Two girls, though at thirteen and fourteen they consider themselves—not
women, exactly, because woman connotes a thickness around the waist and
head—but big girls, certainly, girls as in girlfriend, as in
hey girl, and not little children—sit on a queen size bed in
suburban America. One sits with her eyes focused just above the brass
rails, legs crossed. The other sits behind her, one bare leg hanging off
the bed, the other tucked underneath her. She has a hairbrush in her hand.
The girl getting her hair brushed is holding back tears. She doesn’t know,
quite, where this feeling comes from. It’s as if the pull of the brush—not
exactly painful, but certainly there, here, in this world—activates some
kind of nerve endings in her scalp that attach like threads to her heart,
to her private spiritual heart, not the blood pumping one. She feels like
she’s been wearing her blue and white bandanna (side folded over to form
a triangle, ends tucked in and tied at her neck) all her life, or that
she’s been in a dark cellar all her life and then suddenly someone opened
the door and it’s great, all the light, but you have to blink and blink.
The headboard is made of brass rails, eleven of them, and the top of each
has a little head, except for one, which is missing.
“I couldn’t move, even though I wanted to,” were the disembodied words
from her best friend. “I knew Chris would be so pissed, and I don’t even
like him that much, for God’s sake. For one thing, he smells like the
inside of a chimney, he smokes so much…”
Her friend first brushes the very ends of the girl’s wet brown hair, little
nips and tucks. They’d read once about doing this—about minimizing hair
breakage—and now they did it religiously. The magazines were very important.
The magazines, even if they seemed out of whack, were always right. The
brush felt like an animal nibbling on her bra strap.
“Did he say something first, or just—?” she asked.
“Oh yeah, he said a lot. You wouldn’t believe
what he was saying. He even said he loved me, for God’s sake.”
Now that the little creature had finished eating his snack, she felt the
longer strokes of the brush, careful but firm, and, fast following, the
warm palm of her friend, like a fist in a sock, like the way she imagines
the curry comb feeling on the horse’s back.
She swallowed, then said, “Was that before, or—”
“Yeah, y’know, before—”
“Before, during and after. He kept talking like crazy. Maybe he was drunk
Then, she felt a little breath against
her wet hair and her ear and heard the whispered words, “Can I tell you
everything he said?”
“Tell me everything.”
“He said I was beautiful, and that he had
never seen eyes as big as mine. Then he said, when I just looked at him
the other day in the hall—when he was with Peter, y’know? After tennis
practice?—he got a hard on. I can’t believe he said that to me.”
“A little crass.”
“Yeah, but don’t you love it?”
The feeling of someone brushing your hair.
The wallpaper was striped with roses in the middle. She thought it was
a color called dusty rose, and it matched the quilt, too, and
the pillow covers. She and her friend often spent the night together,
on this bed, it was big enough for two. They’d talk for literally hours,
until the pauses, longer and longer between question and answer, grew
into hours, into sleep and dream and the next morning, when she’d use
her friend’s shampoo (always salon shampoo and other good stuff—her mom
worked at a hairdresser’s) and borrow a fresh shirt and they’d start their
day, maybe go into town for pizza or shopping.
“I guess.” It wasn’t as if she knew from
first-hand experience. There was the time when the man leaned out his
car window and said, “Nice tushy, little girl.” She was shocked and exhilarated.
She’d even looked at her ass in the mirror that night, using the little
hand-held mirror she used almost every week to see how long her hair had
grown. She and her friend were both growing their hair long. They trimmed
off the ends for each other. The tip was in Glamour, but also
it was just common knowledge: you need to trim often so you don’t get
split ends. It was funny, though. Cut your hair and it grows faster.
Was life like that?
“C’mon, Mel, you know you’d love that.”
“What if Mark said that to you? What would you do?”
“I’d cream my pants,” she said and laughed and her friend laughed, too.
Now the knots were out, and she was using a comb, and it seemed to take
as long as a plane ride from New York to Paris for her to journey from
the scalp, pin pricks of sensation, down the slide to the end, a little
leap and release.
“Guys can be so—I don’t know. It just gives me the shivers,” her friend
said as she stroked.
She closed her eyes.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if he is at the game tonight. But, if I feel
as horny as I did last night—”
Her friend put the comb down and with both hands gathered the other girl’s
hair away from the shoulders, bare except for a bright green tank top
and a bead necklace, and then she put her hands on each one of her shoulders
and said, “Straighten up.”
“All right,” the girl said. She didn’t feel like crying anymore. She was
okay. She fell silent again, waiting for the first cut.
I was born with one limb, arm of sadness. This world creates many opportunities
for me: there is walking down the gray hall, listing to one side, looking
at the concrete as if it’s a window. There is lying on my side with my
fist under the pillow, night gone rampant. There is that sticky place
between talking and not talking: words dressed up as snowmen or wildebeests.
