Here's the next installment of the novella. Thanks for reading!
The Ceiling or the Floor
The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I pose for an artist who draws me as the subject for an advertisement for a battered women’s shelter downtown that affiliates itself with the Planned Parenthood for which I work.
"Curl up into yourself," the artist tells me. "You need to look like you’ve been hurt."
I do what he says and pretend that I am an actress, projecting prolonged misery, the Hedda Nussbaum of Detroit, take stage directions from the other counselors, none of whom wanted to be the subject of this particular crusade even though the artist assured us that nobody would be able to recognize the subject once he was through with her. "I take what I see and make it a lot worse," he says, although I do not think he will have to try that hard with me. Tired, hungover, the days before this one have not been kind. I close my eyes like I’ve been hit and don’t want to see what’s coming next. As the only white person at work today, I got volunteered for this bizarre modeling job because the black women didn’t want to perpetuate the stereotype of the violent black man.
Weirdly enough, I never got to be a white person on Thanksgiving as a girl -- my long dark hair and brown eyes made me a natural choice for an Indian, as we used to say in those politically incorrect days. Pilgrims and Indians alike would sit down and cut out construction paper turkeys and pumpkins. That was third grade, the year my teacher’s son hanged himself in a far away dorm room, sunny and warm. Our teacher had deliberate ways and said things like, if you aren’t a neat person, you shouldn’t even consider loose-leaf paper. She said, I’d allow my daughter to use it, but not my son. Despite my parents’ relative prosperity, I had an unkempt look about me, the haggard aura of a woman with one too many children and no help, the women I see every day now. My mother dressed me in the cutest outfits that she bought with the money she made at the hospital, and yet I was still a child of torn nails, stringy hair, and I could see her son, hanging from the rafters of his dorm room, ending a lifetime of messes and disappointment while I marked quizzes for his mother, me being the smartest girl in the room, all evidence to the contrary.
Thanksgiving day, I wake up and check my e-mail first thing, and there is no return message from Kevin which gets me thinking about what he might have meant by the roses on the doorstep last week and maybe like all men, he is fucking with my head for the pleasure of it and then I look at Mark, my new boyfriend of sorts, asleep in my bed and wonder how long it will be until he wakes up and leaves.
Coley, my brother’s ex-girlfriend and current lover, companion, and most accurately whore has already made her exit to visit her parents for Thanksgiving. I could hear her moving around the stale air of our place as I rested in bed with a screaming headache, feeling too wretched to sleep and too exhausted to take something that would make the pain go away. Mark and I drank a fair amount of grapefruit juice and vodka while watching Last Temptation of Christ, a movie neither of us had bothered to see when it came out to all that outrage. In fact, it’s a real yawn and would be intolerable without being drunk or stoned. We toasted to seeing the new millennium, the year 2000, and I thought about all the panic over Y2K and how it was good that nothing happened because I had nary a bottle of water stored, much less massive amounts of supplies. The whole scene reminded me of the tornado shelters Josh and I used to build in the bathroom, every surface lined with pillows and blankets, a flashlight, some candles. We’d do this in childhood at the slightest hint of rain because there was so much that we couldn’t protect each other from, and sometimes it was nice to pretend that the threat was an impersonal one.
Eventually, I walk into the kitchen and start the morning ritual, thinking how thankful I am that there is no work for me today. Need does not go on vacation, one of my college instructors you used to say, but I sure the hell can.
"So are you and Coley back on?" I ask. Josh makes himself some coffee and sits in his t-shirt and boxers, his uniform for his days off from teaching high school.
"I wouldn’t say that."
"What would you say?" I ask, knowing that a direct question will not get me an answer.
"Nothing," Josh says. "What are we going to do for food today? I don‘t think anything is going to be open around here. Remember last year -- not even the Chinese places."
"Big Boy is open. The Big Boy is always open," I say, referring to a chain restaurant who has a plump boy in checked suspenders depicted by a statue much like a low-rent Ronald McDonald.
I hear Mark moving around. "So he stayed," Josh says.
"He’s going now," I say. "I’m sure he has somewhere else he wants to be." I think about how screwed I am if he doesn’t.
Before Josh and I leave for the Big Boy, our parents call and ask me what I’m thankful for this year since I’m the one who had the misfortune of answering the phone, and I doubt they want to know the real list, the start of which is that they didn’t make good on their promise to move back to Detroit. They still haven’t been apprised of Josh’s carved smile that resides below his real mouth, healed from this summer, but never to be changed. When you feel bad, my mother said, take a piece of paper and write all your feelings on it and rip it up because no one wants to hear about it. Instead, I thought my nerves were pieces of paper and I could imagine that my heart wrote on them and hid them deep in my body and that if I ever had a breakdown, my nerves would be read by doctors who would be horrified by my thoughts.
"Josh, are you ready to leave?" I ask. I need some food before my stomach turns on me and decides that it’s going to heave everything that isn’t in it.
We drive to the Big Boy, a short trip, and a large woman waits on us and walks on her tiptoes as she takes our order to the kitchen, a burger for Josh, chicken sandwich for me. I’m trying for as bland as possible to settle things down.
"When are Mom and Dad coming for Christmas? Or are we supposed to come to them?" Josh asks. He’s ordered coffee and has guzzled two cups already. Clearly, I’m not the only one who had too much to drink last night.
"They don’t know yet. Surprise attack," I say. I open a package of crackers while we wait. Before long, there are crumbs all over me because I’m shaking.
"Do you remember that Thanksgiving Dad got the video camera and videotaped dinner and made us watch it that night?" Josh asks.
"Well, that’s what I’m most thankful for this year. Not having to live through something and then see it right after," I say. The food takes a long time in coming, and we sit in silence with everyone else who isn’t in a hurry to go anywhere else.
Michelle's Spell of the Day
"Someone may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it." Steve Prefontaine
Cocktail HourDrinking music suggestion: Some Girls Rolling Stones
Benedictions and Maledictions