Mr. Ed, all of whom I
had heaps of time for now. The television was always switched on in our
house, but Cathy had always been there, inviting me to play board games
or go on the swings, suggesting we draw hopscotch grids in the
driveway, or read new books. Now, I spent a lot of time meandering
“Moping again?” my mother asked and offered me some chocolate chip cookies.
In church on Sundays, I silently prayed my sister would decide
she hated college and come home. When she did come home for a weekend
in October, and it was time for bed, Cathy lay down on top of the
covers. I wanted to tell her how Miss Hauxwell was teaching me to write
in script when the other kids were coloring, and that Laurie and Cindy,
the new girls who moved in next door, were nice after all. But before I
said any of it, she kissed my hair, said goodnight, and left.
That Sunday morning, I put a fresh piece of paper in my
typewriter, banged the keys: Reasons Why I Miss You So Much. 1.) You
love me more than anyone. I folded it neatly and slipped it into her
suitcase, near her underpants so she would be sure to find it that very
night back in her dorm room.
The afternoon Cathy was due home for Christmas break, I ran full
speed from the bus stop. I knew that when I opened the front door,
there she would be, arms open. I wanted to know why she was not writing
back every week anymore and when I could stay overnight in her dorm
room, as she had promised.
My mother and her mother, my Noni who was staying with us now
that she had had her right leg amputated, were at the kitchen table
rolling out dough for Italian Knot cookies. “She’s not here,” my mother
said. As I walked slowly up the stairs to my room, I heard her say to
Noni, “Did you see how fast she went back out with her college friends?
I guess we’re too dumb for her now.”
When Cathy arrived, laughing and waving to the friend who
dropped her off, she came up the front steps slowly, her hair
reflecting the winter sun. I wondered why she was not running to find
me. When she finally came through the door I bolted at her, hugging and
hopping on stocking feet, wet from the snow she had tracked in.
“Guess what, I asked Santa for goldfish, a whole tank of them,”
I blurted. “And a Creepy Crawler set to make icky bugs,” I added,
giggling and scrunching up my fingers at her neck.
“You still write to Santa?” she said.
“Sure. So when I see him at Aunt Doris’s house every year, he already knows what I want.”
“That’s Uncle Frankie in a costume.”
“Liar! Cathy’s a liar.” I ran to the kitchen where my mother was stirring tomato sauce. “Make her stop lying.”
Cathy followed, hands on hips. “Mom, you shouldn’t allow her
to believe in man-made icons.” Then she went up to our room and closed
the door. My mother slammed down the wooden spoon and pressed me to
her. She told me my sister was confused by the new things she was
learning at college and that of course it was the real Santa Claus at
Aunt Doris’s house and why didn’t I run along now and color.
I found the glittered paper angel I made at school that week
and brought it up to show my sister, who said, “It’s truly lovely,” and
hung it from the lamp switch. Later, Cathy went out, I got into bed
alone, and tried to sing.
But I gave up and cried, and before I fell asleep I thought I knew just
how my Noni must have felt about her missing right leg.
After that, I wrote only weekly news reports that omitted the
curlicues, hearts, and x’s, and when an occasional letter arrived from
Cathy, I placed it on the dresser next to the Dior bottle until
bedtime. That winter, Noni moved into my brother’s empty bedroom. In
the afternoons she played Go Fish with me, let me watch The Edge of Night with her, and unwittingly taught me swear words in an Italian dialect my father didn’t understand.
One Thursday morning in March, I spotted Cathy’s eyeglasses in
their usual spot on our double dresser. I rushed downstairs, shouting,
“Mom! Is Cathy home?”
The living room coffee table was in the dining room, the piano
bench crammed beneath the baby grand. My sister and her roommates were
on the floor, blankets overlapping, hair askew, their flannel-draped,
flower-flecked arms this way and that. Small suitcases rimmed the
scene, four pairs of loafers were lined up on the Italian tile in the
They had driven four hours the night before in my sister’s
green LeMans, unannounced, with plans to drive the 15 miles into
Manhattan for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I ate a bowl of Cap’n
Crunch at the kitchen table while Cathy told my mother, “Don't worry,
we’re only missing one class. It’s an adventure.”
Before my father left for work, my mother wondered aloud if she
should allow them to go, to drive on their own into New York, these
naïve girls whose parents probably did not even know where they were.
“They’re over 18. Let them do what they want,” he said. Noni stirred
her tea and shrugged. My mother asked Cathy if the girls wanted Pop
Tarts or English muffins.
“Neither, we’re going to eat green bagels in New York,” Cathy
said, dropping a quick kiss on the top of my head. She waved for the
girls to grab their suitcases and follow her upstairs, where she
pointed out the bathroom, and led them into our bedroom, closing the
My mother seemed to have forgotten about my getting ready for
school, so I laid down on the crumpled blankets in the living room and
turned on the TV. As the girls drifted back downstairs, Kay asked what
grade I was in and Pat tried to guess my favorite TV program. Liz said
I was cute and showed me a photo of her little sister back in Rhode
Island. Then Cathy grabbed my foot and shook it. “Get dressed kiddo.
Mom says you can come too.”
Whether it was permission my mother gave or a mandate, I didn't
know. I only knew I was going to New York City, without my parents,
like a real college girl. I scrambled to my room and pulled on green
knee socks, green corduroy pants, and a green and white sweater. In New
York, the five of us gobbled green bagels and hopped up and down on the
cold sidewalk to keep warm. When I needed a bathroom, Cathy found a
coffee shop and ordered a hot chocolate to go so we would be customers.
When I couldn’t see over the crowds, she picked me up, and even talked
to me almost as much as she talked to her girlfriends, who took turns
holding my hand. Before she drove back to college, Cathy wrote on our
kitchen calendar, “Lisa visits Cathy” over a weekend in April.
My mother helped me to pack, unpack, and repack my little plaid
suitcase several times in preparation for my big trip. My mother said
to bring sweaters, but Cathy had promised me a real college sweatshirt.
I thought about bringing the Dior perfume, but it was a glass bottle
and I was worried I would drop it on the floor in her dorm room, which
Cathy said was not even carpeted. I resisted my mother’s advice to
bring something to do if I got bored, to pack a toy or some crayons and
coloring books. I was going to college.
My parents drove me two hours to Hartford, halfway, where my
sister and her roommate Pat met us in the parking lot of the Silver
Dollar restaurant. “Make sure she eats properly and brushes her teeth,”
my mother told Cathy. My father slipped a folded twenty-dollar bill
into my sister’s purse and patted my head. “Knock ‘em dead, kid.”
Cathy set my too-short hair with hot rollers and let me watch
TV in the student lounge with her until ten. I got to sleep on the top
bunk since Kay was home for the weekend. “This is my little sister,”
Cathy said in the cafeteria the next morning, introducing me to the
dorm matron (this was a small Catholic college in 1966), to a few other
girls, and even some boys who, I noticed, noticed her. With her shiny
hair curled into a flip, smooth skin, shapely figure showing through
the cashmere sweater set and high-waisted tapered capris, and her smile
of straight sheet-white teeth, my sister looked just like Laura Petrie
on The Dick Van Dyke Show.
One boy in particular, a big guy with a brush of spidery red
hair, freckles, and an easy smile, moved awfully close to her, and put
his hand lightly on her back. I thought he was going to kiss her, and
wondered if he had already kissed her in secret.
“Lisa, this is Patrick,” Cathy said. I liked him. He told me
jokes I could understand, tickled me but not too much, and watched I Love Lucy
with me that afternoon when Cathy had to study. I saw the campus from
atop his shoulders when the three of us walked to church on Sunday
morning and heard about his four little sisters back home, an hour away.
“Are you going to marry Patrick?” I asked my sister the next morning, expecting her to say, No, silly.
“He already asked me, because he graduates next year. I think
I’m in love with him, and I know he loves me. But I would have to quit
school and I don’t know about that,” she said.
“Will you have a baby? Can I babysit?”
She mussed my hair. “Shush, silly. And don’t tell Mommy or
Dad.” So I shushed, but I did tell my parents, near the end of the
ride back to New Jersey. The next weekend, we drove right back to
Massachusetts and I played checkers with Kay while my parents and Cathy
took a little walk. Later the four of us, and Patrick, went out to
dinner at a restaurant near his house, and then instead of ordering
dessert, we drove to Patrick’s house. I played with his sisters in the
front yard, while the grown-ups had coffee inside and Cathy and Patrick
sat on the porch.
Back at the dorm later, Cathy took me to the vending machines
to get a snack for my ride home. “Why did you tell Mommy and Dad that I
was getting engaged?” she asked.
“I don’t want you to not come home anymore. You love me best.”
“God loves you best,” she said.
“I mean in our house.”
“Mommy loves you best. Anyway, we will always be sisters. Even
when I do get married, even when I have a baby,” Cathy said, and
stroked my hair.
“Even when you get married and have a baby.”
Cathy graduated and moved to Boston where, unbeknownst to our
parents, she was sleeping on a foldaway cot in a dingy cramped
apartment with five other girls, where they ate rice and beans, stayed
out a little too late, and sometimes smoked cigarettes. I knew, because
about every six weeks or so my parents let me take the Eastern shuttle
to Logan where Cathy was always waiting, arms open. Back home, I didn't
A few years later, when I was 12, she got married, but not to
Patrick. (He married Cathy's good friend Brenda, who then had an affair
with her father-in-law.) As we got dressed for her wedding back in our
old shared bedroom, Cathy gently stroked pink lipstick on my quivering
lips, and just as she finished, I started to cry and hugged her tight.
