Miss Iraq, the first crowned
in forty years of foreign meddling,
means it when she wishes for world peace—
her cousins’ deaths
both tallied by sectarian violence in her
war-quilted, war-torn nation.
She is aware
the pageantry— pinup smiles and stiff,
cupped hands (their rotational gesture)
—will not beckon peace. Salvation
may have functioned
such ways in old, dog-eared eras. There’s evidence:
all our parched frescos or pocked statues
depicting one or another stoic god,
its crimped hand raised,
signaling for peace like a captain calling a play.
Run peace, they might have said,
or run samsara or run godhead
if peace is too transparent a trick
name for an offensive set. In Saddam City,
today, broken men train to play
the beautiful game, to execute levity
with their feet. Under Hussein’s boot,
losses on the pitch often translated
into torture—forty degrees Celsius
sessions training to kick molded concrete
futbols or hours
spent begging deliverance from within
an iron maiden’s spiked void. Those years
we call “the dark era”—when Saddam’s son,
Mr. Uday, was the face
of Iraq’s Olympic committee,
before he would become the ace of hearts
in the most-wanted card decks
coalition troops carried in their fatigues.
“Clearly recognisable” —how the Guardian
would describe Uday
Hussein in U.S.-released glamour shots—
“despite having a thick beard
and a wound that had destroyed
part of his nose and upper lip.”
On this side
of that suffering, five years since
Iraqi Freedom’s end,
Ms. Qasim will wear the red,
green and black sash,
and the U-23 team will play
for Olympic glory, despite the death
threats that may bloom into dying.
Authority’s lens abhors
beauty—its saturation in this world,
its disregard for the vacuums
men slaughter each other to create.
THE ECONOMY OF SWALLOWED KNIVES
I warn an auditorium full of children,
Do not try this at home. Then I begin
ingesting skewers. Unintentionally,
I enlist their youthful volition
into the war against waiting to grow up.
On the drive home, they pelt their parents
with salvos of Can I and Please, while fathers
being fathers, retort, When you’re grown,
paying your own bills for your own roof,
you’ll be free to live as foolhardily as your heart
desires. There: the moment of escalation—
suddenly their every waking hour becomes
a struggle to buy back their right to self-
destruction. Lemonade stands and lawn
mowing. Frozen meat pucks flipped
under sallowed arches, endless refolding
of denim. The children sprout acne and fuzz
as their piggy banks pudge. Their minds
have long since forgotten the death-defying
blade sleight that followed my disclaimer
They are teenagers. Everywhere
something else shouts This could kill you,
and, achingly, they answer Yes. They can
taste it: tattoos, cigarettes and sex—
any form of flirting with mortality.
Beneath youth’s aegis, they believe
themselves mighty, no matter how poor,
but soon enough they are adults renting
efficiencies and driving jalopies—stretching
dimes for the privilege of being grown.
See how this economy needed no help
in tailoring their malaise. What next?
Heat assignments for the middle-class
scramble to obfuscate death.
Then kids of their own. Then the rest.
My English teacher said yesterday there’s no gift that doesn’t come with chains. No one was listening because she’s always spouting stupid crap but she, right at that exact second, started giving me her sharp-eye and I wrote it down and she smiled this tight way that prickled me. I think she knows who my father is, how he’s exactly the third most powerful man in Washington, not according to anyone but according to the Constitution.
Now I type what she said into the phone, curious to see who said it before her, because maybe that will be worth knowing. “Gifts with” I type, which fills in to “gifts with whips” and there’s S&M and porn and if only I could text to someone who’d laugh. I want someone listed under “favorite,” someone a favorite for real.
The water’s off and steam fogs half the mirror so I don’t see my face, which is like victory because here’s the reason my bathroom’s the best room: it’s the Snapchat of the house, like, go here and poof, vaporize.
Obviously I get my teacher meant “metaphorical” chains so I type those words into Google. My dad who pays for it all meaning everything– bills, credit cards, groceries, birthday gifts–meaning he gets to escape living here with me—that man, he hates Siri, so even she’s not hanging around on the phone he bought me for my last birthday. What comes up for “metaphorical chains” is a gob of college papers for sale that sound extraordinarily stupid and boring and what, like are little kids somewhere going, “When I grow up, I wanna write papers that lazy college drunks buy for fifty bucks.”
I never find what I want on this stupid phone.
The mirror’s all the way fogged up now, top to bottom, and a wet haze bulks the air, and the counter’s slick with condensation. More science happening here than any class. I trace my one finger on the misty-white mirror glass, I write letters like I’m a kid, I print: HELP ME. I look hard enough and spot the identical ghost words already up there in the mirror, leftovers from before, a message right where my face should be.
In her early 20s, she left the Midwest for Los Angeles, thereby startling her parents, who’d assumed that once her schooling was over she’d settle into her adult life as a schoolteacher in Indiana, find a husband, and raise some children.
But her time at the University of Michigan had broadened her sense of life’s potential. She’d met people from all over the country. Her roommate, for one, hailed from exotic Long Island. Francie had dark hair and a strong accent. She came to college knowing everything—Samantha realized on the spot—she herself wanted to know. How do you look good in tight jeans? How do you wear dark lipstick? How do you talk to guys in bars and not seem shy? How do you drink but not get drunk?
Francie made Samantha a pet project without making her a pet. Lazing on her bed before they went out, she’d offer advice: tight jeans, yes—especially with Samantha’s slender figure—but stand up straight and wear a heel. Samantha was too fair for dark lipstick, but creamy apricots on her eyelids and cheeks would bring out what Francie called her “corn coloring.” Blonde hair, milky skin, small pink lips. Later, while holding gin and tonics, there was more to discuss. The trick with drinking was to sip slowly but always have the straw near your lips so you appeared to be drinking more. The trick with men was for them to see the straw near your lips. “Suggestive,” Francie said, “without being crude.”
Francie had lots of tricks for persuading men, but here’s where Sam stalled, grew shy. She settled for a farm boy from northern Michigan, and while Lester was sweet, he was also shy and overly deferential. Samantha felt they were little more than companions given that their main activities were studying and watching movies. Sex was tepid and slow to happen and she thought how people made such fuss over nothing. But Francie, who remained her roommate all four years, had an array of men who came into her bedroom and Samantha could hear them together, dark and rugged and filled with sweat, which was nothing she could fully imagine.
Francie’s breakups were also tumultuous affairs. Sam would return to their apartment to find Francie prone on the living room couch, staring at the ceiling with red puffy eyes. Cyrus Bailey had made out with Sarah Park at the homecoming tailgate. George Atkinson had forgotten her birthday and, when told he had, had shrugged and suggested he buy her a make-up beer. Sam would bring Francie popsicles or ice-cream bars as she recounted her woes—something sweet and cool to temper all that heat.
Lester proposed right before graduation. He and Sam were on the couch, a bowl of popcorn between them. She was highlighting important passages in her child psychology textbook when Lester got up only to drop to one knee, his brow sweating as he held out the open ring box. She was so surprised she kicked out her leg, knocking the bowl of popcorn off the couch, where it landed a flutter of salted kernels all over the rug.
“Lester!” He still held out the ring beseechingly, but now surrounded by popcorn, he’d turned a mottled red. “Lester!” She began laughing, unable to stop, and pointed at the popcorn.
“Will you marry me?” His knee had begun to tremble.
“Less, I don’t think this is right for us. We’re so young, and we have our entire lives ahead—”
“OK.” He stood, shutting the ring box with a velvet-lined thump, shoving it in his pocket. Walking backwards, he crushed popcorn kernels with his shoes. “Alright.”
Hearing about this, Francie laughed until she cried. “Oh, thank God! Sam, dear heart, I’ve always said that boy is all wrong for you.” She started giggling afresh. “I love that you spilled the popcorn.”
Samantha had mainly felt shame: to have been so long with someone she didn’t love.
Graduation came. Francie decided to move to Los Angeles to try her hand at screenwriting. Samantha moved back home. She was still in shock from her breakup, and returning from whence she came was her parents’ hope anyway, so nothing felt out of place.
Her hometown in southern Indiana had a population of 10,000. She got a job at her old elementary school, moving into a small apartment a few miles from her parents. Every Sunday night she had dinner with them and they gave her good-hearted grief about breaking up with Lester (she never told anyone but Francie about the proposal) and said it was time she found herself a robust Indiana farmer.
Teaching 6th graders is only so preoccupying when you feel trapped in your own life. The cornfields—which she’d always thought of as luxuriating in the wind, rippling in raw, pleasurable ways—now seemed tedious.
She wrote to Francie, saying she was bored. Francie sent her a postcard of the Hollywood sign, white in muted green hills: “Come out here! There are pink buildings and movie stars and lots and lots of ocean!”
An October afternoon Sam emerged from school, walking across the parking lot. Wind cast maple leaves along the asphalt, twisting them into small, fitful tornadoes. Her life would contain only churlish 11-year olds, dead leaves, leaden skies, and unrelenting cornfields. But there was time yet for something fresh. She was just 23. That night she called Francie, asking her if she wanted a roommate.
Francie was delighted. Sam’s parents were horrified. “L.A.?” they asked as if she’d announced a new life of hedonism and crime.
“Yes,” she said at the dinner table. Heavily vexed, they passed the bread basket.
Her certainty her decision was correct collapsed almost as fast as it had erected itself. She watched patches of green and brown land grow fainter and fainter. There went her life, which she’d abandoned for no good reason.
The drive from LAX: the neon, the bright store fronts, the pollution-suffused night sky. Francie was driving them to Santa Monica, where she lived. Where Sam would live now, too.
Francie announced that she’d found a job as a marketing assistant at company in Venice, and that she’d finagled Sam a position. “How’d you manage that?” Sam asked. By then, they were in the tiny apartment, a celebratory bottle of wine before them on the coffee table. Marketing. She’d been thinking of getting a job as a teacher, of course.
“I’m sleeping with the boss.” Francie clinked her glass with Sam’s. “Cheers.”
The sky was hot blue, and the streets had palms. Some neighborhoods were spacious, composed: mansions pale cream and white. Smog hung like dirty wool in the sky. On certain blocks the store windows had iron bars over them. On others, stores with two-story high windows shimmered as they displayed crocodile purses and fabulous dresses, sequins and silk. There were gangs; there was Rodeo Drive.
They worked a little ways from the ocean—close to the Santa Monica Pier, with its Ferris wheel and seedy carnival vibe—in an industrial office all shades of steel and slate. She sat in a cubicle, dreaming up marketing schemes. After work, they went as an office to dimly lit places with polished floors and sipped drinks mixed with egg whites and basil and peach. People displayed a glamour borne of correct clothes and constant nonchalance. If Samantha hadn’t had Francie to act as cultural ambassador, she might have turned around and gone right back to Indiana.
One day a few months in, Francie said, “We don’t even have a Lester for you.” She was still thickly involved in her affair—the boss, it turned out, was married—and unfazed by its intimations of despair. “It’s not like Joe is really married,” had been her explanation. “He’s on the cusp of getting a divorce. And he’s only 33.”
