Mermaids

I open my hands and shut them. I feel the muscles extend, grow, contract, widen, freeze into a ball.

I fold and unfold, marvelous as seaweed or wheat under sun and air, perhaps underwater I am continually moving.

Pain feels like stillness, erupting stills, like solid blocks supporting memory that flows. I push through as I swim. My head clears, my arms above my head as if I am a supplicant child. These walls give as much as the sun; they tell the space of my life beyond this pool of water.

Stretching out my mind builds a future. My path to the locker rooms, my body underwater again, under echoing linoleum, fluorescent and unchanging sky.

I will go to class to have time wring the water out of my bones. Listening, I will be restless to float back to where I am, under blue and in the blue chlorine.

I shiver when I leave the water, becoming bipedal again. It’s as if I know I am a mermaid, not a feature, a fixture, a facet of land but a droplet of water.

Advertisements

Zenith

“I married a woman who would not make me tired.”

“I married a woman who would not want to talk about politics at night.”

“Your mother, she could never be a political wife.”

 

-Themes in my father’s confessionals in the car.

 

We drove from my hometown, where he lived his final days of married life, to silence and Maine, to close-knit pine boughs and silent snow.

The journey is scenic, or it is highway – alternately. In fall, my hometown erupts in yellows and hysterical orange. The many ponds freeze slightly over. Jags of white and blue mirror amplify the reds, the browns of multifoliate forest.

From the school bus, we would see mist rise as the ice began to melt, and it would obscure familiar houses, leaving the colonial scenes incomplete and subject to rifts in memory.

Recitals of shortcomings persuade over time.

My mother silent after my political rants about President Bush. My mother’s deferral to other opinions. My mother and the other mothers in the pick-up line, and apart from their manicured mass. My mother picking me up at tennis lessons, her flyaway hair, her Boston accent, her wild laugh.

In childhood when the walls of self are down and disengaged, what you cannot do becomes what I cannot do.

I wanted to swing car keys like my mother. To wipe off lipstick in the rearview mirror. But I wanted to affect a power I saw in other people, to initiate the silence my father did. To tame my hair and clothes and schedule into country club order.

Associating with you, I build the weaknesses I can handle, the weaknesses that do not erode love or respect, the desire to be near and the desire to be known.

I did not sense my own limitations. I would play and assume my wants would settle into my reality as I became adult-looking. But one day, after caking my shoes with mud, I slipped and held the wood of our swing-set structure, getting wood splinters in my tiny palms.

My father held my hands outstretched and he paused before lowering the tweezers to my skin. “No calluses,” he said. “You will always be a lady.”

And then I began to perceive the work of self-creation.

There were so many ladies. I decided the best type were the ones that made cookies for you before you got home, like my friend Elizabeth’s mom.

But as I grew I found myself at odds with the packaging. When I would fold my floral clothes, I felt the absence of some essential element. I realized that hours of my day might be vacant if I stayed at home to bake. I realized men were difficult and loud, that mothers were political and unkind.

Instead of inspired, I felt capped by the problematic zenith of who I might be as a lady. As a wife – if I were a wife – I would be a political wife. As a mother – if I were a mother – I would be tender. I would wipe off lipstick in my rearview mirror. But what would I do with the reach of my mind in all those exposed hours?

Post-sex cigarette

Ruddy-faced pictures of my friend at eleven show unkempt hair, a dolphin T-shirt, and over-sized board shorts. Certainly not glamorous. The contrast that exists, between my friend as she is and my friend as she was then, was irrelevant to our conversation.

My friend told me about her growing pains because she could see mine. In response to those first shocks of rejection, I’d adopted diets that led to acne. My haircut was awful. Because I was dissatisfied with myself, I lost too much weight. At one point, I stopped eating from anxiety. As she did my hair and make-up before a date she unfolded her eleven-year old images to me, confiding the slow creation of her image from raw, awkward, child material. I felt so comforted.

A few moments ago, I pulled the pins out of my hair and untangled the braids. I let it fall around my face, and I asked myself yet again if I was beautiful. I think this is a ritual question. Shockingly I had an answer a few weeks ago, after sex. He said, “you know, you are just so beautiful.” And I believed him. He was the first partner who shared my ethnic background. So how could I disagree with someone in whom I saw some shade of that same beauty?

I was attracted by our differences. His indigenousness, his proximity to my heritage compared with my isolation in the mixing pot. And he was older, understood more. And he’d seen the whole world and knew I was naive, despite my own travel. And he left.

I am not prone to much reaction. I don’t cry in public, I don’t chase people. I know that catching someone in a scene does not allow you to keep them. When he left, I kissed him goodbye, and grimaced when he said, “If only this were another place and time. I wonder what would happen with us.” As if he were interested.

Now when I stare in the mirror, I imagine I have control over the shape of my eyes or the pout of lips. And that in them – in the posing and posturing and applying of creams – some alchemy exists. That belief creeps in to override what he’d said about the vacation he’d planned, about his unwillingness to settle down “for, like, the next ten or twenty years.” It threatens the revelation I had that I am, in some sense, beautiful.

And it is not so painful to believe that my beauty, like the beauty in so many ordinary things, might be realized and let go, or simply go unappreciated. It is painful to think that my significance was dismissed or pre-empted, but because I only have control over my interface, I end up here, in front of a mirror. Critiquing my upper arms, for Chrissakes.

More damningly, I find myself closing the door. On opportunities, on events, and on would-be friends and the experiences we might have had. I insure myself against the possibility of rejection through an ascetic denial of the role I might play in other lives.

Sitting with myself, I find it easy to belief that another insider, someone with my knowledge of myself, would walk (or run) away. The way I ruminate. My maddening studiousness and my guilt over a thousand nothings. And the reality, the moments of rejection themselves are not so bad. It’s a mild pain. But like a bee sting, you can’t blow it off. It eats in, like the nihilism that comes afterwards for me.

I wish I could blow or burn it off. Maybe through a cigarette. Maybe I could delay whatever pain is there through the true indifference that more pleasure might bring. But I worry that these minor aches are part of some grander narrative that colludes to make acceptance sweeter. That fantasy is my post-sex cigarette.