She hugged back, tightly as well, too tight. When I lifted my head, a
sticky pink stain was spreading on the bright white fabric over the
left shoulder of what I understood to be an extravagantly expensive
custom wedding gown. Panicked, shamed, I cried harder.
"Shh. We don't want Mommy to hear," she said, grabbing tissues
and the container of Johnson's Baby Powder, and concocting a tincture
of talc and spit. With the veil pulled just so, my big sister, whom I
loved more than anyone, once again looked as pure and good as I knew
she was. She smiled at me in the way that had always held me safe.
Sixteen years later, on the day of my own wedding, I waited
under a windy hotel portico for the limousine that was late to take me
to church. As I turned my head from side to side, I rubbed my pink lips
against one of the oversized puffy sleeves of my own expensive designer
gown and felt a prick of panic rise. Then I remembered, and motioned
for my sister, and this time we laughed through my panic, and of course
she knew just what to do.
Cathy and I both got to be mothers ourselves, and godmothers to
each other’s first sons. Most of the time we stayed close, as close as
two sisters born more or less a generation apart and living 250 miles
from one another can be. Sometimes, we pulled apart: I'd get tired of
her earnest strive for goodness, and I'm sure she was sometimes
frustrated by my single-minded career ambitions.
We write to each other about once a week now, poorly punctuated
e-mails with six-month-old subject lines. They are often serious
missives: She's worried about her grown daughter, a missionary living
in Peru. I'm anxious about one son's new school, the other's Wii
addiction, and a client insisting I learn HTML. We exchange ideas about
new books we've read and how to best deal with our widowed mother's
health. We never discuss the men in our lives – her ex-husband with
whom she endured a decade of verbal abuse, or her new sometime-fiancé;
or my husband of 20 years whom I deeply love, and often cannot tolerate.
Occasionally there is the oddball inquiry, like the one I sent
this morning: “What did we call that concoction with the Italian bread
“Soggy soup,” she wrote back.
These days, it's Cathy who visits me, often to watch one of my
sons mark some milestone, playing drums in a school concert, receiving
his first Holy Communion. Perhaps like me she notices, though they are
only four years apart instead of 12, my sons' developing relationship,
the way the younger one looks at his big brother, how the older one
absorbs the sticky adulation, shirks it off, and settles a look on his
little brother equal parts acceptance and acquiescence. They are
establishing the dance, patterns that might sustain them, challenge
them, fortify them, for decades, though of course they don't know that
When she's visiting, Cathy and I sometimes sit together on my
patio, three blocks from the street where we grew up. Billy, the boy
who had a crush on her so long ago, is my next-door neighbor, recently
retired from his plumbing business. Cathy's retired from teaching math
now too, and I'm starting a new kind of writing in midlife. So we talk,
as it seems we have been doing all our lives, about what's next, what's
changing, the things we love, hate, and fear about what's ahead. We
give each other advice, and we often think the other is silly or wrong.
But we usually always ask.
For a while, Cathy talked about moving back to New Jersey when
she retired, a state she never really loved. I am the only one from our
family who still lives here and for a time I wondered and worried how
we'd do, living close to one another again. Then she met a new man in
Massachusetts. She might or might not marry him, or teach a college
class, or visit her son in Illinois next month. As for me, a
12-years-younger married woman with two school-age kids, I'm slightly
jealous of what look to me like her wide-open options, until I remember
about her divorce, the retirement savings based on a teacher's pay, and
her tricky lower back. Last time she was here, we talked about all of
it and nothing, and about what will happen to us, flung across states,
time zones, and life stages, when our aged mother is inevitably, one
Following such a visit, after Cathy leaves, I occasionally find
a note tucked into my date book on which she has written, “God loves
you more than anyone.”
The book first appears on page sixty-one of the document that is us. It is in one of my e-mails to him. “Please go read The Archivist,” I write. And though he has never met me, he listens.
He tells me later, on page seventy-five, that he stopped by a
bookstore to read the first few pages and bought it immediately. He
writes, “I started mentally composing what I was going to write to you
and decided in the end that it was best summarized by, ‘Damn.’” This is
how we spent our days, mentally composing e-mails to each other. I am
twenty-seven and living in Boston, where I will graduate law school in
one month. Then I will move to New Jersey to live in my parents’ house
and be cared for as I undergo jaw surgery. He is twenty-seven also and
one month from graduating medical school in St. Louis. When he
finishes, he will move to Boston to begin his residency.
So we are both on the edge of a transition, and this is how
we come to each other: teetering, a little unsure what the future will
hold. I place a note on an online bulletin board seeking a pen pal, a
bit of distraction in the mind of another. He sees it. He writes, “You
will leave Boston before I get there, but I had to write.” I write
back, and then he does, and then I do again. When it is time for me to
leave, I ask my landlord to let me stay another two weeks. I am curious.
The book that makes its appearance so early in our history is a
novel, average-sized in the edition I own, a little over three hundred
pages and bound in burgundy with the author’s name, Martha Cooley,
shrunk small to fit horizontally across its spine. Its front cover
depicts a stack of books, their titles teasingly out of view, only
their volume of pages visible. A stack of pages, printed atop pages.
The cover was what I saw first, one day years ago. It was its profusion
that drew me in, the suggestion of words upon words upon words.
The novel is about an archivist: a collector of something that
does not belong to him, a curator, a professional tender-to. His name
is Matthias, and he looks after the letters exchanged between the poet
T.S. Eliot and his lifelong correspondent Emily Hale. He is the keeper
of their words and through those words, their relationship.
My correspondent and I meet on a blue-black May night under
torrential rain. We have exchanged photographs – mine carefully culled
from those with flattering angles, depictions kind but not untrue – and
I already know from his that he will be large. In pictures, he dwarfs
in stance and stature whoever stands with him, sometimes crowding them
right out of the frame. Still, I am unprepared for the size of the body
before me. Lined up with shoppers and students, all of them crowded
under the shop’s awning with their heads bowed, seeking shelter from
the rain, he looks as though he has wandered into a world cut on the
wrong scale. It is a little like meeting the Hulk. His body seems on
the verge of exploding with excess: his face just holds at bay the
coarse hair that engulfs his head, stubble breaks through his cheeks so
high only his eyes are free of it. His calves bulge and strain against
his pants. In construction, he stretches the limits of nature. His
voice, too, is unexpected, high for such a large man. I don’t like it,
or the way his arms swing in the air as we walk. Strangers duck out of
his way and shoot glances at us, but he doesn’t notice. When we reach
the bar we are seated at an intimate table for two and just by sitting
he reduces it to kindergarten furniture, something ridiculous.
Still, though, there are his words, the words that are all I
have known of him, and as long as I don’t look at him they are all I
have again. We have been waiting for the gift of sound, waiting to be
freed from the tedious peck of our fingers at the keyboard. Now our
words pour out in torrents as free flowing and engulfing as the rain
outside. I sip my wine and force myself, slowly, to look at him. I
remind myself that his is the brain I have been writing to, that his is
the body it comes in.
And so we talk, and drink, and loosen. I slip in remarks, some
sly and sharp, feeling witty and alive and liking it and the wine. He
keeps score on an imaginary chalkboard located on the wall above his
side of the table, tallying our conversational points with a flourish
the shape of a checkmark. If I make him laugh, I get a point. If I tell
him something new or delight him, I get a point. If he makes me laugh,
he gets ten – he is making these rules, after all. I want to be
annoyed, I want to protest that this is unfair and anyway how can the
evening already be a contest, but mostly I want points. So I trot out
the best thing I can think of: a bookstore not two hours from Boston,
tucked deep into the woods in an old mill that lies alongside a river.
“Books and water!” he says. “A million points. We’ll go in the morning. On the drive we can talk about The Archivist.” Just like that, it begins.
We never do talk about the book. Instead he pulls his iPod out
of his backpack and uses a radio transmitter to send Old Crow Medicine
Show over my convertible’s stereo system and out into the open air, a
bunch of twenty-something Nashville boys singing modern day come-ons
set to old-time bluegrass music, rock me mama like a wagon wheel, rock me mama any way you feel, hey mama rock me.
I laugh and tell him that I know the band, that I’ve seen them live
while lying on my back in the grass at folk festivals, and I counter
with Radiohead covering an old Wilco song. But it’s too easy, he’s
heard it, and again that’s it and we’re off, each with four or five
songs on cue before it is our turn. When we get to the Bookmill, we are
the same way, running impatiently through its aisles. From the start,
the five hours we have until closing already feel too few. We pull
books from the shelves and show each other passages, reading aloud the
words that have wormed their way into our hearts. We tell stories of
ourselves as children and the heartbreak and wonder of realizing how
many books there were in the world, how many more than we could ever
read, and that there were people writing even as we were reading, that
we would never catch up, never read it all. Neither of us has ever
gotten over the vastness of the unknown.