There is a wife, Samantha wanted to say. She exists. And why be part of something that could crush another? But during the week, Joe was professional. And on weekends, he’d come over and look at Francie with such happy eager eyes. Sometimes they’d head to the Santa Monica farmers’ market and return with bags of carrots, baskets of cherry tomatoes, small bundles of dill and thyme. Or, they’d sit listening to music, Francie’s head against Joe’s shoulder. Perhaps, Sam thought, there was love between them. And maybe that justified it. Of course, Francie knew when he’d arrive—he claimed he was playing golf these weekend mornings—but never how long he’d stay. It was just temporary, she told Sam—just until Joe got things sorted out.
Perhaps having to let his life—and its dicey parameters—dictate hers was wearing on her. It might explain her newly fierce need to find Sam a boyfriend.
“Let’s ask out Chris,” Francie said. “For you.”
“I’m not ready,” Sam said.
Francie threw a pillow at her. “Enough. Lester was the biggest nobody ever. I’ll make sure Chris is sitting next to you when we get drinks on Friday.”
In Samantha’s defense: most of her energy had been spent acclimating to this sprawled metropolis frenzied with freeways. Once, trying to get across the city to a restaurant in Los Feliz, she missed her exit, and when she finally did pull off, ending up in some shady section of downtown, near Union Station, where yellow billboards offered the services of bonds bailsmen, she shook with frustration. She wanted to be where a Main Street was at the center of things, where roads only fattened to two lanes. Where cornfields—forget tedium—signified the ease of open space. Where the sky was not hazy with dirt.
That which also took getting used to: urbanity and beauty. One Sunday afternoon Francie took Samantha the Getty, and she decided that if the universe had conceived of itself in miniature it would’ve orchestrated itself thus: high on a hill, with tangles of fuchsia bougainvillea surrounding white marble. Gardens with lily ponds, slim green disks and liquid white blossoms.
If she had a lot to contend with, it was for her own betterment, and she had Francie to thank for that. So when Friday came, she sat near Chris, smiling and letting her eyes linger on his. Even though he came from foggy San Francisco, he had a beach bum’s tawny coloring—dark blonde hair, gold skin. He wore tortoise-shell glasses and seemed, for all he talked about being a double major at Berkeley in political science and math—quiet. She told him about studying child psychology, her childhood in Indiana, and felt he perceived her shyness not as naivety, but as a slow approach to knowing another. Oh, she liked him! What luck that Francie, in her schemings, had decided upon a delightful man.
Francie, pretending to flirt with an accountant, glanced over—no knowingness, no winks. She’d not botch it by being obvious. Moreover, all-around neutrality was required: Joe’s wife, who rarely showed up these Friday evenings, was tonight exercising her right to be beautiful and charming by her husband’s side. Silver chopsticks pinning back her hair glinted as she leaned forward to listen to a VP regaling her with some raucous story. She struck Samantha as regal. Joe didn’t display eager affection toward her as he did Francie, but his arm around her was proprietary: she was his. Or they were each other’s.
The accountant started twirling his hands as if mimicking a helicopter and Francie clapped a hand over her mouth, giggling. The VP lifted his beer in toast, Joe and his wife clinking glasses with him. Did she wonder at her husband’s continual absences? Joe ignored Francie, who ignored him in return. And Sam displayed a boldness not her own but appropriated on orders from her college roommate. Around them, shining glasses, flushed cheeks, erupting laughter: a moment suffused with charm and deceit. Perhaps this, then, was the origin of sophistication: you learned to be good at being false.
As the evening waned, Chris asked Sam if she’d like to get drinks at some point, and she said she’d love to. Already she realized longing was rising diffuse and heady in her.
After waving goodnight to the crowd outside the bar, she and Francie walked back to Francie’s car. “You were right,” Samantha said as they passed a food truck scenting the air with the sweetness of frying peppers. “About Chris. I like him, Francie. We’re going to go get drinks next week.”
“That’s great.” But she walked hunched. They turned the corner for the parking garage, taking the elevator up.
“You’re upset his wife was there?”
“His wife is pregnant, three months along.” The elevator doors opened, and they walked to the car, Sam waiting for the outburst sure to come.
As Francie fed a ticket into a yellow machine, she said, “she ordered a glass of wine, but didn’t touch it. Very savvy of her, calling less attention to herself than if she’d not ordered a drink. He told me after work they’re going to announce it soon and felt I had a right to know.”
“That’s bullshit. Didn’t you have a right to know three months ago?”
“I have no rights. I’m just the young thing he’s having an affair with.”
Sam was sure, as they pulled into their apartment complex and went upstairs, that Francie would cry. But she just went to her room, Sam following and lingering in her doorframe.
“Let me go get some ice cream.”
Francie shook her head. “He betrayed her, now he’s betrayed me. I was wrong to get involved with him. With so much wrongness?” She shrugged, hanging her coat in her closet. She came to Samantha, running her hand down her arm as if Samantha were the one needing comfort, then closed her door.
Samantha and Chris went to the Hollywood Bowl to see a concert and be among thousands. Marvelous to be in such a crowd. And afterwards, she’d gone to his place. Marvelous, then, it was just them.
“Details!” Francie demanded later that evening. It was midnight and Francie lounged on the couch in a pink bathrobe, her toenails gleaming a fresh crimson. She did not appear to have been crying. For over a week now, Samantha had been waiting for that fitful burst of catharsis that would let her friend begin fresh.
Sam felt the nervousness that comes from watching someone close be inscrutable. Plus, to proclaim happiness in front of someone so bruised was bad form. Chris and she had sat on his couch holding tumblers of gin and tonics neither of them drank. Dim lamplight made the glasses shine, the tonic fizzing and bright, the lime wedges at the rim brightly acidic. Beyond the lamplight, Chris’ apartment dissolved into dark, a thick languor, and finally he put down his drink and put out his hand. She leaned in, his cologne smelling of forests. A slow kiss, which was like melting. Not wanting to trivialize it, she answered, “It was the best.”
“Bah.” Francie pretended to wave her away. “You and your circumspection. It’s all on your face, anyway.”
“We’re going to see each other again after I get back.” Sam’s father’s birthday was the following week, and he’d requested his daughter come home for a few days.
“Off to the land of milk and honey,” Francie said. “You shouldn’t leave me alone to my own devices.”
Sam sat next to her on the couch, lay her head against her friend’s shoulder. “In no time,” she said, “you’ll be out there again breaking hearts.”
In the airport, she ran into her parents’ hugs. But on the drive home the landscape seemed blurred. Seeing the muted blue sky marbled with clouds made her consider the dirty cerulean shimmer of LA at noon. Returning to her family’s elm-lined street, the old gray branches towering above rooftops, intricately sagging arms just budded with green, she thought of the jasmine in her new neighborhood, waxy dark bushes thick with white flowers that opened at night, perfuming the streets.
Her parents ushered her into the kitchen, and they shared molasses cookies her mother had made that morning. They brimmed with questions, which she answered carefully. Verboten to discuss Venice as a pastel circus steeped in patchouli and grit, sometimes even crime. She’d seen along the backs of buildings seedy, huddled men in thin windbreakers, which she later asked her colleagues about. Drug deals, they told her, glad to be matter-of-fact to her scandalized. She also diminished the existence of pretensions: art galleries hanging splattered canvases, overpriced eateries dousing everything with truffle oil. The same went with her job: she liked working on projects, she told them—being among people her own age or older was a pleasure. She didn’t speak of Joe because she wasn’t sure she could keep judgment out of her voice. All these semi-narrations, these just-about truths: lately, she’d been thinking of this kind of obfuscation as adult, the correct means of handling the world.
But given that her new life bewildered them, they were looking for more than a superficial understanding of it. They even took what was for them a bold step: gentle criticism. Her father broke his cookie into careful bits, already regretful over what he was about to say: they were concerned she’d forsaken teaching.
Oh, no, she didn’t think she had; she was just exploring something new. “I have time,” she told them, “to figure it out.” Her mother pursed her lips.
“I’ve just been on a wonderful date.” Samantha realized she was trying to reassure them. People their age didn’t flit about the country, they didn’t test out careers, they didn’t break up with their college sweethearts. She told them about Chris’ double major at Berkeley, his good looks, his quiet charm, and less cookies got crumbled.
The week passed pleasantly. She went shopping with her mother, saying hello to everyone they met at the grocery store, nodding while they exclaimed, “California!” She helped her mother prepare her father’s enormous birthday meal—turnips and roasted squash, a baked ham—and to finish a three-tired chocolate cake with white icing. She also fantasized about the things she and Chris would do together once she returned. He’d mentioned being a soccer fan and she thought they could go to a Galaxy game together. She wanted to suggest a sushi place off LaBrea that was delicious and cheap. She imagined if that kiss had gone further and then further still, and something brewed in her, steeping like tea, turning her warm and dark. Also, she worried about Francie, who’d been quiet over email, not keeping up with her usual bright patter.
When Francie picked her up, this time—while not jolted by cityscape, not shocked by back-lit palm fronds and midnight traffic—she still felt home’s pull. The delicate Indiana spring, the dissolving pockets of snow, the front-yard daffodils just emerging made Los Angeles a phantom of itself. Change was not some clean sweep. Even when you wanted it, it left you muddled.
“Time with the old folks was wholesome and good?” Francie asked.
“It was.” Sam sighed, watching traffic hurtle past in the gray dark, finding some elation in the speed and clamor. “We ate molasses cookies. How was your week?”
“Downtime was good?”
“Everything is fine. I’ve gotten my mind off Joe, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“There’s no need to be defensive,” Sam said. “I’m just concerned.”
Samantha, tired and not wanting to push Francie’s bad mood any further, pretended to doze the rest of the way.
The week began as a mildly jet-lagged blur, as if she were watching everything through glass. Joe maintained equanimity. Francie was cheerful with everyone. Chris was timid around her—smiling when she came past but looking at her with disengaged eyes. She had to quell the impulse to step backwards. That kiss? The smell of limes? But maybe he was just establishing a proper work dynamic. Not wanting to seem overly concerned, she decided not to bring up their next date until Friday after work, when everyone would congregate for drinks.
She wished she could ask Francie for advice—but to burden her friend with relationship anxiety would be selfish. Plus, Francie continued to be surly. The last few nights they’d watched movies together in silence, after which Francie would retreat to her room. Was this how Francie’s unhappiness manifested if left to fester? Samantha felt punished.
Everything funneled down to Friday night. She’d ask out Chris, reestablishing what they’d begun. And she’d coax Francie into doing something fun—maybe a return trip to the Getty—which would help resurrect their natural dynamic.
Returning from the bar with her gin and tonic—a symbolic nod, she hoped, to them both—she sat at the long table’s end, taking a small sip through her straw, which she then let linger too long near her lips to see if Francie would laugh. Francie sat to her right, Chris to her left. Each talked to the person one over from them. The accountant was at Francie’s side again, and she indulged him with her laughter. The receptionist sat near Chris, a thin redhead with a diamond nose stud, the tattoo of an owl on her wrist that she was explaining she’d got done at Sunset Strip Tattoos in Hollywood. Samantha wished that Chris didn’t lean in to her as she talked.
