Monday, April 6, 2009

Take It (nonfiction)

One of my favorite photographs of my youth is me sitting on our red and brown stitched couch with my kitten Bubbles clutched in my hands. It hangs on my wall now, one in a collage of family and friends. I look at it without considering that the girl in the picture doesn’t know she won’t have the rest of her youth to nurture this kitten, that she’ll have to bury the baby before she’s even a year old. The girl in the picture doesn’t know that her daddy is very sick, sick enough to die, and that he will die. The girl in the picture won’t know that the day after her father dies, she’ll opt to go to school and her teacher, Mrs. Wright, a breast cancer survivor, will be there for her and walk her all the way home and listen to her talk. The girl in the picture doesn’t know how lucky she is at this moment, full of summer, full of light, full of peace.

The girl in the picture is a stranger to me. I don’t know what she’s thinking as her mother presses her finger on the button. I don’t know what she was doing right before or right after the photograph was taken. Presumably, she was a playing child. That child is as much a ghost as the others lost along the way of her life. I wouldn’t know what to say to her if I could reach through the paper and get to her. I don’t think I’d want to warn her. She’s perfect right now, and I can’t take that away from her.

Bubbles wasn’t my first kitten, but she’s probably my favorite. Tiny, tortoise-shelled, forever playful, forever loyal, she was everything my five-year-old self could want from a pet. Even Boo, our adopted, ornery and even sometimes frightening older cat, took to Bubbles, mothered her, looked out for her. There was just something precious and dumb about this kitten, something right. Something enduring.

My mother brought her home to me after reading an advertisement in the paper. It was a surprise, as was every kitten that arrived in our home, but this was an especially exciting one because this was the first time we were going to raise a baby. Our first cat had been a gray tabby hand-me-down from an older woman who no longer had the time or inclination to take care of her. Muffin, as I immediately renamed her, was the outdoorsy type, forever dropping dead birds at my feet and disappearing for days at a time only to return with a new set of scratches. I was only about three when she moved in and don’t remember much else about her, outside of our token photograph of her sleeping in my father’s briefcase and, oddly enough, the way she died. My entire family had accompanied me to Akron General Children’s Hospital for the in-and-out procedures of having tubes put in my ears and my adenoids removed. Of course, this meant we were away all day, leaving poor Muffin, used to outdoors and freedom, cooped up and alone for probably the longest stretch in her life span. She wasn’t an especially young cat, at least seven or eight years old, and her years of fighting in the forest had weakened many of her nine lives. I remember the fall-out of our return home vividly. My younger brother Josh and I had stationed ourselves in the family room and turned on the children’s film Bedknobs and Broomsticks, while my mother, father, and older brother Casey were two rooms away in the dining room. I heard a slightly horrified gasp from my mother and looked over to see Muffin walking through the room. I remember wondering why she wasn’t coming over to jump in my lap, since I hadn’t seen her all day, but, regardless, she didn’t. Instead, she circled around the small, round table my grandfather built and vanished from the room. Seconds later, my mother, shaken and wide-eyed came in and sat down beside me on the couch. Her skin was pale and tears hugged her lower lids. “Sissy,” she said, her voice thick. “Sissy, Muffin’s dead.” I can still remember the confused, suspicious twitch of my lips as I looked stubbornly back at her and said, “No she isn’t. I just saw her.” I had! Right there! I pointed, I begged Josh to tell her he’d seen Muffin, too. But Josh was laying on the floor in front of the table. He’d seen nothing. My mother shook her head and hugged me close. “She’s dead,” she said.

Later, after we buried Muffin in the backyard along the edge of our white picket fence and my mother bought me the book The Tenth Good Thing About Barney, the story of a boy whose cat dies, the details of what had happened fixed themselves on my brain. The story of Muffin’s death is actually a very funny one now, one that we tell each other when we want to laugh in the face of the tragedies forever finding my family. Apparently, my mother, my father, and Casey had all been standing in the dining room, Casey standing precariously close to the grandfather clock which leaned against the wall. Muffin, so happy to hear our voices, came running out from wherever she was hiding and bee-lined for Casey. And missed. She ran into the clock and died from the head trauma.

She ran into a clock and died. Are you getting all of this?

Truly a funny story, one that catches people off-guard. I guess time finally got the better of her, eh? Wink wink. Sure, but did you hear what else I said? I saw her.

I saw her.

But the person in my family with the keenest sixth sense is not me. In fact, that title belongs to our next cat Boo, a darker gray tabby who we were supposed to cat-sit for six months while a former music student of my mother’s took a job on a cruise line. Sixteen years later, she was still ruling our house and inspiring us all, until we finally had to put her to sleep. Boo was a cat with issues, shall we say, and even my father, all six-feet and five inches of him, was sometimes afraid to venture down the front staircase because that sneaky, clawed cat often hid right around the corner, out of sight, and would jump at you, hissing and spitting. Scary, this cat. But she’d suffered abuse at the hands of a boyfriend of her former owner, which left her forever skittish around people. Try explaining such trauma to a child who just wants a pet who will chase after a string.

My father, whose childhood on a farm told him cats weren’t good for anything but chasing rodents in the barn and scratching fleas, as God intended for them to do, ended up working the hardest at being Boo’s friend. He was in graduate school at the time, working on a masters in engineering, and spent many late nights at our kitchen table talking to Boo, who, like her predecessor, enjoyed sleeping in his briefcase. Little by little, my father and the cat from hell reached a level of understanding and, strange as it may sound, mutual respect.

Probably around this time is when my mother decided, enough was enough, we need to get these poor children a kitten. I never knew how my father felt about the addition of another pet, on top of the emotionally wrecked one we already had, but that could be because he was forever on the go, traveling for his engineering job at TRW, working on his masters, and being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But, then again, I was only five.

