photography | carl johnson
the tant mieux project, ed. sadi ranson-polizzotti
Monday
Sep222014

the recovery

Janet was tired.

 

She had been watching the sea from a shallow canvas deck chair that was now at the water’s edge. The sun glinted about her face and chest, which had grown a deep pinkish brown color.  The tide, which was coming in fast, was now licking and sucking about her ankles. Some children played near a sandcastle, scooping out a moat and a channel with their cupped hands. The sounds of their laughter filled the salty air about Janet and she drew in the air sharply and felt at peace for the first time in weeks.

 

Roger had left her two months prior without much explanation, though really, neither of them needed to say a lot. It was clear to both of them why their marriage was ending. He told her that her moods had become increasingly intolerable – she did not believe he was having an affair, despite the fact that they had not been, due to physical and psychological reasons, able to make love. The truth was since the attack, she had been moody. She had terrible nightmares in which the attack was repeated in graphic detail: she saw flashes of herself with blood in her hair which was whipped around and gagging her mouth such that she could neither breathe nor scream. She was mute in every sense of the word, during the attack, and, as a consequence, after the attack. When Roger asked her to talk about it, when he was eager to make love in a quiet way, Janet froze up and told him, “It’s over… there’s nothing to say…”

 

“Talk to me, please…” he pleaded. But Janet said nothing and made herself one of several gins that she would drink quickly -  a new habit.

 

The truth was, Janet was paralyzed with fear. Since the attack, she felt quite literally frozen up inside as if she had consumed the tundra, icicles clinging to her heart, her voice-box, the walls of her sex, leaving her unable to speak or move, the wind whipping sharply about her insides.

 

The sun felt good. It warmed the surface of her skin, almost but not quite, denting the thick veneer of ice that had formed about who she really was, some effort to protect. 

 

The buildings on the beach began to light up with neon and tubes of white light, names of hotels in serifed and unserifed type. They looked to her like art deco cut-outs on a perfect sandy beach. The sky was mauve and pink and settling into a darker blue as evening made its approach. Janet gathered her few things – her flip-flops, her towel and visor, a small beach bag, and folded the chair beneath her arm and made her way back to the shack she had rented at the far end of the boardwalk where it was less populated and where the crowds were less likely to go due to the fact that there were fewer shops and rides down that end. Her end of the boardwalk had little gatherings of shacks with names like Shell Village and Sea Foam Palace and Colony Club and Deco Villas.  Her particular hut was at Shell Village – a cluster of six cottages gathered in a horse-shoe configuration that lay just beyond the scrubby and overgrown dunes and that had a swimming pool that lit up at night.

 

#

 

The sand felt good between her toes as she shuffled up through the dunes. Janet propped the chair and her things against the side of the hut and rinsed off her sandy legs beneath a tap that was attached to the side.  Her skin was pink but not burned and she felt warmer and more alive than she had in months. She had a new bottle of gin, which she opened and poured herself a tumbler and topped it off with a slice of lime which she took out to the picnic bench that overlooked the kidney shaped pool.

 

Families and singles were all packing up now, though most of the families had left the beach earlier, preferring to get back and feed the kids before it got dark out. Janet lingered later, almost until dusk, with the other singles and couples many of whom took to kissing by the shoreline, holding hands and walking along the beach. Some runners went quickly by, their heels splashing up the foamy shoreline. 

 

It was then that Janet saw him. His face was set in the same look that he had the day of the attack: pug-nosed and stupid looking, like a cat who got the scent of something and curled up its lips. He had a scar down the length of his right cheek and his hair was almost gone, closely cropped and almost undetectable. 

 

How Janet was able to say this was her attacker as opposed to the many other men who fit this description she could not say – only that she was sure that this was him. That she knew him as if she could smell him or taste him in the air, the idea of which made her wretch and gag. 

 

He was loping along the waterfront, a bucket in his hand and looked to be gathering shells.  Janet eyed him from the distance, suddenly all of her nerves alert, her skin burning where it had felt moments before comforting and warm. Now she felt on fire, bristling. 

 

She got up from her seat and ambled down the beach, ducking behind the sand dunes, following him from a distance, not taking her eyes off of the dark figure by the shoreline.

 

How could she take her eyes off of him. He had raped her. Had beaten her. Had left her, for all intents and purposes, for dead in her own home. He had taken everything she had – he had stolen her sex, her privacy, her body, her identity, her very soul. He had beaten whatever light she had out of her and left her lifeless body there where Roger had come home to find her some hours later, bleeding from a gash in her forehead where he had banged her head against the door frame.

 

The doctors had told her that she was lucky to be alive but she did not feel that way. She felt remarkably unlucky, wishing instead that she had died or that he had died. But that she had lived and he had lived was intolerable to Janet. She did not want to live in a world where such things were possible: where such a person could do such things and then walk away and live. That he maybe bragged about the attack, that another person alive knew what had happened to her and had seen her at her most vulnerable, was too much for her. Had she a gun, Janet had no doubt that she would have shot him dead.

 

As the sky darkened, Janet could no longer be sure it was him. Not entirely. She had thought she was sure, but now as a haze rose off of the water, the sea mist, her mind began to blur and the gin and sun made her feel slightly giddy.  Perhaps she had been wrong, though she did not think so. The closer she drew to the figure, the harder it was to tell. She could remember his touch: the smoothness of his hands, the outline of the ring on his middle finger, which she looked for on the figure but could not make out.  The scrubby texture of his head, which was shaved and stubbly, which, she had felt when she tried to push him off of her.  Looking at him now she was sure but beginning to doubt herself. Without Roger there to steady her, she felt curiously untethered, as if her head were floating miles above her neck and looking down on the whole seen from afar. 

 

By the time Janet turned back to the shack, it was dark out, the sky the color of indigo and cobalt, the lights of the hotels glimmering on the cool waters, creating pools of iridescent color on the waves.  A voice in Spanish was singing something about love and honeymoons and it swept into her ears as if there to wash out the fear she had just seen and felt. The sound of the woman’s voice steadied her: maybe it was Brazilian – but it was smooth and accented and made Janet calmer. Once back at the hut, she poured another gin and edged into the pool up to her neck, letting her body float out in front of her while she held onto the steps with her bare arms.  The edge of her suit fluttered, showing stark white contrast to her brown belly.

 

The air filled up with the sounds of crickets and the shhh-ing sound of the ocean, which rolled in over the dunes. The sound made Janet sleepy and she toweled off and picked her way over the flagstones to the small bedroom where she settled beneath a woodblock print of a pink and grey heart.

 

Janet had never forgotten about her attack, but after Roger had left, she had found it easier to slip the memory behind her. With no one urging her make love or have sex, she was less aware of her physical self and was frankly, grateful, for the reprieve. The sight of the man on the beach, the man who could be her assailant, brought back a flood of memories. Still, without the physical insistence of Roger, they seemed at once less real and more real. Janet was alone with no one to protect her, yet at the same time, there was no one to push on the boundary of her body: no one, that is, except another potential abuser.  This knowledge gave Janet pause: after the attack, she had felt unsafe even with Roger. Now she felt doubly vulnerable all over again. She had never considered that she might see her attacker again or be attacked again. The fact that the attack had occurred at all  was to Janet a gross unreality, for in her life as vulnerable as she had felt, she had never considered herself a victim. That she had been made one through another’s will and perversion was to Janet perhaps the biggest violation.

 

Still, she slept calmly that night, the warm Miami night enveloping her, the door bolted and blocked with the couch, which she had slid in front of it after deciding it best after her third tumbler of gin.

 

When she awoke the next morning, Janet checked to make sure the couch had not shifted in the night then sipped coffee out by the picnic table in front of her cottage.  The day was warm, hazy. She settled herself into her chair by the pool for a while, swam a few long laps, the cool crystal droplets rising and cascading down as she lifted her arms with each stroke making long careful swipes through the air, cutting the water with a clean slice. 

 

She toweled off, then made her way down to the beach, her deck chair under her arm and she settled herself on a warm sandy spot not too far from the edge of the water, burrowing her umbrella deeply into the sand so that it would not blow away, bracing it on its side then bracing that with a sort of sand wall, like a lean-to against the wind.  The sun settled on her tan skin, making her feel warm again, safe.

 

It was just past noon when the figure cut in front of Janet, the same willowy form leaning over the sand, scooping up shells then ambling along the shoreline, the brim of his hat bopping up and down and outlined against the water.  Janet took her wrap and pulled it tightly about her, then stood and began to follow the figure as he moved down the beach. Sand pipers chased the watermark with their beaks, dipping into the frittered and frayed edge of the sea, running away from the approaching waves then chasing the sea back in when it receded.

 

He had on a blue over-shirt an oxford that hung down on one side and had bare feet. She could not make out his face at all and even if she had been able, Janet wondered whether or not she would be able to tell if it was him. It was not that it looked like him, she reasoned, but more that it seemed like him – and why it seemed to be him she could not say only that it did and the idea of it was insistent.

 

Janet followed the figure for about two miles of shore, until he cut up the beach and into the Hotel New Miami where she lost him. She steadied herself in the lobby, searching the desk area and the other area off to the right of reception but he was gone. She even checked by the pool only to see that he was not there either. He had vanished as quickly as he had appeared. She felt woozy from the heat…slightly giddy. 