She sipped her drink—faster than she should’ve, unhappy to be so close to the glamorous fray and yet not part of it. She ran her finger along her glass’ rim. “How’d you choose that tattoo parlor?” she asked and both Chris and the receptionist raised their heads in her direction. She’d heard her mother in the question: slightly off topic, a few steps behind.
“Well, it’s famous,” she said.
“Sure,” Samantha said, not knowing that.
But at least Chris looked her way. She smiled and he smiled back—but the wrong kind of smile, without promise. And then he said, “Hey, Francie.” She looked over. “Would you pass me that napkin?”
Francie reached for the cocktail napkin and handing it to him—just for an instant—she screwed up her face, her lips tight, her eyes scrunched. Go away, that assembly of features said. Sam didn’t understand—the asking for the napkin, the exasperation—and then she did. She looked down, not wanting to stare at them so unabashedly, and saw under the table Chris’ foot rubbing the back of Francie’s calf, slow and languorous.
Her stomach dropped, her neck went cold. She’d been crushingly naïve.
“What’s wrong?” Francie said.
“Nothing.” She looked up, studying the ceiling.
“You sure?” The audacity of her concern. All eyes on her now.
“Excuse me,” Samantha said, getting up. She’d gotten to the small hallway, about to go into the bathroom, when Francie, who’d followed, put a hand on her shoulder. No fortitude at all in her. All she could think was how she wanted to go home.
“You slept with him.” She turned, feeling ridiculous and awful and so angry.
“So?” Francie’s face was stony.
“So? How could you, Francie?”
“It just happened.” A woman gave them a sidelong look and slipped into the bathroom.
“It did not! You went after him. And you knew I liked him!”
“I do not,” Francie said, flush to her cheeks, “know what the fuck I did that was so wrong. You went on one date with him, Sam. You weren’t exactly married.”
As if water were rising around her, a viscous cold swell. “Like that even matters to you!” Now she was crying, never the one to give in to histrionics.
Francie actually reached out and pulled Sam’s hair. “Stop it! Don’t you dare criticize me. You sit and wait for happiness to come to you. You liked him so much? Bullshit. You went out with him because I told you to. You joined this firm because I told you to. You came out here because I told you to.”
Sam was passive, yes—she wanted to lie on the floor right now, her hands over her ears. Water sucking her under and she wanted to go down. Still.
“Your self-absorption makes you cruel.”
“Fuck you! Grow up! Just go on some more dates and you’ll see this isn’t a big deal.”
Samantha walked away, Francie did not follow.
“You wish you were more like me!” Francie cried after her. “You always have!”
Chris was watching for them to come back, apprehension on his face. As she approached, he broke off the conversation he’d resumed with the receptionist.
“You can have her,” she whispered, tears at the bridge of her nose as she gathered her stuff. She couldn’t maintain any equilibrium, and everyone looking at her—Samantha that soft failure of a girl, that rube, that silly thing. The one who makes public scenes when everyone else stays cool.
Outside, the palms were fringed shadows, streetlights cast the sidewalks a dirty halogen orange. Everywhere storefront neon, the stink of grease. Couples passed her, teenagers in low jeans—a man in rags, who grinned, his teeth straight, beautiful. “Konnichiwa,” he called and gave a guttural laugh. A few pigeons pecked at a discarded hamburger bun, a muddled green shimmer to their extending necks. She could not think to go right or left, and then realized there were no cabs—never cabs in L.A. unless you called one ahead.
Sam scanned her phone for the names of taxi services. She should’ve known Francie would’ve done this. She’d seen this from her for years, she’d just never been a player in the scenes. A pigeon blinked its moist dull eyes her way, then fluttered into the street. She was who she was, too, she thought. But she didn’t know where that left her, or where she would go.
Posey woke me up that first morning in Jaconita. She stood next to the bed in her underpants, clutching her princess nightgown in one hand and her Mother Goose blanket in the other.
“Mommy. It’s hot.”
I reached out and touched her round face. Warm. Too warm? I couldn’t think. We’d gotten in late last night and I was sleepy.
I looked around at the pink walls, the ceiling fan whirring overhead, the French doors that opened out onto a patio. On the wall hung a print of Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Oriental Poppies,” their petals red and orange, their centers deep purple. There was an O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe and I wanted to go. I’d never been to New Mexico before and I wanted to see a kiva, I wanted to see everything.
“Where are Daddy and your sister?”
“Fleur is eating. Daddy is outside. Grandpa is grumpy. Grandpa got mad because I don’t have any clothes on.”
I felt a familiar thrum of anxiety. Fly eleven hundred miles to Albuquerque, rent a car, and drive an hour and a half in the pitch dark down unpaved roads, so that the child’s grandfather can get mad at her.
“Grandpa gets mad for no reason,” I told Posey. “You stay away from him, okay?” I got out of bed and she toddled after me into the bathroom, dragging her blanket. I was going to launch into an explanation of why Grandpa was so fucked-up, but thought better of it. She was only four.
When we came out of the bathroom there was Bernard in jeans and a black t-shirt. He was tossing the pillows off the bed. One by one they sailed and hit the floor with a thump.
“I lost my hat,” said Bernard. He reached under the covers and felt around for a moment, exclaiming “Aha” as he produced the offending red knit hat. Then with an air of triumph he placed the hat on his bald head.
This spectacle was for Posey’s amusement but she only gazed listlessly at the floor. Bernard looked at me for explanation.
“Fever,” I said. We had been married for six years and had mastered the shorthand required to deal with frequent child situations.
Bernard went to find the thermometer while I sat in a wing chair next to the French doors. I beckoned to Posey and she wilted into my lap. I thought I would melt from the heat of her. Her brown hair was damp. Her entire body was hot to the touch, as though the fever would consume her from the inside out.
Bernard knelt next to Posey and turned on the thermometer. He brought it to her ear, and in a moment we peered at the screen. It read 103.5.
I thought I must have read the numbers wrong. We had only just gotten to Jaconita. How could she be sick already?
“Well, look at that,” said Bernard. “You have a fever, little girl.” His voice was deep and soothing. It was a good voice for a father. You didn’t want the father of your child running around yelling hysterically when she had a fever. You wanted him calm, decisive.
I remembered something the pediatrician had told me. “Bernard, the fever is too high. Just Tylenol won’t bring it down. We have to give her Motrin, too.”
Bernard nodded. He disappeared into the bathroom and fumbled among the luggage. I sat there looking out the French doors and just then I saw Bernard’s father walk by. He was looking at the ground and muttering to himself. He had done the same thing at our own house in California just a few months ago: He paced up and down the sidewalk, around the backyard and the side yard. Sometimes he walked around the block, picking up trash off the street. He collected cans and bottles for recycling, too. He’d take a garbage bag with him, and only come back to the house when the bag was full. When he had amassed several of these bags he would drive to the giant recycling center in west Oakland and stand in line with the homeless and dispossessed, getting cash for his bottles and cans. I imagined that the other people in line looked more or less like him– unkempt, clothing dirty, shoes worn down at the sole – although his situation was completely different from theirs: He had a full bank account, investments, a paid-off house, and a veteran’s pension. I knew he found those dispossessed people contemptible, yet he was willing to stand among them for an hour or two. And when he came back to our house he would comment, pleased, that he’d made $50, sometimes as much as $75. He had been a child during the Great Depression, something that a person never got over.
I did not mind these excursions of his – I myself was better off when he stayed outside. Inside my house, he hovered, he micromanaged. When I left the refrigerator door open for ten seconds he ordered me to close it. “You’re wasting energy!” When I used a can opener, he told me I was doing it all wrong. When I dialed the telephone he demanded to know whether the call was local or long distance. And was I was dialing direct, or using a long-distance code? “Use my phone!” he yelled. “It’s cheaper!” Nothing escaped his notice. He behaved this way with everyone in the family, and they all tolerated it. I was the only one who resisted.
While Posey languished in my lap, I smoothed her damp hair off her forehead. From inside the bathroom I heard the sound of zippers, the rustling of plastic bags. When we traveled with the children, Bernard enthusiastically packed bottles of children’s cough syrup, antihistamines, fever reducers, wet wipes, Band-Aids in all shapes and sizes. He was the original Boy Scout, I would tease, and he would reply: “Eagle Scout, thank you very much.” I didn’t tease him now, though. I was glad we didn’t have to drive to Santa Fe hunting for a pharmacy.
Bernard emerged, shaking a plastic bottle. He poured a teaspoon of orange liquid into the plastic dosing cup. Posey watched suspiciously and then she arched her back and twisted away from me.
“No, Mommy!” she wailed. “I don’t like it!”
I held her tightly. “I know, sugar,” I murmured. “But the medicine will make the hot feeling go away. Now be a good girl and drink it.”
Posey gave me an evil look. Then she sighed. She took the cup and drank it down, wincing theatrically.
Outside, Bernard’s father stalked past the French doors. He appeared to be going in circles. In the stifling dry wind, around and around he walked.
In the kitchen, Bernard’s niece opened the refrigerator.
“Ooh,” she said. “Cookie dough.”
Maya was eighteen years old, and six months pregnant. She ate constantly. She was not married, and this was a scandal in the little world of the family. To the grandparents, what she had done was unthinkable. Hazel had told us that the baby’s father was from Mississippi. “We’ve never met him,” Hazel whispered. Then she added gleefully, “And I don’t think we ever will!”
Maya had flown to New Mexico alone; her father would arrive tomorrow. She was staying in a separate wing of this huge, rented house. It was so huge that we could all stay here for a week and tolerate each other. That was the idea, anyway. The adobe villa went on and on, with its sprawling courtyards, its five bedrooms and bathrooms, its two living rooms, its vast dining room whose table seated twenty. It was absurd.
Maya took the roll of cookie dough out of the refrigerator and slit the package open with a knife. She sliced off a hunk and took a big bite. Then she looked sheepish.
“Oh god, I’m so rude. Would you like some?” She held the roll out to me and Bernard.
“No, thanks,” I said.
“I’m good,” said Bernard. “But you enjoy that.”
Bernard’s father came into the kitchen as we were talking. A former Green Beret, his shoulders were broad, his arms huge. He saw Maya and recoiled visibly. Then he saw what she was doing and his eyes widened behind his thick glasses.
“Maya!” he sputtered. “Your grandmother bought the cookie dough for the children. The little children. You are not a child!” He waved his finger in the direction of her swollen belly. “You’re, you’re…Oh, crap.” He turned and rushed from the room.
Maya shrugged. “My mom says that grandpa is like really messed up because in the old-timey days his family didn’t have any money. You know, like he buys stale bread and stuff and his shoes are all old and gross?”
There were so many possible responses to this that I found myself unable to choose one. Also, I was wondering where Bernard’s father had gone. Maybe he’d resumed his patrolling of the perimeter of the house. Still, I reasoned, he would not have heard what Maya said even if he had been nearby, because he was quite deaf. He had to turn up his hearing aids or he missed the gist of most conversations.
“Maya,” Bernard said. “You’re eating for two so don’t worry. I’ll run to the store and replace that….what is it? Cookie dough?”
“Aww,” Maya cooed. “Thanks, Uncle Bernard! You’re so cool. I wish my dad were as cool as you. But that ship has sailed, right? Ha, ha. The cool ship.”
