SOME GIRLS ARE BORN LITTLE and stay that way. Ankle socks.
I was born big. Well, not big, but full: thick, curvy, impossible to escape. Recess meant taking my hips for a walk by the boys in the park, no hopscotch. I’ve been bursting out of seams since grade school, do you know what that’s like? All eyes on me and they’d better not stray. Necessity is the mother of invention.
Wednesday, May 5th 2010 5:00pm
THE THIN BRANCHES that form the soft angles and delicate swoops of her arms were always the worst. In comparison my own were substantial at best and swollen as sausage casings on the bad days. She was always the beautiful one – Maria, full of light – while I have forever teetered on this precipice.
I have aunts who lurk in the shadows exclusively. They spill over chairs, take up enough room for three in crowds; obesity is exclusive to this decade in our lineage but it looks comfortable enough to settle into. The thing about that place is this: there is no blinding sunlight and there is no balance to strike. The two of them are so big that they have slipped into the ease of despair like a warm blanket. They won’t ever lose enough to make anyone’s ideal, so they have never strained a muscle to bother. Liberation amidst a fate decided.
I’ve never known that kind of faith. I have been stuck in between unnoticed and noticed for as long as I can remember: the middle, in perpetuity. It is a decidedly worse fate. The spark of potential is here in me, but it is a dim one. Not bright enough to inspire a drastic change, but there is still flame. It flickers and burns slow.
And then there is Maria. I see her face twist and contort each time it is in some proximity of candy or a steak; I see her scrutiny reflect itself back across the room from each mirror in its path. The sun gets in her eyes.
Each of my 21 years has been as unremarkable as the last, approaching, overtaking and then passing me to little fanfare. On the eve of the 22nd I bought a pair of sneakers at the Target on Atlantic; I bought yogurt instead of Entenmann’s.
Tuesday, May 4th 2010 5:00pm
The lights bent low and scraped the sidewalk before they swung upward and scaled the trees like animals. There was noise, too, and broken glass; the scene looked textbook, a sad routine. Law & Order. CSI.
But the evidence of distinction came in its cast of characters. On TV, the actors work to make us believe it: they scream in overwrought agony and try desperately to bring it home, as if our faith would spell the difference for them. But here, where drama was real and gamely cupping lives in its grave hands, there was no shouting. No sobbing. Just a sea of crestfallen faces, freshly wiped of fear, acute and newly solemn. Just opposite, a starkly different school – social workers, an army of them dotted with police, clipboards in hands and pens that clicked expressly in the night. They waited to corral each check box into the back of a van.
And out they came. Children, in a multicolored flesh tone rainbow shuffled slowly toward their own inevitabilities. Some of them, to an ideal: a loving foster family with a loving foster refrigerator on which to tack gold stars and faces in old photographs. Most would not be so lucky. The situation read itself and a mourning rain began to fall on their little heads.
I shook my own head and tugged slightly on Hank’s impossibly slight arm as we stepped gingerly past the scene. He was starting to form questions with his kid mouth but the words to explain why those children needed help to find someone to love them caught in the back of my throat. I swung him up, past my hips, up my torso, his face into the crook of my neck.
“Hey jellybean, hey,” I whispered into his dainty curls. “Let’s go see if daddy’s home yet.” He settled into my chest and peered over my shoulder as their backs were swallowed in the dark.
ed note: i’ve been gone for a minute (a week to be precise) but now i’m back with the jump off. resuming regularly scheduled programming.
Monday, May 3rd 2010 5:00pm
I SWEAR TO YOU I CAN HEAR HIM – or her, it, really – yelping softly in my head. It’s not so much words as noises: a hum, a hiccup, a low moan that greets the dawn. I wonder if everyone goes through this.
I wanted to call into work again today. I stood there, nightgown softly clinging, one hand on my belly and the other on the phone. What is it about pregnancy that demands femininity? I have been buying nothing but pink and lace and cascades of frills — even as I can see myself growing and stretching the flimsy satin in the coming months. But no one ever called this a rational state.
In the end, though, I put the phone down in its cradle and considered my wardrobe, casting aside the white chiffon dress and its coral-colored sister. My degree and reputation walk into a room ten minutes before I do; a little motherhood is nothing to ruin that over. Lawyers were meant to intimidate, not shrink into violet hues. Harvard taught me that.
But, oh. Motherhood. The word cut me off at the knees. I sat, naked from the waist up, disheveled, back on the bed. I considered crying when I first found out but it seemed ungainly, like something you ought to do. I also considered the ugly alternative. That seemed too easy, like something someone like me ought to do.
My midriff, still blessedly slim and secret-keeping, fit easily into an aggressive pantsuit. I slid on one shoe, a pointed heel, but stopped halfway and reconsidered. The light shone feebly through the hallway window, gray. I turned my ballet flats toward the door.