 

“What sort of hotel is this,” Janet asked a man in a bellhop uniform. He had on a sort of badge, which made him look to her official, like a cop.

“I’m sorry,” he said studying her carefully. “I don’t understand….”

“I just mean,” she began, then she felt flustered. What had she meant? What sort of people stay here? How could she say without sounding crazy, I think you may be harboring my assailant. Then it struck her that the very idea that she would be considered crazy by virtue of the fact of asking such a question was really the truly crazy thing. If something was off at all, it was the fact that she the victim was now considered unstable and unwell and that he was a free man. That she appeared untethered or frazzled or undone ought be no surprise to anyone. She had been raped, beaten, and left for dead and in her own home. Now she was expected to share the world with this man. To be, as the social worker had put it, reasonable.

 

Janet shook herself back to the present moment. “Are you looking for a room?” the man in the uniform asked. “I can take you to reception…”

“No. No I’m…” she began then asked if he might know the way to the bar. “Do you have a bar,” she asked.

“We do – it’s to the left of reception.” He pointed with a gloved hand and offered to walk her, which she gladly accepted.

 

The bar was well-lit with white French style chairs that led out to the pool area beneath a striped awning. There was a wrap around porch with deck-style chairs where couples gathered drinking hi-balls and madras colored drinks. They also served a high tea with clotted cream and scones, which seemed strangely appropriate and not at all out of place.

 

Janet settled into a white deck chair and ordered a gin and tonic. She was midway through when the willowy figure from the beach approached and asked if he might join her. She startled and looked into the stranger’s face trying to see if she could determine who he was. Was it him? She could no longer tell. What she had been so sure of now was fading quickly. In fact, everything that Janet thought she knew began to shift and dissolve as if made entirely of sand, like a sandcastle at the low tide mark. She was reluctant to let a stranger sit with her – then she saw a little girl running up to his side.

“Daddy, daddy - ” In her small hand she held a starfish. “Look what I found….”

“Qu’est que tu as? Ah… c’est jolie….c’est une asterie…”

“May we join you?”

 

The fact of the sudden child surprised Janet. Could this be the same man, she now wondered, and anyway, what did she think – that men who had children were incapable of rape? No; of course not. But her assailant had not had an accent – this much she was sure of. There was no way it could be him. And Janet loved children. The little girl smiled and held out a shell from her father’s bucket. “Vois…” she said. “Look how it glimmers…” she held up the mother of pearl mussel shell to Janet’s gaze. “Do you see how it is like magic…”

“I do see,” Janet said, feeling suddenly very calm.

“This is my little girl,” he said, “Chloe… and Chloe this is….”

“Janet…” she extended her hand to the stranger and to his little girl who saluted her sailor style. “She likes to pretend,” he said. “Today she is a sailor… tomorrow who knows…” and he laughed.  

 

For one who had the night prior blocked the door with her couch, Janet was strangely at ease in the company of the same man. Perhaps it was the fact of his accent that made her relax. Or maybe it was that he had a little girl who seemed so happy, so well-adjusted. She could not say exactly what only that she felt more at ease with this stranger than she had for a long time with any man.  After the attack, Janet had taken emergency contraception to ensure that she did not become pregnant. She had bled and bled, a bright red scream that felt to her like a final exhalation.

 

The stranger and his child sat down at Janet’s table. Now that she could make him out clearly, she saw that he didn’t look at all like the man that attacked her. First, he had a foreign accent, which her attacker had not had. But more, his hair was not a stubble at all but a loose tangle of waves. His eyes were a mellow green color and his lips the color of persimmon. He wore a white pullover and khaki shorts and brown sandals like she had seen in Mexico. He had a large long-lens camera loped about his neck worn on a thick strap. Does it bother you? He said at last. The camera?

No. No,” Janet said, but she wondered what it was for.  He leaned over and scrolled through the images with her. They were of the beach and brightly colored umbrellas and of his daughter playing along the tide-mark.

“They’re beautiful,” Janet said and she meant it. “You take good photographs….”

“It isn’t hard with this camera,” he said. “It does all of the work for me…” He smiled. “You want to have a try?” He handed her the camera with the long lens and Janet pointed it toward him. He was calm and offered up an easy smile.

The shutter clicked rapidly over a few times and froze his image on the screen: his eyes and his hair appeared the sepia color of tea.

 

When she was done, Janet put the camera down. The sea was roaring in the background and it was getting dark out.  “Listen,” he said at last, “I hope you won’t think it too forward, but, we are staying here and it gets awfully lonely at night. How about staying for dinner and a swim later….”

Janet thought back to her things which were still on the beach, the umbrella’s edges fraying in the wind with the wall of sand holding it in place, her towel draped over the back of the deckchair. She had not left anything of value there though – and while she was reluctant to leave the things, she found that the prospect of company excited her the way it would a child who had just been invited to a sleepover. She felt happy – calm.

“Sure, sure I would love to stay.”  Her towel lifted a corner in the wind and blew off the chair, and went tumbling down the beach, alighting here and there like a magic carpet.

 

Chloe and Jean went upstairs to change and emerging some minutes later in sharp swim suits, hers was pink with ruffles, his simple black shorts.  They went quickly to the pool where they all jumped in. Chloe was learning how to dive. “You can hold your nose if the water bothers you,” Janet told her, and so she did. Chloe made her way to the deep end, pinched her nose and said, “Watch me watch me!’ before slipping into the deep waters in one simple arc.  She did not push off with her feet, but rather sort of flopped into the water gracefully.

 

“You know, I thought you looked like someone else…” Janet said when they got out of the water.

“Really… who?”

Janet paused for a moment then realized that she had spoken without meaning to. That for as much as she wanted to tell him about the case of mistaken identity and what a relief it was that he was someone else, someone good, someone like who he was, it would necessarily mean inviting the stranger who had assaulted her into her bed once again – and into the present moment, which was the last thing that she wanted to do. 

 

“Oh, they say everybody looks like someone else…” she said at last, bluffing.

“You’re mysterious,” he said without pause. “You don’t like to reveal a whole lot, do you?”  Janet thought for a moment about how open she used to be and about what she had become – a closed off person with high walls and who was guarded, suspicious, always seeing the face of her assailant on men she was attracted to.

 

Yes, that was it. It occurred to her what she had not before realized: that every man she was attracted to in some way became guilty or complicit in her attack: It was a unique way of blaming herself over and over again for something that she had never been guilty of. Yet there it was: if she had been attracted to her attacker in some way, then maybe she did have some control over the event. Maybe it was not about fault but about power. It was about decision as if the decision had been hers to make.

 

Janet reeled at the thought. She had found her assailant repellent. But now when she was attracted to a man it was his face she saw at first, as if she herself had become like him: become a predator. 

 

And in some way, perhaps Janet was now a predator.  After all, she wanted her life back. She was hungry for a man she had to admit this. She wanted a relationship again, the feel of a man inside of her. She wanted all of this and more.  He had stolen from her not only her heart but her very soul, cut to the core of her with such flaming bladed violence that she would never be the same again if she did not fight back. And her way of fighting back was to pursue with force what she wanted. Not that she would ever be like him or act with force or force any person against his will: never this.  But that she could now act so decisively and deliberately – well, this was a marked change from the Janet right after the assault, who had grown meek, frightened, and afraid to act.

 

“So you won’t say who it is,” the stranger said.  He was flirting with her now and she had grown a little tipsy from the gin.

“I honestly cannot remember now,” she said at last.  He was leaning sideways to listen to her, leaning in toward her, his arm almost touching her arm.  Janet suddenly ducked to his side and planted a kiss on his cheek.

 

“You are feeling brave,” he said. His face had pinkened slightly and Janet could not tell if it was from the sun or from her kiss. It didn’t matter.  He then leaned toward her and kissed her full on the mouth.

 

Chloe was playing near the water still, scooping it out of the pool with her bucket.  The pool guard, a teenage boy, was looking on with some dismay but said nothing.  Chloe was happy watching the water trickle and darken the red brick area by the pool.  “I’m painting it with water,” she said. “See?” and she pointed to the darker area.

 

Jean spoke to her in reassuring tones. “I see,” he said, his arm touching Janet’s now, his hand reaching for hers.  It was unlike Janet to kiss someone so deliberately or so soon after meeting them, but then, when she was sure she was sure, she reasoned, and that had always been the case. She knew whether or not she could be with a man from within ten minutes of meeting him. It either was there or it was not.  This new thing of seeing every man as potential threat slowly began to ebb away after she kissed him and he kissed her back. He kissed her with force, with desire, with absolutely no hesitation. He was determined and deliberate and full of desire in the best possible way and in such a way that Janet found reassuring. His desire matched her desire to over come. In this way, they met squarely in the middle. His eyes glinted the color of wheatgrass, shooting off sparks of amber in the late day sun.

 

“It’s more complicated now, with Chloe…” Jean said after a pause. Janet ordered another drink, though truthfully she no longer felt like drinking it she ordered it as if by rote.  “My wife, when she died – when she was dying – I said I would take care of Chloe forever. That I would always put her first. And so far, I have been true to that promise…” Janet understood. When it was your child, you would put them first: before even the world. That is what we do for our children. “I am here,” he said after a long pause. “I am here with you.”

