Take the Child
A short story.
May 1, 2010
May 1, 2010
34 Min read time
A short story.
Her husband, when she had a husband, worked for one of the pharmaceutical companies out on Route 1: a cluster of low buildings verging with the horizon behind a floodlit sign and an enormous swath of lawn. Everybody knows the name—three Ws pushed together into one dry mouthful, a child’s tongue-twister—but it doesn’t matter anymore, and anyway she’s old-fashioned and hates brand names in fiction. They seem vulgar to her. As if the story is searching for relevance, for verifiability, when really its job is just the opposite, to lead the reader away, into a damp, shady thicket or a dark basement, to do unspeakable things together.
That was her philosophy, anyway, back when she’d been a graduate student, paid to have a philosophy, at least temporarily.
Not a doctor, he said when people asked, not a scientist, just an ordinary fishwrap MBA. It was a piece of jargon he’d picked up somewhere and now circulated freely with an oblique smile. He came from a prominent New York family of disappointed geniuses, and it was disappointment that drove him away, just into her second trimester, when the baby had started clicking and buzzing beneath her breastbone. She set her standards too low, he said, she refused to talk about ideas, only people, relationships, not that there’s anything wrong with relationships, but once in a while you want something of substance, something to hold onto. She wondered what there was that was more substantial than a human being.
And then he ran off with a motivational speaker he met at a corporate retreat in Connecticut, a woman whose Web site features pictures of her climbing the Nose at El Capitán, a freckle-faced squinter with breasts like apples beneath a pink fleece vest, who ends her blog postings with multiple exclamation marks.
It interests her, the way her life has descended so abruptly from tragicomedy to farce. It interests her, but not as much as it should, not enough to do anything about it.
• • •
Pretend I never had a father, Leona says to her, wide-eyed, lifting her feet together in their swaddled blanket like a pink, fuzzy mermaid. That’s what you should do. Become what you are. It sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? Accept your own essential solitude.
They’re on their morning walk, at 6:30, one circumnavigation of the block, plus a stop at the French bakery where the severe hairnetted proprietess sells her a double espresso and a raisin scone—four months running now, every morning—without so much as a nod. As if they’re partners in the Resistance, surrounded by dewy, early-to-work young executives dashing in and out of their SUVs, and the occasional career jogger, who never give them a second glance. The young mothers with jogging strollers and tethered Labradors—the congregators, she calls them, the clotting agents—don’t come out ’til their husbands leave at nine.
It’s not solitude, she says. (Says, she thinks, is that the way to write it? It’s not as if my lips move.) Because you’re here.
Leona arches one eyebrow and gives her mother a skeptical frown.
If I were gone, would it really be so different?
Oh, don’t do that. Don’t be that way.
Be what way? Do I have a way to be? She closes her eyes, as if to make a point: her eyelids are translucent, webbed with blue capillaries, like the vellum overlays in an old encyclopedia. Then she opens them again. Morgan, she says, do I really exist? You’ve got another week to figure it out.
Don’t call me that. I told you. I’m mom as far as you’re concerned.
I’m not going to make it harder for you than it already is. You’re doing it again. You’re getting attached.
Me? I’m attached? You were part of me, she wants to say, you were connected to me, and I decided to cut the cord. That’s how nature works. Instead she stops the stroller in the shade of a Japanese maple, drains the last bitter ambrosial drop from her cup, and leans over the handle until their faces are barely a foot apart. Listen to me, she says out loud. I’m the only one who can do this, right? I’m the one with the working arms and legs. You’re just a brain in a bowl of Jello.
Silenced, Leona looks away, preoccupied by her zebra-striped rubber butterfly, clenching and unclenching her tiny fists.
• • •
When she came in for her first-week visit and told the doctor she’d been keeping the baby with her in bed every night, not trying to use the bassinet as recommended, he said, it’s OK for now, but you know, let’s not keep it up. I don’t want you here in three years asking how to get her out of your bed.
As if that would be a bad thing? she wondered, but didn’t say. As if that’s in the cards?