Or there is the ever-present murmur: words coming from a place within
a mouse house behind my teeth, as opposed to from my lungs or all those
canyons voice instructors point toward. There is the everlasting optimism,
the lack of discretion. There is the softness that surrounds me like a
swirling scarf, always opening and revealing.
Others have rage within them, not attached
prosthetically, but as an aspect of themselves. They are good at what
they do. I can watch them at restaurants and I’ve seen it in movies and
I’ve seen it in real life.
Even the sound of it knocks me over, red
velvet wind sonorous and spontaneous and–
Could I put it in a little shell? Could
I put it in my change purse, snap it shut and save it to spend later?
I could listen to it whirl in the evening. I could learn from it.
Could I coax it out from under the bed
with some dried fish treats? I could practice saying, I AM somebody.
Rage. I could grow to love you, and we
could breathe together, and we could, on a Saturday, break some things.
Do not be the kind of rage that is warranted. Do not be an imbecile.
25. Sexual Fantasy
When making love, sometimes she thinks of elephants. Sometimes the elephants
are watching her touch herself, sometimes they are herding her into a
stand of palm trees and she can feel the pressure of a tree against her
stomach, and she can feel the elephant against her ass and thighs. Usually
these elephants are quite large, even for elephants, and they are unknown
to her. Sometimes she thinks of a certain subspecies of elephant of which
there is only one. Or sometimes she thinks of elephants with ears that
are frilled at the edges, and the frills shudder in the wind of their
excitement together, and she can keep fixed on that sight: the sight of
the shuddering pink-gray ear, and all she wants to do is touch it.
Sometimes there are two elephants. It’s
hard to see their faces, but they are stern and forceful elephants. They
are not criminal or bad elephants. But they are much bigger than she is
and they will have their way, being elephants.
Often the elephant undresses her in a haphazard fashion: he may pull aside
something, ripping it, and he doesn’t care, and she doesn’t care, because
he is into his own elephant mythology and she only hopes that he will
finish what he has started.
Sometimes she dreams about cheetahs, too. Cheetahs in addition to elephants,
usually, but sometimes only cheetahs. The cheetahs are long and their
fur is frantic with something like music, some kind of reflection that
comes from rivers, the hue of their spots that changes when they move,
always revealing some other aspect. She herself is more like a cheetah.
When she dreams of the cheetahs, she sometimes gets confused in the dream
and realizes she doesn’t know if she is doing, or being done to. She finds
the flank of the cheetah extraordinary. There is a synergy between the
tense muscle and the flab of skin, and the bone. She keeps focused on
this. It’s like flipping through a book of images, but each image is the
same: the flank, its velvet fur, its anxiety, its quiver, and then the
flank again, and the flank, and the flank.
Sometimes her tongue on the flank.
She is almost always in no position to negotiate with these animals: either
her desire is so strong that she begs them to use her, or their desire
is so strong that they steamroll over any doubts she might have, any thoughts
about tea leaves or the mending of her butterfly net.
All two or three of them are always in the vortex. It’s fate, without
morals or afterthoughts or family histories or hardly even personalities.
It’s all about reaching the edge and then going further.
Sometimes when she is being pushed by the elephant against the sink, or
the bar, or the wall, or against the ground, he remarks to another elephant
that she is ready. Sometimes when she is with the cheetah, and she is
bringing the cheetah toward the vortex, and she is likewise compelled
toward the vortex by the cheetah, the elephant has been watching, and
the elephant must come to them.
Sometimes she imagines herself at the last place she actually saw the
elephant in real life. Just the location has a charge.
There is an amount of society, an amount of psychology. And there are
the images: the flank, and, of course, the curve of the elephant’s trunk,
and its unyielding.
It all spins in her head, and she is not sure what it means, what it says
about her, but it brings her to the place she wants to go.
And yet, these are only things that represent other things. They are unreal.
They are as real as this page.
She showered. She used the shampoo that smelled like bubble gum, but
was really an exotic combination of rosemary and mint, and she used the
conditioner that went with it. She used nectarine soap. She lathered her
body with it, carefully. And then she scrubbed herself with a puff of
plastic. And then she shaved her legs, all the way up the leg, back and
front, and her armpits. And then she dried off. And then she sprayed some
other conditioner/detangler on her hair. And then she clipped her toenails.
And then she spread facial moisturizer on her face and then she rubbed
body moisturizer over the rest of her body. And then she combed her hair.
And then she sat down and cut her toenails. And then she put special moisturizing
cream on her feet. And then she tweezed her eyebrows and the one stray
hair under her chin. And then she cleaned her ears with a Q-tip. And then
she brushed her teeth. And then she used mouthwash. And then she flossed.