 

What he meant was that he had not before felt drawn to any other woman in the same way that he felt toward Janet. He had had a couple of casual partners but even these hardly registered now or, frankly, at the time.  Janet was different. Despite the fact of hardly knowing her, he was quite sure (as she had been) that he did know her. That she was the sort of woman one could build a life with. He saw them together on windy wintry beach days, a warm sweater wrapped about her, her hair blowing about her dusky cheeks, photographs of her building sandcastles with Chloe, collecting shells to be washed back at home.  There was a quality about her that he could not quite put his finger on but one that was so evocative…

 

Later, they made love on the beach while Chloe napped beneath a sun-warmed towel on a deck chair.  The lights of the hotels were beginning to come on and the air filled with a haze of twilight blue light, colored here and there with hints of pink and white that seemed to lift from the grey outline of buildings that lined the beach, their deco facades blurring to the twilit sky.  

Monday
Sep152014

of locusts and wild honey

It was the summer the locusts came by the thousands and made nests in all of the trees, filling the air of the small beach town with a metallic hum.

 

Phoebe lay on a long deck chair by the swimming pool, a Led Zeppelin album that was wrapped in tin foil balanced beneath her chin, reflecting the sun onto her translucent face.

“You’ll burn…” her father said as he passed by. Phoebe rolled her eyes and squeezed more lemon juice into her hair.

He was right, but to Phoebe, sun-lightened hair and skin that was slightly pink were both good things. Later, she was going to meet Lautz – a boy she liked and knew from school. He was from Sweden and had pale hair and pale eyes and a heavy accent.

 

#

 

Lautz lived alone with his father in a largish white carriage house that sat at the end of a long drive, hidden from the road by lots of tall trees and dense foliage. His father was rarely home, and when he was, he spent most of his time nestled upstairs in his office reading books by, or about, Carl Jung.

 

At school, Lautz was, as Phoebe had been, instantly popular – mostly because he had an accent and was new which seemed to always make a person more interesting. This happened every time a new kid from some far away foreign place arrived and Phoebe had come to expect it: foreigners were always at once liked and yet still objects of curiosity to be regarded somewhat warily as other and outsider.

 

Lautz was a good friend to Phoebe but she didn’t like him the way she liked the college boy who worked clearing trails at the sanctuary. And it seemed that the blue-eyed boy liked her too, for he spoke at length with her about almost every topic they could think of. Trouble was, one of those topics was his interest in a girl he had left back at school.

 

Phoebe had a picture of the girl in her mind: she knew she was older and free from the watchful eye of parents. She imagined her to be beautiful, sensual, sexual, exotic, dark, and experienced - stark contrast to Phoebe who was thin and without curves and utterly lacking in experience.

 

She flirted openly with Lautz in front of the older boy, but he didn’t seem to notice or if he did, he didn’t seem to get jealous despite Phoebe’s best efforts. Instead, he kept his nose buried in his book, choosing instead to ignore her behavior as youthful and petulant.

“Come over later,” Lautz said, his accent rich and thick with a sort of ever-present laugh that lay just beneath the surface. “Yes! Come over later and we can watch a movie…” Phoebe agreed that she would.

 

At eight p.m., Phoebe hopped onto her bicycle and wound her way down Cove Road. Her tires disturbed the grey pebbles of Lautz’s driveway making a crackling sound. She hopped off her bike and propped it up by the side door and entered through the breezeway of the kitchen. Lautz was sitting at the large oak table, opening a bottle of Heineken. He handed her the beer then led her into the adjoining room, where they sank into the soft pillows of the sofa.

 

Phoebe drank her beer slowly, the hoppy taste fizzing in her mouth and belly. She felt slightly buzzed and happy. Lautz was narrating the film as they watched. At every commercial break, he would tell her rather annoyingly about the next part in great detail causing her to lose any interest she had had in the film.

 

Then the station was interrupted by a news alert.

 

At first, all Phoebe could make out was what looked like a harbor, some body of water, with circles of light from helicopters flashing over the surface. She could make out large bits of something, but what they were she could not say. Then an announcer came on, a blonde woman who looked tired and intent.

“At approximately 8:34 pm this evening,” she began, “Flight 707 from Bogota crashed into the waters of the Long Island Sound….”

Phoebe squinted at the television, trying to see if she could make out where it was. Then she recognized the abandoned boat-house. “Lautz!” she said suddenly, “Lautz! That’s here – that’s the Cove….”

 

Neither of them had heard the actual crash, which was somewhat surprising given that the cove beach was but a half mile away. “Let’s go down and see…” Lautz was excited, nervous.

“No – “ she said, “I don’t think we should.”

“Why not?” he said. He didn’t understand. Phoebe wanted to see and at the same time she did not want to see. How hideous, she thought, to want to see another person’s tragedy, a sick feeling rising in her stomach.

 

She slipped into her sneakers and followed Lautz through the darkness, holding onto his arm. When they reached the beach, Phoebe could see the broken fuselage of a plane and lights flashing on the water. On the facing shore television news crews had gathered. Whether or not Phoebe wanted to see the crash was immaterial: she would see it on television or she would see it as it happened.

 

Lautz stood on the rocky shore and lit cigarette after cigarette exhaling gently into the silence. They watched the rescue boats began their search. She could see the lights beating their pulse to the dense fog: small halos of red and blue and white that lit up the water.

 

“How does it happen?” Lautz said, but it wasn’t really a question. What he meant was, How do I understand such tragedy. What does it mean to believe in divinity and yet still…

“It has nothing to do with God,” Phoebe said, although Lautz had not said God or anything about God. She took the bottle from his hand and drank steadily. The woozy feeling she got from the beer was preferable to the sick feeling of her nerves.

 

“I was in a plane crash,” she said at last.

“You weren’t,” said Lautz looking over at her profile but he could tell by the way she said it, the way she didn’t flinch that it was true.

“So what happened…” he said and handed her his cigarette.

“I was six. We were in Italy. The landing gear failed…” In her mind’s eye, she could see it vividly. As they made the approach, the wheels failed to descend from their housing. Alarms went off and flight attendants paced the aisles hurriedly giving instructions. They seemed flustered and yet steely calm.

“Put these on…” Phoebe’s mother said, placing headphones over her daughter’s ears. Then Phoebe heard only the music and the sound of alarm faded. Her mother braced a pillow against her child’s  neck and leaned her forward. Then Phoebe felt a big bump followed by a floating feeling. Out the window, she saw orange sparks as the belly of the plane ground against the concrete.

 

“So that was it…” she said to Lautz and handed him back the cigarette. It glowed orange in the night.

“I don’t remember what happened after that. I just remember them saying the landing wheels would not come down: that we had to make an emergency landing.

“You must have been scared,” Lautz said.

“Not really,” she said. “I was really little and I had music and I didn’t know enough to be afraid, you know….”

Lautz shivered visiby then looked away from Phoebe’s calm profile and back across the bay. The rescuers were still working, their boats moving in circular patterns. The news camera lights were still bright on the farther shore. They would be there for hours.

 

#

 

When they got back to the house, Phoebe curled up in the dark room beneath a blanket Lautz gave her, images of the lights on the water still flickering in her head. After trying to sleep and failing, Phoebe got up, slipped on her sneakers and crept quietly out of the house.

 

Crickets throbbed and chirped in the bushes. She walked past hedgerows of tiger-lilies that appeared grey in the dark.

The beach was still. The air about her felt thick and heavy as a blanket. A couple of bursts of light still circled near the water from boats, but the helicopters and newspeople were gone. She knew people had died. You couldn’t crash like that and have everyone live. She didn’t want to think about how many had died.

 

When Phoebe had been in a plane crash she had not been frightened. Now she wondered about the children on this plane and wondered if they had been frightened, if their mother’s had had the time to shelter them. She wanted to find them, wrap them in warm blankets, return them safely to their families She sat on the damp sand feeling desperate and helpless her eyes drawing in the night sky and the smooth surface of the bay.

 

It was not until about 3:30 a.m. that the rescue crews packed up. They had hauled the wreckage out of the water. Phoebe could make out flotation devices, rows of seats, and metal that was twisted. She did not see any bodies being pulled from the water and was glad of it. Still, the absence of the sight did not make the crash any less real. She knew people had died.

 

She went back to Lautz’s and climbed into bed beside him, nestling under the covers. He stirred but did not wake. Phoebe pressed close to his back and she lay like that, crying softly beneath Lautz’s shoulder blades until, at last, she too fell asleep.

 

#

 

Phoebe awoke the next morning to the smell of fresh ground coffee and toast. At the table sat Lautz and his father. They were speaking in Swedish. A small radio voice was talking about the crash.

“Turn it off,” Phoebe said, “Please – turn it off.”

“Yes, sure, I guess…” said Lautz.

“They say it was the fuel. That and the fog. That the plane could not land because of weather conditions. It was delayed. Then they ran out of fuel…” he sort of shrugged.

“Can you believe it,” he said, “How does a plane run out of fuel? How does that happen?”

Phoebe said nothing.

“It just does,” said Lautz’s father. “It just does and it just did and that’s that,” he took a bite of his toast and looked out the big picture window that overlooked a stand of trees. “We are not as smart or clever as we would often like to believe,” he said, “For all our machines and great projects, we sometimes neglect the smallest detail…” he paused. “Which can result in catastrophe, death. That is human error…” he kept talking but by then Phoebe had stopped listening.