Hazel came into the kitchen then. She was a round woman in blue polyester, and it was she who had organized this family vacation, including the extravagant villa. She was determined to bring the family together.
Hazel eyed the open roll of cookie dough but, thankfully, ignored it.
“Well, I think your father is cool, Maya.”
Maya nodded. “You’re sweet, Grandma.”
Hazel turned to me then. “Baby Fleur is outside playing. Where is Posey?” Her tone was vaguely reproachful.
“She’s sleeping, Hazel. She has a fever.”
“Well bless her heart, isn’t that a shame.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Bernard’s father hovering near the doorway.
Hazel changed the subject now. “Whose turn is it to make dinner?” she asked brightly. “I’m not going to do it. I’m on vacation!”
Bernard’s father spoke from the doorway. “You’re always on vacation,” he scoffed. “You haven’t worked in twenty years.”
Hazel put on her most unnatural smile and I could see that she was gritting her teeth.
“We’ll make dinner,” offered Bernard. He was the peacemaker. I was just about to object when he pulled me aside.
“I’ll do everything,” he murmured. “Don’t worry. You just take care of Posey.”
Bernard and I retreated to our bedroom to check on Posey. She would awaken soon because the fever reducers were about to wear off. I lay on the bed, speculating about how much sicker she was going to get, and whether her sister would catch it, too. I mentioned this to Bernard.
“I think Posey has altitude sickness,” he said.
“I looked it up. Jaconita is at 5,728 feet. She is having a reaction to the elevation. It’s very common.”
“Our vacation is making her sick.”
Bernard snorted. “Yeah. But it’s not contagious. If Fleur was going to get it, it would have happened already.”
I made Bernard open his laptop and show me that altitude sickness was a real thing. Then we discussed calling a doctor, and we decided we probably didn’t need to do that as long as we could keep the fever down. We watched Posey sleeping. She lay peacefully on her back, looking beatific. She was always perfectly still when she slept, waking in the exact same position in which she fell asleep.
Bernard nudged me. “Listen,” he whispered. “I was thinking of going to the big flea market tomorrow. Saturday. It’s only on the weekend.” He watched me uncertainly. I would be the one to stay home with Posey. It went without saying.
“Okay,” I said. “You get tomorrow.”
Bernard looked surprised. Had I really folded so quickly? He looked at me cannily. He had made a selfish demand, and I had met it. Now the next move was mine.
“I want to go to the O’Keefe Museum.”
“Of course,” he said. “We could even go together. On Sunday.”
“If you can get Hazel to watch the children.”
“Done.” Another marital negotiation, concluded.
The doorknob turned and Fleur appeared, holding her stuffed otter. She was two years old.
“Posey is sleeping,” I whispered. “Close the door, baby.”
Fleur closed the door with exaggerated care. “Shhhhh, Mama,” she admonished.
Bernard opened one eye. “My mom might go to the flea market, too. And Maya.”
They would all go, then. And we did not talk about it, but it was understood that Bernard’s father would stay, too. He hated outings.
That evening Bernard made spaghetti. Hazel sat outside under an umbrella and read a romance novel. Maya watched a movie in the other wing of the house. Posey lay curled up in an armchair, watching cartoons. She was fully medicated, with only a slight fever, but she was too tired to run around. Meanwhile Fleur raced around the house and the outdoors, as healthy as ever.
I was applying a cold washcloth to Posey’s forehead when I heard Bernard’s father yelling at Fleur.
“Calm down! Go do something productive! Read a book! Goddamn kids are out of control.”
Furious, I dropped the washcloth and headed to the living room. Bernard emerged from the kitchen, holding a wooden spoon. He saw the tension on my face and the forward motion of my body and he raised one hand to stop me. “I’ll handle it,” he said. A moment later I heard him admonishing his father. “She’s two years old, Dad. She can’t read.”
“She is not hyperactive. She’s a toddler, and you can’t treat her that way. If I catch you doing that again, I’ll take my family and leave.”
While I was standing there listening, Fleur came flying into the room. She flung her arms around my legs, sobbing. I knelt and she buried her face in my neck. There was no end to the misery Bernard’s father could inflict. We had paid for our own airline tickets and rental car so that he could have the luxury of bullying his grandchild.
I remembered then something that had happened three years earlier, in Texas. Posey was fifteen months old. It was the day before Christmas and I’d just learned that I was pregnant. I told Bernard, but no one else. I didn’t know how I would handle another baby so soon. I felt overwhelmed. The five of us – Hazel, Bernard, Posey, my father-in-law, and I – were walking on a small pier, on a lake. The pier had no railings. Posey and I were holding hands, and she let go so that she could look at some ducks. She ran ahead of me toward the water. When my father-in-law saw that I did not restrain her, or even tell her to come back, he just about blew a gasket. “What is she doing?” he hissed loudly at Hazel. “She’s a terrible mother! The baby is going to drown!” But I knew my child. Posey wasn’t the type to run into traffic, or into a lake. She just wanted to look at the ducks. My father-in-law’s fury compounded upon itself as he waited for me to collar my daughter, to scream at her. Instead I approached her quietly and listened while she told me about the ducks. Inside I was seething. My father-in-law’s criticism was aimed at me alone. How dare he, I thought. He cannot tell me how to raise my child. But it was more than that. I had the awful realization that soon my child would be his target, too. My children, rather, for by this time next year I would be a mother of two. I took Posey and rushed back to the car.
Now here we were in Jaconita and my father-in-law had proved me right. Even baby Fleur had to watch out for him.
Before bed that night, Bernard took a Valium. “Really” he said, “there is not enough Valium on earth for this vacation.” Then he fell asleep and snored loudly all night. I lay awake worrying about the girls. I heard Posey moan in her sleep and I rocketed out of bed and laid a hand on her forehead. But the fever was lower and she was deeply asleep. Then I checked on Fleur. In the dark I had trouble finding her forehead because her feet were on the pillow.
By morning I was exhausted. I felt as though I hadn’t slept at all. Everything seemed fuzzy and hazy. Bernard gave Posey some Motrin, and he took both girls out to the kitchen for breakfast. Then everyone ran around getting ready to leave for the flea market, while I made a cup of coffee.
“It’s a bummer that you can’t come,” offered Maya.
“I know,” I said. “It’s killing me, actually.”
“A mother’s work is never done, Maya,” said Hazel pointedly, as if hoping to give Maya a glimpse of her own future. But Maya seemed not to hear. She was searching the refrigerator for cookie dough. Hazel put on her most disapproving look, her lips pursed, her brow furrowed, but the girl didn’t even notice.
Hazel tried again. “Maya, a young woman in your condition shouldn’t–”
Maya rolled her eyes. “Grandma. It’s a craving, okay?”
Posey came in, crying about why couldn’t she go to the flea market, too. Then she pitched a fit right there on the kitchen floor.
“I don’t want to stay home!” she shrieked. “I hate fevers! Fevers are mean!”
Bernard kissed me goodbye. “Take a nap,” he said. “Posey can watch a movie. And remember, we’ll go to the museum tomorrow.”
Everyone filed out to the car and I stood there watching, wishing I could go. Still, I had a plan for Posey that would get us both out of the house, if only briefly. How could a house that large make me feel so claustrophobic? I could hardly stand it.
Back in the kitchen I sat on the tile floor next to Posey. Her blanket was draped over her head. She was so small that I could see only her toes sticking out.
“Funny thing,” I said. “Did you know there is a swimming pool here?” I spoke casually, as though it were nothing.
Posey lifted up the blanket, revealing her tear-streaked face.
The pool was fifty yards from the villa, down a dirt road. It was near the safety of the house, but far away enough to qualify as an outing. Outside it was hot and windy but I didn’t care. I’d been stuck inside that dark room for two days. Posey was glad to be outside, too. She walked along the dirt road in her red swimsuit and sneakers, pointing at trees and the wide blue sky.
The pool was encircled by a low iron fence, with a gate. There was a sign that said “No Trespassers” in large red letters. Posey pointed at it, wondering, but I told her, as temporary denizens of the villa we were allowed to use the pool. Inside the gate we found pretty yellow flowers growing like weeds, pushing up through the cracks in the concrete. Paper flowers, Bernard had told me, native to New Mexico. They thrived under dry, harsh conditions.
The pool was small, not large enough for a real swim, but still we had it all to ourselves – we had seen no other people since the family had left. Leaves floated on the water, which we quickly discovered was very cold. The cold was made worse by the stiff wind. Still, Posey wanted to get in the pool and I let her. This was our paltry vacation, such as it was. Soon enough her fever would go back up, if this really was altitude sickness, and in five more days it would be back to preschool for her and Fleur, back to work for me and for Bernard. So I sat at the edge of the pool and watched Posey splashing. I tried to be optimistic. It was just as well that I had not gone to the flea market; I did not have to deal with the family and I had my daughter to myself. I shut my eyes against the sun and the wind, thinking of real vacations on tropical beaches. I imagined that I was reading a magazine and drinking a glass of white wine. I tried to relax.
Half an hour later we walked back to the house. Posey was happy now, but also wet and tired. She spotted a hill of red ants and screamed. She was sure that the ants were going to chase her so she ran, kicking up a huge cloud of dust. Then she tripped on her shoelace and fell into the dirt, weeping. I carried her the rest of the way to the house.
The house was silent and there was no sign of Bernard’s father. I kicked off my shoes and the tiles felt cool under my feet. In the bathroom I stripped off Posey’s dirty swimsuit and felt her forehead. It was a little warm, but I looked at the clock and knew I couldn’t give her Motrin yet. I had to wait another two hours. I ran a bath and Posey climbed in obediently and sat perfectly still while I washed her hair.
“I’m tired, Mommy.”
“Me too, baby doll. Let’s take a rest.”
When Posey was all combed and dried I dressed her in a clean t-shirt and underwear. We sank onto the huge bed and I watched her fall asleep. I felt exhausted. I closed my eyes.
I awakened suddenly to a high-pitched cry. Posey was not in the bed, but her t-shirt was there. I grabbed it; it felt damp. Her fever must have shot up while I was asleep. I stumbled out of the bedroom in a panic, thinking she must have done something to anger her grandfather.
I found Posey in the living room with the vaulted ceiling. She was wandering around the large room in her underwear, mumbling, her face flushed. My father-in-law followed close behind, wringing his hands.
“There’s something wrong with her!” he cried.
I rushed forward, gathering up Posey’s hot body. Jesus, she was hot. How could one small body contain so much heat and not burst into flames?
“We’re in the world,” she said. “Mommy, we’re in the world.”
I knew right away that medication wouldn’t bring down the fever fast enough. I rocked her gently, trying to think what to do. Then my eyes fell on my father-in-law, who was pacing anxiously.
Bernard had said for years that the only way to deal with his father was to give him a task. “He’s a military man,” Bernard would remind me. “He’s a soldier. He needs to be told what to do.”
“It’s the fever,” I told my father-in-law. “You’re going to help me. I want you to run a cold bath.”
He stared at me, uncomprehending. “What?”
