a familiar shade
of January gray,
fall or summer,
winter or spring.
A child sleeps
I am here,
a familiar shade
of January gray,
fall or summer,
winter or spring.
A child sleeps
I am here,
The sun beats, a drum,
rhythm of marching children.
Blue hair, yellow,
In school, the children learned that blue-haired kids
went to the back of the bus,
so he asked his mom,
did you go to the back?
He knew about Martin Luther
even if he was too young to see
in black and white.
Too young to understand
not all lives mattered.
The sun illuminates,
He can see,
in his mirror,
black and white
and then kindling reveals embers
and then heat smokes
and then it curls a rod of pine
and then a flame crackles
and then it rises
and then it heats the room.
I don’t cheat.
I sit as if huddling, knees bent, chest leaning towards the table. My arms cradle my math quiz. I hover in a bit closer.
A furtive glance towards Kate’s desk collects the letters listed down the column of her paper.
A D A B C B D D A C.
In an instant I remember their order and bring them back towards my own sheet. Identical, except for the last: I had marked a D in place of her C.
That’s ok. The difference is not problematic. I don’t change my D. I don’t want to be the same as Kate. I want to see how, when and where we diverge.
I ease back into my desk chair. Around me, papers slowly turn over, pencils begin to rest, bodies start to squirm. The quality of the silence is uncomfortable, so I make small movements, adjusting my weight to one buttock, then the other. I shift my eyes towards the front of the room. Before I have a chance to look up, I feel Miss Templeton’s stare.
“Annie,” her voice is sharp. “Bring your quiz here.”
Something sharp digs into tmy thigh. I look down and see that I had been stabbing myself with my pencil. I rub into it and stand up. My body is reeled to the front of the room, where she waits. I try to swallow, to clear my throat so that I can answer her, but there is no moisture, no possibility of sound. Miss Templeton says only three words. She takes my quiz. She turns around and writes my name in the hot pot. It had never been there before.
I clear my throat again, attempt to try to explain that I was not cheating. But she has written my name already. The letters glare at me. I can’t erase them. I sit back down.
“I wasn’t cheating!”
My voice box remains closed.
As my head screams, I move, stifling my anger, back to my seat next to Kate. I cover my face in my hands, which are already wet from the warm, salty rivulets that steadily emerge, uncontrolled, out of my eyes. I hear papers move again around me. Stacks of six form on each table, Miss Templeton walks around, picks them up, deposits them next to mine on her desk. She moves to the chalkboard, writes out our homework assignment in her show-off cursive, her legs bouncing into her handwriting.
I hate her.
My face grows warmer. I can’t hear what she is saying anymore, but I know, from the look of liberation in her eyes, that it is time to get up, gather our belongings, leave for the day. Understanding what to do, my legs take me directly to the hallway while the others are still putting away their pencil cases and placing their chairs on top of their desks for the evening. I don’t stop to put on my coat. In one swift motion, I stuff it into my knapsack and continue down the hall.
Outside, movement continues. Involuntarily, legs undulate, grass waves. Thoughtlessly, I go. I run until the schoolyard is out of sight. Past the playground, through the woods, across Country Parkway. Into the meadow. Through the grass stand two sugar maples, and I sit down below their branches. Buds still haven’t emerged. I can almost smell the sap running up and down the trunk, a sweet nectar. The grass cushions me. I hear it telling me, softly, that it’s ok. Everything is ok. If my name is in the hot pot, if no one understands, the grass will still sway, the maple will still yield sugar water, spring will still come.
No one understands, but no one needs to. Here I feel at home. I relax. I breathe.
It came on suddenly, a quiver that destabilized her. She crouched onto the floor and reached for her water, sure it was another episode of syncope, though she had eaten oats for breakfast and had experienced none of the same symptoms she had the previous Wednesday, just before she fell, when she had had only a banana. She breathed in. Slowly, a steady stream of air infiltrated her lungs, enlarging her chest one alveoli at a time. She looked down. She touched her belly. A slight bulge billowed beneath her fingertips.
Again, the ground shook.
This time, there was no mistaking that it was the room that was collapsing, not her body. Louder now, more violent, an invisible force ripped the building like thunder ricocheting a summer night. Walls trembled. Floorboards cracked. Computer screens broke, the wires that had once connected them to keyboards now frayed into a web of orphans without mice, disconnected from printers, scanners. It had been useless to think about saving her laptop, let alone her document.
Beneath the table, she crouched deeper, huddling further into herself. She waited.
Even after the vibrations had slowed to mere shivers, she continued to see and hear objects fall all around her. Everything was out of place. She didn’t know how to anchor herself. As if confirming that her old world had fallen, a mouse from the biology lab across the hall scuttled through the mess of metal hardware, it too confused by the sudden disruption of place. She heard it squeak as it moved on top of broken keyboards, over cracked computer screens. It articulated itself with purpose, knowing what it was looking for as it dug the pupusa she had wrapped up for her lunch out of the pile of rubble.
“Chivo,” Cecelia grumbled, resigned. “Ya no hay nada.”
Since she didn’t feel hungry, she didn’t worry about how she would feed herself that day. She was no longer concerned with keeping her sugar stable. She was certain that her baby would survive; its walls, in her uterus, were still strong. She knew she would maintain it. What she didn’t know was how she would get out of the room, out of the university, to her car, which was surely crumbled or flattened by now. She didn’t know how she would move through the city; if it was dangerous for a woman to walk alone, pregnant, on a regular day, what would it be like today? Had the earthquake been as violent as it seemed?