 

#

 

Lautz and Phoebe spent the morning playing tennis beneath a blinding hot sun. Locusts whined and whirred and Phoebe played harder than she usually did.

“Hey!” said Lautz when the green ball hit him hard in the torso, “Hey!”

“Sorry,” she said. He served and they returned to a slow easy volley. They played until they were both exhausted and their clothes soaked through with perspiration.

 

Let’s go for a swim,” Lautz said.

 

At the edge of the bay, Lautz and Phoebe stripped down to their underwear. “It’s not far,” he said. “See it there.” He pointed to a blue wooden boat with tied sails, the mast bobbing and clanging in the water. It was about two hundred yards offshore.

“It’s not far,” he said. Together they swam through the cool waters to the boat, climbing aboard a small ladder and onto the sloop where they sat drinking beer and laughing.

 

For a while, Phoebe forgot all about the plane crash. She looked over the edge of the boat. Long red streamers of jellyfish flared at the boat’s edge, Portuguese man o war, propelling themselves through the water.

“Look…” she said to Lautz.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “They won’t hurt you. You have to just dive over them – they like to be near  the edge of the boat.”

 

Phoebe dove straight and long, trying to get as much distance between her and the jellyfish.

She landed a good distance away and Lautz caught up with her and they swam slowly toward the shore, laughing in the late afternoon light.

 

#

 

It felt as though she had swam into an electric fence that was beneath the water. Her legs buzzed sharply as if stunned, then she could feel nothing from her waist down and her legs froze. She began to sink, taking in mouthfuls of salty water, tears exploding hotly from her eyes. Lautz saw her arms flailing, saw that she could not keep her head above water and quickly took hold of her upper body in the crook of his arm and swam, carrying the full weight of her to the shore to were he laid her out on the beach. The older boy from the sanctuary leaned over the two swimmers.

“What happened?” he said to Lautz. Lautz didn’t know and he said nothing.

Across Phoebe’s abdomen were three blistering slash marks. It looked as if she had been whipped.

“That’s a jelly fish sting,” the boy said. “The poison causes the blistering…I’ll get help.” He ran to the house that abutted the beach and returned with an older woman. She leaned over Phoebe and applied a paste of baking soda to her abdomen.

“What is it…” Lautz asked.

“Probably a jellyfish sting,” she said. “This will draw the poison out…She’ll be fine. Are you her brother?” She looked up at the two boys. Neither said anything. “Her boyfriend?” The boys exchanged looks then both looked at Phoebe who was laying on the sand, baking soda striped thickly across her belly. She looked up into the eyes of the boy from the sanctuary. They were pale and blue and kind. “You’ll be alright,” he said, “I’m sure of it.” He touched her arm with his foot. “Jellyfish – why did you go out today anyway…” he paused and looked at her and then at Lautz. “Why didn’t you know about the warnings. You should have checked the sail reports…” But neither of them had heard. They had heard only of the plane crash, which until then, Phoebe had forgotten all about. A burst of yellow seemed to explode about the pupil of the blue-eyed boy, casting streaks of gold into his iris.

 

It was then that Phoebe felt lucky.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday
Sep152014

The Jumper

They meet by chance. It is raining hard and Suzanne’s umbrella has broken. He notices her from the start, from the minute she enters the barroom. She sits at a small table near the back, wringing out her long hair, which hangs in a thick braid then she catches him looking at her reflection in the mirror that overhangs the length of the bar.

 

He is Indian. Maybe Pakistani. She cannot tell. He is dark-skinned, like molasses. His hair is shiny and black and he is wearing a dark navy suit. A black attaché case rests near his feet. She imagines he is a diplomat. That he works for, perhaps, the United Nations or for an embassy. She takes a long sip of her drink then looks away.

 

A half hour earlier, mid-town near Grand Central by Lex, a crowd had gathered at the foot of a tall white building. Everyone was looking up.

 

On the ledge of the building, Suzanne could just make out, if she squinted, the figure of a person – whether male or female she could not say. The form was a black stick figure with swaths of grey moving about the body, some loose clothing, and it was wavering on the ledge of the building.

 

Emergency Services and the Fire Department had inflated a large square air cushion at the front of the building by the entrance, directly beneath where the figure balanced. The trouble was, while the cushion would certainly catch the jumper, for it was in the correct position, the jumper, if in fact s/he did jump, they would first have to pass through the building’s awning which was made of glass. The fact of the glass awning altered the odds such that the fall might or might not be survivable.

 

“Jump!” someone shouted. Suzanne looked to her left. A thick-necked man dressed in a tan canvas workmen’s jacket had cupped his hand around his mouth. “Jump!” he said again. Then someone else said it too and pretty soon, at least 3/4s of the crowd were heckling the figure on the ledge. “Jump!” they shouted in unison.

 

Then it happened.

 

There was a brief nervous stifled laugh – perhaps one of the women who had said jump suddenly felt silly, or maybe embarrassed and this made her titter. Then there was a collective intake, a gasp, as the figure sped through the air, splintering the glass awning with a shattering sound, then sending up a blur of blood before landing shredded in the center of the air mattress.

 

The Fire Department and EMTs moved in quickly. There were shouts, but Suzanne could not make out what they were saying. They looked serious, capable. Suzanne had never seen so much blood. A woman next to her raised her hand to cover her mouth. The first man who had said “jump” now said, “Idiot…” then turned and walked away. A couple of people were crying. One man’s face was wet with salty tears that had spilled from his eyes onto the plains of his otherwise emotionless face.  

 

Suzanne stood still, frozen, the rushhour humidity breathing hot about her legs. She felt suddenly dirty, as if she had been caught in the blood spray and grief like the fire people and EMTs who were now leaning over what was clearly a lifeless body.

 

She looked up to where the man had been standing just moments before, now achingly vacant and she wished she could somehow put the man back there – or better still, put him back in time to a place where he felt loved and to whatever had lead to his being on the ledge had never happened and would never happen. To make a non-event out of an event, she thought. That suited her fine.

 

Some people had walked away, clearly shocked that the jumper had jumped. A few, not many, moved closer. Why, she wondered, had they encouraged him… would he have jumped anyway. Then she realized it was doubtful that he had even heard their taunts at such a great height and she was glad.

 

#

 

By the time she got to Prince Street, it was pouring. She ducked into Phoebe’s and bought herself a pair of black karate-like pants, a black flowing linen top and changed into them in the dressing room and paid. “Better…” she said to her reflection.

 

Were it not for the wet tile floor of the bar and the fact of her slick bottom shoes, Suzanne likely would never have met the Indian. As she got up to cross the room to make a phone call, her foot slipped out from under her, sending her landing, very inelegantly, to the floor where she fell at his feet.

He gently helped her up. “Sorry,” she said.

“Please…sit…” he motioned with his hand. She took a seat and tried to collect herself while he meanwhile gathered her things from the farther table in the back, then he ordered them both a fresh drink.

 

When she looked up at him, Suzanne was caught in the pools of his eyes. She knew then she did not want to talk about what she did for a living or what he did for a living. She hardly wanted to speak at all. Nor had she any desire to know his name. When he asked for hers she lied: “Jane,” she said. “My name is Jane…”

He did not offer his name in return. Instead he just looked at her as if waiting, as if he knew something she did not.

“I saw something…” she said after a pause, after a few sips of her drink. “Something awful…” She could see it in her mind. “I saw a man jump from a building…” she laughed sort of nervously then understood why perhaps that woman in the crowd had laughed, then gasped. Her heart beat too fast, then too slow: it felt like a stone was sinking in her chest…

“He just wavered suddenly, he let himself go…” she whispered.

“And then it was over…” the Indian said calmly.

“Yes. And then it was over. But he was so alive one minute…probably more alive than ever. Then as if life itself were trite, he was dead. Just like that…” Then she began to cry, which was not really surprising. She had witnessed something awful, something tragic. That anyone could ever feel so unwanted,” she said, “so unloved…do you understand…”

 

He offered his handkerchief and she blew hard into it.

 

Neither Suzanne nor the Indian spoke for a while. His hands were slender, tapered, long. He kept one hand touching the base of his beer glass, holding it gently. He had no wedding band, no jewelry save for a square face Patek Phillipe watch with Roman numerals.

 

“Let’s leave…” she said, after finishing her drink. He said nothing and helped her into her rain-coat and they stepped out onto Prince Street into the pouring rain.

 

“I don’t have an umbrella,” she almost shouted. The rain was falling fast and sideways. It made a slapping sound as it hit the sidewalk and the air filled with the smell of the city and of summer heat and wet concrete.

 

They walked about a block before he put his arm around her and pulled her to him and beneath the shade of the vestibule of a building. He held her close in the semi-shelter and kissed her deeply.  Suzanne was a responsive lover, and she felt a sudden want of procreation. She desired him and why not – he was single, handsome, kind. But her desire was so fierce, so intense, that she readily followed when he lead her in the direction of his loft near Spring Street.

 

The room was lit with the ambient light of the city that filtered in through the large windows.  They made love quietly on his floor mattress, gently but with an intensity she had not before known.  And when he came, she felt him inside of her- fizzy and rich and she hoped she would conceive. Irrational, she knew, but the feeling was absolute and definite nonetheless. She had seen death but two hours prior and now she wanted nothing but life.