Then the pain in my jaw comes, as careless and complete as if
someone had flicked a switch. I can’t hold anything in my head when
it’s like this, all the stories and worlds and even this one just fade
to black. I can’t talk either. I move my hands like a wheel, hoping he
will understand. He’ll have to drive home. “That’s okay,” he says, “but
what about the pain?” I mime downing a shot from a glass and when he
doesn’t understand, I write it on a napkin. I need a drink.
At this he takes his hands, rough from the sun and straw of his
Nebraskan boyhood, and lays them gently on the sides of my face,
cradling me. I brace myself, expecting pain, but do not pull away. His
hands are warm; there is no pain. Then he sweeps his arms wide open, as
though beckoning the world in to come join me. “Tonight,” he says, “you
shall drink in four states.”
He drives, I drink. We find a college bar with dark wood and
the table carvings of lovers and drunkards past before we even leave
Massachusetts. The gold flakes in my shot of Goldschläger are the
brightest things in the bar, and with a single gulp I finish off the
first state. Rhode Island provides a decent martini. The sky has gone
black by the time we reach Vermont, but I notice the words Ricky’s Roadhouse
by the side of the road. Inside the bar is dark and thrillingly true to
type, with men in biker’s chaps and bandanas talking in low voices,
their biceps carrying the possibility, at least, of a brawl. A lone,
wrinkled old woman in an oversized Assumption College sweatshirt plays
pool by herself. I sip a vodka-soda and he whispers threats to break a
pool cue over the woman’s head, to start a fight not with the men but
with her, until I have to tell him to stop making me laugh, it hurts
too much. The only lights we see when we reach New Hampshire are the
neon signs on a place that looks like a diner but has a Mexican name,
and it is there that we stop. The craggy-faced, chain-smoking waitress
is already sweeping up and glares at us, but we are too close to our
goal to stop now. I do a tequila shot and load quarters into the
jukebox. I choose Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” He opts for John
Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane.” We are living our own movie. We dance,
and for a moment I think we might kiss.
As the car speeds along the blackened highway and he charts our
course for home, I put my seat all the way back and stare up at the
night sky. The car dips and careens like our words and my head,
everything earthbound moving so quickly but the sky above so still. At
four o’clock in the morning we stand in front of my apartment, ready to
say goodnight, and he hoists me into the air. I stare down at his face,
drunk and teetering and heady as the stars above. I tell him we can’t
date. I tell him that I’m sorry, but I’m not attracted to him. I tell
him I already know I won’t fall. What do you mean, he says, of course
you won’t fall. I’ve got you. He dips me then, to prove his strength,
the surety of his grasp. No, I say, I mean I won’t fall. For you. As
the words leave my mouth their cold and calm cruelty cuts through even
my drunkenness. I am shocking myself, but he doesn’t even flinch.
In the morning I give up my apartment. Later, he will joke that
I broke up with him and then moved in. Not true, I will say. We never
dated. “Spoken like a lawyer,” he says, and I can’t disagree.
We are not together. We share a bed. We share a house. We share
meals we cook together and eat them on his balcony with shared coffee
in the morning and shared wine at night. When we read, we call each
other over and share passages, thoughts that tumble together until they
are the product of us two and not the product of one mind working
alone, and still I refuse to say that we are together. Nowhere in the
document that is us, all 284 pages he gave me when I finally left, 284
pages in which he’d collected every e-mail we’d ever written and
transcribed every text message we’d ever sent, do I admit to what he
wants, to what another might see. These pages are our story, but also
the battle for it. In the text experiences are reshaped within days,
sometimes within seconds, by our retelling, by the battle of words and
minds and meanings that has been going on since before we met. We are
volatile this way, but also steady, consistent.
On my favorite page of the document, he texts me to say that he
has just left death class, he asks me how my death work is going, and
he reminds me to leave an article on dying from The New York Times
on his pillow so it’s there when he gets home. It is absurd, this
focus, this redundancy under the hopeful June sunlight. Ours is the
summer of death. He has patients dying and at the hospital they are
teaching him how to deliver this news gently, how to be the conduit to
help sever the connections between his patients and their loved ones.
In his world death is something that stalks, a darkness that lingers in
the corners of overly bright white hallways sterilized against it. At
times he despairs that so many patients die that death seems almost
inevitable – and then he recalls, as though coming newly upon the
human, that yes, it is. I am spending my days parsing execution
transcripts, continuing a project I began in law school. In my world
death is the known outcome, not fended off but imposed. We make each
other so high with life and all that mental energy, for both of us, is
going into understanding death. It is our work but also our obsession.
One morning we wake in his – our – his – bed and lay side by
side, listening to the hymn coming from a neighbor’s radio. It is
Sunday. When the song finishes, its exultation ending at last on one
long, drawn-out note, he rolls himself onto an elbow so that he is
above me, and stares down into my face. He is unshaven, and his
eyebrows are thick and dark and unruly, as brash as the rest of him. He
touches my forehead and says, “I want to be there when you die.” I
understand, I do not think his words strange, but I fight against them
with words of my own, words I do not say: No, I want to be there when
he dies. I want to be the one who gets to have the intensity of that
experience. This, too, is a race. We are greedy for experience, always
wanting more, always aware that life is finite and scared we won’t get
it all in. We sleep little and talk much. Sometimes I try to wrap my
arms around him. It is impossible, I know – my arms will not reach,
even as his fingers can encircle my wrist once around and then half
again – but I try anyway. In these moments I bring my lips to his ear.
“Please let’s live forever,” I whisper. I know it isn’t up to him. I
say it anyway.
He doesn’t forget about the book. It is near the top of his list
of the things we have not done, the promises he thinks we have left
unfulfilled. At the very top of the list is my refusal to say that I am
in love with him, my failure to be sufficiently won over by his mind to
overcome my aversion to his body. “You should,” he accuses me often,
“want to kiss my brain.” I want to mine his brain. I want to scramble
through it like a playground of best childhood dreams, I want to pick
up every idea he’s ever had and examine it, turn it over, a shiny
bauble to delight in and turn up to the light. I want to get high off
his brain, but no, I do not want to kiss it and I do not want to kiss
him. Sometimes when we make love I catch him staring at me. His eyes
linger over my skin, trying to find a way in. I look at the wall. For
this I make no apology. He has been warned, I think. I harden.
On one of his rare days off we go for a hike. For four hours we
climb up a mountain, finding foot holes in the ungiving rock. He is
nimble, and quicker than I am. The sun over his head should be casting
shadows but it’s not, it’s just blinding me, and I have to shield my
eyes with my hand and squint just to see his blurry form. At the top we
stop. There’s nothing there, really, and the view isn’t all that
different than it was on the way up. He takes red wine and cheese from
his backpack, the cheese made pungent and runny by the summer sun. I
take a blanket, a corkscrew, and a knife from mine. I have forgotten
the crackers and the sun has turned the wine too hot to drink, but we
spread the runny insides of the cheese on the rind and eat it that way,
licking it off our own fingers and not each other’s. We will talk about
now, we say, but we don’t. Instead we talk about why we both love a
Mason Jennings song and what it would be to live in California and how
I have failed him.
By the end of the summer we talk about this last thing so much that we don’t talk about anything else.
In the novel, the letters between Hale and Elliot are not yet
public. The rules of the bequest dictate that they may not be read yet,
it is not yet their time, and it is Matthias the archivist’s task to
keep the curious at bay. Roberta, a graduate student, wants access to
the letters. She wants to read them, to analyze them. She wants to know
if Hale and Elliot were lovers. In the dried ink scrawled across the
pages, she thinks, she will find the ineffable, what emotion spun the
expanse between the two. Even if nothing is explicitly stated it will
still somehow be there, its meaning emanating from the spaces between
the words for all to see. In the collected document, she thinks, she
will find both what the two were, and what they were not.
That is the thing about archives: in their haste to relay all
that was realized, in their urgent love of the litany of fact, they are
a summing up not only of what we are, but of what we are not. Whatever
riches their depths may hold, whatever truths may be mined by the
curious and the observant, those depths are finite. Eventually limits
are reached. Eventually the archive runs out. And it is there, in the
inevitable final blank, that the archive holds its full meaning. It is
as much a list of what never will be, as what was.
Six months before I met him I’d been dating a woman, an opera
singer whose laugh, deep red lips, and long, grand name were all scaled
for the stage. I loved to twist my tongue around its syllables, their
round mouth-feel as seductive as the waxy twist of her hair around my
fingers. She smelled like apples, words that mean nothing until you
meet a woman who actually does.
We were the exact same height and weight, yet different. Naked
before me, her body seemed an alternate possibility, cells and skin and
bones and muscle that had arranged itself into another configuration,
as though the same material had, by chance, given rise to another
object entirely. I am small on top with hips. Her hips were as slender
as a boy’s, but her breasts were large and round. The scent of skin was
what we were, sex always and everywhere, talking little but kissing
much. She was addictive to kiss, sugar-sweet with her whole warm body
rising into it, nothing held back. She was like this about everything:
all emotion pushed forth, cultivated for display and intended for the
record. Nothing held in reserve.
Once I asked her how she’d known to pursue me when we’d met,
when, shy and uncertain of my sexuality, I’d tried so hard to cover up
my attraction to her. Was it my body language? Had that given me away?
No, she said. It was my words that had betrayed me. “No gender
pronouns,” she said, and smirked. “It was always they this, and they
that. I knew something had to be up.” When she said this I thought of
legal terms: to expunge from the record, to strike. It’s a common
litigator’s trick to say something inadmissible in front of the jury.