And I was overjoyed by the kitten’s perfection. We have dozens of pictures of me with my first official pet, my first “from scratch” experiment in parenting. Bubbles, who got her name because that’s what popped out of my mouth when my mother asked what we should call her, followed me everywhere, slept by my head at night, purred constantly. I don’t remember one instance of being unhappy around her, and I also don’t remember one instance of sharing her with anyone else in my family, with the exception of Boo. My mother surely took a risk bringing a baby into the house with such a tyrant around, but my father’s coaxing had relaxed Boo enough to give her an open mind about the baby. In many ways, Bubbles may have been more the answer to Boo’s prayers than mine. I didn’t need more love and security: I had everything. I had a close, unified family, a place to live, a gauzy but guaranteed future of anonymous good things. Boo, though, had none of these things. My mother often referred to her as wise, which is the best word, ultimately, to describe her. She gained her wisdom through those early, traumatic years. Like a feline Phoenix, she rose up from the ashes, and as time filtered on, I grew to respect her more than most people I knew. After all, Boo was once afraid to love and afraid to trust, but she overcame that fear. She risked herself and fell in love with my father, and she fell in love with Bubbles.

Ironically, these are the two inhabitants of my world whom I loved the most, also. But for me, loving them was automatic. I was a child of the sun, a child of summer, carefree, full of laughter, with my arms stretched and ready. I was the child my father wanted, and Bubbles was the kitten I’d dreamed of for two years. I had achieved perfect equilibrium.

Which means, of course, to us realists and pessimists, that things were about to change. Profoundly.

I was used to my father being away. He was constantly on business trips and I never questioned his absence. When he’d return home, he’d enter through the garage door, call out a greeting, and wait for us. Usually, Josh and I got to him first and he’d scoop us both up, one in each arm, and hold us close. The main thing I remember about my father is he gave the best hugs on earth, and he smelled warm and comfortable. Those first moments upon his return from wherever he’d been that week were some of the happiest of my childhood. I loved my mother, there is no doubt, but there was something special for me about my father. So when he was diagnosed with cancer and eventually had to be hospitalized, I still anticipated that sweet moment when he’d return home and wrap my brothers and me up in an enormous, overwhelming bear hug. The best we’d ever had.

While I waited, my mother’s father and mother practically moved in with us. After all, my mother was trying to run a household, take care of three children under the age of eight, and spend time with her husband. I was mostly happy about my grandparents’ extended stay at our house. My grandmother, in particular, was good at playing with my brothers and me, tolerant of our childish antics, and willing to laugh along with us. My grandfather was more the quiet type, reflective, observant. An evening with Grandpa meant a long, slow walk down the block, mimicking the deliberate downward tilt of his head, the careful folding of his hands behind his back, the every few paces quick, pea-shooter spit. My brothers and I didn’t understand why our grandparents were around all the time, since we normally visited them at their house and only on holidays or during the summer, but we never questioned their presence.

In the meantime, Bubbles was teaching me to be friends with Boo. Boo merely tolerated us all, but she seemed to be waiting for my father’s return almost as much as we were. Maybe even more. I had other things to occupy my mind, like who’d be over to play kick ball in the crux of our cul-de-sac that night, what we’d do in Mrs. Wright’s kindergarten class the next day, and what Berenstain Bears book I should read to Grandma. I had never experienced trauma, besides Muffin’s headlong collision with Father Time, and didn’t know how serious the situation in my house was becoming. Boo knew, though. She always knew. But for me, ignorance was bliss. I didn’t know.

I didn’t know.

I only remember going to visit my father one time while he was in the hospital. My mother explained to my brothers and me that he had cancer, which meant he was very, very sick, and he had to wear special clothes and had special medicine, but he was still our daddy. I still remember walking into that room, pale in the afternoon light, a buttery cream, smelling of extreme sterilization and the buzz of electronic healing. I remember my brothers being afraid, clinging to my mother near the door. My father opened his arms, though, and I didn’t hesitate. I went right up to him, stood by his side and leaned in to hug him. A photographer from a medical journal was there and asked to take a picture of my father and me. The magazine was doing a story about him because he was the youngest documented case of pancreatic cancer. It was 1986 and he was 38. The photographer said our picture would probably be on the cover. I was excited. At the time, my dream was to be an actress and I loved the idea of being in a magazine.

I don’t know if that magazine ever wrote a story about my father and I don’t know what ever became of that picture, but that was the last time I saw my father alive. And I wish to God that I had a copy of that photograph.

I wish for a lot of things.

I wish my father was a fighter. I wish he hadn’t given up. I wish his family was more supportive, more present, less willing to sit back and wait. I wish my mother wasn’t so willing to point out that my father was not a fighter, a quitter, and from a long line of passiveness. I wish my mother wouldn’t repeat there’s no reason he had to die. He chose to die, he chose to give up. I wish my father had made another choice. I wish I knew him well enough to know if he’d tried.

But if I had that photograph, I’d know, for that one instant, that my father was in a hospital bed, with a protective arm still wrapped around me. I’d have proof that there was something for him to fight to keep. I’d be able to point at it and tell my mother, See? He loved us. It’s not his fault that he died. It’s not his fault that he died. I don’t know whose fault it is. I don’t know if “fault” is the right word.

I don’t know a lot of things.

My heart was breaking for another reason, outside of my father. There was something wrong with Bubbles. She stopped eating, she stopped playing. She still slept by my head and allowed me to carry her around, but she wasn’t herself. Boo was worried. I was curious. My mother took Bubbles to the vet and came back with the same look she’d had on her face the day Muffin died. She told me Bubbles had a tumor in her throat and that’s why she couldn’t eat. She told me a tumor was like what Daddy had. She told me Bubbles was very unhappy and the doctors couldn’t do anything to help her.

She said it was time.