“Quizas un bici…” she thought. Maybe she could find one that worked, beneath a tree or a park bench. Maybe she could ride home, to Las Colinas. She wondered if she could go fast enough to keep herself safe. As she crawled through the room, making her way towards the broken down exit, she was careful not to get caught or trampled by falling debris. There were no people, though she knew that wasn’t very strange, as very few would be at the university already on a Saturday morning, before the first day of classes. She crawled over boards and through floors until her hands were matted with dust. Whatever barrier her jeans had provided between her knees and her surroundings had disintegrated into the ruins around her. When she emerged through a triangular opening that she was sure had never before served as a door or window, the first thing she did was look up, towards the sky. There were no trees above. Just clouds.
As she pulled herself up, she again felt the sense of disorientation that she had sensed when the computer lab first crashed. Although she was Salvadoran to the core, having lived in the city since she was two except for a brief period in Belize, when things became too dangerous for her father to stay where they had always been, she could not situate herself. She didn’t know where she was.
Jeff's alarm rings after his mother has already opened his door. He doesn’t want to respond to any of it. His head is numb to the warmth of the summer morning that drifts in the window. He can’t move. But his alarm rings again and he does. Move.
On the floor he sees the flashlight that he used the night before when he was supposed to be sleeping. It’s yellow, like his skin, though his mother said that he wasn’t always that color. “When you were younger and rosier,” she would often say.
He could hear her downstairs, sweeping and gathering the things she needed to start her day. Three level scoops of coffee into the French press, if she used four his father would work himself into a frenzy while getting dressed for work. He could picture him unable to find his keys, searching frantically for his dog collars, asking his mother where the box of canned tuna was that he bought on clearance as a treat for the cats. He would try to be in his car to leave for the shelter at 7:45 but wouldn’t get there until 7:49. If the coffee had four scoops, 7:51.
Jeff closed his eyes and huddled back into the covers, where there was still some warmth. When his siblings lived there, there was more noise. But they had been gone for years. It was just him now, in the morning.
The door to the café is heavy and tries to close itself. Isabel lets go. It pushes her in.
Her feet stumble forward. Her eyes strain to focus the letters on the chalkboard behind the counter. She scans the tea list and tries not to let others see her reading the drinks that she will not order. She clutches the silver pendant hollowing into her chest. She stumbles forward.
Behind the counter a barista is busy. He doesn’t pause until she is there, in front of the register. Standing. Three, four, five minutes.
“I’ll have a tea.” Her voice is low, clear.
He greets the other customer who just walked in, “Hey Jeff, How’s it going?”
She bites her hangnail, embarrassed by her own voice. If she pretends she hasn’t said anything yet, he won’t know he didn’t hear. She listens as he talks about hiking, describes the new trail he found while driving down Coddington Road, part of the Finger Lakes system. He recognized it by its white sign and pulled over. He hadn’t brought long pants with him, but went anyway, unafraid of ticks and ivy.
“Nice,” says Jeff, rubbing his whiskers, still deciding what to order. He stays behind her in line. His silence seems to remind the barista that she is there, waiting.
“Can I help you?”
“I’ll have a tea.” Low, clear.
“Pick one out.” He hands her a mug of hot water and gestures to the tea wall. It’s lined with a rainbow of white, green, herbal and black. She wants the black but shouldn’t have more caffeine; she already drank three cups for breakfast. She moves closer to read the herbal varieties and he sets a steaming cup on the counter. She turns around to grab it, and they lock eyes.
Though just for a moment, they're there, together.
The waves were close. They crashed near her feet. The rocks, slick, barely provided a surface dry enough for walking. But they walked on, trusting each other, listening to the night.
“I was scared,” he told her, gripping her hand.
She wanted to tell him not to worry, and she did, but how could she convey it with the conviction that she knew in her heart? Her words assured him that she was there, always, walking alongside him on the slippery rock that smelled like dead fish.
Maybe the smell really were the fish, dead. A stench, subtle, rose from beneath the waves. They were floaters, belly up. Heaps of seaweed entangled onto something. A leftover plate. A paper cup. A rock. All of it suddenly shifted into bones. No longer swimming, no longer moving.
They kept walking, together, towards the lighthouse.
He took a breath and was present.
“I haven’t walked here in a long time.” His hand in hers gripped more tightly. “Bill used to come here to sleep.”
She thought about sleep and hoped that they would make it back to her house. He never pressured her. She liked that, the gentle space, their mutual acknowledgement that they would, as soon as it felt right. It was different from any other relationship she had ever been in, where sleeping together was something she had to do, a rite of sorts that she did not want to pass through. At the end of the day she always wanted to know that she would still be hungry for a light snack, a yogurt, eaten alone, before she turned out the light. With him it was different. There was no question that she would be able to eat. He too needed nourishment.
He let go of her hand as they entered a narrow stretch of rock. The lighthouse was visible now. They had to walk single file, stepping carefully over bones of seaweed. Water seeped into their Adidas.
“Sounds peaceful,” she said. “To sleep out here, under the stars.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, looking towards the sky. It was August. Before she knew him she hadn’t known that stars could shoot. His grip loosened. His voice drifted.
“I was so mad at him,” he said between breaths. Heavy. “I don’t know how he could do it.”
In his voice, he was now eight-years-old. Scared. She saw him there, tucked into bed, lights off. His mother was downstairs, not asleep, on the couch. He closed his eyes and wished he could pretend better, pretend that the world was still there, that his family was still there, that everything would be ok.
She moved her fingers into the space between the crevices of his hand, reminding him of her presence. They were dry, not sticky. “This is different,” she wanted to say. “I’m here.” She pressed his skin. Down.
“I am too,” she said. “I love you.”
“My dad loved my mom,” he said. “And then one night he left, and he left again, and again. It was dark. I didn’t know what was happening, but I was there, home with my mother, my brother. I thought he would never come back.”
His voice again drifted. She held on tight.
“I thought he would never come back and he came. Back. One night. I thought it was too late. And it was, for me.”
She listened. She wanted her presence to take away the pain of his memory. But all she could do was listen.
