Nov 18 Preface
The way I tell the story to myself
An aching afflicts me, an inclination to discern a harmony amidst the incongruous notes of experience. I perceive atoms which at times find sporadic stability. External energies appear to persuade their state.
I am in a current, created by a force which passed through this space long ago. The matter above me is warmed by an unknown source of energy. My current grows cooler, sinks deeper, moves slower. I am ignorant to both gravity and my own movement with the tides. I am oblivious to a release of an energy which will in time attract me, envelope me, destroy me.
Gaseous, dynamic atoms collide rapidly. Constant friction and agitation. I tell myself a secondary story, violent and unnerving. Liquid, balanced atoms flow with the vicinity. I tell myself a story of acceptance, tenderness and prospects.
The way the story told itself to me*
I was born in 1986 and grew up on the east coast of the US, in an in between space, equidistant from two great cities. I grew up in a modest, former farming town that was nonchalantly being taken over by the rich. Subdivisions replaced blueberry and hay fields.
I was the youngest of three children. Levi was the oldest, and Bekki was the middle child. And I had three best friends. Robin Hood our family dog, an English Springer Spaniel, was my first. Then Nikki, who lived at the other end of the road. Her and I were inseparable for our first ten years. And Rinny was the person whom I bridged that time between child and adulthood with.
A mom, a dad, three kids and a dog, on a square plot of land, which lay half way down the lazy hill of Old Smoke Road. I would move away at eighteen, to one of the great cities, to attend public art college. Four years later I would move across the Atlantic, to Germany, to Berlin. I ran there, away from a story I did not want to be a part of anymore, and I stayed for a story I believed in, but a story which was not my own.
* "The way the story told itself to me..." Zora Neale Hurton, American novelist, short story writer, folklorist, and anthropologist
Nov 25 - 17 Vignettes: Part I, I ∆Black Hole
My family would be systematically seated in the station wagon with Robin Hood and me in the way back. I would watch the world whip by from the hatchback window. In my peripheral vision were only colors, and ahead, or behind, lay stretched out scenes shrinking into the tunnel we had just moved through. Robin Hood would have his head on my lap, an exact weight and warmth that equated to a distinct happiness in me. The car always slowed and turned left onto Old Smoke Road. Left, as we would be coming from the direction of most anything at all, the state forest, my grandparents house or the shopping mall. Old Smoke Road was steep on one side, and a rolling descent on the other. Our station wagon climbed and gravity strengthened. A heaviness would begin to grow from my stomach until my gut felt like rocks held in thin, wet fabric.
At the peak of Old Smoke Road my body steadied upright a moment, teetered and then reversed. Instead of being pulled toward the hatchback window and the rest of the world, I was shifted. I now was pulled toward the back seat where my sister and brother sat, toward the front seats with my mother and father, toward our house and with dusk most likely upon us, toward the black hole which gulped down the world from its origin in our backyard.
My father turned into the driveway and without turning my head to face them, silhouettes of shadows whispered, attempting to distract me from the inertia. The driveway slightly bowed and so for a hard, mean second we were aimed, the whole family, directly at the backyard and the black hole. My father would always steer toward the garage though, a survival instinct left over from his military days. Consequently the gravitational pull was blocked by our house and the station wagon would slow to a stop. I felt the gears move below my body, an unwelcoming metallic plunk into park. This was my cue. Just like our systematic placement within the car, each family member had a specific role with specific duties. One of my duties was to open the garage door.
I pushed the hatchback up with my foot and it whined a high pitched scream only I could hear. Robin Hood would lumber down in front of me and then wait so as to follow me as I jolted towar the garage door. I pulled its dead weight up, more heaviness, then pushed it above my head, more teetering, before the accordion cut wood glided horizontally into the slot, like bread in a tipped over toaster. I stepped aside and my family’s rigid torsos rolled by. I stood there, alone but for Robin Hood, while the few seconds afforded me a private concert to the black hole’s peculiar pitch. I could hear gravity. It summoned my arm hairs. It gripped my whole body. At times it even enticed me around the corner, and I would peek, not scared but stunned. There was an energy in the air behind the house that was astounding. It amplified both sound and silence and the heartbeat in my chest.
I witnessed the black hole through its hunger, knowing it had eaten up the backyard, the garden and the big apple tree, the time capsule Nikki and I would plant, and even the potential of a place to plant a time capsule. This black hole played tricks on me. It not only ate the light and my sense of familiarity, but at times when I looked onto the backyard from the house, the black hole would also project a muted scene of what was there yesterday and what would be regurgitated tomorrow. It took from me what I knew was real, along with any proof of itself. My awareness of the black hole, this knowledge, was like the light from a dead star, reaching my eyes but no longer existing. And so, I never tested the black hole, I never even tested speaking about it. I let it expand and contract each night, a blinking eye only I saw. Perhaps it only saw me as well.
I awoke to something missing. The weight was not there. The weight and warmth of Robin Hood was missing from my bed. Sleep fell away from my mind slightly slower than from my body. I smelled rain, and through its light, melodic, pitter-patter drops I heard a howling. Robin Hood was outside my window, on the hill, in the backyard. A low song resonated from his long throat, and there was another sound, a high compliment. I was reminded of the whine from the hatchback opening. Was it only now echoing back? Was the black hole spitting out the sounds from the day?
Robin Hood and the black hole conversed a duet, sang a dialogue. He spoke for me, let the black hole know that I needed to understand. It hissed and did not want to reveal itself. Robin Hood’s pleas persisted, with his baritone breaths full of commitment and concern, loyalty and love, so full like a stretched balloon, he sang of my fear of the unknown, my fear of loneliness and the source of the loneliness. He sang as I slid back into sleep, exhausted by my straining to understand this other language.
When I woke the sun was high and Robin Hood was crazed. His legs and belly were covered with seed burrs like any dog after an adventure, but his eyes met mine and I saw they were different, different from the day before and different from any other dog. His stubby tail wagged with fever. My heart sped up. I knew he had wooed the black hole into admitting its secrets.
Dec 2 II ∆Roots
The garden was set atop a humble stone wall that terraced the backyard. Above it was the big apple tree, the one Nikki and I buried our time capsule beneath. Below was a stretch of grass that was first home to a fort with fireman’s pole and then a balance beam. Finally a baseball batting cage dominated the space, built for my sister and brother. To Nikki and I this structure was a stage set and most often acted as our imaginary horses’ stable.
The garden had a wire fence around it, low enough for the deer to reach over and not buried very deeply so the rabbits could easily burrow beneath. My mother and I would aerate the soil and build long mounds. Warm toned, almost neon hued cosmos and azaleas were planted on the uphill side of the garden, tomatoes and peppers on the downhill side. There was a separate area where the climbers where planted, green beans and sugar snap peas. As neither my mother nor I could simply step over the fence, our legs short and cumbersome compared to any deer, the climbers could only be reached if we left the main garden all together, and walked toward the cool shade of a gnarly evergreen.
My mother had modestly created this plot of land within a plot of land. Her and I shared this space that she had built, but for me had simply always been there. I watched as her hands precisely moved soil and as her skin darkened each day. Freckles formed and she became a part of the shifting palette of the garden, transforming amidst her verdure. I observed her and myself as well, as we became four arms and four legs, a singular creature willing petals to fold open and tomatoes to ripen, both mother and daughter and neither of those two at all.
Wild things extended the boundary of our plot beyond the silly fence. Creamy Queen Ann’s Lace spilled toward the big apple tree and uncultivated asparagus sprung up from the stone wall. We never cooked the asparagus, it was too tough. I did curiously gnaw on a raw stalk once, the texture crisp, warm, and stringy is a distinct memory merging taste and sound and smell.
My first summers were spent within the garden or just beyond it. I perfected my bird watching skills while sitting motionless between the hosta bushes. There I delighted in reducing myself to a blond head of corn silk hair perched above a collar of green and white striped leaves. Hostas are a flora more reminiscent of the jungle rather than New England, a flora both my mind and body could lose itself in. When not in this solitude I could be found with Nikki; eating warm cherry tomatoes off the vine; swimming until pruny, exiting the pool only to take a pee behind the grape vines; throwing fallen crab apples for Robin Hood, playing with our horses or climbing the big apple tree.
There was one low branch which could be used as a gymnastic bar, its bark of rough scabs sure to tare skin if you were to swing from it. Nonetheless, Nikki and I hung there, upside down. A dense patch of moss transformed itself into a moist green sky and hovered imposingly close above our gnome-hat-hair. One autumn we sliced into the patch and planted a Folgers coffee can time capsule. We were inseparable those years. “Nikki- Ali Ali-Nikki” my mother would call us, one entity, a balanced being of shy and crass, composure and adventure, thin and thick.