And she can’t stop now, anyway, because the conversations began there. On one of those early mornings, the June sun cutting around the edges of the blinds, in the dewy webwork of waking, she heard a small girl’s voice, a five- or six-year old’s voice, thin, reedy, dry, saying, I’m almost there, but not quite. As if she were conducting a conversation with someone else. She thought she was dreaming, she turned onto her back and reached out to touch the baby, instinctively, on the leg. Oh good, the voice said, you’re awake.
She’d always thought, fantasized, that mothers communicated with their children telepathically. Among the other surprises of her recent life, it nestled like one in a set of nesting dolls. That was exactly the kind of clever image she used to come up with all the time, every day; a day’s work writing was over when she’d come up with just one such gem, a nugget of jewel-like compression, some future book review would say, praising her luminous prose. When the going got tough she denied herself cigarettes until she’d produced one, and then spent the rest of the day in the back of the biker bar at the other end of the alley, drinking Jack on the rocks and reading from a satchel of overdue library books. In those days she could finish a pack of Export A’s in an afternoon and not care, cigarettes and words were so cheap. She could have invented this whole scenario, written it word for word, and had she done so, cared about it just as much, if not more.
• • •
Her ostensible purpose, the one she would use if anyone asked, which no one has, is to catch up on her reading, and she carries with her, at all times, Memory, History, Forgetting, a cream-colored paperback the size of a small telephone book. She was a philosophy major in college; she could, if pressed, torpedo the casual listener’s interest with hermeneutics or historicity or process of symbolization. But what brings her to the plaza each morning is not the hermeneutics of hermeneutics but the hermeneutics of the skateboard and the boys who ride them, the pole-thin, skinny-jeaned, shaggy-haired crowd of them, who dominate the plaza in bursts between noon and ten p.m.
They fascinate her, these boys, with their willingness to trip and fall in the same clumsy-balletic way time after time, their loose-limbed casualness in every move. Skateboarding, it seems to her, is a sport conducted entirely at a studied, ironic distance from itself, where the losers are the ones trying too hard. Of course she knew skaters when she herself was in high school; she’s not that old, but in those days she mocked them for the curtains of oily hair they grew over their eyes, down to their pimply chins. These boys are nothing like that. They seem to emerge fully formed from the pages of a fashion catalog. Their skin is pale and creamy and uniformly, girlishly smooth.
Adolescence has changed, she thinks, has become professionalized, an occupation unto itself, a self-conscious, self-referential act, an appropriation, a style. And what do they do with those who don’t get it, who don’t work for it, who resist the mode, the current thing? They keep them locked up somewhere. In that way it’s not so different from the old days.
Leona’s diaper bag is buzzing, and if she strains she can hear her cell phone tinkling, muffled beneath rolled-up blankets, extra sweaters, packets of wipes. She hasn’t answered it, or charged it, in days, even a week. Little machine, she thinks, you know so much, don’t you know enough to die when you’re no longer wanted? It’s her mother again, or Rochelle, her best friend, wallowing in newlywedded bliss in Santa Barbara.
You should pick one, Leona says. Pick one. It’s perverse to lust after a whole demographic. You need an object, not a category.
But she can’t. They come and go, these skinny boys; she hardly ever notices the same one twice. Every day a new array of adolescent flesh for her delectation. She’s starting to wonder if they really exist at all, if she hasn’t dreamed them up, and, for that matter, dreamed up the day to go along with them. It isn’t terribly hot, this early in the summer, but the glare, the bleached-ness, is stultifying. In theory, now that Leona is six weeks old, she’s allowed to venture inside the public library, the faux-bohemian coffee shop, Freak Beans, with its grinning and vaguely racist monkey logo. But to do so would invite companionship and comparison. How old? people in this town have taken to asking, which isn’t English, the last time she checked, but a code for avoiding gender, like using their as a singular possessive. Her answer, when trapped, is not very. Stupid question, stupid answer; it stops them in their tracks. So far not once has she had to number Leona’s diaper changes or sleeping schedule or naps. You are still my flesh, she thinks; you sleep, I sleep; you are still attached to me in every way that matters. We are ensconsed in the same womb, you and I.
People like the idea of heaven, but not the specifics, not really. No one wants to eat cotton candy 24 hours a day.
