An excellent flash fiction piece at the Cabinet of Heed. Enjoy.
She had long since forgotten what it felt like to have a man’s eyes on her. She was forty-two, still passable for her late thirties, but had grown used to the fact that men weren’t going to look at her when she walked into a room, that she would be ignored no matter her capabilities, her joie de vivre, her “soul.” How she laughed to herself to remember her past reassurances of older female friends when they mourned their changing looks. These reassurances, she knew now, would have seemed as specious to them as her beliefs about the “soul” itself. How could she have known that so much of happiness was tied to what she had once thought was superficial?
One morning a year after her baby was born, she took the metro to the D.C. Mall. She wanted to spend a quiet day in the National Gallery looking at paintings, letting the silence and the beauty change her or refresh her in some way. She and her husband had lived in Gaithersburg for a few years but she had rarely followed through with her plan to get away from the house, to entertain herself with this rare private indulgence.
She closed her eyes as the train sped away from the station. She settled into the jostling car as it whirred along the rails. She was grateful that even the small decisions involved with driving a car were not hers to make, that at least for a while, there was little reason for vigilance. As the stops rolled by one after another she had to rouse herself to pay attention.
And that’s when she saw him standing by the door opposite. She hadn’t been sure what made her look at him, of all the men standing in the car, with their identical suits, grasping their briefcases and newspapers. He was watching her. She met his gaze. He did not look away.
Was he really looking at her? she wondered. Maybe she was mistaken. She turned, saw the car was filled with people reading, dozing, talking on phones. She resumed watching his blue, almost gray eyes. He smiled at her then, just a small turning up of his lips. He knew what she was thinking. It made her uncomfortable to think he knew something about her just from this one gesture and yet she felt something in his gaze that was innocent, that was merely curious, intensely curious.
She had to think about her breath and to make herself focus on her metro stop. When it arrived, she pushed herself up from her chair. She lurched forward. How very unattractive, she thought. She felt her face burning. She looked at his face once more before stepping out of the car. He was still watching her. He was still smiling. She stood on the platform while the doors closed and he did not let his eyes move from her face.
She wanted to cry. She liked him. Or she liked the idea of him, that’s what she realized later when she thought about wanting to cry as she stood there watching some stranger being pulled away from her. He was curious and he was handsome and there was something shy in his gaze too, something that made it safe for her to like him, and she wished she had stayed in the car and hadn’t been so true to her plans.
Years later, when she thought of the day the man had looked at her, she realized a part of her feelings of loss about becoming invisible had been about a lost identity but also a great deal had been about something else, that something that would never return to her in the shape of her yearning, in the empty space that is left when she finally became no one and everyone, both at once.
first published in Atticus Review
Sissy Day stood at the microphone under the arbor of Dot Backson’s home on Rosemary Beach. The sprawling Key West style two story had been selected by the Florida Grey Gardens Society of Women for its first annual conference “In Defense of Freedom: An Examination of the Lives of Big and Little Edie Bouvier Beale.” On this late Friday afternoon in September, Sissy was waiting for the conference attendees to settle, to get their drinks and snacks and find a chair. She was opening the conferences bedecked in a white floppy sunhat, the style worn by Big Edie when she sits on her bed in the disintegrating home in East Hampton and sings “Tea for two” in the documentary film Grey Gardens. She also wore the 1940s style swimsuit Big and Little Edie both wore when they sunbathed on their porch. And she wore a kaftan tied around her waist in homage to Little Edie’s fashion flair and the Grey Gardens’ fashion principal that clothes designed for an intended purpose are not functionally confined to the original purpose.
Mimi Carroll looked on approvingly at the costume. She had also chosen to start the conference wearing something very much of the sensibility of Little Edie, especially, and found it a relief since losing her hair with cancer treatment, she could don a teal linen swath of fabric on her head, the tail of it going down her back like a ponytail with a matching strand of yarn tied at the nape of her neck. She had been told by the others upon their arrival that it set off her brown eyes. A long articulated gold earring pierced through the fabric just over her right ear moved in flowing, serpentine motion and flashing in the light of the setting sun. She wore the big round glasses Little Eddie wore when she sunbathed.