Friday, April 23rd 2010 5:00pm
GIRL, YOU DON’T KNOW NOTHING ABOUT ART. I looked at the box in my hand: the outside gilded, the inside weighted with the good intentions that sat squarely in the middle. The shape of goodwill is apparently too wide across the bottom and dizzyingly patterned. It was the ugliest benevolence I’d ever seen.
I was already wearing a tie but I undid the slate colored loop and tossed it aside. She held the box towards me with locked elbows, jiggling it excitedly, a habit she’d learned from our daughter on Christmas mornings. I picked it up and held it like a piece of overripe fruit.
“I saw it in a gift shop,” she gushed and her smile cracked wider. “It’s like a Picasso, right? They’ll like that at work.” The air between us felt wistful, like hope itself was radiating from her to me. It felt heavy, too. People say that tension is thick; I say you couldn’t cut this air with a machete.
“Thanks doll. I love it.” The fabric was smooth and tied easily.
Thursday, April 22nd 2010 5:00pm
IT IS THE CERTITUDE THAT GETS ME, or maybe it is the lack of sleep. Each night, restless, and each morning cursed from the start. Except this one: today it involved a slim white sheet, results, my whole life there on the page stark as a night spent awake.
He cleared his throat and adjusted his wire frames, then sat back. The white coat seemed unnaturally bright for the hour of the morning and suddenly I was acutely aware of my blinking. My eyes felt dry and I was having trouble maintaining my glance; they rolled skyward, briefly, a symptom and an indication in one. The ceiling tiles were a sickly shade of gray.
“Well,” he said, and cleared his throat again. “Well. You are certainly a very anxious young woman, aren’t you?” He peered over the orange folder holding my fate and gave me a once-over.
I realized that my legs had been crossed so tightly that I could no longer feel my toes. I loosened them and crossed them the opposite way, one over the other, methodic. I bit the insides of my lips and chewed the loose skin, preferring to stay quiet.
He fished in his pocket and produced a defeated looking white pad that was thinned by excess. With a flourish, he scribbled a means to an end on it and signed it quickly.
“Take one of these before bedtime. With food.” He held it out to me without looking; it certainly didn’t take long for him to find distraction in something other than the pallid, thin girl in front of him. “Should help you out,” he looked up. “Have you got any other questions?”
“No,” I murmured, wondering if I was dreaming: no answers had ever come so easily to me. He exhaled. I took the folder and the prescription from his desk and shuffled out into the brightness.
Wednesday, April 21st 2010 5:00pm
I DON’T MEAN TO ALARM ANY OF YOU on this train but there’s a devil in here. I ain’t talking about your no-good boyfriend asleep in the corner there or the homeless man doubled over leaning towards the local track. I’m not even talking about that punk ass little shit at the end spitting along to his PodPhone or whatever and takin’ up space. I am talking about the little gray man sitting here beside me lookin’ at everybody and hissing. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I saw him when I first got on but I sat here anyway, ‘cause, I thought maybe it would be like those great big dogs you see on the street: no bite, just bark, and as soon as you turn your head to face the direction opposite they shrink just as quick as they came. I’ve been ridin’ my gumption for 40 minutes here, people, express all the way up to the Bronx, winding up the east side with no slowdown in sight. I got on this train not afraid of no ghost but I got a feeling there’s a conversion comin’ on.
Tuesday, April 20th 2010 5:00pm
THE WORDS SWIM ON THE PAGE and it occurs to me that I am in over my head. Not that the thought hadn’t come forth in me before – but it feels new each time, a fresh wave of nausea. I have never been a good man in deep water.
The first three weeks are a memory that is muddled as well: visa requirements, immigration, employment, explaining my foreign ID to potential landlords. Everything was sharp and new but my vision stayed dim. Through that lens I managed to leave an entire bag of paperwork and old photos under a Burger King seat in JFK and locked my keys in my teetering apartment twice. They talk a lot about the different neighborhoods in this city but I could only talk about the one I’d left – wooded and small enough that no one locks their doors at night.
I saw her through that dim lens as well, but that’s how I came to understand her difference. She was a clear spot in the shroud. In the lobby, shoving her key into the 3F slot in the mailbox, she smacked her gum and shook her hair. So red, and what curls! The key grated in the lock, stuck, and she gave the silver box a mighty THWACK with her flattened palm. “God daaaammit,” she whined and immediately brought the hand, still stinging, to her mouth. She looked around to see if anyone had heard, and her eyes fell on mine, downcast. She had a cross tattooed just above her left ankle.
She dangled her foot up to that ankle in the cloudy water some months later, wiggled it, brought it back to shore. I did not take off my leather sandals. The air over Sheepshead Bay had cooled significantly since the disappearance of the sun and I wondered if she was not cold in the cut off shorts that stretched over her thighs. I had wondered a lot over the last months – where the man whose name shared space with Jesus’ on the skin on her back had gone, what she could possibly value now in a man whose English was more like a child’s. She lay on her back.
I repeated the phrases, pronouncing the sounds and not the words, and I could hear the smile forming on her face.