Not having learned manners, Leona fails to stifle a yawn.
Read the newspaper, for god’s sake, she says. Watch the BBC. You can be weepy and let your life go to shit, but I haven’t got much time. I need to catch up on my human history.
What for? What are you, fifteen? Because I’ve only got a little window here and then it’s back to square one. You’d be surprised, but there’s no Times delivery in the Void.
Is that what you call it?
I don’t call it anything. It is what it is. But your names are good for a joke, and plus, how would you know what I was talking about, otherwise? Just don’t say heaven. I can’t stand the nonsense with the cherubim and the trumpets. It was beautiful in the Paradiso, I’ll give you that. But no one reads that part of the story, do they? People like the idea of heaven, but not the specifics, not really. No one wants to eat cotton candy 24 hours a day.
God damn it, she thinks, I’ve given birth to George Burns, minus the peeper glasses and the cigar.
Then tell me what it is like, she says. Your nameless place. Where you go back to. Describe it.
Leona blinks three times rapidly and lifts both hands over her head, fingers splayed, as if to catch a trapeze. It’s a vestigial reflex, the pediatrician explained, left over from our primate days; the baby monkey feels herself falling and reaches out so the mother can catch her. Goes away by itself after three months. Vestigial, she said out loud, in front of him, testing the word’s strange vowels. It means left over, he said. I know, she said quickly, and should have added: how would we know? Perhaps we never should have gone down to the savannah in the first place.
Describe it? Leona says. You’re kidding, right? All I can say is, you’ll like it there. It’s made for people like you. How else are you ever going to stop spinning your wheels? You’ll go and never want to come back.
But you do have to come back, right?
I’m tired, Leona says, and mimes sleep, pushing her tiny cheek up against the head restraint and closing her eyes. Naptime.
You’re just avoiding the question.
You’ll see, she says. You’ll see, soon enough.
• • •
What bothers me, her mother had said, is that you don’t seem surprised. Not that I’m blaming you! I just think you should try to establish some kind of trajectory. Even if it’s wrong. You think there’ll be a better time. But there’s no time. And then you wind up 70, and half your life you’ve spent shadowboxing with these feelings. You don’t have to warp yourself around it. That’s all I’m saying.
They were sitting on Morgan’s back porch, drinking Sancerre and overlooking the untended garden, the brown skeletal bean-plants still wrapped around their stakes, the tomato cages standing empty, like condos half-built and abandoned. It was late April; Leona curled around her deflating belly, ten days old, blessedly asleep at the breast. Through the sliding doors she watched her father steering a vacuum crashing into lamps, nicking the finish off the sofa legs. To his credit, he was doing it, even if only to avoid looking his abandoned daughter in the face; he wasn’t just picking up the phone and calling Merry Maids, as you would expect of your average retired law partner-slash-wine importer. He lived his values. She ought to be able to say that without irony. He believed, in all honesty, that sock garters made for a better day.
No matter what, she said, wearily, you’ll find some way of making this a habeas corpus case.
I don’t believe in primal scenes, her mother said, primly, with the conviction only a psychoanalyst could muster. Or shortcuts. But that doesn’t mean there’s no sense to a life. Marriages don’t just disappear into thin air. There’s money involved, for one thing.
It’s not my fault if you don’t discuss things with Dad. He looked everything over. Fifty percent of everything plus the house and the Volvo. Plus child support. No hidden accounts, either. I did his taxes for seven years.
And that’s all you’ve got to say on the matter?
Oh Jesus Christ, mother, she said, does there have to be a story? Who ever said Noah was stable, anyway? Remember that time at Thanksgiving when he got so angry because Carl claimed the Khazars never actually converted to Judaism? Who could make these things up, who could put them in a logical order? What am I supposed to say, I have a tendency to date compulsive fingernail cleaners with unnatural feelings towards Schopenhauer? I’d be laughed out of my support group.
I’ll never know, her mother said, where you got this, this carapace of arrogance. You’d think you grew up in Wichita or something. Everybody around you growing up was smart. All high achievers. No one ever asked you to try out for the cheerleading squad. Is that what we get for letting you go to Bennington?
I assume that’s a rhetorical question.