 

After, he lay next to her, the large window cracked, the outline of his body all shades of beige and gray and sandstone. His skin was smooth, sandy, as if polished.

“And now…” he said, “How do you feel now?” His accent had grown deeper, now that they were alone and he had shared such intimacy, he seemed more comfortable. His voice was smooth, accented, educated – a little British by way of somewhere else.

“Different,” she said, “I feel different…better I think.” And she smiled faintly and leaned on her arm, watching his profile in the dark. Then they both fell asleep.

 

#

 

When Suzanne awoke, it was almost eleven pm. She was supposed to be meeting a friend at a club near fourteenth. The Indian was still sleeping, his chest moving faintly in the dark, his eyes closed.

 

She washed herself with a bar of sage soap, then dressed and let herself out and hailed a cab to fourteenth street. A quick look in the compact revealed a changed face: she was pink-cheeked, softer now. The grief of earlier had been almost erased. She looked fertile, younger, happy again.

 

There was a crowd outside of the club as there always was. People from all boroughs doing their best to be chosen – because that is how it was. No matter how hard one might try, you could not buy your way into a club. The doormen were unbribeable.  How the doormen and proprietor determined who was chosen Suzanne never knew. She had never entirely understood the process. She went, they pointed to her, let her in and that was it. Perhaps it was her very plainness that served her so well. Suzanne’s face was a pale oval, her lips like shells, and she dressed simply, in flowing black clothes that appeared like robes, her hair dark contrast against her skin.

 

Just as he was being let in, another group, a group of men dressed in dress whites, were walking away. The doorman was saying, “No, sorry…No…” They seemed upset. Not angry exactly, but confused.

“Why did you turn them away?” she said as Cam lifted the latch to let her pass but she didn’t wait for an answer and instead, said simply, “No…wait…” and turned around and went to the facing street corner where the sailors had gathered and were speaking amongst themselves.

It sounded to her like Italian, though she could not be sure. They all wore sharp white uniforms with gold braiding and had sharp white hats with shiny black beaks.

“Excuse me….” She said and walked to the center of the group. One who seemed to be in charge turned to her and said, “Yes…” He had light brown hair and light brown eyes that matched.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Oh, they won’t let us in…” he said. “So I don’t know why but what can you do….so now we must find some other place…” he shrugged.

“That’s ridiculous….” She said. Perhaps love-making had made her more gentle, more generous in a way. She had never understood unkindness anyway, but perhaps too witnessing a suicide had changed her. The world had been rough with that man and Suzanne detested nothing more than roughness, rudeness, unkindness.

“Come with me…” she said and took the captain’s hand. The sixteen of them crossed fourteenth street and walked up to the velvet rope.

“No way, Suze…no way…” Cam said. “Forget it...” then he looked at her and lifted the latch and the group passed quickly and quietly through. “never again…” he said. “Only you…and never again!….” But Suzanne was already out of earshot, making her way up the stairs to the main floor with the sailors gathered around her.

 

#

 

On one side of the great space, which looked like an old airplane hanger, there were soft couches clustered around glass tables. Beyond those was a long rectangular bar, then beyond that was a dance floor bordered by giant speakers. On the far wall there was a huge fan built into the wall that both sucked the air out and breathed in fresh air. It must have once been a theatre, for there were raked seats on the next level where, as the evening progressed, couples would escape and hide in the dark and kiss.

 

Suzanne introduced herself properly. She did not lie about her name this time. Now she felt clearer, less heavy. The captain introduced himself as Dante, then the other sailors all said their names but she could not keep them straight. They all had dark eyes and lovely accents except for one who had the bluest blue eyes she had ever seen. Dante was easy to remember mostly because halfway through their first drink, he took off his hat and placed it gently on her head. When she took it off to examine it, inside was a clear plastic holder and behind that, a card with his full name, rank, and the name of his ship. 

“You should join us…” he said, taking a gulp of his beer. “Yes, come to our boat…come to see the fireworks…”

It was the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. She had seen the newspaper photographs of the ships that had sailed in and were now docked all around the island of Manhattan to celebrate liberty. “Yes…you must join us…” he said again and wrote the pier number, slip and time on a cloth napkin. “We are having a party, then the fireworks….so come!”

 

#

 

From the ship, Suzanne could make out the green drapes of liberty, a robe made of copper that appeared nonetheless to be flowing. She sat on deck drinking champagne, which made her feel slightly giddy.

 

When darkness fell, Hoboken glittered from atop the cliff-face on the other side of the river. The sailors gathered, their uniforms now looking grey in the half-light. Then, red streaks of fireworks rained from the sky, a halo over New York, the dynamite after-blast of a prayer.

 

Monday
Sep152014

A Place Without Sound

It was the summer that I arrived in the States. The summer of my thirteenth year and it was a typical American summer on the east coast, stifling humid with a bright noonday sun, so different from what I had left behind: summers in my homeland where anything over seventy meant warnings of heat-wave and resultant water shortages.

 

My new American town was smallish with rows of Colonial style split levels with sunken living rooms and mylar wallpaper . The basements were almost always finished basements complete with free-standing bars and pool tables and deep freezers and big projection televisions. There were two car garages for Pontiacs, all taupe and caramel; American cars, so sleek and large in contrast to foreign cars that the night we drove from the airport to our new house, I thought they looked like big slick sharks blurring down the highway with their fins and their red light eyes and grill teeth. Slick and American, moving past us in a blur while doo-wap played on the radio; songs about earth angels and chapels and secret street corner trysts. Real crooners all.

 

That summer, my brother took to smoking cigarettes. We stood on the front porch of the small colonial, our parents were off at one of the outlet malls. James took to lighting punks, which looked like long incense sticks. “But they’re punks,” he said, as he lit each stick, waving it like a wand leaving smoke trails to ward off mosquitoes. Then he lit a Winston “It’s a punk…” he said and inhaled. “Don’t worry about it…” and he took another drag before coughing and putting the thing out. He repeated this ritual - of lighting the cigarette (or punk), taking a longish drag, coughing, then putting it out with a smile of satisfaction.

 

I had no interest either in punks or cigarettes. My interest was in the shop up the hill across from my new school. To me, the only good thing about that school was that it faced a little candy shop where they sold loose jars sweets from big glass jars: jelly beans, hard jolly ranchers, Good N Plenty, German raspberries, red and black licorice whips.  They gleamed like sticky baubles. I would buy fill a small brown bags with candy, two three four or five cents a piece depending. I would suck on the apple flavor Jolly Rancher until the stick to the shape of my mouth

 

The other kids hadn’t been particularly. I had started school that September, my birthday. I wore a long pale cotton skirt with a matching short sleeve top with a peter pan collar. First off, I wasn’t like them in looks; these girls wore make-up and tight jeans with designer logos sewn onto on their asses. They fluttered their made up eyes beneath pale blue eyelids at the boys who, though young, were interested in what the girls had. Some of the girls, girls my age, made out with boys at recess or after school in places we weren’t supposed to go, scurrying off to the shade of a nearby wood. Me, I walked around with my violin case, my mousy brownish-blondish hair laying flat or in a ponytail but not ironed back or fanning out about my head the way the other girls had it. I had no make-up. I had, instead, freckles to color my cheeks, and I wore funny flat English sandals and knee socks and short and halter top sets from Sears.  And I had a funny accent that sounded neither British nor Austrailian; more like Scotland by way of New Zealand. A sort of funny brogue that few of my classmates or teachers could fully understand…

 

It was Gabriella who became my first real friend. She and her twin brother Vincent. They were immigrants, like me, and had moved with their mother from Italy a long time ago. We recognized each as foreign right away  - we spoke different, we dressed different, and also, because the other kids treated us differently – too often teasing and unkind. In the school yard, it was Gabriella and Victor who were the grease balls. Me, I got off easy: I was English muffin, baby face…

 

Of course, our parents became friends. They would get together on the weekends and drink Miller Lite in the backyard, sit around glass tables and iron patio furniture and smoke cigarettes and drink while the swimming pool glowed with it’s underwater lights, all crystal blue. Late, when everyone had left and gone home and to bed, I would sneak out to the back garden over the soft cool grass and dive in, sending crystal water drops splashing upward to the night sky.

 

From our rooms upstairs, my brother and I would listen to the sound of accented, muffled conversation as it travelled over the lawn and up to our window where we sat  half-spying on our parents while they drank beer and laughed and flirted and talked about their jobs in the city and the growing lines for gasoline and the soaring prices.

 

Sometimes, we snuck down to the side of the house and smoked cigarettes near the hedge. Sometimes we would hear them speak about home, the home everyone had left - which almost always led to some political debate, too often heated and made even more so because it was late and everyone was fueled by a little too much beer. They would say that being in a new place was hard. “How do you raise your kids when these American kids….” they would say.

 

The American kids had more liberties than any of us did. They could date, they could wear make up and pretty skirts and Bonnie Bell Lipsmacker and Love’s Baby Soft. They could flip their hair back and not wear it clipped like a child like I had to. They could wear platform shoes and expensive sneakers and Levis.  The American kids, no matter what our parents thought or told us, were cooler than we were and we, naturally, wanted to be like them.