The judge can instruct the jury to obey the strict rules of evidence
and not consider what they’ve just heard, but memories aren’t wiped as
easily as chalk from slate, and the instruction only serves to
highlight the offending, revealing comment in the jurors’ minds. The
judge will tell the court reporter to erase it, too, but a mark always
remains on the transcript, the blacking out of words that were once
there that is, in its own way, proof of their existence.
The last time I saw her was a Sunday morning in late August.
The summer heat hadn’t yet begun to yield to autumn’s encroach, and the
defiant sun blazed bright enough to burn. I’d called her, ready to
leave Boston and wanting to say goodbye, and she’d come. We arranged to
meet in the center of Harvard Square, but I saw her from across the
quadrangle’s leafy shield and almost turned away. She’d worn the top
from the first night I went to bed with her, the top I knew she’d made
her best friend go shopping with her to buy just three hours before our
date, after she’d tried on and discarded everything else in her closet.
The top that pushed her breasts almost up to her chin and dipped them
in liquid hi-beam silver, so that on a sunny Sunday morning in August
she looked a little like a gilded statue and a little like a bedraggled
club kid the morning after, one still wearing the crusted hopes and
smeared mascara of the night before. On her feet were sparkly gold
heels she’d bought for another date with me. Her first girl shoes,
she’d called them at the time, and I noticed she still couldn’t walk in
them. Around her waist she’d tied a pink and green striped men’s
necktie I’d used to pull her into me for a kiss, for many kisses, when
it was still properly loped around a crisp shirt collar. Nothing
matched. It looked like it had been pulled from one of those Goodwill bags marked Please use for discards,
an outfit culled from other people’s lives. But it hadn’t been; instead
it was culled from ours. Her body was a catalogue of the physical
experiences of us, our short history compressed and organized and
pressed against flesh, the same flesh I’d pressed and breathed in and
kissed and lingered over. She’d gained weight since the last time I’d
seen her. The cloth memories no longer fit. She smiled at me, nervous.
She tugged at the silver sequined shirt where it had ridden up over the
new, white fat of her belly. I left quickly.
But that, bodily, was hers, and this is his: a stack of white
paper thick as a book, thick as a story, something with a beginning, a
middle, and an end. The day I finally leave he hands it to me. I am
standing in his living room, surrounded by the books that line his
walls, their straight, colorful spines overflowing the floor-to-ceiling
wooden bookcases. Each room in his apartment is clothed in this way,
draped in the stories of others. I have spent the summer surrounded by
these stories, these voices, every one a world unto itself. Standing
here now, with the sun streaming in through the windows, the room seems
bathed in a dusty, achy glow, and I know I will leave. I regret every
book left unread.
Then he walks up behind me, places a hand on my shoulder, and presses a stack of papers into my hand.
I don’t understand what it is at first, only that he holds my
wrist a beat too long and I want to pull away but can’t. But then my
eyes fix on the top page of the stack, and I recognize, slowly, the
words printed on it. They are ours, they are his and mine, our
exchange. I understand what it is, then. I understand what he’s done.
And now I do try to jerk my hand away, but he is so much stronger than
I am and holds me fast. I think, now, of Helen Keller, and of the
stories I read as a child in which her teacher took her hand and formed
words on her palm, concepts on her flesh, forcing her to see the world
by painstakingly pressing it into her skin. He bends my fingers through
the pages, making me feel their heft and volume. Here we are. Here is us.
When he releases me I walk out, leaving the document behind. At
the end of the book Matthias burns the letters. I’ve ruined it for you
now, done the one thing you never should and given away a story’s
ending, but stay with me and listen. Though he is an archivist, though
it is his life’s work, his identity, and his obsession to catalogue and
to remember, he burns the letters before Roberta ever gets to see them.
He destroys the only physical record of their words so that the
question of definition – what the relationship was and what it was not
– can never be answered.
One week after I leave Boston I get a final e-mail. It contains
no text, no warning, just the little paper clip symbol that signifies
an attachment. It might be a picture, it might be a forwarded cartoon,
it might be a mournful Elliot Smith song or a note telling me to go to
hell, but it isn’t any of those things. Instead it is the 284 pages of
us. I sit at my desk and stare at it for a moment, unmoored. It is
there and I know only that I want it not to be. But what can I do? I
consider deleting it, but stop short with my hand still on the mouse. I
could, it would be easy enough, but then what? It would still be here,
in its way. It would still have been here, and there is no undoing of
So I don’t delete it. I don’t even try. Instead I start at the
very beginning, with the first words he ever was to me and the first
words I ever was to him, and I read. I read the story of us. I see the
shapes the words make as they fall across the screen. I see the white
space between them grow larger, longer, as the summer wanes. I am
reading us, then, and I think I see his hands and mine, separate, each
of us typing, each of us spinning our stories out of what was and what
never would be.
At the writers’ retreat, one of my housemates was a woman who
had a dog. The dog wasn’t a seeing-eye animal, but it was more than a
friend. It was a therapy dog, and the woman kept it with her at all
times. “I have this dog for my mental health,” she said, “for my
The dog’s name was Dylan, and so was the woman’s. But Dylan
wasn’t the woman’s real name. Her real name was Shirley. The dog,
however, had no name other than Dylan.
I could tell when Dylan the woman was home because I could hear
Dylan the dog on the stairs. I could hear the scraping of his nails and
the panting of his lungs. The rule of the house was not to disturb the
other guests, but Dylan’s clicking and breathing weren’t so loud. No
one seemed to mind when he came and went.
One of the other residents was a senior woman who had a lot of
poet friends. She kept telling me about Bill Nut. “Bill Nut is a great
poet,” she said.
I went to the public library to look up Bill Nut. I couldn’t
find him anywhere. After some investigation, I realized his last name
was Knott, not Nut. Bill Knott was a respected U.S. poet.
Another time, the senior woman told me she’d been to a serious colony. It wasn’t like the frivolous one we were at now.
“It’s a very mature, civilized place,” she said.
I asked her if she would give me a ride to the serious retreat. I wanted to take a look at it.
“No,” she said. “We can’t just show up at the gate. That wouldn’t be serious enough. They would turn us away.”
Another resident, a man, told me he’d been to the serious
colony. “I’ve been to the most serious colonies in the country,” he
I wanted to ask him what he was doing at the rinky-dink place
we were presently occupying, but I didn’t. I just listened while he
“I met a woman at the serious colony,” he said. “We were living
in a cabin in the woods, and our meals were delivered by a girl who
looked like Little Red Riding Hood. It was a real romance.”
“That’s great,” I said.
“But I’m seeing someone else now,” he added.
“The veterinarian from across the street.”
I remembered seeing the vet on the sidewalk. She was young, and
she had a ponytail. I was impressed that a guy who was just visiting
the town had moved so fast with a permanent resident.
Another houseguest was a young woman who wasn’t old enough to
buy alcohol. One night, I offered to get a bottle for her. Oddly, she
was old enough to drive, so she gave me a ride to the wine store.
We were the only ones in the shop, so we browsed the aisles
with confidence. “What kind do you want?” I asked my new friend.
“Anything strong will do,” she said. She pointed at a label, and I picked up the bottle.
The man at the counter would not sell me the wine. “I heard
you talking,” he said. “Your friend is a minor. It’s illegal to buy
alcohol for her.”
I could have kicked myself then for speaking so openly. I also
could have kicked the counterman for his refusal. But instead of
kicking anyone, I went with my new friend to a different store.
While we were drinking the wine, my young friend showed me her
pierced belly button. She lifted her shirt so I could see a gold ring
hanging from her puckered skin.
“Did it hurt?” I asked.
“At first,” she said. “But now it just tickles.”
She pulled her shirt down so the ring was no longer visible.
I wondered if she had other hidden piercings, other secret
rings or studs. But I felt I couldn’t ask, because I wasn’t a
piercenik. I hadn’t attended any pierce meetings, hadn’t marched in any
pierce parades. I was a piercing virgin.
In the morning, I walked into the kitchen and saw the senior woman cooking at the stove. She was frying bacon.
“I talked to that man,” she told me, “the one with the
veterinarian. He claimed he went to the serious colony, but I didn’t
believe him. So I asked him about the place. He actually knew things
that only a resident would know.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like the person who brings food to your door looks like Little Red Riding Hood.”
“That proves it,” I said.
I didn’t ask her again for a ride to the serious place. I
resigned myself to serving out my time at the goofball residence.
While several of us were sitting at the kitchen table, someone asked, “What does ‘tumbrel’ mean?”
“I don’t know,” someone else said.
“Is it some kind of conveyance?”
“No, it’s a Fugazy,” Dylan the woman said. “A Fugazy limousine.”
During the day, I heard Dylan the dog barking in Dylan the
woman’s room. Dylan the woman must have shut the dog in and left. Dylan
the dog sounded like he was having a nervous breakdown. He kept barking
for what seemed like hours. Shortly after the incident, the colony
officials asked Dylan the woman to take her dog and leave the house.
In the evening, we gathered for a going-away party for the
Dylans. For the occasion, we decided to compose haikus on the spot.
During one round, the challenge was to use the word “rain” in a
seventeen-syllable piece. Dylan the woman wrote a haiku that went:
“Turn on the wipers,”
I said, not realizing
the RAIN was inside.