It took me a moment to realize that he had turned down his hearing aids. The old man could not hear me. He lived among people, but could not stand to listen to their stupid talk. I pointed at my ear. “Your hearing aids,” I growled. I watched him comply clumsily and I hated him then. I hated his bullying ways and his obstinacy and I didn’t care if he knew it.
I repeated my instructions about the bath. I spoke clearly and loudly but he hesitated, looking helpless and afraid. I had an overwhelming urge to slap him. I didn’t have time for this. There was no time. “Go!” I shouted. “Now!”
He rushed away, startled into action. I looked down at Posey, lying inert in my arms. Her face was pink with fever. She gazed through me.
“Mommy, I see birds flying, little paper birds.”
“Birds,” I echoed. I carried her back through the dining room, feeling as though I was watching this scene from above. Like it was someone else’s life, but it wasn’t. It was my life. I’ll bring down the fever, I told myself. She’ll be fine.
I had never felt such fear.
First I retrieved the thermometer from the bedroom. In the bathroom the water was running in the tub – my father-in-law had done that much, at least. He stood there awkwardly and watched while I set Posey down and took her temperature. For once he did not instruct me or berate me.
The little screen read 104. I felt my stomach drop and a hollowness in my chest. I showed the thermometer to my father-in-law. “That’s pretty high,” he said.
“I need all the ice from the freezer. In a bowl. Find a big bowl.”
He left the bathroom and I pulled off Posey’s underpants and lifted her into the bathtub, my hands on her burning hot skin.
“I want you to sit down now, baby,” I murmured.
Posey looked down at the water doubtfully.
“The water is going to cool you off. You feel hot, don’t you?”
“I’m tired, Mommy.”
“I know, baby. But Mommy needs you to sit down.” I summoned all of my will. Get her to sit down first. Get her to sit down first. Jesus, if you bring the fever down I won’t complain ever again, I will be everlastingly patient with my children and my family.
Posey sighed. Then she held out a hand to me. I took it, and she eased herself into the water.
“Good girl. I want you to lie down now. Your body needs that cold water.”
Posey did not resist. She lay down and leaned against the end of the bathtub.
I turned off the tap and my father-in-law appeared, carrying a stainless steel mixing bowl. He looked at me expectantly. I had to tell him to do every little thing, he could figure out none of it for himself.
“Put the all the ice in the bath,” I said. “I’m going to find the medicine. But you have to stay here. Do you understand? Do not leave her.”
I was only going into the next room, but I was worried about how clueless he was.
“If you leave her, I’ll kill you. Do you understand? None of your theatrics now. ”
He nodded obediently, pushing his glasses up on his nose.
I stood up and backed toward the doorway.
In the bedroom I threw open the curtains and light flooded the room. She’ll be fine, I told myself. I just have to find the medicine.
The Tylenol was on a bedside table, but the bottle of Motrin had gotten knocked off and was under the bed, along with the plastic dosing cup. I couldn’t reach the cup, and had to go around to the other side of the bed. I’ll give her Motrin first, I told myself as I felt around in the darkness. Finally my fingers closed around the sticky cup.
Back inside the bathroom, Posey lay in several inches of water, ice cubes floating all around her. My father-in-law knelt next to the bathtub, watching her dutifully.
I took the bottle of Motrin and shook it hard and poured it into the plastic cup. My fingers trembled so much I almost couldn’t hold it. I wished that I had had the sense to call a doctor yesterday, when it first occurred to me. Now it was Saturday and I was stuck here with a sick child and a crazy old man and there was no one to give me sound advice.
I got down on my knees and my father-in-law moved over to make room for me. I felt no rancor toward him. As big a man as he was, he seemed so small now.
Posey lay in the water, her brown hair floating, her body perfectly still except for the slight rise and fall of her chest. I put my hands under her armpits and slid her up to a sitting position.
She gazed over my shoulder. “There are birds flying in this room, Mommy. The birds don’t have feathers. The birds are saying lie down, lie down in water. Yellow birds.”
My throat constricted and I thought I would cry. I swallowed hard. “I see the birds, too, sugar. Yellow birds.” I brought the cup to her lips. “Drink this.”
She tipped her head back and drank. I allowed myself a moment to feel relieved. Posey looked at her grandfather then, as if just noticing him. She smiled her most disarming smile and she seemed luminous, a creature from another world.
The old man gazed at her in wonderment, as if he had never seen his granddaughter before, as if she were an angel complete with wings and a halo. The mixing bowl sat on the floor, empty. I would give Posey some Tylenol in a few minutes, then take the bowl back to the kitchen. I would check to see that my father-in-law had refilled the ice cube trays and put them back in the freezer. I would sit here until the fever went down.
we’ve been coring apples
with the conviction of inmates.
A train sings somewhere close,
steps off the tracks & lands
in my palm. The apples spill
like people out of taxis – red-faced
& round. My hand is too small
to hold you. Or the train.
We’re fragile as jellyfish,
as little boys who mock
the creatures in their glass tanks.
Today the apples are animal hearts
& we carve them.
Your hands are sticky.
Your hands touch my face.
Your hands threaten to destroy
an adequate day & make it
transcendent. The sky seeps with light.
I’ve been here before, but before
it was dark & here we are,
in the morning.
Every minute or so, a hallelujah
dies in someone’s mouth. Every minute or so, a gunshot.
A ceasefire. A tire shreds
on the highway, & pieces flit like sparrows
across the sky. Silly me. I thought
we were here to live.
The garden’s hallelujahs: tulips & rhododendrons, alive
in the ground. We expect so much
of life. Once, I was a child. Then, a child
was locked inside me. Now, a different
country claims us. Tie my hands
to the wind. Strip my mouth of any country
that doesn’t fit. Sorrow the sparrow’s
steel cord & textile torso. Its irrational wings.
The problem with flying is most people
settle for land, no matter how often
we are unloved by land.
Rewind the centuries:
before planes, the accidents of a gun,
or mouth, or gentle morning, how many people
believed they could fly? Breaking gravity,
what names did they cry when they took that first step
away? Listen to me. I’m telling you
what only the wind knows—
here, the sparrows were, all along. Nailed
to their species. Alive, or not
alive. Sometimes, not alive at all.
“Asanka,” sneered Emma’s landlord, his bony frame planted in front of the staircase that led to her apartment. It was dawn and she had just returned from walking with her friend, Martin, to the bus stop. He had tutored her throughout the night, in preparation for the entrance exam that she would take in a week’s time, and she had felt obligated to see him off afterward. But now as she stared into her landlord’s rheumy eyes, she wished she had stayed indoors.
“Pardon?” she asked, hoping she had misheard him.
“If you are letting men come into your room by heart, by heart, without any care, they will use you by heart,” he clarified.
“Mr. Dadzie, Martin is an old friend,” she said as she squeezed past him to climb the tiled steps.
“The mouth of an old man might smell but it does not mean his teeth are rotten. You do not like what I am saying but it is the truth,” he called out loudly after her, so loudly that his second wife, Akos, looked up from the basin over which she was hunched, washing her baby’s diapers.
Emma sucked her teeth as she stepped into her living room, but her anger couldn’t keep her upright. A few minutes later she was sleeping so deeply that even the piercing calls of the passing porridge seller could not wake her.
She had rented the two-bedroom apartment in Accra from Mr. Dadzie, a retiree, a month before. She had had to move out of her parents’ house in Tema because she wanted to be near the supermarket, where she had just been promoted to floor supervisor. Instead of the two-hour bus ride, it now took her about thirty minutes to get to work. She hadn’t rented the place because she fell in love with it but because it had been newly renovated, was affordable, and was in a walled compound. She occupied one of two apartments on the top floor. A primary school teacher and her family lived in the second apartment. Below them was Mr. Dadzie’s house, which he shared with his two wives and three of his seven children.
She had found the place through Mensah, one of her coworkers who moonlighted as a real estate agent. At their first meeting, Mr. Dadzie looked pointedly at her unadorned ring finger and asked her if she was married. She told him that she wasn’t.
“Ah, what have you been doing?” he asked, his forehead scrunched up in bemusement and his mouth turned down in disapproval. They were seated under the crooked branches of the lone almond tree in the backyard and behind them, Auntie Yaa, his first wife, had been pounding palm fruits in a small mortar. Mr. Dadzie had not introduced her to Emma and she had not lifted her eyes from her task to look at them.
“I’m only twenty-five,” Emma had said, swallowing the sharpness that threatened to rush out of her mouth and spear the man. He was older than her father and thus, in her eyes, deserved her respect. Also, she had been searching for four months and this was the nicest place she had seen within her budget. She, therefore, couldn’t risk angering Mr. Dadzie, who had sighed heavily at her response, causing the long white hairs poking out of his nostrils to flutter like tiny flags.
“Where are you going to get the money to pay me? You know I’m asking for two years’ advance?”
“I’m a supervisor at Shop Well,” she said. She had not added that her parents would give her most of the money because she didn’t earn enough. Mr. Dadzie sighed again and glanced down at his smartphone. When he finally met her eyes, he looked pained, as if her lack of a husband was causing something inside him to hurt.
“I do not want you to be bringing different, different men into my house, today Peter, tomorrow Paul. In fact, it is because of this that I rented the other apartment to a married couple.”
“Okay,” she replied, impatient for him to stop talking and show her the lease agreement. Besides, she had dated her last boyfriend since secondary school; she had never been the type to have a parade of men marching through her life.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked.
“Hmmmph,” he exhaled.
Exasperated by the man’s questions, Mensah had lifted his fake Ray Ban off his face, turned to Emma, and rolled his eyes. “She’s not troublesome,” he said to Mr. Dadzie, anxious for his finder’s fee. Emma moved in a week later.
A month after sitting for the exam, she found out that she had passed. She was ecstatic because it meant that she could enroll in the management program at the Catholic University. She liked working at Shop Well, but wanted more. To celebrate her success, she, Martin, and six other friends drove to a riverfront resort near Akosombo. They made the trip squeezed into Martin’s mother’s SUV because none of them owned a car and they didn’t want to be seen arriving at such a posh venue in taxis. They spent the day ordering dishes that cost more than their weekly food budgets and riding small boats on the Volta River. They enjoyed themselves so much that when returning home, the snaking traffic on the Tema Motorway didn’t even induce the usual groans.
In front of her apartment, Emma thanked them for celebrating with her and stepped over the tangle of legs to exit the car. A happy grin was plastered on her face as she neared the gate, but it disappeared when the ten-foot high metal sheet, lined with spikes, didn’t budge at her push. She tried a second time, but all she got was a sharp groan as the rusty hinges shifted slightly. She realized that the gate was locked from the inside.
“What’s the matter?” Martin called from the car.
“The gate is locked,” Emma said.
“Oh, how?” he asked, stepping out.
Emma shrugged. This had never happened before. But then, this was the first time that she had come home at ten. For the two months that she had lived there, her life had revolved around work and studying for the exam. She returned home at six on most days and spent her one weekend off in the month sleeping. Martin rapped his knuckles against the gate and they pressed their ears to the cold metal and listened for footsteps. After five attempts, no one had come to let her in. When Emma looked up, the light was on in one of the teacher’s bedrooms and a figure was moving behind the curtains. There was no way that the woman could not have heard her.