He squeezed her hand. And they kept moving, together, into the light.
didn’t know what to tell
chin fallen in
elbow propped on
He couldn’t ever tell her
all he saw
In high school, I wanted to be a journalist. Writing a lead for an article in the school newspaper was like chipping the first bit of ice off of a future sculpture; I could see the story shaping itself through the research I had done, in the interviews I had conducted. With words and a keyboard as my chisel, I wanted nothing but to show others what I saw through the most graceful, transparent language possible.
Usually, I succeeded at doing so. I won awards and was often told that my writing was fine. Even good.
Although I was given more encouragement than discouragement, what sticks out from those years are the two times I was told that pursuing a career in journalism would be difficult. Hard. One, from a loving adult in my family who knew that journalists worked tough schedules: late nights and long days dependent on deadlines. I heard him but was still wanting to try. The second time was from a school and writing mentor who said in passing one day that the field was competitive, “hard.” She didn’t say that I was not good enough to compete. But, to me, that was what hard meant.
I gave up on journalism after a few years at college, never giving it a fair shot.
This morning, twenty years later, I sat at my computer, my one-year-old using the pepper grinder like a maraca next to me and my four-year-old putting out imaginary fires in the background, and wrote an email to another mentor, a woman who was a highly successful journalist from my hometown, Buffalo. I had never exchanged more than a hello with her when I interned at my hometown paper. But, this morning I was feeling brave. I told her my situation: mother of two small kids with a PhD in literary studies, aspiring to be a journalist but unsure where, at this point, to begin. I asked her for some career advice. She told me that it would be tough for me to be a journalist. It's a hard career. Especially now.
She didn’t elaborate or explain why. But her words were like a harsh sun, melting my block of ice before I had the chance to begin to sculpt again.
Nothing that she said wasn’t true or practical. Still, her words were deflating. I suddenly felt all of the things that I feared at once: that it was too late for me to have a career as a writer; no one would read my words, the field was too competitive, I would be critiqued, I was not good enough to make it.
It was too hard.
Once my initial reaction settled, I began to feel the powerful soul within me rise up against my harsh inner critic. First, she rose in anger. Not anger at the person to whom I had written; I knew that person was only being honest. It was true that journalism would be hard. Rather, my anger was directed at the part of me that had translated hard into impossible. The part of me that had kept me from believing in myself for all of these years.
Sure, things would be hard. Building a career as a mother would be difficult. But, I could do it. I had given birth twice to posterior babies, I had run a marathon in Madrid, I had written and defended a dissertation. I could definitely handle hard. Instead of shying away from what I wanted most, I could chose to believe that people would care, that people would want to listen, that my stories might be meaningful.
I could stop waiting for others to believe in me. I could believe in myself. I could begin to write. And if it was hard, at least I would know that I had given it a shot.
So, today I am giving it a shot. I am putting myself out there, bare-skinned, and showing myself before this cold spell ends and it all melts away.
Late, my sister's
I almost follow the corpse.
There is no place for me,
in the family pew.
My wives are gone.
My sons do not know me.
I do not want a place here, in this city of fallen families.
When my mind splinters
my body will remain, but not with hers, not next to hers.
Never together, not even in ashes.
We are no longer.
July 13, 1936
She didn’t want to open her eyes. If she opened them, she knew she would have to get up, get dressed, eat breakfast, tie her shoelaces and walk four blocks to the Primaria de Salamanca.
She left them closed. She rolled over. She ignored her mother’s voice and listened to her neighbors scamper around the apartment building. Next door, Luis’s mother yelled for him to hurry and eat his bread, drink his milk. Two doors down, Don Patricio’s dog, Enrique, barked; he needed to urinate. Across the courtyard, Dona Luisa played the piano, stealing a few moments before the baby woke up.
“Venga, Isa. Ya es hora.” Her mother’s face peered into the door. Again, Isa rolled over. She knew that should be happy to go to school today. It was sunny in Salamanca. She was turning eleven.
But she didn’t want to get up. She didn’t want to get dressed. She didn’t want to tie her shoes, or walk through the courtyard. She pressed her eyelids more firmly together, and concentrated on Dona Luisa’s melody.
“Isa,” her mother’s voice grew more firm. “I won’t ask you again. If you aren’t out of bed and dressed in five minutes, you’re going to miss your grandfather.”
Begrudgingly, Isabel lifted the covers, sat up and yawned. The intensity of her mother’s blue eyes told her not to resist any longer.
She watched her mother’s slender body move about the room, setting a freshly pressed plaid skirt and white collared shirt on the end of the bed before she left to put out bread and milk for breakfast. Yawning again, Rosa looked at her clothes and imagined putting them on. She stretched out her arms and listened for another few moments to Dona Luisa’s piano. She played so little now, now that the baby had come. Before, there was always a melody, a tune that was never interrupted by cries. That was when she was nine, yes maybe nine. When she still did not have to think about getting dressed and tying her shoes and eating breakfast.
Her mother called again. “Venga Isa…”
“Coming, coming,” she grabbed her clothes and slowly put one foot, and then the other, into her skirt. The buttons were getting too tight. She knew that soon her mother would need to make it wider around her hips. Her shirt too had suddenly become taut, the fabric almost stretching across her chest. She looked into the mirror. She sighed, reached for the comb and made a precise part down the middle of her head, breaking her hair into two equal sections. With both hands, she smoothed the strands, gathering them towards the back of her head, and then letting them fall again onto her shoulders. The part, so clean, so awake, looked ready for the day.
“Isa, if you don’t get down here in two seconds…”
“Coming,” she said again, running her fingers again across her hair. Again, she sighed. She turned towards the kitchen.
Without turning around, her mother acknowledged her presence. Another sigh.
“Your grandfather will be here any minute.”