After we put my kitten, who was less than a year old, to sleep and buried her in the backyard beside Muffin, I felt abandoned. It stopped being fun that my grandparents were always around and my mother never was. It stopped being OK that my brothers had been afraid to stand beside our father at the hospital. It stopped being eternal summer. Bubbles had been my best friend and constant companion and now I had nothing. I read The Tenth Good Thing About Barney over and over and wondered if tumors hurt. I knew they must, though. They hurt me tremendously, and I didn’t even have one. I clung to my mother as a source of stability, as someone who understood me. She was the only person alive that I thought might love my father more than Boo or me, and if there was anyone left in this world for me to turn to, it was her.

About a week after Bubbles died, though, I was very angry at my mother. My father was being life-flighted from Akron General Hospital to another hospital to try another course of treatment and my mother was going with him. Even she was leaving us! She told my brothers and me about how she and Daddy were going to fly in a helicopter and begged us with her eyes to see this new phase as an adventure. Like our father was in some action movie and she was going along for the ride. She didn’t know how long she would be gone, but Grandma and Grandpa would be there to take care of us. I didn’t understand, and I was tired of trying. All I wanted was something normal and consistent in my life, not this helicopter extravaganza. I sat on the floor in my parents’ room while my mother packed her bag, and I cried, begged her not to go. Please don’t go. But she asked me to be brave and climbed into the car with our neighbor Mr. Robinson, her ride to the hospital.

All afternoon, I laid on the brown, velvet couch in our living room, pretending to sleep. I didn’t want to do anything but stay mad at my mother. How could she leave? Didn’t she understand? The air was tense in the house because we all understood that my mother was all we had left. Boo stayed hidden all day.

Sometime in early afternoon, though, a joyous thing happened: Mr. Robinson’s car pulled up and he and my mother got out and came into the house. She hadn’t left! She hadn’t abandoned us! I felt as if life had been renewed within me. Things would be OK as long as my mother never left, better than OK, wonderful. Stable. Content. We’d wait for Daddy to return together, my mother, my brothers, Boo, and me. We’d be happy again. Complete. There would be no need to let helicopter rides or cancer or hospitals or sadness to divide us ever again. My mother was home, my mother was home. I sat straight up from my nap.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the front door swing open. Mr. Robinson held fast to my mother’s arm as they came in the house. My mother was crying. Ferociously. Painfully. I was still smiling, though, because she was back. Standing right there. My grandparents, though, hurried to meet my mother and Mr. Robinson at the door. My mother collapsed into her father’s arms, and he was already crying. He knew what she was going to say before the words could escape her emotion-fraught lips. He knew. I backed out of the room, went to find my brothers, disappeared for awhile. I think I knew, too, but I wanted to ignore the words that were soon to splay from my mother’s anguish, I wanted to cling to the string of happiness that I’d just recovered. I wanted the door to open and it be my father, returning from a business trip. I wanted to look over and see Bubbles winding her way around the round, wooden table my grandfather built. I wanted to believe in possibility.

I don’t remember who told me my father had died, that was the reason my mother was back and not going on a helicopter ride. I think it might have been my grandmother, but to this day, I remember the fractured second of manic happiness when my mother walked back through that door, not the revelation of why she was home. Regardless, roughly a week after we buried my best friend, my father was pronounced dead, hours before he was to be life-flighted to another hospital for new treatment. He gave up, my mother would say later in one of her fits of frustration. He didn’t have to die.

When my mother was a child, her own mother died of cancer, and her father remarried within the same year. She could see the cycle beginning all over again. And even though she had a good, strong relationship with her stepmother, whom she only ever calls “Mom,” she knew the sinkhole produced by the death of her husband. A man who didn’t have to die. She knew she’d have to face her three young children and tell them their father wasn’t coming home. She knew the consequences of a lost parent and now she knew the emptiness her father had felt upon his own wife’s death. She understood more than she ever wanted to understand.

Her father wanted to close his eyes and take it all away. He wanted to remove the burden Denny’s death was sure to cause his daughter. Janet Ruth, he thought, all I ever wanted was to keep you from knowing how this feels. He wanted to break his hands free from the bondage of fate tangled up with time, he wanted to erase the sound of his daughter’s pain-pressed tears. This man, who once hid in the Hungarian woods of his childhood with the family’s cow so that German troops wouldn’t slaughter it, who witnessed a woman beat her child to death with a shoe to prevent the child from crying, whose name is glossed over by tourists at Ellis Island every year, who is the epitome of strength and survival, this man became helpless the moment his daughter walked through that door. His own seeds of cancer, his of the stomach, grew from this sense of impotence, and he, too, died a year and a half later. He couldn’t stand to see me live his life, my mother would reflect far into the future. He died so he wouldn’t have to watch it.

My father had an open-casket at both his calling hours and his funeral. He was a much-loved man, open-hearted, generous, endearing, eerily reflective of the man Josh is growing to be, but my mother wanted to keep the after-death rituals as private as possible. In the newspaper, it listed his calling hours but labeled them as “closed,” and none of my father’s family came out of respect to the listing. Daddy’s older brother Ron had the responsibility of telling the family that they were, of course, welcome to come, but he’d failed, as he failed in many things in life. Those complexities and snafus aside, I remember seeing my father in the casket, appearing peaceful and sleeping, wearing his glasses, as he did in life, and dressed in a gray suite that I’d never seen. I wanted him to be wearing his scarlet and gray sweater with Joe Cool waving an OSU pennant. I wanted him to be as familiar as possible. But nothing was familiar, nothing.

At the funeral, the first I’d attended that had not been in our backyard, I was antsy and confused. I didn’t understand what was being said or what was going on or why all of these people had come to see my father dead. He was buried in our hometown Medina, far away from the Akron church where we’d had the service, but people came to witness. I suppose that’s the best any of us can offer: to bear witness on our living histories.