The poem had the right number of syllables and lines. It was a perfect haiku.
I knocked on the young woman’s door in the evening and asked
her to go to the bar down the street with me. She was in bed when I
knocked and didn’t want to get up, but somehow I convinced her to put
on clothes and walk outside.
When we got to the bar, we asked about the selection of beers. “We have only one kind of beer,” the bartender said.
We each took a bottle of the one brand and worked on it. As we
sat, I thought about bringing up the topic of piercing. I wanted
another look at my companion’s perforated navel. But I had nothing to
show in return. My eyebrows, tongue and septum were intact. My leather
hadn’t been tooled. I couldn’t enter into any pierce negotiations.
On the way back to the house, I saw a meteor. I pointed
overhead, and my companion looked up. We both saw a white streak that
flashed across a segment of sky before it burned out.
In the morning, I met the senior woman in the kitchen. She was
finishing her cooking, and the smell of bacon was in the air.
“I’m going to my room,” she said. “I feel a story coming on. It’s inside me, and it’s going to come out.”
I started to make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich.
“I can’t stop it,” she said. “When the story’s time is here, I have to let it out. I just hope it shows up alive.”
For the rest of the day, I heard her hitting the keys on her
electric typewriter. The sound was so loud it came through her closed
But it was not as loud as Dylan the dog’s barking had been.
Paula left her young neighbor drinking tea while she went to
get the gun. She felt a twinge of guilt over how easy it was. Rosalina
enjoying the fragrant orange-cinnamon tea and chocolate chip scones,
probably thinking how nice Paula had been to make them for her. And she
had been nice, using the delicate Chinese porcelain teacups her mother
had collected and passed down and the silver swan-tipped teaspoons. The
tray of mini-scones, chocolate chip and pecan (her husband’s favorite),
was especially fetching all decoratively piled into a delicate pastry
pyramid. And there the young woman sat, licking the melted chocolate
from her soft fingers and the pink corners of her mouth, picking the
crumbs off her pregnant belly and eating those too, unaware of her need
to savor them. Paula swept the crumbs from her own pregnant belly,
which was no more than a pillow stuffed into her stretch pants, and
excused herself to the “little girl’s room.” She felt badly but
continued down the hallway past the sweet yellow nursery to the bedroom
and her husband’s dresser drawer, the narrow middle one between the two
wider drawers. Unwrapping his service revolver from the black bandana,
she felt the familiar weight and coolness of the metal and carried it
back along the hallway. She walked quietly; it would be better if
Rosalina didn’t hear her and turn. She would shoot anyway but the
girl’s stare might unnerve her and spoil her aim and she felt one shot
would be best. Not for the noise so much, as most of her neighbors
would be at work or have their TV’s blaring, but because it would be
messier and it was going to be messy enough cutting the baby out. The
thought of the surgical instruments readied on the white dresser scarf
steadied her. Wouldn’t Derrick be surprised arriving home to a new baby
and scones? It occurred to her that the aroma of orange and chocolate
and buttery pastry would no longer be floating in the air. It was
really too bad.
I awake to find my visual field transformed into an evanescent
hexagonal mosaic. I don’t remember if this is a memory or if I
constructed this remembrance. I know that every memory is supported by
columns and that the heaviest rest on piers. Some memories are domes,
others are vaults with and without intersecting vaults and, or,
I know that memory is all about transferring thrust into dead
weight so the pillars can support it. And I know that arches, ribs and
bays are good at this. As are buttresses. And that you need – I need
also – to build a scaffold so that each stone in the arch can roll
against the next without falling through.
I know that if you’ve done your job right, you can take away
the scaffold and the keystone will lock the arch in place and the web
of stones will hold up everything as it needs to be. And I also have
observed that for some reason, though it is no more important than any
other stone, that the keystone will be the one we carve an image into.
Perhaps, and this is only a conjecture, it is the memory that leads us both toward and away from remembrance.
You’re fairly young now, still on the before side of most
things. But anything could happen... Perhaps you’re moving through the
tunnels beneath Manhattan, riding the downtown #4 train, as you do each
day, and unbeknownst to you it passes through an odorless, invisible,
lethal chemical cloud planted by a terrorist. You get off the train and
it doesn’t even occur to you that anything foreign is in your body, and
a little later you’re home, and you start to feel sick and think you
must have the flu, you must have picked up some virus. But what you
don’t know is that all across the city others are experiencing the
exact same thing, thinking that they have suddenly come down with the
flu. You feel really sick and plan on going to the drugstore later to
get something, or calling your doctor tomorrow, but for now you lie
down, not realizing that you’ll never get up.
Or perhaps it’s a windy day. You’re taking a walk on your lunch
hour, and are only a block from your office. On the other side of the
street there is construction taking place. Scaffolding obscures the
entire front of a building. You don’t pay too much attention, lost in
thought and planning what you will do when you get back to the office.
You have to remember to call so and so. And just as you’re thinking
about the report that’s due, a wood plank is blown off the scaffolding
by a sudden gust, and takes your head with it. You were only out
enjoying the weather. In nearby offices people discuss the tragedy at
the water cooler: “Never even saw it coming,” they say, shaking their
Or perhaps the economy falters and the company you work for
goes under or lays people off and you are out of a job and you can
never get another one. What would you do? How to live? Passing by the
homeless you wonder if that could ever be you, believing deep down that
of course it couldn’t. But through a series of events and mismanagement
of money, it is you. And there you are, looking for a bite to eat in
the overflowing trash basket on the corner, or collecting empty bottles
in a large plastic sack slung over your shoulder. You find yourself on
the lookout for a stray shopping cart, to help move the growing
paraphernalia of homelessness more easily. Leaning against the side of
a building, all your stuff contained in two bulky bags, you hold out a
cup in supplication for change. The people rush past you on their way
to work, and they don’t even seem to notice you are there.
Or at some point you meet one of those people who leave their
mark on your life forever. But of course you have no idea of the
significance of the moment when you first meet. You are at a party
given by a friend, one that you reluctantly attend because you don’t
care too much for her and her other friends. But somehow you promised
to bring a baked good and you feel guilty for your unkind thoughts
toward your friend so you go as a kind of penance. A kind of making up
for things of which no one else in the world is even vaguely aware. You
are standing there holding your first glass of wine, observing your
friend and again having those unkind thoughts but also feeling deep
down inside that the thoughts are true. And you are standing next to
her and she introduces you to a friend of hers you have never met. A
few days later the two of you run into each other. It happens a couple
more times, and then you go out on a date with this person. And the two
of you become involved and you feel really happy. You think you are in
love, you are walking on air. Things are really great. You decide to
move in together. But almost right away things begin to change. There
seems to be a lot of tension. Your lover has become cold and distant.
But you keep hoping, remembering how happy you used to feel, believing
it may be recaptured. But it isn’t recaptured, and you finally agree to
part. You stay at a friend’s place for the weekend while your former
lover moves out. But when you return not only is this person gone, but
so is some of your stuff. Just out of spite, this person has stolen
your favorite big sweater, your most comfortable chair, your coffee
maker, rolls of tape you stored in a kitchen drawer, and even photo
albums going years back, from before the two of you met. And it’s all
because of that dumb party you didn’t really want to go to in the first
place, but did only to avoid feeling guilty. And you begin to wonder.
Or tonight you get a phone call. Your heart thumps as the phone
rings and wakes you in the middle of the night. The alarm clock reads 2
a.m., but you get up and answer it anyway compelled by the thought,
“What if something happened?” The “something” in your mind involving
injury or death to a family member. But it’s never that. It’s always a
wrong number, or a drunken friend, and you go back to bed annoyed but
relieved. Well, what if this time the phone rings late at night and
it’s not a wrong number or a drunk friend but it’s your sister calling
with the news that your brother has been in a car accident and has
suffered severe brain damage and is in a coma?
But you’re still fairly young. You have not found an alarming
lump, or received a dreaded phone call. You have not been in the wrong
place at the wrong time when a terrorist bomb exploded, or something
accidentally fell from a building. You were not the man pushed in front
of the subway train by a discharged mental patient, or the woman whose
car was hijacked and who now can’t be found, and whose picture appears
on the evening news in a family photo with husband and young child. You
have not yet met someone to whom you give yourself wholeheartedly and
who, bit by bit, dismantles your self-confidence. You still have a job,
still have an apartment. On a couple of occasions you were nearly run
over by traffic because you weren’t paying attention, you were lost in
thought. But it didn’t happen. It only almost happened. For now, you’re
Janet and Louie kiss under the tenement lined street. The
sliver of daylight falls between the cellar doors onto the top steps.
The metal rattles when someone passes on the sidewalk overhead. I kick
a loose clump of cement with the toe of my saddle shoe. My mother keeps
an eye on Janet while her mother is at work. I am sent with Janet
wherever she goes: to the corner grocery, the candy store, not the
cellar. Janet and Louie kiss in hidden places. Other girls sit in their
boyfriends’ arms on the stoop; some make out leaning against parked
cars. Louie presses Janet against a metal pole, his thin black
moustache covering her pink mouth. I wait on the edge of their shadow,
afraid of the dark and worrying what my mother will do when she finds
out. I tell Janet we have to go. Her voice sticks in her love-soaked
throat. Janet and Louie kiss. Strange odors seep through the timber
where a bodega has taken Chigimara’s spot. Green bananas and rice sit
in the windows that use to be stacked with macaroni in blue boxes and
cheeses hanging from string.