Rosa sat down. She was ravenous but hated breakfast. She reached first for the orange juice and finished the entire glass in three gulps. Then she went for the butter, spreading generous gobs onto the bread, which caved into the pressure of the knife. Next, the ham, a treat for a weekday, straight to her mouth.. Soft saltiness. As she ate, her hunger grew, as if angry. She took another bite. Again, saltiness cut into her lip.
Her mother was talking but she couldn’t hear.
The door opened.
“Hola, buenas,” Isabel recognized her grandfather’s booming voice and pushed her plate aside.
February 3, 2009
“I do. I remember,” she says.
As I listen, I feel two eyes burrow into the wrinkle on my forehead. Her stare pierces through me. Her words seem to emerge on the other side.
Her mouth is full as she opens it, bits of sour cream cake crumbling onto her lap. She pauses, takes another bite and peels her eyes away.
“But, really, it isn’t anything to make a fuss about. I mean, really, it was nothing.”
“What is it?” I urge my grandmother to go on, not wanting to lose the memories that each day seem to leave her ninety-one-year-old body. Odds and ends to piece together: Sunday mornings walking to the Cathedral of Oviedo, stained glass shimmering onto the pews; spring afternoons walking home from school through fields, rays of sun ricocheting into blades of grass; winter evenings imagining in bed while eggs crackled from the kitchen, olive oil diffusing through the kitchen tiles.
“What do you remember?” I prod.
“Really.” A nervous sip of hot chocolate. She pulls the mug away, as if too hot. “It was nothing. I was just a little girl, and it was nothing.” Looking at me again, she breathes audibly, her voice settling into one of her familiar refrains. “You know what I always say, if he doesn’t treat you right, you just look at him, wave your little hand and tell him, ‘Bye bye little yellow bird. I hate to see you go, but bye bye.’”
Once she goes into the yellow bird, I know that she will not come back. I place my hand gently on top of hers, her skin a soft-boiled egg, and let my fingers move into the circular pattern that used to lull me back asleep as a child. Recognizing the rhythmic motion, she breathes again and again closes her eyes.
“Yes,” I say. I pause, letting the circles settle more deeply into her palm. “But what else? What else do you remember?”
With her other hand, she reaches over for another bite of cake. She opens her mouth and more crumbles fall onto her lap than into her mouth. Her voice comes out, barely perceptible.
“Gee,” she whispers. “I mean, it was nothing.”
I know it is something.
“Aba, it’s ok.” I draw more circles into her palm.
“Well, I mean… I was just a little girl. In grade school, you know. And I would walk to school every day. It was new, you know, for little girls to go to school with little boys, but ever since the Republic began...”
I looked into her eyes, encouraging her to go on.
“My grandfather, you remember your tartarabuelo José, he would take me on most days. Over there, because it was better to walk together. We went through the fields and, oh, there was this frog…”
She pauses to chew.
“Honey, don’t you want some of this cake?” She reaches over and breaks off a large chunk. “Here, take this half.” Her tone insists. She shoves it towards me. “It’s just delicious, really, here, take it.”
“No, Aba, I’m good, still stuffed from dinner. You eat it and I’ll have some later.”
“Oh, but it’s delicious.” Her voice intensifies, eyes wider, and I know that she will not stop insisting until I take the cake. “We’ll split it. Don’t make me… Here. Have half.”
She pushes the cake towards me, leaving behind whatever it was that she had almost remembered. She always had been a great cook, and though she hadn’t done much of it since she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year, she still offered food to anyone who came to see her in the nursing home. It didn’t matter whether or not you were hungry, whether it was a mealtime or not. If you declined, she would insist, “But you’ve got to eat,” and move whatever it was that she had in her hand towards your mouth. Only now, instead of a ham and Manchego sandwich or a bite of potato and egg tortilla, what she had on hand were usually leftovers from her lunch tray. Runny apple sauce, a half-eaten pork chop. On occasion, there was a treat from a visitor. Like today. The sour cream cake was still so moist that I knew Lee or Carmella had been there that morning.
“Ok, Aba, thanks,” I take the cake from her and quickly place it on the napkin next to me. There is no use in telling her again that I’m not hungry. If I take the cake, she might go on. I watch her face soften as she relaxes back into her arm chair, eyes glazed with sweetness. I see that she is now far away. I try again.
“Aba, what happened that day, after your abuelo brought you to school?” Her eyes remain distant, fixed on the snow falling outside. Her jaw continues to chew. I know she won’t take me with her wherever she is. I pick up her hand.
“I’ve got to get going, Aba, but I’ll come back tomorrow.”
She nods, “Ok, sweetheart,” and rocks her head back. As I bend down to hug her, I lift her shawl around her shoulders.
“I love you,” I whisper.
“Love you too,” she says, eyes still fixed on the window, in the distance.
I reach for my coat and push play on the cd player. As if on cue, her rocker begins to move right as Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” emerges from the speakers. Looking into her eyes one last time, I wonder where she is and why she has left.
Three-hundred-ninety-nine-month-old balls of dough kept in the fridge.
With time, they age and rise,
farther than a
two-year-old could have imagined.
She can’t remember exactly when it started. It could have been that morning when she was two. She was lying in bed with her mother, but she hadn’t been there all night. They must have gone back to bed after Dad had gone to work, once Susan and Marcy were on the bus to school. Or maybe she’s not remembering well; her mother was never soft, it’s difficult to imagine the two of them naked, in bed. But she can feel her mother’s breasts, soft, in the cup of her hand. She knows it did happen. She can see it in the furthest point of her mind, a photograph taken the day her memory began to record her life in mental images.
Yes, she sees it there, herself, two, lying in bed. The covers white or off-white, maybe even more of a cream. Her mother’s skin soft, freckled reddish-brown on arms and legs that wrapped around her as if hugging. Hugging soft and naked and tinted with red spots, just like the pubic hair she had seen, which was lighter than her aunt’s, which she stared at whenever her mother went to the bathroom. She had been surprised when her own came in tough, dark, and she tried to shave it away but was only left with needle-like points that stabbed into her thighs for two days until their tips softened next to her skin.