And then she put on her underpants and bra. And then she rubbed a cream
of some kind into her hair, and started drying it. It took a long time
to dry, as she dried it thoroughly, and as she had two different brushes
she used, a round one and a flat one. And when it was dry she combed a
part in her hair. And then she sprayed something else in her hair. And
then she put on a blouse and shorts. And then she stood by the mirror
and placed her makeup bag on the sink, behind the faucets. And then she
sloughed her skin with something. And then she applied foundation to her
skin. And then she applied eyeshadow to her eyes. And then she applied
eyeliner to her eyes. And then she applied mascara to her eyes. And then
she applied blush to her cheeks. And then she applied concealer under
her eyes. And then she applied sparkly gel around her eyes. And then she
applied lip pencil. And then she applied lipstick. And then she applied
perfume. And then she brushed her hair a little more. And then she smoothed
her hand over her leg. And then she applied a little more moisturizing
cream to her elbows, knees, and her feet again. And then she inspected
her toes. And then she noted that her toenail polish had chipped. And
then she applied a dab of toenail polish on two toes. And then she put
on her sandals. And then she looked in the full-length mirror. And then
she turned to the side to look from a different angle. And then she realized
she had forgotten to weigh herself, so she took her sandals off and weighed
herself. And then she put her sandals back on and looked back in the mirror,
one side, other side, front. And then she picked up her sunglasses. And
then she put them on and looked in the mirror. And then she put them up
on her head and looked in the mirror. And then she shrugged. And then
she picked up her car keys and her purse. And then she went to him.
The first time the rabbits died it was spring, and she hardly knew what
to think about the Wyoming testimony—the Godlike wind in the cotton-woods,
the way the lightning cracked your skull wide open and made you see things
in X-ray. She crept. She followed her friend, who acted as guide.
They were coming back from Wal-Mart or something, back to the friend’s
trailer, on company land. The boss man was filthy rich and old and loved
his guns. They opened up the little gate, and the friend showed her the
little garden, and then they walked to the front porch.
On the porch were lined up four baby rabbits. In the garbage can were
The garbage can was actually the “burn barrel”—here you burned your trash
yourself about once a week—threw a little kerosene in there and lit a
match. It was stinky, yes, but it did the job and you didn’t need to wait
for any stinking government truck.
The bunnies were lined up, easy as you please. He must have done this,
the friend said. He hates rabbits.
The newcomer took pictures of the rabbits as evidence of something, but
then when she sent the photos back to New York, the package got lost in
Two years later the newcomer lived in Wyoming herself, up a hill, in another
house on company land, a geodesic dome this time. She drove the beat up
old station wagon that her friend had sold her. She drove it up the dirt
road, up the dark hill, to her house, after she went to the bar.
At that time of year, you had to drive fairly slowly, because the rabbits
had recently had babies, and there were swarms, millions, zillions, of
darting rabbits on the dirt road—on either side of it was a field, with
warrens and streams and all kinds of natural rabbit habitat. They came
out at night.
It was as if the baby rabbits didn’t yet know the danger of cars, or perhaps
they were just so multitudinous that they hopped everywhere, road or no
road. Anyway you had to drive slow to try not to hit them.
And she did drive slow. But really, to not hit them, you’d have to simply
The rabbits came out every night, the baby rabbits, and they were like
small gray streaks on the road, you could hardly see them before they
were there, in front of you, streaking across the dirt road, zigzagging
around, frantic, stupid. She leaned forward, holding onto the steering
wheel. She honked.
But to really insure their well-being you’d just have to turn the car
off and walk. Night after night, on her way home from the bar, she drove
on. There would be bumps. She began to drive a little faster over the
hill. Like she belonged here. Like the rabbits would disappear, as the
dead ones on the porch did, even the photos of them.
There were so many rabbits, after all. In a few months she herself would
He used it. He carried it in his car, in the backseat, along with the
cat: carrying it to school, to hotels, to more than one home.
Later it became obsolete, and he kept it in his closet.
If he has it now, she does not know about it. Even he is not sure at this
point where, if anywhere, he put it.
She woke up one morning and realized that she had become her mother.
At first it wasn’t entirely clear that this was the case. She opened her
eyes and saw a room, very much like her bedroom, but the walls were closer.
The sun that normally woke her in the morning, a quiet expansion, today
felt like a flashlight, someone trying to find her eyes in a darkened
She looked at her arms, long and frightful. The familiarity of maternal
embraces, the capable beauty of them. These were her arms now.
But can you be a mother without a child? This realization dawned on her
with something like horror; if she were a mother, she had forgotten, or
misplaced, or had no idea where her responsibility lay.
It was a confusing moment. His mother was due in fifteen minutes, and
my boyfriend was sitting on the kitchen floor playing with Fluffy. Actually
he was teaching Fluffy how to stir. He had the nice green bowl on the
floor, and he’d put the wooden spoon in it, and he kept knocking the handle
toward the cat in an attempt to get the cat to hit it back.
