The damp footsteps of words waiting to be written paint the underside of my frontal lobe with tongues limp from thrashing all night.
I’ve been taking loose stabs for two years now, and this is just one more. I want to put it straight though: people die all the time. They’re just not allowed to be people who know me.
My hands are known to be warm but not sweaty. There are six hands in this story and that’s being unforgiving. Four of these hands are silent.
Her hands are remembered in the context of one moment of devotion. Like the snagging hem of second-best pants or the chapped lips of an old teacup, it was an instance where attention did not mean love. Her fingernails were painted a teal, blue-ish color, good for July, good for sixteen. Good. Her fingers were thin without being bony, girlish and blackberry sweet. This was all purposeful, I know. She was so tied up in being someone I wanted to look at. I told her I loved her all the time, and I told my friends I wasn’t lying. Summers end, that’s what they do. These hands were compromising; they were well-trained where natural talent was lacking. They were sticky in a way that’s only sexy when you’re young and boiled, with the sweat that gathers in pools at the bottom of the world. In ten-year’s time I will remember her the way you remember a picture: the square root of a memory. She was a quaint affair.
I can remember as a child, a day we went ice skating, and another pair. Her hands were leagues of different, because the distinction of old and young is the only difference that matters when you yourself are young, and her hands were old. Motherly. In freezing temperatures they turned painfully white. Her blood stalled and her hands grayed into a sickening veined marble. I was young, barely knowing bones for their owners, and it seemed as if she was turning inside out, decaying before our very eyes. When the rest of her body did start decaying, the only ripple of fear I felt was that of standing a bit too firmly, walking a bit too fast, my hands dry and lukewarm. I had seen it all before.
You’re in a room with one calendar and two windows. One window takes up the whole wall in front of you. You couldn’t look away if you wanted to. You want to.
In the first window you see a house, two stories and a basement. Built in the 1940s. Brick, midway up a hill. There’s a driveway and a gate to the backyard on the right. A small walkway from the driveway to the door, and a stone bench in the front yard. Gardenias. Four steps up to the front door. There is smoke pithily scrabbling out of a window on the second floor. The smoke is morning-gray and mocking. You know this house. It’s nearly impossible to sneak out of because of the creaky stairs, and if you open the window by the bathroom there’s a perfect spot on the roof to sit and think. There’s a fish tank in the basement with no fish in it and a freezer which only houses popsicles for when the perpetually swampy summers become unbearable. You know which seat the cat prefers. You know this house. You know that if one October night you (plural) try to make chicken nuggets before the football game the oven will overheat and the fire alarm will go off and you will be standing on a dining table chair waving an oven mitt in earnest and laughing. You know that if on New Year’s Eve you (plural) skim a little bit off the top of every bottle in the liquor cabinet, no one will notice and you will saunter into the new year drinking vodka from champagne glasses and feeling impossibly grown up. You will retch in the sink in the morning, but you will laugh about that too. You know this house like you know the best friend that lives in it, a knowing more conscious than the way you know your own house, the way you might know a lover’s hands if you had chosen to learn them. This is a knowing stitched of love. There is love in this house, love and smoke and the orange glow now beginning to lick the corners of the foundation. It’s raining today, like it’s been raining all summer. It’s smoke like hair falling out, significant only because it reveals the parasite that has buried itself within. The rain doesn’t make a difference.
If you turn around, past the first window and past the calendar, you will find the second window. It is smaller and frosted over like a shower pane. The window itself is decorated: pretty but indistinct, the sort of thing you would like if you weren’t you, which is to say you don’t like it very much at all but you’re trying to keep an open mind. When the condensation melts away you are looking into a dorm room. You’ve been in the room twice. It’s like every other dorm room you’ve been in, every room you’ve lived in. You’ve done a lot of living in dorm rooms: you’ve danced and put on makeup and thrown up and curled up sick and howled in ecstasy, you’ve kissed in dorm rooms and put paper under your tongue, you’ve studied and squirmed and called home. This is just one more thing you’ve done in a dorm room. There are two figures laying on the small bed on the left side of the room. You’re wearing a gray shirt and denim shorts. You had kept your belt on. She was wearing shorts and a shirt you can’t remember the color of. You remember her lips on your neck, the satisfaction of inevitability, the satisfaction of your will enacted. You wanted this life, so you have it. You wanted a soda from the fickle vending machine and she lent you a dime. You remember a different kind of satisfaction: “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” Oh, and the talking. Not with her of course, her pillow talk consisted of telling you her favorite president was Abraham Lincoln and Yale was her dream school (she didn’t get in). No, frankly there should’ve been less talking. I mean the telling. You would lay the whole story out over brunch or sit in a field with your friends after class and paint a pretty picture. You expounded on the virtues of hearing one’s name whispered and crackling, again and again like a scratched record. Your prowess is peer reviewed now and you’ve earned full marks. You throw in a final note: after everyone had caught their breath, she looked up at you with eyes of a color you can’t recall and said, “You’re not just going to ignore me now after this?” “Of course not! Why would I do that?” You pitied her, but you also meant it. If you can’t love her, you can at least show her what it might look like and still get your kicks for two weeks. You’re so much better prepared now, for summers more fun than this. You know how to give someone what they want and not go home hungry yourself.
But you are not in the dorm room or the burning house. You are in the room with the calendar. This is not an action, this is a memory, and this is not a memory, this is a memory interpreted. This is a story. The calendar is blank. There’s only room for one mark on each day. There is a pen in your hand. This is a story.
I hated her after that summer, like I hated every blind thing that crawled on all fours, like I hated the expansive, dusty feeling of being in the theatre again, like I hated football games and rain.