At that point she was already disappointed that hers were already so large and heavy. Full moon areolas. She was embarrassed to show them to Julie Tree at the sleepover. They were flat, wide, but they should have been taut, small. She could see them already growing, expanding, so different from those ones she had felt at two.
She can remember it so clearly, really, and she knows that she was two and that they were the softest things she has ever felt. Warm, as if the insides of her mother’s body were welcoming her to come into its most intimate cranny on that morning made for the two of them. A morning for her to bury her head into the place between armpit and chest that still smelled like warm milk. They were perfect. She could touch them. Small enough to fit in the cup of a toddler’s hand. And yet somehow she already knew that when she grew up, her breasts would not be just like that.
Hers would be big, much bigger than a toddler’s palm. So big that they could cause a ten-month-old to choke on the outpouring of milk, too fast and too voluminous to suckle. When her daughter was an infant, she grew at ten times the pace of a normal baby, climbing from the sixth percentile to the eightieth because her milk was so dense. She carried enough for the world.
They were big enough to sustain an infant and tantalize her three-year-old son, who had been weaned for over a year but went right back to the chest when one night he asked and she let him. Why not, she wondered. He won’t be able to latch on. But he latched and sucked and she provided. He was getting some, her milk, he said. It was good. Sweet. And she did feel that, sweet, as she comforted him to sleep again, offering to him that most primal form of nourishment again, an aspect of their relationship she had believed to be gone. And she saw them growing larger yet as she let him suckle. And she feared their size but he kept on suckling.
She wondered if they would still grow as she weaned, with the rest of her body that was always growing into a new body of womanhood. Or if they would shrink, milkless, sagging with the weight of nothing.
She remembers the day that she received the phone call. She had just gotten home to her mother’s house, on break from school for Christmas, when the phone rang. Moments earlier she had been at Christie and Jacqueline’s school for a holiday celebration. Miss Diamond was now Mrs. Weisbrott and taught kindergarten instead of third grade. She remembered her from third grade and she still liked bears, they were hanging all over the bedroom, mostly friendly. Christie and Jacqueline’s mom wore make-up, amber lipstick; without it she wouldn’t have recognized her face. They talked while the children ate cupcakes. Sprinkled. She asked her how her aunt was. That was when she felt it: a hurricane of anger.
“She’s fine.” Bitterness.
“She still smokes.” Teeth grit into the hollow that would cause a crack weeks later. When she would go to the dentist and find out she needed a root canal.
She could hardly say the words. Gritting. After months of chemotherapy, a mastectomy, she could light another cigarette. And another, hour after hour, day after day. As if her life were full of nothing.
She said it again, she's fine, anger flooding.
And then she went home and she got the phone call and she immediately wanted to take it back because she heard her aunt’s voice crying she heard the tears streaming into the words that uttered that it was back the growth from her breasts to her blood now and she was not able to know why it happened to her and poor Gary who was feeling cursed and blaming himself for his bad luck that landed on her and her poor kids who did not deserve this now or ever and she could not…
She could not comprehend, but she knew it was happening. She had already known. She felt responsible. For blaming the cigarettes. Even though they were likely a cause, a contributing factor. When she hung up the phone she went upstairs and buried her head into the pillow, as if she could disinter the sentence with which she cursed the cigarettes and the anger that she knew did not cause her aunt’s cancer but that she felt was somehow responsible. She buried her head into the pillows that felt as soft as breasts and longed for them to nourish her, full, but they did not smell like milk. They never would.
How would she judge this.
Working not journaling
in real time.
How and where did the work go
Noticing. Not eye contact.
Time clicks towards late.
The first name Joshua gave me was Blue. Julie Blue.
It was the same name as the color I chose for my first book. A book about my family that I wrote in second grade.
I knew, at seven, that my family was beautiful and covered, like wallpaper, with forget-me-nots. I knew that our name was a title, letters crayoned subtly towards the bottom right, falling blue. Uncentered on top of graphite articulated by a second-grader’s fist.
First letters, like memories, will never be erased. They multiply, one next to and on top of another, thickening into a pile that needs to be sorted, read, resorted, reread.
I saw my first memory at three and a half. Trying to find a pattern in my family, the people in it, make the names flow like Nicole, Joelle, Julie. And Matt? An additional member, younger than me, a name with one syllable, not two. Nicole, Joelle and Julie. Nicole, Joelle, an… Ju… Julie and… Matt.
My tongue mouthed itself around the word.
“It just doesn’t sound right,” I told my dad while sitting on his bed with my sisters. He looked at me, smiled, as he told me that my mom was in the hospital with my new brother.
I looked at my fingers, touching each, left pinky to pointer: “Nicole, Joelle, Julie… and… Matt.”
The baby was in the room, and I know that a few days later I wanted to smother him with kisses and dress him up in a baseball uniform. But the buttons on the hospital bed were so new, so powerful that they could lift my mother and make her fall. I needed to press them. Feel them, four bumps, with my hand. Nicole, Joelle, Julie, Matt.
Re-ordered, three years later, into a picture on the first page: Joelle, Matt, Nicole, Julie.
Smiles, like sunshine, rise. The assignment was to be thankful, so I pressed graphite onto the page, writing for thanks.
This is what they do for me they help me do my chors. They also play with me. When We have to wark sometimes they make warking fun.
The waves washed into my legs. Florida. Me and Joelle, or Joelle and I. Parallel sisters in bathing suits pink and green. Nicole centered, lighter pink that peaks into white. Matt between, baby, yellow. Dad catches the moment. Momma duck watches, a Pringle crackling in her teeth. Salt crisps into the sea, waving away.