Jules Carpenter, Mimi Carroll’s assistant, was a little less impressed with the women adorned like street people when they were so much wealthier than she was. “White people,” she thought, as she took note of shirts worn as skirts and pinned with costume jewelry pins, white block heels with bathing suits, head costumes that could have passed as religious head coverings and yet there was no religious reason for them and except for Mimi, they were not a cover for baldness. She was given to understand that all of these fashion quirks and more on display before her were a part of the sensibility of Jackie Onassis’ aunt and cousin who became destitute after Phelan Beale, husband of Big Edie, father of Little Edie, abandoned the house and the women. Even the film subject seemed very white: How a mother and daughter became poor and destitute and crazy. It was a little more than that, though. This pair had rich relatives. So maybe it was a commentary on how these two could have stooped to this level when their family was so rich and famous. It was hard to figure. Yet the women at the conference seemed to embrace the poor, crazy pair. Jules was going to try to sneak out to pick up her whiskey at a liquor store she spied in town. Note to self, she said to herself.
The only person the first speaker Sissy Day knew from her small home town was Grace Alan. The meeting had been arranged through social media and most of the ladies in attendance were from Orlando. “Whore,” thought Grace Alan of Sissy, watching her tap the mic under the arbor of sea grapes, trying to get everyone’s attention. She hated her guts. Sissy had slept with her best friend’s husband. Nothing had come of it, but Grace’s friend had cried when she found hints of the affair and Sissy’s late night texts. But Grace loved Grey Gardens too, and she had once loved Sissy as a best friend can love. And she had been in Sissy’s Bible study, but certainly that was over. People found out. But probably most people here didn’t know about her, guessed Grace, probably no one does. We’ll see what happens she said to herself, maybe something will have to be made of it here, and she adjusted the pin that held the fabric of the sweater she had made into a skirt.
Within a short walking distance of the thirty ladies or so that gathered on the veranda and front lawn of Dot’s Rosemary Beach home breathed mother ocean, the tides advancing in maternal interest and care and receding with the aloofness of maternal unfeelingness and self centered old age. Advancing to love and caress the shore, receding to let the shore dry in the sun abandoned and malnourished. Big Edie had used her maternal power to keep Little Edie dependent and Little Edie gave up her dreams of pursuing Broadway. That is, at least, one version, the gravitational pull version, the force of the moon mother on the tides of behavior version.
Stay tuned for more on this story….
He stood at the foot of her son’s bunkbed. She had slept there the night before, her son being grown and in college. He had been dating her for about six months, but had not succeeded in getting her to sleep the entire night with him. She slept alone.
She reached out and touched the name stitched on his shirt. He kissed her lips. She wore only gloss. He liked that.
“I want to make you some coffee,” she said.
Her hair was mussed up. He wanted to forget his scruples, drop his pants, and climb right into her child’s bed, but he was running late.
“I don’t have time.” It was cold outside. He had to get the truck started. “OK, make me coffee, would ya? And chop, chop.” He patted her bottom.
She would pour him a steaming pint in his big thermos with cream and sugar and he would drink from it slowly to make it last. He would make sure everyone noticed its presence too, clinking it down here or there.
When he came back into the house, she was on the kitchen counter, kneeling, stretching for a bag of sugar.
“Watch it now, baby,” he said, trying to scold her, though he had caught a glimpse of her dimpled thigh under her nightshirt. He knew he would remember it all day. He pulled her down and retrieved the sugar. She took it from him with her icy, thin fingers.
“Let’s get married,” he said.
She didn’t look up to meet his gaze. She held the bag over the mouth of the thermos. As he watched a seemingly endless white stream fall into his coffee, he felt a pressure on his chest.
“Yes,” she said. When he looked up, he saw that she was watching his face, was not watching the sugar, was smiling in that way she saved for things that secretly pleased her.
Our vantage point for the total solar eclipse was a mountain top in north Georgia. Darren insisted on driving down from Tennessee to meet me on my way up from Florida though I had originally planned on watching it alone. I was early to the lookout, having scrambled over that last purchase of rock face, breathing hard, sweating. I didn’t want to be with him at the site the whole time. I wanted to carry out some of my plan alone although of course for the actual phenomenon, he’d be here with me, long legs stretched out, resting, assured, the climb having cost him nothing.
The rolling landscape below seemed to have drawn breath, the contrast between green trees and shadow sharpening even since my sitting down and taking out my binoculars. The color of the sky had intensified as if it were the abyss of the ocean. There were no clouds and I noticed the birds were silent.