It was September. The weather had just turned. We had waited out the heat and exiting the car I felt the breeze on my arm where the wind hadn’t stirred for months. I was glad for the weather at least, and wearily calm. It seemed fitting; a kind of poetic justice delivered. It would make dressing for the occasion easier. I had made this sort of social call before. I knew what to do.
The windows were stained glass, just like I had remembered. We’ve been promoted to third row so this time around we won’t have to bend to catch the meandering platitudes as they descended from the altar. It’s a remarkably sunny October afternoon, and this is my velvet-pressed debutante ball to the underworld. I was so worried my memory had betrayed me, but those technicolor wartime pastiches managed a grasp of comfort. I’m no church expert, merely aware of variety, and it oscillates between the waxy macabre and the sanitized hospital white. Did St. Francis ever shudder in an alleyway in shame and rage, cursing every kind of father? Did he ever miss getting drunk? Who do the saints pray to when the night burns lonely? Was Michael ever a kid choking on his hometown, desperate to feel his pulse again? Was Gabriel ever a pimply band kid whose hands sweat and shook when tying ties? I was in the middle of a letter when she died. Empty, lyrical, grateful for services that hardly require thanking. Oh, but to think of how happy she was to have me over for dinner just last month. There’s a bitter echo in there somewhere, of other funerals and other deaths: Oh, to think we were playing Yahtzee just a week ago, before he put a bullet in his brain. If I could really write, I’d claw my way up to God and bang on his latched eyelids and poison his tea and sit him down under studio lights and mic him and say, “God, we’re happy to have you on the show, now just one quick question: why did you decide to kill my best friend’s mom? Sore subject? Okay, we’ll try another one. Why Mary, God? You sly fox, you coy bastard, why her? I mean surely you knew what would happen? Why the nails in his hands, God, I mean think of his poor hands?”
I’m never prepared for normal post-funeral conversation. Shouldn’t someone be raging, or weeping silently, or punching mirrors? Shouldn’t we all be quietly grotesque, out of respect? We are not. There are pool table pleasantries. There is no death in the Louvre, only recycling. Bones as frames. Blood as oil. My father cried today, which I don’t even think he did at my birth. He held the crinkling program in his hands and said, “I’m finding it very difficult to look at her face.” I looked at the windows instead.
I think of nuns hiding from red falling skies. I want to skip town and find a new name, as if the grief was tied to my driver’s license. I think of what it was like in Italy after Rome fell, like a creaking chandelier shattering on a ballroom floor, a fading starlet croaking on the balcony in front of everybody. I imagine it was like living in the ribs of a great carcass, not quite picked clean, still rotting, not growing but not dying either. Whole people misplaced in church basements, whole forests wilting. How could the priorities change so quickly? How could they just decide it didn’t matter anymore?
There’s a kind of social carbon dating you can do in times like these, that by looking at what has slipped away you can tell how much was originally there. If you look at the empty hull of a thing you might be able to imagine what it once was. This was once the full body of a woman. This was once a love affair. This was once a house.
Here’s how to map out the exterior when you’ve only seen the guts, here’s how to master foreign flesh, here’s how to scream and cry and leave home. Here’s how to lie until your teeth are black and blue. Here’s how to kiss with just the right amount of tongue. There’s a lot of things left to learn, and there’s a difference between knowing you should learn how to drive and knowing how to drive, like there’s a difference between redecorating the kitchen and painting over bloodstains, like there’s a difference between 16 and 17.
I think of Notre Dame during Napoleon’s coronation. After the Renaissance, the Europeans were bitterly embarrassed of the old Medieval style, and much like a high school freshman tearing down the preteen magazine cut-outs adorning her walls in the hope of inviting new friends over, they would redecorate the cathedral for important events. December 2, 1804, and all of France is glowing with the promise of both a glorious future and a return home. Notre Dame is cloaked in velvet curtains, all the Gothic arches made Roman. Our Lady sings out in modern gold, she is hip, she is fashionable. If you peel back the curtains and the trappings though, it’s all still there. Church vulgar.
In the years since I have felt passion and I have felt the aftermath of passion. I have studied the taxonomy of passion, I have named it and framed it and wept in the dark all the same. I have done my fair share of begging on my knees. I have done my fair share of confessing, enough to know that when you swallow your curb appeal and finally speak, something maudlin: I hate the world for not being you and I hate you for not wanting me, it feels less like a profession of love and more like how the postman must have felt delivering telegrams with news of the war dead. Knowing this I can be grateful for a summer without hunger. I followed the rules, I ate with no appetite and drank with no thirst. I painted tongues and thought, I can live with this.
The problem is not the hunger or the satisfaction, but the grey sleepless place between the North and South poles, tossing and turning in between the guilt that comes with slick indifference and the despondent pleading for a daybed. Sometimes summertime is a conference room with not enough chairs and sometimes summertime is an assembly hall with too many speakers. Sometimes summertime is lonely and ugly and still makes for a great scrapbook. Often it’s a bathtub that cannot accommodate two—there’s no leg room for unplanned tragedy beneath planned victory and youth spills onto the bathroom floor.
What do you get when you lose a mother? Do you hear music now, in between bookshelves? Are you younger, are you older? Are you missing vertebrae, are you missing teeth?
Here is what you get: you get to miss a day of school. You get to finish the birthday cake still sitting in the fridge. You get lots of people touching you on the arm. You get the freedom to scream and the freedom to knit your lips together and never ever talk about it. You get to practice this silence in the mirror.
You do lose a few vertebrae.
I remember: I identify the wound. I write: I cauterize the wound. There is blood on my hands. My life is not my own. To remember is to offer an opinion. To write is to separate life from reality, to relinquish ownership. The second I write it down it turns into fiction.
I am putting pen to paper. I am on my way home. This is not an action, this is a memory, and this is not a memory, it is a memory interpreted. This is a story.