Twenty-five years later, we resurface through waves in the north. Sunset Beach, Carolina. I wake up. The door between the main part of my parents’ condominium and our room is closed. Joshua and I nestle into the same bed, still unmarried, opening our eyes to the sound of lunches being prepared
– Mom, what kind of sandwich do you want?
– You just take care of yourself, I’ll be fine.
– Ok, I’ll just make all ham and cheese then.
– Not for me, I don’t like ham. Leave mine.
– Ok, I’ll make you turkey.
We listen and bury ourselves deeper into bed. Mayonnaise is opened. Peanut Butter Puffins are poured. Joshua rolls onto his side, arm across my belly. We wait for the waves to settle so that we can get up.When we get up, we think everyone has gone. Matt’s cigarettes are on the coffee table.
This is what my brother does for me he helps me clean my room sometimes that is sometimes. My brother helps me make forts when we do. Matt smiles for the camera, but I can’t remember who took the picture. Must have been my mother, just before she set out the urinal, reached for his hand while he peed. Yellow, his shirt, a stream into the winds of West Virginia. But I can’t be thankful for peeing, since I am a girl and can’t use the urinal without spilling. I hold it quietly, wondering where West Virginia rests. The hills seem endless and the cars don’t ever stop.
If I had peed, I would have washed my hands.
I would then have covered my hands with white gloves. The next year, or maybe the previous. Clutching a white Easter purse, too small to hold anything except for a penny and a dime, I smiled for the camera and hated it. Cousins around, in the middle, smiling down. And I remembered sharing, which was never hard. But I must have known, even then, that it took effort to play, to give.
This is my cosin tom and this is what he does for me he plays with me sometimes. This is my cosin Frank and this is what he does for me he shars with me.
Sharing is hard for Henry, but wasn’t a year ago, when I had to encourage him to be more assertive, to take his turn. Like at yoga for toddlers, which we only did once, when his eyes were caught by the breath ball, mesmerized by the in, the out. Around a circle of children, one, another, and then Henry. He looked at me, uncertain.
“¿No quieres tocar la pelota?”
“Espera a que te llegue.”
He waited, eyes following, hand opened until it caught and held. In and then out.
“Little.” He said.
“Big.” He continued, watching it expand in between his hands.
“Dásela a otro chico,” I urged him to pass it along. He did. He watched them play and didn’t ask for it back. I hugged him, felt him soft between my arms.
This is me and this is what I do for ather peopel I help them. And Love some peopel.
Hands held, more proper in the white. Eyes descend, head lowers, as if in prayer. Each person listed, each image kissed. Hands touch head, heart, shoulder, shoulder, and come together to hold them all. To make sense of the letters, the pages, the memories that build, one onto another, like prayers that no longer follow the ritual laid out by other people. Prayers that wave away into the meadow.
We are all there. And here. Six. Joelle, Julie, Nicole, Matt, Judy, Mike, Joshua, Brian, Jack, Ava, Henry, Ella, Poppy, Seth, Gab, Laurie, Donn. The wave grows every day, rolling over its own center, a dark blue, somewhere.
There was a stillness that December, I noticed it when driving down Sheffield with your father the week before you were due. My squirmy bottom, propped on a pillow, tried to find a position that would be comfortable in the gray Ranger. A shift to the left, an adjustment to the right… neither side provided relief. A straighter back did help with breathing, lengthening my stuffed torso enough to fit in a dewdrop more of air. Outside, I saw that the air was illuminated. There were lights. Red, green, blue…
“It’s Christmas,” I said, looking towards Joshua. Clad in his wool green coat, he had already seen that it must be cold outside.
“Isn’t that so strange? Christmas?”
Joshua looked at me, smiling. I smiled back, like blue.
It was our secret, a secret as loud as the infant moving in my womb. As the world prepared to celebrate the holiday that came around once every single year, we made our own preparations, not sure exactly what it was we were preparing for, but knowing that it would be much brighter, much grander, than any holiday we had ever before experienced.
I have begun this story many times, wanting to write for you the weeks, the days, the hours surrounding your birth. Again and again I have backed off, fearful of not knowing the right words, doubtful of my abilities to render into prose the complexity of emotions and events that marked those moments. I needed a pause, a long one, to allow the memories to float in my body before giving them words.
I try again now, nearly two and a half years after the day you were due. I start not with past drafts, but here and now, while the forsythia lose their yellow flowers for green leaves, while I witness you learn new words and deepen your love for diggers, dirt, Legos and Boomberry ice cream. While I listen to you practice the consonants of “probably” when choosing cereal or a Youtube show – “pwababwe… dis one” – or of “excavator” when you look for your favorite truck. While I absorb your contagious laugh as you wrestle with your father after bath. While I watch the determined furrow deepen in your forehead as you grab your hockey stick in the backyard and wind back to slap shot the ball into the net. The “whiles” continue endlessly, full of the new activities, sounds and experiences that you add to your young life each day.
I’ve now known you now for over 1095 days; for 287, you lived inside of my womb; for the rest, I have watched, fed and cared for you on the outside. I am often in awe of your body, a body began on my inside, fed by my breast. A body that continues to grow, stronger and more robust each and every day.
I’ve now come to understand our pregnancy, which ended in the raucous three days that it took for you to leave my body and enter this world, as a symbol of our relationship as mother and son. All of the emotions I experienced from your conception to your birth nurtured you; your lifeblood began inside of my fear and joy, melancholia and excitement, anxiety and patience. I often feared that the wide span of my emotions would somehow harm you – weren’t pregnant women supposed to be simply happy? Isn’t that what everyone said, chalking up any other emotions to hormonal upheaval? As I grew, I accepted that exposing you to all of my emotions taught you that life was full of complexity. Even as a small, six-pound infant, you knew that each and every one were essential to becoming human.