 

Every day at noon a siren affixed to a very tall pine post outside of our house would sound loudly, the waves of it spreading over the whole town, filling it up with a scream. It always made me jump. I think it made most of us foreigners jump - it was loud, alarming, almost deafening, and it came always at the same time of day without fail.  We didn’t understand that the siren was a test of a safety system: that was an American thing. Before, back in our country, a siren always meant run: it meant danger. It was never a test.  But here, everyday the siren sounded for over a full minute: a wind up scream that in this place, let us know that we were safe. And in time, I came to count on the sound of it to let me know that someone somewhere in this town cared enough to hand-turn the crank, calling our attention, asking the question: Where are you? Are you okay? Where are your children? Are you safe? We are here… test test…

 

#

 

Our house, a white split level, faced a large flat-land, bordered on one side by a steep scrubby hill that we used for sledding in the winter. Beyond the hill was a maze of sandy trails, marshy grass, rushes and reeds that disappeared, sinking down, beyond a cluster of small hills.

 

Some of the older kids and even some grown ups rode their four wheelers and motorbikes on dusty trails.  The older kids took their ten-speeds and did tricks on the sandy hills that seemed built for bike stunts and wipe-outs, all natural ramps that gave you air when you hit the mid-point. Even wiping out was okay; you would fall into the soft, dusty sand like so much powder.

 

In the winter, my brother and I spent hours climbing up the big hill then sledding down on our red plastic sleds. “Don’t go in any further…” my mother shout from the front door. “Okay,” we’d say, but often, when my brother wasn’t with me, I would go in further by myself. I’d go into the center to where I knew the frog pond was and the tadpoles that would be frozen over, my skates hanging over my shoulder, my white knit hat with it’s big pom-pom hanging down my back and I would skate for hours beneath the scrim of the winter sky, spinning quick circles and practicing ballet moves that I had seen in film or in books or on television.  I pretended I was a figure skater. I pretended I was beautiful and in a way, maybe I kind of was because on those winter mornings, with the hazy winter light and a light snow falling and at the age of thirteen, a young girl so completely free and unaware and confident must surely be beautiful.

 

But mother was right. The fens could be dangerous. First, there had been stories of kids going there to drink and do drugs which didn’t really bother us. They just went there to get high and to fuck and fool around and since we understood none of what that really meant, we weren’t afraid of the kids. They were interested in each other: not in us. We’d seen evidence of their goings on:  discarded couches hidden strategically in the more wooded areas, discarded beer bottles, a lost tube of lipstick. We were sure, also, that some people lived there in the fens and there were rumors of at least one crazy man, but we never saw him. Not that we needed to see the person to believe that such a person could or did exist; it was as if the evidence or proof was everywhere. The very place itself had always given me the creeps, and it left me unsettled for reasons I could never quite pin down only to say that it did. A few times, my brother and I had explored those back trails, riding our bicycles over scrubby hills and on narrow thickly shaded trails, past tadpole ponds and abandoned things: old prams, bicycles, cars…

 

That there was a stillness to that place that was unnatural. You knew that in that place, if you screamed, no-one would ever hear you. You could get lost there (or someone could lose you) and no-one would be any the wiser for a long, long time. It had the sound of the abyss.

 

#

 

There were more than a few abandoned cars buried deep within its labyrinths. They sat propped on their rusting rims, eerie metallic skeletons on the grassy dunes. My brother and I would explore them. Sometimes we’d find a shoe or a shirt. Other times, empty whiskey bottles, cigarette butts. There were times I was sure I could make out the face of the owner of the shirt, the bottles, the cigarette butts, but I knew that I couldn’t possibly see someone who wasn’t there. That I had conjured the image in my head and it frightened me. The face was blank, stern, hard and almost emotionless; the face of someone not quite there, someone uncaring of others: a person who felt nothing – not even hate. Even the signs of life in that place had the stench of disappearance, despair, and death.  No matter how many times I tried to walk those sandy back trails - even with my brother - and be confident or feel free (in defiance of my parents) the truth is, it always gave me the creeps. I never felt safe. Even before what happened… Even before what Mrs. Santini had predicted…

 

#

 

 

Shelly was in our year at school and was Spanish. Maybe Dominican. Like us, she was an immigrant. She was petite and dark-haired and olive skinned and pretty. She was outgoing and friendly, more Gabriella’s friend than mine and we would sit in the schoolyard picnic bench over lunch while they spoke a different language and I ate my carrot sticks. More than once, I had seen Shelly outside of the school yard, an older boy hanging around as if waiting for her, then talking to her. I guessed him to be from the high school. He must have been eighteen or seventeen. He had an angular face that showed almost no emotion. His features were set and stern. He had sandy blonde hair that looked chopped rather than cut. He was tall, rangy and wore jeans with a wide belt. His eyes took her in – like he was observing her rather than talking to her.

 

He would stand close to her, but Shelly, she didn’t seem to mind. I think she didn’t see what I saw: that there was something not right with the situation. She spoke animatedly, her smooth oval face cracked in laughter, her black hair gleaming in the sun as she sort of danced around. But him, he never smiled. He just stood there taking her in, watching her, letting her do all the work.

 

I worried for her. I could see myself reflected there: she was an echo of me - happy, unawares, innocent. Only now, I was seeing it from outside: this older boy watching my friend with such intensity. Shelly may have liked him well enough, but she didn’t understand how he took it… that he would never be satisfied.

 

#

 

Patrick lived in our neighborhood. He didn’t seem to have many friends. He spent most of his time either at school or at the library or in his garage fixing things. On weekends, his father would take him away to somewhere further out in the country. We’d see them packing up their old station wagon with rods and reels strapped to the roof, tarps and tents hanging out the back window. Then he’d be gone for days and my brother and I would be glad. But when he came back, he always made a point of finding me which was, frankly, a breeze: I was always somewhere on my skateboard or sled or bicycle depending on the time of year. And somehow, he knew where to look.

 

One day, I wiped out on my skateboard. I had been going fast down the hill when I hit some sand and skidded sideways, my thigh scraping along the road picking up bits of gravel. When I stood up, my inside leg was bleeding and raw and needed tending to. I took my board and walked back to the house and to the garage and began washing my leg beneath the garden hose.

 

“You’re like Sabrina.” His voice made me jump. I let the cool water trickle over my leg then turned it off. Patrick came into the garage where my brother and I were standing, where we had been cleaning my leg and where it was still bleeding. “She’s the smart one…” he said, “Sabrina…” He looked at my leg but said nothing. My brother handed me a beachtowel and I pressed it hard against my leg.  Patrick was talking about the dark haired girl on the television program Charlie’s Angels. All I could think was,  But I didn’t want to be Sabrina, the smart one. I wanted to be the pretty blonde one but I said nothing.

 

 “You, get out…” he said to my brother.

“Why?” James said, then added defiantly, “I’m not going…”

“I said get out…” and he looked at him. I could see my little brother start to cry. Could see that he was afraid. “Pussy….” James said, “you’re just a pussy…” a young boy’s anger helpless to help his sister, then he paused at the door handle and added, “And a fucking faggot…you’re a fucking faggot…” then he disappeared into the cool safety of the house.

 

I stood alone near the sink with Patrick in the halflight that shone in through the garage window. He had pressed the button to close the door. I said nothing, just stared at him. My leg hurt.

“I hear you singing,” Patrick said. “I can hear you when you sing.” I said, “Thanks…”

“I like your voice….” He said. I wondered how he had heard me singing, because I only sang for my brother, but I didn’t ask and I didn’t want to say anything else to him.

“Sing for me….” he said. I told him I didn’t want to; that I wanted to go in the house with my brother now.

“You can, but first just sing one song for me…”

I figured if I sang one song he would let me go. I sat on my father’s woodwork table with the jars of brushes, paint cans toppling over. I sat perched on the bench, my legs dangling off the side from where he had put me. Then I began to sing the only song I could think of:  “There’s a kind of hush, all over the world tonight….” It was a song about people falling in love and silence and peace and family. My voice echoed about the small stone garage, sounding better than usual; all echoey and professional.

 

Where my brother was defiant toward Patrick, I was mute, afraid, stuck. So I did what I was told. I never once complained or protested. I sang and I sang sweetly, even or especially when he pointed a BB gun at me. And even then I didn’t flinch. I just sat there song escaping my mouth… a dulcet sound.

 

#

 

Later that Autumn, my father bought a Honey camper which we on weekends we would drive up to the mountains to family campgrounds where you could hitch it up, meet other kids, play on a lake and where there was a giant stone community bathhouse/shower that had a line every morning.  One weekend, father said I could invite some friends to go with us to the Poconos. I invited Vincent and Gabriella. James brought one of his friends from prep school and the two of them stayed mostly out of site once we arrived. 

 

At night, all of us kids sat around the campfire. We had bottles of Coke and someone had swiped a few beers from our parents’ cooler - probably Vincent and my brother. They drank them down thirstily then threw the bottles into the flaming fire pit, which sent explosions of brown and green glass everywhere. “Stop it…” I shouted but they didn’t listen and sent more bottles into the flames, each explosion, setting off new peales of laughter.

 

“You know that guy…” Gabriella leaned in and whispered. It was the tone of her voice that maybe gave it away. A concern and a hush as if by saying it too loud, he might appear. She didn’t have to say which guy. I already knew that she meant the boy from the high school: the boy who made me sing.

