This was the life I was going to be living, everybody separated from everybody else, hanging on for a moment, only to be washed away.
To know I was beautiful in his eyes made me beautiful.
I was embarrassed for wanting it, it was base, what did pretty matter? I had thought that so many times with my mother. A person didn’t need to be beautiful, they just needed to be loved. But I couldn’t help wanting it. If that was the way I could be loved, to be beautiful, I’d take it.
What can I say about life? Do I praise it for letting you live or damn it for allowing the rest?
Loneliness is the human condition. Cultivate it. The way it tunnels into you allows your soul room to grow. Never expect to outgrow loneliness. Never hope to find people who will understand you, someone to fill that space. An intelligent, sensitive person is the exception, the very great exception. If you expect to find people who will understand you, you will grow murderous with disappointment. The best you’ll ever do is to understand yourself, know what it is that you want, and not let the cattle stand in your way.
But I would rather live out on the desert alone, like an old prospector. All I needed was a small water source. What was the point in such loneliness among people. At least if you were by yourself, you had a good reason to be lonely.
I cut a shred from my heart and dangled it on a homemade hook before her.
It won’t always be so hard… beautiful girls have certain advantages.
I realised as I walked through the neighbourhood how each house could contain a completely different reality. In a single block, there could be fifty separate worlds. Nobody ever really knew what was going on just next door.
They waited for me to introduce myself, but I didn’t. I could give it to them or not. I liked that. …I shook my head, aware of how he was looking at me, and for once I wasn’t embarrassed. He was interested. It was my currency, my barter goods. I exhaled away from Caitlin, in a way that showed my neck, drawing his eyes where I wanted.
He could see flames in my hair, he knew my lips would scorch him. I liked the feeling. I felt like my mother in oleander time. Lovers who kill each other now will blame it on the wind.
You’ll attach yourself to anyone who shows you the least bit of attention.
No one to see me, no one to notice. …I should have known how it would end. I should know enough by now not to expect anything from life, instead of giving in to Stockholm syndrome.
In a perverse way, I was glad for the stitches, glad it would show, that there would be scars. What was the point in just being hurt on the inside? I thought of the girl with the scar tattoos at the Crenshaw group home. She was right, it should bloody well show.
Beauty was deceptive. I would rather wear my pain, my ugliness. …I was torn and stitched, I was a strip mine, and they would just have to look. I hoped I made them sick. I hoped they saw me in their dreams.
How easy I was. Like a limpet I attached to anything, anyone who showed me the least attention. I promised myself that when she returned, I would stay away, I would learn to be alone, it was better than the disappointment when you found it out anyway. Loneliness was the human condition, I had to get used to it.
Boys were easy, she was right about that. I knew what they wanted, could give it to them or not. What did she need me for, nothing.
I held my hand up and there was satisfaction at seeing my blood, the way there was when I saw the red gouges on my face that people stared at and turned away. They were thinking I was beautiful, but they were wrong, now they could see how ugly and mutilated I was.
I was tired of sucking the sails. Tired of being alone, of walking and eating and thinking for myself. I wasn’t going to make it after all.
I wanted to think of something clever, something cool and sarcastic. I wanted to hurt her. She’d let me down, she’d abandoned me. She didn’t think twice.
I could feel Olivia staring at my face, the scars on my arms where my sleeves crept up. I wasn’t beautiful anymore. Now I looked like what I was, a raw wound. She wouldn’t want me around.
I didn’t know what I wanted. I wanted her to hold me, feel sorry for me. I wanted to hit her. I wanted her not to know how much I needed her, I wanted her to promise never to go away again.