I dug into the patch of moss after Nikki died of bone cancer. We had not spoken in over a year. I pulled a rusted can from the soil and popped off a flimsy plastic lid. Nikki’s mother wrote to me years later that she herself had resigned to allowing the memories of Nikki to blend with the present character of her granddaughter. Their resemblance was striking and youth, innocence, and longing dissolved the two girls into one.
I reached into the coffee can. The air was stale and cool. A solitary clump of wet paper waited inside. Ink stains bled from one layer to the next, implications of words written by hands which could not fathom the notion of an end.
Dec 9 III ∆Best Friend
Robin Hood and I grew up together. I thought we were the same animal and I believe he did too. My family bought the English Springer Spaniel when I was just a few years old. He was my ally when my siblings left us behind, too slow and too young. And so our realm was the thin strip of woods which ran along the downhill side of the driveway, and the front and back yard. We dug holes together, ate crab apples together and tunnelled through the hosta bushes together. Robin Hood even taught me how to read and I taught him how to sing.
Our house lay just over the cusp of the Old Smoke Road hill and Robin Hood could not resist chasing squirrels. He almost got the one that enticed him across the street, but a car got him first. My mother and I watched stupidly, the impact of cold metal on his right hind leg. We lifted him into the station wagon and she drove to the veterinarian, faster than she would ever drive again, while I held his head in the way back. It was the first time we shared real fear, my mother and I and Robin Hood too, though he had helped me often through endless nights together under the blankets. It was humid under there and smelled of dog breath, but in this tent-world we were safe from my alphabet wall paper which rose to life in the dark. In the seconds while my eyes adjusted to the flick of the light switch, letters wiggled and invited the wild animals who shared their sounds to dance a chaotic jig, a small vibration of muted colors and lines, a summoning of the night crawlers. The fear I felt in the way back, holding Robin Hood’s head, was a new fear though, a fear that would frighten even the wallpaper I thought.
Robin Hood lived. His hip was broken though and he was confined to a cage while it healed. I naturally joined him in this small space and joyfully filled our den with blankets, a troop of stuffed monkeys and my favorite books. I did not know how to read, but the illustrations activated memories and I could retell Robin Hood the stories my mother had shared with me; Christina Katarina and the Box, What Was That!, and Jenny's Surprise Summer. I searched through the scramble of letters. At first it was as if I was looking at the blossoms on the crab apple tree. Endless shapes, similar but not identical, hanging onto a white branch. Slowly I began to see patterns, lines and squiggles became letters. Robin Hood’s heavy head was always on my lap, warm and wet with drool, while I disassembled spoken words back into just sounds.
“Wwaa waaaa waaaaves waves. Waves pounded the beach”. I delighted in the illustration. The waves at Jenny’s feet, her basket of mussels spilling as she ran from a storm. I told Robin Hood it was OK, because next Jenny would find the two kittens hiding from the rain. They were her surprise that summer. As I made the slow sounds, stretching out words like salt water taffy, Robin Hood started to join in. We were the same animal, and suddenly he could even talk like me. He could make the sounds that I made, the ooooos, and whooooos. He began to howl, a short quick howl. He surprised both of us and I giggled, charmed as he yelped and howled louder.
Robin Hood would sing his whole life if I invited him with my own howls. When the family came home after sunset and he had been left behind, chained to the garage door, I found him howling then as well, and I knew that at these times he had been summoned by the black hole itself.
Dec 16 IV ∆Papas
“Why are fire engines red? Because books are read too. Two times two is four. Four times three is twelve. Twelve inches is a ruler. Queen Mary was a ruler. Queen Mary was a steamship. A steamship sails the ocean. The Ocean has fish. The fish have fins. The Finns fought the Russians. Fire engines are always rushin’ so they’re red.”
Papas finished his spiel and smiled. His cheeks were as red as the fire engine I had summoned up in my imagination. The whole family called them his applecheeks. He chuckled and pushed me off his lap. “Uh, you are getting heavy! Go pester someone your own size!”
Papas, my father’s father, had nicknamed me the Blond Bombshell soon after I began to walk. My hair at that age was like down, it could be mistaken for the silk which was shed when shucking corn. To juxtapose that fineness the rest of my body was a storm of whirling curiosity and clumsiness. Papas was soft. Soft white hair. Soft roll of belly fat cozy to lean against. Soft, buttercup yellow sweater with a green alligator on the chest. The only thing hard about Papas, or rather sharp, was the smell of his breath. Like medicine and pine needles the scent was rekindled each time he sipped from his glass. Ice cubes clinked and three olives bobbed in the clear concoction. He wet his whistle in between the ramblings that rolled off his tongue with a wit-filled eloquence.
There were no toys at Mamu and Papas house. “They do not match the decor”, my grandmother would proclaim when I inquired. There was though, a long, narrow backyard which became more strange the further away it extended from their modest house with its spruce green shutters. I would burst out the backdoor onto a slate patio. The roots of a humongous oak undulated up between the flat stones revealing the tree’s spread and strength, like the back of the Loch Ness Monster. I had memorized those roots and hopped, small small big, over their trip traps.
The patio ended at a rock wall which I launched myself from, past bright orange lantern-like plants, tumbling onto a spongy lawn. A beehive marked the middle of the lawn. The insects' drone grew louder and more multiplied as I approached, but it’s danger was like a repelling magnet. I looped around it and accelerated back toward my family, fear conquering curiosity. I cannot tell you what lay beyond the hive, because I cannot remember, because I never found out.
Galloping to the right of the house and into the front yard I entered a blanket of dark green ivy which stretched to the black top of the road. I waded through the tangled sea to an island of rock. Here stood a single occupant, a black figurine who held a lantern and who wore a red vest that matched his red lips. I climbed up to join my lonely companion. I was not much taller than he, but just tall enough to see over the wooden fence and into the neighbor's yard. There lived a pack of handsome dalmatians. Not one hundred one, but lots, and they all seemed to be springing about each time I spied on them. I whispered in the black boy’s ear. He was happy to hear the pups were thankful for his lantern-nightlight, as I too would be if I slept outside like the them.
Twenty something years later I was reading Flannery O'Connor's parable The Artificial Nigger. The image of my black-figurine-friend floated to the top of my memory. He had a name now, the Lawn Jockey. A ripple formed in the warm wading-pool of my tenderness for Papas, the man who had adorned his front yard with such a racist object.
From the precipice beside the Lawn Jockey I began to realize that like the figurine’s face, Papa’s face too was very different from most of the people in our town. Papa’s applecheeks sat on high, sharp bones and those cheeks were so round that when he smiled his eyes were not eyes but rather crevasses, no pupils and irises, just slits.
I had watched countless time, The Secret Garden, but Papas did not look like these English characters even though my father told me this is where his parents came from. I was obsessed with the, “where is your family from?” question, a distinct American inquiry. Learning that my great grandparents had been English, German and Hungarian was wondrous to me. These were far off places that I could read about in my mother’s massive dictionary. Our small town could not be found in that dictionary. And Papas was interesting because he belonged nowhere and therefore everywhere.
I painted a flowing sea which stretched between his far-flung roots, spreading from China to deep inside the Navajo nation. I swam in this space and in my mind Papas was beside me. We dove together toward the sandy floor, where it was still and calm. Where the dimness erased our features and we could play and explore endlessly, free of the fear of the space beyond the beehive.
Dec 23 V ∆Innocence Lost
Nikki and I often played make-believe behind her house. She lived on the edge of some wetlands at the bottom of the Old Smoke Road hill. We had been Jane Goodall in the Tanzanian jungle, wild horses and acrobats traveling with Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man, sometimes all in one day. In the marsh one could not simply walk a straight line, but rather had to zigzag from grass-tuft to grass-tuft, traversing the tiny islands. We were in this stretch of woods one autumn afternoon when Nikki was reminded of a local news story. Had she overheard what her parents had watched, or did she sit with them during the broadcast? The latter situation would not surprise me. Nikki was curious, informed and therefore wise beyond her years, and even with such knowledge she was graceful. It seemed to me she knew how to digest the adult world early on.
Nikki enlightened me, nonchalantly. “A girl was raped in the woods in Connecticut.” We had been pretending we were pioneers exploring unknown territory, searching for a place to settle. “What does that mean, raped?”, my voice was light and high pitched. Nikki replied, “When a boy makes a girl have sex, but she doesn’t want to.” Heat hit my face in a rush of blood and I asked, “What does that mean, sex?”. “You don’t know?” she chirped, “How babies are made. A boy puts his dinky into a girls twinky.” We were still little girls after all.