“That’s just right, all right.”
The chill of early evening had descended fully and we walked back to our brick exterior. The words swam in my head then like they do now, on the page, still sounds instead of words or sentences or paragraphs or lessons learned. The difference is then, I had let them; now they spring from the page and assemble themselves into visions of pancake breakfasts and babies crawling, Christmases to come. They come together to construct a foreground that is starkly clearer than what lurks in the back: black and white photographs of children in great green fields, yellowing in some landfill in Queens.
Monday, April 19th 2010 5:00pm
THE OLD DOG HELD ON UNTIL THE VERY END. He kept us waiting at his bedside, gaining our sea legs on land. The floor, the green tile, the click-clack of nurse’s clogs swallowed by the hallway. The declaration of our presence was less pronounced: a shuffle, a squeak. We’ve never been a loud breed.
The papers had been in order for weeks: the advance directive, the DNR form, and the will. At the ready, too, were the twinsets: pressed, black, and heavy. The Miller women all owned exactly one set of mourning pearls. Not big enough to be gaudy, but not too small to impress. Just like the Miller women themselves.
We’d taken shifts during that last week; the idea of dying alone is a terrifying one, and not an experience we wanted to survive, even vicariously. But he held on. And so, when we passed one another in the hall, in the go-between, we gave each other knowing looks. We beamed understood questions into the air, even though we already knew their answers: is it time yet? No? No. The check was signed, sealed, but not yet delivered.
The stories had spilled out of him in his youth: he would leak words and as children we would sit on each knee and cup the adjectives and nouns, unique like diamonds, in our hands. We could spot a gem when we saw it, even then. But now, as an old man, his words had ceased. The lungs that had propelled accounts of war and love and his first mustang were the very thing that were failing him now and he had certainly never been one to forgive treason.
His worn face receded into the pillow; my feet dangled above the floor. I sighed and shifted my weight in the red plastic seat of the chair set up next to his bed. Turned a page in my Marie Claire. And another. It took a full minute for me to realize that his eyes were open, dry, straining, and turned directly to me. I put an awkward hand atop the green blanket.
His eyes narrowed and widened, his jaw slacked and then straightened. I saw the muscles in his neck work, bulge, to bring his head slightly more forward.
“Don’t let me die,” he rattled. “Don’t pull that plug, don’t you dare.”
His head fell back against the white linen, drawn tight suddenly by exhaustion. Visions of courtrooms and darker vigils ahead swam before my eyes. Check unsigned. I picked at the lint pilling the top of the blanket, rolling each carefully in my fingers and sat back in the chair without a word. The house was filled with white flowers, sent out of duty and anticipation. They would all shrivel.
Dead flowers are of no use to anyone. I picked up the magazine again.
Friday, April 16th 2010 5:00pm
WE HAVE ARRIVED AT THE HALFWAY POINT OF OURSELVES. Today, a glance to the bottom of the hill. The decisive point, gaining speed.
We didn’t know it then when we met, him and I – 19, my legs, his arms, bare. We certainly knew it by the time we were wed – 21, in stockings now, rolled striped sleeves. Auntie May barely made it: senility had her by the throat then, squeezing her brain stem shut. She sat in the periphery and clapped through her tears each time my big white dress marched past. She had always loved lace.
Roger’s arms were bigger than my two hands wrapped around them, and I held onto one and imagined they were the fat branches across the river in Decatur. The thought made me feel so small in such a large white tent.
‘I don’t ever want to be that way, Gloria,’ he cleared his throat and looked past me.
‘In what way?’ I asked, flippant, feeling the ripples under his flesh as he shifted.
He nodded at the old woman. Her hands were clutched around a granddaughter’s face, feeling, trying to coax recognition from the grooves. There were white flecks of cake and spittle on her lips that culminated in a wet puddle on her silk dress. Anna sat patiently as she was close, too close, and asked her again, do you know where my hat is, you pretty young thing?
‘I’m not so sure that’s a matter of choice,’ I said eventually, quietly enough so no one would hear. ‘I think you have to take it as it comes.’
He looked at me in a way that stopped my heart dead in the air. ‘Do we?
I think we imagined halfway might be more decrepit than this, like the roughly hewn wood beneath us on the dock that night. Skin rougher. Bones creakier. But the eventual 50 years together sounded like a lot, tipping toward unbearable. We had shaken hands solemnly. Seventy one is too many years for anyone to see with grace.
‘We made it!’ his face was alive, rolling with laughter. ‘Lady, to the next half.’
I burst into tears. Until this point, it had all seemed shrouded and half-real: the research into pills, the map of the lake where we would clasp hands in wait. The matching burial plots. But here and now, the halfway point, the jagged reminder of the end. It felt like peering into a manhole. The darkness surging forward, a lifeline in decline. He embraced me, held my shoulders to him, and whispered into my hair.
‘Gloria. We agreed.’
Thursday, April 15th 2010 5:00pm