Luckily the scars were fading, Claire Richards wouldn’t have to see the glaring red weals, she seemed the sensitive type. …We sat over our living room picnics and I told her stories about my mother, about the homes, avoiding anything too ugly, too extreme. I knew how to do this. I told her about my mother, but only the good things. I wasn’t a complainer, I wouldn’t end up saying bad things about you, Claire Richards. She showed me her photo albums and scrapbooks. I didn’t recognise her in the pictures. She was very shy, I could hardly imagine her in front of an audience, but I saw from her albums that in character, she didn’t even resemble her normal self. …She laughed so easily, when she was happy, but also when she was sad.
…she kept smiling at me, too much, like she was worried what I’d think of her and her home. I wished I could tell her she had nothing to worry about. …I wished I could put her at ease. Although it was her house, she was more nervous than I was. …I wanted to tell her I wasn’t what she expected. I was different, she might not want me.
“What was the best day of your life?” …I tried to remember, but it was like looking for buried coins in the sand. I kept turning things over, cutting myself on rusty cans, broken beer bottles hidden there, but eventually I found an old coin, brushed it off. I could read the date, the country of origin.
Claire laughed, a sound like bells, drew her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around them, gazing at me in a way I could have bottled and stored like a great wine.
I didn’t tell her about the free-for-alls on the school yard, muggings on the bus. A girl burned a cigarette hole into the back of another girl’s shirt at nutrition, right in front of me, looking at me, as if daring me to stop her. I saw a boy being threatened with a knife in the hallway outside my Spanish class. Girls talked about their abortions in gym class. Claire didn’t need to know about that. I wanted the world to be beautiful for her. I wanted things to work out. I always had a great day, no matter what.
Claire paced at night, I heard her bare feet on the floorboards. She talked as if silence would crush her if she didn’t prop it up with a steady stream of sound. She cried easily. She took me to the observatory and started crying in the star show. The April constellations.
I was jealous. I wanted her all to myself. I was aware it wasn’t normal, normal daughters didn’t get jealous of their fathers. They wished both their parents would disappear.
The pearls weren’t really white, they were a warm oyster beige, with little knots in between so if they broke, you only lost one. I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart.
“She could model,” he said to Claire. “I’ve seen worse.”
My hand instinctively rose to touch the scars on my jaw. Couldn’t he see how ugly I was?
Claire smiled, stroke my hair. “Would you like that?”
“No,” I said, low, so the photographer wouldn’t hear me.
“We’ll keep it in mind,” Claire said.
She was transparent, heartbreaking. I would be afraid to be so vulnerable. I’d spend the last three years trying to build up some kind of a skin, so I wouldn’t drip with blood every time I brushed up against something. She was naked, she peeled herself daily.
I held her hand, sat on the floor by her supine figure in the dark room filled with vinegar fumes. I didn’t know what to say. It was like watching someone you loved step on a land mine, all the parts flying around. You don’t know what to do with the pieces. …I’d never cared about someone so much that I could feel their pain before. It made me sick, that they could do something like that to Claire, and I wasn’t there, to tell her, Quit, you don’t have to do this. “I love you, Claire,” I said softly.
I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I was outraged, I was scared. She shouldn’t have been reading those things. I needed to keep them separate. I didn’t want her to have anything to do with my mother, anything I couldn’t control. And now she’d gone and opened the box. Like Pandora. Letting out all the evil. They were always so fascinated by Ingrid Magnussen. I felt myself retreating again, into her shadow. These were my things. Not even mine. I trusted her.
Defeated, she let them fall, closed her eyes, covered her face with her hands. She reminded me of Caitlin, who thought we couldn’t see her if she couldn’t see us.
How could I explain? I didn’t want my mother to know about you, Claire. You’re the one good thing that ever happened to me. I didn’t want to take any chances. How my mother would hate you. She doesn’t want me to be happy, Claire. She liked it that I hated Marvel. It made her feel close to me. An artist doesn’t need to be happy, she said. If I were happy, I wouldn’t need her, she meant. I might forget her. And she was right. I just might.
I felt his words burn her flesh like a lash. I tried to hear what she was saying, but her voice faded to a murmur. Claire couldn’t defend herself, she curled up like a leaf under a glass.