I’d just gotten back from a board meeting where I’d presented a book project
to three lawyers, two bankers, a newspaper editor and an oncologist. I
was wearing panty hose and high heels and I needed to change out of my
fancy clothes and take over dinner preparations.
“How’s dinner coming?” I asked, noticing the oven wasn’t on yet so my
lasagna was not in. I stepped to the left of the man in the middle of
the floor, distracting Fluffy from his lesson apparently because he looked
toward me and meowed as I turned on the oven.
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks but no one said anything about
cats. What about the cat that jumped over the moon? Or what about leading
a cat to water and watching him drink?”
“Is the salad ready?” I hopelessly asked.
“There are nine ways to skin a cat and so they need nine lives, but if
Fluffy learns enough in this life, like teaching a cat to fish instead
of giving him cat food, he’ll be all right, he won’t need all those extra
lives. Who would want extra lives anyway? I’d be afraid to lose them by
mistake, misplace them like I lost the—”
“I lost the best friend I ever had, a dog is a man’s best friend not a
cat, but if a cat could bake there’d be no mistake.” Jim was flipping
the spoon more urgently now. “Fluffy. Fluffy. Look.”
The cat looked confused with the two of us in the room—or anyway, he wasn’t
paying attention to the lesson.
“Jim, did you have an okay day?”
“Huh? My day?”
“Yeah. How was your day?”
“Well, did you get any unusual mail?”
“No, just the regular bills and Harper’s.”
“Did you get any weird phone calls?”
“No, the phone didn’t ring all afternoon.”
I kneeled down next to my boyfriend.
“Why are you sitting on the kitchen floor teaching the cat to cook?”
“I wanted to write, but I couldn’t say
anything. Life, life could be so much slower if we let the animals
do the cooking.”
It was a regular party except none of your friends had hair. It was a
regular plane arrival but when your mother got there she had no hair.
It was like it usually is, making love to your husband, except he had
no hair, not on his head, or chest, or arms, or down there. Down the street—no
hair on anyone’s head, and their skin didn’t look so much like human skin
as it did an absence in the air, all these white and black cut-outs from
the landscape, and you had to squint to try to put the scene back together.
The clerk at the store handed you your cigarettes: his arm was like an
overgrown girl’s. Waiting in the room to get the rental car, you and five
people there: bald as golf balls. They stared forward, half-fixed-up mannequins,
and you were mostly surprised by how lumpy everyone was, really, and you
were mostly surprised that flight—airborne, winged flight—seemed more
urgent and less likely than ever.
It was sinking. We had tried for years and it was still sinking. We had
made light of our problems, we had even joked about them, and it was sinking.
We had rented a new apartment together, one with beautiful light and clean
wooden floors and we had a new puppy that cost three hundred dollars and
it was still sinking. We were right for each other, we had even consecrated
it through grief and laughter, and we had a decent amount of good times,
and we thought we looked good together, which is something—some kind of
balm—and it was sinking.
My friend laughed as the water spilled in, and then the three of us in
the boat swam to shore. Luckily it was summer and the Merrimack is a fairly
clean river. The he of the we did not laugh. Afterward, I stood on the
pier, wet but not drowned. It was possible this would make a good story,
and then again, it was possible it would not.
The river had a kind of black unknowability under the summer sun, and
there was something like money scattered on its surface, from here to
the other shore: dollars, coins, fistfuls of tears.
The young woman writer, until recently a student of the older man writer,
sits on the banquette, kitty corner to the older man writer, in the Rose
Café on Fifth Avenue. It is his table. She has not been
with a man who has a table since her grandfather, who had a table
in a country club in Chicago. In that this is New York, and in that, at
this time, according to the older man writer, movie-types and art-types
such as Martin Scorsese and David Salle frequent this restaurant, it seems
interesting that this man has a corner table reserved for him, nobody
in it, and no reservation made, even at seven o’clock on a weekend.
The beautiful hostess brings them to the table. The young woman writer
takes note of the beautiful clothes on the beautiful hostess, and she
takes note of the way the older man writer speaks with intimate inflections
toward this woman. (She knows he does this with many women.)
They have dinner. And at dinner the older man writer suggests that the
young woman writer not gobble the bread, as she is doing. They have not
had sex, nor will they. In case that’s what you were thinking.
After the bread, and after dinner (conversation
was, as always, like a groomed lawn, soft, manicured, cool to the touch,
soft again), the dessert chef shows up. She is also a beautiful
woman. She flips the chair around and straddles it à la James Dean.
She’s got sinewy arms and strong features and her hair’s in a ponytail.
She’s brought these desserts which look like abstract art sculptures.
