09 8 / 2012
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.
31 5 / 2012
Old men break my heart. I don’t think this will change as I get older. I can see myself as a seventy-five year old woman still looking upon a man my same age the way a mother gazes at her newborn son upon first hearing his desperate, singular cry. She imagines a pain only she can put to rest. This is what I see in the face of every elderly man I encounter in the grocery store, or the library, or waiting in line for coffee. There’s a tenderness I project upon them, a warm innocence.
The same is not true of old women. I assume they are severe and carry rulers or wooden spoons. I half expect them to tell me my skirt is too short, or that I’m wearing too much mascara. I live in these assumptions, not wanting to know the details that will shatter my generalizations. But the cat I think, the cat desires to know the truth.
The cat is a dignified stray, impeccably groomed. She is a petite calico with a patch of orange below her right yellow eye. Three of her paws are white and when she washes her face, it appears from afar that she is wearing white gloves. She sleeps belly up in the flower bed, as if she’s sunbathing. I laugh to myself, as I watch her from my kitchen window, sometimes I’m so distracted I wash the same glass for five minutes straight. Long enough I hear a squeak. The suds swell between my fingers, soapy little clouds I’m slow to rinse off.
I have no cat of my own. No children. No husband. I have the shiniest glass tumblers you’ve ever seen, though, and a heart that falls apart at the sight of an old man with a curved back, a walker, a straw hat, and a crumbling, pitiful remnant of a voice.
This man is Charlie and the cat has set her sights on him. If it were any other neighbor, I would be jealous. After all, how many nights had I tried to make the cat my own, opening cans of tuna, leaving a trail of cat food right through my open sliding glass door? How many times had I called her in just for her come to an abrupt stop as if an invisible barrier kept her out. I believe the tangible loneliness of my home had become so thick, so heavy, it took up all the space in all the rooms, and the cat could not come in, not even with as small as she could make herself.
No, it was Charlie she wanted, not me. But Charlie, although noticeably amused by her charm, did not invite her in. He would speak to her, and she’d offer up a strange, laughable attempt at a meow. I would watch and grin, and Charlie would laugh a little, but not too much, or else he’d start to cough, and not be able to stop.
“She really likes you!” I finally said one morning.
Charlie turned to me, confused, a little startled. He nodded, but it was obvious he didn’t hear what I said.
She danced between his legs, rubbing up against his calf, then did the same thing to the metal legs of his walker. It was as if to her the device was an extension of Charlie, and every piece of him deserved her adoration.
“Get now,” he said first gently, then again, but this time with the slightest tilt and nudge of his walker, a small threat to show he meant business.
He was only about two feet from his door, and I called out that I could open the door for him, and I walked towards him, and the door, and the cat, and I hoped I could get there in time, hoped that there was something he needed from me, something I could give him, maybe cook him soup, or help him find the remote, or read him the paper. I hoped that I too, could become a petite calico. I watched the small cat with her tiny grace, run between his legs, ready to sprint inside the moment the door slid open.
Instead I froze. I stood watching Charlie slide open the door, watching the little cat lift one paw, and carefully creep forward into a place where she would not need to shrink, but she could stretch, and blossom, could fill the spaces I had yet to uncover.
16 5 / 2012
Everything I say to Joanna is a regurgitated lie I’ve told every girl I’ve brought to this restaurant. Joanna has just announced to me she’s a vegetarian. I’m tempted to order the bloodiest plate on the menu. It’s our first date. I’m to flatter her shamelessly and forget all about him.
He ate strawberries with his eyes closed. Like an infant each time he opened his eyes he discovered a brand new world. He could only do this with strawberries. Everything else he ate with eyes wide open sometimes never even chewing.
Alex first tried to kiss me in the parking lot of Applebee’s. We’d worked late and decided to grab a bite to eat. The food was atrocious, but we couldn’t stop eating, as if the next bite might change our minds. We drank beer and talked about Laura from Human Resources and what a cunt she was. We laughed at the waiter’s unbuttoned pants. We exchanged mischievous grins.