“Astrid doesn’t need you waiting with the milk and the cookies. Jesus, Claire! She’s a young woman. I think she’d like spending a few hours by herself. Maybe make some friends of her own if you’d give her a chance.”
But I did need her, Ron. Nobody ever waited for me when I got home from school — and never milk. He didn’t even know that much. I mattered to her. Couldn’t he understand what that meant to me, and to her? If he cared, he would never say such things to her. How dare he pretend that he loved her. I cracked open my door to see if I could hear her, but she must have been whispering. …Now all I could hear was her crying. She cried the way children do, sobbing, hiccuping, nose running. And the soothing tones of his voice.
I could picture him, taking her in his arms, rocking her against his chest, stroking her hair, and she’d let him, that was the worst part of it. And they’d make love, and she’d fall asleep, thinking he was so kind, after all, he must love her. It would be all better. That was how he did it. Hurt her, and then made it all better. I hated him. He came home, upset her, when he was just going to leave her again.
When you committed suicide, you didn’t want something slow. Someone could walk in, someone could save you.
She reminded me of a woman lying down in snow. Just lying down for a little while, she was so tired. She’d been walking so long, she just wanted to rest, and it wasn’t as cold as she thought. She was so sleepy. It was the surrender she wanted. To stop fighting the storm and the enveloping night, to lie down in whiteness and sleep. I understood. I used to dream that I was skin-diving down a coral wall. Euphoria set in as the nitrogen built up in my bloodstream, and the only direction was down into darkness and forgetting.
“But how long can a person float, looking at an empty horizon? How long do you drift before you call it quits?” What answer could I give her? I’d been doing it for years. She was my life raft, my turtle.
I wanted to tell her not to entertain despair like this. Despair wasn’t a guest, you didn’t play its favourite music, find it a comfortable chair. Despair was the enemy. It frightened me for Claire to bare her needs so openly. If a person needed something badly, it was my experience that it would surely be taken away.
“Take my advice. Stay away from all broken people.” I almost said, you’re not broken, you’re just going through something. But I couldn’t. She knew. There was something terribly wrong with her, all the way inside. She was like a big diamond with a dead spot in the middle. I was supposed to breathe life into that dead spot, but it hadn’t worked.
I wanted to hold her close, but something inside was pushing her away. This was Claire, who loves you, I reminded myself, but I couldn’t feel it right now. She couldn’t even take care of herself, and I felt myself drifting off. I felt her reaching for my hand, she wanted to come in. I didn’t think I could save her anymore. The maze trail I was following dead-ended in a peacock eye.
If only I had known, Claire. My beautiful fucked-up Claire. I lay my head on her chest where there was no heartbeat. My face next to hers on the flowered pillow, breathing in her breath that was no longer breath. She was so pale. Cold. I held her cold hands, slightly chapped, the wedding ring that was too big. Turned them over, kissed the cold palms, my hot lips on the lines. How she used to worry about those lines. One ran from the edge of the hand and crossed the line of life. Fatal accident, she said it meant. I rubbed the line with my thumb, slick with tears.
Fatal accident. That thought was almost unbearable, but possible. Maybe she hadn’t meant to do it. Claire wouldn’t have planned it like this. She hadn’t even washed her hair. She would have prepared, everything would have been perfect. She would have written a note, explaining everything two or five ways. Maybe all she wanted was to sleep.
I laughed, bitter as nightshade. Maybe it was just an accident. What wasn’t an accident. Who wasn’t.
I picked up the squarish white bottle still half full of pills. Butabarbitol sodium, 100 mg. It practically glowed in my hands. The worst always happened. Why did I keep forgetting that? Now I saw this was not just a bottle, it was a door. You climbed through the round neck of the bottle and came out somewhere else entirely. You could escape. Cash in your chips.