One for the older man writer, and one for the young woman writer. She
says hi, kindly, to the young woman writer, and then talks to the older
“So, have I told you the one about the lawyer, the priest and the Jew?”
Apparently, she tells jokes in addition to making desserts. The older
man writer makes that cute smile he makes sometimes and looks over his
glasses at the dessert chef and begs her to go on. The young woman writer
is also eager to hear the joke. She does not know how to tell jokes. She
picks up her small fork and trails it around the raspberry sauce and up
into the chocolate torte.
“Okay, so there was a lawyer, a priest, and a Jew. It was right after
the winter holidays, and they were all taking a much-needed vacation.
They were taking a cruise. In the Virgin Islands. Lovely. Beaches, naked
women, the whole thing. Unfortunately, however, while they were sailing
between islands, their cruise ship was torpedoed, yeah, unfortunately,”
(here she shugs) “and everyone died except, you guessed it, the lawyer,
the priest, and the Jew. These three men swam to a deserted island. They
lived there, eating coconuts and sardines, for a week. No other ships
in sight. No airplanes. They were beginning to think they were forgotten,
and they began to despair.”
The young woman writer is listening. She’s tasted the dessert, and it
is yummy. The older man writer is eating his with gusto. He’s not trailing
his fork around.
“Just then a shark appeared. He said, ‘I’ll take you to the mainland.
Just hop on my back.’ Well, all three men were suspicious of the shark—but
they were also desperate. The priest said, ‘Okay, take me,’ and he jumped
on the back of the shark.”
The young woman writer has never heard a woman tell this kind of joke
before. Jokes, such as this, seem to be part of the male domain. They
seem to be related to bar stools, tartan shirts, fat bellies, baseball
hats, drinks, and cigars—not to 21-year-old women with fantastic arms
and professional dessert-making jobs in New York City restaurants. In
fact, the young woman writer had not really even realized that there would
be a separate dessert chef, and yet this reality seems to indicate some
new world, some world of which perhaps she will write, and of which perhaps
she is, albeit in a tangential way, part?
“The shark started swimming away from the island with the priest on his
back. But before he’d even gotten a hundred yards out the shark flipped
around and chomped the priest in half, then ate him all up. Okay. So the
Jew and the lawyer are pretty sad about that. But they go about their
business, eating sardines, drinking coconut milk, for another week. The
shark shows up again and says, ‘Hey, priests—what are you gonna do? But
you two guys, upstanding sorts, I’d never eat you.’ The Jew and the lawyer
look at each other. They’re pretty damn hungry at this point. The Jew
is thinking about his kids back home. He’s thinking he’d rather risk getting
killed than stay on this godforsaken island. ‘Okay, shark, take me to
the mainland,’ he says, and off he goes. But before he’s even gotten a
hundred yards, the shark flips around and chomps him in half and eats
him all up.”
The older man writer is giving all his attention to the beautiful dessert
chef. The younger woman writer has noticed that the beautiful dessert
chef has a tattoo on her arm.
“The lawyer is watching from the shore. He can’t believe it. He cries
for the Jew, for the priest, but he is also crying for himself. How will
he get off the island? He cracks open a coconut.”
The older man writer has told the young woman writer, at times, that her
writing is good. Quite good—exquisite. The older man writer has led the
young woman writer to believe that her writing is, at times, as good,
as lovely, as exquisite, as this dessert, this chocolate torte thing with
funny cookies in it and raspberry sauce and bits of pistachio nut. It’s
not just chocolate cake, no. Not like that.
The older man himself, he writes short, uncompromising books and has helped
the young woman find herself as a writer. But as a person, with him, she
“Now, another week passes, another two weeks. The shark is obviously keeping
track of things. He’s in the water, swimming back and forth. Then he comes
up to shore and he says, ‘Hey, lawyer, come on, I’ll give you a ride.’
Now, from experience, the lawyer knows that this shark is a liar and a
killer. His two best friends, the priest and the Jew, have been eaten.
But on the other hand, he’s been on this deserted island for a month now
and he’s damn tired of it and besides, if he doesn’t get his Lexus out
of the hotel parking lot, it’s going to get impounded. He knows it’s almost
useless, but what the hell, maybe he can fight the shark if he has to.
Just get halfway to the mainland and swim. So he says, ‘Okay, shark. I’m
The beautiful young hostess has come up and put her lovely arm around
the beautiful dessert chef, and the beautiful dessert chef has raised
her strong, dessert-making hand to the lovely skin of the hostess, and
has settled it there.
“So the lawyer hops on the shark and the shark starts swimming obediently
toward the mainland. Fifty yards. A hundred yards. A mile. Five miles.
The lawyer is so amazed he isn’t saying anything. He’s just holding on
to the shark’s fins. Then there it is—the mainland! He sees it! The shark
swims him all the way up to the private beach outside of this nice resort.
