Here’s a short story I wrote several years ago. It needs a lot of work, but it’s one of my “moon babies,” a messy, wailing infant I love to cradle now and again. It’s now in my “needs work so I can send it out again” folder.
Enjoy. Or don’t. The choice is yours.
The Elegant Disgusting
Whenever I mention my stepfather I feel like I’ve said something nasty. I can feel the listener holding his or her breath, waiting for tales of incest and deceit, something V.C. Andrews would write. Each of my breasts is as big as my head and I’m sixteen. My step-dad is a mechanic. He’s disgusting sure, but he wasn’t touching me in my sleep or buying me lingerie for my birthday. His own sloppy body parts, his yellow toe nails, his big hairy gut, and his bellybutton, that smelly eye, make him disgusting.
I’m tired of disgusting people. I want to meet a person who’s been sanded down to elegance. I want to meet someone elegant.
But hold on. Elegant doesn’t mean “good.” Perfection doesn’t equate generosity and kindness. Say I meet this refined, elegant human being, and say she’s standing in line ahead of me at Safeway. The clerk asks, “Do you want to round up your purchase to the next whole dollar for muscular dystrophy?” and she says, “No thank you,” in an elegant manner, of course. Her nails are polished in a way to make us believe they are not polished; to try and get us to think that this is how people should enter the world. Polished. Knowing. Never a bad hair day. Breath like roses. Made of silk. But the rest of us are not made of silk. We are made of mud. Sexy mud people.
Still this doesn’t deter me. I still want to meet someone elegant. Maybe I could teach her a thing or two, like what to do with spare change. Maybe she’d think, “poor clumsy, muddy thing, she still thinks we want her to think,” and it would be a shame, a real shame for her to shake her head, go “tsk, tsk” because like I said, I could have taught her a thing or two. Easy.
I used to think my mom was elegant mostly because I’ve never seen her break anything. I’m not being figurative or metaphorical here, I’m talking dishes, glasses or a vase, anything. Nada. That can’t be right. People break things all the time. That’s what they do. The someone, maybe the breaker, puts it back together or maybe just replaces it with something better. Most things are replaceable I imagine. Again, we are still on a literal track here. This is not an analogy for human relationships. If I wanted to talk about that, I would just come out and say it. Same as matters of the heart, the spirit, the soul, what have you.
Nowadays people don’t say exactly what they mean and you have to pay closer attention. What they really want is implied. As if wants are too dirty to say out loud. Well, maybe some are, but usually not. Like my mother for instance saying, “Oh boy Jenna, just look at all those dishes-sigh-oh boy-sigh-and I haven’t even cooked dinner-sigh-oh well, I guess there is no rest for the wicked is there? –sigh-sigh.” Then she’d look at me like a fat pigeon, the one who thinks you didn’t see him porking out, who hopes you’ll think, “His belly is bloated because he’s starving, like those poor kids in Africa!” If you really were that stupid you’d make sure that the fatso got your whole tuna fish sandwich to himself and you’d walk away feeling so satisfied, like you’d saved the whole world because you’d just fed the fattest, greediest bird on earth. But then you’d see one of those commercials about the starving children, and you’d want to call, but you wouldn’t, because that sandwich cost you your last five bucks, and you’d think about how pigeons will eat just about anything and how pigeons don’t just eat they get eaten and you wonder how much it would cost to send a plane full of pigeons to Africa someday. Then you’d drink, because after all, you’d be pathetic, and you would know it.
So that’s why I didn’t offer to do the dishes for my mom. I don’t want to feed a fat pigeon. I don’t want to be pathetic. I want to be elegant. However if she would have asked me straight out to do the dishes, I would have given a half-hearted sigh, but really, inside I would be ecstatic because finally someone told me exactly what they wanted, they said what they meant, and something about that can be elegant, should you do it with elegance. My mother didn’t do it right. Therefore I deemed her NOT ELEGANT. Sigh.
I wrote an essay for English class, “The Elegant Disgusting” and my teacher told me I was a smart girl except that I don’t know the meaning of elegance and she actually wrote the Webster definition down, word for pompous word. Can you believe it? It may sound like she said what she meant but she didn’t. What she meant was, “I don’t get you. You’re strange.” If she would have said the truth, I would have kissed her, right on the lips and skipped all the way home like an idiot, like someone who likes to be punched in the arm over and over again until it makes a purple and yellow bruise. Disgusting.
Other people besides my teacher make the mistake of thinking I’m smart. It’s pretty unfortunate because I’m not smart, I’m hostile. But I guess a hostile expression can look like a smart one to the untrained eye and apparently I’ve been surrounded by untrained eyes.
Mary got a big, fat D on her paper. Big. Fat. D. Sounds like BIG FAT DICK. But she didn’t get anyone’s big fat dick which was no surprise because I was pretty sure she was a lesbian. What she got was a big fat D on her English paper titled, “Things I Love.” I still can’t remember what my grade was. I was too focused on my teacher’s BIG FAT LIE written with a red sharpie. But the D wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was Mary crying because her mother told her, “Oh just face it Mary. You’re just not a smart girl.” I laughed when I wasn’t supposed to and Mary looked at me like I’d made some horrible revelation to her, like that I was only into guys. But how could I help myself? Her mom told her what she thought, what she meant, and there were no spaces to fill with guesses. The truth just stood there bare naked and panting from running so hard.