I looked deep into the jar of pink pills. I knew how to do this. You took them slowly. Not like in the movies, where they took them by the handful. You’d just puke them up. The trick was to take one, wait a few minutes, take the next. Have some sherry. One by one. In a couple of hours, you passed out, and it was done.
I felt the pull of that dark circle, the neck of the bottle. It was a rabbit hole, I could jump down it and pull it in after me. You never knew when help might come. But I knew. It came and I turned my back, I let it go down. I pushed my saviour out of the life raft. I panicked. Now I reaped my despair.
He was reaching out to me, but my face was beyond reaching.
I stroked the furry ends of my short hair with one palm. I was glad I’d cut it off. A gang of girls jumped me twice, once in the Big Field, once coming back from the gym, because someone’s boyfriend thought I was looking good. I didn’t want to be pretty.
The pine shadows moved across my blanket, the wall behind me. People were just like that. We couldn’t even see each other, just the shadows moving, pushed by unseen winds. What difference did it make if I was here or somewhere else.
He stared at me all the time. I felt his eyes while I painted. But it didn’t bother me, Paul Trout’s intense, blinkless stare. It wasn’t like the boys in the senior classroom, their stares like a raid, moist, groping, more than a little hostile. This was an artist’s stare, attentive to detail, taking in the truth without preconceptions. It was a stare that didn’t turn away when I stared back, but was startled to find itself returned.
“You cut off your hair,” he said. “Why’d you do that? It was pretty.”
“Attracted attention,” I said.
“I thought girls liked that.”
I smiled, felt the bitter aftertaste in my mouth. This boy might know a lot about cruelty and waste, but he didn’t know a thing about beauty. How could he? He was used to that skin, people turning away, not seeing the fire in his lucid brown eyes. I could tell, he imagined beauty, attention, would feel like love.
“Sometimes it hurts more than it helps,” I said.
“You’re beautiful anyway,” he said, going back to his drawing. “There’s not much you can do about that.”
“It doesn’t mean anything. Only to other people.”
…“You say that like it’s nothing.”
“It is.” What was beauty unless you intended to use it, like a hammer, or a key? It was just something for other people to use and admire, or envy, despise. To nail their dreams onto like a picture hanger on a blank wall. And so many girls saying, use me, dream me.
“You’ve never been ugly.” The boy looked down at his hand filling the blank spaces in a science fiction scene. “Women treat you like you’re a disease they might catch. And if in a weak moment they let you touch them, they make you pay.” His mouth closed, then opened to say more, but closed without saying a word. He’d said too much. His mouth turned down. “Someone like you, you wouldn’t let me touch you, would you.”
Where did he get the idea he was ugly? Bad skin could happen to anyone. “I don’t let anyone touch me,” I finally said.
Why not? Because I was tired of men. Hanging in doorways, standing too close, their smell of beer or fifteen-year-old whiskey…
Forests of boys, their ragged shrubs full of eyes following you, grabbing your breasts, waving their money, eyes already knocking you down, taking what they felt was theirs.
…It was a play and I knew how it ended, I didn’t want to audition for any of the roles. It was no game, no casual thrill. It was three-bullet Russian roulette.
“Are you gay?” Paul Trout asked me.
I shrugged. Maybe that would be better. …I didn’t know. People just wanted to be loved. That was the thing about words, they were clear and specific — chair, eye, stone — but when you talked about feelings, words were too stiff, they were this and not that, they couldn’t include all the meanings. In defining, they always left something out. …I looked up at him, “Does it matter?”
“Doesn’t anything matter to you?”
“Survival,” I said, but even that sounded untrue now. “I guess.”
“That’s not much.”
…“I haven’t gotten any farther than that.”
We walked the Big Field together when he got his privileges back. The girls called him my boyfriend, but it was just another word, it didn’t quite capture the truth. Paul Trout was the only person I’d met there I could talk to. He wanted to see me on the outside, asked for an address, a phone number, someplace he could reach me, but I didn’t know where I’d be, and I couldn’t trust my mother to forward anything. Anyway, I’d decided not to give her my new address. I didn’t want anything more to do with her. He gave me the name of a comic book shop in Hollywood, said he’d check there, wherever he was. “Just mark the letters Hold for Paul Trout.”