During the two weeks before your birth, I experienced everything with a heightened intensity. I had expected you to come early, so when my due date – December 9 – came and went, I became more and more anxious and began to doubt whether you were coming at all. In the midst of that last week of waiting that felt like years, your father and I kept to our respective routines. He worked each day at 901, the lake house that he was re-building with Scott's crew. I went to the gym, ran errands, napped and read. Each night we came together. At dinner, we held hands. Knowing that our days as two were numbered, he looked at me, excited, and said, “One day closer.” I smiled, reminding myself to be patient like his eyes. We locked gazes, and I tried to ground myself in the miracle of it all, to accept the growing discomfort, the fear that my skin would explode through my stretch marks before labor began, as pieces and parts of what was happening to me, not as the entirety of my experience. I practiced holding patience alongside discomfort. In spite of my strong wishes to end my pregnancy and meet you on the outside, I wanted to give you the gift of acceptance, of allowing you to come whenever it was that you were ready.
Still, I did all that I could to ease you along. Daily exercise, acupuncture, evening primrose oil, raspberry leaf tea, eggplant, pineapple, spicy food. Nothing worked. Each hour of each day, I was reminded that you could not be rushed, that you would come in your moment.
However, by Friday of that week, four interminable days past your due date, my impatience summited. My face was grumpy. Trying to keep our lives as normal as possible, your dad and I arranged to meet Downtown for coffee and a walk after he finished work, a tradition that we often looked forward to at the end of the week. As I approached, I saw him waiting at the bridge on Cayuga Street. He looked up as I parked, hands in pockets, expression calm and serene. He walked over.
“Hey,” he said as I opened the door.
I smiled, reaching to kiss him as I stepped out of the car. My irritability softened into his hand. Together we headed into Gimme, where he ordered an Americano and I got the same, only decaf. The barista asked me if I was aware that decaf still had caffeine. I answered that yes, I was, and that she could add an extra shot, as I looked forward to the buzz it gave me.
The coffee warmed us through our mittens as we headed back outside, where the temperatures were already colder, the air holding that dense, gray quality that it gets before a snow storm. I was glad that I had loaded the woodstove before leaving the house and imagined it incinerating each of the logs before we got back home an hour later. We walked together into the cold, up the park on Cayuga Street. A man walked past with his Golden Retriever and smiled towards my belly. A woman passed by with her toddler son, whose cheeks burned red from the cold. At the end of the park, we turned around and headed back down the other side of Cayuga Street, then turned again to walk alongside the creek on the cut-through to Tioga and Aurora. I tossed my empty coffee cup into a resident’s recycling can; Joshua did the same. By the time we reached the Monastery, the gray had given way to a deep blue.
Inside, the monks were illuminated golden and red, as people set up their mats. I propped up my bottom on a round pillow, rested my belly between my crossed-legs. On the alter was a motley array of items to worship: small golden Buddhas, hot pink orchids, unopened packages of oreo cookies, tea, candles, fake forsythia, and more. The variety symbolized the monks motto of non-discrimination: they not only accepted, but loved and respected everything that was given to them, whether that item was man-made or natural. They did not judge any gifts as tacky or cheap. No matter what was given, they brought it to the alter and worshiped it for its life-nurturing qualities. As I took in the colors, my eyes drifted shut and my mind began to settle into the present. Each time I began to think about the birth or what I was going to make for dinner, I pulled myself back to the sounds and sites around me: the monks’ chants from the alter, Joshua’s warmth on the mat next to me. Your calm, steady motions soon synchronized with the chants, as if communicating that you were doing well and were about to come out and join us.
Confirming that you were ready, that evening, I woke up at 1 a.m. to a bloody show.
“Joshua,” I said, running into the bedroom.
“Joshua,” my voice could not contain its excitement.
“I’m bleeding. Its time.”
Joshua rolled over and sat up. Our eyes immediately locked in a space deep inside of both of our bodies. He got out of bed and put his arms around my shoulders as I showed him the blood and told him what I had felt. After holding me for a few moments, he gently said, “if this is really happening, we should try to get some rest before you go into labor. We’ll need it.”
I knew he was right, and together we went back to bed. I practiced grounding my thoughts, as I had in the Monastery, bringing my mind into focus on what happened around me: falling snow, howling wind, creaking wood stove, your subtle movements. There was no sleep that night. But there was rest. Rest and the repeated thought that maybe, in the next days, my baby would come.
The next morning, I began to feel mild contractions, and went to acupuncture to help to ease myself into the beginning stages of labor. Joshua picked me up after an hour, and we walked through Mimi’s Attic, the second-hand furniture store next door. I wondered if anyone had ever been in the store while in labor before. When we got back home, the snow began to fall harder, and we tried to continue on as normal of a routine as possible while we waited for my contractions to become regular and more intense. We ate leftover soup, rested. As evening came, the winter gray shifting into a dark sky and an almost full moon, we put on our gear, coat tensing into parka, belly brimming into each zip. The snow had grown so think I could barely move through it. My contractions too grew thicker as we made our way around the perimeter of our yard. When we got home I took off my winter gear and collapsed on the brown lounge chair in the living room. I stayed there throughout the night, too uncomfortable to read or watch a movie. My contractions became regular and painful, but still not intense enough to go to the hospital. I sat, closed my eyes, opened my eyes, and reminded myself to continue breathing as the pain came and went.
As night gave way to the following morning, Sunday, I was in so much pain that I became afraid. Tears welled up in my eyes when Joshua woke, and I told him that I wanted to be sure the baby was ok. We decided to go to the hospital to make sure and were reassured when the nurse hooked me up to the monitor and saw that my contractions were more regular, the baby fine, and I was slowly beginning to dilate. After an hour, we decided to go back home to let things progress a bit more before I was admitted.
