Friday, March 16, 2007
Something To Do In Bed
For your Friday reading pleasure. First appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review Spring and Summer 2005 (Vol. 22, Nos. 1 & 2).
The Difference Between Pluto and Goofy
The night my brother Josh took a razor and carved a grin underneath his mouth, I fell off a car. Fourth of July, watching fireworks over the lake in a marina parking lot, drinking gin and tonics with my married boyfriend Kevin, and without warning, I passed out. When I awoke, it was to an anxious wreath of faces peering down at my pounding head. Because I didn’t know I was falling, I didn’t make the classic mistake of holding out my arms to protect myself, so I didn’t experience any injuries except scrapes and bruises, marks that you can see for a few weeks after, the ones that make people ask, what the hell happened to you?
Which, of course, is what I want to ask Josh. His new grin runs from cheek to cheek, a deep cut that severed a tendon. It is nothing like the polite smiles we gave our parents over what I now refer to as the last supper, the fleeting smiles of employees imagining that an unpleasant task was almost done, only to find out that they had only scratched the surface of what would be demanded of them. My parents announced they were moving back to Detroit, quite possibly within the next few months. They hadn’t lived in our city for almost ten years. We were at a restaurant that didn’t stay open very long, an expensive soul food place called Jada, where they paid a lot for ribs and okra, collard greens and sweet potato pie, my parents insisting on trying whatever seemed adventurous. They live in Atlanta, and their infrequent visits are punctuated with outings that proved to be short and filled with ideas about how the next one might be better, the things we are all trained to say, the things we couldn’t possibly mean.
So here I am living with Josh once again because I do not trust that he won’t do something worse, although in this case, I do not want to imagine worse. For once, I am thankful that there is no one in my life who cares where I live. I remembered how Josh and I shared a room as children, before my parents had money, and we’d take turns staying awake so that if we heard our father creeping around, wanting to say goodnight, we’d be prepared. I remembered Mother saying, You need to be careful. Men can’t be trusted and that goes for your father. I don’t want you crawling in bed with him while I’m gone. She was a nurse. We never crawled into bed with him, but I can’t say we were always good at keeping him out of ours.
Our parents had left a few boxes at Josh’s duplex, telling us they’d come back for them when they moved here for good. When I moved in with Josh, I had to make room. I started with those boxes, moving them to the basement when the bottom fell out of one. I stuffed all the shit back in, looking for something that would explain the way Josh turned out, but everything seemed so normal. You’d never know my father from his things.
I think about a night when my father didn’t come home and my mother called the police, telling them he was missing. They searched the block, got the neighbors involved, called for him. I didn’t say anything, but I saw him across the street, hiding in a wooded area where Mother forbid Josh and me to go. Men hide in the woods and they wait for women so they can slash their tendons and hurt them, she said. You can’t move when someone slashes your tendons. We nodded. My father came back the next day, leaves in his hair. I don’t know what he told Mother. Mother would phone her girlfriends and say, I know he’s got some whore. I thought about that as I heard my father’s name called that night, over and over again.
And now I am someone’s whore. The symmetry does not escape me, though seeing Kevin is perfect, in spite of the obvious problem of his marriage. I thought it was good that I had never met his wife, that an actual person would only make me crazy. The last time I lived with a man, I would look at pictures of his former fiancée, whom I had only met a few times. He’d devoted an album to her, and it seemed realer than things that had happened to us. I looked at that album with a regularity that can only be described as disturbing. By the time I realized that this ritual was making me sick, it was impossible to quit, like reading someone’s journal – no matter how miserable it makes you, you can’t stop until you’re to the end of what’s there.
“Hey, what’s going on?” Josh asks, as he walked into the living room, his Doc Marten’s loud on the wood floor. I try not to look at his face.
“Just sorting things. Do you care if I move some of your boxes to the basement?”
