Her fingertips were neither hot nor cold, and since the sunlight was slow to wane I found myself waiting to draw the blinds against what was no view at all: burnt grass and weeds, metal rails dented along the dull, dizzy road. On the tables were candles with wicks to be trimmed, olive and cream and sandalwood candles, most misshapen from previous burnings as I dislike artificial light. Soon she’ll lift her hand from my head and I will protest until it returns to tell me other things, and others, to take away.
We sit at a picnic table cut from rough wood. It holds two Corona bottles—one for salt, one for pepper—but no tablecloth, as if its legs are sunk in the sand by the sea, or its slats shade the ants through the reeds in a park.
She is younger than I, the middle child of parents who sheltered her from weather harsh and lovely. She touches me with a sadness she cannot explain, a sadness I have come to love like a toy that is breaking. When I was a girl there was my stepfather who came back from Vietnam. That was what was said and what they kept on saying. He came back from Vietnam. It defined him. I did not know my father, but this man and what he did would not let me be whole. And there was my mother . . . who would not believe me but who said I should forgive; who loved roosters and had them everywhere. Porcelain roosters on the kitchen counter, red rooster mats, gold rooster tablecloths, rooster curtains in the bedroom, a rooster clock on the hallway wall, an over-stuffed rooster in the room with the TV. It was too much to think, too much to feel, if I kept together; so I split apart and I was on one side, it on the other. I learned, too, that I could leave my body if my head was the balloon. I got really good at splitting, at leaving, but like any habit it began to dictate. Surviving, so far from thriving, such things so hard to unlearn.
I took her to meet them one Easter. At first my stepfather kept to himself on the patio. But soon she shook his hand and he shook back. I talked with him about his boat, about wanting to get out on the water. Back in the garage, there were Easter eggs hidden for my nephew to find: ovals the blue of jays and the palest yellow . . . the odd lime green. She stopped to look at the petits fours on the table and left for the uncut field to play ball with the boy. My mother’s face strained against the afternoon light, her lined lips taut and repainted. He talked of their neighbours and renovating the patio floor. And although the wind whistled the minutes grew thicker, and it was long before I again saw her, wristing the ball up and down, into the air and back in her palm, my nephew and his bike’s balloon lollygagging behind her.
She told me later why she had left. She wanted her eyes to sting with sweat. She wanted the razor grass, the roughness, the groan that vibrates from the ground through the body. She wanted the hourglass to empty. She told me, “Do not get on a boat with him. Don’t sit with the dimensions of his words, the body inside his clothes.”
I say, “Please . . . not yet.” Because now she is lifting her hand, the same hand I have slapped away from where my back becomes small. How is the past only one touch away? Roosters loom from the walls of my mind as if time is the same long passageway, where what is long gone gains immediacy like a specter’s breath at my neck. I hold her hand and rest it on my head, and I keep holding until she sighs a soft OK. My pieces are many and jagged, yet sometimes I feel where she is rough I am smooth.
Yesterday I was grading middle school papers. She was reading Anne Carson on the balcony and getting angry. “What does this mean?” She shoved the book at me, “Do you understand?” I looked at the page without reading it and I said it was poetry; I understood that much. But the others in her class seem to understand in the way she does not. And even as she pretended to fling the book I saw that she would take it with her into the tub later. Her first essay overflowed the words she had learned for her SATs. She sits toward the back and does not raise her hand; but at exam time she is the one to hover over her paper to keep the professor to the end of the empty class.
We play night Scrabble at this picnic table and I always win. The candlelight is a texture on the tiles, sanding this edge, shining that, so I feel that the black letters might be etched into ivory. Many years ago the flyers said: To think that ivory is little more than a tusk, the primary tool of a ponderous beast that, after taming—little more than torture—could be held by a string around its scarred ankle. I taped them to the doors inside the bathroom stalls at the zoo. She knows all these Scrabble words but something keeps her from them. I imagine sometimes I see wire shadows in her eyes or bottle shards in broken silhouettes. Glass, Irony and God—that’s the book she wanted to throw over the rail. Another day, her bowed head in Rumi, she said: “Any color that exists is right there in the parking lot below.” She rose and rested her elbows on the rail. “The stone chips in the asphalt. . . . Drop something and stoop for it; then you’ll see.” And shortly after she was triumphant, “Reasons for holding back fly off like doves. Now this is poetry!”
She has kissed the hairline scars on my wrist. In these straggly cuts I see my will to live and my discontent with that will. “It is true,” I’ve told her—“I cross myself more than any Catholic”—and she should know; she, who used to roll beads between her fingers . . . wood, pearl, plastic, glass, each one a prayer, whether she said it or not. In the early days I would go to her apartment with the Sacred Heart above the door, and at least twice per visit, even at delicate moments—I couldn’t help it—I’d interject like a camera lens or a conscience, but mostly a nosing trumpet, “Look! Jesus is watching!” though her face only deadpanned. The kitchen was close to that front door. I washed her freshly cut hair in its sink one afternoon, both of us bent together and my hands in the water, the warm lather, the remnants caught on her temples and needling beneath her collar. I held the towel heavy with water while she held herself and backed into the counter, her face a bright background, her words catching and gushing, “I feel like moss must in the morning. Ha! Say that three times—fast.”