The make believe world fell away. I witnessed a slow motion shock wave hit parallel panes of stained glass. Each place in the small wooded area was shattered. Each space behind a tree which had once held potential for magic, now held potential for fear. This new knowledge of sex and rape related to my own body but was also intertwined with Nikki and our location. I was in shock due to deception. How could this place just a few minutes earlier have epitomized security? So much so that that it was a security unaware of itself.
My blood rose to the skin’s surface. I moved out of my body, out of the present, into the future, and worry, and fear. And while I was there, the explorer’s tools, my curiosity and my muscles were kidnapped. When I shrunk back into myself there was a pressure, an awareness of my skin, and I knew I would never take up space like I had before, when limbs and wits swung carefree and confidently in the world.
Dec 30 VI ∆The Pendulum Bike
When I was very young, before any memories had formed, my family drove to the Jersey shore for summer vacation. The middle years, the magical years, saw us drive northward rather than south. We took those summer weeks and burrowed into the cool pine forest of New Hampshire, where ancient lakes had gathered between the worn peaks of the Appalachian mountains, a range softened by eons of wind and rain and human footsteps.
I imagine my parents looking at the road atlas, enamored by the green ink which dominated the page of New Hampshire, and equally enthralled by the organic patterns of blue, more like cloud formations than waterways. As with Appalachia, a native name survived for one of the largest natural formations. Lake Winnipesaukee, or "smile of the Great Spirit", looked to me like a bounding dog, mouth open and panting, if one were to be that infamous bird of the bird’s-eye view, looking down, earth gazing rather than stargazing.
My parents studied the map, they searched out a place to bring their three small children, but became deterred by the islands which dotted Bounding Dog lake; Black Cat Island, Big Beaver Island, Bear Island, Rattlesnake Island. This was all too much for two squares from New Jersey, so they settled on a much smaller lake southwest of Winnipesaukee, a promising watery paradise void of any islands at all, Crystal Lake.
We slept in a cottage called The Shanty, set atop a steep hill which sank into the rough sand shore. There was a shuffleboard court and a robust stone fireplace just outside our rickety front-porch door, more than enough entertainment for the evenings. And the lake was indeed crystal clear, deep, and cold like granite. It was heaven to swim in, clean enough to take big thirsty gulps, and it was small enough so that we might bike around the whole circumference in one day’s time.
Our Crystal Lake era was a few years before I would learn to ride a bike. A tradition took root though that we as a family would ride around the entire lake once, and only once. And so we were four bikes and five people, my father and I together gracing his black and yellow Japanese roadster.
The dearest part of this bike trip was its very first moments. My father lifted me into a plastic seat behind the saddle. The bike tipped precariously until he found the sweet spot, maneuvering his body above the frame. Our weight merged and we were one mass. He looked back at me, a thick mustache of sandy brown bristles and aviator glasses, a style which persisted from his Navy days, a style which was the epitome of cool in my eyes. He smiled and left the pavement with his right foot first. I closed my eyes. The pushes of the pedal were clockwork, our bodies together a pendulum swinging in sedated motion. Left. Right. Left. Our clock assumed the speed of a childhood summer, expanded and endless. Our pendulum bike bodies heavy, almost tipping, but always obeying, always hovering for a moment of stillness at the edge of balance. The kinetic energy fed my father’s legs and time gradually gained momentum. I held my eyes tightly closed, exhilarated. My nose and tongue could taste the thick pine air, moist and sweet with decay.
I sunk into the speed. We swung around the lake, planets held in orbit. The sun followed us. It’s light pulsated through the old pines, thudding on the side of my skull, keeping faultless time with the push of my father’s strong calf muscles. We harvested this sunshine energy and were carried on an endless revolution around Crystal Lake, the pendulum never stopping, the forest vast and beautiful. A perpetual present, maintained with such ease.
Jan 6 Part II, VII ∆Little Sister
Each of us children were three years apart. Three times three. Nine years of toddles, nine years of rambunctious explorers, nine years of turning from bratty children into all knowing adolescents. The six years between my brother and I could not be bridged during that time. They might as well have been eons. His legs were long, he was fast and brave and smart, and I was sensitive and assumed the role of the pest.
I cannot remember if I wanted to piss Levi off intentionally or if my nature simply did the trick, but boy did I get under his skin. In return my brother would find creative and cruel ways to antagonize me. The worst punishment, and his default so to speak, was innately tied to my favorite family member at that time, Robin Hood. This gave the act a twisted quality that I believe Levi was keenly aware of.
Robin Hood loved to chase the tennis ball. He was agile and his domesticated tracking skills shone when he followed a bounce off backyard crabgrass. Actually Robin Hood loved to chase anything, hickory nuts in the fall, snowballs in winter, and the stream of the garden hose in summer. The tennis ball was his constant bird of prey and therefore Robin Hood’s harvested saliva could always be employed to torture me.
Levi would pin me down with one strong hand and reveal the tennis ball with his other, a full sponge of fresh, pungent slime. At this point his fun would begin as I squirmed in fear not knowing whether today I would be subject to a slow squeeze just over my head producing one long continuous drip, or the full on warm smear directly on my face.
One day I snapped and hit Levi so hard I left a red handprint on his back, like a watermark in expensive paper it raised slightly above the rest of his skin. I could not deny the act, my hand fit the print. My stuffed animal collection was taken away from me for a week. Each comrade, mostly monkeys, was placed on the rafters in our family room, in clear line of sight but far out of reach. I ached for them. My retaliation was spontaneous and sparkled. I bombed Levi’s room with fairy dust, tiny metallic flecks which stuck to his face, his books, his baseball hats and wrestling singlet. He was livid but he contained his emotions and waited to take revenge. I earned the nickname Tinkerbell.
Late one Sunday afternoon I returned to my room after a day in the backyard. The sun had fallen behind the tree line and my eyes took a moment to adjust. The scene did not unfold slowly, as in the movies, panning left to right. Rather it was one sudden flash of horror. Murder. From the top bunk of my red metal bed hung all of my stuffed animals. Each with a noose of silver duct-tape. Their necks synched in, heads flopping to the side awkwardly, mouths still smiling. I screamed. My father patiently removed the tape from their necks, careful not to pull too much hair off along with it. I waited anxiously downstairs, Robin Hood’s heavy head in my lap.
This was our routine, year in and year out, until Levi left home at seventeen to attend the United States Naval Academy. Of course Levi would not just go off to any old university. Not only his provocations against me, but everything was always extreme with him. He couldn’t simply wrestle his weight class, he had to drop 10 pounds wrestling a class below and eating only 2000 calories a day. He couldn’t just do a triathlon, he had to take part in the most dangerous one which involved a swim from Alcatraz Island through the strong tidal waters of San Francisco Bay. And upon his graduation in 2001, when I finally cared to keep my older brother around, he wouldn’t just join the Navy like most cadets, but instead he would join the Marines.
Jan 13 VIII ∆The Sculptor
On Sunday mornings my mother found peace amidst her three young children by the grace of an exceptional line-up of cartoons. Levi, Bekki and I would sit in front of the TV, each with our favorite cereal box close by. I ate two big bowls of Lucky Charms, because Levi ate two big bowls of Wheaties. For dinner I ate a whole steak, corn on the cob, and three scoops of mint chocolate chip ice cream, because this is what my sporty siblings devoured. Soon my father would kick me off the back of his Japanese roadster, not because he wanted to, but because he had to. My neck was thick and my pug nose resembled a pig nose between two full cheeks. I remember being keenly aware of the sound my corduroys made as the fabric rubbed between my thighs. I noticed Nikki didn’t make that sounds when she walked.
As puberty kicked in and I shot up and thinned out, I was intrigued by my new body. Hip bones protruded, my neck bones were accentuated and ribs stacked up between two small breasts. Intrigue turned to infatuation and then obsession when I discovered the name for my form on MTV, “heroine chic”. Perversely, the thinner I got the more I detested any remnant of the chubby kid I used to be, mostly the roll of fat which persisted just below my belly button. Sitting on the toilet I would push my abdominal out, disgusted that my pubic hair could be hidden by this flesh.
I stopped eating as much as possible, opting for water with bland special-K cereal instead of creamy, but calorie ridden milk. A friend’s mother had not seen me for a half year and stared, blank and cold, as I smiled at her in the library. This instigated a game I played. Who could I shock? Who would be concerned and who would be impressed? Depending on how I was feeling about myself that day I either resented or reveled in their reactions.
When Levi and then Bekki both moved away to college my obsession intensified and I found myself sensing the Black Hole’s presence again. The house was too large for just one child. I had always hung around both of their sporting events, annoyed at being dragged from gym to field to practice. Now I felt the same toward the untended hours that gaped before me each day. I didn't know how to be me, in the absence of them. I didn’t know how to act, without something to react against.