Sometime around my father’s funeral, I drew a picture on a piece of purple construction paper. The crayon depiction of my mother, my brothers, and me at my father’s grave reveals my mother to be the only one crying while the rest of us are smiling with flowers, much like the ones we tossed on his casket after it had been lowered into the ground. My mother was struck by this picture and had it laminated. She still has it somewhere. When I drew it, she asked why she was the only one who was crying. My mother remembers my response, and every now and then, nostalgia brings this story up, but I can’t recall the answer right now. And I’m hesitant to bring up my father’s death, an event and topic so long gone and buried it feels suspicious and awkward to address now, to find out my six-year-old self’s explanation. Thinking about it now, though, as a student of interpretation, my mother is the only one crying because she’s the only one, to this day, who understands. So, my father died. I don’t know life any other way, and I take for granted that not all kids grew up the same way I did. My life is normal to me, but my mother knows differently.

So does Casey, who was forced by nothing but necessity to become the man of the house when he was eight. Somewhere, under his calm exterior, he knows he was cheated of his childhood. He remembers our father the best and talks about him the least. I probably talk about him the most, which I’ll admit is infrequently, and Josh more or less asks questions about Daddy since he barely remembers him.

And Boo. Who, like me, lost the two great loves of her life within timequake moments of each other. I don’t think she ever recovered. I don’t think she even tried. Certainly, time went on, and Boo represents the ultimate in survival for me, but all I’d have to do is look at her and know she would never open herself up again. And she never did, which isn’t to say that she never bonded with our family--she did--particularly Casey--but she became aloof with the goal of survival in mind. Sure, other cats came in and out of our house: first Sugar, another of “mine,” a gray tabby who died of liver failure six years into her life; then Toby, Josh’s, a black, quality-bred manx-with-a-tail who was dumb as royalty and lived to fifteen; Maxwell, another of mine, a red tabby the size of a mountain lion and striding through his thirteenth year; and eight-year-old Abigail, my mother’s, a ragdoll look-alike with stunning blue eyes and an infectious laugh, but Boo did little more than tolerate any of them. And once we got the dogs, first Maggie, an English cocker spaniel, and then Henry, a Pembroke Welsh corgi, she was so far beyond caring, she never even acknowledged their presence. Boo survived childhood abuse, the construction and deconstruction of the two people she loved most in the world, a house full of competitors, a move to a new house, more competitors, and two terribly evasive tumor removal surgeries, and only when she was nearly eighteen and her quality of life had disintegrated did we opt to put her to sleep.

Until her death, though, she was the meter by which I read my father’s presence in our lives. There were certain times, usually at night, when she would wander around our house, offering a strange yowl to the silence. The other cats would retreat to the basement, hide under couches or in corners when Boo would get like this. I never knew for certain, but I also assumed she was sensing my father, or perhaps my grandfather, in the house, even when we moved from Medina to Fairlawn. Boo always knew.

Since my father died, my life has stretched out in all kinds of directions, directions that I often attribute to his death. I am aware of how different my life would be with a father around. For instance, we would have probably moved to New York or California for my father’s job and then we would have never gone to live in Fairlawn. Or maybe we would have stayed in Medina because, with my father around, my mother might not have never been stalked and threatened by one of her sixth grade music students, hell, she may have never even gone back to teaching. Casey would have never gotten into that fight the week after our father’s funeral and maybe would have been a mellower, happier kid. Josh would have a strong sense of himself through witnessing our father in action. I wouldn’t be afraid of commitment, sure that the minute I love someone wholly, he’ll abandon me in some permanent capacity. Or maybe I’m playing the role of writer here, curious about what happens to the characters in our drama if we choose an alternative future drawn from an alternative past.

Ask the following: What if your father had put his foot down and you’d never gotten a cat? Without Muffin, would you have ever gotten Boo and so on? What if Bubbles hadn’t gotten that tumor? What if your father had beaten the cancer or what if he’d never gotten it at all?

Ask the following: Would you change anything, anything at all?

Answering would be like asking silence to speak.

The Lie That Matters (fiction)

“Lisa,” she lied.

The man didn’t laugh so much as he grunted and took a rocking step back. He muttered something no human could understand which she interpreted as, “That’s my favorite name.” She smiled warmly. It was the least she could do. The man was missing a few teeth and in need of cleansing, this was apparent, but otherwise, he seemed kind. Almost like the sort of guy she’d like, honestly, genuinely, if she wasn’t meeting him for the first time on the worst day of her life.

But that, too, was a lie. No, an exaggeration. It was the worst day of her life because she could think of nothing worse than the terrific awfulness of what had happened before she’d dodged down the winded steps of the Copley T station, inbound trains only, away from the badness; but she could think of worse things. She knew they were coming. Worse than this man, covered in heart-tugging black fur that she supposed was hair, she presumed he was a mammal, like she was, this man standing far too close in terms of American social standards, not drunk or stoned or otherwise altered, so far as she could tell, just a man being overly friendly, forcing her to lie once more, but an innocent lie this time. This lie wasn’t hurting anyone. This lie was safe.

“I have a donkey and a horse,” the man said. He was rolling the palms of his feet to the side, resting his ankles on the ground in a very uncomfortable-looking position. Even the man appeared uncomfortable through his smiles and strange acrobatics. She stared at him for a moment, the same smile she’d offered with her false name still lingering on her plastic face, plastic because she worked in customer service and knew how to smile to the general public. She could pretend this man was her customer at Barnes and Nobles, just a guy who wanted to know where he could find some Flannery O’Connor or books on wicca. She could pretend; she’d had practice. But now, she couldn’t even respond to the man, this proximate man whose breath smelled like tomato soup and lemonade, this man with blackend teeth and striking green eyes. She remained motionless, uncertain. The man didn’t seem to care. He was asking her where she was from. She wasn’t responding. She was thinking about the lie.