Mary could not see that. Mary could only see that I lacked elegance.
When I sat down in the living room with my stepfather I could still hear my mom sighing. What a martyr. If only she could tell us what she wanted, she could take the knife out of her fat heart and I could use it to chop cucumbers and carrots for dinner. She wanted me to know what she wanted without having to tell me. So she’d shoved the truth up between her legs, way up in “there.” That “there” no daughter wants to admit her mother has. I guess that faux smart look came across my face because my stepdad asked me, “What are you thinking about?”
“Vaginas,” I said.
He raised his eyebrows and shook his head a little then turned up the volume on the TV. The O’Reilly Factor was on. My stepdad propped his bare feet on the coffee table and I could see that his yellow toe nails had begun to curve like talons. Did my mom wear leg warmers to bed? If he scratched her nice and deep would she have to get a rabies shot? But I cared more about vaginas than nails.
“You know what I was thinking about vaginas? I was thinking how I don’t like to think of mom as having one. I like to think she’s built like a Barbie down there.”
At first it didn’t seem like he heard, but of course he did, because he turned up the volume again, and stuffed a handful of Doritos in his mouth.
I thought about Webster’s Dictionary versus me, versus yellow toenails, versus plastic vaginas. I whispered, “I want elegance,” but no one heard. I knew that for sure. My step-dad cleared his throat, and it sounded as if he’d stored a week’s worth of phlegm. Disgusting. Not elegant. We are all so disgusting with our smells, our orifices and our bulges. Mud people. Splat splat. Crash.
The splats were in my hostile head. The crash wasn’t. The crash was real.
“Oh dear, oh dear!” I heard my mother.
I got up and made it to the kitchen before my stepdad, who had to waddle his way out of the deep cavern he’d created in the couch cushion. Before I could go in, he yelled, “Stop!”
Pieces of broken blue glass were everywhere. My mom zigzagged around the jagged pieces, with her hands over her wide open mouth. She looked like a bee trapped inside a window sill, buzz, and buzz! All that buzzing and still, she couldn’t make a damn thing happen. What a waste.
“Was this a plate?” I asked.
“Yes.” My step-dad had put some slippers on and made his way inside.
“I’ve never seen it before. Did someone leave it here?”
“No. We’ve had it for years.” He made a motion with one hand to my mother, a come on, come on, sort of thing and my mom handed him the broom, tip toeing over the shards of blue.
“Huh. Well I’ve never seen it. I bet it was our best plate. I bet it was elegant and now it is buh-row-kin. I never got to see how elegant it was.”
I crossed my arms, breathed out a little too fast and hard. My mother was crouched down holding the dust pan for my stepdad whose grizzly body moved back and forth, and pushed the glass in.
My mother went unnervingly still for a moment.
“This isn’t our best plate. It wasn’t our best plate. You know nothing about this plate. You don’t even remember it.”
“I just know these things, mom.” I made sure I enunciated each sound; mmm-ah-om.
“Jenna, put your shoes on.” I could see that she had knelt too far and her knees were pressing down on the blue splinters of glass. Tiny buds of red blossomed on her skin. My stepdad couldn’t see on account of his hairy, one-eyed belly. I looked at her face, then at her knees then back at her face again. I saw that unspoken thing. The implied thing.
“Jenna,” she said my name sllllooowwwllly. “Put. Your. Shoes. On.”
“Mom, look, I’m already wearing them.” I lied.
“Oh.” But she hadn’t looked.
“Maybe you should be more careful mommmm. More elegant.”
My mother finally took a good look at my bare, taunting feet.
“Get. In. Here. Je. Nuh.”
“Jenna. Get in here.”
Was it a test? Would I walk across the glass splinters, the ones only her and I knew were there, feeling each tiny poke through my imaginary shoes?
I did. I walked across the tile floor. Same squares my mother had never asked me to sweep or mop. I felt the prick of each shard and wondered if by the end of it, the bottom of my feet would sparkle blue. It hurt.
“I want you to do the dishes. When you are done washing and rinsing, I want you to dry them. When they are dry, I want you to put them away. Neatly. Do you understand? Neet. Lee.”
I nodded. Of course I understood.
My stepfather reached down and grabbed a hold of my mother’s hand, lifted her up. He saw her knees and said, “Damn.” Then the two of them disappeared.
By the time I got to drying the dishes I could hear them. The squeaky mattress. My mother moaning. My mother was not a vinyl doll. My mother had a vagina.
I couldn’t find where the round red platter went. I opened up one cabinet after another until I came to one that should be labeled MISCELLANEOUS, the place where you put things that have no matches, no kin, and no equals. Up on the third shelf I saw them, two blue plates. Two. Not three. This had happened before.
I left the round red plate in the middle of the table, as if to say, “I know something.” I knew nothing. I thought about Webster’s again. And D’s. And Mary’s face.
I’m a fat pigeon.
Send me to Africa.