During Bekki and Levi’s games, I began to make things to pass the time. The bleachers were my craft table. With the years my small creations grew more elaborate, filling a large drafter’s desk my parents had bought me. After puberty, I began to approach my body like art. I could sculpt, edit, and aggrandize it. I chiseled away at it like stone, avoiding veins only because I knew they would fracture the form.
When I got my driver’s license the first thing I did was get a gym membership. Each morning at five I rushed to a former warehouse charged with the stench of sweat and rubber. House music reverberated off the metal weight sets, softly clinking the pins which held pounds in place. At that early hour I was one of very few females. Surrounded by bulky men admiring and distracted by their own bodies as they flexed, I sucked in their testosterone. Just being in their presence made me feel strong. I had found a crowd as in control of their own form as me. In those mirrors and under the fluorescent lights we were peers, pulsating together with sound, blood, and isolated movements.
Returning home I squeezed into tight denim and spandex anything. My mother was appalled as I dressed deliberately to show off my body. She said I was exhibiting everything. She said that I would give guys the wrong impression. My favorite clothing, bought with tips from my diner job, disappeared when i did not do my own laundry. How was it my fault what guys thought? Why couldn’t I do with my body what I wanted and why was she so upset by exactly that which made me feel strong? Our fights were often punctuated with, “because I said so!” as a baggy shirt was thrust into my hands.
That autumn we were experiencing an Indian Summer. Just sitting in class everyone dripped with sweat. After school I joined in cross country because Nikki did too. The first day of practice I opted for a black Adidas sports bra and didn’t even think about putting a shirt on. I had worked all summer on my abs. Not yet a six pack like my gym idols, but I had a four pack and looked nothing like the soft bodied girls who ran beside me. I liked that, because I didn’t feel like them either.
The next day there was an announcement that the team was required to wear shirts. Another incarnation of my mother’s opinion now controlled me beyond Old Smoke Road. I considered wearing a white shirt with no bra, just to make a point, but I didn't have the courage. During our hill training, I attacked the two tiered, steep slope. The forms of the boys team were revealed as they ran along the top ridge. First heads, tanned necks, and finally bare chests. A rage exploded in me as I tackled the summit. I wanted to chisel away at them, at what they could be and were allowed the space to be. I wanted to chisel right through their veins.
Jan 20 VIIII ∆Rinny
I woke to my phone ringing, a strange number on the glowing screen in the Berlin darkness. Something about the early morning hour enticed me to pick up. “ Ali?! Curly’s dead”. Time and space collided in my mind. It was Rinny, my best friend from Hebron. The one who had lived anyway. Nikki had died of bone cancer, but Rinny had lived, and now she was calling me from India to tell me that her highschool boyfriend had overdosed. I felt like a sponge oversaturated with stinking sink water, memories and emotions I had flushed down the drain now filled me without my consent.
Another overdose. This fate, this pointless, pathetic, arrogant fate was the norm for my generation of white middle class kids in Connecticut. While we were still in highschool at least one student a year would either crash a car or blow too many lines, and every couple years after graduation another foul occurrence would follow. My mouth was a metallic mix of memories and sleep. I didn’t give a shit about Curly, but my heart ached for Rinny. I felt the pain in her voice as it floated around the world and into my ear. I could smell her hair. I wanted to hold her.
She and Curly had broken up nearly ten years ago but had kept in touch, I don’t know why. After college she left the east coast and chased a dream of being a pediatric nurse, caught it and found herself empty. Then she wandered through Colorado to ski and climb and hike with the hippies. She crashed, got a concussion and found herself truly empty. Finally Rinny left the US, left her nursing job and pile of antidepressants for some yoga retreat in India to try and feel again, the pain and the mundane and eventually, hopefully, to feel pleasure too. She planned for a month and had now stayed a year, mirroring my own relationship to Berlin. But even in India our small town demons found her, persistent like a bratty kid who always gets what he wants.
Rinny and I would paint rocks together the last years before our teens. We would go for walks through the hay fields just around the bend from her home. We sought out these quiet spaces and one another’s company. There was a fluidity between us. She too felt like the outsider. Rinny and I had found in one another a refuge.
My two best friends, Rinny and Nikki, they overlapped in my life just a little. Nikki was integrated into a social world I just could not reach. She was at the front of the pack during cross country. She joined the swim team and soccer too. She sprinted in the direction of my sister, of team camaraderie, confidence, and strength, sprinted toward that life right up to the minute she died at 15, a brutal metal trip line pulled taut across her track. Maybe Rinny saved me. If I had had only Nikki when she died I might have just fallen down the rabbit hole. Maybes are pointless. Rinny didn’t save my life, but she transformed it, terraformed it some might say.
I can hear Rinny’s laugh, an uninhibited cackle without the witches intentions. We became true explorers together when she invited me to join her and her father in Italy. “Papa V”, I called him, was a property developer in Miami. A tall muscular Italian-American with impeccable, promiscuous taste. Rinny and I could talk to him about sex and he poured us wine with dinner. I became the adoptive daughter on a trip to Rome, Venice and Lake Como. What a lucky bitch.
The memories of that voyage are like slides falling into a projector, nostalgic and beautiful, captured and timeless. Venetian light spilling through the window in the morning, so golden it felt liquid. Rinny wrapped in white robes. The perfume of rose soap and the crinkle of its patterned paper as I unwrapped it. We drank Bellinis and espresso and smoked Romeo and Juliets. We enjoyed the attention of older men who whistled at our youthful bodies and entertained ourselves by completely ignoring them. Like Fragonard’s Rococo painting, Rinny and I swung side by side, reveling in a world far beyond our small town life.
I could not expect the shift I would experience upon returning from the trip, but now its looming approach is so clear. Day to day life in Hebron went from simply being bland to feeling like sandpaper on my skin. The strip mall downtown, multiple cars parked in driveways, a sea of jeans and baseball hats, it all disgusted me. My walks through the forests and fields were not enough anymore. Before the trip their atmosphere would linger in me, but now I was unable to pull their whimsy through the day. I was only at ease when in these bubbles of beauty, or when venturing to manifest their quality through drawing or writing. Or with Rinny. Especially when she laughed.
We were comrades and prisoners after curfew, held against our will in our parents homes. Within our weekend cells Rinny and I would fake sleep until the blue hour when the mourning dove began its song, then we would join nature, pull out a stash of weed and smoke until the world was new. I remember laying on my back on the bed next to Rinny once, the cloud of high hitting me hard as I looked into my floor-length mirror, our faces upside down. Our chins were our foreheads, our foreheads were laughing, and for the first time I understood how plastic perception was.
I suppose it was inevitable that those early morning voyages would begin to turn toward one another. I can remember the allure of kissing Rinny in contrast to what I was doing with guys at the time. There was a softness as we held one another. There was no power play. I found in those kisses a pleasure without any recognition of the outside world. They were more beautiful than staying at the Bellagio. Since childhood, warm hands in moist dirt planting delicate seedling roots, I had not felt such contentment.
I was sitting in a papasan chair between two open windows in the corner of my bedroom, the walls a buttery yellow, muted in the blueness of pre-dawn. Old Smoke Road lay lazily outside, a random car rolled by, cricket and spring peeper calls thickened the silence. Rinny sat on top of me, kissing, holding. Then abruptly she let the outside world in. A violent flood. I do not know what changed, what I did, why that moment was the moment she felt we had gone to far. She pulled away and looked at me with a furrowed brow. “I am not a lesbian you know.” Through shame and fear I was muted. Why this label? Why did it matter? Was I a lesbian?I felt like nothing at all.
She shrunk me down, down, down, until a tiny fearful me tugged the carpet up and over, and stashed away a part of myself for what would end up being sixteen years. The crickets and the spring peepers grew louder and louder. Rinny and I pulled away from one another and indulged in our equally horrible boyfriends. G was violent and cheated on me and Rinny’s boyfriend would end up overdosing. She was in India, and would call me in Berlin. “ Ali. I am sorry. I wish you could hold me...”
Jan 27 X ∆Big Sister
I was ten and Bekki was thirteen, brave, and beautiful. She had blond, curly hair, a tall, elegant figure just like our grandmother, and above all she emanated a distinctive strength which was all her own. Just after Jane Goodall, Bekki was my biggest idol. In the fall of that year Bekki made an announcement to the family while we sat around the dinner table. She said that the softball team did not take the game seriously enough so she would join the boys and play baseball.
Spring arrived and atop the pitcher’s mound she stood, divine and in control, presiding over a bunch of clowns who had not yet hit puberty. Her form was a practiced smooth stroke, hand extending behind, sweeping above to summon a strong forearm and defined bicep, finishing with a powerful snapping of the wrist. It was more a dance than a pitch. The ball a simple continuation of her body. I was a spectator to her show, peering through a chain linked fence from my perch on metal bleachers, a pile of pens and paper before me.