She was thinking about the lies that matter. Like, when she was in grade school and her mother told her the bus driver used to be an FBI agent or her elderly babysitter was a personal friend of Stevie Wonder. Those lies, those lies were innocent. They didn’t matter. They were spun out of faithfulness, derived from honesty. The faithful, honest attempt of a mother to soothe her overly practical daughter into believing life could be extraordinary. Or when her second boyfriend, a stunning peacock of a boy named Jeremy Winthrop, cool blonde hair, half-lidded blue eyes, faintly stubbled chin, all of nineteen years old, had told her that hadn’t forced her to have sex on her parent’s couch the day after Thanksgiving the year she turned seventeen, that she’d wanted it, wanted to feel his dick inside of her, wanted to lose the stain of virginity. Then again, maybe that lie wasn’t so much derived out of honesty and faithfulness as it was out of a need to believe it was honest or faithful. She could appreciate a good lie for a good cause. She thanked God every day for the good lies.

The man was speaking to her again, but she wasn’t listening. By the time she realized he was still focused on her, he was nearly screaming, “LISA!” And she remembered that’s who she said she was, thought maybe it might be a good plan to be this Lisa for the rest of the day, and fluttered her Lisa-like eyebrows at the man. No, she had never run in a marathon, but, boy, does she find it witty that, while throngs of crazed runners battle up Heartbreak Hill, he will only be running from the bedroom to the kitchen for more beer and Milano cookies, and, yes, she was naturally blonde, and yes, she tried to work out regularly. Being Lisa felt good to her, like she was somehow reborn into innocence, like she was herself again. She wanted to thank the man, but she didn’t. It wasn’t Lisa’s style, so much as it was her own.

As the man told her a story about when he was a boy, growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, she slipped back into neutral, plastic grin and all, and her mind drifted back up the stairs, back up to the trouble. There had to be trouble, of course, or else why would she feel such a need to trade places with Lisa, her invention? Yes, there was trouble, of the worst kind. She wondered if Lisa smoked pot; she kind of wanted to, but only if her new alter-ego was cool with it. But then she decided that numbness only prologned things. The lie was what was at stake for her now. This was a lie that mattered.

“How do you feel about dog racing?” the man asked. She said she thought it was barbaric; that was one thing she and Lisa most definitely agreed on. “How do you feel about lying?” she asked him, and he shuffled back a step. “Well,” he said slowly. “Sometimes a rat will eat soup.” She stared at him, stared at the narrow spark in his eyes, and heard his howling laughter fill the station, the underground cavern where they waited in vain for the train, where was that train, and he repeated his nonesense response. She told him quite sincerely that she couldn’t agree more, folded her arms across her chest, and wondered if he believed her name was Lisa. She wondered if it mattered. She wondered why she’d lied at all, she’d probably never see this man again after today. But she knew why she’d done it--lies felt good to her today. Better than ever.

She’d had a bad day and this man, this forever-chattering man, wasn’t making it any better. She closed her eyes as if that would help, but when she opened them again, he was still there, still standing too close, with his bohemian black hair and his sour breath. She was tired. She needed to get away.

Her boyfriend, for lack of a better term, asked her to leave Boston for the week to travel to New Hampshire with him to visit his brother. She’d said no, sighted work, and didn’t answer his calls for three days. He wanted too much from her, had said he loved her too fast, and she was wary of him. As much as she needed a break, as much as she’d wanted to avoid the day she’d just had, a day she knew was coming far in advance, she turned him down because he wasn’t a worthy alternative. He was too old for her, taxing almost ten additional years onto her own, and too grounded and too ready for permanence. Also, he was too short. Besides, she wanted nothing permanent. She was looking for Now, not for Ever.

“Amen,” the man said, and she wondered if she’d spoken outloud. It didn’t matter. She was stuck waiting for the train, the same as he was. It was OK if he knew. It was OK if he didn’t. She cocked her head to the side and thought about telling the man the truth.

But she didn’t. Instead, she thought about the lie, that terrible lie, that awful lie that had spun her out of her karmic balance and jettisoned her into personal power failure. She also thought about how her feet hurt and how she wished she was speaking to her boyfriend so he could sidle over to her apartment and treat her feet like his own mama. Her mind was drowning in the lie.

At that moment, the train arrived, and the man heaved one last mildewed breath at her as he said, “Stay beautiful, Lisa. It’s not easy,” and leapt onto the train. But she didn’t follow him. She sat on the bench and watched the train pull away, watched her latest lie vanish into the tunnel of darkness on the lips of a man she’d just met.

Fiction (fiction)

She sat across the table from her roommate and said, “This summer has sucked.” Her roommate, thoughtfully not ordering a drink at the bar, looked at her plainly and said, “Why’s that?” Leaning back in her chair, she stared at her roommate, sure she must be joking, and waited for the punch line. But her roommate said nothing else as she plunked another potato chip in her mouth and chewed. So she cleared her throat and said, “Excuse me? Why’s that?” Her roommate shrugged. “Not sure if you were talking about the weather.” Laughable. The weather. The long days of lazy sunshine were the only thing that saved her life. Her roommate knew that. Her roommate knew everything and was tired of it all, no doubt. She couldn’t blame her. She was tired of it, too, tired of rehashing the same stale drama, tired of choking on the same bile, regurgitating the same sad facts until her internal intonation ruptured.

But there they were. And there was something new to infect the wound.

Her roommate knew her well, better than most, but she didn’t know everything about her. There were things she couldn’t understand. There were things that she, herself, didn’t understand, so it was only fair. But when it came to the man, this man, her roommate had never understood. It was like she had on blinders, refused to remember the good times, refused to register the suffocating happiness that he had spun around her. So if her roommate couldn’t understand the good times, there was no way she could comprehend the bad times. All she could do was see her friend hurt and hate the cause: him. The man. This man. But she -- but she... She needed another response. She needed another opinion. She needed her roommate to get it, finally, what she was talking about.