Janet and Louie do not speak in rhyme. She does not whisper
poems to him from her fire escape. Janet and Louie kiss in the dark
with cloth tongues, scuffling feet, shushing and the scurry of rodent
claws. Sister Mary Francis has told my third grade class that kissing
is a sin. She said God blocks the light from reaching the fiery pit of
hell where sinners are damned for eternity. I can imagine heaven and
hell but not eternity. Janet and Louie kiss goodbye. Janet grabs my
hand, holds on tight as we stumble up the wooden stairs and go out
through the door in the back of the hall. After she brushes cellar dirt
from my navy blue uniform, she tucks her blouse into her skirt. Her
hands shake and her voice cracks. I cross my heart and swear not to
tell. Janet fears what will happen if I do.
Our mothers are neighbors. Janet’s mother comes home to her
only child smelling of cigarette smoke and liquor. My mother does not
drink, but she lives with her boyfriend. My two brothers and I cross
Second Avenue to see our father. He works two jobs to pay for child
support. My mother’s apartment is on the top floor of a six-story walk
up. She moved up a flight after she told my father to leave. Janet
lives with her mother in the apartment at the far end of the hall. The
steps next to our apartment lead to the roof. The metal door, always
open a crack, is on the last landing that smells ashy, is out of
bounds, and forgotten. The roofing glistens like black sand in the hot
sun that melts the crooked tarred seams. My mother and I found a bottle
cap and needle on the landing. She told me that if I ever take dope she
would beat the hell out of me.
Our apartment is in an alcove between two other doors. Thick
coats of paint smooth the beveled edges on the three panels. The
banister’s dull sheen is tacky where dripped paint has hardened into
beads. The hallway walls are queasy green. My stomach hurts on school
days. The nuns damn me for my sins. They tell me the devil can disguise
himself as Jesus. If I trust him he will lead me into temptation. Louie
has olive skin, a thin moustache and he looks nothing like the Jesus or
the devil, yet he tempted Janet into sin. My mother pumps me for
information on how this happened.
Where did you see Janet and Louis kiss?
On a park bench on the East River Drive under a scrawny tree.
In the dark cellar under Louie’s building.
What did you see?
I saw them kiss.
Are you telling the truth?
What happens to girls that lie?
They live in eternal damnation.
I cannot explain to her how kissing put a baby in Janet’s
belly. My mother’s shouting and my crying bounce off the hallway tiles,
out the window, and down the six flights of stairs. The yelling begins
again when Janet’s mother gets home. My mother hits me, not for the
first time—it is her only defense. She tells me never to bring her home
a surprise package. I remember how scared she got when our cat brought
home a mouse and dropped it at her feet. The smell of damp concrete is
still in my nostrils the next Saturday when I go to confession. Father
Julian tells me to say ten Hail Marys and five Our Fathers for lying to
my mother while I kept Janet’s secret. My penance wipes away my venial
sins. Janet’s surprise package will need baptism to wash away its
Kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss like the white stripe of paper curling
from a chocolate Hershey. Janet and Louie kissed; a baby is on the way.
Janet’s white fifty/fifty poly cotton blouse pulls and gapes at the
buttons. Afternoons spent in the dank cellar have fattened her thin
body. Janet’s mother wipes the floor with her trying to get rid of the
baby growing inside her bellyful of kisses. Janet wants to jump off a
bridge even though she knows there are no bridges on 119th Street. The
East River lumbers by the metal railing embedded in concrete. Dry grass
breaks through the cracks in the ground around green splintered park
benches where Janet and Louie kissed under the scrawny tree. She does
not climb over the railing to jump into the green currents. She does
not walk up the flight of stairs past the syringe and cap to jump off
the ledge around the tar beach. She does not go under a butcher’s
knife. Janet waits. She waits at the top of the staircase for her
mother to reach the last landing. Her mother calls Louie a spic and
curses him for knocking up her daughter. Janet watches her mother rest
her heavy body against the wood frame of the large window. There is one
window on each landing overlooking the courtyard. The dishcloths Janet
put out to dry after another meal alone hang limp from splintering
clothespins. Janet leans her fetus half way out the window to watch the
clothespin she dropped land on shredded brown grocery bags. Her mother
stumbles up the five remaining marble steps with worn edges translucent
as the plastic mother of pearl pin on her housedress. Greasy clumps of
black hair stick to her swollen face. Janet waits a long time for her
mother to reach the top step.
Janet serves her mother a pork chop with cold spaghetti. She
braces for the slaps that comes when inside her mother’s reach. I close
my eyes until the dull crack fades. I hear her yelp as if the blow was
to her stomach. She drops the plate and grabs her belly. Shards, sauce,
chop, tangled in spaghetti streamers crash on the floor. Her mother’s
hands on top of her own move around Janet’s round belly as if spelling
out the answer. I run across the hall screaming to my mother for the
help I think Janet needs. She is half way down the long foyer in our
apartment when I burst through the door. She turns me around pushing me
ahead of her. I hear her count off the months since Janet’s belly
bloomed in last May’s sunshine. All through June, July, and August I
overheard my mother, her friends, Janet, and her mother talk about what
to do. September comes in through the open window on the landing it
still feels like summer even though school has begun. My mother tells
me the baby isn’t due for another two months. Janet says she felt a
kick. This time her mother does not say it’s gas. This time she agrees
Janet must marry Louie. There is nothing else to do.
When the beeps start, Maura jerks upright. She wasn’t actually
asleep, though she must have been drifting, because at first she
thought it was the smoke alarm, she was back in the fire, with Mamie
Slattery screaming that Jamal was somewhere in the house, and Katie and
the firemen pulling her back from the door, yelling at her not to be
The whole point of the watch was so she wouldn’t have to worry
about waking up on time, Maura knows this, but instead she worried all
night that she hadn’t set it right or that she wouldn’t hear it going
off through the pillow. She switches it off now, quickly, the way she
practiced in the bathroom last night.
It’s too late. Katie is staring at her from the other bed.
“Where’d you get that from?”
“Get what? Go back to sleep.”
“You know what. That watch.”
“Somebody gave it to me.”
“Huh. You took it.”
Maura curls her hand into a claw and threatens to rake it down
Katie’s cheek. The room is just light enough for Katie to see and
flinch away. Maura fishes her backpack from under the bed and heads for
“Might as well stay here, I’m up now,” Katie says.
Maura considers this. Her sister is just a dumb ten-year-old
who can’t understand anything that takes complicated thinking or
imagination, so she acts like Maura is the stupid one. Maura should be
above being bothered by it. But when Katie horns her way into one of
Maura’s secrets, she invades Maura’s brain, too, so that Maura ends up
thinking like Katie does. Things that Maura knows are true and
important start to seem ridiculous. She can’t afford that.
On the other hand, if she stays in the bathroom longer than it
takes to pee, one of the real kids might wake up and need to go.
She pulls the blanket off the bed and covers the crack under
the door with it, then turns on the light. “One word and you’re dead,”
she says to Katie. Katie makes a zipping sign over her lips.
Maura opens the backpack and pulls out a copy of the Village
Voice. Katie’s eyes widen. This is a Christian household, and the
children are not allowed to bring filth in. “You promised,” she reminds
Katie. She flips through the pictures of naked people, the headlines
that make no sense, until she comes to a section labeled Women Seeking
Women. This must be it. I aim to please, she reads. Discreet
encounters. There is no heading for Women Seeking Girls.
“It’s here,” Katie says, pointing at the back page. Maura
turns the paper over. Katie scrambles over and huddles next to her.
Maura is careful not to skip ahead. She reads each ad twice,
combing it for possible code words, before letting herself look at the
next one. She loses her breath when she comes to one that reads, Am I
Your Mother? It takes a minute before she can make her eyes focus. But
it turns out to be about mothers who gave their children up for
adoption, who don’t know who their kids are. “This isn’t her,” she
tells Katie. “Don’t get excited.”
“I’m not excited,” Katie says. “She’s not writing to us.”
There she goes, getting into Maura’s brain. Maura wants to
pinch Katie’s arm to keep her out, but Katie would yell and wake
everybody up. She repeats Trident, trident, trident in her mind to
shut Katie out, and it works, for now, at least. If she slips up and
lets Katie take over, they could lose their only chance.
The code word is Trident because this is how Maura always
knows their mother is following them, looking out for them. Sometimes
Maura sees her, standing in the shadows outside the school, even here
at Mrs. Cranston’s house sometimes, peeking through the windows. She
disappears when Maura comes too close. Maura understands that. Ed would
kill her if he knew she was hanging around here, and now the child
people are mad at her, too. So, she has to send messages in code, and
it’s up to Maura to figure them out. She used to make mistakes, but she
has learned to tell a real sign by the smell of Trident Sugarless Gum,
her mother’s favorite.