I did not want to be here with him, especially not alone. I would not have always said this when we were younger, when we both lived in Florida, when we were in middle school and high school. There had been a kind of silly camaraderie between us. And then a bit of a romance though I broke it off, being too absorbed in my studies and plans. “You broke his heart,” my mother said when he slipped into a coma before graduation. Though no one really knew why he became ill my mother’s words stuck with me being that they were both true and not true at the same time and had the power of a crucible. Before I left for college I visited Darren several times a week to talk to him and read to him while a machine helped him breath. When he woke several months later, I went to the hospital to visit. What hit me were his screams and inaudible complaints echoing down the hospital corridor. It was worse than the silence and again I felt selfish, self-concerned, but worried too. What was wrong? What would happen? No one spoke to me. I couldn’t go into his room to see him.
He recovered. He was fully functional again, eventually, even went to college. Rumors had it he had brain damage given that his tendency to make things up, to “get creative with the truth” had become vastly exaggerated. I was not in touch, however. At the time I only considered how his hurting made me feel, and by that time, I had begun to have challenges of my own, black shadows of depression, inexplicable highs. I was private and protective and I didn’t want to see someone who may handle me less than delicately.
I heard him climbing the mountain before I saw him. I could hear him walking along the path below in this newly silent world. It was like when he appeared to me many years after his coma: I, newly divorced and diagnosed with cancer, dealing with an angry son had been open, curious about my friend. The silence surrounding me during chemo had become an intense fog, friends had drifted away, some out of fear and some having been the friends with whom I had merely partied. And there he was, on the phone, talking to me like I had never left and he had never become ill. Admittedly, the attention from a man was soothing as well, as the chemo had taken my looks. He remembered what I used to be.
“Hiya, hot pants,” he said, that last scramble involving a climb on all fours. I wanted merely to watch the darkness spreading over the valley. I wanted merely to listen to the cicadas – to screech or remain silent – the verdict was still out. How little could I say and still be here with him.
He twisted down to sit and gave me a quick side hug with his massive arm. He was warm but not dripping with sweat like I had been. I was glad I arrived soon enough to look cool.
“Whatcha been up to?” he said, gulping down a water bottle from his pack.
“Nothing, Darren. Just waiting.”
I was over the cancer, thank God. It had involved strange and convoluted experiences with treatment. My hair was back but my appearance had finally caught up to my actual age. I was all of forty nine, and feeling it too.
He said, “Did you know we’ll be able to see millions of little half eclipses in the shadows of the trees?”
“You don’t say.”
He took another deep swig of water. The wind mercifully caressed my skin.
When he first started talking to me again after a twenty five year sabbatical, he spent hours describing in minute detail the horrors of living with his ex wife Debbie and her child, a boy of about eight. They also eventually had a child together, a daughter.
“I plan on looking at the sun,” I say. A squirrel skitters up a pine just beyond the rock. I don’t want to indulge him. After this, I would drive down to Birmingham to meet my son and his father and stepmom to get him installed in his new dorm room. I wanted to keep this short.
“There are cultures that believe that the sun and the moon are fighting it out,” he said, shading his eyes. “Some even believe it’s actually a time of resolving old fights.”
That’s rich, I wanted to say. In the depths of my chemo treatments, our long distance conversations over the phone had wandered into territory I could never have guessed when we first took up, when first he had presented himself as the well rounded, traveled, accomplished man.
By the time the fissure in his self presentation occurred, I was having frequent experiences with mental confusion and the highs and lows of my moods had intensified. And I was lonely, so lonely. I remember where I was the first time I heard him paint a picture of himself that shocked me: I was in the kitchen of my parents’ home. They were letting me borrow the home for the summer as they were away and it was a shorter drive to my chemo treatments than from my townhome outside of town. “Debbie accused me of sexually molesting the kids” he said. “Can you fucking believe that?”
To whom was I speaking? I remember thinking. I had no idea. Though we were long distance and his job would keep him from making spontaneous trips down, I could feel my chemo imperiled heart beating hard when he described the number of times he was picked up by the police and his incarceration in the local jail before his hearing. He was manacled he said to a huge man, accused of rape. “That bitch Debbie,” he said. “At first it was supervised visits, and then: nothing. What a bitch.”
I managed to end the call and get out of the house in the sweltering heat to walk my dog around the retention pond across from my parents’ place. I was sick. By this time, he knew a great deal about my life. I had emotionally begun to lean on him. And I had confided in him regarding my problems with child rearing.
And yet over the months, he had managed to convince me, somehow, that the accusations had no foundation, and to remind me there had been no actual conviction. And against my better judgement, I believed in him. Part of it, I think, was the effect of the chemo, my inability to hold onto facts and ideas for very long. And part of it, maybe, was that I felt I owed it to him to consider it, his innocence, maybe it was the old guilt working on me that I had left him when he was ill. And maybe he knew it. Another thing he knew was how much I needed a friend. I wanted to believe perhaps because at the time I felt I had to believe.