For her senior performance-art project she’d sat inside a giant chicken-wire eggshell as a crew of her friends covered it with papier-mache and painted it black, leaving a fist-sized hole for ventilation. In the end she was supposed to demolish it from inside with an ax, but the shell was too solid, the ax too heavy for her; it took five firefighters an hour to get her out, using wire shears and giant pliers designed for car accidents. Her professor gave her a C+.
And what will you tell her, then? her mother asked, drawing Leona off the pillow and draping her over her shoulder.
That her father was a sperm donor and he checked no contact desired on the form. That he was a one night stand; I never even knew his name. That he raped me.
That’s not funny.
No, she said, but it’s characteristic. I think she’ll have learned by then to take whatever I say with a grain of salt. She can always turn to you for the whole story.
• • •
In high school, in Mamaroneck, she was most of the time a neo-hippie, an unashamed Deadhead in Jerry Garcia’s last days; she had the Birkenstocks and the Indian print skirts and peasant blouses harvested from thrift stores; she read Starhawk and Be Here Now and briefly joined a Wicca coven, long enough to burn the maypole one Halloween and take peyote afterward in Alice Ferneyhough’s vast backyard, the lights of her parents’ house winking at them through the blue mist of five a.m.
There was a boy, then, too: Chris. He was two years older, already accepted at Harvard; he had long stringy black hair tied back in a ponytail, wore a surplus Army jacket, played guitar in a band called October September November, and had access to the best drugs, the hydroponic KGB, the Simpsons acid, the pink ecstasy so easily mistaken for birth control pills. It wasn’t a relationship, though they had sex twice, her first and fifth times, and he made her a mixtape, and on the tape was a song called “Take the Child,” and it went, Jesus met the woman at the well to say, “I love you, but my heart is full of ‘all may rise’ and X-ray eyes.” Jesus met the woman at the well to say, “I need you, but my heart is full of silent nights and neon lights.” She kept it all through college and into adulthood, not quite knowing why; it still lives in a shoebox somewhere in her parents’ attic.
And when, she thinks, haven’t I been looking for Jesus, frankly? Even Noah, when she first met him, just back from his Teach for America stint in Southwest Texas, had hair down to his shoulders, a scruffy, moth-eaten beard, a closetful of loose white cotton shirts some Mayan woman had custom-sewn for him in Guatemala. He talked about going to medical school and starting a clinic in Chiapas.
What Jesus really meant was, come with me, leave your petty ironies and diarrheal thrift-store sweaters, and follow my path to the Yale School of Management.
Why had she fallen for it, even for a moment? She was living in Park Slope in a tiny illegal half-basement apartment, temping, writing every spare moment of the day, when he rode by on his ramshackle bike with a cloth bundle of vegetables from the co-op slung over his back, with his perfect teeth and big soulful eyes the color of a silted river, and she didn’t have to be told that his parents lived on Central Park West and had had custom Bob Marley–themed yarmulkes at his bar mitzvah. Why had she let him down the stairs to install a compost bin in her tiny dirt garden? Because she wanted to, that’s why. She was already sick of her world-weary characters with their coffee-shop aperçus and tangled-sheet epiphanies. Jesus said, come with me and I will make you fishers of men, but what he really meant was, come with me, leave your petty ironies and diarrheal thrift-store sweaters, and follow my path of righteousness to the Yale School of Management, a job in pharmaceutical marketing, and a loveable old house in a leafy town within a hundred-mile-radius of Barney’s.
What else would she say, if the story weren’t already too weighted down with exposition, with qualifiers and unnecessary flourishes? She would have to include, somewhere, the deep indented circles under his mother’s eyes, the museum of antidepressants in her medicine cabinet, or the five squandered years she’d spent as a French PhD at Columbia before her advisor resigned in a cocaine scandal and fled back to Paris X. Noah developed night sweats whenever Rita called the house; at Passover he filled his wine glass to the brim every time and passed out on the couch before dessert. Whereupon Rita would say, I thought it was the writers who were supposed to have the drinking problems. She had never heard, never imagined, family arguments like the Edelmans’, where it was acceptable, even routine, for his father to open the bathroom door, mid-shit, hairy knees protruding, and scream, I never said you were a liar, I said you were a pathetic fantasist with a delusional tendency. She could never hate Noah after that, nor, for that matter, expect him to hold much paternal feeling, or a long attention span. It was all foreordained, as he used to say, whenever he was in the mood to quote Spinoza. Things could have been produced by God in no other way, and in no other order than they have been produced. She had never had the heart to argue that point with him.