“Call the landlord,” Martin suggested.
Emma nodded. She hesitated but then fished her phone out of her purse and dialed Mr. Dadzie’s number. He answered on the first ring.
“Who is this?” he growled.
“Mr. Dadzie, please, it’s me, Emma. The gate is locked.”
“Please send one of the girls to open it.”
“Do you think my children are watchmen? Was there a security guard on duty when you left this morning?”
“Please, I need to enter.”
“You should have thought of that before you stayed out gallivanting,” he said, before the line went dead.
Emma’s face hardened. “This man paaaa,” she said to Martin, shaking her head, “locking me out of the house where I pay rent.”
“You can stay at my place, my mother won’t mind,” Martin offered.
Defeated, Emma followed him to the car. But just as her friends were readjusting their bodies to seat her, they heard the gate creak. Someone had opened it. Emma hurried back. She could hear her heartbeat. Her tongue twitched in her mouth and she bit it softly. She didn’t want a confrontation with Mr. Dadzie. When she entered the yard, it was Mr. Dadzie’s second wife, Akos, who stood with a cloth tied around her chest and a big silver padlock in one hand.
“Good evening,” Emma said to her.
Akos nodded. “The old man is seriously angry,” she whispered. Akos was a couple of years younger than Emma. They had chatted a few times while fetching water from the large plastic tank in the backyard and on the days that Emma returned from work and found the woman sitting on a stool under the gnarled almond tree, holding her baby daughter. Emma had yet to understand why such a young woman was married to Mr. Dadzie and why she had agreed to be his second wife, a practice that even village women had begun to scoff at.
Emma rolled her eyes at the news. “Let him be angry,” she said to Akos when they separated, she to her apartment and the young wife into the house she shared with her husband and his first wife.
There was a loud and persistent knock on Emma’s door the next morning. She bolted upright, momentarily confused. It was six. She hurriedly tied a cloth over her diaphanous nightgown and answered the door. It was Mr. Dadzie.
“Good morning,” she said.
“Emma,” he sighed, his nose hairs flying at full mast.
“Yes, Mr. Dadzie.”
“Why have you chosen to bath in my drinking water?”
“I said why…you are disrespecting my house!”
“What have I done?”
“What have you done? You do not know what you have done? What kind of home are you coming from?”
Emma didn’t answer, even though she wanted to scream at him. Her hope was that if she stayed silent, he would stop talking and leave.
“What kind of girl comes home at that time of the night? What kind of girl?” he shouted, causing her to take one step back into her apartment. “Even monkeys live by rules. I told you the rules of my house before you moved in but you have chosen to flout them. I have tried to advice you like a father because I know that nobody is born wise in this world, but you have refused to listen to me. If you want to live like a loose woman, it will not be in my house. I will not allow you to disrespect me and expose my wives and children to this wayward lifestyle,” he said, wagging a knobby finger in her face so that she had to draw her head back. By then, his wives and children had gathered in the yard below and Emma’s neighbors, the teacher and her family, were standing in their doorway and watching the scene like it was a Ghanaian movie.
“I’m not a small girl,” she said, without meaning to. The words, which originated in her chest, had simply shot out of her mouth.
“Is that what you are telling me?”
“All I’m saying is that I’ve paid my rent and I take good care of your property. The time that I come home is nobody’s concern.”
“Saaa? It is not my concern that my gate is left open deep into the night to welcome armed robbers?”
“I came home at ten, not deep into the night. I understand the need for security but at the same time, you can’t put me under curfew. I never agreed to live like this.”
“Then leave! Pack your troubles and leave today, today, but I will not give you back a cedi of the rent you have paid; I am keeping all two years. A child who refuses to listen will feel pain,” he said with finality. He then turned and stomped down the stairs, his veiny hands gripping the cast-iron rail for balance. Emma shut her door, but not before she glimpsed the accusing look on the teacher’s face.
Inside, she sat on the edge of her pleather sofa. The man’s words were still ringing in her ears and the sting of the disrespect and humiliation that he had just heaped on her was getting sharper. Her hands were trembling. She breathed heavily and shook her head from side to side as if to negate his words. She picked up the phone to call her mother but then decided against it; her mother would show up and attempt to beat Mr. Dadzie up. That would only worsen the situation.
The man was being unreasonable in a way that she hadn’t anticipated when she began house-hunting. Her biggest fear then had been that she would end up with one of those landlords or landladies who, after demanding the upfront payment of two or three years’ rent, would increase the rent after a few months and throw tenants out if they refused to pay up. She had never imagined that she would end up with one who tried to control her movements and her love life. She found Mr. Dadzie’s expectations foreign, and bordering on the insane. If he had been a younger man she would have matched his madness with her own. There was no way that she could continue living in his house. She called Mensah and he agreed to meet her in a bar at the end of her street.
Mensah was seated and nursing a bottle of Guinness when she arrived. He wore a shirt that had “New York Yankees” emblazoned on its front and cubic zirconia studs glittered in his ears. She began narrating what had happened before she sat down.
“Stupid old man!” Mensah said with a ferocity that surprised but pleased Emma, after he had heard the story.
“I want to leave today,” she said, banging her hand on the table. The Guinness bottle wobbled and threatened to topple. Mensah steadied it.
“I understand, but I have to find someone to take your place. He’s not going to give you back your money, and two years’ rent is not money that you can allow to burn like that.”
“How long will it take to find someone?”
“It depends, knowing what I know, I have to find a married couple or some old person to come and stay there or that cantankerous man will chase the person out again.”
“I want to move out now. Can’t the police help me get my money back?”
“Police?” he snorted, “but you know how our police people are. They will not take your case seriously and will rather back the old fool. He just has to tell them that you’re bringing men into the house. As soon as they hear that, they will begin to call you ashawo and if you’re not lucky, your story will be on the front page of one of those garbage newspapers: PROSTITUTE FIGHTS WITH LANDLORD. You know how those reporters always hang around the police station looking for news. If you’re not careful they will spoil your name for nothing. Just try to cool your heart, I’ll find someone.”
Mensah’s words were reassuring; although only twenty-two, he was already a shrewd and reliable businessman.
That week, Emma made sure that she was always home by six. She checked in with Mensah several times a day in his cubicle where he oversaw the supermarket’s security. By Wednesday he had found an interested couple but they could only come to see the place on Sunday. She pressured him to look for others, in case this couple decided not to rent the apartment.
Thursday after work, she ran into Akos at the water tank. She was balancing her fat baby on her hip while she waited for her bucket to fill up. The water was only trickling in. Emma greeted her and set down her jerrican.
“The old man is not happy with you O,” she told Emma.
“I don’t understand him, what does he want?” Emma snapped. She then smiled apologetically; her confrontation with Mr. Dadzie had left her with a lot of anger that she needed to expel.
“He says that you don’t respect. That you should at least have introduced your boyfriend to him so that he could know who was coming into his house.”
“Heh? Is he my father that I have to introduce my boyfriend to him? And I don’t even have a boyfriend so…Or does he expect me to bring all my friends for his approval?”
“Akos!” Neither of them had heard Mr. Dadzie creep up. His scrawny chest was uncovered and carpeted with white coils of hair. He was breathing rapidly, causing his bird-like ribcage to contract and expand accordingly. His presence startled Akos so much that she almost dropped her baby. She supported the child with a second arm.
“What have I told you about talking to this girl? What have I told you? It is because of bad friends that the crab is headless,” he yelled at Akos.
Akos held her baby closer but said nothing. The baby began to fret. The water in her bucket began to overflow but she made no move to close the tap.
“If you want to run wild like this one here,” he said, pointing at Emma, “I will not hesitate to send you back to your mother.”
Akos nodded, her eyes trained on the sand beneath her feet.“Let me catch you again, just let me catch you,” he continued. He wagged a finger in her face and then for some reason, in the baby’s too. He then bent over and angrily twisted the tap shut and motioned for her to pick up the bucket. She dipped low to lift the metal handle, causing her grip on her baby to loosen. Emma wanted to reach out for the child but Mr. Dadzie stood resolutely between them. Akos began to walk away, struggling to balance the baby in one hand and carry the bucket in the other. Mr. Dadzie was watching her with his arms folded across his skinny chest. By the time Akos disappeared into the backdoor of their apartment, her hand had slipped from around the baby’s waist to under her armpits. The baby’s feet were dangling.
“You!” Mr. Dadzie turned to Emma. She ignored him and set her jerrican beneath the tap. The water began to dribble in. She was determined not to engage him. She remembered something that her father always said when her mother was gearing up to confront someone who had offended her: “If a mad man snatches your cloth from around your waist, you don’t follow him with your buttocks exposed to retrieve it.” What would she gain by exchanging words with this man?
He glared at her, expecting an answer. When he realized that she wasn’t going to say anything, he sauntered off. Emma exhaled.
The next day the banging on her door began at five. She was already awake and ironing her work clothes. Her hand froze at the sound and she didn’t move again until she began to smell burned fabric. She hastily lifted the iron and placed it aside. Should she even open the door to this man?
“Emma! Emma! I beg you, open the door!” It was Akos’ voice.
Emma sprinted to the living room. Her hands were unsteady as she unlocked and removed the iron bar that secured the door. As soon as she cracked it open, Akos rushed in, almost knocking her off her feet.
“Wha?” she began, but then stopped. Akos was only wearing a t-shirt and panties. While Emma was observing her, Akos locked the door and put the iron bar back in place. A few seconds later, the banging recommenced. Emma was confused.
“What’s happening?” she asked.
Akos, leaning against the door and breathing hard, didn’t respond.
“Open this door! Open this door!” It was Mr Dadzie.
“Please, don’t open the door,” Akos said. She stretched out her arms to keep Emma away. “What’s happening?” Emma asked again. She made no move to open the door.
The answer came from outside. “Whores. Shameless women. Dirty women. A married woman sleeping with another man,” Mr. Dadzie screamed, “I will kill you today.”
“Akos?” said Emma.
Akos was still not talking. Emma heard a sharp thump and then splintering. Mr. Dadzie was breaking down the door. Akos was jolted from her position against the hard slab of wawa.
Emma panicked. “Mr. Dadzie, please, I beg you, stop,” she said.
“I should stop? Are you asking me to stop?” he huffed. “Today you will learn that there is a consequence for every action. Let the person who sent you to find a man for my wife come and rescue you.”
“I? Found a man for your wife? Akos, what’s he talking about?”
Akos was seated on the sofa, her head bowed.
“You thought I would not find out. I heard them on the phone this morning. That worthless Mensah. That earring-wearing nincompoop. That good-for-nothing thug,” Mr. Dadzie railed.
“Is it true?” Emma asked Akos. This time she squeezed the woman’s shoulders so that she was forced to look up. Akos only nodded. Her bare thighs were covered with goose pimples. Mr. Dadzie had resumed hacking at the door.
“I didn’t know anything about it, I swear to God,” Emma yelled.
She didn’t know if he’d heard her above the thwack, thwack, thwack, of what had to be a cutlass against the door.
She had to do something. She ran to her bedroom window. There was little movement outside. One car drove by. And then she heard the porridge seller.
“Hot ricewater, hot ricewater,” the woman sang.