And so now, he we were. He checked his watch for the total eclipse countdown. An impulse arose in me at that moment to kind of shove him a little with my shoulder, as in a friendly gesture, and see what happened. The drop off to the trail below from the overhanging face was several hundred feet. I shrank back in horror from my own thoughts.
“You know there is no way he is innocent,” said a friend who ran a daycare. We were out to celebrate the end of treatments. I hadn’t confided in many people because I was afraid that once more I had been duped by the liar I had been friends with as a kid. “A guy doesn’t just lose all contact with his children,” said my friend. My single friends always liked to remind me how sheltered I’ve been, having been married for twenty years.
We were having dirty martinis, a drink I yearned for during treatment. It reminded me of the ocean of my good Florida, of my life. My friend and I had been close since I graduated college, longer than I had been friends with just about anyone, except Darren. It took that moment with her and a moment on the phone with Darren to clear my mind. Darren said that the judge who had been so friendly to him at first, someone he had known around town, wouldn’t even speak to him after the trial. “And why is that?” I said. “Because when she heard all of the evidence, it sounded convincing, like I had done it,” he said. Something in his voice sounded confessional. An eighteen month confessional. That’s what my cancer had been. Someone else had wiped their dirt on me. And he had lied and the lie threatened my sense of safety and safety for my son. Maybe this was his revenge for what he said had been my abandonment.
How had I wound up on this rock with him, this rock that would witness the rapid cessation of heat and light? How had I let myself become guilted into contact once more?
That criminal thought occurred to me again, that of giving him a little shove, like giving him a pretend friendly nudge, and watching him fall off the cliff as I feigned shock and innocence.
But of course I wouldn’t actually do something like this.
Instead, I said, “The sun and the moon, always at war. Interesting.”
When they marry, they have a double. It is her box-spring and mattress. She bought it with her mother who taught her how to shop scratch and dent, to decorate with little.
They take it with them to Vermont where he teaches college and she works in the library. A river runs by their window. Birds perch in the tree outside. She makes stir fries and soufflés and stews. She writes thank you letters. She smoothes the wedding ring quilt over the small expanse of their mattress and straightens the dust ruffle. There is no money for paint but she hangs sheers on the windows. At night she lies in bed and wonders how she will sleep while – she finds out years later when she knows more about men, knows about her man – he dreams of other women. While his dreaming goes on unabated, she thinks of their next meal, how she will shop for it, and when she finally can’t sleep, she gets up, empties trash cans, has a beer. They are young; their bodies are thin, almost pubescent, though they are in their twenties. Their love is small. It is more on the surface. It has little depth. But in the double they make do. They are lithe.
Things are different in the next town. This is where it gets rough. She is not interested in a baby and they are very, very busy. He is getting his PhD. She is chasing an ambition to know God. She is getting a Master’s at the seminary. When he protests, she reminds him of their first date and what he said he liked about her: She had goals. They live in the seedier parts of Denver, in the only available apartment they can afford. She cries for the simple beauty of their place in Vermont, and maybe something else, but it seems the narrow bed accommodates only so much, either visions of beautiful girls and delicious meals or visions of beautiful girls and delicious texts she devours whole. At this stage, she is not much of a housekeeper or cook. As if in rebellion, the plumbing under the sink breaks several times, the halls stink with boiled cabbage, the twisted vine on the balcony yields only one flower. Yet they see Leadville, fly fish in the South Platte, make it over icy passes in their tiny Japanese cars, camp in the desolate Rockies under the stars, ride through mountains on bikes.
They are more tired and yet she makes sure they celebrate holidays, makes sure they have parties. They are around more people with children who don’t always understand the delay in what is supposed to come next and why she would sit in classrooms of men training for something most women don’t do. When she is not full of energy and stress, he finds her on the double, stretched out in an inexplicable bout of near catatonia. When he finds her there after a day’s work he is filled with fear and talks her out of it, away from it, whatever brink she’s on. Eventually she gets on meds, he takes care of her, and she gets moving again and she doesn’t need him as much. But he has no one either, not really, he’s on his own, but she doesn’t see that. Thin love and depression causes her to see him in only one way — how he can help her or how he can hinder.