• • •
Why does she feel, at times, that she has regressed, and regressed into what, exactly? She stopped smoking pot and listening to Joni Mitchell within a month of starting freshman year. She identified completely with her professors and would have begun sleeping with them—men, women—only that too would have been so tiresomely undergraduate. It was a one-way street, she had thought, this adultness thing. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? And yet, on the other hand, hadn’t she always known it would go down in flames, hadn’t she staged it as an occasion for some chilly God’s entertainment, for the novel she would write in her fifties, on her third husband and second publisher, with the windows open in January to stave off the hot flashes?
If a teenager were writing this story, it would already be over. It would be hot and stuffy in the attic, the last bottle of Diet Pepsi emptied before noon, the town pool beckoning on an August afternoon; time to wind things up. I mean, like, push the baby in front of the bus, already, right? Life sucks and then you die. Teenagers, she thinks, know that just because the world is inscrutable doesn’t mean that everything will come out all right in the end. Just because there’s a hallway doesn’t mean there’s a door.
• • •
When the cruiser behind her switches its spotlight on, backlighting her, like a rare animal caught in a camera trap, she freezes and stares straight ahead. There’s no turning into that wall of light. The cicadas have begun, it’s late July, and there’s a constant low keening, a soft floating vibration that seems to forgive everything in advance. Nothing bad can happen. And yet the tall policeman is emerging out of the spotlight’s glare, as if out of a tunnel, and standing before her in its shadow, shielding his eyes, slapping his notepad against his leg.
I know you, he says. I’ve seen you before. You’re outside the library all the time with the stroller. Jesus, I mean, ma’am. It’s three a.m.
Leona, hidden in the dark recesses of her stroller, begins to cry, surprised at the sudden stop. A high, trickling moan, that can hardly compete with the insects.
I had to fill a prescription at Walgreens, she says.
There’s no Walgreens here.
Well, there should be. What is a town without a 24-hour pharmacy? She stops, aware that she’s speaking a part, enunciating too carefully.
I can take you to the hospital if it’s an emergency.
Really? You have a car seat in there somewhere?
In the trunk.
And is it certified, she asks, to 2006 ANSCAP standards for crash-test reliability? Is it securable using the LATCH system? Because, you know, seatbelts are no longer acceptable. Seatbelts are retrograde.
You were walking in the middle of the street. I could have plowed right into you.
But she would have been just fine.
He peers at her driver’s license, both sides, and she has to resist the urge to insist that she’s over twenty-one and on the guest list.
Home, he says. Home to 51 Spruce Street, please.
Am I out past curfew?
Listen, he says, I’m going to follow you, OK? Just for your own safety. And I don’t ever want to see you out here again. I’ll be watching.
• • •
His name is Donald—who named a baby that, after 1970? Don, formerly Donny. She wishes she’d never asked. He insisted on turning on the light after it was over, and wriggled out of bed, still naked, pink as rancid lard, so that she could gaze at his square bricklike buttocks as he fingered the blinds, making sure the cruiser was parked outside where he left it. You never know in this town, he says now, you’d think it was the safest place on Earth, and it is, most days. But give ’em an inch and those kids can be nasty. Professors’ kids are the worst. We arrested one last year with a remote hotwiring kit, it was a thing of goddamned genius. Little Einsteins with nothing better to do. He snorts and shakes his head, as if unable to communicate the full irony of it, and a quiver runs up and down his body, visible everywhere the fat has pooled: breasts, belly, hips, thighs, calves. The male body as a series of viscous puddles.