He lets him off.”
Now it’s just the three of them again, a young woman writer, an older
man writer, and a beautiful dessert chef. Beyond that, the din of the
restaurant, many expensive dinners and glasses of wine being lost, consumed.
The young woman writer has realized that there is nothing as sexy as being
a beautiful dessert chef telling a joke.
“The lawyer gets off and says, ‘Thanks shark. But listen, I don’t understand.
You ate the priest. You ate the Jew. Why’d you let me go?’”
“‘Well,’ said the shark, swimming away, ‘I never eat my own kind.’”
A cigar, a tattoo, a turned chair. The dessert chef winks at the young
woman writer and leaves her with the older man, and the young woman writer
looks at the older man, filled as he is with sweet confection, and she
wonders, mostly, about plot structure.
They sit inside and stare outside. Despite the visual prompt of tossing
leaves, do not be fooled: the breeze is like a blow dryer. It’s pretty
much a total mystery why any of the trees are still alive. No rain in
ninety days. Even the miracles among the pebbles and gullies of sand—the
extravagant bird of paradise, the one-night-only bloom on top of the cereus
cactus—whither before their eyes.
60. Mushroom Paté
There was a time when no one really knew what paté was. It seemed
paté was like chip dip, only you didn’t call it chip dip, and it
also seemed a bit that paté was like liverwurst mashed or perhaps
the gross bottom of the roasting pan where the Thanksgiving turkey had
been prior to the slashing.
At this time, too, a fashion cropped up
for vegetarianism. I know. I myself tinkered with this eating
pattern. In any case, the vegetarian chef, twenty-four—ancient to me at
the time, now bizarrely young—the reggae-listening, Japanese-watercolor-painting,
reefer-smoking, trust-fund-collecting chef for whom I worked cutting vegetables
and making salads at a restaurant, itself called The Mushroom, which catered
to the new vegetarianism, in a high-class tract of land called Westport,
Connecticut, taught me how to make mushroom paté one afternoon.
Oh, I was excited. It would be relevant to learn how to mash mushrooms
in a Cuisinart and cook them in a new way with basil and red wine and
other mashed things. Certainly it was only the beginning of my adventures,
my education, my sophisticated life of 16+. He told me, for instance,
not to use the little bunched up paper towel to hold the butter as I buttered
the pan. He told me instead to use my fingers. For it was a sensual thing.
I placed the mashed up paper towel to one
side of the table. I needed to get back home by six in order to eat with
my family. Still together at the time. I stuck my never-had-an-orgasm-with-a-man,
totally-invisible-at-school, totally con-fused fingers into the butter
and bore down. The oily creamy white was a small, flattering indiscretion,
better, in any case, than the paté. I never really got it off my
63. Living Room
First kind of event, the waiting event: assembled family, waiting to
get in the compact car together and travel an hour and fifteen minutes
to blood relative’s apartment in Westchester County. Blood relative’s
apartment features all the soda you want to drink, good salty nuts, television
on in study, and the only kind of coffee 14-year-old male member of family
will drink (chicory). Family of four assembles in stages. The eldest female,
who has told everyone the time for the assembly, who is indeed the mother
of the two most brilliant members of the family, and who has actually
told the family the wrong time for assembly—an earlier time than necessary,
knowing, as she believes she does, that they will not actually assemble
on time and so need to have a false time so that the real time is not
passed and they are not late—is the first to arrive. She always looks
both beautiful and frightening when it’s time to go somewhere. She’s got
her hair pulled back with Chinese sticks and her eyebrows seem to arch
higher and her pale eyes are so pale they look like pools of light. She
is pissed at everyone else, those who are not assembled yet, because they
are late for the false time that she made up. (Everyone in the family
knows it’s a made up time, and so no one actually tries to get down to
the living room by then.) But then the teenage boy arrives! He now slumps
in a sliding-off fashion on the hardback chair. The teenage boy never
takes the soft chairs. The teenage boy is a marvel, in that he has developed
an almost perfect system of resistance. He is a 14-year-old, football-playing
Buddhist. Just try to get him to express a preference. The eldest male
in the family shows up and then leaves again, apparently in search of
a map. He has a beer in his hand. His hair is slicked back and although
both parents are just lumps to the teenage daughter, you have to acknowledge
that the father looks good cleaned up. Even if this is the seventies,
and that is a leisure suit with big brown snaps on the four front pockets.