I had the keys in my hands and we were still laughing about Laura. Alex said good night but he didn’t move. I said goodnight again. I started to turn towards my door when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Alex pulled me toward him by the back of my head, giving me a full kiss on the lips. It was the first time I’d hit anyone. I hit him hard. I hit him so he wouldn’t forget.
The next morning Alex showed up to work with a black eye. I never saw him leave his cubicle. Not all day. I didn’t see him leave to use the restroom, or leave for lunch. I know because I stayed behind.
I waited for him in the garage. He froze. I leaned up against his car and waited. What do you want? He asked me. I stay silent. What is it? I still don’t answer him. I wanted him to say it for me. Come here, I finally told him. Halfway trembling he approached me. He looked both ways for witnesses. There were none. Once he was close enough I reached my hand towards his face and he flinched. I drew my hand back. That’s when he understood.
Weekends were bliss. Weekends were sealed off dimensions, a private world, and another life. Weekends were what we had for two years. Now weekends are comas and only the ghosts visit.
I opened Joanna’s mother’s door and helped her with her bags because Alex said the way to get over your own misery is to reach out. I don’t remember that sixty-something woman’s name anymore. But I remember how it felt I picked up the orange that fell from her bag, how when I handed it back, her face lit up, as though I’d dropped a sunrise in her palm.
Alex is gone. Alex and his strawberries. Alex and Applebee’s. Alex and me. Us. The world has sealed me out because I no longer have the right combination. I try on women on one after another, thinking eventually one might change my mind.
Here comes the bloody steak. Here comes the truth. Nothing is sacred.
This Man sitting across from me is a mirage, the table between us a desert holding Her sand still. My mother had insisted that I try. He’s clean cut and smells nice. He’s never been married. He’d helped her unload groceries. This Man does not know my mother has died, and I’m only here to fulfill her wish.
My mother evaporated into a Sunday night without warning. I pick up the phone because I forget that now I’m left with only my father’s lumpy distance, my father’s vacant heart. He’d loved only one person, my mother. Now my father is an empty cage.
I can’t eat anything that has ever been alive. Not since Sunday night. How did we ever convince ourselves to do it in the first place? One moment the deer walks elegantly without worries. The next, its life collides with glass, devastating my mother’s windshield. Somewhere, something knows the deer has left this world. Now all I can think of when I see meat is the remains of something that once flew or grazed or fed its young.
My mother insisted I try This Man. Not often you get a man who takes you to some fancy place, not often at all, my mother would say. My mother is really talking about my father. My mother has left my father to review his mistakes. Mistake number one: Never took your wife out to some fancy restaurant. One more after that, and he’ll lose count.
This Man orders. Steak of course. Caesar and pumpkin bisque for me.
My mother’s essence drops down the insides of my heart. It’s my mother’s dark moon face, my mother’s deep chocolate eyes, and my mother’s Oil of Olay scented neck that I imagine. Her songs reside deep inside my skin. The echo of the music rises to my chest and the warmth spreads into my throat and face.
What should I do with the food when it comes? Imagine my mother’s potato leek soup. Imagine her hand on the top of my head. I’m back to being a child. Just like that, I’m a child on a date with a thirty-five-year-old man. The youngest in my family I’ve should have crawled back into her womb.
Sunday nights are my new religion. This is my first sacrament.
Three: THE ORANGE
The woman with soft eyes, black hair, the blue wristwatch, singing along to the AM radio hasn’t returned. She sniffed me once and put me in a bowl.
I’ve heard that sometimes you wait for hours, even days. Sometimes you wait and nothing happens. Or you think nothing is happening until you smell it. My tangy scent is turning sour. I’m breaking out, fuzzy green and white blemishes.
The real tragedy is that I was never peeled. I rot from the inside out without the chance of anyone ever tasting my insides. I was once fresh. If she were to bite into my crescent shapes she wouldn’t be able to stop. That’sthe way it should’ve been for me.
New hope. People appear, shuffling through rooms, carrying empty boxes in, carrying bulging boxes out overflowing silk scarves. This must be what happens when people disappear. How long will it take before they notice my sick condition and toss me out?
Thank God for the window, for the trees, the clouds, the rain, the wind, and for the last of me, fading.