She’s still on her back, head propped against three pillows, legs half-open, wishing she owned a handheld showerhead, so as to wash herself properly clean. Not that the sex was bad: it was college sex, fumbling, anxious, gratifying in its own knobby thoughtless way. But the feeling of his fluids pooling beneath her on the sheet makes her want to curl up and puke. Never in my life have I been so transparent to myself, she thinks. What she wanted was one of those fifteen-year-olds in the skinny jeans, flailing atop her, his very first time, even, and this was the next best thing, the legal substitute. Never in your life, she tells herself, have you wanted one thing and done another. Never with Noah. He had roving eyes, of course, never made an effort to hide it, and she could always tell when he was fucking someone else, his eyes screwed shut, his chin hooked over her shoulder as he pounded away. But she never fantasized about other men, not in that way. The pressure of one immediate body was enough. Why now, when, in theory, she could have anyone she wanted, why now is she willing to settle for the vague and approximate, the imperfect simulacrum?
You’re still working at self-preservation, the voice in her head says. Time to get off that train.
In the hall, where they parked her asleep in her stroller, Leona squeaks softly and bats her hand against the rail.
Cute kid, Don says. Still naked, unbothered, he crosses the room and disappears through the doorway.
Don’t touch her, she says, sitting up abruptly. She’s not used to it. Don’t go near her.
Oh, come on, he says. I’ve got two girls. Three and seven. Think I’ve never changed a diaper before? Here, she probably wants to nurse. I’ll bring her to you.
Panic lifts her out of bed, a black wind; she levitates off the bed, whirling the sheets away, and picks up a long duster handle propped against the doorjamb. Away, she says, holding it up like a javelin. Get away from her. I told you. She won’t like it. She doesn’t like men.
He barrels past her, zips into his pants, bundles the rest of his clothes in one arm, and lifts his tool belt carefully off the bureau: the gun, the handcuffs, the Mace, the ticket pad, all his superpowers in their heavy black cases, draped over his shoulder like a bandolier. You’re fucking crazy, lady, he says. Out of your mind. I’m going to be watching you.
Don’t worry, she says, I won’t press charges.
• • •
Before you were born, she tells Leona on their morning walk, I was writing a novel from the point of view of a giant squid. It was a kind of wishful thinking, I guess. I was doing all this reading about how a squid’s skin isn’t even really actual tissue, it’s a hyperpermeable membrane, halfway between a liquid and solid. Only the interior organs are actually, physically, there. We’ve been chasing them with submarines and cameras and lights, and in fact there’s no chance of a human even comprehending what it would be like to see a squid alive in the deep ocean. See isn’t even it at all. Our eyes are useless down there. You know, when a squid strangles a whale, it isn’t like a fair fight or anything. You can’t fight an ectoplasm. The squid just materializes when it wants to. That’s the kind of novel I wanted to write. You’re looking through it, it’s clear, it’s like a window, and then it starts to shake, it wavers, and then you realize you’re already inside the squid. You are the squid. I wanted a novel with invisible tentacles.
Leona yawns: a tiny pink tongue, no bigger than a cat’s, drawn back over smooth gums, with no indication of teeth. Why are you telling me this? she asks. Don’t you know better than to tell your family about the novel you’re writing? As if I’m supposed to care about your life as an artist?
I’m not trying to threaten you.
Please do not tap or breathe on the glass, a laminated sign says. Isn’t that just like Princeton, she thinks. Where else would they tell you where not to breathe?
You can’t threaten me. That’s not the point. I’m talking about the principle of the thing. With Noah, with Noah, did you tell him about your novel?
We talked about it from time to time. He was supportive.
Oh, of course he was. He was all too happy to keep you spinning your wheels.
Tears, little nubby tears, are trickling down her face. Don’t say things like that about your father, she says. You weren’t there. You have no idea.
Well, I’m here now. And it still sounds like a bad excuse for not writing a novel. Why is it that all the young writers want to do what they can’t do, just out of sheer perversity? A story with no characters. A story where nothing happens. A play that’s performed in the dark. A song with no melody. Doesn’t anyone have any ideas anymore? Or is it all just sucking on death’s dick, looking for some excuse to fail?