I was sorry when he got his placement, to a group home on Pomona. He was the first kid I’d really enjoyed spending time with since my days with Davey, the first one who could remotely understand what I had been through. We were just getting to know each other, and now he was gone. I had to get used to that. Everybody left you eventually. He gave me one of his drawings to remember him by. It was me as a superhero, in a tight white t-shirt and ragged shorts, my body clearly the subject of much observation and thought. I’d just vanquished a biker archvillain, my Doc Marten bootheel planted on his bloody bare chest, a smoking gun in my hand. I shot him through the heart. I don’t let anyone touch me was printed over my head.
The damned could be saved, he said, anytime. But they refused to give up their sins. Though they suffered endlessly, they would not give them up, even for salvation, perfect divine love.
I hadn’t understood at the time. If sinners were so unhappy, why would they prefer their suffering? But now I knew why. Without my wounds, who was I? My scars were my face, my past was my life. It wasn’t like I didn’t know where all this remembering got you, all that hunger for beauty and astonishing cruelty and ever-present loss…
So I let them go, got up and walked away, knowing I’d given up something I could never get back. Not Ann and Bill Greenway, but some illusion I’d had, that I could be saved, start again.
I wondered if Claire was here, if she could see me. I wished she could see this crane, the river bottom. It was beautiful and I didn’t deserve it…
I felt bad I hadn’t written to him before, I’d thought of it many times, but I was afraid. Chances were he never looked back. …I looked nervously at the envelope, marked Hold for Paul Trout. The hope implied. It was a mistake already. I thought of a song Rena played that I hated like death, “Love the One You’re With.” It was the tune life kept forcing on me, and yet there I was, hope fluttering like a bird in my hand.
…I finally worked up the nerve to open the first letter, slitting the beautiful envelope with the Denny’s dinner knife. Inside was a series of ink drawings done in Paul’s unmistakable comic book style, bold blacks and whites: Paul, walking lonely comic book streets. Paul, sitting at a Nighthawks café. He sees a blond girl on the street with short chopped-up hair and follows her, only to have her turn out to be somebody else. Would he ever see her again? the last caption read, as he drew at his desk, the wall covered with pictures of me.
…I folded the drawings, slipped them back into the envelope decorated with lightning bolts, stars, and a girl on a white horse in a comic book sky. Hold for Astrid Magnussen. If only I’d known that he would.
And now it was too late.
Remember, there’s only one virtue, Astrid. The Romans were right. One can bear anything. The pain we cannot bear will kill us outright.
The trains across the river rolled on iron wheels, making a soothing percussion in the night. On our side, back by the bakery, a boy was playing electric guitar. He couldn’t sleep either, the sound of the trains stirred him. His guitar bore his longing up into the darkness like sparks, a music profound in its objectless desire, beautiful beyond solace or solution.
I’d learned, whatever you hung from my earlobes or put on my back, I was insoluble, like sand in water. Stir me up, I always came to rest on the bottom.
The whole world had been reduced to this, lifeless debris. And we were just more of the city’s detritus, like the bird, the abandoned shopping carts, the wrecked Riviera.
Loss. That’s what was in there. Grief, sorrow, wordless and unfathomable. Not what I felt this morning, septic, panicked. This was distilled. Niko put her arm around my waist, I put mine around hers. We stood and mourned. I could imagine how Jesus felt, his pity for all of humanity, how impossible it was, how admirable. The painting was Casals, a requiem. My mother and me, Niki and Yvonne, Paul and Davey and Claire, everybody. How vast was a human being’s capacity for suffering. The only thing you could do was stand in awe of it. It wasn’t a question of survival at all. It was the fullness of it, how much could you hold, how much could you care.