“Ricewater seller,” Emma called out, when the woman came into view, “please call some people, my landlord is trying to kill me.”
“Heh? Why?” the woman asked. She was looking straight ahead because she couldn’t look up at Emma without dislodging the huge pot that was balanced on her head.
“Please, just go,” Emma said, impatiently.
“Okay,” the woman said before she began speed-walking down the street as fast as her load would allow her.
Emma then picked up her phone and called Martin. She had wanted to call the police but couldn’t remember the ten digit number. She should have saved it when it was announced on GTV. She told Martin what was happening and asked him to call the police; they might come if she was lucky. Akos had followed her into the bedroom and was now locking that door. Emma stared at her but said nothing. Instead, she picked a cloth out of her wardrobe and handed it to the scared woman, who accepted but did not immediately tie it around her waist.
“It’s all because of my mother; I married him because of my mother. He takes care of her and my siblings,” she said, fingering the yellow squares that were patterned on the fabric. “I’m the eldest,” she added.
Emma nodded in understanding. This wasn’t the first time that she had heard such a story. She noticed that the apartment had suddenly become quiet. Mr. Dadzie had stopped trying to break down the door.
“Akos, come outside, I will not do anything to you,” he called out sweetly, too sweetly.
Neither Akos nor Emma budged.
“Are you coming?” he tried again.
“Harlots. Asanka. Show me your friend and I will tell you your character,” he bellowed, abandoning his ploy. He started hitting the door again.
On the street below, there were feet pounding the pavement and then fists pounding the gate. The porridge seller had brought the members of a local football team, who had been jogging. They began throwing stones at the locked gate and hollering for Mr. Dadzie to open it. Some of the young men began to scale the fence. The police’s siren was soon added to the cacophony.
“We’re safe,” Emma said when she heard the commotion outside. She fell onto the bed in relief.
“For now,” Akos said.
In the office, coworkers Sabine and Michael sat quietly at their cubicles. In the office, there was flux. For example, sometimes the temperature waffled between tropical and arctic, and the managerial staff also ran hot and cold. Sabine sat with Michael on her right and Melissa, who had been hired before her and always wore earbuds, on her left. Their collective boss, Heidi, was going through a divorce and sometimes had outbursts, and at these times Sabine and Michael turned toward their keyboards and screens. Melissa either did not hear or pretended not to.
Sabine had lied to get the job. She didn’t know anything about making slide presentations or spreadsheets.
“How are your pivot tables?” Heidi had asked in the interview.
“Well, I think they usually turn out beautifully,” Sabine had replied. Her response seemed to go over well, though she didn’t really know what a pivot table was. It had to do with spreadsheets, she knew that, but why or how? No clue.
It didn’t matter to her, lying. She’d lied to get her last job, at a coffee shop. It was just a job. In that interview, she had said, I prefer medium-body roasts with a strong finish, when in fact she had no idea what she preferred. None of it was life or death. It was not like she was pretending to be a doctor.
The coffee shop had taken her through college, roughly—she didn’t actually graduate—and she had enjoyed working there. She liked learning how to properly grind the beans and then tamp the grounds. She enjoyed negotiating the old, fussy espresso maker, and she enjoyed pulling the shots into warm mugs. She did not enjoy steaming milk because she believed her coffee was good enough not to need milk, but she still steamed with aplomb, until the foam coated the back of a spoon. Occasionally, if she was hungry, she could admit that milk-steaming be damned, she did enjoy a very dry cappuccino. Yet, usually she was not hungry.
After she dropped out and the semester turned and the coffee shop teemed with new freshmen, with their textbooks and their hope, bonking against the regulars at their usual tables, she understood she couldn’t stay because she wasn’t either of them. She was their barista, not their peer.
On a break one day, Sabine used the community computer to begin contriving a résumé, inventing nearly all of it. Besides the freshmen, she had two other groups of clientele: the consultants and the writers, and she drew her inspiration from them—from the consultants, a bullet-pointed skillset; from the writers, a sense of hope that if she could just get it down, the next line (always the next line) might be perfect enough to nudge her whole life forward.
Besides, it seemed like all the two groups ever did was type, and she could touch type. It was the writers she admired more. Some had a few published pieces, and all had books in various stages. She liked their dreaminess, the way they made it up as they went along, even if most of them tipped poorly.
And it was the writers who, when the city entertained zoning a chain coffee shop only a few blocks down, hosted a rally and showed up with pithy signs, and it seemed to work. The chain did not appear in the neighborhood. Maybe, even, Sabine’s job was saved.
The coffee shop had responded by opening up for more readings. Instead of just the Tuesday open mic that had been a standard since well before Sabine’s time, every other weeknight and alternating Fridays gave space to the writers, and so she heard the way they fabricated, and she heard the way they frequently could not separate these fabrications from their own lives.
She understood them a little more as she worked on the résumé, as the project stretched from just one break to two, to three, to a whole month of breaks. Sometimes she thought she was judging them a little harshly. At other times she thought if they would spend less time drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, they’d get more writing done.
At their readings, their abundant, repetitive readings, the short-shorts and prose poems would echo from the cheap, poorly adjusted microphone and ping against the espresso machine, so that no matter how carefully they had constructed their sentences and stanzas, it all sounded like clatter. Sometimes she recognized the stories from her customers’ lives, like the time Penelope (photo essays) and Raul (short-stories with an emphasis on temporalization) had ended their eight-year affair at the corner table, the best table, there by the window and overlooking the bay (slideshow by Penelope, captions by Raul). There was the time Jane (nonfiction) and her teenage daughter Chrysanthemum (free verse, contemporary haiku, and hybrid poetry) thought they had been evicted, but it turned out to be okay; it was only that they were both stoned and were at unit 401 instead of 501, and they didn’t understand right away, as their world filtered through a slow pot swirl, that the notice tacked to the door was not for them, because it was not their door, not their furniture inside when they jiggled the handle to get in so they could quickly round up what they could carry. The mauve sofa in 401 jolted them to realization—(verse and live gong by Chrysa, reading by Jane):
What a difference
Just one flight up those old stairs
Makes for us, Mother
She thought of them as she used one of the built-in templates from the word processing software. She had started by putting her name and address at the top, but sometimes she retyped it; in fact she had retyped it probably a hundred times, just so she could feel the action of her fingertips on the keyboard, feel like she was working.
Of course she had noticed the writers always changed what happened, trying for pith or drama. The consultants probably did too. She didn’t know what they did at their jobs, but she saw the spreadsheets, the charts, and she had taken enough statistics, worked her butt off for a B- even, to understand that there was as much interpretation in data as in trouble and love.
(Cool blue light under the door
My home. Mother’s home.)
And Penelope’s Polaroid photos, grainy and off-color because she bought old, unpredictable film to save money and then coated the prints in Mod Podge to seal them up and scanned batches at the library, paired with Raul’s minimalist narration, actually worked well, Sabine thought, but it was nothing like them as a couple. As a couple they did not have the gritty tension of mixed media. As a couple they were boring, and each had complicated coffee orders, and they argued about whether it was okay for Penelope to say she was vegetarian when she was actually pescatarian.
“Fish are animals too, Penelope,” Raul would say.
“But no one knows what it means,” Penelope would answer.
“I know what it means,” Raul said.
“But you’re vegan. Of course you know. Most people consider eating only fish to be vegetarian.”
In her time at the coffee shop, Sabine heard a hundred variations on this argument, and a hundred times she had assured Raul that she never put his almond milk into the dairy steamer, even though she did it all the time.
“Catholics maybe think this, the Lent thing,” Raul would say to P, “but don’t put your religious industrial complex in this space. Fish have eyeballs. Broccoli does not have eyeballs!”
And one series on their slides, during their reading/presentation, did address this. A corn with human ears. Eyes on potatoes, on beans. A radicchio styled to look like a vagina. P’s vagina. Kiwi fruit as Raul’s balls, avocado as another man’s larger balls.
By the time the readings started, the consultants were always gone. They finished work at two or three, snapping their laptop cases shut, packing up their messenger bags, and padding out into the street in their colored tennis shoes, headed to their condos for a night of Netflix or other Wi-Fi-enabled activities.
On the community computer, Sabine listed her college, and she listed her imaginary skillset.
Later, she would ask Raul to proofread it and P to offer some suggestions for design flair (lines at the side, Sabine’s name in cerulean blue). Chrysa changed her objective so it read:
Making coffee now
But looking for my big break
Call, not pull, the shots?
It took her longer to ask one of the more regular consultants to take a look, and while she didn’t know a thing about him but his coffee order (doppio) she believed that he would offer her the ruthless critique she needed.
“Too many words, too much color,” he said, while looking at his phone. “Sentences aren’t helpful. Just use bullets and tabs. Everything must have a result,” he said. “And listen, what’s your number? I’ll text you a list of words you have to work in.”
“I have a pen,” Sabine said.
“I’d rather text,” he said.
She recited her number, and he sent the text, and she stared at it for a while. Velocity. Synergy. Demonstrable. Actionable.
“Okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
At the community computer, she deleted Chrysa’s objective, P’s blue lines, and Raul’s semicolons. She did so a little guiltily, ignoring the advice of all the people she liked best.
Demonstrable experience in enabling synergy with actionable approach to departmental velocity.
“Good,” the consultant said.
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“That’s fine. Meaning isn’t really the point. It’s not art, it’s just a résumé. I’ll text you a couple of places I know are hiring.”
She submitted. Then she waited. Then she started getting calls.
At the first interview, she did very poorly. She was dressed wrong, and her hair looked messy.
For the second interview, Sabine blow-dried. Her head felt bouncy, and when paired with the gray twinset she’d found at a secondhand store, she thought she could pass for the type of person who held a desk job. Her boyfriend, who she shared the apartment with, said she looked like her mother.
“What’s your greatest weakness?” the second interviewer asked.
Sabine correctly recognized this as a place where she should tell a lie. “My greatest weakness is that I am sometimes too truthful,” she said.
“Can you relate that characteristic to this role?”
“No,” Sabine said. “I cannot.”
“Okay,” the interviewer said. “Well, that’s truthful, but not really what I’m looking for.”
On the third interview, with Heidi (nervous, distracted Heidi), Sabine wore the twinset, blow-dried, and texted the consultant. What do I do if I don’t know the answer to a question? Dodge, he replied.
“How are your pivot tables?” Heidi asked.
“Well, I think they usually turn out beautifully,” Sabine replied.
When she got the offer, she was shocked at the salary, at the number of vacation days. Health and dental and vision. She ran her tongue across her teeth and imagined how much smoother they would be with two annual cleanings. She squinted—she didn’t need glasses, but she could get some anyway.
Her boyfriend was not impressed.
Her boyfriend’s name was Ryan, but he preferred to go by Sebastian.
Sabine didn’t care what he went by, since she’d spent her whole life having the pronounced e of her name dropped.
He was still piddling at school, in a studio program. The program was actually competitive, but Sabine honestly could not pick out his installation art from any of his peers’. At the shows, there was string, a lot of string, and there were nails and scraps of denim; there was salt everywhere, salt making gallery floors slick and prematurely aging the finishes. Tempura paint. Oil paint. Paint from organic vegetable dyes. Once, just after the offer, her boyfriend needed a pint of blood, but he was scared of needles so he made it from boiled beets.