Three engineers in matching outfits—short-sleeved Oxford shirts, pens prominently displayed, blue khakis, running shoes—look up from their conversation as she passes. One of them, the Indian one, seems on the verge of speaking. Their faces, the faces of scientists, surprised and dismayed by human emotion, can’t quite contain the sight of a woman pushing a stroller and weeping. She wants to fall on them, to be invited home to a quiet suburban house, sparsely furnished, with wall-to-wall carpeting, Ganesh on the mantelpiece, fresh chapatis wrapped in tinfoil.
No more, she says. No more of this. No more talking. Or I call the hotline, hear me? You’re one phone call away from a lifetime in Protective Custody. Is that what you want?
• • •
She wasn’t good at being a graduate student, but she was good at being in graduate school. She had the perfect apartment, the ground floor of an old Victorian two blocks from campus, for $433 a month, utilities included; she had a 1930s typing table with an old Remington that still worked; an obscene flowered couch in mustard and taupe; a blood-colored velvet chair; a set of reproduction cigarette posters from Shanghai; and a giant, inexplicable, silkscreened painting of Gertrude Stein that hung over her bed. Most days she wrote until four in the morning and woke at one in the afternoon. She had a stovetop espresso maker and actually used it at least once a day. Her refrigerator was filled with Vietnamese takeout; her freezer stacked with bottles of vodka. She hosted poker night every Sunday for her Comp 101 students and nearly always came out ahead; that kept her in cigarettes and liquor. Nothing else—the deadlines, the contests, the professors, with their sunken cheeks and old acne scars, their snarls of approval and ways of waving their hands over a manuscript as if wishing they could make it disappear—mattered to her in the slightest. It was a second-rate program, they were paying her to be there; she lived in a private salon inhabited by Katherine Mansfield, Anne Sexton, Grace Paley, Angela Carter, Ntozake Shange, Virginia Woolf, Anita Desai, Doris Lessing. For her thesis she stayed up all night two weeks running and wrote an entire novella in a pidgin Carribbean dialect invented on the spot. They gave her the degree anyway.
I don’t blame you for missing that, Leona says.
But I don’t miss it.
Oh, sure. Sure, you’re perfectly happy with how things have turned out.
No, she says, no. It isn’t that. But you can’t hold on to dewy-eyed optimism all your life, can you?
It’s probably easier if you’re alone.
I don’t want to be alone, she says. Not anymore. Not the way I was then. It’s a lie, she realizes now, as soon as the sentence forms in her mind. In those two years she slept with men exactly twice. She was celibate; that was the source of her power. How could she never have seen it before?
I hate it here, Leona says. I hate this dry world. It makes my skin crawl. All these blankets, all this cloth. It’s unnatural. I belonged in the water; I never minded being wet. I wanted to breathe water. We didn’t need to speak when I lived in the dark. We just were. I never had to correct you. Why couldn’t you let me stay there?
You know why.
Then you should have let me go back where I came from. Why did you let them take me out and hold me up to the light? I thought they’d burn my eyes away.
They come to a halt in front of Paul’s Paints, with its giant aquarium in the storefront window. She’s never understood the subtle logic connecting tropical fish to housepaint, but Paul has a knack for spectacle: in the middle of the tank is an enormous rusting cannon, a real one, local legend has it, salvaged from a Revolutionary War frigate off the Jersey shore. The fish swim through it in groups, never singly; every so often the cannon belches a school of clownfish like bright confetti. Please do not tap or breathe on the glass, a laminated sign says. Isn’t that just like Princeton, she thinks. Where else would they tell you where and where not to breathe?
I can’t stand living in this town anymore, she says, out loud, to no one in particular. Every time I buy a goddamned cappucino I look up and the girl selling it to me lives in Zambia and has parasites from drinking water out of an open sewer. Do you know what the unemployment rate is in Trenton these days, by any chance? Or Camden? I do. I listen to the radio. That’s what we do here. This town is a fucking data sink. We swallow information and shit it out deep underground.
I guess this is your way of saying that if you were me you’d feel lucky.
No, she says to Leona. You’re not me, are you? You never will be. That’s the sad truth, isn’t it?
Finally, the baby says. Finally. This makes it so much easier.