“What about him?” I said, like I didn’t really know him. “He won’t leave Shelly alone….” she said in a quick worried tone. “I think he’s obsessed with her… my mother says he follows her around. That he waits for her after school.” I could see them: Patrick and Shelly outside of the school like always, or her near the high school because she thought maybe he was her friend. And like every time I saw it either in real life or when I reflected on it, the picture was the same: his intent stare, his shaded eyes stark contrast to her almost unbounded effervescence and innocence. She seemed completely unaware of the way he looked at her; that he was really, studying her.

 

“My mother says he’s trouble…” she said. I said nothing. Then we sat in silence around the fire flaming in the dark, the grey outline of the camper and the smooth mountains in the distance, the dark Pennsylvania skies looking over us, the pinion scent of firewood everywhere.

 

 

That Autumn, Patrick came around often. Uninvited, he let himself in to where we were and would corner me, always making my brother leave. Sometimes he wanted to talk – telling me how he found this or that actress so pretty or so smart. When I didn’t respond, he would get angry. Once or more I began to cry because he was shouting, then he would get calm again and say how sorry he was. “Don’t cry, please don’t cry… I just want you to sing. Please sing for me.” And it would calm him down.

 

James hated him. I think mostly because of how he treated him, but also, I could see he worried for me. “Do you like him?” he asked me one day. “Of course not…” I said.

“So why don’t you do something. Why do you sing for him….” He asked, genuinely confused. And what could I say. Even I didn’t know the answer to that.

 

 

#

 

That Halloween, or the night before, my brother said it was mischief night. “What’s that?” I asked. “Just come with me,” he said. 

My mother had bought him a skeleton jumpsuit – like winter long underwear in black with glow-in-the-dark bones. I was dressed like Maid Marion from Robin Hood. I wore a long sheer scarf like a fail fixed with bobbi-pins and a flowy purple dress.  James and I snuck out of the house. He had a knapsack with him and in it, he had swiped shaving cream, toilet paper and other things he said we would need.  We cut through the hole in the fence to the fens to where there was a large warehouse with three wooden signs:

 

No/Parking/Beyond/This/Point.

 

James jiggled the middle sign – BEYOND – until it came loose.  “We’re going to get in trouble…” I said hurriedly. “Come on!” and I pulled on his sleeve. James laughed and pulled the sign down, tucking it under his arm.  “Come on…” he said, “Follow me.”

 

We stood beneath the halo of a street light in front of Patrick’s house.  It was dark and crisp and the air smelled of leaves. James took the toilet paper out of the knapsack and threw it  high in the tree. It looped over a branch leaving a long white garland, then he tossed it back up in the air again until the whole tree was festooned with tissue paper. Then he pointed the nozel of the shaving cream on the sidewalk and wrote “Pussy…”.  When he was done, he carried the wooden sign that said BEYOND to beneath Patrick’s window. He was laughing which made me laugh and then Patrick appeared. I stood still beneath the streetlight, the tree creating blots of shade in the night.

 

“What the fuck are you doing?” he shouted to my brother. In his hand, Patrick had a gun – a BB gun.  “You think you can protect your sister,” he taunted.

“Fuck you…” James said. Patrick laughed and pointed the gun at me. I wasn’t sure if he could make the mark in the dark to me in the shade of the tree.

“Clean it up or I’ll shoot your sister…” he said. He wasn’t kidding. He held the gun steadily.

“Fuck you…” James said but I could tell he was frightened. “Fuck you, leave my sister alone… just leave her alone.”

I said nothing and wondered about the gun. I didn’t want to be shot. I didn’t want my brother to be shot either. “I leaned down on the sidewalk and took a handful of leaves and began scrubbing at the shaving cream word. I was beginning to cry.

“Not you – I said him….” Patrick said, pushing my brother toward the side-walk. James got down on his knees and began scrubbing the soapy circle. He was crying by then. Then he tried to untangle the toilet paper from the tree.

“What’s that sign supposed to mean anyway,” Patrick said, his foot on my brother’s back, his gun still pointed at me. It was then that even though crying, both my brother and I began to laugh a little bit. We had taken the sign to mean; “You are beyond hope…” “Beyond help” “A hopeless case.” Just BEYOND. But we were too scared to say anything because it was the truth and we were afraid.

 

After over an hour, Patrick said he would walk me home, telling me brother to shove off and James disappeared into the night. When we got to my house, Patrick held the gun to me and said, “And now I want you to sing.” By then I was crying. Really crying. Not that it mattered to him because it didn’t. So I sang while he held his gun on me….

 

There’s a kind of hush all over the world tonight, all over the world people just like us are falling in love…”

 

I closed my eyes when I sang, pretending he wasn’t there. After a while, he let me go and I ran into the house. As I was running past the den my father looked up. “Hey, why are you crying?” he said. He was sitting on the couch, the television was on. “What’s wrong?” he said studying my red face, swollen eyes.

“He had a gun,” I said. “He has a gun…I was just… he made us clean up…I had to sing…”

My father shook his head. “Are you in trouble?” he said.

“No,” I told him. I didn’t know what to say really. Then I got afraid that we had done something to deserve the whole thing. That it had been our fault all along, even before we had written with shaving cream or propped up the sign. I went upstairs and took a shower, the hot water scalding my skin. Then I threw up and went to bed.

 

#

 

It was the next day that Shelly disappeared. I hadn’t seen her in school, but then, I often didn’t see her. I had seen her with Patrick more than anyone and later, I found out, it was true: he was obsessed with her. He hung around the school waiting for her and had been doing it for months. The day Shelly disappeared was a warm, overcast day in October. I went to school, tried to get out of violin class with no success, then walked the long way sulkily home, the violin banging against my side. The town was quieter than usual.

 

Later Vincent came by on his bicycle. “Have you heard…” he said. I sat there staring over at the fens, at the people gathering on the far corner. “Heard what?” I said.

“She didn’t listen…” he said hurriedly. “My mother warned her not to cut through….”

 

Vincent’s mother, Mrs. Santini swore that she just knew things. Not that she said she was psychic, not quite, only that she had a way of knowing and often, more often than not, she was right. Maybe she was just wise where the rest of us were unwise because she knew well enough that a thirteen year old girl ought not cut through a wooded, abandoned fens all by herself. That anyone could be lurking there in the shadows. That it wasn’t safe. And so she had warned Shelly: Please, at least today, don’t cut through the fens. I am worried…something will happen to you if you cut through. Please don’t take the short-cut.

 

But Shelly had not listened. She was, as ever, blithe, happy, unawares and since the short-cut made about a twenty minute difference, she ducked through the hole in the fence and was soon lost to the marshy hills and scrub, forever gone from street view.

 

It was then that Patrick appeared. Just as everything else disappeared and all that was left was sand and trail and trees.

 

Vincent didn’t need to tell me the rest because I already knew. I could see it all unfolding in my head like a horror story, as if it had been me there instead of Shelly because I knew him too.

 

#

 

“What are you doing?” he said, standing in front of Shelly, blocking the path.

“I’m just going home…” she said, trying to cut around him, offering a smile but her eyes betrayed her nervousness. She made a move to step forward but he put his body in front of hers. He was tall and she couldn’t see his face, the last of the sun bright behind him leaving his face dark and shadowed. She felt hot.

“Please…” she said. She was getting nervous and it was getting dark out. The warm air breathed all around them. The trees in the distance swayed and rustled, their tops like brushes painting the fading sky. She heard the sound of her own breath, then the wind, then silence.

 

For a minute, she froze like a deer, stunned, her ears alert to the almost silence. Then she caught his eye, the set look to his face and she began to run. To run as fast as she could.

 

#

 

Shelly was a good runner and she ran fast. He had pursued her the whole way, saying he could not live without her, stabbing her a total of fourteen times in the back to bring her to her knees – to stop her from running. When she was exhausted and could no longer run, she crawled into an abandoned car to hide where, he found her, raped her, then stabbed her until she died. He left her body in the backseat of the car and then left.

 

 

Vincent told me Gabriella was in shock. That their mother was weeping because she had loved her too and had warned her. “She keeps saying it,” he told me, “I told her not to go that way, why would she go that way, I told her not to go that way…”

I said nothing and wondered where Patrick was. Then I wondered about Shelly and I hoped they had covered her with a blanket and taken her out of that car. That they had put her somewhere safe now where she could rest. Where no one could look at her or touch her or hurt her. 

 

From the porch, Vincent and I looked across the field to the fens. The distance was lit with red and blue lights of emergency vehicles, police cars and ambulances and fire people. There were no sirens, no sounds … just the lights flashing and blurring the horizon in slow motion.

 

 

 

 

Monday
Sep152014

the sea wall

She couldn’t blame them. As she sat at the kitchen table drinking her morning tea, Margot thought about her situation then said out-loud, “I can’t blame them… I just can’t...” Who would not, she reasoned, be frustrated having to listen to the drone of Margot’s thoughts all day.

 

It had begun with her mother’s mother who said she had heard voices, seen local boys hiding in the trees outside the kitchen window beyond the back garden; they were mocking her, she was sure of it. She heard them say awful things. About how her husband had left and how he was never coming back. How she was abandoned. All of which happened to be true. Margot found herself in almost exactly the same circumstance.