She made it all look easy, the game and the team building. So I followed in Bekki’s footsteps, aided by an overconfident and persistent push from my father. Three years later, with visions of glory in my mind, I found myself in the batter’s box waiting for mean faced boys to strike me out. Boys, who in my sister’s shadow had appeared insignificant, were now terrifying. I stepped up to the plate countless times throughout one endless season. Strike three! Strike three! Strike three!
I was a little girl surrounded by a bunch of bullies and I struck out every single time. At home, in the garage my father would pitch to me each night. There, I was not great but I was good, or I could at least hit the damn ball. Somehow though, when I stepped out the door I was smaller, nervous, weak. It was a spell I had no control over, and it took this season-long spectacle of humiliation for me to decide, once and for all, I would not play by the boy’s rules ever again. I needed to create my own game.
Little did I know my creation, with its rules based around indulgent revenge on the so called opposite sex, would be at the expense of Bekki during our overlapping year in high school. She was in the prime of her athletic pursuits and I was pissed off, alone and sculpting a body which the boys no longer laughed at. I had found my tool, sex, and I lost my virginity. I knew right away though that this simple, passive sentence was a lie. I threw my virginity away and it was easy. It meant nothing. I started using my body the way the boys did, with power. I enjoyed these insects as they clumsily flicked themselves into my fabricated web.
It was all much more satisfying than being the loser on some sports team but my forte blinded me to Bekki’s predicament. As I was pushing my body into realms where I was told it was not yet allowed to be, she was all plagued by rumors of her little slut sister. Chuckles I enjoyed, echoing in the humid high school hallway, she despised.
It was late spring and the end of the school year gleamed with tangible proximity. I waited on a stretch of asphalt for Bekki. While she had been training on a perfectly groomed field, I had been fucking in the bed of a truck behind 7-11. The whole scene was stereotypical of the suburban dream gone wrong. Everyone had a bit of property, everyone drove, you were a jock, a redneck or a junkie, and if you weren’t one of these you were worse, the conundrum outcast. Detached, I watched myself in the back of that truck from above, momentarily entertained, a temporal, lustful island in a sea of ethical predictability and blandness.
The local trend of buying pickup trucks allowed for a convenient sexual setup. I could be on top and actually almost get off. I pushed the guy’s face into the bed of the Ford. This surprised him and he liked it. I just didn’t want to see his ugly lips curl as he came. I rolled off of him, arching my back, hips in the air as I pulled tight jeans over wet skin. I bought a Snapple apple drink and walked back toward the school, my thighs aching and knees beginning to bruise. The feeling of power shed itself with each step though, and I eventually returned to an uninspired and unimpressed state of mind.
Bekki must have seen it on my face or in my hair. She looked at me like I had broken her heart. “So they are true ha, the rumors?” “YEP!” I told her triumphantly, summoning the last bit of power which had been resting on my hip bone. Her lips curled, much like the guy’s, an immediate reaction to some primal emotion. I thought for a moment, and hoped, that she would hit me. That her strong arm would finally go to some actual use rather than just throwing stupid balls. But she held back and simply stared. I looked into a face full of disgust and pity and could not fathom why she cared so much. I cared too, that her gaze made me feel increasingly weak. I turned and walked away, escaping a mixtape of begging and crying. The power in me expanded slightly and I convinced myself of another triumph over an unexpected foe.
The two sisters, bad and good, brunette and blond, floated around the small town, allowing and trusting that their opposite currents would ensure a safe distance between them. At home I locked myself away with a stash of weed and incense, books and paint. I could continue to play powerful as long as I did not have to look Bekki in the eye.
And then in a bold move that I still have respect for, Bekki knocked on my door one day. “You beat me to it, I’m still a virgin you bitch.” she said. “It’s not all that great, you can trust me on that.” I mumbled. Bekki glared. Then her face softened. “I don’t want to trust you on that. You probably didn’t realize, but I am actually dating someone. I have no idea what to do Ali. I mean, with him.”
So, with the help of a cucumber I taught my older sister how to suck cock, and we laughed together, aloud. A fear I had of her, and of myself, dissipated slightly and I started to get to know Bekki as an actual person, not a sister, an idol, or an antagonist.
Feb 3 XI ∆The Room
A few years before Nikki accidentally but honestly told her best friend about rape and sex in one quick, sharp blow, I was watching Dallas with my mother and father. I was too young to follow the storyline but that didn’t matter. I was just happy to sit with my father, my back on his chest, nestled between his legs on the floor not far from the television. A commercial break came on, colors and music, shiny things and happy people, always happy people. There were two beautiful woman drinking coffee on a soft white sofa, talking talking talking, not noticing the time going by. The scene cut to one woman holding a small white object and she said, "Tampons, feels like silk, protects like always!".
It looked nice, like something Nikki and I might play with someday. I asked my parents, my eyes still on the screen, “What is that?”. My father’s body shifted and tensed and my mother tersely said, “I’ll talk to you about it someday”. They were silent until Dallas resumed. I felt a hardness in my throat. I had done something wrong. And I knew I had done something wrong because my mother never talked to me about tampons. The same went for sex. Except for once, when she talked about what not to do.
Bekki was there to help me put my first tampon in. She knew the oddity and pain of the action, of pushing that dry, rough cylinder into a place, a depth, I had never touched before. And Bekki was there a few years later when our mother called us both into her room. We found her perched on the edge of the bed, already in mid-sentence about how on Friends everyone was sleeping with someone different each night. Bekki and I were allowed to watch Friends but our show choice was accompanied by the weight of our mother’s audible disapproval which really killed the vibe.
Our mother abruptly shifted to explaining how oral sex is just as bad as ‘normal’ sex. That it is also dangerous and that it too should be reserved for after marriage. No room for discussion, no room for questions. I felt absurd, sitting where I sat, listening to these words, as my mind wandered to an image from just the day before, of my legs wrapped around the trunk of a muscular pale body, our hair of almost the same shade mixing together. I felt myself get a little wet and then swung back to the present moment. Mother prudishly in front of us sisters, talking about what not to do in the future, about fear and disease and right and wrong. I wish I had had the guts to ask her, “what about pleasure?”.
My parents finally found out I was having sex when Rinny’s mother read her diary. How fucked up that I was caught in the end because of Rinny, the one who turned me away from women, the one who had broken my heart. But no one knew that story. My father was irate and my mother sad and nervous. They never asked me how I felt, why I did what I did. It was all just blame and punishment fed by bullshit puritanism which hung over the northeast like smog, choking the sense out of people.
My mother began going to church again which she had not done for years. Surprising us both, she convinced me to join her one weekend. I only agreed because I was starving for another perspective, because I was interested in hearing the female minister speak. I knew Andrée vaguely from yoga class. We both attended on Thursday evenings, the one studio in town.
Half way between Old Smoke Road and the center of town, at the crest of a hill surrounded by cornfields, sits the antique congregational church. It is white adorned with green shutters, one modest steeple and two rows of straight backed pews. The congregation itself was also white, lower to upper middle class nuclear families and the first three rows were spilling over with their offspring. I focused on Andrée, summoning all my energy to cancel out the chatter of predictability prodding at my nerves. Andrée was middle aged and I found her attractive in an unassuming way. She opened her mouth and a spring of parables surrounding Mother Mary flowed from her in a subdued voice. She animated the young woman’s plight; pregnant, without consent, and with the pressure of God upon her to raise the son of God himself. Andrée plucked Mary from the throne and sat her right there next to me. A young, poor, single mother, who to the majority must have appeared as a simple slut.
I bought Andrée’s story completely. I was onboard. My mother had me, or could have had me, if she had just stopped there. It was the end of the sermon and Andrée asked the congregation if anyone needed spiritual support. Many people raised their hands, waited their turn, asked for prayers for a dying grandmother or for help after a surgery. I was lost in thought, trying to hold on to a sentence from Andrée’s storytelling, one perfect line which had given me goosebumps.
My concentration was interrupted. My mother was squeezing my hand and asking for guidance for her daughter who was going through hard times. My body tensed. Eyes on me, publicly shamed, everyone looking at the poor child who has been taken by the devil’s way. She did not know, but my mother accomplished an architectural feat that day. She built a wall around me which she would end up spending many years attempting to enter, whether through bombardments or knocking, or taking it down brick, questions, by brick, true interest. This last tactic, in the end did work.
That day though, I turned myself into that devil they believed in. Before I had kept it civil. I had done what I wanted behind my parents backs. Now I ran rampant. I drove home drunk and stoned, snuck out, fucked as much as I could whenever and wherever I could. There were tears and pleas and an anger in my father’s eyes which I had never witnessed before.