“Looking forward to graduation? Making your plans for the future?”
I let my bookbag drop onto the dusty upholstered armchair, sending a cloud of motes up into the stuffy air. “Thought I might become a criminal lawyer,” I said. “That or a hooker. Maybe a garbage collector.”
She made no parry, kept her mind on her purpose. “May I ask why you haven’t returned my calls?”
I leaned against the wall, watching her quick, confident movements. “Go ahead and ask,” I said.
She put her slim red leather briefcase on her lap and opened it, removed a folder and a yellow legal pad. “Your mother said you might be difficult,” she said.
…“I know you’ve been through a terrible ordeal,” she said. She looked down at the file. “Six foster homes, MacLaren Hall. The suicide of your foster mother, Claire Richards, was it? Your mother said you were close to her. It must have been devastating.”
I felt the wave of anger rise through me. Claire’s death was mine. She had no right to handle it, to bring it up and somehow relate it to my mother’s case. But maybe this too was a tactic. To get it all out in the open to begin with, so I wouldn’t be sullen, withholding my feelings about Claire, difficult to draw out. An aggressive opening at chess. I saw that she knew just what she was doing. Going for the sore spot right away.
The two of them could really pull this off. I saw how easily this bouquet of oleander and nightshade could be twisted around into a laurel wreath.
My mother once wrote a poem about rivers. They were women, she wrote. Starting out small girls, tiny streams decorated with wildflowers. Then they were torrents, gouging paths through sheer granite, flinging themselves off cliffs, fearless and irresistible. Later, they grew fat and serviceable, broad flow curves carrying commerce and sewage, but in their unconscious depths catfish gorged, grew the size of barges, and in the hundred-year storms, they rose up, forgetting the promises they made, the wedding vows, and drowned everything for miles around. Finally, they gave out, birth-emptied, malarial, into a fan of swamp that met the sea.
But this river was none of these things. It flowed serene and ignored past fences spray-painted 18th Street, Roscos, Frogtown, alive despite everything, guarding the secrets of survival. This river was a girl like me.
Wild mustard flowered on the cracked banks, and I picked a bouquet for Yvonne. What was a weed, anyway. A plant nobody planted? A seed escaped from a traveller’s coat, something that didn’t belong? Was it something that grew better than what should have been there? Wasn’t it just a word, weed, trailing its judgements. Useless, without value. Unwanted.
…What were any of us but a handful of weeds. Who was to say what our value was?
But that night I dreamed the old dream again, of gray Paris streets and the maze of stone, the bricked blind windows. This time there were doors of glass with curved art nouveau handles, they were all locked. I knew I had to find my mother. It was getting dark, dark figures lurked in the cellar entrances. I rang all the buzzers to the apartments. Women came to the door, looking like her, smiling, some even called my name. But none of them was her.
I knew she was in there, I banged on the door, screamed for to let me in. The door buzzed to admit me, but just as I pushed it in, I saw her leaving from the courtyard gate, a passenger in a small red car, wearing her curly Afghan coat and big sunglasses over her blind eyes, she was leaning back in the seat and laughing. I ran after her, crying, begging.
Yvonne shook me awake. She took my head in her lap, and her long brown hair draped over us like a shawl. Her belly was warm and firm as a bolster. Through the strands of her hair wove the coloured strands of light I still saw, cast by a kid’s carousel bedside lamp I’d scavenged on trash day. “We get all the bad dreams, ese,” she said, stroking my wet cheek with the palm of her hand. “We got to leave some for somebody else.
Women’s bravery, I thought as I worked on her hair from bottom to top, untangling the black mass. I would never be able to go through this. The pain came in waves, in sheets, starting in her belly and extending outward, a flower of pain blooming through her body, a jagged steel lotus.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the body, what a hard fact it was. That philosopher who said we think, therefore we are, should have spent an hour in the maternity ward… He’d have had to change his whole philosophy.