In a wooded college town in Florida, he’s up for tenure. The women there are more beautiful than ever, than any other town in which they’ve lived, yet he feels a sense of peace about it somehow, as if he’s not so tempted, as if his dreams are not so wayward. He’s going to have a baby, a son, and he lives in a beautiful house, an old wrap around clapboard house with a yard big as a lake, a “piece of land”,” he brags. “Every man’s got to have his piece of land.” By now, she’s convinced she’s not a theologian, but she knows she’s something. How could she not be something? She makes peanut butter cookies with honey and vegetarian noodle dishes. She watches deer outside her window and a new flock of sheep down the road. Before the pregnancy, she drinks scotch on the porch, sometimes in her nightgown. No one is watching, there is so much land and that gives her freedom. When she knows she’s having a baby, she switches to iced tea. She watches the birds on the telephone wire. She walks to the pecan orchard across the street and down winding roads of broken down shacks and grocery stores. When she returns, she sees a black snake crawl out from the bushes beside the house and slither down to the foundation. It is mesmerizing, beautiful.
An interior designer helps her find a scratch and dent queen size that will follow them for years. She admits it fills a space with a presence, though it is too ostentatious for her husband’s taste, but now they are making separate decisions. She sees him almost never and she must do what she must.
He gets used to it, though, as a necessary evil, but also simply as a necessity. The bed is big enough for their baby and eventually, she buys the baby a little bed adjoining theirs and she can nurse him in the middle of the night. She spends hours on the bed, looking at their child. Their big bed is big enough for a big dog that loves to lounge and although it is not big enough for the four of them at once — dog, baby, father, mother — it’s big enough for failed plans and forgotten dreams, for tears and bitter fights, for cold refusals and private physical love, for family times in front of the television, for random naps during the day, for a scared child seeking the comfort of his parents, for a sick child seeking to watch cartoons and fall asleep. When the big dog must be put down, a smaller dog takes its place. It crawls on their backs while they sleep and on their pillows and there is not much worry or fuss about this. When there’s been a bad night of too little sleep or restlessness, they chalk it up to the needs of their child, and, later, when the child is grown and doesn’t wake them in the night, to the pressures of the day or to the pressures of the times in which they are living.
They are planning for a king size. The pool of worries and unmet desires and fears and depths of their prayers has widened. The unspoken desires and unmet needs pass between them. Their child, coming in to say goodnight, makes them forget for a while. So does an early nodding off so that the other must pull off their glasses, make them roll over, turn off the television and lights. They want one of those beds that will accommodate the late night movements of the other without disturbance of the sleeper’s sleep, the dreamer’s dream. They no longer have to dream the same dream, or fill the same space as in the early thin love days. There is no worry about this. Is this good or is this bad? There is no consensus.
First published in The Dos Passos Review
My mother is a wolf. She is with me at the campsite. There is a sign that specifically says do not keep food accessible to wild animals. She sits at the table and has tea with me. She is sitting on her haunches.
My mother is crying. She says there are things she never taught me: how to sew from a pattern, how to manage my accounts, how to plan for a week’s worth of shopping. Her paw is on my hand. It is warm from scrambling over the sun-kissed rock, from a blood that has become different from the way my blood runs, which is almost reptilian by comparison.
I have no feeling any more, mother, I say, no regrets. I am serving the cinnamon tea. I am serving it in delicate white china.
In the sun, my mother is beautiful. In the sun, the blue of her eyes like the sky penetrate my defenses.
I did not raise you this way, to take the hardships of your life this way, she says. I never told you it would always be the same. There are things you must do now to become who you must become.
The smoke of the fire curls up into the air. I wonder if my mother will return that evening with the other wolves, to threaten me for my meager fare — a bird shot in midflight, a rabbit caught in a snare. I wonder if she will return for me.
She had come to see me during the day at other times, and not for tea, and not for any reason. I have felt the presence of the others hovering about the trees. So far, it has not resulted in anything, only a mild abrasion on the cheek when we kissed, an unintentional scraping, drawing a faint line of blood.
I am disappointing her, I feel, and yet I cannot move on. My old life is behind me, in ruins. I mourn it as for an ancient city, burning. My beginning has no map. My mother is not the woman in the yellow dress cooking dinner for my father and my brother and sister. All histories have melted away and these old regrets live on top of the mountain. And yet, except for a few tears, my mother runs in packs at night. I know she protects me, for in the morning, there is a drop of blood in the corner of her mouth or in the web of her paws that she does not explain but wipes away on a napkin.
And yet I continue to straighten the napkins and check the egg timer for steeping.
Published in Apocrypha and Abstractions, February 20, 2014