On New Year's eve my brother arrived in the driveway. I never asked why he decided to return to Hebron when he should have been partying with his cadet buddies. I had taken over his bedroom when he moved out and that is where he found me, holed up, surprised I too was not out with friends. I had nothing left though, no more fight, I was tired. I opted that night for the two things I knew where stable, my body and my mind. I was drawing alone after having done a Cindy Crawford workout video, alone. The gym was closed for the damn holiday. When Levi asked what was wrong, what had happened, my father’s presence outside the bedroom door was revealed. “Go on” he prompted, “tell Levi what you have done!”. A triumphant note rang in his voice. I said nothing and Levi didn’t ask.
Levi told me that night, how he had spent many evenings alone in this room as well, wanting to go out, wanting to be at the party. He was strong and handsome and was indeed invited. But he told me how he was too nervous, too intimidated. He admitted to how much effort it took just to get out of this room in the morning. He told me how most nights he opted for a book, but detested himself as he read it. He told me he wrote. He did not offer to share anything and I did not ask.
Levi and I sat together that night in the room I had painted yellow, reading and writing and drawing. Our parents sat downstairs, father on the floor, mother on the couch, watching the celebrations at Time Square as the ball dropped and another year began.
Feb 10 XII ∆Failed Dreams
Up Old Smoke Road and to the right lay the scene of a failed dream, an abandoned settlement. Now a vast state forest, some two hundred years ago a religious sect had isolated itself there, deep within the rolling wooded land. I would explore their traces, a puzzle to be put together with so few pieces that begged to be discovered in the dirt and amidst the trees, that the image which slowly formed was plentiful with holes. Holes I could fill in. Fill-ins which I could transform and tweak, an ever evolving fantasy, dark and beautiful.
The foundation of a paper mill with huge cut rock to direct a river’s flow... a lone chimney without a house only front steps... The stones chosen and placed by ghosts were experiencing a slow osmosis of color, roots and bark stained them, sun bleached them, and they had almost disappeared into new growth, just like their builders.
After five years of not living on Old Smoke Road I chose to move back. I needed money to make another escape. I needed to build up potential energy, to be still and patient until the rope could be cut and I would launch myself far far away. So I had returned to this in between space, situating myself in a limbo of time and place, neither the great American wilderness nor the great American city, rather the suburbs. The safe space for some people, between two polar opposites of adventure. A space I had grown to see as the beginning of the end of the American dream. But I could save money there, living in my parents house, and I knew I could survive at least a few months as long as I made frequent trips to the state forest.
I would walk up Old Smoke Road, and then down its steep side, take a sharp right and enter the forest through a thin prairie-like stretch dotted with scrawny pines. I had mapped out an hour and a half loop which became my morning meditation; across the dam, along a low ridge with a panorama of the pond, down into a gully, through a grove of pines, swinging an arc northeastward around the pond to return home past an enormous boulder covered in soft pale-green lichens.
That winter was like those from my childhood, the snow fell often, remained crisp and accumulated. It was the type of snow which allowed for extensive building projects and a hard packed sledding lane in the front yard. That was a good winter for childhood, not for a minimum wage waitressing job a twenty minutes drive away. My morning walks became ammunition, an ammunition stockpiled against the growing fear that I actually might never escape.
Though I was a grown woman, my mother worried about my solitary trek. She worried about men lurking in the woods. She worried that I would slip and fall and freeze to death. But I left each morning in silence, not addressing her concerns. I would not engage with the defensive maneuvers she was preparing, a tactic, I suspected, to keep me from my ammunition.
I had made it halfway through my loop. The pine grove lay just behind me, a stretch where the air felt a bit more moist and sound was muted by a mattress of needles tucked in beneath the thick duvet of snow. I turned the corner into unobstructed morning sunlight and hit a wall of silence and stillness. My eyes found the carcass. Half eaten, the blood spread around it, staining the white ground a surprising pink. Not a solid shape of blood puddling out from flesh, but droplets, a spraying of blood. The movement of the predator could clearly be read in the fresh snow. The carcass was half eaten. I had scared it away. I had interrupted a meal.
Fight or flight failed me and I froze, useless against nature, untamed both in my mind and in the scene before me. I contemplated returning the way I had come but my stomach resisted the atmosphere of the pine grove. Instead, like a mime I pathetically attempted to make clear to the animal whose jaws had pulled all hide and muscle to the point of unrecognition, that I did not want to steal from it, that I was not a threat to its hunger.
I left the path and found myself in a wide stretch of younger trees. I saw how they were slowly filling in the space between four rock walls. These were the failed fields last harvested in the early 1800’s. A community dead or disseminated existed only in the boundary lines they had drawn, now disregarded, laughed at by nature. My stockpile of ammunition combusted in my mind’s eye.
I lay down in the snow and allowed my flat body to be dwarfed even by the youngest of the saplings. I lay in silence, my breath and heart slowed and in an opposite slowness the forest sounds and movements built themselves back up. Nature disregarded me and continued balancing itself out, growing and decomposing, without discrimination or interpretation.
Feb 17 Part III, XIII ∆Big Brother
In the few years after Levi left for the Academy we grew close, something which surprised both of us in the process. After that New Year’s Eve he would continue to come home on random weekends. My sister was at university so it was just us two in the big house on Old Smoke Road after my parents would retire to bed. Levi and I would drive to the movie theater stopping at Dunkin Donuts on the way home, the only place still open. The trip took thirty minutes and in those accumulated hours we discovered just how confined, almost quarantined the other had felt growing up in the suburbs. We recognized each other’s anxiety. Once it was unearthed, Levi and I had each other’s backs. We knew each other’s driving force because it was our own.
And so, we both ended up the black sheep of the family. We both moved out of the country, Levi heading off to far crazier locations than I. It seemed that each act of our defying expectations would surpass the other’s last. Stealing the momentary focus from our parents, we divided up their worry and pressure. We were allies even though we barely saw one another.
The doorbell buzzed, a loud flat sound wave cutting through my concentration. I had moved into a flat share after leaving my husband. There were four of us. A set designer, a computer programmer, a scientist turned tour guide and me, artist, bar manager, foreigner… lost. The bell rang again. It was late on a Tuesday morning. I was home alone working on a drawing. I buzzed in the mundane mystery person, expecting a postman wanting me to sign for packages. Leaving the door ajar I returned to my workroom and stared at the drawing. It was almost done. I tended to go too far, not knowing quite when to stop until the moment was clearly past. A reclining figure’s eyes were turned downward, reading. She floated in space, Chagall-esque if he had only stuck to black rather than picking up pastels. I lost myself for a moment.
A deep voice filled the space behind me. “It’s done, don’t touch it.” I turned, stunned. There stood Levi. “I got stuck in Frankfurt flying back to Uzbekistan, so I thought I would pop over and check in on my little sister”. He had never been to Berlin, though I had lived there for seven years. The last time I had seen him was in Portugal with our parents, the year before. We fell back into our comfort zone like a book slipping back into its place on the shelf.
“Want to take a bike ride and drinks some beers in a park?”, I said. “As long as it’s not shitty Russian beer I’m happy”, he laughed. I stuck Levi on my roommate’s bike, far too small for his long legs. He clambered down the path beside me, giggling at himself. His laugh was like a child invader in that huge muscular body and highly intelligent mind. It was pure freedom and delight. I watched him and a hard rock appeared in my throat. I had never been so grateful for someone to come check in on me.
“For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation… Love is a high inducement to the individual to ripen, to become something in himself, to become world for himself for another’s sake, it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things.” Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet/The Possibility of Being”
I had asked Levi to read these words five years earlier at my wedding. They read like a premonition now. I loved the person I was about to marry but he did not know the whole me. I needed him to, but I was too scared to pull back that same carpet, to show him that part of me which Rinny had shrunk down, that part of me which Hebron had taught me was impossible to be. That in-between me, neither straight nor gay, female nor male, right nor wrong, just Ali.
The end of our marriage began with my resentment for my husband’s ignorance. I started using my body like a teenager again. I cheated every chance I got and I hated that he didn’t notice, that he didn’t even suspect.
Feb 24 XIV ∆K
I got off the train at a station I had never been. A residential area a few stops north, beyond the ringbahn. I was nervous but I was not scared. I was excited to see the man I had met just the day before. The man who had rode the train with me to my own home station that same morning, soon after the sun had risen. We had danced all night together and he held me with his blue eyes and sing song way of speaking English, yes like a songbird. He had kissed me, my face held in two extremely soft hands. He asked if he could cook for me that evening, after we had both slept. I accepted his invitation and here I was, waiting for him to meet me at Wollankstrße train station.