“Do you still pray?” I ask her now, though it is time to draw the blinds.
Her hand drags and then resumes, and when I think she isn’t going to answer she says, “I think I do.”
“I went to church once, you know?”
“Oh really,” she says, more tickled than skeptical.
“Yeah. It was sort of like a cult.”
Although she’s laughing I continue, “And they were big on varnish. I mean all the wood: the pews, the podium, the piano. . . . Varnish was huge. Everyone was standing and kneeling and saying the same words at the same time. They scared me. Except for this one kid across the aisle. The lady in front dropped a twenty and he knelt right down and stole it.”
“Money in the temple,” she winks and then studies the blinds. “Remember that book I was telling you about? On the comm-od-if-i-cation of experience? My English prof and his hideous highway talk: the strip malls, the chain restaurants, the wretched car dealerships.”
Before I can nod she starts channeling, “‘Class, I’m having issues with things today,’ and he’s tapping-tapping at the air conditioner panel with his eyebrows in . . . sprouty—yeah—peaks. And the books jumbled in his arms on his way to the desk and you just knew there’d been a loaded stapler that—nope—wouldn’t staple and he’d already balked at a bare toilet roll and . . . and the wrong soda had banged down from the vending machine and . . . Such a weirdo. I love him.”
And I love the way we talk. She makes me want to be in school, not teaching it—yet I’d miss my kids and they would still have their need—to be reading Audre Lorde, changing my own name to reclaim something that might let me fit back together. Thinking thoughts that shook things up . . . things that had never been right or polite; things that were rigid and grooved because they were meant to be, unless a good God really existed. I used to wonder when my head was the balloon if this was God’s doing, not his hurting or my mother’s not-looking, but my getting away. I wondered, Is God where I go? But if there was such torment to escape, rather than asking if God was good I asked What was God good for? Everything was so cock-a-doodle-do! And then Angela Davis and Marx and Foucault, the first few to speak sense to me, this hazel-eyed girl from Kentucky who lived for beer cheese and koozies and her dubious id, and blasting “Blister in the Sun” in her car with hand winders for the windows, whose floor as thin as it was near the road had soggy cigarette packs and crushed cans clinking between the foot pedals.
I pierce the wine cork with the corkscrew while she goes after what she’s been writing—“Not a poem,” she insists—because she wants to read it to me. When wine swirls it threads down the glass in a glaze, which, were it not the color of rubies, could invoke lattice work or the way a boxer wraps his hands or the ribbons strap across a ballerina’s ankle. I want to tell her about Foucault; because he, too, tried to end it, and he crossed himself his whole career, and because he knew we man the prisons of our selves. I feel bad for the body, like it’s this beautiful uniform that we march around; when it is the site of as much pleasure as it may also offer, and it is capable of such sickness, such pain, as well as a startling-because-it-is-possible perfection. But I will not trouble her. I will keep all this for now—for however later.
On the table waits last night’s unfinished game. I had spelled out elegiac and she said, “I like that word but I’ve never written it.” By then we were drowsy, both drifting on fragrance and wine, so we abandoned the tiles and their words, the tally sheet of my points doubling hers, to breathe out the blur of candles.
“It was by the bathtub,” she says, resting her book beside the tiles. I hand her the glass. But she hands it back and heads for the open blinds.
“You and that sliding door . . . ”
“We have a history,” she says, the blinds’ strips swaying while she pulls on the cord. “I was good and groggy, but I was sure I wanted to die when I hit the glass.”
“You had that awful blotch on your shirt.”
“Syrah, I think. Kind of like I’d been shot. I didn’t care about that. I didn’t want you to know I was near-drunk. Plus I thought I’d ruined your carpet.”
That was the night we had come back from the bar on the bay. There was an Elvis impersonator and mid-song he sat beside her. She wanted to die then, too. Wearing a white pantsuit besotted with sequins, he leaned way in so his sideburns bristled her cheek. When he grumble-growled, “How are ya, baby?” she turned and into his ear she said—calm as ever—“Aren’t you dead?”
“Here.” I offer her the glass and I ask, “OK. So where’s this not-poem?”
“You know,” she says, absorbed by something on the back of my hand. “Those veins are a vine over branching bones.”
“Uh-huh. Where is it?”
“It’s not finished. I mean . . . it’s only a part.” She handles the book, opens it several pages in, then her thumb lets each one fly after the other, last of all the front cover—an arc forward in some crude, some backward, animation. She shoves yet another book at me, “You read it.”
We stay standing, but she stares at the table. She holds herself with one arm and drinks with the other. Now I take a slow taste. And the page reads like this:
in a bath of sandalwood
even while the candle
projects onto blue tiles
that children draw