Youngest female member of the family leans down the split-level staircase
and peers into the living room. Notes that her father is not there, yells
to her mother, I’ll be right there, retrieves mother’s message,
this is outrageous, mumbles in hall, screw you. Fourteen-year-old
boy stares at orange shag carpet. Stares at his sneaker. Thinks about
something that happened at practice. Wonders how much of the game they
will miss on TV. Wonders about what his uncle will say to him this
time—last time told him he’d introduce him to Joe DiMaggio but it never
happened. Mother notes that it is now past the real time of departure
and she is staring at the avocado plant. Gives up for a moment. Always
trying to keep everything together, and then she gets blamed for it when
they are late. She can feel her sister’s anxiety about getting things
done on time. Like her father’s, like her own. Daughter now sashays down
staircase. Looks a trifle slutty. Lace-up jeans and a sweater. Blue eyeshadow.
The night of high school graduation, in this very room, she received a
dictionary. She is going to college in two months. She also received some
new clothes. She and her mother went together to Bloomingdales. Shopping
together—that’s fun, and so are movies. Sometimes they have good talks,
and then other times her mother yells and uses everything she’s said against
her. So there’s this trust problem. On both ends. The mother is certain,
and will remain certain for twenty years or more, that the daughter is
the one with the problem. Rebel. Drugs. Drinking. Boys. The mother has
problems too, but even though as a teenager the daughter points toward
them with teenage courage, she still finally lacks the courage of her
convictions. The father shows up and by the time the four are in the foreign
automobile, the mother and father have issued the first of an hour-and-fifteen-minutes
worth of sharp lobbies at each other. The boy and the girl sit in the
back seat, facing opposite directions.
They’re all from Texas.
The one artist painted chickens. Cartoon chickens. Over and over, in
various “hilarious” situations. She was sixteen. She came over to his
house in her blue Pinto to clean it. She cleaned houses—ten dollars an
hour. It was good money. For some reason, he asked her if she’d go to
the liquor store for him and pick him up a bottle of booze—on the clock.
Well, sure, it was better than swabbing toilets. She could do it: she
had a fake ID. So there she went, off to the liquor store, and then she
came back, and then she continued to clean. Clean his bedroom bathroom.
There were girlie magazines in there. No big deal. The other guy had that
too. But then something was wrong, some new sound or presence. She looked
out the window: the trees were close and throbbing with insects; it was
summer in Connecticut. She looked out the bathroom door to his bedroom.
He was on the bed, lying on his back, pulling at his penis.
She retracted her head into the bathroom. She thought for a split-second.
Only one way out, through the bedroom. She started walking fast, through
the house, he was following her, she was out the door, she was at her
car, she was in it, he was right behind her, scrabby beard and thin little
chicken body, fucking artist, and she was rolling up the window in his
He wasn’t the first artist she’d met. There was the man who painted nudes.
Very handsome, very. Much older than she was. She and her friend went
out with him and his friend in his blue van and there was some, but not
complete, sexual activity in the back of the blue van during the drive-in,
and there was the return to his house. Vast canvases of naked women emerging
from the ocean and such covering every wall. Also a very competent artist,
photorealist this time. The breasts of the women rather large; their expressions
breathless. She was a sophisticated girl. She regarded the paintings and
made some comment about composition or color, as if there were no women
there at all.
There was also the photographer. He came up to her and her two friends
at the beach. He was older, too, much older, and certainly not the type
of guy they’d even consider for boyfriend status. But he was a photographer.
He said, in fact, that he was looking for models. He paid. A hundred dollars,
for a half hour. All you did was take your top off. Nothing else. His
studio was in Norwalk.
It surprises me that I had forgotten about the photographer until twenty
years later. A fourteen-year-old girl has been abducted; it’s all over
the national news. Little videos of her insouciant smile, her gazelle
body. My friends and I giggled and considered, though I do not know how
seriously, the offer.
Don’t get too bored. I just want to talk. The thing is, I remember talking
to those guys into the wee hours. Talk, talk, talk. I wore them out with
my talking. It’s obvious when I think about it what they wanted from me.
It wasn’t a question of love, or friendship. They’d try to talk me into
it, and I’d try to talk us out of it. Talk, talk, talk. Hours passed,
hard-ons drooped. I waited them out, like a hunter, waiting for the ducks
at daybreak. Then I’d get up, adjust my pink bra, and go home, quiet.
72. Age at Which You Consider History
It used to be that stories remained still. Your mother or father might
say them, and they were like small presents, like coffee mugs or key chains.
This is the ceramic sphere that I call my grandmother’s response to her
daughter’s teenage pregnancy. This is the plastic orb that I call the
uncle who was once a baseball player and then became someone who wore
gold jewelry. It used to be also that you were definitely on a surfboard
all the time and it was pretty great (although also sometimes pretty terrible).
You adjusted to the shivers and the shoves underneath you; you kept your
eyes closed and anticipated with all your might. Whatever you did, the
rude splash awoke you, devastated you, before it turned away again.
Then one day things became more difficult and less difficult all at once.