The minutes kept passing. I was more nervous than I could ever remember. Ten minutes now. Was this a joke? What was I doing out here, in a new city, at a strange station, waiting for someone I barely knew? I was ready to turn around when I caught a glimpse of his hat in the distance, rushing around a corner. His hat, like a hat Papas used to wear, like a news boy hat, K wore with a very distinctive tilt, slightly lower and angled toward his left ear.
K’s hands were covered in flour and he was speaking at me from a block’s distance away. I could not hear him, but I could see the concern in his body and the honesty in his step. He was panicking that he was late. As he came closer, I listened to the songbird sing to me that he had lost track of time. That he was making me ravioli and that the dough was too sticky, but that the carrots baked with honey had turned out perfectly. I took his hand in mine and he stopped speaking. He smiled.
That night, after a meal which we ate on the cement floor of a balcony in the cool spring air, K led me to a park. I was amazed at how dark the Berlin nights were. The skyline was low and it was easy to find true nature in this city, dense woods filled with dirt you could smell and foxes which darted but which also stopped at times to take a long look at the creature which was peering back.
K brought me to the park which he walked through as a child. When the Wall was still up, before his father had left for work in the west and had never returned. A park which led to his grandmother’s apartment. A park which felt like a fairytale to me, filled with roses and a meandering stream called the Panke. It was imbued with his memories of family and childhood, of happiness when happiness was all there was, and I felt in him a sense of home.
Mar 10 XIV ∆Mosaics
Levi’s unannounced visit to Berlin instilled a pull in me. It was as if he had left a chunk of iron somewhere in my daily life, and he was holding a magnet. I was drawn toward my older brother, toward a space where I knew few people and few people knew me, toward Usbekistan by default or by destiny. In Frankfurt the flight was boarded in an orderly fashion, a single file snaked itself across damp tarmac. Arriving into the Tashkent night I entered a completely foreign degree of commotion. Flocks of missionaries in white garb grappled for cardboard boxes and armed men road the baggage carousel like it was the back of some beast courageously slain. Were their automatic weapons poised ready to protect themselves, the goods, the arriving masses? I had not idea. And I heard no English, just a swirling of tones which adeptly served my desire for a cushion of uncontroversial isolation.
I pulled my eyes away from the shuffling of leather and rubber and boxes and they fell upon the one motionless structure in a room full of charged particles. A column of muscle and authority faced my direction. It smiled, disclosing small gaps between square teeth. I instinctively moved toward the strong hug with a rough patting on the back which I knew awaited me. This rare hug made me feel both small and safe. Levi drove me to his home with such casualness we nearly could have been heading towards Old Smoke Road. Rather, we entered a compound situated on the corner of two dirt paths. Inside the walls lived a family of introverts who choreographed their own soft bustling of independent actions; A piano was played, history and picture books were piled, perused through and shifted, records turned, and the smell of coffee was sustained. Inside those walls was a sort of home I had never witnessed and one which I fell easily into.
The days spent in Usbekistan were a balanced flow of input and output. I sought out complexes of worship, silk workshops, and paper mills; places that are the products of hands and minds, the grand and modest, the genuine and handsome. I drew everything and trusted words would follow. I had not been filled with such constant inspiration since venturing to Italy some fifteen years earlier, my deprived American roots perpetually thirsty for cultures that valued craftsmanship, that built spaces where the mind and soul could sit alone with itself, nothing to buy, nothing to do.
Toward the end of my visit I travelled to Bukhara, together with my sister-in-law. The journey was a rare gift. She had not had a night away from the children since her first was born seven years ago. The destination, a now quiet crossroads between two continents, felt befitting for both of our emotional states, parched and weary. I was admittedly becoming numb to the intricate mosaics that fronted each of the region’s religious complexes. Their pattern work was labyrinthian, a terrain of ever shifting hues and angles. When I looked into them I became lost, further and further from the surface and from myself. I had to walk away, walk by, or I would never walk on. We were approaching the end of a sweltering day of wanderings, my gait a submitting plod, when we came upon the madrasah which punctuates the Lyab-i Hauz complex. I felt it’s shadow overtake me as my eyes rose expectantly, preparing for another wall of geometry. Courageously, two phoenixes deified me, defied the Hadith, and defied centuries of enforced and accepted tradition. They swam inward and upward, in the direction of a sun with a face, in the direction of each other. Flowers and vines swirled around them seemingly springing from their fertile wakes.
A hardness formed in my throat. I stood in front of the mystical beasts in a mystical place, so far from home, and I smiled to myself and to the spirit of the artist, to the sustained determination to create and to disobey. I felt the place below that hardness in my throat begin to fill up, a place that I had been doubting still existed inside of me. A place I was sure I had ruined when I smashed the potential for love. A place I was drowning in alcohol, an attempt to halt the paining of the mind and the heart.
The very first time K came to my flat, he brought along a sunflower. One single bloom of tightly nestled petals on a thick stalk. I loved his offering. I felt seen and understood. I look back and perceive our time together as a mosaic. Tiles form a story of shared places, shared smells, and tastes, and views. That sunflower is the first of the flora-tiles. A tile placed by my hand, dirt under my fingernails and on my palms. The homemade ravioli and honey-roasted carrots were K’s first tile, a nourishment-tile, placed by his hand, dough under his fingernails and flour on his palms. These two acts of gardening and cooking are how we built our home together. From each of us a sincere expressions of our trust in the relationship.
Our vast mosaic lives vivid in my mind. This mosaic springs from K’s childhood park and spreads southward across Berlin. It is intricate, asymmetrical, and dominated by the crisp blue of K’s eyes. On its south-east corner are two gray punctuations. A last dinner eaten in silence and without the memory of taste, and a small cypress I had attempted to form into a bonsai. I left that cypress to die on our terrace, on the November day on which I left K. A hard ache in my abdomen had allied with my mind and my heart in the night. Their poison gas of lies, and guilt, and self inflicted punishment advanced over my body, a battlefield taken. I had no fight, I had no hope. I surrendered. I took a bag and left a note in our kitchen. I walked out the door and immediately began moving toward another life, a completely different life. A survival instinct.
We had been together for six years. I had wanted to give K the marriage his parents never had. I wanted to be his home. I wanted this so much that I forgot for a while about that part of me I had hid from Rinny, under the carpet on Old Smoke Road. I thought it was just a fantasy. Nothing worth looking at. But that part was always there, calling, suffocating, hating being hidden, and consequently hating itself. A poisonous seed had been sown.
Mar 17 XV ∆The Storm
The cherry sapling bobbed precariously in the strong wind, every now and again scratching at the window. Like an oven door being opened, the front end of a summer storm blasted Berlin with a wall of thin, hot air. After a week of thirty degree heat, the sky finally split open. I watched the storm from our living room. My husband, K, still at work, was in some type of a parallel, unending storm of testosterone and stress, the accepted equilibrium for a chef.
I unlatched the terrace lock and the wind, with an impatient violence, thrust the french doors toward me. Accepting the front row seat to my own private storm show, I pulled over K’s wooden rocking chair, the one he had salvaged off some then dingy, East Berlin working class street. Sinking into the soft, worn rattan, Thor took center stage just before me, a monologue of guttural sounds which shook my own stomach. He hung there, enticingly, almost mockingly, before carrying on, inching eastward across Berlin.
All the while the rain fell heavy, fat drops like big wet slugs slapping on the asphalt one story below. I looked down and noticed my feet covered in a soft spray of water which had been bouncing horizontally through the door. My toes had curled, turned on by the touch. I tried to indulge in my senses, pleading the restless mind to turn off. I breathed deep. There was no summer storm smell though, perhaps even that unique aroma had been burnt by the heat.
A blue cracking of light finally transported me back many years to a summer storm my mother and I had become stuck in. We were driving home at dusk along a lone avenue cutting through a hay field. The scene which stretched before us was bucolic, a symmetry to be enjoyed as a painting hung above the sofa. The storm snuck up behind us, three elements suddenly clashing, electricity, our metal station wagon, and a few scattered trees. My mother panicked when the radio cut to a warning signal, a long high-pitched beep, some leftover prop from the 50’s. We pulled over, surrendering to the river running down our front windshield.
Again the radio cut out, the high-pitched beep replaced by a robotic voice prompting the public to stay indoors, to not drive… and lastly prompting all who were stuck outside to, “Hide in a culvert or ditch!”. This was the only time I have ever heard the word culvert actually spoken. My mother and I laughed at the absurdity and at our own frailty. We gave into a stomach wrenching laugh that fed off one another, the years and the constructed roles between us were momentarily washed away, just two people holding each other’s hands.
I swung back to the present moment, in Berlin, alone, wishing to tell this story to my husband. Wishing to share the storm with him, wishing to share anything with him. The cherry sapling scratched at the window, beckoning me. Its supple trunk bounced up for a moment, somewhat comically, to only be plowed down by a wind now being sucked toward the storm which reverberated in the east.