The mind was so thin, barely a spiderweb, with all it’s fine thoughts, aspirations, and beliefs in its own importance. Watch how easily it unravels, evaporates under the first lick of pain. Gasping on the bed, Yvonne bordered on the unrecognisable, disintegrating into a ripe collection of nerves, fibers, sacs, and waters and the ancient clock in the blood. Compared to this eternal body, the individual was a smoke, a cloud. The body was the only reality. I hurt, therefore I am.
…Nobody ever talked about what a struggle this all was. I could see why women used to die in childbirth. They didn’t catch some kind of microbe, or even haemorrhage. They just gave up. They stopped caring whether or not the baby came. They knew if they didn’t die, they’d be going through it again the next year, and the next. I could understand how a woman might just stop trying, like a tired swimmer, let her head go under, the water fill her lungs. I slowly massaged Yvonne’s neck, her shoulders, I wouldn’t let her go under.
…I’d already lost faith. A future wasn’t something I could forge by myself out of all these broken pieces I had… The future was a white fog into which I would vanish…
I squeezed her hand. It was like holding my own hand. Her lips were pouty, chapped. It was like we were floating here in the sky, cut off from future and past. Why couldn’t that be enough… Maybe I should set aside my broken string of beads, my shoeboxes of memories. No matter how much I dug, it was only a story, and not enough…
If I could just stop time. The river and the sky.
“You ever think of killing yourself?” Yvonne said.
“Some people say that when you come back, you pick up just where you left off.” I took Yvonne’s arm in mine. Her skin was so soft. Her t-shirt smelled of despair, like metal and rain.
“I thought it was your graduation today, ese,” she said.
“What’s the point,” I said. “Marching across the stage like ducks in a shooting gallery.”
Yvonne sighed. “If I was you, I’d be proud.”
I smiled. “If you were me, you’d be me. Whoever the hell that is.”
Mrs. Luanne Davis suggested applying to City College, I could transfer anytime, but I’d already lost faith. A future wasn’t something I could forge by myself out of all these broken pieces I had… The future was a white fog into which I would vanish…
I imagined the lies the valedictorian was telling them right now. About the exciting future that lies ahead. I wish she’d tell them the truth: Half of you have gone as far in life as you’re ever going to. Look around. It’s all downhill from here. The rest of us will go a bit further, a steady job, a trip to Hawaii, or a move to Phoenix, Arizona, but out of fifteen hundred how many will do anything truly worthwhile, write a play, paint a painting that will hang in a gallery, find a cure for herpes? Two of us, maybe three? And how many will find true love? About the same. And enlightenment? Maybe one. The rest of us will make compromises, find excuses, someone or something to blame, and hold that over our hearts like a pendant on a chain.
I was crying. I knew I could have done better, I could have made arrangements, I could have followed up, found someone to help me. At this moment my classmates were going up for their awards, National Merit, Junior State. How did I get so lost? Mother, why did you let my hand slip from yours on the bus, your arms so full of packages? I felt like time was a great sea, and I was floating on the back of a turtle, and no sails broke the horizon.
“When are you going?” I asked Yvonne.
“Tomorrow,” she whispered, half-hiding behind her curtain of smooth hair.
I stroked her hair back with my hand, tucked it behind her small, multipierced ear. She looked up at me and smiled, and I hugged her. She burst into tears. “I don’t know, Astrid, do you think I should? You always know what to do.”
I laughed, caught unaware. I squatted down by her seat on a rickety director’s chair. “Me? I know less than nothing.”
“I thought you didn’t lie,” she said, smiling, holding her hand in front of her mouth, a habit to conceal her bad teeth. Maybe Benito would marry her. Maybe he would take her to the dentist. Maybe he would hold her in the night and love her. Who was to say he wouldn’t?
“I’m going to miss you,” I said.