At home, the snow continued to fall, encouraging us to rest and wait. We would need more energy for what it was that we were about to perform. More patience. I tried to eat breakfast, an English muffin with jam the only thing I could imagine stomaching as contractions came faster and more intense. I ate part of it, but the contractions continued to come, now wrapping around my belly and concentrating in my lower back. I went to the couch, kneeled on all fours and tried to work myself through the discomfort with animalistic yells and feral movements. Time began to blur around itself, and the next thing I knew Joshua had called our doula, Kate, who was rubbing my back as I worked through one contraction and then another. I instructed her to push into the two spots around my sacrum where the pain was accumulating. Her counter-pressure felt intense, but not intense enough; nothing could have been intense enough to counteract the strength with which my muscles were reacting to ease you down and dilate my cervix.
The next thing I remember is sitting on the bottom of the bathtub, naked, pouring lavender bath salt around me as water pelted my back. I let it drench through my hair as I breathed and worked myself through another contraction. When the pain subsided, I got up and Kate helped me get dressed. I told her I thought it was time to go back to the hospital, and we headed into the gray early evening, back down Hayts in the Ford Ranger, the most uncomfortable and longest five-minute ride of my life. When we got there, I stepped out of the truck and immediately doubled over, seized by another contraction.
Again, I began to cry. “I’m going to meet my baby,” I told Joshua and Kate between tears.
It would still be another full day before we met. A full day of intense back pain and brief relaxation, of fear and doubt, of certainty and confidence. A day of trying to ease pain in the birth tub, of feeling my body weaken from exhaustion, of shaking while standing still during an epidural, of trembling while the medicine entered, of closing my eyes and resting, of sharing stories about names with the nurse, of waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Of waiting to be ready to push, and then pushing for hours. One and then two, three and then four, five. Five hours and the exhaustion peaked. I told Joshua I couldn’t anymore. The fear in his eyes told me he knew. They all kept saying I was almost there, and yet it felt like an eternity away.
I took a pause.
I breathed and cried, deeply. I looked at the women surrounding me. I breathed again. Subtly, I felt a renewed stream of energy. When I opened my eyes, I saw women, cheering women, and Joshua, steady Joshua. They all told me how strong I was. I believed them. Another push. A rest. Another push. Another rest. Another push, a sound and you crowned. Black head below. Next, your body, slipping, eased by poop and cries that gave way to coos when you were placed on my chest.
We locked eyes. Nothing else mattered. My body continued to labor, and we continued to look into each other, our bodies recognizing, tearing, welcoming, loving. You were my little bird. Skin tender as the full moon that shined into the room when you crowned. Hair silky and black as the lake below. I knew you were fine, just tired, when they took you away for a moment to warm under the incubator. Joshua protected you while your placenta came out, then while Dr. Milner and Lucy Chapin sewed together the tears in my perineum. None of it hurt anymore. You were here.
“I could do that again,” I told Kate and Lucy, my voice tired.
They laughed, said no one said that after giving birth.
But I could have. And I would. At that moment nothing else mattered, not the pain or the tears. I knew that you were here and alive, and that we would be here and alive now, together, on the outside. A new spring morning for our cold December night.
I remember. My face falls.
I remember. Tears swell.
A lump, centered in the throat, grows into the nasal cavity. Breath becomes short, hard to catch.
She is here, a trace, faint like the colors on the edge of a rainbow that shift the entire sky. The last ripples of a stone that skips into the water off the shore of Cayuga Lake, its reverberation felt by hydrilla, rainbow trout, panfish, aquatic moth, weevil, seagull, purple martin. The call, shrill, of a red-winged blackbird weaving its way through Cass Park.
A change in form, in the form of things.
I focused on my form nine years ago on a sunny April morning. Something felt different as I laced my Asics, pulled my dry-fit shirt over my sports bra.
I opened the door, the cool spring sun already warming. Down Spencer Street, back up towards Cayuga. Past the library, the Commons, Dewitt Park, a routine that situated me, grounding me into the world for that day that began like any other day. That day like any other, except I knew already that it was not. I felt its difference strongly, it beat into my shirt as I rounded the bend past Boynton Middle School. I knew. I thought, “Zitzi is going to die today.”
My feet, grounded by routine, carried me back home. Past the high school students, entering. Past the Cayuga Gimme customers, sipping. Past the long-haired woman in Dewitt Park, strolling. When I got to my apartment, my hands moved in front of me, opened the door.
My phone rang.
“Jules.” My father’s voice was serious, weary.
“Jules, I’m at the hospital with Mom. It doesn’t look good.”
My mouth opened. No words.
“They’re going to operate on her.”
The conversation ended. I put down my phone, took off sneakers, climbed stairs. My feet, again moving by routine, walked me through the activities of the day. A few hours later, I found myself at Cornell, about to give a presentation on pedagogy. I opened my mouth to speak. Again, the phone rang.
Silence acknowledged my presence on the other end.
“Jules.” The gravity of the word indicated what I already knew. She was gone. My dad's voice cracked into the circumstances, described how everyone was with her, at the hospital. How she had been suffering, now she is not.
My Aunt’s death did not bring closure. Eleven years later, I can write down what happened, I can revisit emotions in memories, stories. But I can’t say I have come to peace with not having her in my life. I imagine her and miss her everyday. Often I still think, “I can’t believe she was here, and now she is gone.”
If I could, I would travel back in time, walk into the Turkey Trot with her on Thanksgiving morning, cigarette and coffee in hand as she got ready to run five miles. I would sit down with her in my Nanny's basement and gnaw on a pork hock drenched in sauce. I would paint with her. I would hug her.
Although I know she is still here with me, her subtle and constant presence reminding me to live true to myself, to not waste away my life, I wish she were less subtle, more tangible. I wish she knew my children on this Earth. Although I know that she is still here with me, dispersed in a million form-shifting pieces, I still miss her.