The man was an ex, she guessed, for lack of a better term. She was the only person she knew who had so many ex’s with so few boyfriends. No, she liked to skirt the trappings of relationships for a “friendship-plus.” She liked to be close to a man without feeling obligated to spend all her free time with him, canceling her plans girlfriends, concentrating all her emotional forces on him. In a “friendship-plus,” she could have the secret rendezvous, the covert lunches, the flirtatious phone calls, the too-long embraces with the man of the hour and it fulfilled her quest to Be a Woman without causing her to lose herself to some three-legged dog. Yes, this was a game she’d played before, the “friend-plus” game, and it always defeated her and left her alone, and every time she lost, it was a little worse than the time before, but she liked the game, when it was new, and was used to shrugging after the last hoorah and saying, well, that was fun, even though it wasn’t, and not knowing how to refer to the man -- a friend? a boyfriend? -- and simply resorted to calling him an ex. That seemed to say what she wanted. An ex.

But the latest example of this treachery, well, she’d made the mistake of actually dating him, not just as a friend-plus, but as a potential mate, and it had worked out well enough, she supposed, until she realized what she was doing: giving herself up for a man. This man. And she didn’t like that and it didn’t feel right and she was choking on every minute she was spending with him, away from her intended freedom and indebted to him or, more specifically, them, together. So she did what any reasonable woman in her position would do: she pushed and she ran. And he chased her, half-heartedly, and he kept up the intrigue and the game even after he found another woman to be steady. When she found out about this other woman, she was half elated and half disgusted, but, regardless, her “friend-plus” game was back on with him, although considerably more dangerous a game than normal since they had a different background, a non-friend background, a stronger-bonds background.

And, oh, things went so terribly wrong.

She stared at her roommate and took a long swig of her own cocktail, raspberry vodka and Sprite, and thought about the disaster of the last few months, the crashing down of a year-long dysfunction that left her emotionally crippled, paralyzed, and cracked. In the span of a few blinks of the eye, he’d turned thirty-three, quit his job, and moved back in with his parents. She thought that made him reckless, fearless, stupid, and brave. But he did all of that after he scalded her sensibilities with the biggest fuck you his passive-aggressive mentality could muster. Fuck you, you stupid bitch. He didn’t say that, not exactly, but close enough, she thought, and she breathed as though her lungs were punctured and she walked as though her bones were broken.

Today he’d come back from the dead and left a fresh hand print across her face. This was what she was trying to tell her roommate. She didn’t know if it was coming across, this new jab.

It’s not really possible to tell their story completely, nuances intact, but let’s say it began in the spring, as all good love affairs do. They met because of serendipity, in his apartment, a fluke, as a group of writers, her core, lounged around reading their work, other’s work. His roommate hosted the weekly festivities in their Cambridge apartment, this group of pot-smoking, wine-loving students who spent their time outside of their office jobs, their stints in Starbucks aprons, and their mundane existences writing poetry and screenplays. She was the token fiction writer who spent her days in retail management; he was the computer programmer with the fortune of having an artistic roommate. This is where she stumbled into his arms, by accident, and this is how they ended up finding their way out onto the streets together.

“Fiction,” she’d later tell her friends. “If I told you how I met him, you’d say it was fiction.” It was actually not how they met, they’d been introduced before, but, rather, how she allowed her mind to skip the “friend-plus” scenario and go straight to the oh, god, oh god binding of her internal sensibilities. They’d been sitting around the apartment, a steady group of maybe eight, all contemplating drunkenness, she only a quarter drunk as she would get that night, and they were waiting for a drifty poet to find some vague story by Borges (something about mazes, perhaps?) in a thick volume. Meanwhile, she tapped the edge of her wine glass and patiently awaited her turn to pull the worn yellow cover concealing pages full of her favorite writing out of her bag. Waiting. Waiting. Wha-ate-ing. When all of the sudden, he, sitting to her right, said, “Read the story about that drowned man who lands on the beach and the moronic village people bring him to their city and claim him... What’s that story? Isn’t that Borges?” He grinned, as only he was capable of doing, and she almost fell off the couch. No, it wasn’t Borges, but it was the very story she’d been wha-ate-ing to read. “Gabriel García Márquez,” she corrected him, thumbing through the pages until she found it. “‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,’” she added.

What are the odds? “What are the odds?” she’d later ask her friends, both in good and bad times with him. What are the odds? That he would pick that story. “Fiction!” she’d say, sometimes her face round with light, other times bitterly, her face drawn tight.

Oh, and there were other odd hijinks that would slip into the fiction! category, like him being born on the seventh of a month, just like her, him being a twin and she a Gemini, each of them living at house number 18 on their respective streets, each with an identical can of Whoop Ass at their disposal. And then there was him guessing her middle name on the first try only to find out later that her middle name is the same as that of a main character in his favorite novel. Of course, another major character also bore the same name as his ex-girlfriend. “She might as well be his current girlfriend for all I hear about her,” she’d complain to friends. “I know more about her than I do about him.” And this became her excuse to back away from him, even though they had fun together and liked the same movies and were obsessed with the same grammar rules.

He had to go away, anyway. He told her at the last moment, almost no notice, that he was going off to fulfill a young man’s dream, his own, that is, and that he didn’t know when he’d back but he’d keep her posted. “Oh. Bye,” she’d said. Off you go! She needed him to leave, and when he came back, defeated, three weeks later, she tiptoed around his phone calls and refused to touch his broken spirit. “He wants me to be her,” she told friends. “His ex. And I’m not her nor do I want to be.” She wondered if she’d missed him while he was gone and decided that she had not. She’d been relieved, instead, that she didn’t have to plan nights out or nights in, that she could flirt without her friends raising an eyebrow at her. She was happy she didn’t have to answer or return his phone calls, dodge him while he Instant Messaged her from work.