Once she left a newspaper on Maura’s seat on the bus. Maura
always takes the 7:50 B41 to school, and always sits in the same seat;
obviously, she watches them and knows this. The paper was folded to an
article about a housing project in the Bronx, to let Maura know where
they are. The next morning, Maura told Mrs. Cranston she was trying out
for chorus after school, and took the subway to the Grand Concourse,
but she couldn’t find either Skelly or Kennedy on the buzzer system,
which is Ed’s doing. Now, whenever Maura hears the word “Bronx” she
pays attention. She even watches the Yankee games with Steven and Matt
Cranston, and she has to admit they’re okay about explaining what’s
going on. They like to flip the channel at the most important part,
though, when the teams have a time out and the camera moves around the
audience. It’s their TV, so Maura can’t ask them to stop without
Another time, Maura smelled the Trident and found a pearl on
her desk at school, with two little holes in it, meaning that she and
Katie are precious to her mother. Maura already knew that, but it was
nice of her to remind them. She knew she was supposed to tell Katie,
because of the two holes, so she did, but she had to punch Katie in the
stomach for saying it dropped off somebody’s broken necklace, and it
was a fake anyway, look how the shiny stuff peels right off. Since then
she keeps the messages to herself, and she hopes her mother
understands. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what she wants Maura to do.
“Maybe we should try this St. Jude thing,” Katie says now. “Hopeless causes.”
Maura does pinch Katie then, and of course Katie yells and
Mrs. Cranston comes stomping down the hall. Katie is quick, Maura has
to give her that. The blanket is off the crack and on Maura’s bed, and
Katie is back in her own bed, by the time the steps reach the door.
Meanwhile, Maura tries to cram the newspaper into her backpack, but
it’s all spread out and it won’t fit. She kicks it under the bed. “The
watch,” Katie hisses. Maura can’t get the strap undone fast enough, so
she throws herself onto the bed with her right hand under the pillow.
Katie yells again. “Get away from me, Ed!” She squints her
eyes shut as Mrs. Cranston comes in. “Help!” Maura has to pretend she’s
crying, she’s laughing so hard inside.
“Oh, honey,” Mrs. Cranston says. “Oh, you poor thing.”
Katie half-opens her eyes. “Was it a dream, Mama Julie?” That
is what Mrs. Cranston wants the children to call her, except for Matt
and Steven, who get to call her plain Mama. She hates that Maura calls
her Mrs. Cranston, but Maura won’t say the other word, and children are
not allowed to call adults by their first names in this house.
“It was just a nightmare,” Mrs. Cranston says. “It’s all over
now. Go splash some cold water on your face.” Katie gets up and pads
“You okay?” Ms. Cranston says to Maura, not as nicely.
“I was just scared,” Maura says. “I’m okay now.”
Steven sticks his head in. “What’s going on?” Maura doesn’t
want a boy in her room but she knows better than to say anything.
“Might as well start breakfast,” Mrs. Cranston says. “No point
in going back to bed now.” She thumps back out, leaving the door wide
huddling under the blanket in her thin pajamas. Steven is still
standing there, looking, hoping she’ll move and he’ll see something.
Katie comes back in and shuts the door. She sticks her tongue
out at Steven through the closed door. “Pervert,” she says, not loudly
enough for him to hear.
Maura jumps out of bed. She dresses quickly in case someone
decides to open their bedroom door again. She sticks the watch into the
pocket of her jeans. She tries rolling the Village Voice, but it still
won’t fit in with all the books and her notebook.
The paper fit in perfectly when she found it, right after
that Oprah show about the couple who broke up over something stupid and
the man put an ad in the Village Voice every week for six years before
she finally saw it. And then the watch, sitting right on the sink in
the girls’ bathroom just when she was wondering how to get up early
enough to look through the paper. But now she doesn’t know what she’s
supposed to do. This is going to cost her at least ten strands of hair,
“Just don’t burn it,” Katie says.
“Shut up.” Maura knows better than to start a fire here. Any
more trouble and it’s a group home for her, without Katie. And who
knows if their mother could trace her to a new home? It’s a miracle she
found them here.
Her mother knew her way to the Slatterys’, of course; she even
came to see them there, right out in the open, before Ed got complete
control of her. But after she disappeared and the Slatterys started
meeting with the child people about adoption, Maura had to take action.
She didn’t mean for things to get out of control. She never
imagined that Jamal would hide out in the broom closet, scared of the
firemen in their big boots and face masks. She tried to run back in for
him, but she wasn’t strong enough to fight off the firemen. She is
really sorry about Jamal’s arm, she pulled out her whole left eyebrow
over it, but she had no choice.
The Cranstons are a better family. They’re not all lovey-dovey
like the Slatterys; it’s plain they’re in it for the money; but that’s
a good thing. They’re not making any moves to keep Maura and Katie
permanently, to make them change their names so they won’t belong to
their mother anymore.
Mrs. Cranston doesn’t like Maura much, that’s clear, and not
just because of the name thing. She doesn’t hide that she thinks Maura
is sneaky and dangerous, even though Katie is the real sneak, acting
all lovey-dovey, like she doesn’t already have a mother, just to get
what she wants.
Mrs. Cranston hasn’t hit her yet, though. And Maura doesn’t
blame her for favoring her own kids, Maura’s mother would do the same.
Best of all, there’s no man to come poking around them. Maura has no
idea where Mr. Cranston went, if there ever was one, but the family
doesn’t seem to miss him, except for the money, and Maura and Katie are
helping with that. The boys look at her too much, Steven especially,
but it’s just looking.
When Maura first told her mother what Ed was up to and her
mother slapped her and called her a liar, Maura didn’t get it. She
thought her mother didn’t understand what she was saying. So she tried
again: He comes in after you’re asleep and touches me.
But then, later, Maura did get it. Ed had taken over that part
of her mother’s brain, the way Katie takes over Maura’s brain when
Maura isn’t careful. She and her mother are the same, except that her
mother didn’t realize what was happening, so she couldn’t protect
herself, and Ed got all the way in.
After Ed took over, her mother was still her mother, but
anything that had to do with Ed was under Ed’s control, and there was
nothing Maura could do about it. So she just tried to turn her mind off
while it was happening, until he went to Katie’s bed. When Maura saw
him, she jumped on him and clawed his neck. The next morning Katie had
bad bruises on her face and arms. Other places, too, but the teacher
asked about the ones she could see, and then Maura and Katie were both
called into the guidance counselor’s office, and Maura told. That’s
when the child people got involved, and Maura and Katie went to live
with the Slatterys.
Their mother came to see them at first, but she wouldn’t talk
to Maura, only to Katie. Katie cried and wanted to come home. So did
Maura, but her mother didn’t pay attention to that. The child people
said they could only come home if Ed was out of the picture and they
all went for counseling. Mrs. Slattery took Katie and Maura for
counseling, but their mother never showed. Maura can’t blame her for
that; what a waste of time. The counselor was a pervert who wanted the
girls to tell him everything Ed did, and even to draw pictures. But
when her mother didn’t show up, the child people got mad at her, and
then she didn’t come to the Slatterys’ anymore, either. That put the
idea into the Slatterys’ heads that the girls were up for grabs, which
led to all the trouble.
After they have finished their Kix, and Mrs. Cranston has
swatted Steven for slurping milk from his bowl, she says, “Actually,
it’s a good thing we’re up early. There’s something I need to talk to
you girls about.” Matt and Steven lean in, hoping the girls are in
trouble, but Mrs. Cranston says, “You boys go to your room now. And
shut the door.”
To the girls she says, “Ms. Ali from the agency called last night. She had some news.”
Here it comes, Maura thinks. She can feel her face getting
hot. Maura didn’t mess up after all. All of it—the Oprah show, the
paper, the watch—was part of the plan to get them up early, to hear the
news in time to say good-bye and pack before she gets here. Maura
doesn’t want to waste a minute.
“The Slatterys are willing to give you another chance,” Ms. Cranston is saying. “It’s generous of them, considering.”
Maura forces herself to think. Ed arranged this. She has to be
careful. “That’s nice of them,” she says. It’s hard to make her lips
move. “We want to stay here with you, though.”
“Why, that’s sweet,” Ms. Cranston says, “but I can’t adopt you.”
“We don’t want to be adopted,” Maura says. “We just want to be
with you.” Ms. Cranston looks at her, wondering what Maura is up to.
She takes a breath. “Mama Julie,” she says, her fingers crossed under
“I had no idea,” Ms. Cranston says. “That’s so sweet. I don’t know what to say.”
“I’m going,” Katie says.
Maura jumps to her feet.
“She’s not looking for us,” Katie says. “She never was.”
Trident, Maura screams inside her head.
“She thinks our mother’s coming back,” Katie says.
“Oh, honey,” Ms. Cranston says. “Your mother gave up her rights long ago. I thought you knew that.”
Of course Maura knew. “Ed made her.”
“She doesn’t want us,” Katie says.
Maura grabs Katie’s hair. She cracks Katie in the face with all her force.
Mrs. Cranston stands up now, her own hand raised. Katie breaks
away and curls into a ball under the kitchen table. “This is a
Christian household,” Ms. Cranston says. She says other things, too,
but Maura doesn’t hear them; doesn’t feel the blows. She stares out the
kitchen window, scouring the empty street for a sign.
choice is easy, once you have some facts:
Ballerinas are known to chain smoke skinny cigarettes,
and dentists have a high rate of suicide.
Not all veterinarians love animals—some just hate people,
some flunked out of med school, and some just fell in
to their vocation, as happens with a lot of jobs.