“Do what you want,” Josh says. He plunks down on the couch and switches on the television with a remote bigger than any I’ve ever seen. He calls it The Commander. As in, The Commander wants respect. The Commander thinks this show sucks. It’s strange how Josh and I got along so well, despite being so unalike. We don’t even look like brother and sister; he’s tall, big, shaggy, and had a beautiful face. I’m tiny and plain, like a miniature someone forgot to make exquisite with the right heartbreaking details.
“Josette,” he says. He never calls me by my name unless he’s tired. “Feel free to move anything you want.”
I sit down and try to relax. Josh changes the channel.
“This is one of those movies where it looks like there’s going to be boobs, but there just isn’t going to be boobs.” He continues to drink his Coors, nowhere near a beautiful stream featured in their commercials.
“I thought we got the complete cable package so you could find something you liked.” I start arranging things in the room to make it look better.
“It’s a wasteland. I’ve seen everything too many times.”
It starts to rain, hard, without warning. The lights go out, then the television.
“Now what?” Josh asks.
“Josh, why do you think they’re coming back?”
He picks at his nails, and I try something else. “Why didn’t you marry Annie?” Annie had been Josh’s girlfriend right up until the cut.
“I don’t know. She’s not the type of person you want to marry. I should have married Coley.” Coley was the one before Annie. They seem pretty alike to me, both underfed and hopeful, like happy children who wanted more attention.
“They’re both women, right? I don’t get the difference.”
“It’s like saying Pluto and Goofy are both dogs. Goofy is Mickey Mouse’s friend, whereas Pluto is Mickey’s pet. I mean, there’s a difference.”
“That clears it right up,” I say. “Do you think I’m doomed to always be Pluto?”
As if by cue, I hear thunder.
“You want me to call to see how long we’ll be without power?” I ask.
He shrugs, so I dial. I don’t like sitting around with nothing to do, no air-conditioner, no lights, no music, no television. It strikes me all at once how limiting and claustrophobic this situation is. I don’t speak to a person on the phone, just the automated help line. I keep hearing the voice say, “We are sorry you are without power. We understand the importance of knowing when your power will be restored” followed by an estimate of how long it would take before things would start working again.
Josh lights a candle and gets a book from the shelf, a biography of Tolstoy. I can’t get comfortable. I want to call Kevin, but I don’t know if he’s home. Or alone. I’ve never been inside his house, even thought I know where it is. I think about confronting his wife. At least, maybe something would happen.
I look outside, our duplex right on the border of Detroit. Like all borders, this one feels scary and powerful, like change might happen in any second. We’ll have to drive into the suburbs to see Kevin, but it isn’t all that far from danger to where he lives. When you can’t go outside, my mother used to say, you need to make your own fun!
“Do you want to go somewhere? A drive?” I ask. The rain has stopped. I don’t hear anything going on outside.
“Where are we going?”
“I want to see if Kevin’s home.”
He looks at me, his carved grin like a jack-o-lantern that I can’t turn off. “Is he alone?”
“I guess we’ll find out.”
As we drive, it occurs to me that this is a bad idea. The trip feels slow-motion, Josh in the driver’s seat, me looking out the window, noticing the way everything seems brighter after a storm. I know what I’m doing is reckless, stupid, but I can’t stop. I see my opportunities to turn around recede as we get closer. I knock on the door, a tap so light I can’t imagine anyone hearing it. When I turn to go, I hear the door open and feel compelled to stop and look, the pillar of salt thing.
“Can I help you?”
The woman at the door looks like someone’s sort of attractive mother, a woman who made grocery lists, who drank no more than one glass of wine with any meal. A wife.
I shake my head. A wasp lands on the birdbath. It is poised on the water like a plane ready for take-off.
“Are you looking for something?” she asks. She picks a thread off her khaki shorts. “Who are you?”
I consider the various ways in which I can answer that question before I hear a sucking noise and felt water. An automatic sprinkler.