The relentless wind and heat was like nails on slate. The air was electric, my fine, pale arm hair stood on end, waiting. I could not stand my own body, and our flat, a second inescapable barrier, mocked me in all its pointless beauty. Standing abruptly, the rocking chair mirrored me, its gesture absurd in a room full inanimate objects. I stepped into the rain, into movement and nature. The breath rushed out of me. There was no culvert or ditch or hand or laughter in the space of my relationship to K anymore. There was no energy for an inhale, just complete emptiness.
I grabbed the cherry sapling, crushing a few kerry green leaves, their tender yet sharp edges crunching in my palm. With one mad movement I thrust it downward, further than the wind had dared. The persistent thing did not break, but rather splintered, a grouping of stubborn vertical strands stood upright, more erect than before. It disgusted me.
I dragged the waterlogged mass inside, both of us dripping, a trail of footprints, dirt and leaves threading through the living room, hallway and foyer, ending in a puddle in the kitchen. Snatching K’s Japanese filleting knife with one swing I brought down the tree. The elegant branches slumped toward the linoleum floor, caught partially on the terracotta pot, and only then did I notice a soft pinkness pushing itself out between bark and leaf. I detested myself. Disgust and contempt soured my stomach.
Mar 24 XVI ∆Gravity
Sitting side by side seemed too far. So, to the cool floor I moved, to the space between your feet. Quite instantly your body reacted to mine, a twitch followed by a folding. You closed around me, strong legs that already knew me pulled themselves inwards. You bent over to whisper in my ear, “Thank you for sharing this with me”. The words fell like an envelope closing around a letter heavy with confessions.
You knew I needed to hear those words. You knew the significance of what had shifted since the last time I had sat before this person and had listened to them sing. There had been a continental drift. They came from the Isle of Wight and carried the whole of the sea in their voice. It was clear to us all, nature spoke through this siren, their lungs and tongue were just borrowed for the time being.
Eleven months had dissolved into what we call the past since I had last heard the siren sing. Nearly a year ago I had sat alone in a crowd, quaking from the voice of the sea. It sliced through my pain for the length of an exhale. A fleeting interrupt to my anxiety which had become more of a companion than my husband.
A dependent daily scenario was my goodnight ritual. Returning late, feeling the lock heavy in the door, two turns meant the apartment was empty, the bed was empty, and I would take one more swig of whiskey, I would fall asleep drunk, I would not wake for his return and I would not look to the cold light of my phone to know the hour.
The loss of his love, his response to my masked resentment, ate a hole in my stomach. I could have easily hated a woman if he was fucking her. He was not though, rather he was addicted to work itself. Work fulfilled him more than his wife, and he indulged in it. The brutality of fourteen hours in a kitchen, full of men and impatience and pressure was his worth and his delight. I could have stabbed a woman in her back, turned the knife and watched her beauty bleed out of veins, but the kitchen he worked in was full of knives and I was out numbered. We had failed each other.
The sea sung to me that night eleven months ago. Its waves pounding my body, and I gave up. I gave in, I would leave my husband. I let out my breath and sunk to the bottom of the ocean floor. Deadly still and almost silent, a great weight held me down. Looking up I saw the surface raging. Such an incredible contrast existed. My feet pushed off the ancient sea floor, pushed off of millions of creatures long dead and turned to nutrient rich muck. By some shaman means their ugliness gifted me an energy and I was propelled upwards toward that boundary line. I broke the surface and filled my lungs with an air that was not sweet, but was indeed truthful in its pungency.
Between your legs I breath in the sound and smell of the sea. We call each other meteors. What we thought was our life was in actuality a collision course. We did not know the violence, and the pain, and the chaos which had to ensue so that two bits of planetary rock might find a common gravity. Up until that evening was all just preparation, so that when we came into one another's proximity, we would recognize the pull, we would give into natural law, shed ego and fear and learned norms, and allow our orbit to create itself. “Joy is joy is joy” you wrote on the last page of my book, and with that you returned me to myself.
Mar 31 XVII ∆Through the Black Hole
I'm in a dark space full of energy. It is pulsating through my body. I recognize that this energy which I feel and hear is sound. I feel my heartbeat in my fingertips. I start to perceive movement. The hairs on my arms sense velocity. Something very close is moving by me very fast. Or am I moving, on train tracks, an engine all my own? I am looking straight ahead, into blackness, and I am witnessing the extreme movement through my peripheral vision, my skin and my stomach.
Then I recognize and address fear. My trust falls away. I turn my head to search for more understanding. I am instantly impacted on my right side. I am thrust to the left and again I am thrown into unknown surfaces. My balance is gone. My center is gone. Out of control and unaware of itself, I am a sock in a dryer. I try and search for a focus. Like a dancer spinning, returning her eyes to a point straight ahead, I glimpse for a moment, and remember the blackness. I return my gaze to a frontal position and attempt to accept the whipping sensation around me. I search for the dark. I find it. I look into it. I move into it. Again, I am stable. I am balanced amidst movement, I am moving amidst balance. I trust this, and I start to relax into the sensation. It is exquisite.
Eventually. I am pulled backwards, out of the black space. I sense surfaces forming at my sides. I begin to decipher their form, their density. They are two walls. I am emerging from an in-between space, just a crack. An ignored and dismissed space. I am again amidst people, places, things to do and get done. At times I catch sight of negative spaces, gaps of disuse, and I know I have been there, what exists there, that I can go there.
I hear the Black Hole’s power of gravity buzzing a low tone. It pulls at my arm hairs. It grips my whole body, at times it entices me around the corner of daily life. I peek at and ponder the fall into it. The Black Hole amplifies both sound and silence and the heartbeat in my chest. I trust it will reveal itself and I will choose to fall in, for the Black Hole exists in the awareness of the potential of negative space, the ignored space, the too rarely trodden territory. And it does reveal itself.
I squat with my back to a concrete wall, hips open, resting my body, stretching my body. I am in the middle of an endless crowd of black sheep. A space filled with beings yet also an organism in itself. After many visits I have found that if I open to its flow, this space will lead me with its energy. It will bring me in contact with exactly what I need.
Here I am, stretching my back from base to neck, stretching out the compression from a night of bartending, stretching out the constricted muscles which have been pushing menstrual blood toward the earth. The top of my head finds the wall as my hips push forward, a deep arch in my back and in this position the very crown of my skull received the bass of the whole building, the whole structure, the whole organism.
The guttural vibrations which have been hiding in the walls enter me. A new method reveals itself to me, to experience sound, to experience the movement of atoms, to experience them entering my body not through air but directly from solid to bone. The wall, a boundary, an obstacle, divulges to me that it is permeable, a flowing current. I accept, I allowed this surge to enter me, to open me up and my ego leaves. I let it go, and experienced joy is joy is joy.
There is a Star Trek episode where Kirk and the rest of the landing party are mistakenly transported to an alternate universe during an ion storm. The Kirk we are familiar with finds himself in a universe where Naziism persists, where hate has triumphed over love. In this universe Kirk is constantly under attack, his own crew attempting to murder their captain, to steal his rank. Everyone is prey or predator. No one can be trusted.
It took me thirty one years to recognize the Black Hole, to recognize that I had already traveled through it as a child. It took me thirty one years to understand that I had once been lost in an alternate hate universe, but that I was now back home. It took me thirty one years to recognize my reactions were rooted in this memory of attack, of attempted murder of the true self.
Many in this home universe have tried to convince me to trust them, to coerce me out of the corner I was backed into. I was always terrified by the hands which were reaching for me, coming at me. I did not know these hands moved from a place of love. All I saw was attack, all I felt was fear, all I could offer back was to defend myself. Like a dog that has been beaten, I lashed out.
Your hands, my meteor, they were the most patient of any. With them came whispers, reassurance that what I felt was real, but not always true. I was terrified when you told me I am not under attack. I was terrified when you told me I was doing this to myself. That my mind was reacting to an internal reality, a memory. I fought to preserve my universe, because I could not believe that this pain was self inflicted.
Your whispers told me I was not crazy to be scared, scared to be alone with my thoughts and scared of the people surrounding me. Your whispers and two hands, my meteor, persisted. Finally, I gave into the gravity, followed it and again peered into the Black Hole and I saw where I had once been, the child mind in a universe full of hate. Finally, I could see that I am there no longer. I offer the fear to the Black Hole, it is pulled in and I am free. I howl with joy is joy is joy.
I awoke to something missing. The weight was not there. Sleep fell away from my mind as it had from my body. I smelled rain, and through its light melodic pitter-patter drops I heard a howling. Hear the hound, and I, and the Black Hole’s howl. Baritone breaths crying of fear, and fear’s products of misery. Guttural reverberations invite you with their gravity.