Tourism is the world’s largest legitimate employer;
if your thrills run a different direction,
try drugs or pornography. You can train for six hours
to dust dinosaur bones in a museum,
or have no training to work in day care. Stewardess is the only
English word to be typed entirely by the left hand,
but they don’t exist in that form anymore.
Boxers can earn millions per fight, but fight
is the operative word there, not millions.
Poets can earn tens per year, and can
is the operative word there. Someone will always be needed
to clean up after homicides, hospital stays, prison riots,
animal rampages, and chemical spills, and death,
in general, will always pay the bills. Hollywood doesn’t
make big budget movies about high school teachers,
street cleaners, research librarians, or traffic cops,
unless they are helping a spy, or being killed
in a brutal way, or unknowingly transporting
something important for national security.
The woman sitting in the butterfly exhibit at the zoo
making sure none of her charges is harmed or escapes,
is secretly dreaming of a life in politics.
Winston Churchill had a famous life in politics,
and was born in a bathroom during a dance
where the bandleader could have been dreaming
of a job watching butterflies at the zoo.
If one accepts the premise that lives are, among other things,
co-constructed narratives—stories we tell ourselves, with family and
friends, about who we are, how we came to be, why we are troubled,
where we fail—then it is not difficult to also accept the premise that
both articulating and revising these narratives can lead to productive
change. - Lauren Slater, Blue Beyond Blue, page 4
Two grown men, father and son. The father remembers the couch in the
living room where the son spent hours watching TV while growing up. The
son does not remember the couch. He resents the absence of a couch in
his childhood. But, the father insists, there was a couch. Do you
remember the couch, the father asks her. Yes, she remembers the couch.
She remembers discarding the couch when it was beyond repair and hope,
a tattered thing.
She remembers the son on the couch, hour after hour,
surrounded by discarded and half-eaten snacks and empty soda cans. I
even have a snapshot of him on the couch the father says. How can he
deny a fact the father asks her. The son insists there was no couch.
There never was a couch he maintains and nobody can tell him there was
a couch. It is a hot subject. An old cold couch.
This is what she thinks: there was a couch, and there wasn’t. There was
a piece of furniture provided for the son by the father’s earnings,
hard to come by monies sweated out from companies run by hard men, and
there was not a couch where a family gathered with popcorn, where they
all laughed together arms around each other at old movies and current
sitcoms. There was no Leave It to Beaver couch. There was no emotional
set of cushions. The father sees the couch in his memory but the son
feels no softness in his. Did the mother spend drunken nights on the
couch? Then there was no couch perhaps. Especially if the son will not share his narrative. Will allow no editors.
As for her, she remembers how her parents could fit in one easy chair
to watch TV, and often did. And she remembers her father’s fury when
her mother fell asleep on the couch watching TV. Her parents’
codependency, the couch of her childhood. But for his son, there was no
couch. A couch that is physically there may not be emotionally present.
And as for the rage and disappointment and guilt: a therapist’s couch?
A new couch? The couch of the future? Two grown men. Maybe a couch?
Because of the great respect I
have for Paul Violi’s work I waited
for the perfect moment to read Overnight
and when it came and as I read
I thought I’ve read these poems
before and then I thought how often I’ve
heard Paul read them aloud and
maybe that was it but no I knew
I’d read them before and as I went
through the whole book again with
great pleasure I thought maybe
I’d found the manuscript on the couch
where Bob piles reading materials and his
clothes or saw the bound galleys in the boxes
in the hallway on the parlor floor so I enjoyed
reading it again anyway
and just then an avalanche of 5,000
back issues of The Nation buried me
alive and as I crawled my way out
a box of exchange copies knocked me
unconscious so that’s when we
moved to the campus of Oral Roberts
University or Bangladesh where they
don’t get The London Review of Books.
TO OVIDIU, WHOSE VOICE I STILL DON’T REMEMBER
by Mihaela Moscaliuc
Once I broke a window and for three months
had to share the first-row desk with you, Ovidiu,
Gypsy boy whose companionship
teachers used as punishment.
Twenty years later, I can say this:
I had forgotten you and your eight years
less than a rod away from the teacher’s desk,
till that 3:00 a.m. when the crowning baby
was no baby at all but the sharp push
of a new terror: when did I blot out
the memory of being cruel,
for I must have…
Did I make sure my leg never brushed against
yours, did I dodge your look by convincing
myself the ink stains on my palm required
full attention, did I believe the endless
accusations, wonder, at least once, about your raw
bruises, about your mother, a nurse, admonished
publicly at the bimonthly PTA meetings?
I’d have had to care enough to make even indifference
matter, make it send forth its ghost. But there is
no ghost twenty years later, and I may say this:
we all suffered. At ten we each had at least one
alcoholic parent (though yours was the only one mentioned),
at twelve we used few words to seal friendships
for we feared each other—anyone could be the informer
—even this baby waiting his turn in the birth canal.
FIRE ESCAPE After Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Hidden Door”
by Oscar Berneo
Fire escape quick exit
Which is open scar
Fire escape quick exit
Which is only choice
Fire escape quick exit
From overcrowded existence
Fire escape vantage point
Retreat, relief, and outlet
Fire escape without stairs
Whose life is made of prayers
To the heavens for flight
This life, this prayer, this flight!
Fire escape with bones for ladders
With teeth for rungs
With ribs for railings
Fire escape breaking news
White flag in the wind
Signaling a new day
Fire escape ghetto garden
What roots in your snowy stairwell?
Fire escape poet’s notebook
Steel words on the terrace
Fire escape hollow metaphor
Break from this cramped studio
Thin eggshell wall life
Fire escape line of roaches
Marching to nest
Fire escape tecato fiend
Out on the ledge
Looking for some more
Fire escape criminal highway
Dirty deeds and clean getaway
Fire escape greedy fingers
Caught in your catwalk
Fire escape falling fireworks
Ignite, pop, startle, and whistle
On your holiday balcony
Fire escape of pigeon wings
Pinioned to their heavy bodies
Grounded to the sidewalk
Fire escape loose branch
And heavy shadow
Fire escape right cinder
Pure menthol and slow pull
Fire escape Sunday promise
Fire escape Sunday sermon
Fire escape Sunday paper
Fire escape of dog eats dog
Dogged out dog
Gone damn dog
And fire escape for mah dawgs
Jaws open and leash tight
Fire escape reality check
Cashed and spent
Fire escape schoolyard
Found in gravity
Fire escape inner city
Past and piss
In the City
Fire escape gangster lean
With the clothesline
Fire escape rising South
Slammed and shut
Forming the divide
Fire escape ghost slide
Torn limbs left behind
Fire escape half cross
Offering exit in every language
Offering an extra minute
Fire escape dirty laundry
Fire escape shared knowledge
Fire escape eternal watchtower
Fire escape common axis
Fire escape constant rumor
Tight to the walls
Fire escape dance hall
Narrow cage and crashing hips
Fire escape slatted beach
Streetlamp tan and boulevard breeze
Fire escape aerial cozy
Iron porch chill spot
Fire escape upper belvedere
Pass the quarter juice
And blue icees
Fire escape winter refrigerator
Milk and eggs keep fresh
On your frozen rails
Fire escape summer cradle
Moms and kids sleep sound
On your cool palms
Fire escape muggy mouth
The humid breath of August
On your lips
Fire escape Jacob’s ladder rising
We count our blessing
As we climb your steps
Fire escape Saint Florian’s blessing
Protect us with your holy 40 oz.
Fire escape Changó y Oshún
Steaming up the rusted slope
Fire escape bleeding hung Christ
Eyes bound to the heaven of
Cracked lead paint ceilings
Fire escape bronze gazebo
With hazed out jibaros
Hunched over the lighter
Coughing and laughing
Singing Benny Moré boleros
To the corner bagladies
Fire escape looking fly
Fifty stories high
With a gunmetal overcoat
And an overcast crimson cap
Fire escape grey rain
Air conditioner sweat
Drips on the sidewalk
Fire escape open conceit
Stitching skyscraper and treetop
Fire escape split City
which is itself the City
which is itself the stories
And fire escape made of broken fingernails
What remains of the City
Fire escape fitting farewell
Smoke thick in my throat
Flames grab at my hands
Heat sticks on my spine
Fire escape quick exit
Which is final choice
Fire escape this weight
For you to hold
An open door
I walk through
Into the frame
By the time
The chalk line
Has been drawn And erased
From the glare of July sun
into the shady delicatessen
clutching my mother’s rolled-up
five dollar bill which
I’d been pretending to smoke –
and suddenly Mr. Muller’s
big red face
leaning into mine
and demanding of my
Hot enough for you!
which 1) scared the hell
out of me and 2) let me know
it was my fault, all of it
Sahan’s electric orange
eyebrows in the motherland
words on the flat-screen flash:
for women of the Hollywood, Sahan’s motherland…
There used to be a way to make wallpaper
by grinding up the leftover bones and shells and plates,
adding water and making it into a chunky paste, then
brushing it on the walls to keep the heat in.
That’s how important heat was.
I saw his corner cubicle once.
Once he took acid as soon as he got to work
and spent the whole day staring into flat-screen flash
of the concrete corner, staining it with his disgusting angry hallucinations.
I want to crush up important bones
and paint his walls over and over again. Until the pictures
he sees when he trips on those walls are sweet
like robins holding pale worms in their beaks hopping through the springtime grass
or perfect eyebrows, freshly waxed.