She nodded, couldn’t talk, crying while she was smiling. “God, I must look like such a mess.” She swiped at her mascara that was running down her cheeks.
“You look like Miss America,” I said, hugging her. It was what women said. “You know, when they put the crown on? And she’s crying and laughing and taking her walk.”
That made her laugh. She liked Miss America. We watched it and got stoned and she took some dusty silk flowers Rena had lying around and walked up and down the living room, waving the mechanical beauty queen wave.
“If we get married, you can be maid of honour,” she said.
…“I’ll be there,” I said. Imagining the wedding party, not a soul over eighteen, each one planning a life along the course of the lyrics of popular songs. It made me sad to think of it.
“You’ll get back together with your boyfriend,” she said, as if to soften the blow. “Don’t worry. He’ll wait for you.”
“Sure,” I said. But I knew, nobody waited for anybody.
I went back inside to make Tasha’s lunch. She was the new girl in Yvonne’s bed, thirteen, going to King Junior High, D track, summer term. Grave, silent, she had a vertical scar on her upper lip just healing. She flinched if people moved too fast near her.
“You’ll do great,” I said, making her celery with peanut butter in the creases and a Granny Smith apple. “I’ll be watching.”
I drive her to school in Niki’s truck, let her off in front of Thomas Starr King Junior High, watched her go in scared and small, her backpack hanging with key chains. I felt helpless to prevent her life from taking it’s likely direction. Could a person save another person? She turned to wave at me. I waved back. I didn’t drive off until she was inside.
Love. I would ban the word from the vocabulary. Such imprecision. Love, which love, what love? Sentiment, fantasy, longing, lust? Obsession, devouring need? Perhaps the only love that is accurate without qualification is the love of a very young child. Afterward, she too becomes a person, and thus compromised. “Do you love me?” you asked in the dark of your narrow bed. “Do you love me Mommy?”
“Of course,” I told you. “Now go to sleep.”
Love is a bedtime story, a teddy bear, familiar, one eye missing.
“Do you love me, carita?” Lydia says, twisting my arm, forcing my face into the rough horsehair blanket, biting my neck. “Say it, you bitch.”
Love is a toy, a token, a scented handkerchief.
“Tell me you love me,” Barry said.
“I love you,” I said. “I love you, I love you.”
Love is a cheque, that can be forged, that can be cashed. Love is a payment that comes due.
Then Niki moves out. “Come with me,” she said as she loaded her pickup. I handed her a suitcase, zebra-striped. We both smiled, checked each other for tears. She left me some addresses and phone numbers, but I knew I wouldn’t be using them. I had to face this, that people left and you didn’t see them again.
Everything she knew about me, everything she walked around with in that thin skull case like a vault. I wanted to crack her open, eat her brain like a soft-boiled egg.
But you’re asking the wrong question. Don’t ask me why I left. Ask me why I came back.
“You were never like this before. You’re so hard. Susan told me, but I thought it was just a pose. You’ve lost yourself, your dreaminess, that tender quality.”
I stared at her, not letting her look away. We were the same height, eye to eye, but I was bigger-boned, I probably could have beaten her in a fair fight. “I would have thought you’d approve. Wasn’t that the thing you hated about Claire? Her tenderness? Be strong, you said. I despise weakness.”
“I wanted you to be strong, but intact. Not this devastation. You’re like a bomb site. You frighten me.”
I smiled. I liked the idea that I frightened her. The tables were truly turned.
She reached out her hand, as if to touch my face, like a blind woman, but she couldn’t reach me. I would burn her if she touched me. The hand stayed in the air, hovering in front of my face. I saw, she was afraid.
You ask me about regret? Let me tell you a few things about regret, my darling. There is no end to it. You cannot find the beginning of the chain that brought us from there to here. Should you regret the whole chain, and the air in between, or each link separately, as if you could uncouple them? Do you regret the beginning which ended so badly, or just the ending itself? I’ve given more thought to this question than you can begin to imagine.