“It’s too purple,” Sabine said, peering into their only large pot, roiling on the stove. Now and then a hunk of tuber would pop to the surface. “Maybe add turmeric? The yellow might balance it out?”
“Purple and yellow make gray,” he said, and she could tell he was trying to keep his voice calm. “You’re selling out.”
“I’m not,” Sabine said. “I just can’t do the coffee thing anymore.”
“You used to make the most beautiful bird-scapes,” he said. He was wistful as he stirred the pot of desiccated beets. He threw in a handful of beet tops, a neutralizing green.
It was hard for her to describe to him why she’d quit the bird-scapes—her word, which she did not point out he was appropriating, for the canvasses she outlined nature scenes on and then filled in with feather. When she’d first started, in high school, the project had seemed very pure and she had spent hours collecting fallen feathers, but as time went on, it was easier to purchase in craft shops or on eBay. After one spin through the washer at the Laundromat, crammed into an old pillowcase and washed on hot, her bagged, store-bought feathers were ragged enough to pass for having been found on the forest floor.
And at first she’d only used pine tar or other kinds of pitch and sap to affix the feathers to her hand-stretched canvas boards she’d cut herself with a manual saw, but as time went on, she wielded a hot glue gun against whatever hangable surface she could find on sale. There just wasn’t time to do it all—work and school and scavenging. At the very beginning of her junior year, she’d landed a solo show, but the only piece that had sold was the worst of all of them—synthetic down pasted to a bed of rayon and glitter in a cheap attempt at Starry Night. She priced it at $2,345.67. The ascending numbers, simply a random way to price, were meant to be a marker to anyone who actually cared about art, because she was embarrassed of the piece, but the enormous eighteen-by-twenty-foot canvas filled the space for the other works she didn’t have. She was even more humiliated that someone wanted to buy it, and absolutely deflated when she cashed the check, even though it got her current on rent.
Still, her boyfriend had been impressed by her take, and he delighted in its irony.
Now that she had spent more time at a proper office, and more time with her coworker Michael, she thought about it differently. Consecutive pricing, she could have called it, the string of ascending numbers. It could even be a way to bid. Start with five, and go from there. $5.43; $54.31; $543.10.
Her boyfriend didn’t know Michael, but that didn’t stop him from not liking him.
He would never say his name, only “that guy.” That guy you sit with, that guy you work with, that guy—wait, why are you having lunch with that guy?
At the office, she and Michael didn’t talk about art so much, though Sabine thought about it as she worked through her slides, through her tables. At first, she knew so little, she was constantly at the help files, and she wished Raul and Penelope and Jane and Chrysa had a nicely tabled instruction set detailing exactly how to proceed.
She’d heard Penelope and Raul had patched things up, and Chrysa was doing a series of observations:
Oh, it’s so stable—
You at your screen. What about
The rest of your life?!
Sometimes she looked up and Michael would be looking at her, and then he would look away, though Sabine would not. Once, after a long weekend, the elevator opened to the twelfth floor and Michael was just outside the door. He’d been in early, was headed out for coffee.
And there was a pull there, in the way he looked at her, the way he touched her shoulder.
“Coffee?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she said, but she was not fine. The spot on her shoulder was burning. This was what Ryan/Sebastian had seen before she’d seen, the way she wanted to pull Michael to her. She wished she’d worn something different than her same rumpled twinset and black pants.
Then they were exchanging places, she stepping outside of the elevator and he stepping in, and then the doors were closing and he was whooshing through the building, past the debt collectors on floor ten, the engineers on six.
She imagined him descending, swiftly, away from her. She depressed the button on the elevator, to call the next car, but the elevator was taking forever, and she didn’t know where, exactly, he might get coffee from; there were many places and among many other things she didn’t know about Michael, she didn’t know which shop was his favorite.
Sabine turned from the elevator bank and headed for the stairs. At eleven, she passed Melissa, earbuds snug, slim thighs hiking the flights. At seven, a group of workers arguing. By the time she burst through the lobby and into the street of her downtown building, Michael was long gone. A light rain had started, and she spotted Heidi, sheltered by a polka-dot umbrella, crossing the street. Even though at home Sabine and Sebastian/Ryan talked a lot about feelings, she didn’t think she could explain this feeling to him, how all she’d really have to do was wait for Michael to come back, his latte steaming, but also how it seemed impossible to wait. How she liked Heidi but didn’t want to talk to her in this moment. How the way the steam rising from the manhole covers and the cars splattered with just a few sparse drops seemed inexplicably and terminally sad.
How, when she looked at the sidewalk, the concrete dark with dirt and damp, there was a single feather, and how, whether fallen from the sky or loosed from a scavenging pigeon’s wing, as much as she wanted it, Sabine simply could not bend, could not pick it up.
You can leave me and I will not kill you.
That this needs to be said is insane
but I am a man, and this is the world.
Probably it should have been in our vows:
in sickness and so forth,
I will wash your coffee cups
and do the laundry if you fold,
I will walk the dog when it’s my turn,
and I will not kill you,
nor will I ever fill your car
with wet cement, which is a thing
I read about today: a man hurt
when a woman declined
to wear his name.
When we married, you kept
your name; people told me
I should be bothered. People
told you that you were young
and did not understand
how the world worked. By people
it should be obvious I mean men.
I don’t want to make a joke
of all these wounded
walking around among us
dividing the world
into Fuck Marry Kill
which is supposed to be
a fun conversation starter
but the world reminds us
over and over there’s nothing
funny about it, these
are the dude-colored glasses
through which men see,
and although most every guy
I know is thinking
#notallmen, which misses
the point, which is that this
is not a calculation with any
margin for error. For every
man who loves you
there are eleven who love you
and will still come to your job
and shoot you in the head.
For every body you have,
there is a man willing to claim it,
one way or another.
The story goes that God
spent five days making
this amazing place, its cedar trees
and canyons and so many egrets
taking flight over so many
grassy marshes, and then
on the sixth day he created
men. If God is reading
this poem, he’s probably thinking
#notallmen, but if God
truly sees all and knows all,
he’s probably also thinking,
Well, shit, it’s still too many
of them, he’s thinking,
At least the shorebirds are lovely,
and I have to give him that
even though out there
right now some man
is thinking, Fuck the shorebirds,
marry the canyons, kill
everything else. This is the world,
in which, somehow, you
and I found ourselves together,
and in which we wake up
every morning and pledge
not to harm each other
any more than we have already.
BADGER BURIES ENTIRE COW CARCASS
The New York Times, April 3, 2017
I accidentally freaked out my students the other day
when one mentioned that, working on an essay about dead dads,
she’d had little luck Googling stats about death rates among dads.
That’s because the stat is 100 percent, I said,
and my students gasped in a was-he-joking-I-guess-
They don’t always seem young and I don’t always feel old,
but there we were. My father is still alive, a sentence
only temporarily true; I was taught that a sentence
represents a complete thought, which seems impossible,
as if one could pinpoint the beginning or end of thought,
but the stat is 100 percent. A semicolon
suggests a sort of equality between two independent clauses,
I used one in the previous sentence because I could not
bear to end the thought so soon. It’s a lot of work,
being alive and continuing to think in the face of certain death,
but that’s the job. I was reading about this badger
scientists recorded burying a calf carcass. It took four days.
Now that’s a complete sentence. Badger sees cow,
badger thinks, Bury cow, badger buries cow. Period.
I watched some of the video. This badger was serious.
How long can a badger live on a carcass’ measure
of rotting beef? I’m guessing a year, maybe eighteen months.
You know that badger figured it had won the meat lottery
when it found this cow, left by scientists studying
scavenger behavior. Eventually we are all scavengers;
the stat is 100 percent. I sent the video to my father.
He sent back a link to a New Yorker article
about nostalgia. How we sometimes miss
things that never existed or are not yet gone.
I miss more than I can say. What would you do
if you were walking through the desert of your allotted days
and came across everything you ever wanted?
Eat what you can. Bury the rest.
HUNDRED FLOWERS CAMPAIGN
A hundred flowers I lay here for you. A hundred
I have counted. A hundred white rabbits roaming
for a hundred years, a hundred years of moss I will grow
for you. A hundred acres of grassland, on which a hundred
of the wisest willows kneel in your honor. Radishes sprout
above ground, sweet and nutty, a hundred grown in your
name, your names, your hundreds of names. A hundred
executions I will bear for you, a hundred knots of rope,
a hundred buildings I will tie down and bar for you,
a hundred humiliations I will keep from you. For you
a hundred books I will save, a hundred more will read,
read to the hundred paintings hundred song hundred
beat hundred dance. Hundred. Hundred dictators
I will slay for you. Hundred mothers I will return to you.
Hundred exiles, hundred children, hundred fathers
and their fathers, a hundred schools of thought bleeding
from their hundred hands holding a hundred portraits
of Mao on their hundred little hundred red books.
LITTLE CHINESE PALINDROME EATS WATERMELON
Green sonnets of summer arrive in June on the farm,
hues of vine and leaf as far as the eye can see.
Palindrome, given ox and cart, is ordered to harvest the new melons.
Their roundness makes her stomach flutter and fall
and she imagines inside her a moth in darkness, papery wings
searching the empty cavern for husks of rice and tea.
Hours in—the smoothness of melon skin on her arms, the solid thunk
as she lowers it into the cart—the work is almost pleasurable.
Flapping his ears, even the ox seems appeased, lows his shiny coat
in a breeze. On the last row, she spots a melon misshapen,
a long crack down its side. Wings halt against her ribs, the fluttering
stills. It is the first time Little Chinese Palindrome has stolen anything.
That night beneath stars, she splits open the rind, juices running
in a city of pink rivers down her forearms. She feasts
on fruit in fistfuls like a rich peasant girl.
Her belly is a golden gourd.
The next day Palindrome is beaten in the field
with a rod as thick as her wrists.
Her tears grow a land where a drop of blood turns soil
into the straight spines of kings.
They’ve given me a window.
Now I don’t need the umbrellas
collapsed under the coat rack
to tell me about the rain,
and the jackets
I’ve come to know on hangers
leave on shoulders,
bunch out on lunch breaks,
file home at the end of the day.
The janitor makes his last pass,
and I avoid his gaze—watch deer
making do with the false-front forest
of the golf course.
They gave me a door as well,
which I’m afraid to close.
I need to hear their approach―
at the entrance, stone
makes dun-toned pumps clock in,
then carpet intercepts,
leaves just the hiss
of a suit’s slick fabric
as my frantic rumor:
They’re coming to send you home.
But it’s none of my business,
they do not stop,
and I cannot get up and follow.
The window does not open.
It is not a way out.
And I will never stand on the other side
except in a dream,
where I see myself knocked around
then locked in.
If I don’t keep quiet,
they will come back
They will pull my name off the door,
so no one will know
I am there.
Tonight, the building’s front doors
are a manhole cover.
and the real air
touches me all at once.
I find it is spring.
Contrails fill the low-lit sky
Below, every paper hole
I have ever punched has been let go
under the pear trees.