But once he was back, back for good, she did start to wish that they hadn’t had that time apart, that they were still working at being an item, that she didn’t look at him and think “friend-plus”! She did like him, after all, quite a lot, and she thought there could be something there, maybe. While she was thinking, though, he was moving, moving on, to another woman who didn’t mind hearing about his ex, who didn’t mind his obnoxious habits, the way he was more attractive when he wasn’t smiling, the whiny nasal accent of his voice, his inability to open a door for her. And by the time she found out this other woman existed, she was already doomed, prepared to offer him what he’d sought from the moment they met: her, body and soul.

“Fiction,” she told her friends. “This doesn’t happen to real people.”
What she meant, this time, was that she found out about this other woman by accident, during the heat of an intense Game 7, Red Sox versus Yankees, as the tide was turning, as the Red Sox were losing their precious lead, their grandiose feet-first slide into the World Series. That night, she’d sat in a bar with his roommate and the core of their writer-friends when one of them mentioned, ever-so-casually, that he’d seen him, the man, out and about. With a woman. His roommate nodded dramatically, said, “Well, he is ‘seeing someone.’”

Bam. Yankees win the game. The underdogs are out. Curse of the Babe. Don’t trade a winner, that’s the lesson, sportsfans.

She took the news in the gut, churned it in the stinging sweetness of her amaretto sour, and gulped. These people, what did they know? Even after that night, she pretended like she didn’t know anything, continued talking to him, waited for him to re-negotiate his position in her life, swivel from man-friend to friend-friend, and then drop off her radar all together. But that didn’t happen. Not for weeks. In the meantime, it was business as usual between them, and it amazed her. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore, waited until she had a good weekend without him, and made him confess the fun he’d had without her. And when he did, she drew a sharp breath and said, “We’ve hit a brick wall.” He was feeble. “Look, we’ve moved right through it,” he said.

But they hadn’t. All this time she’d worried about his ex and now. And now! Who was this new woman and how had she slunk in the door? She didn’t know. She never found out. All she knew was nothing ever changed with him. They carried on the same as before, and the new woman almost never came up. “It’s strange,” she’d tell her friends. “I still hear more about the ex than I do about the current chick.” It was strange, also, that as the fall chilled into early winter that he asked her to accompany him to his office Christmas party, not the new woman, and that he got tense when he found out she was going to her own holiday party without him. “Who’s your date?” he asked, not forcefully, not casually. “Who’s going to be there?” She was going alone, that’s what she told him, and she declined his invitation to his party in the same breath. But not because she didn’t want to go -- she wasn’t going to be in town. “Does that make me a bad person?” she asked her friends. “That I would have gone with him?” Her friends stared at her, either wide-eyed or annoyed, astonished or agitated. Most of her friends liked the game she was playing, enjoyed hearing the latest in the drama. “It’s better than fiction!” they said.

After the holidays, especially, the drama percolated. More and more, they were drawn into long periods of stony silence. They didn’t have time for each other, saw each other less and less, forgot the sound of each other’s voices, and in the meantime, she thought more and more about his ex and less and less about his current girlfriend, especially when he found out he didn’t spend Valentine’s Day with his current girlfriend and especially when both women’s birthdays rolled around, less than a week apart. He almost forgot his current girlfriend’s birthday; he took his ex out to cozy restaurant of her choosing a few days after escorting her to a hockey game. “The ex gets a weekend extravaganza,” she told her friends. “The other one gets an ‘oops, guess it’s your birthday’ nothing.”

And in the meantime, what? What was she doing with this man, this man who was too old to be juggling so many women with such illicit intentions? What, indeed? But by then she was too hooked to walk away. Plus, she was eight years younger than the rest of them, and if youth isn’t on your side, what is? And plus, what else was there to do? And plus, it gave her something to write about. “Something is wrong,” she told him. “Something is wrong.” She needed him to understand. But he said, “You’re the writer. Bring what bothers you to life. Write the ones who’ve wronged you as weak, pathetic characters in your stories.” But she was writing about him. She was writing about this. It was like fuel, like air, like faith. He didn’t understand, she thought. He didn’t understand his role.

She simply wanted him to be more important to her than he was.

So she kept writing, and they slipped into spring with the grace of a rusted out jalopy. It was all so awkward, these strange off-ramps and in-roads and broken tire jacks. And what about the air pressure? And what about the gages and the meters and the excess of fluids, the excess of XX-chromosomes. “Because,” she told her friends. “Even if he broke up with what’s-her-name, there’s still the ex. The reason I’m not with him hasn’t changed.” Even as he seemed to thaw with the weather, as he stood closer and closer to her for heat. Oh, she wanted him, wanted him to want her, wanted him to want her more than he wanted either of the others. She wanted to wake up in his bed, in his arms, with her picture on the side table, her name on his lips.

But he wanted. He wanted something she couldn’t understand. “Fiction,” she’s say quietly to her friends. “A bad romantic comedy where no one laughs, where people avert their eyes because these people are clearly...” But she never finished the sentence. She never did. She just let her voice drop off and no one ever pressed her to go on. Instead, she settled with meeting him for lunch, leaving sarcastic text messages on his phone, chatting with him on Instant Messenger while she wrote fake lesson plans at her apartment and he untangled real network security problems at his office. Even though it never felt good and it never felt right, that he continued to prop her up against his taut body, invite her into the cavernous sponge of his mind, that he would wink and flee whenever she mentioned his girlfriend.

Except when he told her about the book he bought his girlfriend that he insisted she would love. “So why didn’t you buy me a copy?” she asked prettily. “Because you don’t put out,” he said thickly.


Things were getting out of control. Talk spiraled around the perfection of her breasts and the tightness of his ass. “We need some time together,” she said on repeat. In mute, so it seemed. Because he was afraid, maybe, and so was she, maybe, that they cared too much about each other, more than they should and that they were saying things that were bad. She would say things like, “I’m tired of it all. Wanna run away with me?” And he’d laugh and say, “But where would we go? And could we ever get away from it?” That became her focus, her mantra, her wake-up call, her first step towards emotional death. After all, this man, this man had not one, not two, but three women that he was juggling -- that she knew of, at least -- and she thought too much of herself to be one of those women. Because they -- we -- could not get away from it.

