Childhood Swan Song

At fourteen, in a compulsory annual meeting with my guidance counselor, I felt a frustration that worked its way into my mind and habits.

He fell into a practiced speech, listing the requirements for graduation, noting my successful completion of my classes and giving me my schedule. I nodded to him, I stared out into the circular courtyard beyond his office, and up at the sky. I watched his pupils dilate as he spoke from the light coming in from the window.

I knew I was supposed to feel that enclave-feeling of protection. For once, I was supposed to have an ear in which to pour the accumulating thoughts and insecurities. But I hesitated. I was not certain how this put-together man in his forties would understand that I was dating another fourteen year old girl in my class. What could he tell me about her expectations of me? Would he redden or feel attraction, or hate? I would wonder similar things as I sat through three more of these meetings.

Once, after a student in my class died in a car accident, I sent him a frustrated email and his response was “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know a child has died?” He followed his response with a more polite apology, describing the stress of meetings with the child’s parents and friends.

I knew Mike was dead. He was in my second-grade art class, and his mother made him wear turtlenecks then. That was before he got into motocross and switched out of Honors classes. I cried remembering him how he used to pick his nose.

I always felt raw. I wanted breaks from classes and meetings where my somnambulation was all that was required.

When I got my counselor’s first email, my face flushed. But my body felt relief; I knew something genuine, and I knew I was wrong.

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Gingerbread

After the trees drop their leaves, and we drift back into our houses, the space heater comes out. It is Japanese, and from the ’80s.

Heralding the winter, this warm angel fills the house with an electric churning sound. It bares its grated face to the living room. The flame trapped inside it rises and falls like a licking tongue.

At four or five I would lay down in front of it. Close to the noise and warmth, I felt the mechanical curiosity that Victorians had for steam engines – an awe of electric lights and of the science of assembly.

About this time, my mother and I made croissants, not realizing it takes a full 24-hours. We got impatient, microwaved the butter (a horrible mistake) and mixed it in with all of the other ingredients. We made buttery rocks. And at the end, we both confessed to being entirely nonplussed as to why our failure to follow the recipe led us astray. Everything was measured correctly, anyways.

After one or two attempts to eat what we made, I took the rest of our creations outside to the backyard, and a stretch of forest beyond. I was feeding the animals, my mother said. I took care in arranging the pastries, thinking about where the birds or foxes might find them.

Christmas came and went and towards the beginning of February, when the snow melted and re-froze, my mother decided to make gingerbread. Spices and molasses, butter and flour became brown sheets.

When she was finished my mother brought out cookie cutters of cupids and angels. “These cookies are for your father for Valentine’s Day,” Mom said. “Ok,” I said. And we cut cupids out of the brown sheets, and my mom cut small circles in their heads. We strung red ribbons through their heads and hung a chain of cookies from the ceiling. A few times we had to reinforce the tape sticking the ribbon to the ceiling.

She made so many cookies we had to put them in the Tupperware with the tan lids – the big ones used for holidays.

When my Dad came that weekend, he laughed at the string of cookies. “What’s this?” he asked. “Mom made them,” I said. “They’re cookies. They’re for you!”

“Why did you make gingerbread?” he asked Mom. She showed him the recipe book, with the photographs – “Yes, but why gingerbread?” he continued, “Have I ever told you that I like gingerbread?”

“I like gingerbread,” I said.

My Dad grabbed three cookies and moved to the couch. He had at least one cupid and at least one angel – a good variety.  He stopped mid-mouthful. “Elch,” he said. “These are horrible! They taste like cardboard. Just get rid of them now.”

Mom looked at me. “But we had some earlier…” “Yes Daddy,” I said, “I had milk too.”

“You crazy?” he said. “I bet even the birds wouldn’t eat these things. They’ll be in the backyard for ages.” I thought of our angels all over the snow. It made me sad.

A few days later Mom told me to take the cookies out to the backyard. Dad wouldn’t eat them and sometimes on the phone he would say things like, “Fucking Martha Stewart – what man wants to come home to a chain of cardboard angels!” The people on the other end would laugh, usually.

I put our angels on the snow. For the first time I thought about how dark we would all look against the clouds of heaven. I was pinkish, but everyone is tan compared with white.

It did not make me happy to think about the animals, but I made sure the angels were faced up and not touching one another, in case it was a sin to do otherwise.

Singularity

I am a blue dot. Or a red dot, depending on the day.

I can be seen moving down a sidewalk that is grey; against a backdrop that is of brick or steel or glass rectangles or squares.

No matter the effort I expend when choosing the blue dress, the red shirt, the brown pants, I am one dot among many dots lining the city streets.

When I came here, I did not feel the horror, the ‘inhumanity’ of being passed by unknown faces, traveling their own conveyor belts. I did not become a stranger by boarding a plane, or by arriving, or by settling where I settled – just off the green line, a few blocks south from the top of the park.

No matter how well we think we are known, we are determined anonymously.  Our choices did not accumulate, instead falling like rain on a surface. We carry out no destiny from pure decision; we did not choose the arrangements of our faces.

When I look into the grey eyes of the doctors, the bankers, the lawyers, I imagine some genetic sculptor planning shoulders that will fill a suit, or a pair of scrubs nicely. At some social manufactory, my sculptor obeys the dimensions of patterns for secretaries and presidents. And he takes naps he cherishes his own singularity.

Portrait

My cousin posted a picture of my mom at the holidays. In the picture, Mom stares out the window, past the porch of our childhood home, into the woods.