I run to the car before she can ask anything else, shaking with the same sensation I get after throwing up. I can’t cry, so I throw up instead which doesn’t have the same social grace. Josh sits in the car, smoking, flicking his ashes onto the road. When I get in, he drops his cigarette and drives.
When we return home, the power is still out but only for a few minutes. After we sit down, the lights and television come back on, and I startle, surprised by the sound of everything starting up again.
The next week, I forget about the visit to Kevin’s house, the way you forget about a bill that you can’t pay. Instead, I work as many extra hours as I could at Planned Parenthood, spending the nights too tired to do much. I think about the girls I see during the day, many of them in for their first pap smear in order to get on the pill. They look nervous, excited. I don’t want to tell them what’s ahead, that it’s not what they imagine. Instead, I think about the first man I loved enough to get a pap smear for, how happy I was, how even the scraping felt comfortable, something I was doing for love.
Kevin doesn’t call until Wednesday night, four days after my visit. My parents call before Kevin did, told me that they won’t be moving after all, isn’t it too bad. I don’t tell them about Josh and his face. They’ll have to see it for themselves, I think, it will be something I won’t be able to hide from them. I’ve been hiding his problems for years, and it’s an oddly liberating position to have something I can do nothing about. I tell Josh the good news, but he doesn’t respond. For once, I don’t know if he’s happy or not. The phone rings again, but I don’t want to pick up. Josh does. We take turns doing the things we don’t like, just as we did when we were younger.
“It’s for you,” he says.
“What do you want from me? I thought you understood,” Kevin says. I can see him on the phone, hand up in the air as if he’s drowning. It was how he gesticulated when he talked to his wife when I was around.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, it’s over. I can’t tell you what a bad position this has put me in.”
“It’s been great for me,” not sure if I mean it or not. All I know is that I felt the old sadness settle in, like a vivid dream that bleeds into the day. The night before, I dreamt that I was working at a gigantic stockyard, lost among the cows and pigs, waiting for someone to pick me up and drive me home. In the dream, I started to cry because I didn’t think anyone would ever love me enough to pick me up from such a horrible place.
“Who was on the line?” Josh asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s play head on a stick,” I say. Josh looks startled, but he smiles, a real smile above his carved one.
“What made you think of that?” he asks.
“It’s been a while,” I said. Head on a Stick is a game we played until we moved out of our parents’ house. It’s fairly basic in the particulars. When one of us felt like it, we’d yell “head on a stick.” That meant you’d been paralyzed in an accident from the neck down, and the other person had to do everything for you that you couldn’t do as a result of your condition. The game could go on for hours. I remember feeding Josh, him feeding me. I miss it. “Head on a stick,” I yelled.
“What do you need?” he asks, the beginning of all Head on a Stick games.
“I want to go to bed.”
He picks me up, not much more difficult for him now than it was then. He sets me down on my comforter and sifts through some t-shirts he knew I wear to bed.
“I need to change you,” he says, holding up a couple of t-shirts.
“Do I get to pick which one I want?” I nod at the red one.
He brings the t-shirt to me and takes off my clothes. I don’t make it easy for him. After all, I can’t move anything below my neck. After he tucks me in, he walks to the edge of the room and turns off the overhead light.
“Is there anything else?”
“I want to hear a story.”
I don’t say anything. I only look at him. There isn’t anywhere I can go in this condition. “Tell me about your face,” I say.
He picks up my hand and traces the grin even though I’m not supposed to have any feeling in my hands. I can’t imagine how he did this to himself, how his neighbor had found him on the porch that they shared and called to report an emergency. I think about that night, how I’d taken three Valiums before I could go to sleep, how hard it was to wake up when the hospital had called.
“It hurts to talk,” he says. I nod, the only action I can perform in this game. He gets in bed next to me, arms by his side. I close my eyes and listen to all the noises outside, the sounds of sirens and yelling, the sounds of screeching tires against the pavement, taking comfort in the fact that other people also sometimes find it difficult to stop.
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