• • •
In the bookstore she pushes the stroller straight past the New Releases table, the Lit Crit table, the Feminist Theory table, and goes straight back to the children’s section, a little womb of undulating shelves, lions-and-tigers carpet, raspberry beanbag chairs, presided over by a silver-haired mouse who dangles her reading glasses on a chain. Oh, it’s good to start early, she says, when Morgan lifts Leona out of her seat and plants her, squirming, on her lap. Let me make some suggestions. Soon there’s a pile fifteen-deep at her elbow. Pat the Bunny now has sequels, she learns. Goodnight Moon comes in five different sizes. You can buy Goodnight Moon printed entirely on rubber and read it in the bath, or in the rain, or, if the mood struck you, three hundred feet below the surface of the ocean, bubbling each word out of your scuba mask. Why aren’t our books made like this, she wonders, so indestructible that you could run them over with a tractor-trailer, or bury them in a landfill for 500 years? All books should be made of non-disposable carcinogens. They should carry the sickness of our civilization, should insist on it, seven generations hence. Otherwise what will we be known for?
In the great green
room there was a telephone,
and a red
balloon, and a picture
the cow jumping over
Did you ever notice, Leona says, how the pages in these books keep getting darker and darker? It’s like a brown-out. Look, flip the pages back and forth. That’s a trick, isn’t it? Like the frog in the frying pan. Amazing how manipulative these things are.
It’s true: on each page the colors grow dimmer, the red of the bedspread turning brown, the lamplight the color of parchment, then tobacco stains. This is the way to sleep, the world draining of its illumination, slowly, page after page. Children are afraid of sleeping because they’re afraid of dying. And why not? The dimming of the lights, the greying of all their beloved things—who’s to say tonight won’t be the last time, the final step? What good is repetition as a guide to anything? The world goes to sleep, we tell them, when you go to sleep. But who wakes up the world?
Outside, in the bright front windows at the other end of the bookstore, this tunnel of misbegotten knowledge, there is the clacking of skateboard trucks, the boys passing by on their way to no place in particular.
• • •
There’s too much information in this story, she’s thinking, as she walks back along Nassau Street in the viscous afternoon heat. At the register she bought a keychain with a tiny portrait of Virginia Woolf in plastic and handed it to Leona, who waves it back and forth excitedly now, as if hailing a cab. Too much useless, uninteresting information, all of it impossibly coded, private, bourgeois. The story indulges its own preciousness, what Lukács would call its reification of the individual subject. As if what happens to me matters to anyone else except to flatter their own better judgment. The story is arrogant; the story is an elaborate inside joke. The story is paralyzed by its own self-regard. Beckett said, Living Souls, you will see how alike they are. He wasn’t joking. The best thing is to end it while we can. Leona, she calls out, but the baby is too absorbed with her new toy, with the face of the woman she’s never seen before, but recognizes, all the same. Leona, she says, death is not a darkening, not a question of obscuration, not an underlining or an act of emphasis, but just the opposite, a gradual lightening, like what would happen if you pressed a piece of masking tape against these words and pulled it up, once, twice, three times, each time removing another microscopic layer of ink, until the words are hardly distinguishable from the paper they are printed on, the paper which has itself been bleached using toxic chemicals to make it unnaturally and absolutely white, so that in the end the effort the writer made in placing words in a certain order becomes equivalent to, and less than, the effort the world made to create the circumstances under which those words would disappear. In other words death is not the way in which I move the stroller off the curb, in between the parked cars, and out into the periphery of the oncoming traffic, until the bus is close enough so that when I push you into its path it will not be able to stop; it is not the sound of the screaming brakes or the horn or the cracking of high-grade aluminum struts, it is just the weight of the bus, and then not even that, it is nothing at all. Do it, Leona is saying, do it, as she pretends to be paying no attention, do it or I’ll never say another word, I’ll leave this baby of yours a vegetable, a deaf-mute, a retard, a pale lump of clay. Those are the words the story gives us, the story’s ending as it always wanted to be, but here, yet, is the woman pushing her stroller in a straight line past the bus, into its cloud of oily exhaust, and the baby has fallen silent, the story has fallen silent, the orchestra of language has finally fallen silent, and we can rest.
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May 01, 2010
34 Min read time