Mom’s hair is grey and sun blonde now. Without resting, she rests her chin on her hand. Her eyes squint as if she’s staring into a floodlight, or as if she is in pain.

Maybe we, my brother, my sister and I, are the sources of her pain. Maybe we stare her down from memory. Or maybe it’s from some deeper source: from the rise of her expectations, from their friction with each sight and sound – each the evidence of the world’s violation.

Her face is thin and tired beneath the tan. Her expression is without demand. When she yelled or tried to implement rules, she would fail by breaking them herself. And she only tried when she was angry, when the world disagreed and she felt it.

And she was forgetful. We would come home to locked doors and snow, more than once climbing in through the bathroom window. We were blamed for the snow on the bathroom floor and for the heat bill.

Perfume in the stale, old-food smell of the minivan and the warmth from the dashboard fans in winter. She drove me to ballet or hiphop on Saturday mornings. I see her wide eyes in the rearview mirror, her lips smacking, applying an umber shade of lipstick. Her image is infused and I will not forget it.

 

Join me in hell

Houses here are gated and low to the ground. The gate draws together your portion of sand so it’s finite. A dot, a pearl of property held in the palm of the mountains that loom beyond the dirt city.

I’m outside my friend’s gate with a quiche staring at two layers of wrought iron. Through the grate I see sandstone walls and my tired friend leaving the house in T-shirt to meet me for coffee despite the fact that I’m early. She lets me in and I follow her to the kitchen, where we chat and she pours two mugs of coffee. We set the quiche in the oven and she shows me the mechanics of her house – the doors that stick when you close them, the locations of light switches. She explains that her cats will run out in the yard even though they aren’t supposed to.

I’m cat-sitting. It’s a position of privilege. For a whole week I will extend my domain to the couch in my friend’s living room, to the lounge chairs on her back porch.

When the quiche is ready we move to a table in the front yard and talk. We look at each other despite the sun and we share the most recent events, from dull changes in routine to insecurities. She is peaceful, I am not. She wonders why she overcommits herself, I tell her I’m scared of my next steps and I don’t know if I’ll be a good lawyer.

Before I leave I tell her what I’ll get her for a Christmas present and she gives me a book she told me about reading a month ago “in like three hours – it’s so good.”

In my car I start my car and as I drive home I think about how I have just let someone in. I have just let someone expect a Christmas present. Somehow she smiled about it.

When the feeling began, I was young. I sensed that I would die. I saw the rot in the world and I felt myself in it. Reconsidering my attachments, I grew internal. My thoughts became longer chains. And under the chains, the assumption remained: I am contagious, I am designed to die. As potential relationships emerged before me I dismissed them with the thought of their brevity, not even moments in my minute of life.

Illness – I think it was illness that prevented me from seeing the joy that could erupt in a joke told to the right person. While depressed, I didn’t see reactions. My emotion was consuming fog: effective isolation.

The novelty of death wears off. Growing older, it becomes commonplace, even in the drugged and developed world. I see a dead bird on the highway. I see dust grind fences down.

Dad’s thoughts

He lets them pool around rocks. But like moss or grass, the thoughts grow roots and don’t flow. When I call, he circles back in on himself, in reverberating circles.

“…she complains I don’t call or take care of her. But I’m there every weekend, I put in the air conditioners…”

“…these lawyers are just the worst. Now they’re asking about her green card. It’s like, she has a green card, that’s not even the lawsuit…”

“Yeah, I’m heading down now. Sure, I’m stopping at grandma’s. Boy, she loves you…to put in the air conditioners…”

Tidal, seasonal – the familiar march to heart and back again. He is sorry he is unrecognized. He is sorry he is subject. He is sorry he is superior.

It is through love that sometimes I am sorry I called. Like I stepped on charybdis when I aimed for carpet or for the warm hard wood my father favors, and that covers the floors at home.

Especially when thinks of my mother, when he tells my childhood as a tragedy. For a summer – I lost a summer- to pinning up his ideas, translating partial child-memories into arrows or lines in the missives he told, which I began believing.

When I gave up and quit writing for law I broke the images and ideals he gave me. He did not know I left New York after attempting suicide.

I crave understanding. I imagine giving him the news, how he might brush the hair from my temples to say, “oh…my writer, my thin blanket daughter…” How a pause might come…

Families in Public

Are anxiety-provoking. Not because of the inherent chaos – the toddler that loses a shoe that’s run over by a backing-up Ford Explorer, or the carseat that fails to buckle properly while the grocery cart rolls to a halt in the middle of the parking lot – but because of how absent such events are from grown-up memory.

Homes are degrees of broken. Breaking gradually, relationships might stall or stop as new families erupt and generate a gravity-like pull to the center, the nucleus. Or, as in my case, scarring fireworks might clip off supposedly-unconditional bonds.

Breakfasting this morning with a girl I mentor, she told me how upset she is when she hears her friends or her boyfriend conversing easily with parents and relatives. I told her I relate. Kind questions about my family and how well they are doing can trigger envy, resentment, rage, sadness and self-hatred in me.

I don’t remember the warm parts of the chaos of childhood, at least not accurately. Subsequent events overshadow them.

I think of talks with my mother in the car. How we sat together, sometimes unspeaking, with sun flashing between the trees and remnants of snow on the ground. Of how she would put out her arm to shield me from sudden stops when I sat in the passenger seat.

But the undercurrent violence wins. “I will not see you again.” “I will not want to.” Images in my memory bear these lines like watermarks.

Most often, I think of how my mother once left my younger brother in a department store. Of how she swore as she turned the car around. And the memories don’t make me want to look back.