In the distance, on the dream line of the road, the movements of the
Gambel’s quail look not like those of birds but like the twinkling reflection
of sunlight on a lake, the way light hops from place to place. But as
I drive closer I realize that it’s a mother quail—the kind that has astonished
me here—they prefer walking to flying, they have little pompadours on
their foreheads—and her dozen or so tiny baby birds. They are attempting
to cross the street, 30-mile-an-hour speed limit but most people here
in Tucson drive faster. I am hitting my brakes and wondering how to warn
everyone, fumbling for the emergency blinkers. They’re right in the middle
of the road, and the mother is herding them south, then changing her mind
and going back where she came from. The sparks of fluff and light follow
her, one, then the other, then five, then two go in the other direction.
One of today’s monster trucks, red with an eagle-wings decal on the tinted
back window, hurtles past me and right over, right through, the family.
In the wake of his (why do I think of it as a him? Nothing saying
it couldn’t have been a woman in that truck) no-brake run, I see the aftermath:
the damage has been done. No longer a sprightly trail of life forms, but
a mother, in tact, a few of her babies left standing, and then some completely
flattened, and then some half-wrecked, still moving in a fashion—perhaps
the momentum of life even after it’s for all intents and purposes gone,
or the wind from the truck’s passage, perhaps determination to keep up
in their flawed path behind their mother, or perhaps just terror.
Okay, so she has a bird brain, the mother. So she’s a bird. But it was
in her to herd and shuffle around this family of a dozen wobbling fuzz
breaths, to nip and squawk at them when they didn’t follow, when they
veered off from her path, it was in her to keep them with her, to feed
them, to be their mother. What was she going to do now? How does the anxiety,
the sadness, the discontent, the unfairness, manifest in her? For it does,
and whether it is intellect, emotion, instinct, doesn’t matter, for it—motherhood—is
a physical reality, at its core.
On my way back, when I passed that way again, there wasn’t even a sign
of the flattened babies. There was so little to them—half a cup of feathers,
two toothpicks, and the life force—that they just blew away and were gone.
I hope you’re having a great day. Please enter your personal identification
number. What would you like to do? Where do you want your money to come
from? How much? (Think in terms of multiples of $10.00.) If that’s the
number, press here. Need a receipt? I need a second to process that information.
Here’s your cash. That’s it. I enjoyed helping you. All done? This key’s
for you. Don’t forget your card. Thanks for stopping by. See you soon.
A piece of fabric laid out, and a selection of tools. Outdoors, by the
road, near the other vendors. The man hawks as all hawkers hawk. He promises,
cajoles, lures, relieves. Tooth pain is everything. You pay first. It’s
still a lot to pay, but you can afford this treatment. Well, there is
almost no choice. You sit on the small piece of red fabric and he picks
up one of the tools. The chisel. You open up your mouth. Into the mouth
goes the chisel and the hacksaw. Into the mouth goes the ice pick. The
man distracts you with a comment and then he applies fast, intense pressure
until the browning tooth cracks. Around you the sky means something, anything.
Your heart is hard, and then it explodes.
88. Kleenex Box
The dominatrix has a Kleenex box on her table when she makes the call.
She is a dominatrix, I said that, but she is more than that, true story,
a human being. She makes the call: I’m back, she says, to the man who
What is a man? A man I know said he wasn’t much of a man. He didn’t have
that much testosterone he said. This man is a fine specimen of manhood,
physically speaking, robust, etc., and, while his wife works during the
day, this man tends to their children.
I was driving home the other day and I
saw this bumper sticker: Because I have a penis, that’s why.
In my mod new car, thirty-nine-years-old, un-made-up, I squinted at the
bumper sticker, trying to understand irony in it. It was on the window
of a big truck and I could tell the guy driving had a shaved head and
looked young. When I drove past him he had an urgent, entirely unironic
look. He also had one of those stickers with a kid pissing on something:
in this case, a Chevy logo.
Speaking of my new car, it’s really my husband’s and my new car, but my
husband always refers to it as my new car, and he has invited me to, or
he insists that I, drive it on a regular basis, while he drives the old
When my parents got a new car, my mother drove the new car, too. They
got divorced later: but with my husband it somehow seems different. A
gift from him instead of selfishness on my part.
But maybe that’s beside the point. The dominatrix is going back in business
today, even though her allergies are acting up, because she needs money
to pay the mortgage and support her two daughters, one each from two different
men, her ex-husband and another guy I’ve never met. The ex-husband was
an ex-marine and it always seemed kind of right for an ex-marine and a
dominatrix to get together; I don’t know anything about the other guy.
The dominatrix, I mean the human being with a leather outfit in her closet,
the mother of two daughters, hangs up the phone after making the appointment
and leans over to the table and plucks a tissue from the box.
What is a man? What does it mean to piss on someone?