 

And maybe she had deserved it afterall. She had been a good Catholic all her life until she wasn’t. Until one night at the local pub she met Larry and that was that. They had met, had an almost-but-not-quite affair, which remained consummated by one long-ish semi-passionate kiss in the back room of a bar behind twin glass-front doors.

 

Margot was sure that everyone knew. They knew she had cheated on her husband. Worse, she had liked it and she was not sorry for liking it…She was only sorry that Edward had found out. And when he did, he punched her hard, a blow that landed squarely on her left ear, both stunning her and creating a temporary deafness.

 

Edward went out after that and returned home slightly drunk. The next morning, he said he was off to work. After that, he never came home again. He had left without a word, leaving Margot only with the ringing in her left ear and Larry’s answer: Because

 

And then came the voices. Voices who told her what she already feared. The most secret part of her about which she was sure she ought be ashamed of burned brightly; fully illuminated. Whore, she heard them say, You are a whore. You’re nothing but a cheap aging whore. A good for nothing.

 

The boys played in the tree, swaying the brown branches with the weight of their long bodies. The trees were so thickly green, so dense, that Margot could not honestly say whether or not there really were any boys in the tree, only that she believed them to be there – that she heard them; caught glimpses of their knees and sneakers.

 

It also followed by Margot’s logic that if she could hear them, whether or not they were there, it only followed that they could likewise hear her.

 

Since Edward had left, Margot thought about Larry almost non-stop. After that initial kiss, in fact the only kiss, he had cooled and with intent, distanced himself from her.

“But why…” she questioned.

“Just because…” he told her.

It was the “because”, the very lack of explanation, the quick intense and abrupt absence of his affection that began the awful cycle of self-questioning that resulted in a self-annihilating verbal examination and assault of Margot’s very soul.

 

Eventually, Margot discovered that Larry’s reasons had not been so mysterious or romantic after all. He had been for the whole time she had known him married but separated from another woman the next village over. Margot had thought him a bachelor. She had broken faith with her husband, broken faith with her God and broken what she believed to be a holy union and all for one kiss that ultimately, meant nothing.

 

On the Friday after Edward left, Margot arranged to do some shopping, then stop in at the church where she would make a proper confession. She needed absolution.

 

The confessional smelled of old wood and velvet and incense. Her eyes closed tight, her mouth close to the confessional grid Margot said unfalteringly, “I fucked him father…”

 

Which was a lie.

 

There was a pause. The old priest recognized Margot’s voice right away. Had seen her alone in church but knew her to be married. “Then you have greatly sinned…” he told her. And he paused again and told Margot to read Isaiah and Leviticus and Deuteronomy. She read them all. Then she read Exodus as well.

 

Margot left the confessional and sat for a while in the pew eating cherries from a brown paper bag and wondering why she had lied. Didn’t God know everything anyway, she reasoned. God, she was quite sure, already knew that she was a whore. What’s more, God didn’t care whether she had fucked another man or kissed another man. It all amounted to the same thing, which was betrayal of something holy and theoretically anyway, unbreakable.

 

So when she began thinking they were taunting her, Margot couldn’t really blame them. For hours at a stretch she thought of Larry and his tongue turning tricks in her mouth. And for as much as she liked it, even loved it, Margot always wound up back at the same place: Why had she done it, and why didn’t Larry love her back with equal measure. How could she want him so much and he, in turn, be so absolutely unmoved.

 

No matter how she considered it, Margot could not understand how it could ever be possible to love someone with such an intensity of feeling only to have the feeling not returned. For Margot, love, like hate, was always a reciprocal equation.

 

So Why? The answer was Because. And because she was sure there must be a reason, Margot began to emotionally crucify herself. Always with the same question (why), followed by “because” the result of which was answered with a litany of her failures as a woman, a moral person, and a lover.

 

Eliza Brown! Eliza Brown!” The shouts were coming from within or just beyond the tree.

“Her lies are brown….”

Then again, “She lies in brown…”

 

It was the voice of a young boy. But it was also God’s voice she heard telling her what she already knew to be true: she was a liar. Or maybe it was a terrible angel, a qlipoth, like the ones she had read about. Yes, that was it: it was a terrible angel who was sandblasting her until Margot fell to her knees beneath great winds of insult and offense which left her emotionally raw and unhinged.

 

Margot returned to the priest and told him about the voices.

“They say terrible things,” she began. “And why would they say such things. There must be some truth to it….” But hadn’t Margot herself lied and hadn’t she also lied to the priest?

She was sure that this boy knew about the other boy – the boy she had met in the park when she was a girl of eight and had she chanced upon some older kids who were playing spin the bottle beneath the awning of the bandstand.

“Come on…” the teenager said to Margot, “It’s your turn,” and he pulled her down to a squat beside him. When the bottle spun then stopped, it faced toward Margot: the boy stuck his tongue in her mouth. It felt like a fat worm.

 

#

 

The voices came nights as well as days. During the day, Margot could hold them back. She found ways to divert herself and busied herself with chores: she ran, she baked, she went shopping, kept the house tidy, and got a job at the library as a volunteer book stacker. Anything to keep her mind occupied.

 

Nights were different. She was so tired. She wanted nothing more than to sleep and because she spent her days trying to exhaust herself, it would have followed that sleep would come naturally. But it did not. Margot was exhausted, but she could not sleep. Sleep, when it did come, was interrupted by the faint tinkle of laughter.

 

“Eliza Brown! Eliza Brown!”  (She lies all around, she lies all around…) More laughter.

 

Margot lay wide-awake in a puddle of moonlight on her mattress. She thought she had gone mad. If she had not gone mad yet, she most certainly would.

 

It was late September and a chilly wind whistled around the house, which was corner facing. Her bedroom echoed with the sound of the quick wind and the clack-clack of branches, which cast shadows on the wall. Then she heard a knocking, then the rustle of footsteps through dry leaves, then the sound of a window sliding open from downstairs.

 

Margot had thought once before that someone was in the house, but that was a while ago and when she had gotten up to check, a thorough search of both the upstairs and the downstairs revealed nothing. Now Margot froze in in her bed, listening to the sounds all around her. There was a muffled breath then a young voice. “You don’t mind if we come in and play with you, do you?”

The voice did not echo like the sounds she normally heard. It was clear, dulcet. She heard another muffled laugh then a heavy footstep and then, “Eliza Brown, I’m coming to get you…”

 

A door banged. More footsteps. Margot reached for the telephone and dialed 911. “There is someone in my house…” she said breathlessly. It was the older boy from next door. He was sixteen, maybe a bit older. He and his friends had taken to smoking cigarettes and pot beneath the shade of the large maple outside of Margot’s bedroom window. She had asked them - politely - to please leave but they looked up at the window, ignored her, and carried on. “Do you have a light? Do you have a… You’re not doing it right!”

 

So it was that the next time she heard them there, Margot, tossed out a full bucket of water outside the window, which would have made its mark had Margot’s aim been better.

“Stay on the line…” the dispatcher said, but Margot put the phone down and crept on tip-toes to the landing. A shadow flickered against the far wall and Margot took a step forward then without warning she felt herself falling quickly through blank space.

 

#

 

When she came to, Margot was flat on her back looking up at the heavy wooden bannister and into a flashlight and the faces of two police offers who were crouched over her. “Don’t move…”, the officer said. “An ambulance is on its way…” Margot felt dampness on the back of her head. She moved to feel the spot and when she drew her hand back, it was dark with blood.

 

“Did you find them…” she managed.

“Who?” said the officer.

“The boys, they were in my house…”

“There is no-one in the house,” the officer said. Perhaps she had dreamt it, the officer said.

“No, I’m quite sure….” And she was sure, but her head hurt and Margot was too tired to argue. She was taken away in the ambulance to the emergency room where she received twenty stitches then the ambulance offered to bring her back home since she had hit her head so hard.

 

#

 

When she awoke the next morning, Margot felt a strange sort of calm. Maybe she had a concussion. Still, her mind was quieter than it had been in weeks. Margot had a half of a grapefruit, some coffee, then put on a light jacket and made her way down to the seawall. The wind caused the water to froth and break causing white crests to fracture the dark green surface. The sea-salt air filled her nostrils. Margot surveyed the breakers, the flag whipping in the wind in the distance. Then she saw what she thought was an animal tangled in a fishing net and floating. The figure bobbed and swayed at the end of the breakers.

 

Margot took off her sandals and gingerly stepped out onto the slick rocks.

As she drew closer, she could see that it was the body of a young boy, his face ashen, his lips blue. The ocean slammed his body hard against the foot of the breaker then drew him out again, then back again. Margot scampered forward using her hands and her feet like a monkey to negotiate her way toward him.

 

When she reached the body, she recognized the boy’s face: it was the same boy from behind her house, the one she had shouted at. She recognized his red Polo jacket. Margot pulled hard at his collar and hood but he was too heavy. Then when a wave came, she pulled hard again and with the help of the sea, the young boy’s body was thrust upon the slick rocks next to Margot’s bare damp feet.

 

The only sound then was that of the waves, and a sound that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere – a howling grief. And although the cries were Margot’s, she did not recognize the sounds as human. Instead, she heard a vast expansive grey sound. The sound of great crashing pain captured between steel walls. The echo of this and the boy’s face, pale and lifeless beneath ruling grey skies.