And the last time she saw him was wonderful. They embraced, they smiled, they did the things that they always did. But before he released her back into the New England wilderness, he cocked his head in a malevolent way and said, “You like strange things.” She had shrugged, buoyantly, pleasantly, and bounced away from him. Not stranger than fiction, she thought. Anything but that.

And then. And then. Exactly one week later, a homeless man dressed like the Cat in the Hat on the Boston Common stopped her and announced in a booming voice, “The Bruins are gonna win tonight, 2-1.” Pleased with the oddity, she sent him a text message with the news -- Cat in the Hat said... -- and disappeared into academia for the evening.

But then. But then. She re-emerged to find a reply message from him. Well, no. Her caller ID identified him as the sender, but the message, the message was not from him.

It said: “Please stop texting my boyfriend. He is busy going down on me.”

And when she read that, she choked on a ball of air. He is busy. As she slunk towards the T, she felt threatened. Going down. She felt hunted. On me. The girlfriend. The girlfriend! The two women had never even met. “Fiction,” she told her friends. “It’s worse than fiction. I wish it was fiction.” She actually put her hand to her face and felt for the evidence of scratch marks or a spattering of phlegm. Oh god, she thought. Oh, god.

She suddenly wished she’d paid more attention when he’d talked about his girlfriend, wished that he’d talked about her more, so she could feel like this woman was a real person, not just a stick figure, a puppet, forgotten in the corner. Because she was not prepared for this sort of attack. Up until that moment, she thought the girlfriend was weak-willed, a push-over, a fool. She’d just been gunned down by a complacent village idiot! Over the Cat in the Hat! In a town full of morons!

And when she called him at work the next day, he confirmed the sender, though he claimed he didn’t know the message. And when she told him what it said, her voice prickly and strained, he laughed. Laughed! Laughed as their lives flashed before their eyes. “I think she was joking,” he said. Ha ha, big fuckin’ joke. Her fury leapt up in her throat at that moment and resulted in a kamikaze barrage of foul language. How dare she... How dare he... What the fuck makes her think... What the fuck makes it OK... I don’t even fuckin’ know her... “Who the fuck does she think I am?” she demanded. “A friend,” he squeaked. And off she went again. Fuck fuck fuck. Because, clearly, this woman knew enough about her to know that she was either a threat or a joke, because, clearly, women don’t mark their territory in a friendly, noncombatant sort of way. The girlfriend, she wasn’t joking.

And neither was she, on the phone, yelling for six solid minutes before he used her name and said, “I don’t appreciate you telling me my girlfriend is fucked up.” Which is not what she said. She said what his girlfriend did was fucked up. But all he ever heard was the wrong thing. And that’s how it ended.

Eventually. They bumbled along, scabbed and alien, for another couple of weeks before they exchanged succinctly written, rigid emails about how passive-aggressive he was and how demanding and selfish she was, and she spent a long night locked in her room, sobbing, exactly one year after he had rubbed her thigh and guessed her middle name. “Fiction,” she told her friends. “What he wrote to me was fiction.” That it wasn’t her right to judge his girlfriend’s sense of humor and that their casual friendship was simply not something he could fit into his lifestyle. All of this because she was insisting that they needed to sit down and talk about what happened, what had been happening between them for a year. But he chose to blame her, erect a stern finger in her direction and say you you you. “I guess we’re done being neighbors now,” she replied. Hit send. Hit end.

And so things had stayed for months, until his birthday, a few weeks after she learned from his roommate that he’d quit his job to spend his summer in the sun, and she decided to wish him a Happy 33rd Year, left him another sarcastic message, and, within minutes got a casual, “Hey, thanks” response. Hey thanks. It angered her, this response, at once flip and clueless. “Only a man!” she said to her friends. Only a man would have added the “hey.”

And then a few weeks later, she sent him another message, this one asking if he was still not talking to her, just curious. His response? “I was never ‘not talking’ to you. Just feel our ‘friendship’ is less than friendly.” Feel. Present tense.

Feel. Present tense.

“Fiction,” she muttered to herself. “Only in fiction would it make sense for this man to use present tense.” Only in fiction would a character be dumb enough to say that three months of cold-turkey silence doesn’t equate to not talking.

This is what she had to tell her roommate at the bar. This is the latest. This is what has renewed her vow that the summer had sucked. And when she told her roommate the story, rehashed all the details that can never be understood by those who weren’t there to witness, her roommate sighed and said nothing until she pressed, “Well? What do you think about all of this?” And her roommate, without hesitation, said, “He’s bad for you.” And her roommate was right. But when she closed her eyes, she could still see his face, and when she tried, she could feel the ghost of his hand custom-pressed against the small of her back.

“Fiction,” she said. “This whole nightmare is fiction.” So close the book, her roommate’s eyes begged. But she couldn’t. Not as a woman, but especially not as a writer. No, she was still waiting for another story arch.

On the Drive Home (poem)

My mother asks, "Do you ever think

in poetry?" She says she does

sometimes, though she doesn't

know about form. It's so dark tonight.

Starless, almost void, and we are driving home.

I tell her I do think in poetry

and she seems satisfied. I do, after all,

have an advanced academic degree

in writing and now I have proven I use it,

even if only internally. We barely talk

as we cruise along the freeway, mother and daughter,

so similar, even, as it were, in thought.

It's Christmas and we are a family reunited.

Only in thought do I admit I am the same as her.

I ride, she drives, and I think in poetry

until it screws my face up into a wad of discontent

and my mother asks me more than once

if I'm OK. I say I am. I'm probably not lying.

The poetry keeps me honest.